Analysis of Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

These evocative, atmospheric—sometimes paranoid and hallucinatory, sometimes rhapsodic—vignettes and reflections of a young dispossessed, dislocated, and disconsolate Danish poet carried the original working title The Journal of My Other Self. As a reflexive account of the alter ego of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), the book not only integrates much autobiographical material (such as a monthlong, possibly psychosomatic fever he came down with just before his wedding in 1901), but also often transcribes verbatim passages from letters to his wife and to Lou Andreas-Salomé, a former lover who became his confidante, mentor, and informal therapist.

While The Notebooks is anecdotal, fragmentary, and seemingly disjunctive, there are nevertheless sufficient parallels and convergences to warrant reading the book as a roman à clef—a narrative with a key—of Rilke’s latent selves: “It never occurred to me before how many faces there are . . . because each person has several of them.” It is very much a poet’s narrative, concerned less with character motivation and dramatic conflict than with the register of things glowing in the luminosity of consciousness. It is unified by the moods and effects of a particular sensibility (melancholy, mourning, nostalgia, trauma, terror, bliss) rather than by plot or even a linear trajectory. If there is a trajectory, it is the one expressed in Malte’s prayer, “let us survive this night. And then illness. And then love”— all as a prelude to having “begun God.”

Rainer Maria Rilke by Lou Andreas-Salomé, 1928

The first of the two notebooks begins in Paris, “a city to die in,” where Malte witnesses ubiquitous squalor and disease. He is transfixed with horror and revulsion by the poverty he encounters. At first he does not recognize that these are privileged revelations inasmuch as they constitute an uncanny self-discovery by way of things seen. Aspects of his own psychospiritual condition are abruptly revealed by the denizens of the visionary city, most of whom are, and this is emblematic, visually impaired or unable to control bodies that seem subject to unknown forces. Examples are plentiful in Rilke’s work: a pregnant woman feeling her way along a wall; a woman in despair whose face seems to come off in her hands; an old woman “look[ing] as though some diseased person had spat a greenish phlegm under her bloody lids”; a student affl icted by an eyelid that keeps closing; and a blind man that he fearfully refuses to see because he recognizes his “sealed-up expression” and radiating terror all too well. Inanimate objects disclose much the same. Thus Malte’s choice of where to live: “I saw a house that was peculiarly blind, as if from a cataract.” The extraordinary attention to detail and visionary intensity that characterize the narrator’s observation of a man jerking spasmodically down the street while onlookers laugh and gape suggests a strong identification with him. These convulsions constitute objectified indexes of the poet’s own incipient hysteria.

While there is a marked morbidity in Malte’s horrified fascination with the “bi-syllabic hopping” that alternately convulses one part of the man’s body then another, the description of the man’s artful struggle to negotiate the forces causing his distress also exemplifies how Rilke’s own capacity for sympathy and selfpity allowed him to write from within the imagined anxieties of others. Malte “is open to all these impressions because they correspond to his own being; he is inwardly like them,” according to E. F. N. Jephcott’s Proust and Rilke: The Literature of Expanded Consciousness. They constitute, as Rilke later observed, “the vocabulary of his distress.” Recording those he witnesses, Malte begins to register his emerging spectrum of latent selves. This no doubt accounts for the verb Malte uses when referring to them: “I recognize everything here, and that’s why it passes right into me: it is at home inside me” (my italics). Though strange and disturbing, they are nevertheless somehow familiar, heimlich and unheimlich at once—which is to say, they are uncanny.

Although he laments, “I would so much like to remain among the meanings that have become dear to me,” the necessity of responding to the city’s psychic and spiritual perils accelerates the process of “learning to see”—a process of transformation effected by properly bearing witness to things. He muses, “If my fear weren’t so great, I would find some consolation in the thought that it’s not impossible to see everything differently and still remain alive” (compare the less qualified injunction in Rilke’s famous poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo”). This different kind of seeing becomes praxis (“I am the impression that will transform itself”). It produces attunement to internal states and processes: “I don’t know why it is, but everything enters me more deeply and doesn’t stop where it once used to. I have an interior that I never knew of. Everything passes into it now.” The threat of contagion, psychological and spiritual more than physical, is one of Malte’s dominant fears, yet fear becomes a motive for becoming a poet, for transforming his life into art: “One must take some action against fear, once one has come down with it. . . . I have taken action against fear. I sat up all night and wrote.” Malte writes to assuage his dread, fi nding it necessary, as Rilke did, to internalize the sickness of Paris so that, as a condition of the soul, it can be sublimated into art. Prone to hysteria and hypochondria, Rilke was stimulated creatively by fear and, with Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen as a model, was able to structure and transform artistically his horrifi ed response to modern urban life.

Malte’s Parisian fever returns him to one in childhood, compelling him through flashbacks to discover long-forgotten experiences, long-forgotten aspects of his being, as if he had never grown up: “All the lost fears are here again.” These childhood incidents are not any less haunted by specters of sickness and death or the prospect of losing himself. His awareness that he is losing the protective carapace of an adult persona is vividly registered in the shift to second-person apostrophe: “Your heart drives you out of yourself, your heart pursues you, and you are already almost outside yourself and can’t get back in. Like a beetle that someone has stepped on, you gush out of yourself, and your little bit of surface hardness and adaptability have lost all meaning.” This emptying out of established selfhood is closely associated with the oppressive return of the amorphous, enveloping “Big Thing,” which is perhaps best understood as the unconscious producing dread and hysteria as it makes its presence felt to the resistant ego.

Malte’s feverish memory calls up the apparition of his mother’s dead cousin during a family dinner, a scene “conflating Rilke’s penchant for the occult with his aesthetics of fear,” according to Ralph Freedman’s biography Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke. This, and other childhood sightings of ghosts, exemplifies the superiority of the child’s less structured sense of self and world, which allows access to what is normally invisible and unintelligible to consensual conventionality. And it is for this reason that the adult Malte feels he is yet to “achieve” his childhood. This restless spirit also intimates the oppressive, death-heavy atmosphere characterizing the decline of both sides of Malte’s family. Fatality is as ubiquitous as the dying autumn fl ies “cover[ing] the whole room with their death.” Malte’s sister has already died; his beloved mother dies, as do his father and paternal grandfather; an anonymous fat girl dies across from him on a trolley; his pet dog dies, reproaching him with its eyes.

Oppressed by the omnipresence of Parisian hospitals, Malte recalls, in a powerful descriptive passage, the personifying grandeur of his grandfather’s “hard,” loud, and prolonged death. This prompts him to refl ect how in the present day “a life ready made . . . you just have to slip on” leads to an institutionally prescribed, formulaic death in a hospital factory, and how increasingly rare it has become to live “a death of one’s own . . . your death inside you as a fruit has its core.”

Other incidents from Malte’s childhood mirror aspects of his later Parisian experiences. His memory of trying on costumes and masks before a mirror, as his thoughts alter accordingly, is another of the book’s many parables of identity—its instability and the intimate reciprocity between things and the self. Gazing with disquietude and fascination, Malte feels his being ceded to the unfamiliar refl ection that is the object of his gaze: “I lost all sense of myself. I simply ceased to exist. For one second, I felt an indescribable, piercing, futile longing for myself, then only he remained: there was nothing except him.” Lacking the “outer hardness” that characterizes the established, even ready-made, identity of most adults, the impressionable, susceptible Malte continues throughout his life to enter into and become the other, thereby undergoing a transference of identity in which he loses, yet finds his sense of self in the activity of gazing.

Malte describes his memory of childhood in metaphorical terms that might also serve as commentary on the fragmentary nature of Rilke’s chosen narrative form: “It isn’t a complete building; it has been broken into pieces inside me; a room here, a room there, and then a piece of a hallway that doesn’t connect these two rooms, but is preserved as a fragment, by itself. In this way, it is all dispersed inside me. . . . It is as if the image of this house had fallen into me from an infinite height and shattered upon my ground.” This preoccupation (it is more than a mere trope) recurs in a passage displaying his intuitive feel as he gazes at the sole remaining inner wall of an incompletely demolished house, whose exposed toilet pipe slithers, like viscera, “in unspeakably nauseating, worm-soft, digestive movements,” while “stubborn life” clings, like the stains of odors and exhalations, to the “flayed” and shredded remains of the structure.

Malte’s experience of the unstable structures and permeable borders of the self might terrify him as auguries of disintegration, but they are also dark intimations of his latent possibilities as a poet. Thus, severance from himself, grotesquely vivified in a hallucinatory childhood vision of his own dismembered yet animate hand, returns, uncannily transfigured, in his adult presentiment of the true poet’s vocational need to abandon familiar, conventionalized meanings in submission to transpersonal forces: “But the day will come when my hand will be distant, and if I tell it to write, it will write words that are not mine.” The phenomena and images from his childhood, the urban street, or his reading are all uncanny because they provide indexes to an inner essence, an unacknowledged strangeness that otherwise would be transparent to him. In this way, they gradually produce a clearer recognition of the disjunction between the established, habitual self and the possibility of another way of being.

Perhaps for this reason the second notebook seems more serene and generally more impersonal in tone of voice, lacking the first notebook’s intense subjective immediacy. With the exception of a morbid description of the postmortem perforation of his father’s heart, which leads to an intense, prolonged account of the fear of death, the second part is less emotional but occasionally exalted. There is much about visual art and books and, implicitly, about the transformative possibilities of viewing and reading. Malte re-imagines historical figures remembered from his reading so that, by means of empathetic feeling-into (Einfühlung), anecdotes become parables capable of informing and revealing his soul, reciprocally. Just as Malte consults his own isolation to understand history as the suppressed tale of a stranger dying in our midst, so too, his often cryptic descriptions of arcane political intrigues and disputes turn these historical figures into illuminated emblems of his own psychological and spiritual aspirations. Thus, for example, the imbecilic and ulcerous, yet acquiescent and saintly King Charles VI of France helps Malte clarify an obsessive reverie about embracing lepers and other pariahs into a conviction that he should affirm whatever experiences he is given.

More significant than the kings as exemplars of how to live one’s life are the historical women—actresses, nuns, poets—that Malte extols for their magnanimity in unrequited loving, which not only allowed each to die to herself for the beloved other, but was so lacking in possessiveness that this virtue became “intransitive,” passing through and beyond the beloved to become objectless and, thus, for God. This fervid devotion, like that of true artists, is for Rilke the way of holiness: a coming to oneself by way of the other and then beyond to pure being and to God.

These great-hearted women function as more than figures of inspiration and aspiration. A good case can be made that many of Malte’s notebook entries manifest the uncanny return, again and again, of the long-suffering mother—an archetypal representation of the capacity of the unconscious to subsume the underdeveloped ego, and thus a template for the blessed union of true poet and pure being. Her figure can be registered in a wide range of avatars of the embodiment of the feminine. She is there in the pregnant woman seen on the first page; in the female revenant haunting the maternal family estate who died bearing her son; and in Malte’s dead maman (a completely idealized rendering of Rilke’s own distant and perversely demanding mother). She is also to be seen in the dead sister whom “the naughty Malte” dresses up as to please himself and his maman (another idealized biographical reference, since Rilke hated it that his mother dressed him as a girl until he was seven). And she is there in the woman who holds a mirror up to a unicorn in a medieval tapestry and in a lied singer who, like the tapestry figure, reminds him of Abelone, an aunt with whom he had a (pointedly undescribed) love affair.

Malte’s revision of the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, his notebook’s final entry, expresses what may seem a pathological masculine dread of being loved. But the Son’s desire to escape the oppressive obligation to reciprocate the devotion of another must be understood in terms of Rilke’s total dedication to his calling as a poet, which he believed required acquiescence to a fundamental solitude, as well as to a complete emptying of self that permits receptivity to the being of things and to the Being upon which they are grounded. Malte is an apprentice practitioner of Rilkean inwardness (Innigkeit). And because Rilke makes Malte’s reader a practitioner as well, the book is beloved by those compelled to poeticize their loneliness as solitude. However, inwardness entails more than introspection. It entails more, even, than bringing aspects of the external world inside oneself and allowing them to awaken internal correspondences. On the basis of his conviction that the artist must have the saint’s capacity for affirmation, Rilke conceived Malte as someone who had understood the necessity, yet found the requirement “too great.” For Rilke, aversion and rejection were modes of sin at once aesthetic and spiritual, and they constituted the loss of grace. Because Malte is an artist-saint manqué, Rilke was concerned that young reader-seekers not yield to the dangerous temptation of identifying their lonely suffering with his. But his warning that “there was nothing to learn from” the book and that its downward trajectory should be read “against the current” has almost certainly been ignored by generations of devoted readers.

Freedman, Ralph. Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Introduction by Hugh Haughton. Translated by David McLintock. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 2003.
Jephcott, E. F. N. Proust and Rilke: The Literature of Expanded Consciousness. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1972.
Leppmann, Wolfgang. Rilke: A Life. Translated by Russell M. Stockman in collaboration with the author. New York: Fromm International, 1984.
Peters, H. F. Rainer Marie Rilke: Masks and the Man. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Introduction by William H. Gass. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: