- Rilke's Landscape of the Heart:On The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Rilke received the galley proofs for The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge in March 1910 and in anticipation of the page proofs that were to follow, he wrote his editor Anton Kippenberg, "Please let me indicate in the page proofs where the first volume should end. Determine it yourself if possible, or, in case of doubt, give me two places to choose from."1 Rilke's suggestion that the editor could himself decide where to divide the novel has been interpreted as a sign that the division was an afterthought of little significance for the novel.2 This view has largely dominated in Rilke scholarship. With few exceptions, critics have concentrated on the thematic concerns that organize various portions of the Notebooks, which otherwise would appear to have no organizing principle.3 Such an approach is not surprising given the nature of this work, which presents itself as a collection of reflections, observations, and notes (in a word: Aufzeichnungen) written at random or when the author was inspired to record his impressions. (The fiction of the novel is that it is the jottings of a Danish writer of noble birth who moves to Paris to write, though he is unable to produce anything but his Aufzeichnungen.)
Yet the division of the Notebooks into two books is not incidental. It places at the heart of the work a caesura that enables it to continue, albeit along a different path without Malte's here-and-now as its point of orientation or anchor. If the first half of the novel is devoted to Malte's efforts at learning to see, the second is devoted to his efforts at learning to love. If the first records his adventures in Paris—where he lives in destitute poverty—the second records the adventures of others in a distant past and, at times, distant places. If the first focuses on Malte's experiences [End Page 667] as a writer whose authority is threatened at every turn, the second considers models of writing that are immune to the threat of the loss of authority. The list of opposing attributes could be continued, but suffice it to say that the distinction between the first and second books is clear, consistent, and thorough. Yet this distinction is hardly addressed in the secondary literature.
This neglect is unfortunate, as it obscures the efforts Rilke made in this work and in his late poetry more generally to sketch a model of poetic sovereignty that no longer revolves around the autonomous individual. The Notebooks conclude with a tribute not to Orphic but to Sapphic poetry, which comes about through the poet's surrender to his or her death to be born anew in a world without subject or object, a world that is boundless. In Rilkean terms, one could say that Sapphic poetry consists in the willingness of the poet to fall without cease into the vortex of being that she herself opens through her writing. (Heidegger will call this vortex the "Zug des ganzen Bezuges" ["the traction of the attraction"] in his 1946 essay "Wozu Dichter?" in which he claims that Rilke, like Nietzsche, conceives of being as the will which both releases things and gathers them together in a manner similar to the earth's gravitational pull.)4 The first half of the Notebooks is significant in that it traces Malte's efforts to keep death at bay and to remain standing upright in the face of forces larger than himself, even if they come from his interior. But only in the second half does he learn the pleasure of falling, as formulated in the tenth and final Duino Elegy, where good fortune or happiness—the German word Glück denotes both—is said to fall like rain in the spring:
Aber erweckten sie uns, die unendlich Toten, ein Gleichnis,siehe, sie zeigten vielleicht auf die Kätzchen der leerenHasel, die hängenden, odermeinten den Regen, der fällt auf dunkles Erdreich im Frühjahr. -
Und wir, die an steigendes Glückdenken, empfänden die Rührung,die uns beinah best...