Between the Pages of Letters to A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke VI

But when you notice that it is vast, you should be happy; for what (you should ask yourself) would a solitude be that was not vast; there is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear, and almost everyone has hours when he would gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial or cheap, for the tiniest outward agreement with the first person who comes along, the most unworthy…. But perhaps these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But that must not confuse you. What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours––that is what you must be able to attain. (Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. NY: Modern Library, 2001, p. 53-54).

In the sixth chapter of Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes the above words to Kappus from Rome, on December 23, 1903. The letter begins, “I don’t want you to be without a greeting from me when Christmas comes and when you, in the midst of the holiday, are bearing your solitude more heavily than usual” (53). Then it continues with the passage above. The language is warm and exudes kindness from one thoughtful word after the other. This letter, like the rest, is an act of love, but not merely an act of love of Kappus but an act of love of Rilke himself. And the warmth of the words have as much to do with their core sensitivity as with how much they expose their author. Sooner or later, one realizes for oneself that what continues to be said has merit: one writes best what one knows. Thus Rilke writes of what he knows as an act of love for another who could understand. But what urges one to connect with another? What urges one to desire a particular company and shun another? What urges one to want to walk for hours within oneself and not run into anyone? These are questions I would try to focus on here in the exploration of Rilke’s definition of solitude. 

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Solitude is “the state of being alone” or “a lonely and secluded place.” But solitude as a state outside company does not satisfy Rilke’s definition. Especially when one considers today, the attacks made on one’s attention from every little nook and cranny under such labels as the news, social media, etc. For instance, deleting my Facebook account was easy and not being on social media constantly is something I enjoy. But I do suffer the email addiction as well as a YouTube addiction! Now tell me, how can one possibly encounter no one on YouTube for hours? That is, how can one possibly claim to be in solitude whiles one’s eyes are heavily glued to their computer? In his 1836 essay, “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: 

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.

This sounds a lot like what Rilke is saying. And if reading a book is not solitary then binge watching YouTube whilst alone is definitely not solitary. Hence the dictionary’s other definition of solitude, as “a lonely and secluded place” seems the more fitting for both Rilke and Emerson’s definitions. Solitude then is an empty state. And this emptiness is perhaps what Rilke means by the repeated word, “vast.” One could escalate somewhat and argue that is possible that for both Rilke and Emerson, solitude is a wilderness. An inner wilderness. But if this is the case then one wonders if solitude can be perceive not merely as a state within self, but rather the self itself. Thus to be solitary one becomes vast, or in other words one becomes a wilderness

I think I have experienced that heaviness that Rilke defines as a successful state of solitude and I think this state is popularly known as loneliness. It is as silent as a barren desert, and sings like a virgin forest. One of the best examples of solitude in this sense that I can recall coming across is in J.P. Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne (1919), in the description of the megalomaniac character, Mr. Bigum. There it is written: 

Yet there were other times when the solitude of his greatness weighed upon him and depressed him. 
Ah, how often, when he had communed with himself in sacred silence, hour after hour, and then returned again to consciousness to the audible, visible life around him, had he not felt himself a stranger to its paltriness and corruptibility. Then he had often been like the monk who listened in the monastery woods to a single trill of the paradise bird and, when he came back, found that a century had died. Ah, if the monk was lonely with the generation that lived among the groves he knew, how much more lonely was the man whose contemporaries had not yet been born. 
In such desolate moments he would sometimes be seized with a cowardly longing to sink down to the level of the common herd, to share their low-born happiness, to become a native of their great earth and a citizen of their little heaven. But soon he would be himself again. (28) 

Very dramatic, yes, but Mr. Bigum, like is often with the megalomaniac cannot see himself anywhere other than the higher ground. Yet, when the bombastic layers of his thoughts are striped, Mr. Bigum makes a very interesting point. The perspective here is that solitude is satisfying and is a state that one could wish to not emerge from. In fact, its discomforts are felt when it ejects one, or when one retracts from it, and the side effects can feel defiling. This seems the case beyond the heavy and difficult stage to which Rilke speaks of. But it is even more interesting to compare Jacobsen’s speaker's perspective to Nietzsche's in Beyond Good and Evil (1966)––published 1866––where he says: 

Every choice human being strives instinctively for a citadel and a secrecy where he is saved from the crowd, the many, the great majority––where he may forget ‘men who are the rule,’ being their exception––excepting only the one case in which he is pushed straight to such men by a still stronger instinct, as a seeker after knowledge in the great and exceptional sense. Anyone who, in intercourse with men, does not occasionally glisten in all the colors of distress, green and  gray with disgust, satiety, sympathy, gloominess, and loneliness, is certainly not a man of elevated tastes; supposing, however, that he does not take all this burden and disgust upon himself voluntarily, that he persistently avoids it and remains, as I said, quietly and proudly hidden in his citadel, one thing is certain: he was not made, he was not predestined, for knowledge. If he were, he would one day have to say to himself: ‘The devil take my good taste! but the rule is more interesting than the exception––than myself, the exception!’ And he would go down, and above all, he would go ‘inside.’ (37) 

If I am interpreting correctly, it seems that which is called cowardly by the speaker in Niels Lyhne is considered the attribute of the stronger man by Nietzsche. For Nietzsche seems to be saying that it is usually the norm to want to hide from that which seems to be other than one, yet for the sake of knowledge––or perhaps wisdom––the braver man chooses to encounter the other, or the seemingly common even though they raise in him the uncomfortable.  By going down, I am assuming that Nietzsche means that such persons choose, rather than be dragged, to what the speaker in Niels Lyhne refers to as “sink down to the level of the common herd.” But what interests me most in Nietzsche’s point is the last phrase, “and above all, he would go ‘inside.’” Go inside where? Inside the rule or inside the self whilst amongst them? If one were to merge with the other, does one brings along what one deems oneself, and where does one place this self as one hops about in the other? 

I can see Mr. Bigum disagreeing with Nietzsche's point of view and I am not myself sure I understand him exactly. But I am intrigued by his notion of going inside. If by going inside he means going down amongst the seemingly common while deeply stationed, consciously, within one's values or idea of self, then another interesting perspective that gives both Nietzsche and Rilke’s thoughts good prodding is again that of Emerson’s. In his 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance,” Emerson says “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." Thus Emerson agrees with Jacobsen that solitude––outside company––can become comfortable, and with Nietzsche that solitude is easier than facing society. But solitude is even more challenging to contain when carried into company. For it makes one solitary in environs where the solitary is often ridiculed and shunned as she represents the uncomfortable and thus the unpopular.

Emerson’s understanding of solitude as an internal state that proceeds through society and lack of company fits in with Rilke’s concept how? I think the connection is in the precursor of the passage, “there is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear.” In that solitude is really always the same, in that it is a vastness,––not a simple instance?––or perhaps a wilderness that is boundless in that it is heavy upon the shoulder that would rather carry it rather than accept to merge with it. Here lies the similarities: in whatever form it comes upon one the vastness of its solitariness is same. For where it is difficult to bear––i.e. solitude outside company for Rilke––others have found it enjoyable but found the same challenge elsewhere––i.e. within company for Jacobsen. Nietzsche adds further to this, again from Beyond Good and Evil, in saying: 

Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it even with the best right but without inner constraint proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring to the point of recklessness. He enters into a labyrinth, he multiplies a thousandfold the dangers which life brings with it in any case, not the least of which is that no one can see how and where he loses his way, becomes lonely, and is torn piecemeal by some minotaur of conscience. Supposing one like that comes to grief, this happens so far from the comprehension of men that they neither feel it nor sympathize. And he cannot go back any longer. Nor can he go back to the pity of men. (41-2) 

This could mean that the ache of solitude is not a pain the majority understands. And the more one merges with solitude, the further one becomes distanced from those who never bother to know it. And since many avoid it rather than welcome it, the distance between the one who practices solitude is vast from those who do not. In a sense this means one is getting lost, but in a sense it also means that one is allowing oneself to transform into a very exciting form: a wilderness. And according to Nietzsche, this is a privilege of the strong.

Perhaps one can say then that, solitude, though perceived differently in varying situations, still makes identical demands and discharges similar challenges for all who encounter it. It is, in a sense, a wilderness that empties being. An independence that insists on freedom from even that which it offers itself to. Solitude, then is that which demands and prefers its own emptiness. It is a weight when one insists on harboring it rather than having it dispel one. It is a joy when one is able to surrender to it, yet in coming back to self, one suffers the weight of one's self in its absence. And hence Rilke's advices, "But when you notice that it is vast, you should be happy... What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours––that is what you must be able to attain." The common thread, then, is that solitude is not for the one who cannot give up herself, for one does not go into solitude to meet anything but solitude. In a sense one does not even go into solitude one becomes solitude.


Here are the links to the other posts in the series:
+ Between the Pages of Letter to A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke I


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