I knew already that Prague and the country of which it is the capital, the Czech Republic (formerly Bohemia, for the most part), were home to two great composers: Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) and Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). What I had failed to remember, if ever fully knew, was that two great writers also called Prague home: Franz Kafka (1883-1924) and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).
Before I go further in this vein, here is a little about the relationship between Bohemia and the Czech Republic to orient us historically:
Bohemia…is a historical region in central Europe, occupying the western two-thirds of the traditional Czech Lands, currently the Czech Republic. In a broader meaning, it often refers to the entire Czech territory, including Moravia and Czech Silesia, especially in historical contexts, such as the Kingdom of Bohemia.
Bohemia has an area of 52,750 km² and 6.25 million of the Czech Republic’s 10.3 million inhabitants. It is bordered by Germany to the southwest, west, and northwest, Poland to the north-east, the Czech historical region of Moravia to the east, and Austria to the south. Bohemia’s borders are marked with mountain ranges such as the Bohemian Forest, the Ore Mountains, and the Krkonoše within the Sudeten mountains. [Source: Wikipedia]
The remainder of the present-day Czech Republic is within the area known historically as Moravia:
Moravia occupies most of the eastern third of the Czech Republic including the South Moravian Region and the Zlín Region, as well as parts of the Moravian-Silesian, Olomouc, Pardubice, Vysočina and South Bohemian regions.
In the north, Moravia borders Poland and Czech Silesia; in the east, Slovakia; in the south, Lower Austria; and in the west, Bohemia. Its northern boundary is formed by the Sudetes mountains which become the Carpathians in the east. The meandering Dyje flows through the border country with Austria and there is a protected area on both sides of the border in the area around Hardegg. [Source: Wikipedia]
Relation of Bohemia and Moravia in the Czech Republic and the countries of Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia (from 1918 until 1993, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were one country: Czechoslovakia).
Now to the “Cascading Connections.”
My father loved the writings of the German philosopher-poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), and especially the poetry of Rilke. At home he would recite snippets of their poetry in German when feeling expansive. As a college student at Berkeley in the mid 1930s, he joined the German Club in order to advance his studies in the German language and culture. He spoke Hochdeutsch, although there are no known German antecedents in our family. (Dad was in no way enamored of the rise of Hitler’s National Socialism in Germany at the time—quite the opposite).
So, at a young age I was introduced to the name of Rilke, but never knew him even though I never forgot his name and his influence on Dad.
Fast forward more than a half-century to 2009, Stockholm, where I now live. A writer friend, knowing I have an interest in writing poetry (an interest that happened upon me only within in the last dozen years) recommended to me Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” I found them, entire, on the Internet. I began reading the ten letters, some of them emanating from Sweden where Rilke went to recover from the pressures of life in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including Bohemia. I hadn’t yet finished my reading of the letters when I arrived Prague and saw Rilke’s name and image in various locations in the city, especially those catering to tourists. This is when I felt I had come full circle with Rilke.
I miss my father ever more as I age. He and I had conversations I could have, and can have, with no one else due, in part, that he consciously educated me, not always successfully, to his ways and thoughts. We were different in important ways, yet much the same in intellectual interests and abilities. This blog is, in large part, an attempt to cover the historical and literary ground that my father urged me to travel but did only in small part during his lifetime. I was bound for the world of science and business and had little time for strictly intellectual pursuits that brought along no short-term material rewards.
So, in ending this essay I will show Dad, in absentia, and you, dear reader, that I have read Rilke, in translation to be sure, by sharing some excerpts, below, from his “letters” as evidence.
I hope you will find Rilke’s advice to the young poet as soulful and valuable as I do.
Letter One, Paris
February 17, 1903
Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism…most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art…
Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.
I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it…
Letter Two, Viareggio, near Pisa (Italy)
April 5, 1903
…ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone; and many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled, for one human being to successfully advise or help another…
Irony: Don’t let yourself be controlled by it, especially during uncreative moments.
Letter Three, Viareggio, near Pisa (Italy)
April 23, 1903
Read as little as possible of literary criticism – such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view…Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentations, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.
In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!
Letter Four, Worpswede, near Bremen
July 16, 1903
…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer…
Perhaps above them all there is a great motherhood, in the form of a communal yearning. The beauty of the girl, a being who (as you so beautifully say) “has not yet achieved anything,” is motherhood that has a presentiment of itself and begins to prepare, becomes anxious, yearns. And the mother’s beauty is motherhood that serves, and in the old woman there is a great remembering. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and mental; his engendering is also a kind of birthing, and it is birthing when he creates out of his innermost fullness. And perhaps the sexes are more akin than people think, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in one phenomenon: that man and woman, freed from all mistaken feelings and aversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings, in order to bear in common, simply, earnestly, and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them…
But everything that may someday be possible for many people, the solitary man can now, already, prepare and build with his own hands, which make fewer mistakes. Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast. And if what is near you is far away, then your vastness is already among the stars and is very great; be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust. Avoid providing material for the drama that is always stretched tight between parents and children; it uses up much of the children’s strength and wastes the love of the elders, which acts and warms even if it doesn’t comprehend. Don’t ask for any advice from them and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like and inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.
Letter Seven, Rome
May 14, 1904
…love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time ahead and far on into life, is—; solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough.
But this is what young people are so often and so disastrously wrong in doing they (who by their very nature are impatient) fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment. . .
And what can happen then? What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion and that they would like to call their happiness, if that were possible, and their future? And so each of them loses himself for the sake of the other person, and loses the other, and many others who still wanted to come. And loses the vast distances and possibilities, gives up the approaching and fleeing of gentle, prescient Things in exchange for an unfruitful confusion, out of which nothing more can come; nothing but a bit of disgust, disappointment, and poverty, and the escape into one of the many conventions that have been put up in great numbers like public shelters on this most dangerous road. No area of human experience is so extensively provided with conventions as this one is: there are live-preservers of the most varied invention, boats and water wings; society has been able to create refuges of very sort, for since it preferred to take love-life as an amusement, it also had to give it an easy form, cheap, safe, and sure, as public amusements are…
Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully, and more confidently, must surely have become riper and more human in their depths than light, easygoing man, who is not pulled down beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit and who, arrogant and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves. This humanity of woman, carried in her womb through all her suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she has stripped off the conventions of mere femaleness in the transformations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching will be astonished by it. Someday (and even now, especially in the countries of northern Europe, trustworthy signs are already speaking and shining), someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only life and reality: the female human being.
This advance (at first very much against the will of the outdistanced men) will transform the love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another, no longer one that flows from man to woman. And this more human love (which will fulfill itself with infinite consideration and gentleness, and kindness and clarity in binding and releasing) will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: the two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.
Letter Eight, Borgeby gard, Fladie, Sweden
August 12, 1904
…The only sadnesses that are dangerous and unhealthy are the ones that we carry around in public in order to drown them out with the noise; like diseases that are treated superficially and foolishly, they just withdraw and after a short interval break out again all the more terribly; and gather inside us and are life, are life that is unlived, rejected, lost, life that we can die of…And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate; and later on, when it “happens” (that is, steps forth out of us to other people), we will feel related and close to it in our innermost being.
Don’t observe yourself too closely. Don’t be too quick to draw conclusions from what happens to you; simply let it happen. Otherwise it will be too easy for you to look with blame (that is: morally) at your past, which naturally has a share in everything that now meets you. But whatever errors, wishes, and yearnings of your boyhood are operating in you now are not what you remember and condemn.