How Rilke’s Tale Ends(From Things that Happen when reading Rilke)
I slept, but did not dream. That augers well. I can face reality without illusions. At breakfast I hear a chirp and watch the robin redbreast in the garden, hopping around with a worm in beak, waving it around as though to show me. And sure enough she sluices it down with a sleek rapture of the throat. I can swallow the ending of Rilke’s novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, I think, like that, a repetition forward of my reading forty years ago. Then the robin surprised me by regurgitating the worm, and flying off with it in her beak, revitalised to die another day in the open mouths of her young. No, there would be no harm in a sneak preview. I’ve been granted a sign.
Jumping on my bike, I cycle along whistling like the messenger-boys of my childhood. On this bright new morning, I’m taking myself and The Notebooks to the former Nobel Dynamite site, Paulilles, now a ecological paradise. I chose the place because of another sign, a less explicit one. Alfred Nobel had willed that his heart be opened after his death, just like Malte’s father. His ‘spiritual presence’ would officiate over the confirmation of le fin.
Note (to myself): Nobel had reason to be distrustful of his heart. Dynamite turned out less a gift to humanity than he thought. When his trusted Catalan manager, Philip Barbe, died in 1890, he was found to have fiddled the books massively. Alfred survived him by six years, and bequeathed his fortune to the Nobel Prizes for meritorious services to mankind. When in the late nineteen-fifties, Elie Roque took a blast to save women and children, fellow-worker Georges Malė swore it was time for health and safety. The Nobel Foundation resisted it, and when occupational cancers were diagnosed closed the factory in 1984. The death toll from accidents and dynamite-related diseases was kept under Nobel’s hat, and will never be known. Decontaminating the site took twenty years.
Scrouching under a fig tree, leafless but laden with fruit (a sealing sign. Not only because of Rilke’s sanctification of figs, but for me they are amongst the forbidden fruit – pips could infect my dodgy colon), I skipped two of the three paragraphs, and read the very last one, half expecting a big bang.
‘Was wußten sie, wer er war. Er war jetzt furchtbar schwer zu lieben,
und er fühlte, daß nur Einer dazu imstande sei. Der aber wollte noch
‘ What did anyone know about who he was? Only that he had become almost impossible to love now. He felt that there was only One capable of it. But he is not willing to, not yet.’
A black fossilised fig could have fallen on my head. Dazed, I ride home slowly taking the chemin de vigne, head down on the off-chance of spotting some rue to clear my vision. The gnarled vines point a crooked finger at me. They’ve been picked untimely as bad weather had been wrongly forecast. It isn’t my fault that there are so many grapes left to die. The caprices of the Pyrenees are unpredictable. Rue is also known as herb grace, or ruta graveolens, a bitter burden. The contradictions abound. But I don’t see any tangled bushes with yellowing flowers, greenish bark and whitened branches on my dusty, rocky path. And the only fig tree I pass has no friends, or fruit. Its leaves are witches handkerchiefs. Struck by lightning, perhaps.
I need to let the final paragraph sink in. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the giraffing of ‘One’, signalling God. Malte, the existential young man, loving but unloved, as a last resort reaches out to the mysterium of divine love, that will usher him into enlightenment rather than the black hole of extinction. It’s a leap towards where the Order of the Angels will flap their wings in the Duino Elegies. But the Augustinian ‘not yet’ tells me Rilke’s feet are still on the ground. What he wants when it seems possible is refused.
I’m taken forward twelve years to The Waste Land (1922). TS Eliot ends it with a mantra from the Upanishads, ‘Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata/ Shantih shantih shantih’. It is ‘translated’ in his notes with ‘our equivalent’, a quote from St Paul’s Philippians, ‘The Peace …which passeth understanding’. Two words are missing, ‘of God’. Ezra Pound, as the poem’s hatchet-man, hesitated at the piousity, and so it was cut.
TS Eliot, no doubt, consoled himself by murmuring the preceding lines, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins…’, knowing the educated reader will put God back in. The note is a nod to the converted, shyly heralding the ‘penitential hope’ of Ash Wednesday (1930), his High Church Duino Elegy. But it is not part of the poem. The only giraffed phrase in The Waste Land is ‘HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME’, repeated four times, one beyond cock crow. The answer, in effect, is ‘I’m not ready to close’. There’s not going to be a ‘Goodnight Lou’, I’m off to embrace God. The conclusion is a veiled ‘not yet’.