I had been looking in an old book of Rilke’s writings which I’d read first in my earliest twenties—which is the perfect time to first read Rilke—for a line about how in an adultery the third person is insignificant, which struck me as very odd and very important back then. But I couldn’t find it, and came across another passage that seems much more important to me today:
Now the position of the lover is this, that he feels himself unexpectedly placed in the centre of the circle, that is to say, at the point where the known and incomprehensible, coming forcibly together at one single point, become complete and simply a possession, losing thereby, it is true, all individual character. This position would not serve the poet, for individual variety must be constantly present for him, he is compelled to use the sense sectors to their full extent, as it must also be his aim to extend each of them as far as possible, so that his lively delight, girt for attempt, may be able to pass through the five gardens in one leap.
Not to decry the comfort and the stability of a person whose life is situated at dead center, who has, in a strange way, given up identity for the sake of things surrounding him or her by which that person thereby becomes identified and known, I could feel how exactly such a life, and such a living, is not for me. It is anathema to my core. It was rather, the life of the poet which Rilke sketches out, which is not to be located at the immutable center point of the ordinary lover’s being (as I understand it in ways that suit my own purposes), with its de-centralized being, a life of constant variety, and constant reaching out that allows the poet or the artist to create true miracles or the magic of being able to “pass through the five gardens in one leap.” This, for the lover, is not even a desire, not even a concept. The lover wishes everything to come to him or her, as though the lover were the very center of existence and the very point of it.
It is hard here not to think about Keats’ thoughts on Negative Capability, and how being able to be, in essence, a restive being, or a creature, or a wandered something that is not your own, it allows you access—because you are not merely standing in your own shoes—to myriad poetical conceits, to be able to evoke and invoke creative worlds of the Imagination versus the mere ordinary world of Fancy, as Coleridge would divide the two.
At any rate, the artist is the one who may, indeed, be the being who leaps in a bound inside many, many circles, hundreds of them, where creative work, and creative worlds are built and where, for some time, the poet or the artist may reside. But just as quickly, the poet leaps, or passes—as is this specular creature’s nature to do and to be, giving no heed whatsoever to the dull, uxorious world in which so many live out rather comfortably their lives and for their mortal existence find themselves even thriving if not trapped there—elsewhere.
For me, it is, as Rilke writes on, a life that lies “in the awareness of the abysses…” and this is, while such a life is the life capable of creating so many glorious things, it is also one that hovers dangerously and constantly right up on so many brinks over which I have all my life continued to exist and overlooking these, peered. It is like believing oneself to be a droll little shepherd among the hills to graze, and strolling there day after day, where in the midst of living one is at times suddenly fraught with the looming oppression that there are no hills and there are no sheep, and instead of a shepherd, one is just a little man resting alone at night with nothing to count on before he goes to sleep.
The other life is all about some invention of selfhood in everyday life, and the gathering up of all things surrounding that invention, the whole collecting of stuff that amounts to a decent enough life of clickety-clackety familial domesticity in the end, all centered around, if all goes well enough, a brick chimney; it is not, I suppose, by any means a bad existence at all per se, but one that for an artist-poet is a dead and deadening one because the center-stabilized centering point does not permit ipso facto the venture to go very far. The “lover’s life,” then, as a sort of human summum bonum is really the end of all human experience. It has its solidity, it has stability, and its virtue is its capacity of self-defined limits. The poet’s life, on the contrary, is a perilous but wonderfully alive life of no securities, or few of any kind, like a man who leaps into a river and wonders to himself if he has gone crazy, or, as in John Cheever’s great story “The Swimmer,” the life of a man who crashes through one suburban hedgerow into the next and “swims” from one neighbor’s swimming pool to another, from one end of each pool to the next, passing from yard to yard throughout the neighborhood, a man gazed upon by poolside people who are caught between being amused, indifferent, and annoyed, because he has.