The Dark Interval: Rainer Maria Rilke, Random House
What The Dark Interval first highlights is that the life of a poet is often interspersed with letters and other forms of correspondence which, taken as a complement to their poems, helps us to make sense of their temperament and world-view. Similar to what Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet accomplishes, this volume – here collected and published for the first time – brings a different perspective and appreciation of the poet into sharper focus.
Reading this series of never-before-translated letters to bereaved friends and acquaintances, one may be reminded of the etymology of the word martyr: to ‘bear witness’. Rather than assume that martyrdom in its highest form results in the death of the flesh, there is in fact – as the original meaning of the word implies – an alternative and perhaps more noble path: to bear witness, which, in the context of the letters written by Rilke, would be to remain as a witness to the mourning process and engaged in exploring the meaning of death in our lives. Rather than actually die (as many of those bereft often succumb to or earnestly wish for), the nature of the death can often be a particular self, outlook, or constructed view of the world: one embraces at least the possibility of transformation and rebirth. This, as I read it, is one of the most important ideas Rilke looks to convey, in what is presented here as an uninterrupted sequence of letters.
As Billy Collins has observed in his endorsement, the pain of loss can force us into a ‘deeper . . . level of life’ and render us more ‘vibrant.’ Certainly, it seems, what is evident is Rilke’s attempt to deconstruct, in effect, the more familiar opposition between life and death, as he is at pains to remind the grief-stricken addressee of the lost person’s continuation – in memory, in ritualistic activities, or incorporated into a new identity that begins to emerge. Going beyond then mere consolation and condolence, Rilke’s words offer philosophical viewpoints on various forms of grief and how death is to be construed. They also serve at times as a therapeutic guide on what to do when having lost all meaning.
What is telling too, in these letters, is a continual emphasis on the life we are presently in. Rilke doesn’t, in other words, direct the reader towards God or faith in a life beyond. Along with the valuable instructions and suggestions he offers, the very practice of reading such words and the alchemy of writing (for those who can) may also provide solace or be a vehicle for the kind of deepening awareness that the poet alludes to. Literature, particularly written out of such loss, is itself testament to a resurrection of sorts. Rilke’s correspondence gifts us this message of hope.
The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief, and Transformation, by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Ulrich Baer, is available from Penguin Random House.