Spiralling into Control
(from Things that happen when reading Rilke)
take my bike up the coastal climb to Cap Bẽar. A spiral ride at a steady
cadence. At each switchback the shadows below and the hairpin bends ahead merge
into an arc that carries me upwards. I’ve cycled this ascent so often, night
and day, drunk and sober, that I don’t have to watch where I’m going. I’m free
to think of something else.
Rainer Maria Rilke pounds in my head:
‘The accidents of fate by which people go by mean nothing to me. You only end up in the same ditch that you were in before. Life is a whirl of intersections without sign-posts. But the curve of enchantment can be divined by observing every twist and turn on the road ahead.’
As the Spanish coastline comes into sight, I see curves of enchantment that make me wish for a moment I was writing about Cervantes, or the other Miguel, the archangel of cycling, Indurain. When faced by an out-of-category climb, the idea in his legs expressed itself through his toes as he broke through the clouds, off-saddle. Not though with raised arms until a spectator put a bottle in his hand. He needed water. If Rilke pedalled his legs would dangle above cleats not finding their feet, and no wonder, knowing him they would turn out to be hands. I’m struggling to keep going with my book on him. But it’s too late to turn back.
The pounding in my head is less insistent on reaching the top. I don’t need to pump anymore, and can even freewheel with the slight dip. I reconcile myself with Rainer Maria courtesy of a rejoinder:
‘The criss-cross of threads must be unravelled to locate where all the tracks meet. When you have traced this point, it short circuits. Sparks fly off, and you’re able to decipher the curve that will spirit you to the summit…’
As the whirlwind hits me turning the corner at the Cap, I realise my transcription owes something to Kierkegaard. I’ll have to re-read the Rilke passage to remember what.
As I approached the lighthouse, a car draws up beside me and the window winds down. ‘You’re everywhere, Augustus.’
It’s Lena, the woman from the mountains who denies she is German. I met her on the evening I finished translating Rilke’s ‘Panther’ poem, and I read it to her.
His eyes, smarting from the blur of bars,
barred in, fixed, vacant, no longer see
beyond the cage to the world of stars.
Bars, bars, bars are his infinity.
Pacing round in narrowing circles,
his ponderous strides, though powerful still,
slow down his animus, and his will
petrifies into paralysis.
Yet, now and then, the drooped eyelashes
raise a lid, seemingly to reclaim,
with an impulse of muscle from brain
to heart, a thought. The moment passes.
She took it her stride, but the dog with her, an Irish wolfhound called Mort, howled as I concluded with the panther’s aborted thought. ‘At least’, she said, ‘someone understands Rilke’s poetry better than me’, and recited the original word-perfect.
‘No, Lena, it’s you who are everywhere’. Mort barks from the back seat. Just a bow without a wow. Then I notice in the passenger-seat a woman with blond helmet hair and an impeccable mask. She leans towards me, and flutes, ‘Only God is everywhere’.
‘Gertrude has got God as there’s no barrier on the cliff side’, Lena explains.
‘Be guided by the dog’.
‘No. He’s useless. Mort is female in French, and the poor chap is going through a gender crisis’.
‘Tell him not to pay any attention to French grammar. I don’t.’
Mort bow-wows this time, and I know there’s no arguing.
‘Follow me on the descent. I know it off by heart.’
I spiral down the rocky road without touching the brakes, shifting my weight on the saddle to place myself to negotiate each bend in accordance with Vico’s principle of the spiral. No matter how often I descend my position is never quite the same at any point. It’s as though time and place at each turn has marginally moved. If I don’t brake lightly to skid slightly to offset the change, it’s over the bars. But if I had allowed myself to be guided by Roland Barthes - ‘a spiral is a circle distended to infinity’ - it would be over the cliff, man and bike.
Since I wear blinker-shades I’m not blinded by the head-on light slanting from the sun low on the horizon. I look into my mirror but Lena’s car is not behind me. I was hoping to catch her again downtown to give the answer I should have on the dog’s gender crisis. In Gaelic the word Mort is masculine and since her dog is an Irish breed…. I’m living with l’esprit de l’escalier on the descent into Bras de Venus, a town which is all spiral staircases running down to the sea.
Back in Bruno’s bar, I scan the route from Cap Bẽar, and as Lena’s biscuit-brown Ford comes gingerly into sight, and I remember the Kierkegaard:
‘Life goes upwards in a spiral. If you study the shadows of the past below, you can gauge the uncertain curves ahead, and more surely judge the gradual arch to climb.’
And, indeed, I have a mountain to climb with Rilke with his ‘spiritual presences’ invisible as his influences. But now the peak of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge beckons, and I must prepare myself by studying the shadows in the lower depths of myself. Once nearing the top of the Col de Galibier, dehydrated and with an empty gourde, I got off my bike and ate snow.