Nils Michals: Rilke and Image in Letters on Cezanne

22 Jan

The Metaphysical Object:
Rilke and Image in Letters on Cezanne

Rilke on the ChampsÉlysées. Rilke skirting Le Grand Palais. Rilke, collar upturned, along the banks of the Seine in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. I can see him now, often the wandering flâneur, wending his way through the streets to see yet again the Cezannes at the Salon d’Automne in October or November of 1907. In fact, Rilke had spent five months viewing Cezanne’s retrospective, which had been organized less than a year after the painter’s death from catching pneumonia while painting in a field during a storm.

Rilke was acutely aware that Cezanne was presenting objects of the world in a wholly new way and that the effect would be pervasive, not only for his own poetics, but across the broader spectrum of the arts. And so, Letters on Cezanne, a series of letters to his wife Clara, unfolds as the working out of a problem, specifically the difficulty of rendering the poetic image. For Rilke, Cezanne was working with color and objects, a simple apple say, in such a way that it “ceases to be edible altogether, that’s how thing-like and real it becomes, how simply indestructible in its stubborn ‘thereness’” (33). Initially, Rilke’s words exhibit an uncanny prescience of the rise of Pound and the Imagists five years later, and in some respects these words do echo much of the Imagist movement; however, Rilke’s notion of Cezanne’s apple suggests much, much more. Over the five or six months Rilke spent returning to the Salon, Cezanne would impress upon Rilke so firmly that, like in Rilke’s famous poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo”, which would be published the following year in New Poems, he felt a need to “change his life” in a fundamental manner.

When poets think of figurative language, they are often envisioning a transfer of meaning that deepens our understanding of something: an object, an abstraction, a sensation. Poets must find the right objects and then the right means of shifting their conception from one realm to another in small, precise units of language. Often, the essential problem in writing the image in poetry (and perhaps in the making of any art) is how to do so without infusing too much of the subjective mind into the integrity of the object itself. William Carlos Williams’ “No ideas but in things”, of course, is a best remembered mantra, but Rilke’s notion of Cezanne’s apples brings some of what the Symbolists of the previous two decades had brought to bear on late 19th century poetics, namely a movement away from heavy moralizing, traditional forms and mimetic images. More importantly, the Symbolists experimented with imbuing objects with deeper personal meaning. Still, such symbolism did not quite entirely register Cezanne’s work for Rilke, who writes that Cezanne was painting with the “scales of an infinitely responsive conscience…which so incorruptibly reduced a reality to its color content that the reality resumed a new existence in a beyond of color without any previous memories” (65). What is Rilke talking about here? What are these “scales of an infinitely responsive conscience” that seem so essential to rendering the crystallized essence of the thing itself? And how does one hold an object up to the light and encompass its ideal as though the observer had no previous memory?

Rilke believed “everything is yet to be done” (22), which perhaps is not surprising given that the artistic landscape is opening up at the beginning of the 20th century in a way that clearly shows a massive shift in human consciousness. Rilke was also deeply sentimental, optimistic, the result of a soul perfectly suited for plenty of alone time, long walks with grand vistas, letters to young poets. The former is Modernism of course. But the latter is Rilke himself, a deeply spiritual man (though not in an orthodox way), who was attracted to Cezanne in the first place because Rilke sensed his “nearness to God” (ix). It is no mistake that Rilke notes that there is something holy and inarguable about any object throughout the Letters. It is both this sense of the possible, the potential or potentiate, and its relation to the spiritual that begins to define, for Rilke, both the object and the role of the artist:

Rilke’s notion that we must use our “personal madness” in order to find an object’s law is a wild idea in and of itself. While the idea of an object’s law would seem to support an objective rendering of the object itself, personal madness would suggest something else altogether, something more akin to Verlaine and Rimbaud. However, it is clear that Rilke’s approach reveals a careful tempering of the “self”, one fragmented in a very different manner than those earlier Symbolists: less reactionary, more measured. Perhaps this is best seen in a number of letters in which he produces a series or variations on the color blue. In these descriptions, Rilke moves beyond technical terms such as indigo or Prussian blue. In fact, the words are coming from an entirely new realm of language and description, one that appears to initially personify or reveal Rilke’s bias. There is a “good conscience blue” (50), a “completely supportless blue” (44). There is a “thunderstorm blue”(88) and a ‘listening blue”(87) in Cezanne’s work. To some, in the last image the overt personification of blue has gone too far, and yet there seems to be no better word for that type of blue which is in quiet accordance with other colors, which absorbs the noise of another color as a sound is absorbed by an attentive ear.

For Rilke, finding the integrity of an object was inextricably linked to the process of discovering its holiness, and this process of discovering that which is sacred in something is never entirely an objective one. It requires something, a leap of faith perhaps, that moves beyond just the cold and detached rendering of an object, beyond mere denotation of the thing itself. For Rilke, the process of uncovering the object’s integrity demands one’s participation, and this process leaves little room for detached observation and comparison. Indeed, much of the Letters are occupied with the “act of making”, superficially seen in his repeated discussion of Cezanne’s legendary work ethic (Cezanne actually skipped his own mother’s funeral in order not to lose a day of work). But more importantly, this “act of making” is seen as a struggle between two procedures: “First, looking and confidentially receiving (the object), and then the appropriating and making personal use of what has been received; that the two, perhaps as a result of becoming conscious, would immediately start opposing each other, as it were, and go on perpetually interrupting and contradicting each other” (36). This participation enacts the dialogue between the more subjective “personal use” of the object and the objective thing itself, and sets in motion the relationship between the “self” and the holy discovery, that sense of suddenly coming upon a truth in an object that is so huge no one can actually deal with it.

Once this dialogue begins to reveal that essence which is so hard to represent in a medium, whether language or the painted image, Rilke argues that one must, interestingly enough, strip away love in the object’s rendering, for love brings an entire value set and hierarchy of memory which clouds the object’s essence. Rilke writes:

This is an extraordinary concept and poses a difficult dilemma for the poet. Our work is often the result of obsession, its impulse and persistence, but for Rilke, this obsession must be separated from the way we render objects. The movement away from moralizing in art was already well established, but this passage is reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s understanding of Cezanne’s work. Stein, an avid art collector of the time who prized her Cezannes above all else, noted in “A Transatlantic Interview” Cezanne’s use of the entire canvas as a field, an “equality” of sorts in which every element mattered, thus allowing multiple perspectives to flourish. Stein, though a much different poet from Rilke, would often cite this idea as the foundation for her own work.

This balance, this equality, this scale of “an infinitely responsive conscience” which levels the reality of nature (the objective) with the self’s reality of the image (the subjective) is precisely what Rilke is searching for. The perfect equivalence of object and color in painting is no different from the poet’s project of creating harmony between object and word, a “limitless” objectivity that is at once informed by the thing itself and yet uncovered by that personal madness which seeks a law in each and every thing. These metaphors come up again and again in the Letters, but perhaps the best example of this balance is achieved quite early on in the letters, in Rilke’s Sept. 13, 1907 letter, in which he describes three branches of heather he received from Clara:

Though Rilke expresses his inadequacy and at times the description appears restless, unable to settle, this particular description strikes me both in its tonal range and its acute precision. Never does the heather feel more alive than when Rilke is offering a sort of “toned interpretation” of heather; the heather is glorious, serious and poor, hearty and resinous, and so on. These are the more overt moments of personal madness, yet Rilke anchors this subjective view with such synesthetic crossover that the heather seems to rise up all at once into the eye, the nostril, in the hand, mouth, and ear. Rilke also counters these moments of subjectivity with a specific example. The subjective “serious and poor” is immediately followed by “the smell of a begging monk”, and “hearty and resinous” is followed by “precious incense”. This free movement from general to specific, tempered by a kind of synesthesia, helps to create this balance which really is the “newness” of the heather, a heather that is so undeniably in the present, so inarguably firsthand that the heather itself could not exist in any other time and space. Though Rilke is not describing one of Cezanne’s paintings, this is precisely what Rilke means when he says “a reality can resume a new existence in a beyond of color, without any previous memory”.

Rilke was living in a new, exciting world. Late 19th century artists and writers had effectively stripped away traditional mores and conventions, but few had achieved the kind of balance seen in Cezanne’s paintings. For Rilke, this was the possibility of a new notion of “self” right on the cusp of a fresh, new world, an entirely new potential to discover the objects of the world for the very first time, and the possibilities for the arts and for his own poetry were limitless. Rilke’s October 20, 1907 letter says it best:

Rilke, Ranier Maria. Letters on Cezanne. Ed. Clara Rilke. Trans. Joel Agee. New York: Fromm International, 1985. Print.

Nils Michals’ first collection of poems, Lure, won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize and was published by Pleiades and Louisiana State University Press. A new manuscript, Chantepleure, is forthcoming. Recent work has appeared in diode, White Whale Review, and Gloom Cupboard. He lives in Boulder, CO and teaches at the University of Colorado and Front Range Community College.

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