That Happen When Reading Rilke
Lou Salomé’s close friendship with Freud was one of the few embarrassments between her and Rilke. She had reason to think that he needed psychiatric help, and he resisted it with heroic justifications. That did not stop her talking about him. But Freud listens to her with impatience. ‘Amateur storytelling’, he says, and she is furious. Having studied Freud’s methods she is beginning to consider herself now as a colleague, and that annoys Sigmund. Lou picks my brains, he thinks, and in no time with her contacts in high society she’ll be stealing patients from me.
‘Anyway, Frau Salome, as a professional I have to be paid. A fee gives the analysis an objective mandate. And I don’t take money for a second-hand consultation.’ He wouldn’t put it past Lou to feed him all this hair-raising stuff, that isn’t worth a comb, to tempt him into a diagnosis she fancies. All the better to control us both by proxy. ‘You only knows what Rilke wants to tell you. What I need is twenty sessions alone with him and, since that is as unlikely as spiriting the Empress Eugénie away from her confessor, I don’t want to hear any more about his parents.’
Freud is right to be wary of what Lou says Rilke said. But had The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge been available to him, the parents’ transformation into Malte’s would interest him as a counterbalance to Lou’s interpretation of his letters. Not least to get to the bottom of her sincerity. He doesn’t trust Frau Salome, or anybody in the mind doctor world. I’m the snake charmer in a nest of vipers... If Lou could read his mind, she would have had reason to suggest that Sigmund sees Dr Freud, or offer her services to analyse him herself, in lieu of keeping her hands off his aristocrats.
When his father dies, Rilke has the maternal nightmare of Phia Entz-Kinzelberger-Rilke all to himself. This doesn’t blight his existence but it is unpleasant. Like many unloved sons, he remains cussedly dutiful, going through the motions to be beyond reproach. Rilke has long written his mother off as a human being and, to live with that denaturing, consigned her to art, idealising her in The Notebooks as an ethereal spirit living in the past, dressing up the infant Malte in a frock. Malte complies, pretending to be a little girl called Sophie. Later, when his mother notices the adolescent Malte in her sickroom, she confides to him her slender grip on life. Drawing him into her dead world, where she communes with loved ones, like Ingelborg, her friend or servant, she shows him her bureau of mementos. Ingleborg’s lacework in particular, saying her eternity rests in feeling the cloth.
Her aloneness, quiet despair, vapid spirituality, make Malte think his mother is a living relic, and he’s afraid to touch her. She has the mystique of a negative held to the light, unlike his father, a solid, upbeat, one-dimensional daguerreotype. Her vagaries fascinate him, and Malte lingers on the threshold of love, but never quite crosses it. She simply fades away from The Notebooks. Gide’s epiphany for a lost soul could have been her epitaph. ‘Her passing was so unobtrusive that no one noticed she was dying, only that she was dead.’ Malte notices, but soon finds a more earthly substitute in his governess and poor relation Abelone, and is no longer haunted by his mother. Nevertheless, the reader is. Which is exactly what Rilke wants. He has handed her over to us.
The transference doesn’t work, and the lack of natural affection between Rilke and his mother dogs his life. If there was any love lost that was a long time ago, before his birth. She wanted a girl, having lost one in a previous confinement, but no, this hairy impetuous male arrives prematurely. But her continuing existence has to be faced, especially when she pretends to be on her death bed. The poor health of Malte’s mother was wishful thinking.
The occasional poem helps to lay the living ghost:
Alas, my mother will demolish me.
Stone by stone upon myself I lay.
I’m a little shack that nobody lives in.
Now my mother is coming to demolish me.
Allowing for poetical exaggerations, that’s closer to the reality than the mother in The Notebooks. Only the demolition might have been the other way round. Absent thee from the infelicities is Rilke’s modus operandi. He’s afraid of what he might do if her deadly predictability drives him over the top. But he can’t let himself get away from her all the time. Her ‘hold on his heart’ is in dreams, in which she taunts him. ‘Everybody loves their mother.’ In nightmares begin responsibilities, and motherly love is a convention he observes by default, fitfully, ungraciously, half hoping for something more and half fearing it.
Phia Entz-Kinzelbergers-Rilke’s piousity puts her son off Church Christianity, but he inherits her snobbery. Rilke dearly loves a Lord, or rather a Lady. The loss of a girl-child at birth lingers in the air between them, a reproach to his existence. The cross-dressing of Malte, and his complicity, is as close as makes no difference to what happened to the infant René, and why Lou got Rilke to change his name to Rainer Maria. ‘More manly’, she says. When his parents’ marriage breaks up in 1884 Rilke is nine and remains with his mother’s family. Not as grand as the Brigges in The Notebooks, more haute bourgeoisie. Servants occupy themselves with the boy’s welfare. The grandparents teach him the social graces, but his education is haphazard.
Joself Rilke intervenes, and it isn’t about the three Rs. He spots the boy wearing a frock, and worries that he’ll grow up to be an inverted Her rather than a straight Herr. It’s arranged that René boards at the military school. He only sees his mother during the holidays and, since she has got used to his absence, is largely ignored. The grandparents make up for that in their fashion. The boy is not easy to love, sickly, sly and backward. But they do their best and, shyly, the natural affections grow. He even sits on his senile grandfather’s knee.
I’m finding myself mixing up what’s in The Notebooks with the known facts of Rilke’s life. He details his upbringing in the novel so convincingly that other sources of biographic information are subsumed. The auto-fiction seems truer to life than biographies or memoirs. He catches the narrow confines of a real childhood, with its provisional pains and puzzlements, and the effect is touching, and comic. Rilke, comic? Yes, and not inadvertently. Rainer Maria knows a joke when he sees one, particularly when it’s against Rilke. He can show in microcosmic detail a staggering self-awareness. Therein lies his poetry.