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)