But Kappus’s loneliness was not typical adolescent angst; it had led him to the brink of self-annihilation. In moments of despair, he wrote to Rilke, “All my footsteps feel like walking in quicksand, I feel like I’m choking at every moment. I’m so lonely that it’s like death might suddenly overpower me.” He confessed that he had been “twice tempted” to finish his life.
In Rilke’s first letter, when he requested Kappus to ponder whether or not he would die if he couldn’t write, it appeared like a thought experiment. Nine months later, Kappus was telling Rilke that self-destruction had been a really literal risk. Knowing this, Rilke’s recommendation can sound astonishingly unfeeling, even reckless, in its dogmatic insistence. “Almost everyone has moments when they would so much rather trade [loneliness] for a feeling of community,” he wrote. “But maybe these are precisely the moments when loneliness grows, for its growing is painful, like a boy’s, and sad, like the start of spring. Don’t let that fool you. What we need, after all, is only: solitude, a vast inner solitude.”
Rilke wrote this letter in late 1903, from a cottage on the Villa Strohl-Fern, an artists’ colony on the outskirts of Rome. There, in line with his biographer Ralph Freedman, “Rilke became more and more of a recluse.” His spouse, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, had her personal cottage on the villa; the 2 maintained their distance. The “vast inner solitude” that Rilke urged on Kappus was not, in different phrases, one thing to which he had been resigned however as a substitute a life that he had rigorously cultivated. It was among the many preconditions that allowed Rilke to interrupt unfastened from a quick interval of creative stagnation and write “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” That poem’s hero, as within the Ovidian fantasy, is granted passage, by the great thing about his singing, to the underworld to retrieve his lifeless lover. Looking again at her on their ascent—giving in to his need for companionship—would make her vanish. Worse but, Rilke appears to indicate, it could spoil his music.
Kappus didn’t know if he was actually a poet, however his correspondence with Rilke might make his lonely life really feel like poetry. Receiving these letters, Kappus wrote, felt like being summoned into one other world: “When I think that all these unsayable, marvelous, beautiful things you’ve entrusted to me are meant for me alone—that you find me worthy of sharing in these riches, meant only for the few, the solitary—I feel very proud.” There’s a magical form of logic at work right here, whereby receiving Rilke’s consideration someway additionally confers the glowing gentle of his artwork. To be included throughout the reaches of another person’s fame was to rethink the boundaries of the self: Kappus’s future may need been unknown, however he not was.
Did Rilke and Kappus’s correspondence actually create such a connection? “Writing letters,” Franz Kafka as soon as complained (in a letter) to Milena Jesenská, his Czech translator and the item of his tortured love, “is actually an intercourse with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing.” In a letter, a model of your self must be pinned to the paper, made into one thing that may match inside an envelope. Because of the inevitable delays of the mail, the self that lastly reaches its recipient will bear solely a spectral relation to the self that you’ve in the meantime turn out to be. And when their letter arrives, in response to yours, the lags compound. Ghosts commingle within the mail, and all of the whereas precise correspondents stay painfully out of contact.
For Kafka, this doomed the venture of immediacy—“How did people ever get the idea they could communicate by letter!”—however for Rilke and Kappus it was a vital function of letter writing’s occult know-how. “So much has to happen,” Rilke warned Kappus, in his second letter, “has to go right, a whole constellation of circumstances has to be in place, for anyone to actually advise, much less help, another person.” They have been in some ways out of synch, misaligned. But, exactly as a result of their letters produced so many ghostly selves, they made it potential for Rilke and Kappus to fulfill in the next realm. The constellations we see within the evening sky have, in spite of everything, been fashioned by gentle despatched from vastly distant factors in house and time.
In his introduction to the 1929 version of the letters, Kappus informed the story of how he had come to put in writing to Rilke within the first place. One autumn day, he had been studying Rilke’s poems within the backyard of his army academy, when the chaplain walked by and noticed the amount; Rilke, it turned out, had additionally been a cadet. When Kappus wrote to him, the older poet may need imagined that he was being contacted by the self he’d left behind. Kappus, for his half, discovered the story of the transformation of a “pale, skinny boy” into the person whose poems he revered a form of miracle—and one which portended an identical transformation for himself.
“What we call fate,” Rilke wrote to Kappus, “emerges from out of the person, it doesn’t impinge on the person from without.” Was he providing recommendation or merely describing a future that he was already residing—and for which Kappus, if he might reply sure, could be certain? “The future is stationary,” Rilke wrote. “It is we who are moving in infinite space.” There’s one thing scary about being addressed on this manner, about being informed that your future lurks inside you, however that you’ll have turn out to be a special individual as soon as it has emerged. This is a wierd approach to think about the movement of time—and the brand new version of letters helps to make its dysfunction seen. In his translation, Damion Searls has determined to not interleave the correspondence. Instead, he prints Kappus’s letters in the back of the e book, as if they make up an appendix. A curious impact of that editorial determination is to make the letters from the younger poet really feel as if they’ve been added after the actual fact—nearly as if Kappus’s letters had been fabricated to finish the constellation begun by Rilke’s responses.
In a way, I feel, they have been. What Kappus was studying was not the right way to be like Rilke however as a substitute the right way to be just like the individual whom Rilke was addressing: the right way to acknowledge the recipient of Rilke’s letters as the person he would possibly turn out to be. In May, 1904, on Kappus’s twenty-first birthday, he acquired his seventh letter from Rilke. Surrounded by household and pals—the individuals whose firm couldn’t fill the void he felt—the envelope arrived as if from one other world. It contained a shock. Kappus had despatched Rilke one other poem, a sonnet filled with adolescent longing—and this time Rilke had responded. He informed him it was one of the best poem that Kappus had shared to this point. Then he copied it out, phrase for phrase, and despatched it again. Why? “Because I know that it is important, it is a new experience, to rediscover one’s own work in someone else’s handwriting,” Rilke wrote. “Read the lines as though they were someone else’s and you will feel deep inside how much they are yours.”
Rilke’s act of transcription captures one thing essential in regards to the nature of letters. When we correspond by mail, the phrases we get to maintain are the phrases of the opposite—not our personal. Near the tip of his life, Kappus added a brand new clarification for why his personal letters have been superfluous: “The reader learns more about the recipient from Rilke’s letters than from the letters he wrote himself.” These have been the letters that Kappus had held on to for many years; for him, they have been essentially the most enduring archive of his inside life. We would possibly discover one thing distressing on this prepared assumption of another person’s narrative of our lives. And but, Kappus’s correspondence has one thing else to show us, one thing elementary and unnerving about what self-creation typically entails: to vary your life, you’ll have to ask its destruction.
A decade after receiving Kappus’s first letter, Rilke started to put in writing the poems generally considered his biggest, “The Duino Elegies.” (A new translation, by Alfred Corn, was printed in April.) Those are the poems, much more than the letters to Kappus, that I bear in mind studying after I was seventeen. I used to be, clearly, lovelorn. I had written her a letter, and, within the quiet hours of the summer season, ready for what more and more appeared like a response that wasn’t coming, I found that Rilke’s poems, in Stephen Mitchell’s translations, have been writing again to me. By that I imply not merely that the strains supplied knowledge that was keyed to my (all-too-common) predicament, however slightly that, as I learn, my strange, incoherent life appeared artfully organized there on the web page forward of me, level by abruptly luminous level. The poems have been studying my thoughts and reflecting it again as another person’s poetry. Was I that another person? My version is filled with the startled pencilled underlinings of that summer season. I bear in mind waking from a dream one evening and feeling just like the house round me was electrical, charged with unusual new phrases.
Those phrases got here to Rilke out of nowhere. In January, 1912, he had been nearing a disaster in his psychological life, lower off from his skill to put in writing poetry, and contemplating getting into psychoanalysis. He had been invited by Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis to remain at her citadel in Duino, Italy, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. According to her memoirs, Rilke was pacing in entrance of the home throughout a violent storm in the future, eager about a letter that he needed to write. As if from the wind itself, Rilke heard the strains that started his “First Elegy”: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / hierarchies?” It’s a wierd story, at the same time as myths of poetic origin go. The wind spoke to Rilke, but it surely additionally spoke for him, throwing its voice into his physique.
When Kappus wrote to Rilke, he might as properly have been asking the identical query. Who, if he cried out, would hear him? From the place Kappus acquired his letters, Rilke did appear an angel, a messenger with divine energy. To permit himself to be written into existence by Rilke, to be informed that he was one thing, he would first need to undergo a form of erasure.
In “The First Elegy,” Rilke describes an identical disaster. He would, he realized, need to threat his life so as to go on residing:
In Duino, when the wind started to scream, Rilke muttered aloud, “What is that? What is coming?” The reply was one which he had already written to Kappus. It was the long run towards which he was transferring; it was coming from inside him; it held in its days each his life and his dying.