Thursday, June 14, 2012

Rilke: Fear of the Inexplicable

But fear of the inexplicable has not alone impoverished
the existence of the individual; the relationship between
one human being and another has also been cramped by it,
as though it had been lifted out of the riverbed of
endless possibilities and set down in a fallow spot on the
bank, to which nothing happens. For it is not inertia alone
that is responsible for human relationships repeating
themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and
unrenewed: it is shyness before any sort of new,unforeseeable
experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope.

But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes
nothing, not even the most enigmatical, will live the relation
to another as something alive and will himself draw exhaustively
from his own existence. For if we think of this existence of
the individual as a larger or smaller room, it appears evident
that most people learn to know only a corner of their room, a
place by the window, a strip of floor on which they walk up and
down. Thus they have a certain security. And yet that dangerous
insecurity is so much more human which drives the prisoners in
Poe's stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons
and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their abode.

We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares are set about
us, and there is nothing which should intimidate or worry us.
We are set down in life as in the element to which we best
correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of
years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we
hold still we are, through a happy mimicry,scarcely to be
distinguished from all that surrounds us. We have no reason to
mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors,
they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abuses belong to us;
are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we
arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us
that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now
still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust
and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those
ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into
princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses
who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps
everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless
that wants help from us. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"To be silent is good, safe and picturesque" (Dostoevsky)

"Whom no one will know of."
"'There is nothing hidden that shall not be made manifest.'"
"You're certainly laughing."
"Well, if you take it so to heart you'd better try as soon as possible to specialize, take up architecture or the law, and then when you're busy with serious work you'll be more settled in your mind and forget trifles."
I was silent. What could I gather from this? And yet, after every such conversation I was more troubled than before. Moreover I saw clearly that there always remained in him, as it were, something secret, and that drew me to him more and more.
"Listen," I said, interrupting him one day, "I always suspect that you say all this only out of bitterness and suffering, but that secretly you are a fanatic over some idea, and are only concealing it, or ashamed to admit it."
"Thank you, my dear."
"Listen, nothing's better than being useful. Tell me how, at the present moment, I can be most of use. I know it's not for you to decide that, but I'm only asking for your opinion. You tell me, and what you say I swear I'll do! Well, what is the great thought?"
"Well, to turn stones into bread. That's a great thought."
"The greatest? Yes, really, you have suggested quite a new path. Tell me, is it the greatest?"
"It's very great, my dear boy, very great, but it's not the greatest. It's great but secondary, and only great at the present time. Man will be satisfied and forget; he will say: 'I've eaten it and what am I to do now?' The question will remain open for all time."
"You spoke once of the 'Geneva ideas.' I didn't understand what was meant by the 'Geneva ideas.'"
"The 'Geneva idea' is the idea of virtue without Christ, my boy, the modern idea, or, more correctly, the ideas of all modern civilization. In fact, it's one of those long stories which it's very dull to begin, and it will be a great deal better if we talk of other things, and better still if we're silent about other things."
"You always want to be silent!"
"My dear, remember that to be silent is good, safe, and picturesque."
"Of course. Silence is always picturesque, and the man who is silent always looks nicer than the man who is speaking."
"Why, talking as we do is no better than being silent. Damn such picturesqueness, and still more damn such profitableness."
"My dear," he said suddenly, rather changing his tone, speaking with real feeling and even with a certain insistence, "I don't want to seduce you from your ideals to any sort of bourgeois virtue, I'm not assuring you that 'happiness is better than heroism'; on the contrary 'heroism is finer than any happiness,' and the very capacity for it alone constitutes happiness. That's a settled thing between us. I respect you just for being able in these mawkish days to set up some sort of an 'idea' in your soul (don't be uneasy, I remember perfectly well). But yet one must think of proportion, for now you want to live a resounding life, to set fire to something, to smash something, to rise above everything in Russia, to call up storm-clouds, to throw every one into terror and ecstasy, while you vanish yourself in North America. I've no doubt you've something of that sort in your heart, and so I feel it necessary to warn you, for I really love you, my dear."
What could I gather from that either? There was nothing in it but anxiety for me, for my material prosperity; it betrayed the father with the father's kindly but prosaic feelings. Was this what I wanted by way of an idea for the sake of which any honest father would send his son to face death, as the ancient Roman Horatius sent his sons for the idea of Rome?
I often pressed him on the subject of religion, but there the fog was thicker than ever. When I asked him what to do about that, he answered in the stupidest way, as though to a child:
"You must have faith in God, my dear."
"But what if I don't believe in all that?" I cried irritably once.
"A very good thing, my dear."
"How a good thing?"
"It's a most excellent symptom, dear boy; a most hopeful one, for our atheists in Russia, if only they are really atheists and have some little trace of intelligence, are the best fellows in the whole world, and always disposed to be kind to God, for they're invariably good-humoured, and they're good-humoured because they're immensely pleased at being atheists. Our atheists are respectable people and extremely conscientious, pillars of the fatherland, in fact… ."
This was something, of course, but it was not what I wanted. On one occasion, however, he spoke out, but so strangely that he surprised me more than ever, especially after the stories of Catholicism and penitential chains that I had heard about him.
"Dear boy," he said one day, not in my room, but in the street, when I was seeing him home after a long conversation, "to love people as they are is impossible. And yet we must. And therefore do them good, overcoming your feelings, holding your nose and shutting your eyes (the latter's essential). Endure evil from them as far as may be without anger, 'mindful that you too are a man.' Of course you'll be disposed to be severe with them if it has been vouchsafed to you to be ever so little more intelligent than the average. Men are naturally base and like to love from fear. Don't give in to such love, and never cease to despise it. Somewhere in the Koran Allah bids the prophet look upon the 'froward' as upon mice, do them good, and pass them by—a little haughty, but right. Know how to despise them even when they are good, for most often it is in that they are base. Oh, my dear, it's judging by myself I say that. Anyone who's not quite stupid can't live without despising himself, whether he's honest or dishonest—it makes no difference. To love one's neighbour and not despise him—is impossible. I believe that man has been created physically incapable of loving his neighbour. There has been some mistake in language here from the very first, and 'love for humanity' must be understood as love for that humanity which you have yourself created in your soul (in other words, you have created yourself and your love is for yourself)—and which, therefore, never will be in reality."
"Never will be?"
"My dear boy, I agree that if this were true, it would be stupid, but that's not my fault, and I was not consulted at the creation. I reserve the right to have my own opinion about it."

All that will come about in a very commonplace way

Then I besieged him with questions, I fell upon him like a starving man on bread. He always answered me readily and straightforwardly, but in the end always went off into the widest generalizations, so that in reality one could draw no conclusions from it. And yet these questions had worried me all my life, and I frankly confess that even in Moscow I had put off settling them till I should meet him in Petersburg. I told him this plainly, and he did not laugh at me—on the contrary, I remember he pressed my hand.

On general politics and social questions I could get nothing out of him, and yet in connection with my "idea" those subjects troubled me more than anything. Of men like Dergatchev I once drew from him the remark that "they were below all criticism," but at the same time he added strangely that "he reserved the right of attaching no significance to his opinions." For a very long time he would say nothing on the question how the modern state would end, and how the social community would be built up anew, but in the end I literally wrenched a few words out of him.

"I imagine that all that will come about in a very commonplace way," he said once. "Simply un beau matin, in spite of all the balance-sheets on budget days, and the absence of deficits, all the states without exception will be unable to pay, so that they'll all be landed in general bankruptcy. At the same time all the conservative elements of the whole world will rise up in opposition to everything, because they will be the bondholders and creditors, and they won't want to allow the bankruptcy. Then, of course, there will follow a general liquidation, so to speak; the Jews will come to the fore and the reign of the Jews will begin: and then all those who have never had shares in anything, and in fact have never had anything at all, that is all the beggars, will naturally be unwilling to take part in the liquidation… . A struggle will begin, and after seventy-seven battles the beggars will destroy the shareholders and carry off their shares and take their places as shareholders, of course. Perhaps they'll say something new too, and perhaps they won't. Most likely they'll go bankrupt too. Further than that, my dear boy, I can't undertake to predict the destinies by which the face of this world will be changed. Look in the Apocalypse though … "

"But can it all be so materialistic? Can the modern world come to an end simply through finance?"

"Oh, of course, I've only chosen one aspect of the picture, but that aspect is bound up with the whole by indissoluble bonds, so to speak."

"What's to be done?"

"Oh dear, don't be in a hurry; it's not all coming so soon. In any case, to do nothing is always best, one's conscience is at rest anyway, knowing that one's had no share in anything."

"Aië, do stop that, talk sense. I want to know what I'm to do and how I'm to live."

"What you are to do, my dear? Be honest, never lie, don't covet your neighbour's house; in fact, read the Ten Commandments—it's written there once for all."

"Don't talk like that, all that's so old, and besides … it's all words; I want something real."

"Well, if you're fearfully devoured by ennui, try to love some one or something, or at any rate to attach yourself to something."

"You're only laughing! Besides, what can I do alone with your Ten Commandments?"

"Well, keep them in spite of all your doubts and questions, and you'll be a great man."

Friday, June 08, 2012

Ovid: To His Mistress

YOUR husband will be with us at the Treat; 
May that be the last Supper he shall Eat.
And am poor I, a Guest invited there,
Only to see, while he may touch the Fair?
To see you Kiss and Hug your nauseous Lord,
While his lewd Hand descends below the Board?
Now wonder not that Hippodamia's Charms,
At such a sight, the Centaurs urged to Arms;
That in a rage they threw their Cups aside,
Assailed the Bridegroom, and would force the Bride.
I am not half a Horse (I would I were):
Yet hardly can from you my Hands forbear.
Take then my Counsel; which observed, may be
Of some Importance both to you and me.
Be sure to come before your Man be there;
There's nothing can be done; but come how e'er.
Sit next him (that belongs to Decency);
But tread upon my Foot in passing by.
Read in my Looks what silently they speak,
And slily, with your Eyes, your Answer make.
My Lifted Eyebrow shall declare my Pain;
My Right-Hand to his fellow shall complain;
And on the Back of a Letter shall design;
Besides a Note that shall be Writ in Wine.
When e'er you think upon our last Embrace,
With your Fore-finger gently touch your Face.
If you are pleased with what I do or say,
Handle your Rings, or with your Fingers play.
As Suppliants use at Altars, hold the Board,
When e'er you wish the Devil may take your Lord.
When he fills for you, never touch the Cup;
But bid th' officious Cuckold drink it up.
The Waiter on those Services employ.
Drink you, and I will snatch it from the Boy:
Watching the part where your sweet Mouth hath been,
And thence, with eager Lips, will suck it in.
If he, with Clownish Manners, thinks it fit
To taste, and offer you the nasty bit,
Reject his greasy Kindness, and restore
Th' unsavory Morsel he had chewed before.
Nor let his Arms embrace your Neck, nor rest
Your tender Cheek upon his hairy Breast.
Let not his Hand within your Bosom stray,
And rudely with your pretty Bubbies play.
But above all, let him no Kiss receive;
That's an Offence I never can forgive.
Do not, O do not that sweet Mouth resign,
Lest I rise up in Arms, and cry, 'Tis mine.
I shall thrust in betwixt, and void of Fear
The manifest Adult'rer will alppear.
These things are plain to Sight; but more I doubt
What you conceal beneath your Petticoat.
Take not his Leg between your tender Thighs,
Nor, with your Hand, provoke my Foe to rise.
Which I, myself, have practised all before!
How oft have I been forced the Robe to lift
In Company to make a homely shift
For a bare Bout, ill huddled o'er in hast,
While o'er my side the Fair her Mantle cast.
You to your Husband shall not be so kind;
But, lest you should, your Mantle leave behind.
Encourage him to Tope; but Kiss him not,
Nor mix one drop of Water in his Pot.
If he be Fuddled well, and Snores apace
Then we may take Advice from Time and Place,
When all depart, when Complements are loud,
Be sure to mix among the thickest Crowd.
There I will be, and there we cannot miss,
Alas, what length of Labour I employ,
Just to secure a short and transient Joy!
For Night must part us; and when Night is come,
Tucked underneath his Arm he leads you Home.
He locks you in; I follow to the Door,
His Fortune envy, and my own deplore.
He kisses you, he more than kisses too;
Th' outrageous Cuckold thinks it all his due. 

But, add not to his Joy, by your consent,
And let it not be given, but only lent.
Return no Kiss, nor move in any sort;
Make it a dull and a malignant Sport.
Had I my Wish, he should no Pleasure take,
But slubber o'er your Business for my sake.
And what e'er Fortune shall this Night befall,
Coax me to-morrow, by forswearing all.