I recently picked up this book by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, which is a collection of 10 letters he wrote in response to a student (the young poet) named Franz Kappus.
[There are spoilers in this post if you haven’t read the book yet]
My first favourite thing about this book was that it was only 80 pages long!
Second favourite thing was that there were a lot of things that he’d written about that I could find very relatable.
And my third favourite thing was reading a bunch of feelings that I’ve felt, and a bunch of thoughts that I’ve had in passing that Rainer was able to capture and crystallize in words!
However, I do wish that letters from Kappus were also included. There were certain things that I felt I could understand better if I had more context about what Kappus had asked to receive such a reply.
Because there were chunks of writing in this book that I didn’t seem to understand yet, I think this book ended up serving more as a mirror for me to look at myself and confirm some of the ideas and feelings I had about things that were vague and fuzzy in my mind before. For this reason, I’d be interested in returning to this book sometimes later to see what else, and how else, I end up interpreting the same things Rainer talked about.
Now let’s dive into the specifics of the book.
1. What stood out to me was Rainer’s perspective on literary criticism:
Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings.
Now, I don’t fully understand what exactly his perspective was, but I do relate to him in the sense that I share the skepticism of literary criticism or people’s opinions on art. Something that seems marvellous to the general population may not move me as its reputation suggests, but a simple poem from a friend that is authentic may do so.
The irony is that I ended up reading the foreword of this book (if you consider that a commentary or criticism of this book) which ended up influencing how I viewed Rainer as I read the book, so I wish I’d skipped that. I see the value in first ignoring people’s opinions about something, seeing that thing for yourself, and forming your own judgment about it before checking in with others.
2. He advises Kappus to stop asking others to tell him how good his poetry is, stop sending his poetry to magazines and getting dejected if certain editors reject the poem, etc.
This is something I’ve felt before but didn’t take completely seriously because… it was just a vague feeling.
What I understand is that when you look at others to tell you what to do with your art, you’re getting farther and farther away from your inner self where your original ideas and feelings will actually come from. If you ask others what to make, you’ll only be trying to recreate their version of understanding or art, but it will be at the expense of your authenticity. It won’t be able to come from your heart.
So Rainer advises Kappus to stay away from cookie-cutter writing prompts like love poems and try to tap into himself, his sorrows, his childhood, his desires and thoughts, and see if the desire to pen anything about those things comes up.
I have to say that this is one reason I quite enjoy writing off schedule. If I start forcing myself to write and post something that I don’t actually mean, and I am just doing so to maintain some arbitrary streak, I know that is the post that I will end up cringing over later on. To know that this is not a feeling that only I have felt, and that someone like Rainer also saw value in, is quite affirming.
1. Rainer tells Kappus to not be controlled by Irony. I don’t understand what he means. But I do appreciate the importance he places on trying to be as one with yourself as possible to produce “pure” art, though that is not a value everyone prefers to have.
2. Then Rainer recommends Kappus some books, but I’m not familiar with them so I don’t understand yet why Rainer placed so much value on them. He tells Kappus to get a volume of Six Stories by the Danish poet J. P. Jacobsen, and the short story called “Mogens” in Jacobson’s novel Neils Lyhne.
1. Rainer recommended more works to Kappus. Again, I couldn’t gain much out of the descriptions since I’m not familiar with the works, at least not yet.
2. What stood out to me was Rainer’s concept of how we should allow our inner feeling to train our sense of judgement, even if we are wrong along the way. It was liberating for me to read that. I realized that a lot of time I would defer to other people’s opinions to make an important decision, or be very flexible with mine because I was scared of my own choice turning out to be wrong. But how would I develop my sense of judgement if I never practiced it?
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 judgements their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened.Letter Three
3. He touched on how people sometimes love each other not human-to-human, but as some kind of label to another. Man to woman, parent to child, love is interfered by this extra-label in between that stops people from seeing another person more clearly and directly. This is something subtle that I’d felt before, and he put it into words.
4. He couldn’t afford his own books after they were published! 😦
1. Rainer seems to have a habit of replying late to his letters 😅 Though he also has a habit of addressing Kappus in a kind and endearing way. He seems genuinely concerned about Kappus’ well-being and sense of self throughout all the exchanges.
2. I found this sentence beautiful. To know that someone can find anxiety beautiful too. He really does seem to honour all emotions of life.
I am touched by your beautiful anxiety about life, even more than I was in Paris.Letter four
3. He points out how so much of our reality is felt, and not able to be captured in words. I find this to be so true.
For even the most articulate people are unable to help, since what words point to is so very deliacte, is almost unsayable.
4. There was another quote that I don’t fully understand yet:
[…] if you have love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to the confidence if what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling
5. I found this one comforting for myself when questioning the reality of life and existence… and the meaning of it all
[…] and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. […] Live the questions now. Perhaps then, somday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Then he tells Kappus to not search for answers. Okay, so if I am to follow this, I can manage to take a break from searching, but I can’t stop myself from researching because I love gathering information and letting it marinate in my head before (hopefully) arriving at some kind of conclusion 😭😶🌫️
But I appreciate the idea of loving the questions, instead of becoming anxious about how they shake you.
6. Uhh, I don’t really understand the rest of the letter, except for the part where he advises Kappus to not feed into the parent-child or any conflict with people just because they can’t understand him, but to be gentle with them and keep moving on his own path. Sounds reasonable enough!
1. Rainer seems to find comfort in noticing small things and the beauty in them, especially after feeling overwhelmed by travelling it seems
2. He’s cool with reading more poems from Kappus!
1. He keeps emphasizing the importance of solitude. I keep wondering if he’s talking metaphorically or physically or both. I don’t think I understand exactly what he’s trying to convey by “solitude”.
Based on my personal experience, I think that by somewhat shifting your way of thinking, you can still maintain a degree of mental and emotional solitude while being surrounded by people on the regular. Although the complete solitude does have its own effect.
2. This one stood out to me:
What is happening in your innermost self is worthy of your entire love
3. There were more paragraphs from this letter that I didn’t quite grasp. This is where I think having access to Kappus’ letters would have been helpful for some contexts. What kind of questions was he asking to garner such responses from Rainer? because even in these paragraphs, I was trying to guess if Rainer was being totally literal or metaphorical about some things.
1. He says some young people are not capable of genuine love because they don’t know their solitude yet. I wish this idea of solitude was explained using different words so the idea could click for me. I’m not entirely sure what he means by all of this yet. Maybe he means some people don’t have a stable sense of self and security in themselves which they failingly try to find in another person?
2. This quote actually reminds me of how teenagers have a reputation for trying out different “personalities” before they end up “finding themselves”
I don’t have enough observations or evidence to agree or disagree with the claims he made about women taking on the disguises of the opposite sex before purifying their own essence.
However, I think that this is something that probably happens to humans in general. We try on different personas, and some of us might pay more attention and urgency to the matter of becoming more and more true and authentic versions of ourselves.
3. He has more comments on love, which I don’t quite grasp.
1. I appreciate his view on how sadness, although uncomfortable, is transformative. And the kind of sadness that is actually dangerous is one that we carry around in public while trying to drown it out in external noise. Again and again, I see his sense of honouring emotions that are a product of life events so that we can properly integrate ourselves with the changes that come with experiencing these emotions.
2. Here he explains it more:
It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; becuase everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing.
Did I mention before how I appreciate his ability to put subtle feelings like this into words?
3. I don’t fully understand this example, but I think it is to the effect of mentioning the importance of solitude and what kind of resilience it can give someone who has become familiar with it:
A man taken out of his room and, almost withour preparation and transition, placed on the heights of a great mountain range, would feel something like that: an unqualled insecurity, an abandonment to the nameless, would almost annihilate him.
Though I’m not sure how solitude would prevent someone from freaking out in this situation. What kind of solitude is he talking about? Honouring your inner life? Being stoic? I don’t fully get it yet.
4. Appreciated this quote:
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
Though, in my head, I’m trying to translate this to see exactly what kind of situations in real life this sentiment would apply to. But I have a feeling that I will understand this much better as time goes on.
5. He said that when you are experiencing difficult emotions, you can remember that “something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you”. Just feel things instead of questioning the heck out of them!
6. Was Kappus going through some kind of depression or low emotions? I find this quote on point.
you must be pateint like someone who is sick, and confident like you are recovering; for perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself.
LETTERS NINE AND TEN
I don’t completely understand what he meant in these ones (or maybe I’m just tired of writing now 😅)
Overall, there was a lot of food for thought in this book. However, I think that perhaps this book isn’t for everyone. I ended up liking it because I could relate to some parts in ways that I haven’t been able to relate to with the people I know in real life.
I also think the concepts in this book are such that can be outgrown by some people, depending on their personality and nature. All in all, I’m glad to have come across this book as there were some useful concepts I found to pick up for myself.
And in order to try practicing some things from this book, I didn’t check other people’s opinions of this book before I wrote down my own. So now that I’ve done that, I’m excited to enter research mode and find out what others think about it (while honouring my own inner judgement). Byeee! (guess I’m really tired after writing so much in one go 😅😅😶🌫️)