The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Rilke on Our Fear of the Unexplainable

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his spectacular lecture-turned-book on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” More than a decade earlier, in delivering the same annual Gifford Lecture, Hannah Arendt argued that our appetite for “unanswerable questions” is what defines our humanity. But it was another great mind, not a scientist but a poet, who delivered this message with the most luminous immediacy many decades earlier: Rainer Maria Rilke.

In an exquisite passage from his Letters to a Young Poet — a secular masterwork with the timeless resonance of scripture, and the source of Rilke’s wisdom on what love asks of us and how to live the questions — later included in Joanna Macy’s infinitely ennobling A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke (public library), the poet writes in 1904:

The tendency of people to be fearful of those experiences they call apparitions or assign to the “spirit world,” including death, has done infinite harm to life. All these things so naturally related to us have been driven away through our daily resistance to them, to the point where our capacity to sense them has atrophied… Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people; these have been dragged, so to speak, from the river of infinite possibilities and stuck on the dry bank where nothing happens. For it is not only sluggishness that makes human relations so unspeakably monotonous, it is the aversion to any new, unforeseen experience we are not sure we can handle.

Nearly two decades later, he revisits this slippery subject from another angle in a letter to Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy:

The person who has not, in a moment of firm resolve, accepted — yes, even rejoiced in — what has struck him with terror — he has never taken possession of the full, ineffable power of our existence. He withdraws to the edge; when things play out, he will be neither alive nor dead.

To discover the unity of dread and bliss, these two faces of the same divinity (indeed, they reveal themselves as a single face that presents itself differently according to the way in which we see it): that is the essential meaning…

Complement the magnificent A Year with Rilke — which spans from Rilke’s early poems to the last sonnet he wrote days before his death from leukemia, and includes fragments of his letters, diaries, and prose — with Rilke on how befriending death can help us live more fully and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge.

Published February 27, 2015




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