Finding Words Under the Table?(A transcription* from Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurid Briggs)
In an early episode, the infant Malte crawls under the table. His governess is too deep in her book to notice. As his eyes accommodate to the darkness, the unfamiliar perspective - knees and table legs, skirts and skirting – frightens him, and then he sees a ghostly hand coming around the other side, groping towards his.
What really happened to the infant Malte under the table?
‘I dropped my favourite red crayon while drawing a knight on horseback and, as my legs were tucked under me, unfolding them to climb down numbed my knees, and so, as I landed on the bearskin rug, I couldn’t tell the difference between the legs of the table and mine. Blinded by the light I had come from, heightened by the bright colours on my sketchbook, I could see nothing. I crawled along the friendly animal skin, trawling for the crayon with my free hand, but to naught avail. I was going to call out to mademoiselle only, as I became accustomed to the darkness, I saw between the legs of chairs and the skirtings of the wall my hand feeling around like a sea serpent exploring the seabed.
‘I watched it with fascination as though its behaviour had nothing to do with me, until a large hand suddenly appeared out of the wall. It was long-fingered and bony, and similarly searching along the rug. As the two hands moved compulsively towards one another, curiosity gave way to horror. I knew that my hand was about to enter into something irreparable. And so, with all my forces I took my hand by the palm, withdrawing it slowly, never taking my eye off the alien claw, which I knew would never stop until something was in its grasp. I don’t know how I levered myself back up. I collapsed on my seat, and could feel the blood drain from my body so I could believe that the blue of my eyes turned white. ‘Mademoiselle’, I cried faintly. Shocked by my pallor, she dropped her book, and knelt beside my chair, calling my name, shaking me, I think, although I was fully conscious. I swallowed hard, and tried to talk. I wanted to tell her all.
‘But how could I find the words? I knew what they were, and tried to force them out so they could be understood by another person. But they did not come. Enraged at this betrayal I turned against the words. Anyway who wants to hear such terrible things? And uttered by a mere child? Moreover, I revulsed at the thought of having through them to relive what happened to me down there.
‘Now I know it was my imagination at work in claiming that something had come into my life that would never go away. I was put to bed and I can see myself in my little cot thinking with vague foreboding that life would be full of strangenesses that would be for me and me alone, and couldn’t be put in words. I felt a sad but stubborn pride rise within me: I would go through life experiencing things that could only be expressed in profound silence. This thought brought a surge of sympathy for grownups. They had to keep so much to themselves. Once I could find the words, I would express my admiration for their inner quiet. Mademoiselle would be the first to know.
‘Nevertheless, I fell a mounting despair at not finding the words for what happened under the table. I became sure something similar had happened to me before at a time I could only babble. In a sweat I tried to recapture the infant fierceness that made me rattle the bars of the play-pin to escape the loving care that could not protect me from the demons. I wanted them to suffer. Now as then the rage could only express itself in a scream, and I couldn’t stop screaming… I must have lost consciousness for when I came to my senses, and began to look outside myself, I saw the family were standing around my cot. Someone was holding my hand. My father asked me what’s the matter and, when I didn’t answer, lost his temper, which shut me up.
‘That evening my parents were attending a ball at the royal palace. But as the serial screaming had resumed the coach was sent to call them back. I could hear it enter the courtyard, and quietened and sat up and looked to the door. A swish and my mother came running in in her gilded gown with a trail of white fur, and took me in her bare arms. I was astonished and enraptured as never before had I touched her hair, and dear little face, fingered her cold stone earrings, and my hands lingered over the silk of her perfumed shoulders. And thus, we remained weeping tenderly and kissing the tears away until my father came in. He was wearing the costume of the Master of the Hunt and the ribbon of the Order of the Elephant. ‘The child has a temperature’, she said weakly. And he took my pulse. ‘It isn’t serious’, he said. ‘The carriage is waiting to take us back’. ‘When they depart, I found my mother’s dance card and white camellias which I had never seen before. In the palm of my hand their coolness tempered my fever.
‘With illnesses like that, day and night are interchangeable, and time hangs heavy. I no longer lived in the imagination, but in a sort of absence. I was closed down for repairs. Stewed apple was all I could swallow. Boredom made me call for my toy soldiers and I did battle with them until they were all dead, and I pushed the tray off my cot. It was good to see my two hands again reposing on the bed-cover.’
The alien hand makes an appears again when Malte, the poet manqué in Paris, commits himself into a mental hospital. After an absence of twenty years it’s back with a vengeance. He feels it has been growing inside him at that time. Its grip threatens to turn him inside out. The account of the waiting room with its gallery of sad deranged patients still exist in emergency wards all over the world: techy nurses ordering distressed people about like devil attendants in hell’s creche; defensive doctors behaving like indifferent gods in their shut-off heavens, knowing they are unable to do anything much except keep patients waiting, until electric shocks or injections can be administrated. Malte, senses the alien hand is gaining strength in this hell hole and wouldn’t be satisfied with an arm-wrestle, and as he is no longer a helpless child, takes matters in hand and, politely bows his way out as though going to the toilet, to make his escape.
Malte finds himself rambling through a city that he doesn’t recognise and, not sure that he had a home to go to, asks himself what he has to do so that he doesn’t have to go on walking. Somehow, he makes it home, and climbs the five flights to his room. Exhausted, he lies in his bed thinking, ‘I prayed to re-live my childhood, and it was answered. Alas, I haven’t shaken off the alien hand. Growing up has served no purpose. Except now he has only himself to put its meaning into words.
The qualification tells him, like it or not, the hand is an inalienable part of him. He has to accept it. His better spirits return, and he recovers sufficiently to visit the library and continue his reading of Baudelaire. Words would obey his call if he lived in symbiosis with his demon. The experience of not being able to finding the words for the inexplicable had been the origin of why he had to become a poet.
* A transcription in the sense of a musical arrangement (in this case, seven pages in The Notebooks reduced to one and a half).