Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
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Headstrong Men: Rilke, Joyce and Ibsen

(From Things That Happen While Reading Rilke)

When Rilke said to Lou Salomė, ‘You are my reason for carrying on’, she wrote him off as a lover. The remark contained ‘a subliminal statement of despair’, and who wants to have to pick up the pieces. A plea that he see her mentor Sigmund Freud fell on deaf ears. ‘I’m afraid if all my devils leave me, my angels will take flight as well’. Lou Salomė settled for  heart-to-hearts by letter, and occasional trips abroad together, sometimes chaperoned by her husband.

Is the title of Lou’s book You Alone Are Real to Me  something he said to her, or her to him? Either/or, the sentiment is worthy of a fortune cookie. If it means ‘You are the only one’ it can’t have been Lou. Her penchant for falling passionately in love was notorious. Objects of her amour fou included Tolstoy, Ibsen, and Nietzsche (the least one-sided). When she moved on to toy, less platonically, with younger poets and artists, the venerables tended to remain friends with her, probably from a relief shared by their wives. Older men cherish a quiet life (Ibsen and Tolstoy gave Lou thirty-three years, the celibate Nietzsche, sweet sixteen). I wonder had Lou Salomé been called Hilda Bellamy would all these great men have answered her letters? Unfair. Unlike the biblical Salomė, her dance of the veils was an amusing turn.

Lou’s collection of great men mattered to Rilke. He measured himself against them in her eyes. At the turn of the century she took him to Russia to see her compatriot Tolstoy. It didn’t go well. The young poet with a dozen books of poems behind him abased himself before the Master as a ‘lazy writer’. Tolstoy didn’t encourage his self-doubts. 

Nietzsche kept Rilke more in countenance. His hopeless passion for Lou went unrequited. She liked to say of him, ‘Nietzsche lives in another world, but sometimes comes back with news from it. He’s mad on other people’s behalf’. Rilke, who only did things for himself, could not compete with his generosity.  But he benefited from Nietzsche’s contention that ‘Every artist is born elsewhere, and his home is nowhere, but within himself’. It was an idea that Rilke made his own. As a chronic nomad he lived it.  

When Nietzsche died in 1900 Lou commissioned Rilke to write something about him. However, the millennium year was marked by his discovery of Kierkegaard, and a wish to find a wife. The two things are not unconnected. Kierkegaard’s work is all about not getting married. Rilke had just met the Worpswede artists Paula Becker and Clara Westhoff. Relations with Lou became strained on his lightning engagement to Clara (on the rebound from Paula). This aborted his promised piece on the The Birth of Tragedy. However Nietzsche’s triad, ‘Life, will, and the justification of the world as an aesthetic phenomenon’, stayed with him and, years hence, it provided the key to unlock the block he had with the Duino Elegies.    

Measuring himself against Henrik Johan Ibsen was more heartfelt. He had tried to make good in the theatre, but failed. Ibsen was still living when Rilke started on his only novel The Notebooks Malte Laurids Brigge (1909), the portrait of a poet as a young man, he figures in it as a representative victim of fame. Rilke believed that Ibsen had betrayed in his middle years his Kierkegaardian subjectivity in order to write prosaic dramas about domestic  matters. Ibsen had come down from the uncompromising  ‘all or nothing’ poetry of Brand and Peer Gynt  to scrape the psychological bottom of  everyday life with the Pillar of Society and The Doll’s House. So the hermit poet ends with a willingness to oblige the bourgeoisie with an (albeit uncomfortable) evening out. It was Rilke’s  own worst fears for his own life and work. In The Notebooks Rilke’s hero, a neo-symbolist like himself, addresses Ibsen in heightened tones:

‘Headstrong man, I sit amongst your books trying to form an opinion, as others do who have only read you piecemeal. Ah, fame that demolishes what it builds up, and the crowds visit the ruins and kick over the stones. You kept to yourself until notoriety caught up with you. Then those who despised you condescended to treat you as an equal. And now your ideas, your wild beasts of prey, have been domesticated, and teased mercilessly. They no longer roar.

‘At first, you let things happen in your plays, indifferent to what people might think.  But alone, distrustful of others, you lingered in the wings, night after night listening to the applause, and the tittle tattle when it died down. When everybody had gone home you took to the stage, and a Corsican trap of doubts and fears opened on you. You were precipitated into a private hell, and emerged from it with the specious decision to focus on the things not visible to the naked eye. You would magnify them so they could be seen by everybody. And you did so, out of all proportion, until the obvious was screaming in the face, and your dramas were a sell-out. The audience left enraptured, wanting more of the same.

‘You had lost yourself in amplified detail. The slightest change of feeling, the puff of cloudiness in a drop of longing, the infinitesimal discolouration in an atom of trust. Your work was beyond conjecture. The violence within you absorbed the violence without. The darkness inside you was lightened by the obvious. You grasped anything at hand - a rabbit, a man pacing up and down in an attic, the breaking of glass in the next room, a fire in the garden, the sun outside, a rocky valley resembling a church. But they were not enough for you. Looming towers had to be brought in. And mountain ranges. And avalanches buried the countryside. The pile up on stage of tangibles acting as equivalents of intangibles was too much, and the symbolism collapsed. Your powers gave out. The two ends of the bough you bent sprang back. The strength sapped from your magic wand, and it was as though your work had never existed.

‘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’. 

While Rilke vented his spleen on Ibsen in The Notebooks, 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 late 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 The Dead Awaken. The play was originally named The Resurrection Day. Joyce’s titular claims are more modest than his letter to Ibsen. The other world in Exiles is the here and now.  

When We The Dead Awaken indeed 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 Clara 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 distain, regarding most of his later plays as ‘mundane portraits recycling received ideas’.

Nonetheless, When We The 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 conscious 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. Joyce was putting finishing touches to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man(1915). Rilke had put his ‘young poet’ novel behind him (it had failed to sell). His head was in the clouds of smoke searching out the ‘Order of the Angels’ to help him finish the Duino Elegies.