"Mit trauervollem Blick": the time of seeing and lyric subjectivity in Rainer Maria Rilke's "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes" and "Pieta".
"Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes" (1904) and "Pieta" (1907) both depict a poeticity of vision that derives not merely from the visual and spatio-ontological features of beheld objects, but more fundamentally from the temporal implications of seeing perse. In the pivotal scene of "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes," a third-person observation of a specific moment is recounted according to a narrative logic of retrospection, while "Pieta" consists of a first-person observation that is narrated as an externalization of attendant affect, wherein the categories of past, present, and future merge. A central aspect of both texts is the fact that, unlike the majority of Rilke's Dinggedichte, in these poems it is not a mundane object that is beheld, but rather a beloved person who, through death, has attained a liminal objective status.
These particular valences of the gaze will be traced further through supportive interpretations of two artworks that are thought to have inspired the poems: a Roman bas-relief depicting Orpheus, Hermes, and Eurydice (ca. second century A.D.), and Auguste Rodin's Le Christ et la Madeleine (1894). It will be beneficial in an overall regard to examine these sculptures not only to compare and contrast how each implies a poetic underpinning of subjective perception, but also to consider how both incorporate the living viewer in their depictions of this relation. In the poems and their statuary antecedents, it is not what is seen but rather the temporal substrate of seeing that qualifies the ocular act as a poetic one, and consequentially as an integral feature of subjective experience.
I. "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes"
The earlier of the two poems is "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes," believed to have been written towards the beginning of 1904 during Rilke's stay in Italy and published three years later in the Ahue Gedichte. While numerous commentators have explored Rilke's appropriation of the Orpheus figure and the various myths surrounding him as symbols for the poetic process par excellence, many focus specifically upon the metamorphic aspects of poi'esis that Orpheus' relation to objects underscores. (6) Rather than pursuing the theme of poetic transformation--particularly through song--as the central gesture of Rilke's Orpheus, as crystallized in the iconic Sonette an Orpheus (1922), I will consider in the following analysis how this much earlier poem presents gazing as an inherently poetic act in and of itself. (7) The principal observation, however, is that this topos of the gaze-as-poiesis is by no means limited to the mythic glance of Orpheus and its physical ramifications (i.e., the subsequent loss of Eurydice), but also emerges from within a more complex network of gazes that unfolds in the poem. Ultimately, it is not from Orpheus but rather from the often-overlooked figure of Hermes that the various lines of sight in the poem--and especially their temporal intricacies--derive a synthetic and narrative import.
Commentators of the poem frequently draw attention to the pronounced movement away from classical versions of the Orpheus myth by way of Rilke's depiction of Eurydice, (8) but it has been noted how an initial divergence of this sort can already be found at the very outset of the text. The poem begins in medias res (Oppenheimer 52, Reid 218), thus eliding the inciting incident accorded such detailed description by Ovid and Virgil in order to open upon the image of Eurydice at the hand of Hermes as Orpheus leads the way out of Hades. The very first line does not locate the mythic realm of the dead in an empirical or physical dimension, but instead within a topography of the soul (Tschiedel 288):
Das war der Seelen wunderliches Bergwerk. Wie stille Silbererze gingen sie als Adern durch sein Dunkel. Zwischen Wurzeln entsprang das Blut, das fortgeht zu den Menschen, und schwer wie Porphyr sah es aus im Dunkel. Sonst war nichts Rotes. (1-6)
In addition to psychic interiority, the setting of the poem is also immediately bound up with visual perception in both a positive and negative sense, for while the mise en scene features a significant degree of imagistic detail, its descriptions are simultaneously set within the pervasive darkness that enshrouds the scene and impairs visibility. More particularly, however, these opening lines establish a basic correlation of vision with lyric perspective, whereby objects in the shadowy space are anthropomorphized without being mediated by simile, such that blood springs from between the roots of the landscape as opposed to merely seeming to do so. This mechanism continues in the second verse, where the great pond that stretches beneath bridges is "blind," and the placid fields are "voller Langmut" (7-12). Despite their relatively quotidian status, such aspects of the setting nevertheless anticipate an important leitmotif of the text, namely the poetic capacity of vision to determine spatial and, ultimately, subjective experience.
This prefiguration is heightened as the eponymous trio appears from out of the darkness, guided by "der schlanke Mann im blauen Mantel, / der stumm und ungeduldig vor sich aussah" (16-17). Orpheus is introduced as he leads Eurydice out of the depths, and is led in turn by his own gaze. Impatient to complete the ascent, he moves forward with resolute strides, his famed lyre woven into his hand "wie Rosenranken in den Ast des Olbaums" (18-23). In addition, Orpheus' trajectory upwards discloses a bifurcation of his visual and aural faculties:
Und seine Sinne waren wie entzweit: indes der Blick ihm wie ein Hund vorauslief, umkehrte, kam und immer wieder weit und wartend an der nachsten Wendung stand, blieb sein Gehor wie ein Geruch zuruck. (24-28)
This verse reveals one of the principal qualities of Orpheus' vision to be its outward participation in the physical space of the poetic action. His gaze projects out ahead of him as though it were a living creature, waiting for him to catch up with it. This detail underscores expectancy as a central characteristic of his sight, its linear extension conveying proleptic concern. The object of this concern is defined in the following lines that describe how he believes to recognize the sound of his beloved Eurydice, only to have been deceived by the flutter of his coat and the echo of his own footsteps (32-33). Behind him, he nevertheless continues to make out the faint sounds of "zwei / die furchtbar leise gingen" (36-37). Although this ErkenntnisProblematik certainly suggests a dialectic of subjective perception and objective actuality, as Fritsch-Rossler notes (46), it also entails a subde association between the act of seeing and the posteriority of anticipated confirmation: "Durfte er / sich einmal wenden [...]/ musste er sie sehen" (37-40). This association is insinuated grammatically even before being explicitly depicted, for Orpheus' uncertainty as to whether Eurydice is still there and his consequential desire to see her following behind him--that is, to achieve a cognitive possession of her--is inflected throughout in the subjunctive ("sie kamen doch," "nur warens zwei," "musste er sie sehen"). Thus, an implicit temporal underpinning of this optic contextualization of space foreshadows the spatial consequence of Orpheus' gaze, for the futurity of his Blick here adumbrates the motivation behind his impending glance at Eurydice. This scenario forms the stage onto which Hermes and Eurydice enter.
Like Orpheus, Hermes is initially characterized with respect to ocularity ("helle Augen") as well as his role as the "Gott der weiten Botschaft" (42-43), a combination of functions that presages his account of Orpheus' turn. Following behind Hermes is Eurydice, who is introduced alongside a portrayal of the capacity of lamentation to create an alternate version of reality "in der / alles noch einmal da war" (49-50). She consequently operates as a figure of transition from the realm of familiarity and life into one of estrangement and death that mirrors the anabasis underway in the verse:
Sie war in sich, wie Eine hoher Hoffnung, und dachte nicht des Mannes, der voranging, und nicht des Weges, der ins Leben aufstieg. Sie war in sich. Und ihr Gestorbensein erfullte sie wie Fulle. Wie eine Frucht von Sussigkeit und Dunkel, so war sie voll von ihrem grossen Tode, der also neu war, dass sie nichts begriff. (60-67)
Many interpreters of the poem have understood Eurydice not only as a counterpoint to Orpheus--her pace is "unsicher, sanft, und ohne Ungeduld" in contrast to his own, for instance (5 9)--but also as a figure of delimitation with respect to her absolute introversion. (9) While this retreat from her former, living self clearly indexes the primary dichotomy of life and death (Ryan, Umschlag und Verwandlung 124; Tschiedel 294), it more specifically corresponds to a figurative neutralization of anteriority in the context ofintersubjective memory that will be finalized in her climactic non-recognition of Orpheus. Indeed, so thoroughly withdrawn is Eurydice that she is not only "unberiihrbar" and unresponsive to the touch of Hermes' hand (69-74), but has in fact already ceased to be the person Orpheus originally lost and has come to retrieve: "Sie war schon nicht mehr diese blonde Frau, / die in des Dichters Liedern manchmal anklang" (75-76). All of a sudden, the merely cognitive and visual separation of the two figures is literalized:
Und als plotzlich jah der Gott sie anhielt und mit Schmerz im Ausruf die Worte sprach: Er hat sich umgewendet--, begriff sie nichts und sagte leise: Wer? (83-86)
The crux of this tragic moment does not rest merely in Eurydice's inability to register Orpheus' fateful glance, but more pointedly in the fact that this failed visual reciprocation bespeaks a much graver elision of Orpheus within her very consciousness. This void in which his glimpse occurs is so pervasive that it even manages to determine the diegetic material of the verse, wherein neither the reader nor Euiydice witnesses Orpheus' transgression, but rather Hermes alone.
Here, the dual issue of diegetic time and visuality once again comes to the fore. Notably, Rilke locates the pivotal instant of the scene behind a narratological curtain, since the moment in which Orpheus turns around is not related directly, but only by way of a retrospective third-party account. This sequence has a twofold importance, for Hermes not only transforms vision into language, but also transposes the present instant of the vision into the past tense. The poetic and temporal significance of this detail is rooted in the fact that Hermes does not teichoscopically voice Orpheus' transgression as it takes place, but instead reconstructs the event in the narrative mode of a report. The implications of his belated announcement become concrete in the concluding verse:
Fern aber, dunkel vor dem klaren Ausgang, stand irgendjemand, dessen Angesicht nicht zu erkennen war. Er stand und sah, wie auf dem Streifen eines Wiesenpfades mit trauervollem Blick der Gott der Botschaft sich schweigend wandte, der Gestalt zu folgen, die schon zuruckging dieses selben Weges [...]. (87-93)
In these final moments of the poem, three lines of vision intersect with each other. We are first given a view through the eyes of Eurydice, who fails to grasp the identity of the figure standing ahead of her, thus reiterating her preceding cognitive gap in terms of visual non-recognition. This indistinct form, reduced merely to "jemand," stands and watches as Hermes turns "mit trauervollem Blick" to follow Eurydice back into the shadows. As the poem ends, it is possible to identify an optic triangulation of loss that frames the central events of the scene, namely Orpheus' view of Eurydice, Eurydice's failed apprehension of Orpheus, and Hermes' mediatory perspective of them both. (10)
All these details seem to suggest that the critical aspect of "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes" is not to be found solely within the gaze of Orpheus and his loss of Eurydice, but perhaps primarily in the device of a third-party observation and subsequent narration of this private Augenblick of separation. It is Hermes who sees and articulates the scene with an awareness of its consequences. He thus vocalizes the series of occurrences in the diegetic mode of narrator while also reacting to them in an aesthetic mode of spectatorship, as indicated by his address to Eurydice "mit Schmerz, im Ausruf," which is followed by his exit from the scene "mit trauervollem Blick" (my emphases). One could therefore regard Hermes' observation as containing the most ocular-poetic gravity of the poem rather than the mythic gaze of Orpheus. For whereas Hermes' mournful vision is able to capture the tragedy of the scene by allowing for a full view of the failed exchange, Orpheus' operates within an exclusive rather than inclusive perspectival plane. In other words, the gaze of Hermes incorporates Orpheus' own visual trajectory within itself despite the fact that neither glance is explicitly depicted as it takes place. In turn, this nuance intensifies the optic poeticity that the text has developed, for while Orpheus' view undergoes third-person recapitulation by Hermes, the latter's gaze becomes implicit in the very instance of the final verse. In this way, Hermes both emblematizes and enacts the medial role of the poem itself.
The contours of this scene can be explored further by comparing Rilke's poem with an ancient work of art that may have served as an important source of its inspiration. According to most critics, the poem is likely based upon a second-century Roman bas-relief in the National Archeological Museum of Naples that Rilke is known to have seen sometime between 1902 and 1904 (Figure 1, see Buddeberg 323, Gerok- Reiter 23, T schiedel 286). The image, one of three copies of a fifth-century Greek original which Rilke may also have seen in Paris and Rome, features the three central characters from Rilke's poem standing in succession, with Hermes at the left of the panel and Orpheus at the right. Situated between them is Eurydice, whose inclining head and counterpoised stance create the sense of her turning into and towards Orpheus, and thereby add a linear intentionality to the overall horizontal orientation of the image.
A principal effect of this horizontality is the mirroring that occurs between the figures. Moving inwards from either end of the panel, it is immediately noticeable that, as a consequence of their respective contrapposti, Orpheus and Hermes cooperatively establish the boundaries of the scenic space by allowing their un-weighted legs to drift away from the center of the frame and into its opposing edges. Their torsos accordingly turn onto their weighted legs, perfectly demarcating Eurydice's figure as the visual and physical midpoint of the tableau. Continuing inwards, their arms make contact with Eurydice--Orpheus with her veil and Hermes with her right hand--leading the eye to the middle of the image. Eurydice and Orpheus' weighted legs are parallel, and
Eurydice's un-weighted leg, like that of Hermes, is directed away and to the left. The culmination of Orpheus and Eurydice's spatial reflection is focused in the crossed line of their arms and the coincidence of their touch.
However, this nexus of tactility is also one of opticality, insofar as both figures' heads incline in a nearly identical angle, which, in turn, causes the axis of their gazes to settle into the space between their intersecting hands. From this point of convergence, the right-hand side of Eurydice's torso seems to turn away and align with Hermes' own as it twists towards the edge of the relief. Dominated by Hermes, the outer space of the image thus forms a counterbalance to the chiastic torsion on the other side of the relief that incites Eurydice and Orpheus in their mutual rotation inwards. The resulting effect is one of a simultaneous magnetic attraction and repulsion, as if both lovers are moving towards one another and being pulled in opposite directions in the same instant. The physicality of Hermes reveals a similar ambiguity, for his distribution of weight is identical to that of Eurydice. Like her, he seems to be suspended between opposing movements. He could either be pulling her away from the center of the panel, or she could be pulling him into the figural and dramatic fulcrum of the image.
This sense of a charged yet static potentiality recalls Rilke's portrayal of Eurydice as poised between two ontological spheres, an instantaneous caesura that is quickly dispelled by her utterance, "Wer?" As in a work such as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600), the imminent or "pregnant" moment of crisis is made all the more affectively present precisely by virtue of its mimetic postponement. (11) Moreover, while the standard Virgilian scenario of impending departure is inevitably read into the tableau (and further suggested by the fact that all of the figures are touching one another), even here an oscillatory ambiguity makes itself felt. It can be traced in the subtle visual semantics of Eurydice's veil, which Orpheus could be understood as either securing in place in the moment of their parting, or drawing aside in a nuptial gesture of greeting and exposure (anakalypsis). (12)
In addition to this spatial tension between bodies, the relief--like Rilke's poem --also presents a poignant network of vision. Orpheus and Eurydice mirror one another in their unmet gazes, insinuating a mutual separation that has just been brought about by this very faculty of sight. Hermes is the only figure that looks directly at something (Orpheus and Eurydice), and it is this nuance of the bas-relief that seems to have been most faithfully preserved in Rilke's poem. Just as Rilke's Hermes diegetically mediates the event of Orpheus' turn for Eurydice and the reader in an account of his own act of observation, in the sculpture, Hermes' gaze prefigures and ultimately guides that of the viewer. The latter feature occurs mainly as a conse quence of the tactile sequentiality of the image. Looking at it from left to right, Hermes clasps Eurydice's right hand, whose left hand in turn rests upon Orpheus' shoulder. Orpheus, gently grazing the hem of Eurydice's veil, completes the triptych in a reciprocation of touch whose instinctive, un-posed intimacy sounds a subtle tone of familiarity and habitual iteration that lends the scene a quiet pathos.
Notably, this horizontal movement across the figures instigated by Hermes contains an inherently narrative logic. By moving first to Eurydice and then to the gazing Orpheus, the viewer witnesses a figural reiteration of the narrative causality surrounding the scene. Hermes invites us to look at Eurydice, whom we know to be doomed precisely as a result of being looked at. We then follow her eye to Orpheus, who makes physical contact with Eurydice's veil, the very emblem of her ontological liminality. In this way, the viewer of the bas-relief re-stages the foundational tragedy of the image by following the trajectory of Hermes' gaze. Hermes thus gives form to the medial status and function of the image. As a representation of third-person spectatorship, he accordingly mirrors the empirical beholder's perspective and interpretation of the sculpture.
It is important to note that scholars remain divided on the issue of which version of the Orpheus-story is actually being portrayed in the N eapolitan relief. (13) That is to say, the image does not contain any definitive clues as to whether the figures represent Virgil's (now canonical) telling of the myth, in which Orpheus makes the catastrophic glance back at Eurydice, or the earlier Greek version, which ends, so to speak, happily. (14) That the image Rilke is thought to have seen could ostensibly allude to either variation of the tale is in itself worthy of reflection, given that for all of the formal and atmospheric similarities between them, the poem and bas-relief are portraying fundamentally different moments. Whereas the central scene of the poem had depicted Hermes witnessing a failed mutual recognition, in the sculpture, one can observe a concatenation of ocularity and tactility with a successful anagnorisis (see Kochan 45). An additional difference is that, in the poem, Hermes guides Eurydice and is therefore positioned between her and Orpheus. Rilke thus establishes the scenario of Hermes both visually intercepting and linguistically mediating Orpheus' glance for her in his utterance, "Er hat sich umgewendet." In the sculpture, however, the situation is different: Hermes is clearly not relating the occurrence of Orpheus' gaze retrospectively, for the two lovers are actively engaged with each other as Hermes looks on.
These contrasts nevertheless indicate an overarching similarity between the poem and the relief. In both works, Hermes is the witness of an intimate moment. Just as he had recounted Orpheus' act of turning around to both Eurydice and the reader in the poem, so too does he operate in the sculpture as an intermediary and allegory of the external beholder for whom a seen event attains narrative status. It is upon his implicit watchful presence that this very status, in turn, depends. This issue of narrated vision is deepened in another poem from the Neue Gedichte that shifts the schema of ocular poiesis from an interpersonal context to the private interior of an individual gazing subject.
It seems particularly fitting to trace the topos of the poeticizing gaze from an explicit engagement with Orpheus to one with Mary Magdalene, for this shift reflects Rilke's own engagement with antique and Christian paradigms beginning around 1902 with his writing of the Neue Gedichte (Engel 33-43). In the following, I will consider how the brief but enigmatic "Pieta" evinces a particular modality of vision that both echoes and extends the one found in "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes." The preceding motif of an external third-person witness of an event who then organizes it into a narrative framework is distilled and internalized by the lyric subject of "Pieta. " In this poem, Mary Magdalene describes a visual encounter with the body of Christ, and simultaneously functions as an object and agent of the account. This occurs insofar as she interlaces the sight before her with associative memories spanning her and Christ's shared past that coalesce within the sequential instants of narrated perception. Through her imbrication of vision and recitation, the speaker of "Pieta" ultimately re-contextualizes the diachronic and intersubjective process of Hermes' sorrowful glance as an inherent feature of individual lyric inferiority.
"Pieta" consists of four strophes, each comprising four lines with the exception of the first, which reads (Rilke, Werke 460):
So seh ich, Jesus, deine Fusse wieder, die damals eines Junglings Fusse waren, da ich sie bang entkleidete und wusch; wie standen sie verwirrt in meinen Haaren und wie ein weisses Wild im Domenbusch. (1-5)
The intimate nature of the lyric scenario is immediately signaled by the speaker's direct and familiar address to Jesus. The verse also introduces the theme of subverted union through its juxtaposition of Christ's formerly living body with his currently lifeless one. This initial contrast is then sharpened through the speaker's subsequent allusion to a fleeting physical communion, namely the Biblical foot-washing scene from Luke 7.38 within which Christian tradition locates Mary Magdalene. (15) In this memory, the speaker's body overlaps with Jesus' own for the first time, but the brevity of the instant is reflected by the tentative ambivalence that the speaker ascribes to Christ's feet. They stood in her hair like a deer entangled in brambles, "verwirrt" as though on the point of taking flight.
In addition to functioning as a basic comparison of a past situation of charged proximity with a present one, the remembered vision of Jesus' feet introduces the element that causes these distinct moments in time to figuratively merge within the speaker's utterance. This very element also came to the fore in the previous characterization of Orpheus' glance, namely, the futurity inherent to possibility and supposition. The verses show how the potentiality that the past encounter of the two bodies initiated has remained unchanged, and thus suggests that their present state of disjuncture will continue to perdure. This always-imminent energeia is at the heart of both tableaux, and insofar as it is also the principle motor of the poem, the two instances--the past and present acts of beholding Christ's feet--can be read as becoming simultaneous in and through the narration of the gaze.
This chasm of suspended potentiality between the speaker and Christ is marked throughout the remainder of the poem by a pervasive sense of physical irreconcilability. The ontological impossibility of union is thereby spatially characterized in much the same way that the psychomachic "wunderliches Bergwerk" formed the stage for the climactic scene of "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes." The second verse continues in this mode of description as the speaker's eyes gradually move along the Corpus Christi'.
So seh ich deine niegeliebten Glieder zum erstenmal in dieser Liebesnacht. Wir legten uns noch nie zusammen nieder, und nun wird nur bewundert und gewacht. (6-9)
The speaker once again pairs her perception of the beloved object in the present with a retrospective evocation of an amorous encounter that never came to pass. The irony of the intimate reunion that comprises the occasion of "Pieta" is highlighted by the speaker's reference to Christ's "niegeliebten Glieder" in the context of a "Liebesnacht." Here, as in the preceding verse, physical and sensual space that the speaker's visual act encodes allows the distinct instants to coincide with the lyric reiteration. In other words, the speaker's memory of a touch that never actually occurred is recounted within a present moment of similarly absent contact.
In the same line, one can also witness Rilke's portrayal of memory as a repository for un-materialized past possibility gain additional complexity, for the speaker refers to the iteration of this possibility as a singular instant in the present ("zum erstenmal"). In doing so, she juxtaposes the longevity of her desire with the suddenness of an unprecedented opportunity to fulfill it, the ironic futility of which she acknowledges in the very same instant byway of the appellation "Liebesnacht" and then confirms in the third and fourth lines. Although it has been suggested that this condition of physical abstention reflects a "spirituelle Liebe, die in vollkommener seelischer und gedanklicher Ubereinstimmung besteht und uber den Tod eines Partners hinausreicht," (16) one could contend that a tone of regret over the unfulfilled act of physical love is detectable within the clipped finality of "nun" and "nur" in the fourth line. This sense of stalled consummation is further reflected on a semantic level, for the verbs "bewundern" and "wachen" function as counterpoints to the acts of "sehen" and "sich niederlegen" referred to in the first and third lines. The tension created by the speaker's acceleration from seeing to veneration is simultaneously affirmed and suspended by the deceleration from an imagined act of intimate communion to an actual and chaste state of vigil. In multiple ways, then, the ironic situation of the speaker's description of foiled union seems to indicate worldly regret more than it does pious abnegation.
The third verse records the continuation of the speaker's yearning gaze along Christ's form:
Doch, siehe, deine Hande sind zerrissen-: Geliebter, nicht von mir, von meinen Bissen. Dein Herz steht offen und man kann hinein: das hatte durfen nur mein Eingang sein. (10-13)
The visual and phonetic alignment of Christ's torn hands with the erotic trace of a lover's teeth transports a central motif of the Passion from a paradigm of transcendence to a wholly material register of the flesh. Here, too, the elements of temporal disjunction, ocular perception, and an imagined, retroactive substitution intertwine within a single image. A comparable note is sounded in the final lines of the verse, where the traditional iconography of the Sacred Heart as a symbol of Jesus' love for all mankind--and an entry point for initiation into Christian faith--clashes against the speaker's formulation of the heart as an object of private love to which she has been denied access. (17) This re-appropriation echoes an observation that would be made fifteen years after the publication of the Ahue Gedichte in Rilke's Der Brief des jungen Arbeiters (1922). Towards the beginning of the text, the anonymous narrator comments upon the belief of the early Christian community that it might dwell in Christ "obwohl doch in ihm kein Raum war, nicht einmal fur seine Mutter, und nicht fur Maria Magdalena, wie in jedem Weisenden, der eine Gebarde ist und kein Aufenthalt" (Rilke, Samtliche Werke 1113-14). Despite their corporeality, the openings portrayed in these lines of "Pieta" do not enter the sphere of actual tactility, but rather remain purely within that of vision as "uberfullte Stellen." The symbolic act of entering Christ's heart, redistributed like his nail-torn hands from a mystical context of union to an erotic one, is determined by a visual engagement with the body. The speaker's gaze, in addition to staging a passive reception of Jesus' form, also takes on an active function in its intentionality towards and, ultimately, into the body. Thus, any attempt on the part of the speaker to capture and describe the beloved object with language is mirrored by her ocular attempt to enter and inscribe it as well.
The trajectory of the speaker's eyes ends, as does the poem, at a separation between the lyric subject and the seen object:
Nun bist du mude, und dein muder Mund hat keine Lust zu meinem wehen Munde--. O Jesus, Jesus, wann war unsre Stunde? Wie gehn wir beide wunderlich zugrund. (14-17)
Here again the irony of fruitless proximity is communicated through both phonetic and motivic assonance. Just as the desired "niegeliebte Glieder" are being seen for the first time, so too must his "muder Mund" remain unkissed in this "Liebesnacht." The juxtaposition of both the speaker's and Christ's mouths in the first two lines reflects an attempt to phonetically perform the coalescence that the lyric voice has been longing for in every strophe of the poem. Indeed, this instance of physical association invites comparison with the intertwinement of Christ's feet with the speaker's hair that was recounted in the first verse. As has been the case throughout, however, the speaker recognizes the futility of any consummation of her desire in the same instant that she seems to intimate its possibility. In one final such gesture that could be construed as emblematic of the internal motivation of the entire poem, the speaker infuses Christ's body with poetic vision. By projecting mere tiredness onto his mouth as a euphemistic substitution for lifelessness, the speaker plaintively attempts to "see" Jesus's body with an alternative temporal imagination--that is, with one that is not final, but merely transitory.
The permanence of the figures' separation asserts itself in the last word of the verse, wherein an associative consignment of flesh ("Mund") to the earth ("zugrund") is carried out. The beloved body that had guided the speaker's diegetic and visual progression now reveals itself as the intractable telos of both. It is notable, however, that, in the face of this material separation, the speaker links her fate with Christ's own through the motif of hovering, unactualized potentiality. The tragic nature of this shared fate is not merely that the figures are separated from each other, but, more crucially, that the speaker recognizes this parallel fate as the only thing that they will ever share henceforth. In other words, the present shared fate is the sole possible materialization of the anterior potentiality. What had formerly constituted its futurity is revealed to be nothing more than this ever-unrealized consummation, which, in turn, is what constitutes the very impetus of the poem itself.
As in Rilke's other Bildgedichte, the form of language and the materiality of the described object in "Pieta" become wholly entangled rather than merely being contrasted. (18) On one level, this feature can be observed in the correlation of semantic and formal structure. Each verse is divided into an initial, present vision of Christ's dead body, and a subsequent evocation of the past (verses 1, 2, 4), non-occurrence (2), or subjunctive hypothesis (3). However, the more interesting aspect of this entanglement is the temporal function that language and vision assume throughout, for the lyric voice at the center of the poem coheres to such a degree with the visual instance of what it describes that the entire process becomes paradoxically synchronic and linear at once. On the one hand, the relation between the seeing subject and the seen object is determined by the instantaneity of utterance. Yet this unmediated confluence of subject and object is nevertheless applied in a sequential apprehension of Christ's body and internalized byway of memory. Unlike Hermes, who, in the previous text, figured narrative mediation as the diachronic interstice of event and lyric consequence, for the speaker of "Pieta," seeing the body and speaking the body consolidate into a single gesture of the desire for incorporation rather than delineating distinct moments in time. In equal measure, however, this poetic articulation of a temporal spectrum is nevertheless subordinate to the linearity of memory by virtue of its status as a constituent of subjective interiority.
This interweaving of temporality and utterance informs the specific plight of the lyric subject in the poem. Whereas "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes" had presented the removed observation of an intimate encounter in terms of a disintegration of memory, "Pieta" presents a subject who constitutes part of the encounter that she is witnessing, and her poeticization of what she sees occurs through analeptic reference and reminiscence. Despite this initial difference, however, the overarching scenario in both texts is the same: the observed object bespeaks an ontological disjunction between seer and seen as a consequence not so much of physicality or space, but rather of the temporal determinations of subjective experience. As was observed in the previous poem, the tragedy of what Hermes witnesses is not reducible to the simple fact of Eurydice's imminent separation from Orpheus as a result of his glance. Instead, it is rooted in her failure to synthesize this glance with her memory. Conversely, the tragic momentum of "Pieta" does not derive merely from the fact that Christ is dead and the speaker is not, but more so from the fact that the speaker cannot help but internalize what she is witnessing with recourse to her memories of an ineluctably lost potentiality.
An important aspect of the differences between these two texts is the transition from male gazing subjects to a singular female one, which warrants consideration of what the driving poetic similarity is between the respective personae. The most obvious point of overlap is the visual object in both poems (Eurydice and Christ), for both figures are associated with death, and therefore with a profound passivity that augments their irretrievability. An attendant issue is the motif of the unreciprocated gaze. In "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes" it is Eurydice who is beheld but does not behold in return, whereas in "Pieta," it is Christ. In this respect, the gender contrast is bridged by a particular theme that is of central importance in both poems, namely the association of the passive, seen objects with virginity. Eurydice is described as being "in einem neuen Madchentum" (68) and unaccustomed to foreign touch, just as Christ's limbs are "niegeliebt" by the speaker. Similarly, his hands have been torn as a result not of erotic intercourse, but of its inverse image: a simultaneously absolute removal from and intervention in humanity through transfixion on the Cross.
This shared thematics of death as a guarantor of purity broaches yet another commonality that, in turn, exemplifies a narrow but nevertheless significant category of the Neue Gedichte. In these scenes, it is not a mere object that is seen, but rather a beloved person. More particularly, both Eurydice and Jesus are explicitly thematized in terms of their lifelessness, and consequently function as intermediate figures oscillating between human subjectivity and material objectivity. (19) Their ambivalent status in a sense inverts a typical structure of the Rilkean Dinggedicht, in which mundane objects attain an inner life and subjective value for the beholder (Midler, Rainer Maria Rilkes "Neue Gedichte" 25). In turn, a factor that unites both Orpheus and Mary Magdalene is the association of their gazes with desire for the beheld object: Orpheus wishes to achieve cognitive and physical possession of Eurydice through visual confirmation of her presence (36-41), and Mary yearns to merge with and "know" Christ. (20) Though the desire that informs Orpheus' sight has been understood as a particularly male regard of a feminized source of poetic inspiration (Metz 249), when one incorporates the foregoing interpretation of Mary's gaze with a comparative reading of Hermes' and Orpheus' vision, the gender discrepancies between the respective seeing subjects are ultimately outweighed by the internal poetic logic at work in each of the ocular acts.
The insistence in "Pieta" upon an imagined and desired merging of distinct bodies has already caused critics to compare the poem with a sculpture by Auguste Rodin that may well have provided at least partial inspiration for the text, namely, his Le Christ et la Madeleine imm. 1894 (Figure 2, see Haskins 362-63). In the sculpture, we again find two figures ensconced in an intimate moment, though unlike in the Roman bas-relief, here there is not a represented witness of the encounter. As in "Pieta," the content of the work itself seems to have been mediated through the perspective of the actual subject of the encounter, rather than that of a third-party observer. Put another way, the sculpture appears to be as much a depiction of an event as an externalization of the affect that this event causes within the witnessing subject. Nearly all commentators--including Rilke--note the pronounced sensuality of this portrayal of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Jurgen Zanker, for instance, remarks that "Rodins Magdalena ist Christus in hochst irdischem, erotischen Begehren zugetan und geradezu verfallen, bereits und vergeblich bemuht, den Liebesakt mit ihm zu vollziehen" (Zanker 22). Such acentralityofsorrowoverphysical division and a desire for reunification certainly bears resemblance to "Pieta," published only several years after Rilke's study of Rodin. Indeed, Rilke concentrates upon corporeality in his own ekphrasis of the statue as an index and vessel of the "unermessliche Traurigkeit" that he designates as the keynote of the sculpture's Pathosformel (Rilke, Auguste Rodin 119). He employs phrases such as "trostlos," "hoffnungslos," "sinnlos zerbrochene Liebe," "Verzweiflung," "Leib," and "Leiden" to describe the scene "von innen" (Kranz 60) in language that infers a bodily separation inherent to the pervasive sadness exuded by the sculpture (Rilke, Auguste Rodin 119). In a noteworthy articulation of the same spatial affect observed in "Pieta," Rodin's Magdalene attempts to elide physical division through a literal merging, in which she presses herself against Christ in a mirrored replication of his position on the cross. In addition to infusing the image with a grammar of bodily similitude, (21) Mary seems to be as much a ramification of the medial formality of the sculpture as she is a subject depicted within it. Her body emerges out of the contoured landscape in parallel with the cross, whose lateral beam her left hand drapes across. Seen in this way, the climax of the image--Maty's exaggerated envelopment of Christ's torso--also functions as the principle formal mediation of the vertical transition from the earth to the pinnacle of the cross.
This figural overlay has temporal implications in the context of the depicted content as well, for the sculpture models a combination of a singular moment and the diachronic flow of time. The embrace fuses a representation of Mary's interior affect in the present instant of encounter with a representation of her becoming part of the landscape .Her legs blend with the ground, signaling the eventual return to the earth through death that Christ himself is undergoing in the very same moment. This gestural staging of Mary's wish to merge together with Christ functions in concert with Rodin's evocation of liminal suspension between states of being. The desperate insistence of the entwining bodies underscores the ultimate futility of her attempt to halt the temporal-ontological progression that is underway. Indeed, the very material of Rodin's sculpture seems to be in flux, and the figures struggle against this inevitable dissipation every bit as much as they integrate into the undulant landscape. The image therefore depicts Mary's present desire simultaneously as an analeptic intimation of its non-fulfillment in the past and as a subjunctively proleptic reference to its imagined--but ultimately impossible--consummation.
Moreover, as with the bas-relief, one can linger on the metapoetic dimension of Rodin's artwork. Particularly relevant in this respect is the ancient concept of the capacity of the gaze to express the desire to become one with the object of sight, as well as its ability to effect a coalescence of beholder and beloved (see Bartsch and Eisner). In a fashion akin to Rilke's poem, where the gaze of the speaker herself acts as a vehicle for the impulsion towards unification, it is in the vision of the living spectator before Rodin's sculpture that such a convergence occurs. Maty Magdalene's physical mirroring of Christ allows the two figures to draw closer together, not so much as a consequence of their spatial configuration, but, more significantly, as a result of their inferred configuration in the perception of an external viewer. The act of gazing at Mary Magdalene's pathetically literal demonstration of a fusion with Christ contains within itself the potential for this fusion to be actualized. In a sense, then, the medial conditions of Rodin's work provide an opportunity for an extra diegetic achievement of that which the speaker of Rilke's poem fervently desires but, as a subjective constituent of the scene rather than an outside observer, cannot herself even optically experience.
In both Rodin's sculpture and the Roman bas-relief, the depicted subjects' respective acts of perception seem to manifest themselves within the formal particularities of the representations. This facet can be linked back to the poems they are thought to have inspired, both of which also demonstrate how beholding a particular object may determine or even be concomitant with a poetic mediation of this very act. While "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes" and the bas-relief present a witnessed encounter between doomed lovers, "Pieta" and Le Christ et la Madeleine realize such an encounter as it is experienced within the lyric subject. Most strikingly, in Rodin's piece we do not witness Mary's gaze in the same way that we were able to see the explicitly portrayed gazes of Orpheus, Eurydice, and Hermes in the bas-relief. Rather, as in Rilke's "Pieta," the time of seeing becomes the mimetic instance of the image itself.
Reading these poems from the Neue Gedichte alongside their sculptural forerunners allows for a synthetic understanding of what is brought to light in each. "Pieta" and Rodin's Le Christ et la Madeleine both show the instant of beholding to be coextensive with the poetic instantiation of what is beheld (i.e., with the interior organization of the object along a timeline of the subject's consciousness). In "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes," however, the instant of beholding is narratively contextualized in a recapitulatory mode. Hermes' exclamation in the poem is a recounting of what has happened, and the specified affect of his Blick conveys his understanding of the linear causality informing the witnessed instant. Similarly, in the bas-relief--and unlike in Le Christ et la Madeleine--there is an emphatic horizontality that divides the image into diachronic planes that hinge on Eurydice, who bridges them. Hermes, as mediator and model for the actual beholder's vision, not only emblematizes the act of external observation per se, but also the intrinsic sequentiality of this act. What emerges in the poems and sculptures that enact both of these ocular paradigms is the fact that it is not solely from the spatial or physical features of a seen object that a poeticity of the gaze develops, but rather from the implicit and inherent temporal determinations of the gazing itself.
In the foregoing analysis, I have attempted to examine a particular aspect of ocularity in the Neue Gedichte by considering how the familiar leitmotifs of seeingas-being-seen and of the collapse of boundaries separating beholder and beheld receive unique treatment in two poems from the cycle. "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes" shows how third-person observation involves a retrospective contextualization of the singular event vis-a-vis what precedes and succeeds it. (22) Like the bas-relief that is believed to have inspired it, the poem depicts a private instant that is witnessed and interpreted by an observer according to a narrative sequence of causality. By contrast, "Pieta" demonstrates that when a first-person observer is internal to the witnessed event, the attendant mediation of this act of observation does not organize it according to an exterior narrative logic, but instead functions as an exteriorization of the subject's wholly personal reaction to the seen phenomena. While the account of these interior effects of the seen object operates sequentially (i.e., the speaker's narration progresses from one part of Christ's body to the next), it also unites multiple timeframes within the moment of perception. The flow of external time is piloted by the progression of the subject's vision, but the present instances of the gaze are interpolated through memory, and as a result attain a narrative status within the interiority of the seeing subject. At their most essential levels, both of these models--on the one hand, a synchronic apprehension that is subsequently recounted, and on the other, a diachronic-mnemonic contextualization of an instant of perception--are shown to be proper to beholding as a poetic act.
A final question to pose is what these particular temporalities of seeing could be said to illustrate more broadly. One answer is that the ocular motifs of Rilke's poems and their statuary antecedents dramatize the certainty of an ontological disjuncture between the beholding subject and the beheld object. Orpheus' glance at Eurydice and Mary Magdalene's surveyal of Christ both contain an intentionality towards closing the essential distance between them and their loved ones. However, theirs is a gaze that cannot be reciprocated by the object of yearning. This scenario itself becomes an object of observation throughout Rilke's oeuvre, whether by a removed witness to the scene or by the co-implicated lyric subject. (23) In both models, beholding always implies the foundational distance necessitated by perspective, and perhaps it is this aspect more than any other that discloses the poeticity of seeing as fundamentally temporal in its determination. This underpinning of the gazes portrayed in these poems and sculptures ultimately points to the modern problematic of time as the impossibility of an absolute coincidence of subject and object. (24) Such is the intuition lying at the heart of the works considered above, one that would find an implicit reply in Walter Benjamin's beautiful and elegiac remark, "Blicke durften um so bezwingender wirkende tiefer die Abwesenheit des Schauenden, die in ihnen bewaltigt wurde." One nevertheless feels that, for Rilke, it is from out of a more persistent absence that the gaze extracts both its lyric compulsion to vanquish loss as well as the time in which it may attempt to do so.
(1) My sincere thanks go to Jost Eickmeyer (Universitat Heidelberg) and Patrick Crowley (University of Chicago), both of whom provided helpful suggestions and commentary on the present paper at various stages of its conception. I also wish to thank David Wellbery and Eric Santner (University of Chicago) for their support, guidance, and insight.
(2) See Kuhnen, Ockenden, Paek and Lawrence Ryan (1995). For a general overview of the Neue Gedichte, including the centrality of ocularity and reversal, see Engel 298-318.
(3) Aspetsberger 109-25.
(4) Hamburger 179-276; Muller, "Rilke, Husserl und die Dinglyrik" 214-35; Trawny 221-38. See Judith Ryan, The Vanishing Subject, esp. 51-63.
(5) Rilke, Werke 500-03. The numerals in parentheses following each quotation refer to the corresponding line numbers in the text.
(6) See, for instance, Por, Peucker, and Strauss.
(7) This is an intrinsic element not only of Rilke's oeuvre in general, but also of modern critical readings of the Orpheus myth itself, of which Maurice Blanchot's conceptualization is perhaps the best known. Blanchot posits the Orphic gaze as an emblem of the innately human desire to know and possess that which is unknowable and unpossessable, and which the poetic act seeks to capture and transmit. However, while Blanchot suggests that this inevitable submission to the natural urge to obtain or wholly comprehend an object rather than poetically approaching it is tantamount to a betrayal of poetic inspiration, he claims that this urge is simultaneously inherent to the creative process, itself a figurative katabasis. Were this infraction against the purity of the ideal poetic object not to occur during the act of making, the resulting product would not constitute an authentic work of art because it would not bear the traces of unsatiated longing for an impossible object that defines artworks as such. In other words, by transgressing against the poetic ritual, Orpheus in effect fulfills it by seeking and therefore instantiating the true origin of the final poetic product (i.e., the desire for the unattainable). See Blanchot 99-105. For a perspective on "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes" in this vein, see Hohler.
(8) Buddeberg 325, 330-31; Metz 250; Neymeyr 37; Tschiedel 293-94.
(9) See, for example, Neymeyr 35-39; Reid 220-21; and Judith Ryan, Umschlag und Verwandlung 124.
(10) In her discussion of the poem, Erika Nelson has also drawn attention to Hermes' function as a mediating "synthesis" of the other two figures that "offers the reader a new observing perspective, watching the drama unfolding from within" (79). However, while Nelson reads Hermes' replacement of a direct portrayal of the climactic event (i.e., Orpheus' glance at Eurydice) as a sign of its having been "relegated to a position of secondary importance" (114), I interpret the narrational elision of this event as precisely that which determines its importance for Rilke's re-telling of the myth.
(11) allude here to Lessing's sense of the pregnant moment, as well as Goethe's conception of the punctually perfect moment in the artistic representation of subjects. Written in consideration of the Laocoon, both theories concern the artist's choice of an instant to depict that will enjoin the viewer to reconstitute imaginatively that which precedes and will succeed the moment being portrayed.
(12) Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones provides a thorough discussion of the variant interpretations of the anakalypsis motif, which has traditionally been understood as a gesture of unveiling and welcome, particularly within the iconographical context of wedding ritual. However, Llewellyn-Jones makes an argument for reading this topos as intrinsically ambiguous, maintaining that it could just as easily be understood as an act of concealment prior to imminent farewell or departure (98-114, esp. 104-07). Detlef C. Kochan, though tracing a different line of inquiry with respect to the bas-relief, also regards Eurydice's veil as an indication of her imminent separation from Orpheus, reading it as a symbol of her having joined the community of the dead (45). Cf. Rilke, Werke 954. On the ambiguity as to whether the has relief is portraying a moment of loss as opposed to recovery, cf. Nelson 115.
(13) See Gotze, Nulton, and Touchette.
(14) See, for instance, Lee 1-19, 40, 143-44.
(15) See Davidson, Haskins, Janssen, and Szoverffy.
(16) Windfuhr 150. While Manfred Windfuhr acknowledges the erotics at work in the poem, he nevertheless interprets the "niegeliebte Glieder" as indicative of a spiritual stoicism that entails foregoing sexual consummation. What I wish to suggest in my reading is not that such a deferral of physical fulfillment is in anyway absent, but rather that the poem's speaker, far from accepting a sublimated or spiritual substitution for temporal love, wishes that a carnal fulfillment had in fact taken place, and might yet.
(17) Cf. David-Daniel 303, Hamon 1023, Limburg 51, Moell 490.
(18) On this general quality of the Bildgedicht, see Eichner.
(19) Other poems in the cycle that feature this oscillation include "Der Tod des Dichters," "Morgue," "Jugend-Bildnis meines Vaters," "Klage um Jonathan," and "Leichen-Wasche."
(20) It is also worth mentioning briefly that Rilke's poetics of Jesus and Mary Magdalene almost exclusively imagines their relationship within the erotic tradition of lyric. That is to say, Rilke's portrayals of Christ and Magdalene frequently underscore the intimate and private sphere as opposed to the communal or "apostolic" sphere, as well as romantic sorrow, regret, and a prominent sense of impoverishment and torment arising from the figures' separation from one another. Rilke is by no means alone in this conceptualization of Jesus and Mary Magdalene as temporal lovers, given that such depictions belong to a long-standing literary tradition, evidenced particularly in medieval Passion Plays and poems. Rilke is known to have drawn from the medieval tradition throughout his career, and it is therefore unsurprising that these very motifs form the cornerstone of "Pieta." See Dieterle 27-39, Garth, Luck 156.
(21) See Zanker 22, Glang-Tossing 52-53.
(22) See above, note 15.
(23) Peter Trawny describes the elegiac recognition of this intrinsic division between lover and beloved as evincing the "wesenhafte Einsamkeit [...] in der Liebesbegegnung" that constitutes the "Grunderfahrung des Rilkeschen Dichtens" (231).
(24) Martin Hagglund has recently elaborated this concept by way of the notion of chronolibido, which posits the "constitutive difference" of desire as rooted not merely in the subject's ontological lack of the object, but more particularly in the temporal condition (3). According to Hagglund's reading, this condition of diachrony precludes the possibility of anything ever being able to exist "in itself," let alone to be coincidental with anything else. My thanks to Eric Santner for bringing this parallel to my attention.
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|Publication:||The German Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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