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Losing Rilke: The Dark Lure of Mra

Losing Rilke: The Dark Lure of Mra

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Losing Rilke

ship. Indeed, the letters exchanged by these two great poets read, from the very

beginning, as an intimate conversation between equals who, moreover, share

not only an intuitive rapport with one another, but also a gratifying awareness

of their poetic kinship.3 Even in Rilke’s first, gracious letter to the unsuspecting

Tsvetaeva, he takes her talent on faith, writing nostalgically of his recent trip to


But why, I must now ask myself, why was it not vouchsafed me to meet you, Marina

Ivanovna Tsvetaeva? After Boris Pasternak’s letter I must believe that for both of us, such

a meeting would have led to the deepest, innermost joy. Will it sometime be possible to

make up for this?! 4

In this passage, Rilke unwittingly adopts Tsvetaeva’s central thematic concern:

namely, the missed or impossible meeting between two great poets. Furthermore, he inscribes his Duino Elegies, which he sends to her at Pasternak’s request, as if with her own most cherished words and images:

Wir rühren uns. Womit? Mit Flügelschlägen,

mit Fernen selber rühren wir uns an.

Ein Dichter einzig lebt, und dann und wann

kommt, der ihn trägt, dem, der ihn trug, entgegen.

[We touch each other. With what? With beating wings, with distance

we touch each other. One poet only lives, and now and then it happens,

he who bears him comes toward the one who bore him.] 5

Here are Tsvetaeva’s wings, symbolic throughout her oeuvre of the poetic gift;

here is her motif of the poet’s spiritual elevation and consequent isolation; here

is her theme of poetic kinship across space and time. In her response to Rilke,

she staggers under the force of his miraculous recognition: ‘‘Rainer, Rainer, you

said this to me, without knowing me, like a blind man (a seer!) by chance. (The

best shots are blind!).’’ 6 Tsvetaeva confidently casts Rilke as the blind man who,

as far back as her ‘‘Poems to Akhmatova,’’ has been her soul mate, her double,

and her muse.

Rilke, whom she would never have dared approach on her own initiative, has

suddenly, magically come into her most intimate life of the soul like an apparition of her innermost self. In the process, he shatters Blok’s wounding indifference and unresponsiveness to Tsvetaeva years before. Not yet having heard her

poetic voice, Rilke believes in her gift—and by this single, generous gesture,

he confirms the metaphysical basis for her poetic genius. Indeed, for all her humility before Rilke, Tsvetaeva is now no longer a poetic adolescent, but a fully

formed poet confident of her own voice and destiny. Since her renunciation of

Pasternak on the spiritual plane (in the spring of 1923), and the ruinous rupture

of her passionate, though short-lived liaison with Konstantin Rodzevich on the

physical plane (in the fall of 1924), she has cultivated a careful tranquility—

The Dark Lure of Mra


akin, at times, to barrenness—in her affections and emotions.7 It is no wonder

at all, therefore, that she reacts to Rilke’s uninvited incursion into her circumscribed existence with shock akin to sheer ecstasy. Even Rilke’s ensuing death,

unwelcome though it is, she will paradoxically experience as a gift—his very

last gift to anyone, just as his ‘‘Elegie an Marina Zwetajewa-Efron’’ is, at least

as far as Tsvetaeva knows, the last poem he ever wrote.8

For, unbeknownst to Tsvetaeva at the time, Rilke, when he wrote his first

letter to her, was already stricken with the leukemia that would kill him just

half a year later—indeed, what he casts as his recent pleasure trip to Paris was,

in reality, a visit to a sanatorium. The precise moment when Tsvetaeva realizes Rilke’s illness is unclear; she tactfully refrains from bemoaning her imminent loss to him in her letters. Still, Rilke provides enough hints that it is

inconceivable that the always prescient and perceptive Tsvetaeva could have

remained oblivious to the gravity of his condition. This, however, is what the

predominance of commentators on the Tsvetaeva–Rilke correspondence have,

in fact, assumed; moreover, they have read the letters that Tsvetaeva and Rilke

exchanged during the summer of 1926 as an imbalanced contest between her

importunate longing and his genteel, polite, but perturbed and detached resistance to her desires. As a result, most critical focus has been on the perceived

rifts between the two poets. Rilke’s very willingness to engage in the correspondence at all has been viewed as a condescension to Tsvetaeva’s supposed

desperation, and the eventual end to the correspondence is interpreted as the

logical result of this inherent emotional inequality.

On the contrary, I would argue that not only the abrupt end to the correspondence in September 1926, but also an earlier lapse in late May, were not

the result of any mismatch or misunderstanding; instead, these breaks are testimony to Tsvetaeva’s tacitly growing recognition of Rilke’s illness. The pianist

Artur Schnabel once said, ‘‘The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But

the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides!’’ 9 Indeed, the

breaks in Tsvetaeva’s correspondence with Rilke speak as eloquently as do the

letters, and sometimes more so, for they reveal the limits of what can be said in

human language and, therefore, suggest the presence of unspoken sympathies

between the two poets that are testimony to the genuineness of their bond. In

my reading of the Tsvetaeva–Rilke correspondence, therefore, I emphasize the

lapses, the breaches, and the silences as an intrinsic part of the communication. Furthermore, I show that this correspondence is yet another movement in

the ongoing development of Tsvetaeva’s symphony of poetic mythologies—a

movement that begins with a recapitulation of previous themes but then varies

them so greatly that, in the process, an entirely new melody is created.

Thus, Rilke first arises in Tsvetaeva’s mythology, for all his imposing greatness, as Pasternak’s shadow.10 Only gradually does he separate and grow into

his own complete, independent being—that is, only gradually does he attain


Losing Rilke

his own myth in her mythopoetic system. In the process, Tsvetaeva shifts her

creative energies from renunciation of the living (Pasternak) to a passionate embrace of the dying and, later, the dead (Rilke). There are two distinct phases to

Rilke’s metamorphosis in Tsvetaeva’s poetics that I trace in this chapter. The

poets’ correspondence records the first phase, in which she at first mistakenly

anticipates that Rilke will be distinguished from Pasternak by her real meeting

with him, in contrast with her nonmeeting with the other poet. Her subconscious realization that such a meeting is not, after all, going to occur shapes

the latter part of the correspondence and gives rise to her poema ‘‘Attempt at a

Room’’ [‘‘Popytka komnaty’’] (3:114–19), composed in early June 1926.

The second and definitive stage in Tsvetaeva’s poetic mythologization of

Rilke occurs in the wake of his sudden death on 29 December 1926—an event

that she, despite her premonitions, experiences as no less shocking than was his

entry into her life in the first place. At this point, she leaves behind her previous dreams: her hopes of a future, posthumous meeting with Pasternak and

of a future, real-life meeting with Rilke. In her two great poemy ‘‘New Year’s

Letter’’ [‘‘Novogodnee’’] (3:132–36) and ‘‘Poem of the Air’’ [‘‘Poema vozdukha’’] (3:137–44), she tests the outer limits of human language in her pursuit of

Rilke’s fleeing soul, enacting in the process a present-tense, out-of-body union

with the dead poet that is paradoxically more palpable and immediate than is

her connection with any member of the living. In this way, Rilke’s passing acts

as a ‘‘cure’’ to all the irreconcilable divisions and contradictions in her poetics.

Through a vicarious poetic sharing of Rilke’s death, Tsvetaeva imagines in her

writing that she exits the constraints of body, factuality, and physical reality,

which are in the process replaced by pure abstractions.11

She thereby achieves a new wholeness that was previously inaccessible, of

which the dynamic, open, widening circle is the image. Her vertical poetic vector, with its combustive requirements for a successful launch into the beyond,

is replaced by a reassuring, undulating curvaciousness; the binary oppositions

that previously gave her poetry its impetus are simply erased, as death is transformed from the ultimate defeat into the ultimate idiom of spiritual liberation.12

Tsvetaeva’s communion with Rilke and her embrace of the infinite resonance

of death are, truly, the high point of her poetic career. Yet this achievement of

her lifelong fantasy is at the same time profoundly ambivalent from an earthbound (i.e., mortal) perspective. For, in the absoluteness of her merger with the

deceased Rilke, as we shall see, all of her earthly anchors are lost.

A Rebellion against ‘‘No’’: Tsvetaeva’s Letters to Rilke

When Tsvetaeva received Rilke’s generous first letter, his death was surely the

farthest thing from her mind.13 Rilke’s initial, delicate hints about the state of his

health must almost surely have gone astray. Thus, for instance, although Rilke

The Dark Lure of Mra


mentions his visit to Paris the previous year, he does not disclose the length of

his stay (eight months), nor the fact that it was undertaken for medical reasons.

In his letter of 10 May, he reveals that he has been staying in a sanatorium since

December, but still gives no indication of the seriousness of his condition. Even

when he returns to this topic in his letter of 17 May and admits that he is ill, he

is extremely vague on the details of his disease, making it sound rather like a

malady of the spirit, and suggesting that the primary purpose of his journey to

the sanatorium was, after all, to visit old friends: ‘‘For the first time in my life

and somehow insidiously, my own solitude, with a physical sting, turned against

me, making being alone with myself suspicious and dangerous . . . That is why

I am here.’’ 14 Still, as the hints begin to accumulate, Tsvetaeva surely realizes

the truth. Her metaphysical instincts are refined, and, as a result, she is often

prophetic, sometimes against her own will.

Yet she persists in pointedly ignoring the specter of death that threatens to

intrude momentarily in her new friendship; she continues to write to Rilke as if

there is nothing that could ever divide them. This behavior is not evidence that

Tsvetaeva is oblivious to Rilke’s affliction (indeed, she inquires, in her letter of

13 May, how long he has been sick); instead, it speaks of a studied combination of respect and stubborn will: she both respects Rilke’s reticence (indicating

his intense need for privacy, a need that she shares) and rebels against the cruel

reality from which he attempts to shield her. Her unwillingness to discuss Rilke’s

illness is evidence of a very Russian superstitiousness. That which is unspoken

remains unreal; perhaps the sheer force of her desire not to lose Rilke will be

enough to appease the Evil Eye.

The first rift in the two poets’ correspondence came after Rilke’s letter of

17 May, the very letter in which he first discusses his ailment. For two weeks

afterwards, Tsvetaeva refrained from writing to him, pouring out her grief instead—in coded form, never explicitly—in letters to Pasternak: ‘‘I am not writing to Rilke. Too great a torment. Fruitless. It gets me off-track—distracts me

from poetry . . . He—doesn’t need it. For me—it’s painful’’ (6:253). Apparently

misled by her delicacy, critics have assumed that Tsvetaeva must have misinterpreted Rilke’s comments about his illness as a subtle rebuff to her. Indeed, it

has become commonplace to explain the breach in the two poets’ correspondence in late May as the result of Tsvetaeva’s having taken offense at Rilke’s

obscure comment that, even if he ceases writing to her for a time (as a result

of his incapacity), she should continue her letters to him.15 Yet she openly admits to Pasternak that she is writing in code—that is, that she is not revealing to

him the true source of her grief: ‘‘Boris, I do not write true letters [ne te pis'ma

pishu]. The real ones don’t even touch the paper’’ (6:251). Mindful of Rilke’s

wish for privacy and wishing to spare Pasternak the grief that she herself is feeling, Tsvetaeva hides the facts that she has begun to discover in the generality of

lyrical lament. Furthermore, she could not have taken offense at Rilke’s plea for


Losing Rilke

indulgence, for in her very first letter she had released him from all obligation

to herself: ‘‘You need not answer me. I know what time is and I know what a

poem is. I also know what a letter is. So, then.’’ 16

Instead, Tsvetaeva’s quick reversal of this avowal is evidence not of hurt feelings, but rather of panic and of great despair. Faced with the possibility of Rilke’s

grave illness and encroaching death no sooner than he—the incarnation of poetry, her living muse, for whom she has been searching and waiting all her life—

has finally searched her out (with a little help, of course, from Pasternak), Tsvetaeva is overcome by psychological shock, a variant of the emotional paralysis

that typically strikes her when she is in the grip of passion. She prefers, for a

time, to cut all ties between herself and Rilke, secluding him once again in the

safe never-never land of her imagination from which he first emerged, rather

than admit his mortality and the possibility that he will soon die and leave her

behind. Death has always been an important theme in Tsvetaeva’s poetic repertoire; now, however, the purely theoretical nature of her previous poetic musings on death is suddenly, shockingly brought into relief, and she needs some

time to assimilate death’s reality in relation to a poet, the Poet, Poetry itself (in

her first letter to Rilke she terms him ‘‘Poetry embodied’’ 17).

During the initial weeks of her correspondence with Rilke, Tsvetaeva neglects Pasternak; this fact in itself indicates her difficulty during this period in

considering the two poets as separate beings in the context of the mythological

frameworks by which she makes poetic meaning of the accidents of her life.

When at the end of May she stops writing to Rilke, Pasternak at once reemerges

in her consciousness. She writes him four letters during the next two weeks;

yet when she resumes writing letters to Rilke in June, her correspondence with

Pasternak yet again becomes infrequent and then, in July, lapses completely,

not to be resumed until after Rilke’s death. This time, Tsvetaeva’s break with

Pasternak is not just tacit. After a crushingly final response to his very real intentions of coming to live with her in France 18 (his marriage was in the process

of disintegrating, and his wife and son had left for an extended stay in Germany),

she writes (in a letter that has not survived) to tell him of her feeling that their

correspondence should end—a decision that he supports in his reply. In a letter

to Rilke, she justifies her resolve thus:

When I found out about this his second abroad, I wrote: two letters from abroad—forget

it! There is no such thing as two abroads. Abroad and at home [Ausland und Innland]—

yes. I am his abroad. [Ich bin Ausland.] Am and will not share.

Let his wife write to him, and he to her. Sleep with her and write to me—yes, write to

her and write to me, two envelopes, two addresses (one France)—sistered by his handwriting... Him for a brother—yes, her for a sister—no.19

Tsvetaeva had once been willing to allow Pasternak’s sexual love for his wife

to coexist with the spiritual bond that she and he felt so keenly; yet she is filled

The Dark Lure of Mra


with antipathy at the thought that Pasternak’s wife will now share in their special

epistolary relationship.

Oddly, however, Pasternak is the first person to whom Tsvetaeva will turn for

comfort after Rilke’s death. Indeed, she will interpret Rilke’s death (to Pasternak, at least) as granting her right to be together with Pasternak in a way that,

during the previous years, she has conscientiously and systematically renounced: ‘‘His death gives the right of way for you and me to exist together—

more than the right of way, it is his personal order for such a union’’ (6:268).20

This strange inference is less abstruse if it is recalled that Rilke himself expresses his own fear, in his letter of 19 August, that his presence in Tsvetaeva’s

life is squeezing out Pasternak: ‘‘Truly, it was after all my arrival that barred

the path of his passionate streaming towards you?’’ 21 Indeed, it does seem as

though Tsvetaeva’s protest against Pasternak’s ‘‘two abroads’’ masks her discomfort at her own practice of that very same romantic bifurcation of which

Pasternak stands accused. For she, too, finds herself unable to balance the huge

emotional and creative demands of a simultaneous correspondence with her two

ideal, absent poetic lovers/muses: Rilke and Pasternak, Switzerland and Russia.

Tsvetaeva’s giving notice to Pasternak—although certainly her jealousy of his

letters to his wife contains some amount of truth—is, at the same time, a tactful

way of bowing out of a demanding correspondence.

Her rejection of Pasternak is also a kind of bargain with fate: by renouncing

Pasternak, perhaps she will gain a meeting with Rilke, thereby retrieving him

from the clutches of death.22 Thus, surprisingly, when she resumes her letters to

Rilke, she is not subdued and resigned to the reality of his impending death but,

on the contrary, more insistently focused than before on her desire to meet him

not only in the spirit, but in the flesh. On the one hand this agenda is a protest

against Rilke’s mortality; by proving his physical reality, Tsvetaeva might somehow defeat the possibility of its dissolution. At the same time, because of her

private awareness of Rilke’s illness, her plans to meet him are a kind of a game:

as if she knows now that the prospect of any meeting is purely fictional and her

solitude therefore is safe, she throws herself wholeheartedly into the imagining.

Accordingly, the topic of a meeting forms the refrain of all her letters following the May rift in the two poets’ correspondence. This theme is linked with

a burgeoning intimacy of tone—a palpable intensification of her desire. This

boldness of tone has been perplexing and even offensive to other commentators on the correspondence; however, as I argue, Tsvetaeva’s fervency must be

considered in the context of her artistic style—as an indication that Rilke has

entered into the metaphysical economy of her poetics, becoming the successor

both to the winged horseman and to Pasternak/Eros.23 Similarly, the coolness

of Rilke’s tone in response to Tsvetaeva is a function of his own style, rather

than an index of his respect or interest.

Nevertheless, the logically and emotionally complicated underpinnings of

Tsvetaeva’s hopes and desires with respect to Rilke often lead to confusing in-


Losing Rilke

consistencies in her letters. For instance, in her first letter to him after her twoweek-long silence, she begins by denying her desire for Rilke altogether, in a

paradoxical, jumbled passage in which any desire of hers to be together with

Rilke is superseded by her intense desire not to be—together with Rilke:

I get over my desires quickly. What did I want of you? Nothing. Rather—to be near you.

Maybe simply—to come to you.Without a letter it began to seem I was without you. The

longer I waited—the worse it got. Without a letter—without you, with a letter—without

you, with you—without you. Into you! Not to be.—To die!

Such am I. Such is love—in time. Thankless and self-destructive. Love I neither respect nor love.24

Tsvetaeva here marks the particular nature of her desire for Rilke as something

made dearer by its ephemerality.25 It is the pain of this recognition that has kept

her from writing to him for the past two weeks, she intimates. However, on

14 June, in a parenthesis which she does not quite succeed in stifling (or so her

punctuation suggests), she admits to loving Rilke and to her desire to come to

him—a desire that she no longer directly qualifies: ‘‘Rainer, I love you and want

to come to you.’’ 26

Yet this desire is spiritual and metaphorical rather than explicitly sexual as

it might seem. Indeed, other sections of the same letter indicate that Tsvetaeva

is continuing to come to terms with the possibility of Rilke’s death. She finds

something fantastic in his authorship of the ‘‘Elegie’’ to her, saying that she had

always expected such a poem to be written by her lover who would appear ‘‘after

one hundred years’’ [nach hundert Jahren].27 A photograph Rilke has sent her

seems to record the poet’s metaphysical passage from the landscape, from the

terrestrial world:

The smaller [photograph] is a farewell. Someone departing on a journey, who one last

time, apparently in haste—the horses are already waiting—looks over his garden, like

a page covered with writing, before it goes off in the mail. Not tearing himself away—

freeing himself [Nicht sich losreißend—loslưsend]. One who—gently—lets fall from

his hands an entire landscape. (Rainer, take me with you!) 28

Tsvetaeva apparently intends these passages as distancing devices that will offset her hesitant overtures toward intimacy in other places in her letters. In the

closing salutation of her letter of 6 July, similarly, we find the simultaneous assertion and erasure of physical desires: ‘‘May I kiss you? For a kiss is no more

than an embrace, and to embrace without kissing is almost impossible!’’ 29 Rilke,

perhaps, misunderstood such contradictory passages; or Tsvetaeva, at least, is

afraid that he might misunderstand and so takes pains to provide ongoing commentaries to her own affectionate outbursts.

As we have seen, Tsvetaeva’s balancing act between imagination and anticipation, between the abyss of the spirit and the abyss of the senses, originates

The Dark Lure of Mra


in ‘‘On a Red Steed.’’ Here as there, she attempts to achieve a spiritual union

with her beloved by imagining an encounter that neutralizes explicitly sensual,

sexual language and harnesses it to her poetic purposes. Yet by the time of her

friendship with Rilke, five years after her composition of the earlier poema,

the stakes are far higher, and her sober appreciation of the stark reality of her

longings’ extravagance supersedes her earlier romantic thrill-seeking. Nevertheless, Tsvetaeva is heroic in her continued attempts to achieve the impossible

and conquer death through the force of her own hopeless passion. Aware that

her endeavor is doomed to failure in the most mundane sense, she battles to create a poetic narrative that will transform the senseless tragedy of Rilke’s coming

death into a resonant, consoling myth.

The climax to Tsvetaeva’s efforts in this direction comes in her letter of 2 August, in which she makes a dangerously tender, alarmingly explicit proposition

to Rilke:

Rainer, I want to come to you also because of the new Marina who can emerge only with

you, in you. And also, Rainer (Rainer is the leitmotif of this letter)—don’t be angry, this

is me, I want to sleep with you—to fall asleep and to sleep . . . Simply—sleep. And nothing further. No, also: to burrow my head into your left shoulder, my arm on your right

shoulder—and nothing further. No, also: to know even in the deepest sleep that it is you.

And also: to hear how your heart resounds. And—to kiss your heart.30

Tsvetaeva’s motivation for these dreams, as she indicates, is one of poetic selfrealization: ‘‘I want to come to you also because of the new Marina who can

emerge only with you, in you . . .’’ Earlier, in her second letter to Rilke, she

has already made clear that her love for him is, indeed, a love for this inspirational ‘‘third’’ in the romantic union of every human twosome, whose onedimensional bond is thereby transformed into an upward-striving triangle (she

may well, at this early stage in her correspondence with Rilke, have in mind

her own special connection with Pasternak)—or, to put it yet another way, her

love for Rilke is the infinity that elevates every apparent end to an awareness

of perpetually creative process. Rilke is not a barrier to her poetic striving, but

the medium of her desire:

Priests are only an interference between me and God (gods). You, you are my friend

[Freund], who deepens and heightens the joy [Freude] (is it joy?) of a great hour between

two (the eternal pair!); without whom one cannot any longer sense any other; and whom

one after all loves exclusively.31

In order to achieve this union with the infinity that Rilke represents, however,

Tsvetaeva finds it necessary to resort to sexual language in order, paradoxically,

to undo all spiritual limitations to which her gender subjects her. Her trepidation at the risks entailed by such a project moves her in her 13 May letter (after

the suggestive comment that, while she was reading Rilke’s poems, her bed was


Losing Rilke

transformed into a cloud) to warn: ‘‘My love, I already know everything—from

me to you—but for much it is still too early. Something in you must still become

accustomed to me.’’ 32

By the time Tsvetaeva composed her letter of 2 August, she must have felt that

Rilke had already grown sufficiently accustomed. For in this letter she inverses

and thus ‘‘decodes’’ her epistolary attempts at sexual transcendence through her

uplifting love for Rilke, when she confesses, with a strikingly painful, almost

embarrassing frankness, her lifelong feeling of alienation from sensual love;

the feigned automatism of her sexual responses; and other bodies’ instinctive

(animal-like) mistrust and dislike of her:

Bodies languish in my company. They sense something and don’t believe me (mine), although I do everything like everyone else. Maybe too... unselfishly, too... benevolently.

Also too trustingly! . . . Love hears and feels only itself, it is very focused and punctual,

that I cannot fake.33

This passage is turgidly phrased—Tsvetaeva’s verbal defense against the brutally painful honesty of her shyly proferred self-evaluation—and Rilke may

well have failed to recognize that the topic of her discussion is, in fact, sex. Tsvetaeva, perhaps realizing this, makes one more attempt to offset the damaging

effect she fears her admission of her yearning for Rilke may have had. Thus, later

in the same letter, she explicitly plots out the nature of her poetic project, emphasizing the movement of her bodily language away from the physical toward

the symbolic, the abstract, the metaphysical:

I have always felt the mouth to be a world:34 a vault of sky, a cave, a ravine, an abyss

[Untiefe].35 Always I have translated the body into the soul (disembodied!), and ‘‘physical’’ love—in order to love it—I have so glorified that suddenly nothing remained of it.

Plunging in, I have sapped it, penetrating, I have squeezed it out. Nothing remained of

it but me myself: soul . . .36

The mouth—instrument of the kiss that she has already confessed to desiring—

is, for Tsvetaeva, the entryway into the abyss of the soul. She requires physical

love only insofar as the experience allows her to overcome the body’s need and,

thus, to transcend the body altogether. Her sweet-talk with Rilke, she is trying

to tell him, is only her way of trying to realize all the possibilities of her soul.

Her sensual means of expression is simply a necessary metaphor, just as her

gender is a necessary facet of her physical incarnation. These obstacles must be

acknowledged and actively transgressed if they are to be overcome.

Rilke, apparently, is somewhat confused by Tsvetaeva’s mixed signals. Yet he

does not respond directly to her epistolary lovemaking; rather, he expresses his

consternation between the lines, as it were. For example, he chides her gently

for her suspicions against the battered exterior of a train that nevertheless reliably transports one of her letters. Rilke in this passage possibly intimates a

The Dark Lure of Mra


metaphoric connection with himself: ‘‘The train, Marina . . . which you subsequently mistrusted, rolled toward me breathlessly; the uncanny mailbox was

old, as camels and crocodiles are old, shielded since youth onward by old age:

the most dependable quality.’’ 37 Rilke also tactfully protests Tsvetaeva’s shunning of Pasternak in his favor—which he may feel places a romantic obligation

on himself that he is unwilling to accept—as well as what he interprets as her

claim to exclusive status in his affections: ‘‘I find you to be too strict with me,

in wanting me never and nowhere to know Russia, except through you! I rebel

against any exclusion (which grows out of the love-root but then turns wooden):

do you recognize me thus, and also thus?’’ 38

Tsvetaeva reflects upon this charge in her last known letter to Pasternak

(1935), where she writes:

All my dear ones—and they are few—turned out to be infinitely softer than I am, even

Rilke wrote to me: ‘‘You are right, but you are hard’’—and this upset me because I could

not be otherwise. Now, taking stock of my life, I see: my seeming harshness was only a

form, a contour of being, a necessary self-protective boundary—against your softness,

Rilke, Marcel Proust and Boris Pasternak’’ (6:277).

Tsvetaeva finds it necessary to insist upon divisions and separations that the

male writers in her life need not make. By an ironic coincidence, she answers

Rilke’s admonishments in what also ends up being her last full-length letter to

him. She does so straightforwardly and calmly, explaining that she was merely

indulging in flights of verbal inventiveness that can have, at best, only an antagonistic relationship to the reality of any encounter between the two poets.

Unperturbed, she smoothes over Rilke’s misinterpretation in her characteristically outspoken, authoritative manner:

Rainer, when I tell you: I am your Russia, I am only saying (once again) that I love you.

Love lives by exceptions, emissions, exclusivities. Love lives by words and dies by deeds.

I am too prudent really to want to be your Russia! An idiom of speech. An idiom of love

[Redensart. Liebesart] . . . I want only the word, which for me is already a thing. Deeds?


I know you, Rainer, as I know myself. The farther you go from me—the farther into

me. I live not inside myself, but outside. I do not live in my mouth and he who kisses

me passes me by.39

Meanwhile, Tsvetaeva reiterates her desire for a meeting with Rilke, but this

time in a matter-of-fact tone and practical terms, explaining that she will wait

for him to plan the details of the trip and that he will have to cover her part of

the expenses (she is too poor to afford the journey, as she wryly admits: ‘‘a rare

guest!’’ 40). To this end, she gives him the dates when she might be able to travel

and makes suggestions as to what the best location for their meeting would be.

Rilke had earlier proved receptive to similar explanations; although he some-


Losing Rilke

times interpreted her statements and her exuberance in ways she had not intended, she had always managed to convince him later of her rectitude, through

the sheer force and exactness of her language. In fact, Rilke finds himself under

the sway not only of Tsvetaeva’s compelling poetic logic, but also of her unique

manner of composition:

As in your first letter, so in each successive one I marvel at your very scrupulous seeking

and finding, your inexhaustible means of expressing what you intend and, always, your

rightness. You are right, Marina (is that not rare for a woman?), so right in the most valid,

the most innocent sense. This rightness has no aim and hardly any origin; but is so purely

frugal because it emanates from wholeness, from completeness—and thence your eternal right to infinity. Whenever I write to you, I want to write as you do, to express myself

as you do, adopting your way with words that is imperturbable, yet so sensitive.41

Despite their occasional misunderstandings, Tsvetaeva’s and Rilke’s letters to

one another truly read like a dialogue of equals, in which neither is shy about expressing criticisms of the other—nor do they take offense at these criticisms, for

each respects the independence of the other’s views and sensibilities. Both poets

are always ready to explain, to excuse, to reevaluate, and to forgive. Far from

seeming ‘‘an unwilling participant [in what had begun as correspondence but

had evolved into a one-sided epistolary contest],’’ 42 Rilke, who all his life enjoyed and actively sought out epistolary friendships with a wide range of female

correspondents, appears frank, honest, and sincere in his admiration and sympathy for Tsvetaeva—although he is equally frank in expressing misgivings when

such arise. His letters no less than hers are filled with immense tenderness and

even passion, and he shares with her his thoughts, feelings, and accumulated

wisdom with the utmost generosity.

Furthermore, when Tsvetaeva discovers that, even with her helpful marginal

notes, Rilke is able to read her relatively straightforward early poems only with

great difficulty, I would argue that her chagrin is caused by her unaccustomed,

painful awareness of cultural distance from Rilke, as she explains to Pasternak:43

Boris, what follows is vileness (on my part): Rilke reads my poems with difficulty, although just ten years ago he read Goncharov without a dictionary . . . What a waste! In

this for a moment I saw him as a foreigner, i.e. myself as a Russian, and him as a German! Humiliating. There exists a world of firm (and base, firm in their baseness) values,

about which he, Rilke, should not know in any language. Goncharov . . . loses too much

when uttered by Rilke. (6:257–58)

It is Rilke’s mention of the prosaic, obsolete Goncharov that offends Tsvetaeva

here—signaling as it does Rilke’s jarringly foreign perspective on Russian literature—more than the simple fact of his rusty Russian. Elsewhere for Tsvetaeva,

Rilke is the universal, quintessential Poet of all poets, for whom no linguistic

or cultural barriers should exist. Nevertheless, Rilke’s inability to appreciate

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Losing Rilke: The Dark Lure of Mra

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