I stand in the doorway of the Bibliothèque Nationale reading room, the soaring sanctum before me, above me the ceiling a grandeur of opaque glass wreathed with names of great cities: Alexandria, Athens, London, Babylon, Jerusalem, Byzantium, Peking. I’m here in search of Rainer Maria Rilke. Strapped for cash, unschooled, twenty-seven years old and devoid of curricula vitae save years of ardent reading, I’ve already spent an absurd, obsessive half-decade writing a novel about him. It’s grown to more than one-hundred-fifty-thousand words. I hope to complete it in Paris.
The roundness of this room suggests a vast egg enclosing the world’s knowledge. I want to swim forth through the bluish light, amid the desks and along the curving walls shelved four stories high with books, but the clerk at the entry explains that I cannot come in. I lack the proper license: the coveted carte de bibliothèque. Malte, the main character in Rilke’s single novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), cherishes the card permitting him entrance to this room — not only for the learning the card allows him, but because the card puts an honorable seal on his otherwise dissolute life. A young scion of erstwhile aristocrats in Denmark, Malte has fled the land of his ancestry to fin de siècle Paris where he will live as a poet — or die a nobody, as his notebooks’ agitated first words suggest: “So, people do come here to live. I would have sooner thought that this is where one dies.” Malte’s health is failing him. Destitute, squalidly housed in the Latin Quarter, he fears he’s becoming indistinguishable from his neighbors: the sick, the desperate, the mad. His library card saves him, temporarily at least, from the spiritual degradation shown in those impoverished “husks of humanity” who ambulate the grim cobbled warrens around his apartment. “It is possible that one day it may occur to them to come as far as my room,” writes Malte while sitting in the hush of this salle de reference.
They certainly know where I live, and they will take care that the concierge does not stop them. But here, my dears, here I am safe from you. One must have a special card in order to get into this room. In this card I have the advantage of you … I am among these books, and then taken away from you as though I had died, and sit and read a poet.
Discontent to stand in the doorway, I decide I must get a card of my own. Fumbling through the necessary questions in my quasi French, I’m referred to one attendant after another. Finally, at the Accueil, an English-speaking clerk directs me across the library’s palatial foyer to the enclosed area marked “Orientation des Lecteurs.” Bureaucracy-phobes acquire nightmares here.
Wound up and out of sorts, I breach the shrine and install myself in a chair before a librarian’s desk, babbling. Gatekeepers make me nervous. And now I’m much too aware, in my tongue-tied foreignness, in my pullover and backpack and scuffed sneakers, that I cut the figure of a failed pretender, a would-be tourist-cum-scholar. Worse, I give the impression, despite myself, of knowing my own charade, knowing I cannot claim legitimate candidacy for the access I seek. The library wardens — officious, serious, and thoroughly French in their skeptical decorum — reduce me with every sidelong glance. They won’t grant a card to just anybody. As my stuttering interview concludes, I’m instructed to return with passport and proof official of my status as an author; e.g., a published book. I will thereafter be informed of materials in the library relevant to my research.
Rattled, I exit the marbled lobby, cross the cobbled courtyard to the ravine-like rue de Richelieu, and start back toward my cramped studio apartment on the Left Bank. As I walk I pocket my clammy hands and replay the interview. Did I call myself un écrivain or romancier? Which was more correct considering my motive? I know I said recherche — that was a kind of lie. But how can I explain that I’ve got nothing to research, at least not in the manner they mean? How explain that I simply wish to sit and work in that reading room, that the spirit of the room itself is what I’m after?
A Vespa skirls past, the rider’s shadow splayed like the covers of an open book, half on sidewalk half on stone wall. The green dome of the Ópera swells beyond the buildings ahead, the sun shafting low along its bulge. The river, when I cross the Pont du Carrousel, will be a blinding glare. I’m not sure whether I’ll follow through on today’s attempt. I do have a published book, but for some reason I demur to brandish it like a business card. “Merci, mais non,” they could say, dismissing book and boy with a wave of the hand.
Arriving here in his disturbed autumn of 1902, applying to the library wardens behind their imposing desks, twenty-six-year-old Rilke himself probably worried they’d deem him ineligible. He’d likely rehearsed the process in his head, working out the French phrases (he was far from fluent yet). He would explain that he meant to do research about their great sculptor Rodin — this was true, he was writing a monograph, a commission for which he’d left his wife and small daughter at home in the north of Germany. But he probably felt the stony dusk of the foyer reducing him, and he knew he lacked the brio of a credible academic. Thank God, then, that his publisher supplied him a letter. This letter would render his intentions official, it would work like ersatz confidence, he could brandish it and let it be his brio.
How would Rilke have comported himself in the absence of a letter? It’s important, from this obscure future, to wonder such things. I was intimidated, to be sure. But as Rilke’s own work attests — as Malte demonstrates — a sufficient sense of helplessness can return one powerfully to one’s beginnings, and for an artist this is proper. Exposed and vulnerable, one avoids a numbing insularity. One senses the world anew. If the library personnel have sensitized me to my status as an unapproved, unaffiliated outsider, they’ve done me a peculiar service. A few words from Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne ring in my head, a fine affirmation for just such a moment: “One has to be able at every moment to place one’s hand on the earth like the first human being.”
Rainer Maria Rilke strove unceasingly to wrest poetic creation from experience, “to see in everything I encounter a challenge, a task, a claim to artistic transformation.” That was his drastic lifelong vow, made early on and relentlessly fulfilled, so that this everything included even Rilke’s final experience, his death. In Switzerland in 1926, as his last bleak hours steepened with pain, he barred his door and refused all visitors. Not even his wife Clara was admitted, for Rilke had pledged himself to this, if death was what it was; he would embrace it without intermediary. He was fifty-one. For weeks he’d writhed with what his physician would call leukemia, but Rilke allowed no one to tell him the name of the disease undoing him. In striving to confront his fate, to create by unmediated perception that last experience, he refused all medicine. If it was torment, it would be his own — not the doctor’s, not the disease’s. Unnamed, pure, and purely awful, it would be his death, a thing achieved, a thing as suited to him as his birth and no less singular. What else, as Rilke saw it, could being a poet mean? What, but to begin and begin, to remain endangered, to embrace one’s honorable obscurity and accept its absence of reward, to reconcile oneself to life’s mortal loneliness, to nurture one’s vision in that solitude and sing? Art, as Rilke wrote to the young poet Franz Xaver Kappus in July of 1903, “means loving one’s solitude and bearing its pain by making beautiful sounds of one’s complaint.”
“Young person anywhere, in whom something is rising up that causes you to shiver,” says Malte Laurids Brigge, “make use of the fact that no one knows you. … Beg no one to speak of you, not even contemptuously.” Though the protagonist pens them, these words belong as rightly to the author himself. One of the great self-chroniclers of all time, Rilke dispatched more than eleven thousand letters over the course of thirty-five footloose years. This correspondence rehearses the story of his life, stringing the narrative onto an armature of a few key episodes, obsessively testifying to their importance. They include: Rilke’s mother rearing him as a girl following the death of an infant daughter prior to his birth; that mother’s inculcation of a superstitious spirituality in the boy, accounting for the poet’s lifelong sensitivity to ghosts and the sub harmonic vibrations of the paranormal; a young and sickly René Maria (as the pious mother christened him) suffering five miserable years of military boarding school; the poet’s artistic coming-of-age under the influence of Lou Andreas-Salomé (lover, Madonna, muse); the poet’s reverence before his Master, Auguste Rodin, who became idol and surrogate father in one. From unpromising beginnings through his ongoing tribulations of homelessness and alienation, adoration and heartbreak, his incapacity to be loved, his brushes with incandescent beauty, the letters chronicle everything important to the poet, all experienced in the name of art. Rilke presented to the world the persona of the unadulterated artist committed wholly and exclusively, at every living hour, to his work — and committed no less to that work’s frequent lacunae in which, semi-religiously, he strove to “be inactive with confidence.” As he wrote to an aggrieved Clara in 1906, amid years of separation for the sake of this work, “I am absolutely determined to miss none of these voices which are to come. I want to hear each one.”
For some today, Rilke is a figure of saintly poetic renunciation offering, as translator Anita Barrows puts it, “instructions for living.” Others denounce him as a profligate husband and father. Among the fault-finders, poet John Berryman’s verdict is gleefully fetishized: “Rilke was a jerk.” “Lap dog” also recurs, a favorite epithet for a poet who lived in and thanks to a bygone age of patronage. In a Time Magazine article of 1941 Rilke is “a lap dog for cultivated ladies, loveless as a serpent, soaked to the soul in the most indecent self-pity.” Garrison Keillor dutifully took up this theme in his commemoration of the poet on National Public Radio’s “The Writer’s Almanac” in 2006:
Since [Rilke] only wrote in spurts, he supported himself by getting rich noblewomen to fall in love with him and support his work. He apparently wasn’t the best-looking guy in the world, but women found him irresistible because he was so romantic and poetic.
Is there narcissism in Rilke? Naturally, perhaps necessarily so. But nefariousness? Only a kneejerk cynicism can lead to such a conclusion. Canonizers and attackers aside, the murk of an actual life will rarely distill smoothly to a thesis statement, and the truth is that Rilke’s is stubbornly less tidy than his worshippers might wish, and stubbornly less diabolical than alleged by those who would retroactively police his morality. In a 1960 introduction to the poet’s selected letters, editor Harry T. Moore observed, “Those who knew Rilke have never blamed him for following the necessities of his poetical nature: if he sometimes avoided everyday obvious reality, he constantly sought a deeper reality.” Bravely, Moore added: “Those who criticize his conduct couldn’t have written his poetry.” Rilke’s naysayers might more clearly bear in mind the nature of the man and his work, and avoid projecting onto him standards of artistry or comportment to which he never pledged himself. Rilke was no Whitmanesque adorer of everyman or celebrant of the commonplace. His poetry, while in some places extolling a spiritual interconnectedness, did not draw him out of doors or out of himself into warm-spirited intercourse with his siblings among the children of the world. He was not disposed to comfort battle-wounded youths in hospital wards or rub elbows with brethren urbanites on joyous omnibus excursions. Instead, Rilke’s self-proclaimed “calling” led him away from the common life — and yes, the familial constraints, quotidian inspirations, and proletarian sentiments such living might include. Knowing how ill-suited he was to be the object of any binding affections (a major theme of Malte), Rilke leapt into what, by most contemporary pragmatic rationales (particularly American ones), can only be viewed as an existence shamelessly self-indulgent (read: dreamy and unpaid). Ultimately, for Rilke art was a way of life. For art’s sake he cultivated a kind of purist bohemianism, an unrelenting pursuit of the conditions propitious to creation. Solitude was a crucial ingredient, penury a byproduct (he was never a breadwinner). Rilke’s yearning prayer he borrowed from Baudelaire, impassioned defender of “illustrious unfortunates”: “Lord God, grant me the grace to produce a few beautiful lines.” And Rilke’s modus operandi he borrowed from Rodin: “One must work. Nothing but work!” He needed his art to be all consuming. As for friends and family, they understood him. Why don’t we? Is it largely because we cannot imagine being an artist and glad that no one knows us? Because today we equate anonymity and obscurity with failure and shame? Had Rilke been more intent on establishing his “platform,” would we better understand?
Despite my fears, they’ve let me in. Maybe I encouraged them to believe I had scholarly aims, or did nothing to dispel the impression. Anyway, I’ve been vetted and my one book has spoken for me. What a marvel that was after all: to have a book to show them. And now, like the poet’s brainchild and second self, Malte Laurids Brigge, and like Rilke before him, I may sit in this grand room and read.
There are now perhaps three hundred people in the hall, reading. But it is impossible that each and every one has a poet (God knows what they have). Three hundred poets there are not. But see now — how’s this for destiny — I, perhaps the most dejected of these readers, a foreigner: I have a poet. Even though I am poor.
Here at hand lies my hard-won Bibliothèque Nationale researcher’s card. The rectangle of yellow plastic bears a tiny color photograph taken at my interview and reproduced instantaneously by computer. What a weirdly stern image: the guarded face of one prepared to prove himself — though by the time this little portrait was made the greatest trial, the trial of explaining intentions (in halting French), had already been endured. They’d decided to let me in, and my submitting to their camera was a formality no different than plunking down their researcher fee (4.50 euro).
How do you explain yourself, you who harbor dreams but have no means to certify them for others? — you who remain outside, absent, unknown and poor? — you whose future is always in question (if not in danger)? Maybe I’ve sought access to this monumental reading room merely to explore these dilemmas. Where are the salles de sanctuaire or by-admittance-only zones for one who lacks this or that institution’s card? — lonely one dressed again in yesterday’s clothing, you who have no name and carry no credentials, you whose cuffs are fraying like Malte’s, unsung one who strives to sing. And Rilke, what can we expect our world to do with you? Intellectual Marjorie Perloff, in a 2000 essay in Parnassus, broods doubtfully upon your legacy: “Can anyone living at the turn of the twenty-first century really believe that Art somehow redeems life, that it has no political or ethical obligations?” What were your friends and family to do with you, Rilke? (In my book about you, which I will manage to finish some years later, I’ll ask as much:
What is the world to do … with one who travels endlessly and sleeps in an unshared bed and takes long walks alone and sits at a desk and works and waits in order to simply say something, not even to name something but just to take the name already possessed and say it over again, to show it, show it, hold it up in two devout hands in its beauty or splendor or fright, and in this way give back to maybe one person (maybe no more than one) the wondrous disquiet this person once knew as a child when first faced by the thing they’re now seeing again.
In your Ninth Duino Elegy, Rilke, you expressed this yourself:
“To say—understand this now—
oh to say these things
in such a way
that the things themselves would never
have thought to exist so earnestly.”)
Even now I’m worried I might be found out — that the librarians will discover I’m guilty of wanting so little, wanting to just sit here and think on these things and see how such thoughts may change and help one who hopes to create. There is no monument in this room. But once, a young foreigner, a threadbare poet of twenty-six, was given leave to linger amidst these storied bookstacks (“Probably the most extensive in the world” says the 1902 Baedecker of this Bibliothéque). How does that change a place? What memory can an airy library hold of a young nobody’s fierce, secret, silent inspirations? In his time here Rilke read Baudelaire, Flaubert, and a poet called Francis Jammes, but I am reading Rilke. My dog-eared English copy of his wonderful, terrible novel lies open before me. If the book were an eye, it would see me bent in an elliptical field of light, and encircling my skull like a crown of thoughts the names of cities as they’re inscribed overhead: Berlin, Alexandrie, Londres, Babylone, Vienne, Thebes, Rome. I sit here and read Rilke in this room where he read his poet, and I feel my poverty, my obscurity, flowing on and on down the ages.
In the days following this pilgrimage to the Bibliothèque Nationale, I use my newfound fortitude to make an appointment at the archives of the Museé Rodin. Appearing promptly at the scheduled hour, I have to answer only a few friendly questions, a relief. The archivist leads me upstairs to a tiny garret space hidden high in the roof of the Hôtel Biron, home to the Museé Rodin. The Biron was a derelict chateau when Rilke lived here. He stayed off and on for a few years, working on Malte. It was one of his longest residences anywhere. Rodin, shortly after the poet showed him the place, made a studio of its lofty rooms. In the garret are housed perhaps a hundred letters from Rilke to his mâitre. The archivist brings them and I lay them out before me. Each bears the debossed tracery of the poet’s pen. And instantly, as simply and easily as one might fold a dinner napkin, time turns over and I feel the palpable silence of the rooms in which these lines were written. Slow or fast, days passed then as they do now. In his first weeks in Paris, Rilke wrote to Rodin:
It is not only to do a study that I have come to you — it was in order to ask you: how must one live? And you have replied: by working. And this I understand well. I sense that to work is to live without dying.
During that first month in Paris, he wrote in his book on the sculptor: “No strange voice came to him, no praise to confuse him, no reproach to bewilder him. … Always his work spoke to him.” Rilke was writing about himself: “Here was a task great as the world, and the one who stood looking at it was unknown by everyone; his hands reached for bread, in darkness.”
Later, in the Louvre, that hall of gathered time, I will stand before the Archaic Torso, the subject of Rilke’s celebrated poem. Moments will tick past — half an hour, hour — and slowly, I will begin to understand how Rilke must have waited there before that powerful object — waited, waited, and finally, confronting the torso’s antique silence, felt his waiting grow fruitful. Then he knew he could give back, in words that would not profane it, the force of such silence. “Denn da ist keine Stelle, / die dicht nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.” For there is no piece of this that does not see you. You must change your life. I’ve been seen by something, having bent my head in the reading room, having shuffled the poet’s letters in my hands. What is it? What comes of this turning back, these travels amongst the stirring dead? How describe the experience? (T.S. Eliot: “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”) As Rilke did, I need to understand my position, my part, my values in this time, to ask: How am I to live? How work? We all need to know. Retracing his steps, decoding his letters, I do not query Rilke so much as myself. And yet I see, also, that at the center of these questions lies something much larger than me and my particular life. If your work has no roof to shelter it, find the roof inside you: often it’s an arch of words, the good words that arch when you’re reading.
Whoever I am, whatever my name may be, is unimportant. Young person anywhere, clasp your hands and say this. Be glad that no one hears you say it, and if you notice your cuffs are fraying, don’t worry — say it anyway. Only the inkling, the idea is important, and the pilgrimage of thought that leads there, where there is no place for judgment, only the allure of ghosts, only the learning-to-be-haunted, which some call inspiration.
M. Allen Cunningham is the author of the novels The Green Age of Asher Witherow, named a #1 Indie Next Pick, and Lost Son, about the life of the poet Rilke. His story collection, Date of Disappearance, was released in illustrated limited-edition last year, and his first nonfiction volume, The Honorable Obscurity Handbook, came out this spring. His writing has appeared in many publications, and he’s a frequent contributor to the Oregonian. The recipient of a 2013 Artist Fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission and prior fellowships from Literary Arts and Yaddo, Cunningham is the founder of the Portland-based micro-press Atelier26 Books.