Letters on Rilke, Part One

May 11

“Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.” -Rilke, “Letters on Cezanne”

I’ve been a story teller my whole life. Since I was a kid, I wove tales to entertain myself and other people. Outrageous stories with super-heroes, talking animals, journeys to outer space. Although obviously fictional in content, sometimes I would insist that what I told was the truth, and had, in fact, really happened. These were kids’ stories, like insisting there was some sort of monster in the water, that I had once seen Bigfoot, that I found a lost valley of dinosaurs. But the thing is, a story doesn’t have to be real to be true. The point was that sometimes, someone would actually believe me and there was a brief, transcendent moment where I related the tale and they went there with me. Not only that, the story was entirely real, unquestioned. The story was the reality.

A story may never have happened, but a well written one has truth that is apparent. As the story ages its power disseminates throughout society without diminishing. It becomes a strong enough part of common experience that it shapes and defines it. People quote the story without knowing, its ideas are incorporated into the strata of our being, until it is hard to say who we are as a people without the story that we’ve all heard before. What was once mere fiction transforms into a level of being that is higher than our mundane lives. As its idea pervades us all the story becomes real.  This is a very actual and very terrible truth.   

I had an implicit understanding with myself that I was telling stories for a higher purpose. Each iteration was different than the one that preceded it, closer to the unattainable perfection every writer imagines but can’t put into words. I tell stories for myself. Each tale reveals a truth of who I am. Art is alchemical-our lives are the alembics and furnaces. As we perfect our craft we somehow perfect the world that is around us, the two spheres mirror each other. To that end-the perfect story we know we will never actually pen-we put forth our efforts to capture some inner essence or truth of who we are and cast it onto the page, fevered and autistic, so we can read it later and see some small piece of the vast inner world we attempt to describe.

Those who are truly devoted to the quest will undertake any effort to see it fulfilled. I’ve watched others envoid themselves in solitude, drink into dementia, ingest any number of drugs, seek out wild and profane experiences all in the attempt to open their unconscious, to plumb its depths, to interface with the beyond and from that other side, return with a vision of greater meaning. I tried all these things: drinking, fucking, fighting, doing crazy and stupid shit. But none of them really worked for me. It never brought me over the horizon to the other shore. The way was too well-trodden-I merely found myself in lands already traversed by others. I needed to go where there was no path. To be continued… 

2 comments

  1. As a Rilke fan and a fan of Art, Artists and the compulsion to write in order to avoid Madness, I loved this, Peter and it echoed so profoundly with what I’ve been delving into this week on my Facebook page: ‘How I Stay Sane’ (hope you’ll check it out). Just the whole thing about whether writing (Art) is a dysfunctional and pathological extension of narcissism (Freud’s belief) or whether it is simply and complex-ly a necessity for a very sensitive, very intuitive individual who needs to make sense of human experience and share this sense-making with other human beings, thereby verbalising universal human experience (Jung).

    I’m assuming, based on this entry, that you, like me, agree with Jung 😉

    Carry on the good fight! Light, Love & Beauty – Germaine

  2. Peter /

    Thanks Germaine-you assume correctly, I definitely fall into the Jung camp (although I concede that Freud had valuable points).

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