Rilke on Being Defeated

The German visionary poet Rainer Maria Rilke was held in high regard by cultural historian Jean Gebser, who even penned a book about his prose and poetry entitled Rilke und Spanien. Gebser (amongst others) seemed to feel that Rilke had his hand on the true pulse of the times, with his sensitivity to the issues of perceiving and being.

I came across one of Rilke’s poems today called “The Visionary” and was struck by how closely it resembled a passage from Carlos Castaneda’s Introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The Teachings of Don Juan. It also recalls some themes from The Chrysalis posted earlier about the delusions of “winning and losing”

The Visionary by Rainer Maria Rilke

I see from looking at the wind tossed trees-
whose branches beat against my trembling windows
the storm’s effect that raged through sullen days,
 And hear the far horizon speak of things
that I cannot endure without a friend
nor love without a sister’s presence

There goes the storm, and in its wake he alters
Shapes, driven on across the woods, across all time
and everything looks as if it were ageless:
the landscape- like a verse out of the book of psalms-
remains unshaken, forceful and eternal.

How little are the things with which we wrestle
What with us wrestles, how so much greater is!
If only we would let ourselves be conquered
as things are overcome by a great storm,
we would expand in space and need no names.

When we victorious are, it is over small things,
and though we won, it leaves us feeling small.
What is eternal, and what is not common,
does not want to be bent by human strength.
This is the angel who in ancient times
appeared to wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when his opponent’s sinews during fighting
began to stretch like long metallic strands
that felt beneath the angel’s gripping fingers
like singing strings responding with deep song.

Whoever was defeated by the angel-
and often one decided not to fight-
left walking proud and upright, full of strength,
and greater still for having felt the power
of these strong hands that molded him, as if
to change his shape.
For winning does not tempt him!
The secret of his growing lies in this:
by being totally defeated and disarmed
by even greater forces and their cause.

The paradox here is that being defeated by strength greater than our own can be the path to victory, (while victory may very well be defeat). The same theme appears in the last combat scene in the final Matrix movie Matrix Revolutions where Neo’s defeat is the necessary condition for his triumph over the rogue agent Mr. Smith.

More to the point, though, certain lines in “The Visionary” brought to mind Castaneda’s later summary recapitulation of his teacher don Juan’s in the Author’s Commentaries to The Teachings of don Juan

The end result which shamans like don Juan Matus sought for their disciples was a realization which, by its simplicity, is so difficult to attain: that we are indeed beings that are going to die. Therefore, the real struggle of man is not the strife with his fellowmen, but with infinity, and this is not even a struggle; it is, in essence, an acquiescence. We must voluntarily acquiesce to infinity. In the description of sorcerers, our lives originate in infinity, and they end up wherever they originated: infinity.

To be defeated by infinity has something to do with Rilke’s own “defeated by the angel” and not to be tempted by “winning,” which is a concern with power. That is, I think, also the true meaning of “muslim”. And in that sense, Rilke was muslim.


7 responses to “Rilke on Being Defeated”

  1. amothman33 says :

    It is not the name it is the process.Starting with infinity and ending with infinity and in between living in infinity.There is a verse in the quran which says that he who is blind in this world is more blind in the other one.I feel sorry for those who feel more important than the other.Rilke and Goethe are exampelary moselm. there are other couple you need to acquaint your self with, Frithjof Schuon and Rene Guenon

  2. Scott says :

    There is a verse in the quran which says that he who is blind in this world is more blind in the other one

    Yes. There’s also a passage in one of Rilke’s Duino Elegies (First Elegy) that speaks to that. I’ll transcribe it,

    “… it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
    to no longer use skills one had barely time to acquire;
    not to observe roses and other things that promised
    so much in terms of the human future, no longer
    to be what one was in infinitely anxious hands;
    to even discard one’s own name as easily as a child
    abandons a broken toy.
    Strange, not to desire to continue wishing one’s wishes.
    Strange to notice all that was related, fluttering
    so loosely in space. And being dead is hard work
    and full of retrieving before one can gradually feel a
    trace of eternity. — Yes, but the living make
    the mistake of drawing too sharp a distinction.
    Angels (they say) are often unable to distinguish
    between moving among the living or the dead.
    The eternal torrent whirls all ages along with it,
    through both realms forever, and their voices are lost in
    its thunderous roar.”

    That’s a marvelous description of the after-death state. “full of retrieving” is what is called “recapitulation” in Castaneda’s work. It’s referred to in some circumstances as having one’s “life flash before one’s eyes”, while others call this “judgement”. Actually it’s more of a review during which the now nameless soul, having shaken off the fetters of the human name (the human archetype, form, or mould — the anthropos), reviews what it did right, and what it did wrong. We are here to learn, and the postmortem recapitulation or review is an essential part of that learning. So, yes, if we’re blind now, we’ll be in even worse shape postmortem. This is one reason why Castaneda’s don Juan taught him to practice the recapitulation now, rather than later. And it is, as Rilke says, hard work being dead.

    Another interesting thing about Rilke’s postmortem vision is how “all that was related” in physical life now flutters about “loosely in space”. Actually, it has its own logic, but it isn’t a sensual, natural, or physical law and logic to which we become accustomed in physical existence. It’s more like what the newborn child experiences “a blooming, buzzing confusion” as William James put it. It’s similar to what I experienced those years ago when my consciousness was in four “identities” simultaneously (as I related in the former Dark Age Blog). It’s easy for me to understand Rilke’s passage, because you can imagine the confusion of perception when your identity is in four distinct forms at once (although this often happens in dreams, I think). Rilke, it seems, had such experiences too, judging from his poetry.

    Thanks for the reference to Schuon. I’ve never heard of him (Guenon I have, and have a book by him around here somewhere). I’ll have to dive into his work on “integral traditionalism”.

    • amothman33 says :

      Thank you for such beautiful exposition.We need not commit the mistake of drawing too sharp a distincion between the two realms as Rilke says.There is another verse which says when we die we get fully awake. This is the flash before one eyes as Cas puts it.We are heading toward universal history quicker than we think. The globle soul.

      • Scott says :

        We are heading toward universal history quicker than we think. The globle soul.

        I hope that is true, Abdulamein. I have been thinking a great deal about that, even when I shouldn’t be.

        In the context of European history, the victory of the historical type “bourgeois” (or German Bürger, English Burgess) over the aristocratic type defines part of the meaning of “modern”. Unfortunately, the bourgeois type now desperately wants and needs to be considered the purpose, goal, and the “end of history” (as Francis Fukuyama and Margaret Thatcher willed it to be) rather than as a transient and temporary historical type like its predecessors. To cite the poet Dylan Thomas, it will “not go softly into that dark night”.

        I’m not sure if there’s an Arab language equivalent for the term “bourgeois”. When Cervantes mocked the aristocratic delusions of don Quixote, he did so from the perspective of an early bourgeois, envious of aristocratic titles, but also mocking of all that was the decadent ancien regime of aristocratic pretensions, which had outlived their time.

        Today, the bourgeois has outlived his time, and is just as much an imbecile as don Quixote, even if he takes himself very, very seriously. That’s the issue today of reactionary politics. If our time is post-modern and post-Enlightenment, then it is also post-bourgeois. And if it is also post-Enlightenment, it is also the Reign of the Imbeciles.

        (I’m feeling a bit cynical today after reading a couple of totally insane articles — that I can only describe as moronic — by climate change deniers).

        The bourgeois type is not, and cannot be, “the global soul”. An Anders Breivik cannot serve as exemplar, nor can an Osama bin Laden. They are, in effect, both opposed to the emergence of the global soul or “integral consciousness” and therefore both promote a clash of civilisations. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main reasons is what Jean Gebser referred to as its narrow “perspectivising consciousness”. Their time is past. They are now becoming history’s past men. That is enough to account for their desperation.

        It is enough to know that the bourgeois is a dying type, and will not go softly into its own dark night.

        • amothman33 says :

          Yes there is bourgeios in the arabic language.Our language determines our thoughts.Nothing permenant.Eveything dies except his face.The only thing that counts is what we register in our tableau.The universe is run through an elphabetical matrix, so is the other life phenomena, specially the human.It is through language we resurrect or die.The deciding factor is truthfullness.A feeling awareness of the power that runs everything.

        • amothman33 says :

          Sorry the NO has fallen.I like to add it is not mere knowledge that count but faithful knowledge.

  3. amothman33 says :

    We live at a time of disclosure, where existence is so naked as Rilke says that there no place that doesnot see you.Complete exposure,nude in the presence of GOD

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