To anyone who has lost a loved one, condolences, no matter how well-intended, often do not do much for the grieving process. And it is a process, of course, with emotional tsunamis happening so deep below the surface sometimes that they are known only through the sudden aftershocks jolting us throughout the rest of our lives.
It’s difficult, even for those of us who have lost loved ones and know exactly what another grieving person might be suffering, to offer the right words at the right time. The usual phrases like “sorry for your loss” and “you are in our thoughts and prayers” have been so poorly employed by politicians and others that they are now almost devoid of meaning and sincerity. We strive, instead, to listen quietly, to offer practical support with meals or errands, and to help keep alive the memories of those passed.
Yet, sometimes, words can mean more than actions. Sometimes, when another person is able to not only articulate for us the confusion within but to also offer alternate perspectives on what seems hopelessly incomprehensible to us, it can be like a soothing balm for the soul. This, undoubtedly, was Rainer Maria Rilke‘s foremost aim when he wrote his condolence letters, collected for the first time in the volume titled The Dark Interval, to friends and family members.
Rilke, an early-20th century poet and writer, was born in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Considered one of Germany’s finest poets (although more than 400 of his poems were in French), he also wrote about 15,000 letters and a semi-autobiographical novel. His Letters to a Young Poet continues to be an inspiration to writers of all stripes and ages across the world. His works are quoted so extensively in popular culture — songs, movies, books, etc. — that many don’t even know him as the original source anymore. Rilke is not known as a traditionalist or a modernist. His lyrical style, with its existential and near-mystical themes, puts him somewhere vaguely in between.
Despite a difficult life (unhappy childhood, forced military service, poor health), Rilke traveled extensively throughout Europe during his short life. This afforded him connections in many countries across the socio-cultural hierarchies of his time — from titled nobility to renowned artists to admiring readers. He not only maintained ongoing correspondence with such friends and acquaintances but also with those he was introduced to by them but had never even met.
Spanning a period from 1908 to 1925, there are 23 letters here, mainly written to women (including former mistresses.) No matter whom he is writing to, however, his letters have little of the typical niceties other than where he is writing from or his ongoing poetry projects. Often, he gets straight to the reason for his writing, going deep into musings on death, life, grief, loss, and love. And one of his favorite recurring themes, which the title here calls out specifically, is transformation.
The losses are varied: a parent, a nephew, a pet, the end of a friendship, and others. Whether due to suicide, illness, or some sudden event, the deaths provide Rilke plenty to mull over and write about. In particular, the death of Vera Ouckama Knoop — a friend and playmate of Ruth, Rilke’s daughter — inspires, during this period, his collection, Sonnets to Orpheus. He describes writing the 52 sonnets in “a savage creative storm” of three weeks in the middle of his ten-year project, Duino Elegies.
Here, we find some of Rilke’s lifelong beliefs showing up frequently, though in varying language personalized for their recipients: how neither words nor time can offer true consolation, which is distracting, diverting, frivolous, and unproductive; how death is another part of our existence and makes us whole; how grief needs to be explored deeply so that it transforms our lives by revealing new capacities within ourselves rather than merely causing suffering; how there is something unlimited, unrecognizable, and invisible in all of us that continues forever even after a physical death; how those with whom we share a true bond never truly leave us and our duty is to continue living as if in their constant presence; how the most profound experiences of our lives remind us unfailingly of our mortality.
From time to time, he explores the same theme differently. To Sidonie Nádherná of Borutín, a famous Bohemian Baroness and Salonnière, who lost her brother Johannes to suicide, Rilke writes: “Make it the task of your mourning to explore what he had expected of you, had hoped for you, had wished to happen to you.” He encourages her tenderly to experience the pain of her loss fully (offering specific ways like “touch with your hands his things, which through their manifold relations and affinity are after all also yours”) because its new intensity will lead her to experience life more fully too. Then, in a letter to another young friend, Anita Forres, he shares his views on suicide through the story of how he once watched a suicide victim being pulled out of the Seine. A colorful young man was passing by and remarked to Rilke how a person who could kill himself could have also done something else just as brave. Rilke goes on to write to Forres:
What shouldn’t a person be able to achieve with precisely the kind of force that is needed to dissolve the powerful, tremendous attachments of life! From that moment on I have known with certainty that the worst things, and even despair, are only a kind of abundance and an onslaught of existence that one decision of the heart could turn into its opposite. Where things become truly difficult and unbearable, we find ourselves in a place already very close to its transformation.
Though there is always a deep spirituality in everything Rilke has ever written, he was not one to believe in any divine ideas of the Christian Beyond. He only mentions it to vehemently criticize how it takes our attention and energy away from being fully in the here and now. This present life, to him, is the most important thing. If he encourages any kind of faith, it’s in the notion that the most difficult and agonizing aspects of our lives open us up for the most fertile and fruitful ones:
I always think that such a great weight, with its tremendous pressure, somehow has the task of forcing us into a deeper, more intimate layer of life so that we may grow out of it all the more vibrant and fertile. […] This pain in particular allows the most personal and sweetest consolation to come to ripen for us: The greatest, nearest, and most pressing human loss in particular shelters the fruit of consolation most reliably. Get to the bottom of this intensity and have faith in what is most horrible, instead of fighting it off—it reveals itself for those who can trust it, in spite of its overwhelming and dire appearance, as a kind of initiation.
There is, inevitably, some repetition in Rilke’s thoughts from letter to letter. And, as he fully intended them to be published, he sounds rather didactic in places, especially in the letters addressed to younger women. Yet, it’s not hard to imagine the grieving women reading Rilke’s urging to fully embrace sorrow such that it “…refreshes their vision for and appetite of life as hopeful encouragement.”
Sometimes, he mentions how the “brief epistolary get-together has done me a lot of good, on the inside” to indicate how much the letter-writing helps him too. This may well be why these letters would probably not pass E. M. Forster’s test of “they [letters] must express the personality both of the writer and of the recipient.” (see Commonplace Book, by E. M. Forster) because large sections here read like private journal entries rather than addressed to any particular person. Also, as we are not privy to the forerunner or the reply to each letter, it’s not easy to connect the dots. Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, the letters are insightful enough to appeal to a wide range of readers even today who might be looking for secular wisdom and bereavement guidance.
That said, a general reader approaching the book without much familiarity with Rilke or his works is not likely to gain a comprehensive sense of Rilke’s life or creativity. For that, one must go to the poetry collections.
In the end, though, the writing itself is as well-crafted as any of Rilke’s other works. Given that, they would easily have pleased Forster’s contemporary, Virginia Woolf, who was quite the prolific letter-writer herself and wrote that “a writer’s letters should be as literary as his printed works” (see Books and Portraits, Woolf, Mariner, reissue, 1981).
To indulge in the usual refrain of those who love physical letters about how this ancient art is dying/dead because of digital forms of communication is probably a pointless exercise in nostalgia. However, from the time when letters were chiseled on stone and delivered by messengers on foot to now, when we text and tweet and post to each other 24/7, perhaps we have lost something in the many rituals involved with physical letters — waiting for them, delivering and receiving, reading and rereading, replying and mailing, and so on. The entire cycle of give-and-take in this manner between two people involved, arguably, more cognitive energy and emotional investment because it was drawn out over time. It allowed thoughts to brew and percolate more, for better or worse. But more than anything, letter-writing allowed, if one chose like Rilke here, to turn intimate one-on-one communication into a carefully-crafted artifact in its own right that transcended time itself.
A Brief Note on the Translation
Translator Ulrich Baer writes, in his preface, how he found solace in these letters when his own father died and even when he couldn’t quite understand what the words truly meant:
I had been on my way to shutting myself off from experiencing anything, lest it overwhelm me. Rilke’s words became companions and signals directing me back into life. […] Moving forward meant moving with and through the pain rather than overcoming it, which would have meant also forgetting my father and how losing him had taught me things about myself I could not learn when he was alive.
Baer has maintained the German idioms rather well in the English. He has also ensured we get the complete effect of Rilke’s many vivid, poetic metaphors. This cannot have been easy because, as Baer points out in his preface:
Rilke’s original German is more studded with dashes, hyphens, ellipses, and near-stuttering repetitions than a solid English sentence (even after Dickinson) can bear. The overall impression is of a poet for whom language is a living, breathing thing, rather than a tool with which to cast polished pearls of wisdom on a page.