The concept of hell is only important in so far as it points to a concept of heaven. The concept of insanity only matters because it is a step toward supersanity (48).
In Religion and the Rebel, Wilson wants to define what he means by “heaven” and “supersanity,” but first he wants to get at the true meaning of Existenzphilosophie, or at least “the meaning that the Outsider attaches to it” (ibid.). This is a German word that means “the philosophy of existence.” It was also the title of a book by philosopher, Karl Jaspers, published in 1938.
One begins to understand the meaning by accepting the notion that all humans make a complete mess of their lives. “The Outsider cannot help feeling that men do not learn from experience — not the really important things” (ibid.). It doesn’t matter how charmed a life a person has lived, they always seem to falter at some point and come tumbling down. One could point at countless examples.
When adulthood is reached, most men seem to reach a level of maturity at which they remain until their faculties begin to decay. There are, of course, some men who seem to squeeze the subtle essence from their experience and learn by it: the great poets and artists (ibid.).
The essence of Existenzphilosophie, according to Wilson, is “systematising one’s knowledge of how to live by the most rigorous standards – by the Outsider’s standards. Very few men can serve as examples of this kind of development.” The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, is “the epitome of the existentialist poet,” (ibid.) according to Wilson.
Wilson chooses Rilke as an example because “he was, in many senses, a failure.” He “never seemed to find his feet. He was lonely and dissatisfied to the end” (ibid.). So, even though one can be a failure, for the most part, one can still produce art of a very high quality, which is timeless. Besides, failure, like beauty, perhaps, is in the eyes of the beholder. Van Gogh believed himself to be a failure, but now the whole world knows him and the beauty of his work.
The outward perception by the masses of the Outsider is usually that he or she is a complete and utter failure. Many musicians fall into this category. Their parents may have believed they would never go anywhere in life, or succeed at anything. John Lennon was seen as a societal misfit in his childhood:
I was the one who all the other boys’ parents—including Paul’s father—would say, ‘Keep away from him’… The parents instinctively recognised I was a troublemaker, meaning I did not conform and I would influence their children, which I did. I did my best to disrupt every friend’s home … Partly out of envy that I didn’t have this so-called home … (Wikipedia).
The Outsider is a square peg who society tries to cram into a round hole, to quote an oft-used cliche. Rilke was such a square peg. He was a different kind of Outsider than Lennon, however. Rilke was an odd, oversensitive youth, having been too close to his mother, perhaps. Apparently, in childhood, for awhile his mother “brought him up as a girl, dressing him completely in girl’s clothes until he went to school…”(49) Nevertheless, Wilson says, Rilke possessed “a toughness that is quite peculiar to him: a Baudelaire-like capacity to accept his own pain and transmute it; to hammer it into creation” (ibid.).
When it came to becoming a poet, Rilke was an autodidact. Wilson says if Rilke had died at age twenty-five, no one would have remembered him. He willed himself to be a poet. “It is the fact that he so thoroughly dramatised himself in the role of poet. The life of Rilke is an astounding case of self-creation” (50). Wilson goes into a short biography of Rilke. He discovered Nietzsche around 1895 or so. It was a major turning point for him, and Nietzsche had a tremendous impact on the young man. Two years after having met Lou Salome and her husband in Munich in 1897, all three set out for Russia. Wilson says “this trip marks the turning point in his career” (52). Upon his return to Germany, Rilke completed work that not too long afterwards would make him famous.
Wilson asks, “In what sense was he an Outsider” (54)? He was an usual kind of Outsider, for one reason because he moved in very affluent circles. One of his main friends and patrons was the Princess Marie von Thurn, who provided the sensitive poet with much sympathy, becoming a mother-figure for him. She also assisted him with financial support. It was at the Princess’ home where he wrote the initial Duino Elegies. The Great War, in which he served, greatly affected his creativity. It was a long while before he would finish them. A six-month stay in a castle lent to him by a friend provided the proper atmosphere for him to finish the Elegies, as well as the amazing Sonnets to Orpheus. He died in 1926. But back to the original question. What made Rilke an Outsider? What made him a visionary? Wilson attempts an answer:
Rilke might almost be said to have made himself a poet by an act of will. As I have already mentioned, his early poetry shows very little talent; unlike a Rimbaud, a Hugo von Hofmannsthal, he did not create a great poetry at sixteen. He envisaged his ideal of the poet, and then quite deliberately acted the poet until he became one. He widened his receptive powers; and when the great experience of Russia came, he was ready for it. The broad rivers, the forests, the vast cathedrals and churches, the general feeling of a people untouched by Western materialism, produced a sudden heightening of his sensibilities, an ecstatic receptiveness. After the Russian experience, his work became ‘saturated with religion.’ The first two parts of the Stundenbuch (Book of Hours) are called ‘The Book of Monastic Life’ and ‘The Book of Pilgrimage’; they are the meditations of a Russian monk on ‘God, nature and human life.’ J. B. Leishman has said that everything Rilke saw or felt in Russia was a revelation of God. It is quite clear that for the young poet, for whom the world up till then had been a gloomy, hostile, difficult place, Russia seemed like a spiritual Utopia. No doubt the Russia of 1900 was not quite the Russia that Rilke wanted to imagine; what matters is that the image of ‘holy Russia’ changed him from a mere poet to a visionary, and in doing so, made him into a far greater poet (56).
As we’ve learned before, the Outsider is primarily a religious person who eventually becomes a visionary. With such verse as the following, this can surely be said of Rilke:
Early successes, Creation’s favourite ones,
mountain-chains, ridges reddened by dawns
of all origin – pollen of flowering godhead,
junctions of light, corridors, stairs, thrones,
spaces of being, shields of bliss, tempests
of storm-filled, delighted feeling and, suddenly, solitary
mirrors: gathering their own out-streamed beauty
back into their faces again (From the Second Elegy, translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved).
Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957
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