Rilke on the single urgent task: to reach out with joy

This extract in Ulrich Baer’s superb collection of Rilke’s letters blew me away. It’s something I had dimly intuited in my more astute moments over the course of a difficult year, without being even close to being able to verbalise it. To “reach out with joy” and “cast our view towards distances that have not yet been touched” is the only way we can open ourselves to the world; without a desire to control the future but simply to inhabit the moment with as much care as we can summon:

There is only a single, urgent task: to attach oneself someplace to nature, to that which is strong, striving and bright with unreserved readiness, and then to move forward in one’s efforts without any calculation or guile, even when engaged in the most trivial and mundane activities. Each time we thus reach out with joy, each time we cast our view toward distances that have not yet been touched, we transform not only the present moment and the one following but also alter the past within us, weave it into the pattern of our existence, and dissolve the foreign body of pain whose exact composition we ultimately do not know.

Loc 673

It means dispensing with what Craib calls the powerful self and its illusions; the fantasy that with sufficient ingenuity and self-development we could evade the mess of life, at last return home to float freely undisturbed in our own balance. The point I take Rilke to be making is that in our openness to the present, we come to terms with the shape of what we have lived. This unresolved baggage we carry, this ‘foreign body of pain whose exact composition we ultimately do not know’, gives our present frustrations the psychic charge which makes us run away. In accepting the present we come to terms with the past. Or at least that is an ideal to which we can haltingly aspire in the moments of clarity we achieve amidst the confusion and noise.

I really am finding Rilke’s letters and poetry remarkable at the moment. With the possible exception of Neitzche’s Gay Science and Ecce Homo in my late 20s, I can’t recall ever experiencing an author speaking so directly to my current existential situation. There’s a section in Baer’s (equally superb) introduction which touches on this feeling in an interesting way:

Like all major writers, he creates from an inchoate awareness of the inadequacy of all available explanations of the world but does not allow this frustration to become the focus of his inquiry and thus drown out the world a second time. Nothing that Rilke read made sufficient sense of his life for him. As a consequence, he wrote a guide to life himself. So much has been written (both well and poorly) about things that the things themselves no longer hold an opinion but appear only to mark the imaginary point of intersection for certain clever theories. Whoever wants to say anything about them speaks in reality only about the views of his predecessors and lapses into a semipolemical spirit that stands in exact opposition to the naïve productive spirit with which each object wants to be grasped and understood.

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