From Sappho Onwards

Couple saphique allongé, Auguste Rodin, c. 1897

Rodin’s fascination for Sapphic couples, which he shared with Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Baudelaire, Pierre Louÿs, Paul Verlaine and his predecessor Gustave Courbet, was evident in several of his drawings.

 

“I am sorry to have to ask you to allow me to mention what everybody declares unmentionable. My justification shall be that we may presently be saddled with the moral responsibility for monstrously severe punishments inflicted not only on persons who have corrupted children, but on others whose conduct, however nasty and ridiculous, has been perfectly within their admitted rights as individuals. To a fully occupied person in normal health, with due opportunities for a healthy social enjoyment, the mere idea of the subject of the threatened prosecutions is so expressively disagreeable as to appear unnatural. But everybody does not find it so. There are among us highly respected citizens who have been expelled from public schools for giving effect to the contrary opinion; and there are hundreds of others who might have been expelled on the same ground had they been found out. Greek philosophers, otherwise of unquestioned virtue, have differed with us on the point. So have soldiers, sailors, convicts, and in fact members of all communities deprived of intercourse with women. A whole series of Balzac’s novels turns upon attachments formed by galley slaves for one another – attachments which are represented as redeeming them from utter savagery. Women, from Sappho onwards, have shown that this appetite is not confined to one sex. Now, I do not believe myself to be the only man in England acquainted with these facts. I strongly protest against any journalist writing, as nine out of ten are at this moment dipping their pens to write, as if he had never heard of such things except as vague and sinister rumors concerning the most corrupt phases in the decadence of Babylon, Greece & Rome. I appeal now to the champions of individual rights to join me in a protest against a law by which two adult men can be sentenced to twenty years penal servitude for a private act, freely consented to & desired by both, which concerns themselves alone. There is absolutely no justification for the law except the old theological one of making the secular arm the instrument of God’s vengeance. It is a survival from that discarded system with its stonings and burnings; and it survives because it is so unpleasant that men are loath to meddle with it even with the object of getting rid of it, lest they should be suspected of acting in their personal interest. We are now free to face with the evil of our relic of Inquisition law, and of the moral cowardice, which prevents our getting rid of it. For my own part, I protest against the principle of the law under which the warrants have been issued; and I hope that no attempt will be made to enforce its outrageous penalties in the case of adult men.”

 

George Bernard Shaw

Letter sent  to an editor of a Newspaper

1889

 

No One Among All Artists

Rilke, Rose Beruet, Rodin and their dogs. Photo by Albert Harlingue. Meudon, France

 
Rainer Maria Rilke first approached Auguste Rodin while writing a book-length essay on the sculptor. Rilke spent much time with Rodin and in correspondence with him and worked as his personal secretary for a year or so. And his wife, Clara Westhoff, was a sculptress and had been a student of Rodin’s.

In the second letter of his highly celebrated Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote:

 

“If I were obliged to tell you who taught me to experience something of the essence of creativity, the depth of it and its enduring quality, there are only two names that I can name: that of Jacobsen, the very greatest of writers, and Auguste Rodin, the sculptor. No one among all artists living today compares with them.”

 

What was the source of the famous sculptor’s powerful hold on the fledgling German poet? Apart from artistic and philosophical considerations, some have seen personality factors at work here, primarily in Rilke’s attraction to character traits of Rodin’s that he admired and perhaps wished to emulate. Kent Nerburn, in his foreword to the New World Library edition of the Letters quoted above, writes:

 

“Rodin was everything Rilke was not — confident, robust, sensual, an older man who was secure in his artistic identity and accomplished in his artistic voice. He was an elemental presence, with a chiseled brow, a laborer’s broad physique, and piercing eyes that seemed to see through the artifice and brittle surface of anyone on whom he chose to focus his attention. He was also a man of few words who worked with unceasing diligence, and thought, felt, and spoke not through his words but through the creations of his hands. As Rilke himself said, Rodin lived inside his art; he did not have to constantly seek it and court it from amongst the intrusive distractions of daily affairs.

Contrasted to this was Rilke, the fragile, often sickly young man of delicate sensibilities and uncertain artistic direction, who suffered long periods of artistic aridity and terrifying self-doubt. Slim, slight, easily led astray from his artistic tasks, he lived in constant fear of days when all inspiration failed him and he was left with nothing but ‘dead words …corpse heavy’. How could he not stand in the presence of Rodin without seeing before him the embodiment of all he desired to be as an artist, as well as a mirror of all his own artistic deficiencies and insecurities? And, in fact, this is exactly what happened. In the person of Rodin, Rilke found the model for the artistic authority he wished to possess.”

At Rodin’s Studio

“. . . Yesterday, Monday afternoon at three o’clock, I was at Rodin’s for the first time. Atelier 182 rue de l’Universite. I went down the Seine. He had a model, a girl. Had a little plaster object in his hand on which he was scraping about. He simply quit work, offered me a chair, and we talked. He was kind and gentle. And it seemed to me that I had always known him. That I was only seeing him again; I found him smaller, and yet more powerful, more kindly, and more noble. That forehead, the relationship it bears to his nose which rides out of it like a ship out of harbor . . . that is very remarkable. Character of stone is in that forehead and that nose. And his mouth has a speech whose ring is good, intimate, and full of youth. So also is his laugh, that embarrassed and at the same time joyful laugh of a child that has been given lovely presents. He is very dear to me. That I knew at once. We spoke of many things (as far as my queer language and his time permitted). . . . Then he went on working and begged me to inspect everything that is in the studio. That is not a little. The “hand” is there. C’est une main comme-ça (he said and made with his own so powerful a gesture of holding and shaping that one seemed to see things growing out of it).”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Letter to his wife Clara on September 2, 1902

 

Rilke in Meudon, Rodin’s studio and residence

The Experience of Loving

“The experience of loving, that now disappoints so many, can actually change and be transformed from the ground up into the building of a relationship between two human beings, not just a man and a woman. And this more authentic love will be evident in the utterly considerate, gentle, and clear manner of its binding and releasing. It will resemble what we now struggle to prepare: the love that consists of two solitudes which border, protect, and greet each other.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rome, May 14, 1904

Letters to a Young Poet

 

Adam and Steve, photo (supposedly) by Johnny Willough

The Original Poet

 

In the Garden of Eden Adam’s first task was to give everything a name. Whenever God created a new animal or plant, he showed it to Adam and, according to the Book of Genesis, “whatever he called each living creature, that was its name.” In the variant version of the Koran, God “taught Adam all the names.” The biblical Adam is the original poet, capturing the essence of a thing in words. His Koranic counterpart is more of a decipherer, discerning the secret nature of things through the word hidden inside them. In both instances, the conferral of names is a human prerogative; a thing remains unknowable until a human voice sounds out its distinctive moniker. Even God needs Adam to give names the breath of life.

Until recently that Edenic innocence still existed between things and their names. In the ninth Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke could ask:

“Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House,Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Fruit tree, Window—possibly: Pillar, Tower?”

Of course for Rilke this isn’t just mouthing names but involves “such saying as never the things themselves / hoped so intensely to be.” In his view, things, when invoked, if not conjured, become more fully themselves. This is a magical notion, and a deeply appealing one, but can anyone still believe in it?

This observation about Rilke suggests something of his complex nature, since he was a great realist. He wrote, “How good life is. How fair, how incorruptible, how impossible to deceive: not even by strength, not even by willpower, and not even by courage. How everything remains what it is and has only this choice: to come true, or to exaggerate and push too far.”

His realist approach to life and his artistic temperament contributed to his non-conventional approach to the Bible.

Rilke wasn’t a practitioner of Christianity, (he preferred Islam) yet much of his work deals with religion. He wrote: “Religion is something infinitely simple, ingenuous. It is not knowledge, not content of feeling (for all content is admitted from the start, where a man comes to terms with life), it is not duty and not renunciation, it is not restriction: but in the infinite extent of the universe it is a direction of the heart.” (Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke)