This Flickering World: Rilke and the Universality of Crisis Response

This Flickering World: Rilke and the Universality of Crisis Response

"The Wartime Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke" is a small, unassuming little book, seagreen and worn with pages just the right shade of yellow. I bought it at a secondhand bookstore in Boston’s financial district, a stone’s throw away from the Devonshire. I liked the idea of owning the book, its origin story, the class of reading Rilke. I didn’t intend to enjoy it.
But let me go back a little, explain. It was the summer before my freshman year of college, the heart of the pandemic. It occupied us like an army. Endlessly, we were attempting to escape. So one July morning my friend and I took the commuter rail to North Station, intending to live out our erudite trust-fund-without-the-trust-or-fund city girl dream. Rilke, apparently, was our natural conclusion.

I knew little of Rilke, but what I did know were luxury and love poems, elite musings, European grace. Even the title — "Wartime" — did not clue me in that this particular collection might be different. Darker. More difficult. I clocked its writing period: 1914 to 1921, only a few years before his death in 1926 at 51. I expected to read the letters of a celebrity poet, aging, serious, well-settled into his reputation and way of life. My complete and entire opposite. Instead.

The most accurate way I can think to describe Rilke’s letters is as those of a teenager, but this sounds cruel. He writes with all the eloquence of a man of his stature and experience, but with the emotion of a teenager. Rilke is wracked with uncertainty. Every other letter is an apology to someone for not sending in a promised selection of writing. “I would have written to you,” he tells writer and publisher Ludwig von Ficker, “did not the weight of the time lie upon the slightest communication and expression, so that I cannot write a word without disproportionate effort.” He begs off a meeting with Frau Hanna Wolff:

“The uncertainty out there, this flickering world in which one can place no object, no word even, without its casting such unquiet shadows, most unconditionally obliges me to draw myself in… Who would have thought… that for so many months the anomaly then beginning would still be unresolved over us and right. Right for how long—and so much that is wrong!”

The anomaly Rilke refers to, of course, is World War I. But the parallels to our own time, a time of illness, of perennial fear, were so strong I almost believed the letter had been written only months before.

You must understand: Rilke wrote as a popular and beloved Austrian poet in the advent of WWI. These letters chronicle a seven-year period of perpetual nomadism, a poet hunted and haunted by himself. The fleeting nature of his sentiments, the bouts of deep despair followed by moments of pervasive love and wonder, seemed to me uncharacteristic of his age. He wrote so cleanly, and yet nothing about his emotions were clean.

As the pandemic went on, I found myself going to books more and more to make sense of the unceasing grief and exhaustion. After Rilke, I read Sylvia Plath’s Journals and The Bell Jar, poignant and gripping depictions of depression that so mirrored my own experiences I had to stop reading for several weeks to allow myself to recover. I read C.S Lewis’ "A Grief Observed," written after his wife’s death: “No one told me that grief felt so much like fear.” Then, a few weeks after her death, I read Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, a treatise on grief from one of the most aloof and exacting writers in American history in the wake of her husband’s death at their own dinner table. The book chronicles Didion’s descent into “magical thinking”, a pattern of illogical cognition, completely unsupported by fact or research, where she believes in her husband’s eventual return and in certain odd rituals to keep her sorrow at bay. “I was thinking as small children think,” she explains.

Didion’s admission, Lewis’ plaintive tone, Plath’s sorrow of youth, and Rilke’s uncertainty all harken back to one thing: Crisis makes children of us all. How the body recedes into fetal position when it is threatened or hurt, so too does the mind — back to childhood, when such intensity of emotion was allowed, such ignorance of the world expected. Whatever barriers of order and control we put up as adults or adults-to-be shatter in the face of crisis. We flounder. We lose our way. It does not matter how old we are, how wealthy or established, how sure in our positions. We are each of us eroded by crisis. Returned to our original elements.

To read Rilke and Lewis and Plath and Didion is to understand the universality of this reaction, this humanity of it. It is as James Baldwin wrote: “You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” Time and time again, humans are subjected to crisis. Time and time again, they respond—and though the centuries turn, the response is always the same. The core of us remains.