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.