Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Dickinson & Rilke at the OK Corral

This post grew out of a Facebook discussion on Mark Burnhope's page about Emily Dickinson, and specifically what it is about her that people rave about. It's cobbled together from my comments there, with more stuff added in. I'm sorry that I start by talking about Dickinson and end by talking about Rilke, just because Dickinson deserves the space to herself.

I think that there are just a few writers – Dickinson's one, and Rilke's another - whose poems are (usually empty) landscapes in which the abstractions become a bit more concrete and the concretions a bit more abstract. So that the poem becomes a heroic, metaphysical version of thought – one has the impression (rhetorical of course) that the poet is grappling with Reality rather than Surfaces. (Umpteen bad poets _want_ to give that impression, though...)

These poets' poems seem to me to take place in dreamlike or closed landscapes (same reason why the Western is a great vehicle for moral/metaphysical narratives - the empty stage), so there's only a distant connection with a 'real' landscape to be depicted. Of course it isn't as simple as that - some concrete purchase is always handy, to help the reader as much as anything. (We can't imagine that space in advance, so even if the poem's action is taking place in a non-space, it's useful to have it gestured at via the odd image, like a shoe, or a can of chicken soup.)

There's a great passage in Adorno's The Jargon of Authenticity where he accuses Rilke of being a secular theologian:

Rilke... was one of the founders of the jargon [of authenticity]. For years every ambitious Privatdozent viewed it as an obligatory exercise to analyse that first elegy: 'All that was commission.' The line expresses the vague feeling that an unsayable element of experience wants something from the subject. This is similarly the case with the archaic torso of Apollo: 'Many stars expected you to feel them.' To that the poem adds the uncommittedness and vainness of such a feeling of command, especially when it expresses the poetic subject: 'But did you manage it?' Rilke absolutizes the word 'commission' under the shelter of aesthetic appearance... The fact that the neoromantic lyric sometimes behaves like the jargon, or at least timidly readies the way for it, should not lead us to look for the evil of the poetry simply in its form. It is not simply grounded, as a much too innocent view might maintain, in the mixture of poetry and prose [miaow!]... The evil, in the neoromantic lyric, consists in the fitting out of the words with a theological overtone, which is belied by the condition of the lonely and secular subject who is speaking there: religion as ornament.
Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity (trans Tarnowksi & Will), pp68-9)

Adorno is pretty much a materialist, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he is hostile to the idea of religious or metaphysical realities and formulations.

But this argument does suggest a quite surprising link between that position and the principle that poetry ought to deal in concrete images and details, where the level of concretion equals vividness equals success – as if this foundation of modern poetry is uncomfortably related to an unthinking realism. (I don't mean that Adorno is an unthinking realist, but that many people behave as if material reality as it appears is all there is, without having as he did a philosophical position underpinning that.)

Also, notice that a subject who did not feel either lonely or secular might accept this reading without rejecting Rilke's mode of writing - if one _is_ religious, these religiose tones might be acceptable. I'm not sure if one can choose to be that, though – even a sociable, religious person might be a lonely and secular subject, historically speaking.

But, more generally, Adorno's point about pseudo-religious content in literature (and life) is a good one – if you) _don't _ believe something specific, what does it mean to speak of being 'spiritual'?

There's a lot in this line of argument, most of which I have only begun to explore here. Even if you love Rilke, once you have understood how his technique is pulling on some dusty old strings, then, even when you read and enjoy his work thereafter, it's hard not to be conscious of being manipulated. Am I really being hypnotised if I decide to play along with it?


Blogger Martin said...

A quick note that, in this edition:

Adorno, Theodor W., The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. by Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986)

this passage appears on pages 83-84.

Thanks for the post!

12:41 PM  
Blogger Katherine Williams said...

Thanks, Martin - I don't have my copy to hand, but I think it may be a later reprint/repackaging.
Thanks for reading.

4:39 PM  
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8:28 PM  

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