Rilke’s Redemption: The Beloved Poet’s Stirring Letter to His Boyhood Teacher at the Military Academy That Almost Broke His Soul
“Life is very singularly made to surprise us (where it does not utterly appall us).”
By Maria Popova
Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) was not only a writer of remarkable poetic potency, but also an astute observer of the psyche and a tireless champion of our capacity for transcendence. His Letters to a Young Poet remains one of the most psychologically insightful, philosophically lucid, and perennially elevating texts humanity has produced.
Perhaps because the experience stood in such stark contrast with the profound sensitivity from which Rilke’s genius sprang, the five years he spent at a military academy as a boy were both tremendously traumatic and deeply formative for him. He had been sent there by his parents — a traditionalist father who had become a railway officer after a failed military career and a pious, narcissistic, fundamentalist mother. At age eleven, just as his artistic talent was coming abloom, he was immersed into a radically ill-fitted environment where he was subjected to constant contempt and occasional cruelty by his peers and even his teachers, who saw his romantic soul and sentimental spirit as a weakness in the military context. (Cue philosopher Amelie Rorty on the relationship between character and social context.)
In the spring of 1891, with his father’s reluctant permission, Rilke left that “abyss of undeserved misery,” where he had endured physical and spiritual abuse he barely survived. He soon threw himself into the creative life, but remained haunted by the anguish of feeling like those five years — perhaps the most fertile and formative in the human lifetime — had been, for him, squandered beyond salvation.
In November of 1920, shortly before his forty-fifth birthday and already one of Europe’s most celebrated artists, Rilke received a letter from Major-General Sedlakowitz, his former German teacher at the military academy, who sought to reconnect after hearing a lecture on the poet’s work. Sedlakowitz, who had been among the few sympathetic presences in Rilke’s military boyhood but was also very much a part of the institution that so scarred the young soul, wrote with sincere admiration for his onetime pupil. Although he may have hoped for a reply, he couldn’t have anticipated the tremendous response — Rilke met his two-page letter with eight extraordinary pages of difficult truth enveloped in a remarkable generosity of spirit.
Found in the thoroughly satisfying Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1910–1926 (public library), the missive is a masterwork of self-awareness and redemptive reconciliation with a traumatic past, its emotional intensity and introspective potency on par with Kafka’s stirring letter to his abusive and narcissistic father.
Writing on December 9, Rilke begins with the most considered apology for a response lag ever written:
The emotion that agitated me was so complex that I had to let a few weeks pass, comprehending it, as it were, if my thanks were not to be superficial and, in a certain sense, embarrassed, — which would in no way have satisfied your sincere wish to renew acquaintance.
He then plunges into the substance of the trauma he had been repressing for decades — a repression necessary both for his spiritual survival and for his blossoming as an artist:
I would not, I believe, have been able to realize my life — that which I may now, without taking it in the whole, go ahead and call so — had I not, for decades, denied and suppressed all recollection of those five years of my military training; what, indeed, have I not done for the sake of that suppression! There were times when the slightest influence out of that rejected past would have disintegrated that new and fruitful consciousness of my own that I was struggling for —, and when sometimes it inwardly obtruded itself, I had to lift myself out over it, as over something belonging to a most alien, a quite unrecognizable life. — But later too, when I found myself more surrounded and protected in a life increasingly my own, that affliction of my childhood, long and violent and far beyond my age at the time, seemed incomprehensible to me —, and I was able to understand its impenetrable fatality just as little as the miracle that finally — perhaps at the last moment — came to free me from the abyss of undeserved misery.
When I left the military college, I stood as one exhausted, physically and spiritually misused, retarded, at sixteen, before my life’s enormous tasks, defrauded of the most spontaneous part of my energy and at the same time of that preparation, never again retrievable, which would have built me clean steps for an ascent that, weakened and damaged, I had now to begin before the steepest walls of my future.
And yet even as he immerses himself in these painful recollections, Rilke is able to rise above the cesspool of trauma and shine a sidewise gleam on the unexpected, uncontrollable twists and turns that govern our existence, for better or for worse:
Life is very singularly made to surprise us (where it does not utterly appall us).
Reflecting on his former teacher’s sympathies, Rilke adds:
Those five evil and anxious years of my childhood having been so utterly cruel, without a single mitigation. [But] I imagine I have achieved a certain degree of fairness and I wish for nothing more than some day to be allowed to recognize even in the boundless suffering of those years those brighter spots in which — because there was no longer any other way — some kindness befell me as if by chance.
Rilke recounts how, later in life, he came across Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead — an autobiographical novel about the great Russian author’s time in a Siberian prison camp — and what enormous solace he found in the parallels between their experiences, the “helplessly abandoned heart” they shared. Having later spent some time in Russia, Rilke reflects on what the “Slavic soul” taught him about oppression and freedom, about resignation and redemption, as he comes to terms with his own boyhood trauma:
The Russian showed me in so many examples how even a servitude and affliction continually overpowering all forces of resistance need not necessarily bring about the destruction of the soul. There is here, at least for the Slavic soul, a degree of subjection that deserves to be called so consummate that, even under the most ponderous and burdensome oppression, it provides the soul with something like a secret playroom, a fourth dimension of its existence, in which, however crushing conditions become, a new, endless and truly independent freedom begins for it.
Was it presumptuous of me to imagine that I had, instinctively, achieved a similar complete submission and resignation in those earliest years, when that block of an impenetrable misery had been rolled over the tenderest first shoots of my nature?
After noting how touched he is by his former teacher’s gesture of reaching out to reconnect, Rilke ends the letter with extraordinary generosity of spirit, the kind calling to mind poet and philosopher David Whyte’s assertion that “to forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt.” Rilke writes:
Must I, in conclusion, reproach myself for having gone into so much detail and above all to such a length? Should I have taken the renewal of acquaintance in your kind letter more “unconcernedly”? — No; I believe that for me there was only the choice, either to remain silent or really to let you take part in the emotion which the only voice that has ever come across to me from thence was bound to arouse in me. If you, Sir, can take this unusual answer in a sense as just as it is forbearing, then you will also feel that I cannot close in any other way than with the expression of sincere wishes for your welfare. How should I not see a special privilege in your remembrance ever having afforded me the pleasure of expressing them!
Complement the wholly revelatory Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke with the great poet on how to live the questions, what it really means to love, what books do for our inner lives, and how great sadnesses bring us closer to ourselves, then revisit Nietzsche on why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty and the very different letter Albert Camus wrote to his boyhood teacher shortly after winning the Nobel Prize.
Published March 29, 2016