- Writing as Paradox in Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Although Highly Esteemed by its Commentators in the English-Speaking world, Rilke's novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)1 has elicited a curious mix of responses. Nevertheless there is a shared assumption to much of this commentary. Perhaps filtered through the experience of Rilke's poetry (preoccupied as it is with essences and inwardness and the articulation of Being), many critics read the thematic concerns of the novel through a perceived opposition between being and existence. Thus for Peter Ruppert, "Malte's idea of a love that is pure subjectivity" is "an attempt to be rather than to exist" (Ruppert 33), while for Diana Festa-McCormick, "Paris has brought to the fore the meaninglessness of existence but, at the same time, the necessity of a full realization of one's being within the vacuum that entraps him" (Festa-McCormick 82). There are many variants of this. Malte's alienation as against "the law of his own being" (Crowhurst 63); "a transformation of everything external that is subject to physical laws and time, hence to transitoriness and death, into inner substance which takes of the feelings of subjective and personal identity" (Graff 249-250); the accidental versus the essential (Woods); appearances or images versus reality (Crowhurst); disintegration as opposed to integration (Kleinberger, Soken, Scholz); and so on: these are all employed by critics to get at much the same kind of opposition Ruppert is driving at. [End Page 403]
Viewed in this light, Malte Laurids Brigge emerges as a quintessentially modernist text, especially when the opposition is given a specifically aesthetic inflection where the order of art is set over against the flux of existence (see, for example, Garber, Carvill, Segel, Parry, and Ziolkowski). In terms of the act of writing—one of the principal concerns of the novel—this opposition can be construed as a means by which the subject is integrated or unified through its mastery of the contingent world. In effect, the life becomes a kind of art-work itself, produced and unified by the sustained effort at writing that Rilke called "work."
I want to argue that in Malte Laurids Brigge the act of writing is developed in a more complex way than this, and I want to come at it by suggesting that for Rilke being bears a much more intimate relation to existence than one of mastery. As the novel unfolds, Malte increasingly finds himself in situations where immersion in existence turns—almost magically—into the experience of being, so that the two experiences are simultaneously different and the same. Acting as conduits for the themes of death, love, the mask, and God, these situations are akin to the "limit-situations" of Jaspers and Heidegger. While Rilke's existential affiliations are often alluded to, this quite complex negotiation between being and existence in the novel has rarely been explored by English-speaking critics (exceptions here include Heller, Soken, Dürr, and Jayne). In the pages that follow, I want to develop an account of the concept of writing in Malte Laurids Brigge by showing how the novel maps out the effects of these "limit-situations" on Malte's ideas about the nature and purpose of writing.2 I argue that the novel effectively traces out a "learning curve" for Malte, taking him from an oppositional to a paradoxical framework. From a preoccupation with writing as a form of mastery and possession, he is eventually brought to a state where it functions analogously to the concept of love, a state where the writer is both master and servant at the same time.
However committed Rilke is to the realm of "pure being" (Crowhurst 75), what is striking about Malte Laurids Brigge is its fascination with sensations, with the brute physicality of the world of existence. Malte's descriptions of his experiences in Paris, for instance, take on a tactile dimension in episode after episode. The following is quite typical:
I was hungry. I had gone the whole day without eating. But even now I couldn't wait there for the eggs; before they were ready, something drove me...