That Happen When Reading Rilke
I try solitude to see if I am visited by any of the ‘spiritual presences’ Rilke promises, and walk to Cap Béar. Since it’s a windy afternoon there is nobody else on the headland, and in glorious isolation I admire the coastline stretching into Spain. Five promontories. The furthermost one, Cadaqués, is where Salvador Dalí spent his summers. I wave to his ghost, though I don’t believe in them. It’s like lighting candles in churches. I can’t resist the geste.
I have an uneasy relationship with the great beyond. For me, anything above gravity has a diminishing reality. I look at the sky and its heavenly bodies warily. I like to keep my feet on the ground, and my mind clear. Maybe that’s why I’ve waited in vain for a spiritual experience. In my childhood I was promised otherwise. If I was good some deus ex machina would descend to explain my existence. But my expectations went unanswered, and I realised I had to be my own outside force, understanding things as I went along. I put my head down and studied the human sciences, matching them up with my own experiences. They didn’t always accord. I got closer sometimes when playing the violin or reading poetry.
So knowing where I stood in the world was a matter of looking down rather than up. Books became my ‘spiritual presences’, my other world, and I sought to co-exist with them. By doing so I would, I hoped, be able to see eye to eye with my fellow man. Then I would be on the level, at last. And I began to write, secretly, seditiously. I wouldn’t say it was a solitary activity. It was noisy, at least to myself. There was someone talking in my head and echoing back into my inner ear.
I learned by heart Hazlitt’s ‘I like solitude, when I give myself up to it, for the sake of solitude… I’m never less alone than when I am alone. Nature is company enough for me.’ But I wasn’t taken in. The sage of table talk is backtracking, I thought. His liking for solitude is for the sake of nature. True, on a solitary walk nature accompanies you, but it isn’t enough. It’s more an interruption of your own inner silence. But even though I knew that nature sustains human life, I didn’t find it sustaining. The birdsong and the sights and smells are merely the passing fair, pleasant enough in their way.
Nature also carries a threat. You ignore its weather at your peril, and have to dress for it. Today the wind is from Africa, and if I don’t scarf up like a terrorist, my lungs will be contaminated with desert sand. Maybe at heart I am a peasant rather than a poet. Jules Renard says that they ‘are the sole species of man who don’t love the countryside, and never give its beauties a second glance’.
In my early years I was more inclined to interrupt my solitude with thoughts of the future. Daydreaming what my life would be like when I was free from childhood. Now when I find myself alone ghosts from the past are my best companions. And my pipe which, right now, I can’t smoke because I’ve forgotten my hurricane lighter and the wind is up. I suck on it and console myself by believing that it’s a child’s dummy in homage to Dalí, ‘the infantile Surrealist’, as André Breton called him.
His summer palace on the promontory means less to me than his family home in nearby Figueres, a grim gothic town where it’s impossible to sleep because the dogs bark all night. There he painted his most mature work while still living with his parents, sketching them in dutifully, as though in recompense for not loving them. The ghost of Salvador, the boy, is spiritually present for me in the portrait of his father as a benign dictator, just before he left home for Paris and notoriety.
Solitude has its downside. I have long abandoned hope that God or some ‘spiritual presence’ will speak to me. In the absence of someone to talk to or a book to read, I’m prone to brooding about my own insignificance. I feel a failure. My life has come to nothing. In my misery the beauties of nature pass me by. I hardly notice the butterflies and the flowers that would tempt my senses to feel at home in the world. I reprove myself for that. It becomes part of my failure. Although when I’m in town, on the street, I tend to forget myself and cheer up. Is it that I need an audience to show off to? It’s true I like being the interesting stranger in a crowd, and have been known to behave oddly to draw attention to myself.
On the headland such are the thoughts astray in my head. I’m giving myself a good talking to, talking to myself. As the sound of my voice comes and goes in the wind, I’m in a cosmic confession box. But there’s nobody to listen to me. I’m crying out loud in an empty theatre. So I drop the curtain and instead recite Schopenhauer’s ‘Speaking out loud when alone is imprudent. It establishes thought on such friendly terms with speech that the gulf between what we say and feel is narrowed. A bad habit’. His own bad habit was playing the flute as a digestif.
I find myself disputing with the supreme pessimist, who believed in soci malorum, that being born was where it all went wrong, and question his logic. ‘Chiming what you say and feel must surely be a good thing for anyone, not least a writer.’ And I shout to the wind, ‘Take Schopenhauer’s flute away from him, and he’d disappear up his own air’. At that point I hear human voices below on the cliff. So much the better if I’m overheard. But it’s only seagulls.
My attempt to follow Rilke’s advice tells me that when I’m left to myself I feel material absences rather than ‘spiritual presences’. I become bored and dramatise my life into a tragedy, a one-man show of disappointed hopes, and expect applause, or at least a clap of thunder. Being alone brings out the worst in me, my negative egotism. During the afternoon the one insistent voice at the back of my head was, ‘How could you have forgotten your lighter?’ And it gets more urgent.
Maybe it would be better to cultivate my solitude amongst people, and with my pipe. So I jog back into town, with the wind behind me. I cause quite a stir amongst the loungers outside Bruno’s bar when I break into a sprint.