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God is your Next-Door Neighbour

The mesmerising, magniloquent poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke continues to exert its almost religious influence over readers. Rilke makes an entire world of meaning out of a personal vision, using religious language and images.

The very valuable and, in my view, main achievement of this book (In the company of Rilke : why a 20th-century visionary poet speaks so eloquently to 21st-century readers yearning for inwardness, beauty & spiritual connection, Stephanie Dowrick, Allen & Unwin, 2009, ISBN 978-1-74237-180-1, RRP) is its description and commendation of the reading of poetry as a satisfying and necessary practice, available to anyone. Stephanie Dowrick identifies Rilke as gifted with ‘negative capability’. I know of several interpretations of what Keats meant by ‘negative capability’, and Dowrick herself definitely fits one of them: the ability to objectify in words her own experiences. In this case, Dowrick’s experience of reading poetry.

Poetry, its intimacy, its immediacy and intensity, its “irrational truths”, are encountered, examined and praised. Dowrick is also good on translation and what languages owe to one another, that translation is a serious reciprocal arrangement. This takes on special force in her discussion of Rilke’s use of Das Offene, where she argues persuasively for the English word Open. Das Offene can mean the spaciousness of landscapes, but also the space or inner-world, the silent communal space that courses through all beings. His poems dwell on the inwardness of the soul, the inwardness that narrative and psychology cannot categorise.

In ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ Rilke famously exclaims. “You must change your life.” This is a fundamental challenge of the spiritual life and Dowrick, who has made it her career business to teach spiritual lessons, sees that “to change one’s life (one’s vision of life and therefore one’s living of it) is not a choice; it has become inevitable.”

She shows how “Rilke achieves a reaarangement of our usual concepts and limitations using a writing register that is far more often sensual and emotional than it is abstract.” Granted, Dowrick does not use his poetry as ‘scripture’, but her sustained seriousness can sometimes be too reverent. Though she acknowledges that the poet was himself open to irreverent treatment, when she quotes Auden’s brilliant depiction of Rilke as “The Santa Claus of Solitude”, we are left with the sense that Stephanie is not amused.

Rilke demands primarily an intuitive response: our responses force consciousness of our own inner world.

You darkness that I come from,
I love you more than the fire
that rings the world,
because it shines
only for a single orbit,
and of this creature knows nothing at all.

But the darkness holds everything together:
forms and flames, animals and myself,
all thrown together,
humans and powers –

and it could be that a great strength
moves all about me where I am.

I believe in nights.

Rilke is concentrated on God; Dowrick is fascinated with Rilke’s God. Like Meister Eckhart and other mystical writers before and since, Rilke finds new ways of talking about God.

You, Neighbour God, whom I often
rouse with loud knocks in the long nights,

I do this because I rarely hear you breathing,
and know: You are in the great room, alone.

And when you need something, no one’s there,
no one to bring drink to your outstretched hand.

The surprise of finding that God is your next-door neighbour, and that he needs you as much as you need him, is one reason why we go back to Rilke. Dowrick proceeds: “Rilke’s ‘God’ is … a vulnerable neighbour one moment, like a ‘clump of a hundred roots’ the next; ‘an ancient work of art’, then a much-needed ‘hand’, a cathedral, a dreamer. Absent here, breath-close there; as often in darkness as in light.” There is a need for popular conversations about God, however there is something frustratingly safe and certain in Dowrick’s theology that cannot go unmentioned. She persistently glosses over the problem of evil and suffering. And during discussion of Rilke’s idea that an artist’s “responsibility” is to create God, she makes the alarming assertion that “non-artists need religion; ‘God’ needs artists.” This exclusive view of God in relation to humans needs to be tested further by Dowrick, being an open invitation to all sorts of delusory behaviour. I would begin with the simple claim that artists and non-artists all need God, without distinction.

All said, this is a generous, purposive book that inspires as well as informs, showing how Rilke can “shift one’s boundaries and expectations about what writing can achieve” and even open “the exhilarating prospect of what reading, as much as writing, may be for.” Peter Steele said somewhere that, “the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina is precious indeed. There is also such a thing as lectio humana – a steeping of the soul in another soul, mediated by means of words in all their fragility and vitality.” This book is an example of lectio humana, where Stephanie Dowrick shows how poetry can be read, and how a poet like Rilke can be interpreted, with a resultant deepening of our lived experience and understanding.

First published in Eureka Street in 2009


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