Having never read any of Rilke's poetry, I was told by a friend to read this, my expectation being that it was profound and beautiful. I ended up rolling my eyes through most of it.
Rilke comes off as some sniffly blowhard hipster. School is too difficult, Paris is impossible to focus in, Christmas is a drag, Italy's art is too temporally disconnected to be taken seriously. I would send you some of my work, but I'm so poor that I can't afford to; please go buy a publication, Dear Mr. Kappus. Did I mentioned we're staying my friend's summer house this season? It's nice, but the weather affects my delicate disposition and physique. You understand of course, right, friend?
Rilke is so self-aware of his supposedly particular lens on life, that every correspondence comes of as this pompously dressed up condescension: "If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place."
Or how about this Zen masterpiece, "But they are difficult things with which we have been charged; almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious." People revered for passing off tautologies as wisdom piss me off. If you're implying that the knot of the thing is somehow itself beautiful just because it's a knot and despite the fact that you're the one who tied the fucking thing, then I'll have my coffee elsewhere.
Or all the metaphors to fruit and harvest, when Rilke comes off as someone who would himself wilt in the sun, someone who's never held a hoe or a shovel; these letters read like a Mumford and Sons song (see: Josh Tillman making fun of all the 2010's tropes about suburban kids singing about railroad tracks while wearing wife beaters and $500 boots.)
Or the naive idealistic hippie drivel, like "Physical pleasure is a sensual experience no different from pure seeing or the pure sensation with which a fine fruit fills the tongue; it is a great unending experience, which is given us, a knowing of the world, the fullness and the glory of all knowing. And not our acceptance of it is bad; the bad thing is that most people misuse and squander this experience and apply it as a stimulant at the tired spots of their lives and as a distraction instead of rallying toward exalted moments." I just want to live in the moment, mannnnnnnn. I just love love, mannnnnn. You're doing it all wrong, maaaannnnnn.
Rilke is the kind of guy Hemingway would've beat up, and I wouldn't pity either.
None the less, under the 15 piece suit Dandy Rilke dresses his words up in, there are some good points.
His point on irony, it being a cancer if not wielded thoughtfully and with a purpose other than itself, that's a good point.
His descriptions of sadness are also accurate and insightful: that sadness is a displacement of familiarity that forces your emotions into hiding, something that you have to come to terms with. (Although doesn't this contradict the idea that sensual pleasure is supreme if only you would just look past using it as a salve? If my father dies, should I go get laid and get over it? Pick a side, Rilke.)
The idea that doubt is ultimately useful, but needs to be matured into an instrument you can play masterfully; "Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perplexed and embarrassed perhaps..."
Not worth reading.