Rilke, Schoenberg and Mallarmé: 1909
Things That Happen When Reading Rilke
The background noises to Rilke’s air of
dissatisfaction with things are musical, although like WB Yeats, music didn’t
play much of a part in his life. Arnold Schoenberg, the enfant terrible
of German music, whose compositions caused riots, had chosen to set Richard
Dehmel’s poems. The leading artists of Expressionism (Kandinsky and friends)
had adopted Schoenberg’s compositions as their rallying cry. Dehmel added
scandal to dissonance.
Lou Salome sympathised, but reminded him that her poem, ‘The Hymn to Life’, had inspired Nietzsche to set it to music (‘If you have no more joy to give me/ there still remains your pain’). It was nothing to boast about. But Rilke must have seen an opportunity let slip for Modernist alignment with Germany’s particular area of eminence. Curiously, Rilke took up art criticism the same year that Schoenberg started painting seriously. Although, strictly speaking, it was for his wife Clara’s education, one wonders if he had half-an-eye on Arnold. Anyway, once again the disreputable Richard Dehmel had stolen a march.
During the years that Rilke was writing The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and his experimental ‘Thing-poems’, Schoenberg was ‘bursting the bond of a bygone aesthetic’ and changing the face of music. He dismantled traditional tonality, and composed directly from the subconscious (‘the inborn’, instinctive, primal’).
This was an analogous approach to what Rodin had prescribed for Rilke, and the fruits thereof, his Der Neuven Gedichte, New Poems (1908), coincided with Schoenberg’s atonal breakthrough in his Opus 15, But the text for it, Der Buch der hangenden Garten (‘The Book of the Hanging Gardens’), was a poem by of all German poets, the venerable Stefan George, an eccentric Symbolist with the right French connections (an habitué at Mallarmé’s Tuesday evenings which Rilke himself attended a few times).
This rankled, and the poem Rilke wrote in 1918, ‘Music: Breathing of Statues’, puts music outside human habitation. ‘It’s the end of language, the pathway towards the heart’s extinction, transforming feeling into inaudible landscapes…Space from within us growing around us but we can’t step on it….A sacred goodbye to melody’s other side, pure ether, boundless. We can’t possibly live in it.’ It is the strangest of revenges, a poem that only Schoenberg could have set.
Though Rilke chose Rodin rather than Mallarmé as his Maître, he must have wondered how Mallarmé managed to support his wife and daughters in bourgeois comfort, while filling the pipes and glasses of half the artists and writers in Paris, and yet his poetry didn’t seem to suffer.
Mallarmé was the ultimate exemplar of La Bruyère’s ‘sensible writer’. He accepted the divide between high art and paid work, learning to put up with it. His compromise permitted the poetry to flourish in its shade. The job was not so challenging or well-paid that it made Stéphane too comfortable. Au contraire, it irritated him often enough into disappearing into himself, and poems obeyed his call though the mechanical routine was a blessing when his creative batteries ran down. In Nabokov’s phrase it afforded him ‘periods of perfect blankness’ to recharge them.
His paid work was three-part: teaching, writing educational textbooks, and fashion notes for newspapers and brochures. By varying them he was able to combine a recherché literary life with keeping up the family income. Madame Mallarmé, hardly a soul companion in his avant-garde endeavors, was appeased, and in time was persuaded to preside over his Tuesday salon, though she can’t have been thrilled with this ragbag of bohemian sprites and spongers, invading her respectable conjugal home. She kept expenditure down - cheap tobacco and unmatured rum – and this generated an atmosphere of tipsy politeness and genteel coughing that lent artistic excitement through incongruity. It was unmissable as Verlaine, the lost boy, who was like a living statue. James Joyce went there once, but felt excluded by his rather Edwardian poems, and nobody asked him to sing. Rilke’s French was probably not good enough to make the impression he wanted.
Mallarmé was an uninspiring teacher, and so he gave himself over to the dogged compilation of textbooks, though not with the zest that he edited fashion copy. Indeed the Impressionist poet of Coup de dés took ladies’ modes very seriously for money up front. Thus his poetry survived forty years of pedagogic and other ploddings, relieved by his Tuesdays, and by occasional sojourns in his modest houseboat on the Seine, in the company of a lady with long red hair who lived two doors down. His extended all-female family needed their mittens and ruffs. The wolves at his door were real enough, but he tamed them. While the poets artists smoked and drank liquor out of his hands, he stoked the furnace to keep the Great Work sparking, ‘The Book which would hold the orphic unraveling of the Earth’. He learned to steal time from sleep through insomnia with his Muse, ‘dreadful nights faced by the candid blankness of a white page protecting its innocence’.
Nowadays, Mallarmé’s strategies for financing family, and other diversions, would be under pressure. Wives and daughters are better informed and more demanding, and would harness poor Stéphane to a literary agent with a well-shod foot in the door of publishers and photo-opportunities. He would be obliged, from time to time, to supply marketable copy for a niche specially constructed for him by public relations: celebrity interviews, signing sessions and networking the book launch scene. Mallarmé would probably have revelled in all this (after all he promoted himself in a modestly effective way in his time), but it is doubtful that his mind could have remained clear enough to confuse - and this is his achievement - the literary world for over a century with poems like ‘A Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance’. As Derrida said, ‘If it is ‘about’ anything, it’s about the need to stop thinking about its aboutness’.