For this reason, my dear Sir, the only advice I have is this : to go into yourself and to examine the depths from which your life springs ; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you have to write. Accept this answer as it is, without seeking to interpret it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then assume this fate and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking after the rewards that may come from outside. For he who creates must be in a world of his own and find everything within himself and in the natural world that he has elected to follow.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Letters to a Young Poet

Of pebbles, springs and fates

Samuel Buchoul 19 May 2019

In his fifty-seventh letter to G.H. Schuller, Spinoza imagines a stone, thrown in the air, suddenly gaining a conscience of its own. “Conscious only of its endeavour”, Spinoza suggests, “it will surely think it is completely free, and that it continues in motion for no other reason than that it so wishes.” Such would be the fantasy of our human freedom : all the greater that we remain ignorant of what truly came to determine our actions.

Franz Xaver Kappus, the forgotten addressee of Letters to a Young Poet, is the silent voice of the masterwork. In-between Rilke’s legendary sprigs of artistic wisdom, Kappus appears as a shy and yearning, young soul. Motifs of the learning son, of the apprentice to the master, of the novice to the sage. Rilke’s words sound buddhist, and indeed the self has disappeared from the spotlight of writing. Perhaps Rilke thought Kappus’ longing was still worldly and self-centred : becoming an artist, being recognised, producing great works. At first, Rainer would be switching gears : ‘seek and you will find’, he seems to be saying, ‘let the practice speak for itself, and forget the outcomes’.

… you will find the answer of whether you have to write …

But this postulate jams and tumbles. Through the practice alone, Kappus would find whether he has to write. But who has to write ? Selfless buddhists and humble artists have understood they aren’t quite the authors of their own words. The mystics of all kinds, believers and godless alike, would add that the words aren’t created but heard : the writer is just a channel. Is Rilke a mystic ?

No, Rilke is a dowser. In the waves of words flow the drops of life. From cloud to rain and rivers, from ignorance to desire and suffering, from force to flying stones, the cosmos reserves to each its own cycle. The writer becomes an improviser on the theme of life, a biologist jazzman. When trees sprout fruits and dogs puppies, humans birth words. Poems are the last blooms in Rilke’s cosmos.

But what is a spring ? It is not a source, a beginning, but a basin, a well where a unity of flow is first perceived. A flow which runs its course, or so it seems, and yet… one morning, Rilke receives a letter. And another young river is enquiring upon its own journey, upon the sediments it will leave on earth, upon the shape of its final estuary… Humans aren’t rocks, and words aren’t water : no river ever felt bad for not being a tree.

… He who creates must find everything within himself and in the natural world that he has elected to follow …

Becoming a writer : choice or election ? Rilke speaks like a seasoned mariner, guiding ships through tides and waves till the promised land. Yes, the words speak for themselves and the writer is first his own spectator. But ships and seas are aplenty, and you can’t trace a skipping stone once it has reached repose under the waves.

Cover by Laurent Delleur