In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Ancient Enmity
  • Bei Dao (bio)
    Translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (bio)

Editors' Note

One of China's most outspoken poets, Bei Dao has lived in exile since the Tian'anmen Square demonstrations in 1989. As the chief editor of Jintian (Today), the first non-official Chinese literary journal—founded in 1978, banned in 1980, and revived in 1990 in Sweden—he often addresses international forums about exile, censorship, and the responsibility of writers in society. In recent years, Bei Dao has been permitted to teach and reside in Hong Kong. The following essay is based on a lecture he delivered at the Hong Kong Book Fair on July 20, 2011. The translator wishes to acknowledge Sally Molini for her important editorial suggestions during the translation.

Over a century ago, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his long poem "Requiem,"

For somewhere there is an ancient enmitybetween our daily life and the great work.

Trans. Stephen Mitchell

In 1900, a number of artists and writers, including Rilke, had gathered in Worpswede, a small town between Hamburg and Bremen. They attended concerts together, visited museums, and rode in horse carriages to evening festivals. Among the artists were two lovely young women, a painter and a sculptor, who were as close as sisters. Paula had blonde hair; Clara's hair was dark. Rilke preferred fair-haired Paula, but did not wish to ruin the ideal friendship he shared with them by choosing one woman over the other. After much indecision, Paula became engaged to someone else. Rilke married Clara, and she gave birth to a daughter. Seven years later, Paula died from a miscarriage and in her memory Rilke wrote "Requiem."

Perhaps knowing of such episodes help us understand better the relationship between Rilke's writing and his personal life, which can well be described as turbulent. In the four years prior to the outbreak of World War I, he lived or stayed in nearly fifty places throughout Europe. The following lines from another poem, "Autumn Day," express precisely the tension in Rilke's nomadic life: [End Page 1]

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.Whoever is alone will stay alone.

Trans. Stephen Mitchell

For me, the lines "For somewhere there is an ancient enmity / between our daily life and the great work" linger like the tolling of a bell—timeless and profound. In our present troubled era, they resonate particularly with those of us who are writers, compelling us to meditate on the most fundamental questions: how should we live today, how should we write, and how should we live in the world as writers true to our calling.

In Rilke's phrase "ancient enmity," the word ancient has a fatalistic undertone, suggesting a reference to the time of the very origins of human language. And the word enmity, as a metaphor, evokes a conflict that is somehow innate and paradoxical.

We might well wonder whether, if Rilke had led a stable and contented life—working as a realtor, for example, and squandering his wealth—he would have been able to write such enduring masterpieces as "Autumn Day" and the Duino Elegies. Likewise, we might wonder whether Kafka, if he had not lived in the oppressive shadow of his father but had instead enjoyed early success, a blissful married life, and a handsome income from the royalties of the many books he might have published—if such a Kafka could have written The Castle or The Trial, which transformed the landscape of fiction in the modern world. What if Paul Celan's parents had not died in Nazi concentration camps, and if he had not suffered the hardships of exile? Would Celan have left behind great poetry such as "Deathfugue" and "Corona"?

Who among us would not wish to have a happy life and also create masterpieces? Yet the "ancient enmity" in Rilke's poem is one of Fate's mysterious arrangements: that we are somehow not entitled to have both.

Of course, there may be exceptions. For instance, the American poet Wallace Stevens was the senior executive of an insurance company and had a long, tranquil life. How could he have also written such masterful poems as "The...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 1-5
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.