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Literary Shadow Boxing: Rainer Maria Rilke and James Joyce

Extracts from Things That Happen When Reading Rilke 

Round One: my quoting James Joyce’s ‘silence, exile and cunning’, his homage to Ibsen, isn’t just an opportunist ploy to encapsulate Rilke’s methods. The similarities between his only novel ,The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are fairly obvious, though Stephen Daedalus is too self-conscious to be a literary brother of the existential Malte. When the Portrait was published in 1916 (six years after The Notebooks), Joyce had been living in Trieste for several years, and would have coincided with Rilke’s frequent sojourns to compose his Elegies in the hunting lodge of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis in Castle Duino nearby. 

They both frequented the cafes of Trieste, and must have known one another, at least by sight. It is very unlikely that Joyce had read the Notebooks. The French translation didn’t come out until 1923 and the English till 1949, eight years after Joyce’s death. On the other hand, Rilke wouldn’t have read the untranslated Joyce. A pity. They shared a Catholic upbringing, and Joyce’s  secularisation of the word epiphany in Dubliners (1914) might well have changed not only the title of his Duino Elegies, but their velocity and direction. Any influence they had on one another, however, was based on hearsay, rumour-lả. Their mutual debt to Kierkegaard is something else.

As a medical student in Paris (1902 – 1904), Joyce had moonlighted with early French translations of Kierkegaard, between the time Rilke was reading the Doleful Dane with his fiancé, and starting on The Notebooks. And so in the early years of the Great War he must have been alert to the ‘rediscovery’ of Kierkegaard by the German philosopher, Karl Jaspers. He would have been interested to learn the prickly little man at the next table had written a novel said to be ‘Existenz-philosophie’.  

Rilke doesn’t get a mention in Finnegans Wake. But Joyce makes much play with Kierkegaard’s name. ‘Kirk’Yard’ is one of his supporting characters. More significantly, the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man concludes with a classic Kierkegaardian repetition forward. Stephen Daedalus is about to go abroad. ‘O Life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’  Though the preceding sentence is a recollection backwards. ‘Mother was putting my new second-hand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it.’ Joyce had a problem being loved by his very Irish mother – a martyr to his ‘immaculate misconception’ - and refused to kneel down at her deathbed, so it’s said in Ulysses. 

Rilke’s Malte (or is it Malte’s Rilke?) like Kierkegaard has no problem with not being loved. His version of the parable of the Prodigal Son is an attempt to explain why. In Kierkegaard’s case it was for the good of others, in Rilke’s it’s for his own good. Both end up like ‘A’ the Aesthete, the main protagonist of Either/ Or , in aspiring to think with the heart rather than the head (felt thoughts) in order to enter a relationship with a Higher Power. Likewise, in the second last diary entry in A Portrait of the Artist  Joyce doesn’t reject his mother’s prayer outright. He learns ‘what the heart feels’, not through the love of Jesus, but through singing and making a family with Nora Barnacle. Indeed his Higher Power approximates to Kierkegaard’s ‘musical erotic’, and Finnegans Wake is its book.

Meanwhile, Joyce, the young poet in Paris, was not sure ‘what the heart is’ and gave up medicine because it’s an unfeeling profession. When the music of the first, fine, youthful rapture stopped, and he found himself married to Nora with children, cold reason took over. He felt a pressing need for money, teaching English in the Berlitz School to Italo Svevo, ‘one of several sources for Leopold Bloom’ (Anthony Rudolf, Silent Conversations, 2013).

Joyce knew he ought to talk man-to-man with a father figure (his own, John Stanislaus, was only good for a sing-song and a laugh) to restore the balance between heart and mind. Otherwise his writing will disappear up its own air. The last entry in A Portrait reads, ‘April 27. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead’ has proved a disappointment to him. His next book, Ulysses, will be a more heart-felt search for a missing father.               

Round Two.  ‘No wonder, headstrong man, you now sit at your window, refusing to budge, watching passers-by. The thought has occurred to you that one day you might be able to make something of them, if only you had the will to start again’. (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge)    

Rilke was venting his spleen on Henrik Johan Ibsen in The Notebooks, circa 1905. At the turn of the century, the eighteen-year old James Joyce, author of a play, A Brilliant Career (dedicated ‘To My Own Soul’), was writing to the Master, exactly four times his age. ‘You’ve opened the way, and the higher and holier enlightenment lies – onwards’. The enlightenment at hand is of course himself. Ibsen is his Johan the Baptist. Joyce had been reading Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken (1900). But it’s not Joyce’s the short story, ‘The Dead’ (1907) that is to be the apotheosis of his self-administered baptism. His psychological drama, Exiles (1919) is modelled on the later Ibsen that Rilke abhorred.

Exiles is a fair-to-middling play which Joyce lost interest in even before the public did. However, its stated theme ,‘restless, wounding doubt’, is also that of Ulysses (1922), a work more in the mode of the ‘all-or-nothingness’ that Rilke approves in early Ibsen - all the better to condemn what is to come. But the enlightenment Ulysses brings is probably not ‘higher and holier’ than Ibsen’s farewell to the theatre, When We Dead Awaken. The play was originally named The Resurrection Day and, even when I saw it in Cork in the 1960s, it was called The Day of Judgement. Joyce’s titular claims are more modest than his letter to Ibsen. The other world in Exiles is the here and now.

When We Dead Awaken ends with an avalanche. Rilke’s detailing of it in The Notebooks indicates he knew the play. He would have been drawn to it by the common knowledge that it’s based on the relationship between Rodin and Camille Claudel (whom his future wife must have been envious of as a less favoured pupil in the studio). The central character, a sculptor who sells his artistic soul for lucrative  commissions rather than going the whole hog for art’s sake,  resembles Ibsen more than it does Rodin. In his last years Ibsen himself wouldn’t have disagreed with Rilke’s blanket disdain, regarding his later plays as ‘prosaic portraits recycling received ideas’.

Nonetheless, When We Dead Awaken is Ibsen’s return to the poetry of his youth. More worldly, if not wiser, than Peer Gynt, though richer in solid imagery (mountains for the sculptor to cut loose and bury himself in the avalanche) and unearthly presences (a ‘dead’ woman in white followed about by a nun in black habit). It ought to have been what Rilke wanted from Ibsen, his ‘headstrong man’. It is possible he was writing his attack on Ibsen without reading the last play, merely attending a performance, and got distracted by the hats in the row ahead. Unlike the young Joyce, always the good student, he doesn’t appear to be aware of Ibsen’s eleventh-hour volte face. A decade or so later, when the two writers shared the same café in Trieste, if they had deigned to talk to one another, and Ibsen was the topic, the Irishman would have been on ‘higher and holier’ ground (It’s not sufficient to depend on hearsay to jump to conclusions).

I can imagine them back to back behind their newspapers, not best pleased at being seen  alone without an entourage, and therefore giving the impression that they had something to hide.  

Round Three. Rilke contracted leukaemia in his early fifties, but lived long enough to enjoyed a lap of honour in Paris, meeting Gide at last, and presenting Paul Valéry with his translation of ‘Le cimetiére marin’, The Graveyard by the Sea. In the newspaper interview during which Rilke acknowledged the influence of Schopenhauer (who likewise experienced eleventh-hour celebrity), he also expressed regret at lacking the English to read James Joyce in the original. Needless to say, JJ was too busy working on his own Duino Earwickers (Finnegans Wake was also conceived in the vicinity of Trieste when sorting unused material from Ulysses) to reciprocate the compliment. It was the completion of their circling. A case of Marvell’s ‘What is truly parallel,/ though infinite, can never meet’.