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Rilke's "Kinderstube": Phenomenology in Childhood Spaces.

The detail and care with which Rilke renders everyday objects of experience issues from his well-documented concern for the significance of visual perception. In contrast to existing Rilke scholarship, which has largely concentrated on the motif of schauen in his poetry, this article addresses how his prose texts on childhood (Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge and Notizen zur Melodie der Dinge) develop a complex theory about the interaction between the child's visual experience of space and corresponding mental acts. I argue that Rilke mobilizes ambivalent imagery of the home to connect childlike misrecognition to the poetic impulse. Reconsidering more recent work on the subject, I show that Rilke, like Husserl, was indeed a phenomenologically "technical" thinker of ordinary experience, whose prose celebrates the revisionary power of the child as the poet-subject of the domestic sphere.

Keywords: Rainer Maria Rilke--childhood--visuality-phenomenology-Husserl


Nearly a century before Rilke began sketching out scenes of childhood, in the late 1890s, Goethe had been preoccupied with the insurmountable tension between his unreliable knowledge of his own childhood and the possibility of depicting it. In the opening passages of his autobiography, Aus meinem Leben. Dichtung und Wahrheit, Goethe describes in detail the earliest scenes that he "wirklich aus eigner anschauender Erfahrung besitz[t]"(15). In contrast to those aspects of childhood that he knows to be outright fabrications or amalgamations of stories overheard later in life, Goethe seems to suggest that it is the scene of home that can be claimed as one's own, grounding a verifiable--and, thus, narratable--childhood within the architecture of domestic space.
   Ohne also hieruber eine genaue Untersuchung anzustellen, welche
   ohnehin zu nichts fuhren kann, bin ich mir bewufit, dass, wir in
   einem alten Hause wohnten, welches eigentlich aus zwei
   durchgebrochenen Huusern bestand. Eine turmartige Treppe fuhrte zu
   unzusammenhangenden Zimmern, und die Ungleichheit der Stockwerke
   war durch Stufen ausgeglichen. Fur uns Kinder, eine jungere
   Schwester und mich, war die untere weitlauftige Hausflur der
   liebste Raum, welche neben der Ture ein grofies holzernes
   Gitterwerk hatte, wodurch man unmittelbar mit der Strasse und der
   freien Lutt in Verbindung kam. Einen solchen Vogelbauer, mit dem
   viele Hauser versehen waren, nannte man ein Gerams. [...] So kamen
   auch durch diese Geramse die Kinder mit den Nachbarn in
   Verbindung[.] (15-16)

While undercutting if not outright dismissing the investigation as something that "zu nichts fuhren kann" (15), he is nonetheless sure of the house itself. Goethe's detailed recollections of his own bourgeois childhood set the stage for a view of childhood narrated with keen attention to the building. He remarks that he and his sister were given free run of the house but that he particularly enjoyed engaging with the outside world through the open latticework. As described in the paragraphs that follow, he stages himself theatrically here; with the neighboring family as audience, he tosses pots, pans, and dinnerware out onto the street to great "spectacle" ["Schauspiel"] (16). The construction of space--in this case, the "Vogelbauer"--is essential to the framing of childhood as theater, recalling notions of performance, drama, and viewership that are heavily thematized in Goethe's works. (1) The political and aesthetic stakes he develops in texts ranging from Werther to Wilhelm Meister are made legible as part of this "factual" account of origin. Despite his own dismissal, Goethe suggests that this is where it all began. (2) He thus draws our attention to the relationship between the spatial construction of the home and the subsequent construction of a literary aesthetic. The domestic space therefore provides the conditions for both the narrative and the subject who creates it. The centrally located "Vogelbauer"--common to many homes, as he notes--though circumscribed like a cage, has the unique advantage of giving him simultaneous access to the entire house and the outdoors. Pointing to the aesthetic value of the space of childhood, this "Gerams" serves no practical function; it is purely decorative. As a literary scene of origin that is set in contrast to the unverifiable images of a historical childhood, the area contained by the latticework does more than simply imagine the marked-off limits of childhood; paradoxically, it delegitimizes these limits--ascribing to them a purely ornamental role--while figuring them as the only epistemologically sound starting point.

Rilke's prose works on the space of childhood follow Goethe's lead: in texts such as Notizen zur Melodie der Dinge and Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, otherwise insignificant rooms of the home become the "Gerams" (3) for a consideration of origin. For Rilke, such an exploration is not a search for an origin of the subject but, rather, of the subjective capacity for fantasy and poetic production. This essay will articulate how Rilke emphasizes the spatiality of such "Urszenen" as structuring metaphors for the limits of perception and the expansive power of imagination. Here, the paradox of childhood that Goethe identifies--the fact that it can only be offered as a "(re)construction through the imaginary return to a prior state of being" (Schindler 11)--is not necessarily overcome. It is precisely these stumbling blocks in representation that are crucial to Rilke's transfiguration of the ordinary child-subject. Capitalizing on rooms newly dedicated to the space of childhood, Rilke situates his own concern for the origin of aesthetic production in the childlike perception of space. With the rise of the nineteenth-century bourgeois household came the popularity of the children's parlor or nursery (Kinderstube). In contrast to Goethe's "Vogelbauer," Rilke's Kinderstube accords with the centrality of children in bourgeois familial life (4) while also providing the framework for poetic imagination itself.

To account for Rilke's emphasis on what has often been addressed as the "naive" encounter with the space of childhood, this essay turns to phenomenological discourses to explain how spatial encounters produce the poetic "vitality" of the childsubject. (5) Building on Kate Hamburger's work on Rilke as the philosophically engaged poet, the relationship between childhood perception and poetic production is developed in three stages: first, I establish that the everyday space of childhood serves as material grounds for imagination; second, I show how Rilke's descriptive processes (of spatial encounter) can be understood as an articulation of Husserl's work on sense experience and mental acts; and third, I explore how such philosophical representations of interior space expose poetic processes.


In his 1898 collection of fragments, Notizen zur Melodie der Dinge, Rilke sketches two children as distracted readers in a cramped room, suggesting that the child's work of fantasy might he a tonic to the bourgeois conditions of obligation and ennui. Here, the wider possibilities of an imagined world can be seen to spring from the domestic enclosure, a space that serves generically as a Kinderstube. Such spaces inhabited by children are not static; rather, they are malleable under the force of imagination. In a scene that can be read as analogous to the scene of poetic production, the child's self-reflexive subjectivity gives shape to the image of the child as writer. These two vignettes are explicitly exemplary, perhaps even pedagogical: by proposing an interrelationship between the given space and the child's peculiar intuition of it, the dialogic of fantasy and poesy that is built on subjective freedom places the possibility of poetic production firmly on the side of philosophy. (6) The scene of "reading" is instructive of fantasy's character, depicting the progression from outward, or objective, appearance (two children sitting opposite each other) to child-subjects with lively interior experiences that project beyond the framed space.
   xxx. Ich will ein ganz kleines Beispiel andeuten:

      Abend. Eine kleine Stube. Am Mitteltisch unter der Lampe sitzen
   zwei Kinder einander gegenuber, ungem uber ihre Bucher geneigt. Sie
   sind beide weit--weit. Die Bucher verdecken ihre Flucht. Dann und
   wann rufen sie sich an, um sich nicht in dem weiten Wald zu
   verlieren. Sie erleben in dem engen Stube bunte und phantastische
   Schicksale. Sie kampfen und siegen. Kommen heim und heiraten.
   Lehren ihre Kinder Helden sein. Sterben wohl gar.

   Ich bin so eigenwillig, das fur Handlung zu halten. (IV, 110)

The space of narration, as well as the narrated space, can be read as self-contained: the brevity of description, set narrowly between the narrator's interventions. The story thus appears as "eng" as the parlor itself. Fantasy's appearance in the narration, however, quickly revises the narrowness of the "kleine Stube" as only a provisional form of containment. Although this simple scene ("Abend. Eine kleine Stube.")--with its nod toward staging and setting--takes place within a discrete space (locatable in a home, in a room, at a table), the children are projected out far from each other, and far from their parlor ("weit--weit"). More than a simple juxtaposition of an ordinary scene of reading with the extraordinary production of the fantastical space of imagination, it makes (the) room for an invented space, a vast universe of the imaginary, as it overwrites the narrowness of both its textual and architectural limits.

This variability of topoi of interior life appears against the exteriority of the domestic interior in each of the texts that I examine here. The space of the "kleine Stube" seems to demarcate the edges of the child's world and the multivalent site of childhood experience. Precisely this tension, visible in the relationship between the materiality of the home and the ideality of childhood, lies at the core of my argument. Representing space through the child figure, Rilke offers insight into the source of poetic production. As Susan Bernstein has argued, the physical space, or architecture, already "articulates both the plan of design and its realization, [...] organized through specialization and difference, as well as through the legislative and controlling tendencies of the arkhe [origin]" (3). Similarly, I argue here that even the modest children's room, the Kinderstube, might be "understood as the art of beginning, of origination and foundation [...]" (ibid.). Furthermore, the Kinderstube can be understood as the juxtaposition of the teleology of an image--or what Bernstein describes as "Grundriss, design, plan"--and its belated, material rendering (4). (7) In this way, Rilke's larger aesthetic project can be interpreted as representing poetry as the interdependence of visual perception and imagination. Thus, his emphasis on the material setting ultimately points to poetry's "origin" in the space of childhood.

The next fragment, xxxi, further characterizes this space as both the bourgeois room of leisure (the kind of "kleine Stube" that would have a "Mitteltisch" for reading, playing cards, entertaining) and a childhood space of discipline and the labor of education (where children sit "ungern uber ihre Bucher geneigt"). Following pedagogical doctrines, they are sequestered in their Kinderstube, (8) In this vignette, Rilke's aesthetic theory becomes clear--the children's parlor is the "background" against which fantasy takes place: "Ohne diesen ganzen dunklen Hintergrund, durch welchen sie die Faden ihrer Fabeln ziehen. Wie anders wurden die Kinder im Garten traumen [...]" (IV, 110). It is by virtue of the quotidian scenery that they are able to imagine themselves within a fantastical aesthetic framework, which the narrator is "so eigenwillig, [...] fur Handlung zu halten" (emphasis mine). Only in this parlor can non-action become action, plot, and story; from nothing comes something (new). Rilke therefore renders a scene of genesis, an epic tale that is called up ("rufen") from the most banal circumstances--aesthetic pleasure invoked in the face of obligation and boredom. (9) From line to line, the fragment performs the crucial ambivalence of imagination, where a single image explodes with possibility. Childhood becomes the site of antinomy: stasis and action (sitting/battling), containment and expansion (parlor/forest), and even the prosaic and the epic (children/heroes). The magic of childhood (10) is the simultaneity of each of these, where the most remarkable springs forth from the unremarkable. In this movement from reading to daydreaming, we can see what Gaston Bachelard's "topoanalysis" has also shown: the home's "felicitous space" furnishes the poet with a "universe" of being, with which the child-subject transforms an ordinary room into something much more. (11)

As an alternate iteration of Goethe's "Gerams" of childhood, the conditions of nineteenth-century dwelling as they appear in Rilke's work make the epistemological and aesthetic consequences of this "kleines Beispiel" legible as rooted in spatial perception. Recalling the Latinate origins of "text" (textilis, textus), he remarks that it is where the children are that provides the material for poesis: "in dem gelben Canevas dieses Stubenabends." As fragment xxxi continues, "Es ist nicht gleichgultig, ob man in Seide oder in Wolle stickt" (ibid.). Rilke makes it explicit that the parlor is the substance from which the tapestry of their fantasy is woven, reiterating that the matter matters, with regard to the imagination and the scene of fabrication. It is only under this hanging lamp that this story of battle and victory could ever be imagined. Indeed, the thrust of such a simple scene is explicit: art must have its roots in the material. These otherwise flattened "types" come alive at the moment that their imaginations are activated in response to the parlor. To borrow from Aristotle, Rilke seems to portray a partial dependence of phantasia [imagination] on aesthesis [sense perception], which thus transforms mere child-types into active, thinking child-subjects with the capacity of nous. (12) These subjects are constituted by their ability not only to perceive but also to manipulate sense experience as representation. At this juncture, Rilke's portrayal of the relationship between imagination and sense perception is still unclear: How does the imagination respond to the encounter with everyday things, or what Husserl calls "transcendent objects"? How does the poetic impulse issue specifically from the child's intuition of space? As I will show in the next section, for Rilke, poetic representations are akin to ordinary intentional acts--the mental images produced by attending to sensible objects. Rilke thereby turns the child-subject into a poet through the rewriting of quotidian space, the transfiguration of the Kinderstube into the realm of imagination. Crucially, this transformation depends upon the unavoidably incomplete representation of objects through intuition (i.e., perception, Anschauung). Rather than thematizing the role of fiction vis-a-vis the partiality of memory (as Goethe does), Rilke suggests that it is the limitations of sense perception that make way for poetic production.


Recalling the Reformpadogogen of his time, Rilke's insistence on visual perception plays on the scene of learning, turning the narrow discipline of training oneself to see (13) into the practice of exercising freedom to see (as we have just seen in the Notizen, where drudgery becomes the delight of fabula). These scenes of childhood do more than reflect historically shifting ideas at the intersection of pedagogy and aesthetics, such as the de-emphasis of academic style or a strict sense of mathematical rationalization in favor of the uncontaminated "primitive" view. (14) Like John Ruskin's "innocence eye," this is a complete rethinking of the subjective power and significance of childhood. (15) To further explore how Rilke stages the home through the eyes of a child, let us now turn to representations of the limits of perception in Die Aufzeichungen des Malte Laurids Brigge. In the scenes of Maltes childhood, Rilke vividly depicts mental acts relating to things in space, or what Husserl calls "transcendent objects" (Ideen [section] 41-44). By reconsidering Malte's obsession with "sehenlernen" along the lines of Husserl's notion of intentionality, (16) it is possible to demonstrate how learning provides for a rejection of the rational apparatuses one develops after childhood. For Rilke, seeing now becomes a poetic procedure, demanding a peculiar attitude of consciousness of (or attention to) seeing as if unburdened. The poet, like Husserl's philosopher, must learn to see--or, in other words, adopt the attitude of a child.

Following Kate Hamburger's argument that Rilke's poetry indeed reflects a Husserlian approach, the legibility of the world in his prose texts also seems to fall along phenomenological lines. (17) In contrast to the intentionality presented by the "lyrical I" in his poems, Rilke's child figures render their world anew through mechanisms of intention--and even more so through misperception (or infelicity). As we will see, this provides an analogue to his thinking about the relationship between subjective experience, fantasy, and poetic potential. The architecture and "canvas" of the home and its objects are not to be read as mere forms of containment ("Gerams") but, rather, as bracketing. This method of "parenthesizing" objects of consciousness advocated by Husserl--viz. "exercising the phenomenological epoche" (Ideen [section] 32)--emphasizes a certain purposeful limit of subjective perception, in contrast to the "natural attitude" toward the "givenness" of the world (things perceived as "at hand"). Like Maltes desire to "learn to see," the epoche also demands a deliberately naive position, in which one strives to forget learned attitudes and determinate knowledge. Just as Husserl suggested that one be "shut off from any judgment about spatiotemporal being," Rilke's child figures also seem to practice a version of this ubiquitous parenthesizing, in which the "entire pre-discovered world [...] as it is actually experienced" may be subject to unbiased circumscription ([section] 32). The child's eye strips away learned assumptions, giving unfettered access to the subjective and poetic world. My analysis will now lay out the possibility that the child-subject offers a unique window into how perception, imagination, and subject formation operate in a constellation, intimately linked to aesthetic production in general, and literary-poetic production in particular. The remainder of this essay shows how Rilke uses a bracketed experience of space to trigger poetic imagination. By examining scenes from Die Aufzeichnungen, we see how a nuanced representation of spatial perception establishes the child's banal encounter ("free from judgment") as the catalyst of poetic impulse.

Let us turn to a detailed rendering of space in Malte's recollection of the Brahe home he visited as a child. The narration immediately presents his perception of the interior as infelicitous: the old, mazelike house appears disjointed and impossibly circuitous.
   So wie ich es in meiner kindlich gearbeiteten Erinnerung
   wiederfinde, ist kein Gebaude; es ist ganz aufgeteilt in mir; da
   ein Raum, dort ein Raum und hier ein Stuck Gang, das diese beiden
   Raume nicht verbindet, sondern fur sich, als Fragment, aufbewahrt
   ist. In dieser Weise ist alles in mir verstreut--die Zimmer, die
   Treppen, die mit so grsser Umstandlichkeit sieh niederliefien, und
   andere enge, rundgebaute Stiegen, in deren Dunkel man ging wie das
   Blut in den Adern; die Turmzimmer, die hoch aufgehangten Balkone,
   die unerwarteten Altane, auf die man von einer kleinen Tur
   hinausgedrangt wurde:--alles das ist noch in mir und wird nie
   aufhoren, in mir zu sein. Es ist, als ware das Bild dieses Hauses
   aus unendlicher Hohe in mich hineingesturzt und auf meinem Grunde
   zerschlagen. (III, 470-71)

Explicitly formulated by the shape of the house itself, the mechanism of perception seems so labyrinthine and fragmentary (18) that it could not produce the totality of an original, complete structure even if it were somehow reassembled ("es [...] ist kein Gebaude; es ist ganz aufgeteilt in mir"). Not only a representation of the fallibility of memory, this can also be read as the particular experience of a home whose looming scale, maze-like layout, and peculiar rules of etiquette remain ungraspable from the child's perspective. Malte has limited access to certain rooms, some only at appointed times. As a child, many of these spaces therefore fail to "connect" to each other systematically to create the kind of sense (or Sinn, using the sense data that undergirds meaning) that an adult easily makes of an entire house. We might think of Cavell's description of how a child's perspective troubles the completion--or felicity--of naming things, precisely when those things rest upon a concept or mental image that remains unclear, incomprehensible, or outside of one's experience. Indeed, Cavell points to the child to demonstrate how the construction of sense and space are dependent upon one's relative position.

For example, if you are walking through Times Square with a child and she looks up to you, puzzled, and asks, "Where is Manhattan?", you may feel you ought to be able to point to something, and yet at the same time feel there is nothing to point to; and so fling out your arms and look around vaguely and say "All of this is Manhattan," and sense that your answer hasn't been a very satisfactory one. Is, then, Manhattan hard to point to? [...] It feels hard to do [...] when the concept of the thing pointed to is in doubt, or unpossessed, or repressed. (Cavell 73-74)

The ability to conceive of the totality of a structure--to represent it--is, at least in part, a question of perspective; the rendering of a discrete space hinges upon the creation of a mental object. Cavell goes on to tells us that it might require the view from a plane in order to see and name the object--in this instance, "Manhattan." And so we can easily imagine that a child who has only seen Times Square will have a very limited notion--perhaps just as wild and incomplete as Maltes picture of the Brahe home. Cavell's example also reminds us that if the certainty and capaciousness of the child's mental image could only be assured with the aid of an airplane, then an element of "indefiniteness" (19) will persist. Rilke's child figure, Malte, reveals that even interior spatial arrangements are "hard" to fathom without additional experience. Rilke's haunting depiction of the Brahe residence reflects the same kind of epistemological anxiety about childhood intuition one would feel when "pointing" to a Manhattan that would nevertheless remain "missing" for the child. It also draws our attention to the child's "indefinite intuition," made visible in the home's disjointed representation. Significantly, the aesthetic quality of the passage issues precisely from this impartial and infelicitous intuition: the same perspective that would be uncanny and disturbing in an adult's encounter has the capacity to transform the ordinary encounter into a poetic one when the subject is a child.

Through Malte 's insistence that such images of the room are located "in mir," we are shown the perspectivai limits of an individual intending subject, and intention is described as a specifically mental event. (20) The transcendent object (the house) appears to be complete precisely insofar as it is broken up into pieces ("ganz aufgeteilt"). We can read this not only as an ontological claim but also a phenomenological one: although the object is constituted in the moments of its intention, it is also determined by the scope of the child's movement through the space. (21) As Husserl notes, the unity of any three-dimensional object in space arrives through the perspectival accumulation of perceptions of it, through adumbrated perception (Ideen [section] 41). The consciousness of something physical (leiblich) as a mental act of representation is what produces the sense; it is the institution of subjectivity vis-a-vis the object. Here, as elsewhere in Rilke, the child-subject appears as the producer of objects, where the constituting of the house (as object) is also the constitution of the subject through narrative (or "Handlung") and through text-image making.

Rilke also seems to agree with Husserl that the shape of everyday space cannot be taken for granted as a fully representable totality. Indeed, the child's perception of space seems to be open to expansion, exclusion, and deformation. If we look closely at the description of the dining room in the Brahe home, Maltes recollection of the room posits a relationship between the finitude of a child's intuition (a la Cavell) and the poetic image of an irrational space.
   Dieser hohe, wie ich vermute, gewolbte Raum war starker als alles;
   er saugte mit seiner dunkelnden Hohe, mit seinen niemals ganz
   aufgeklarten Ecken alie Bilder aus einem heraus, ohne einem einen
   bestimmten Ersatz dafur zu geben. Man sass da wie aufgelost; vollig
   ohne Willen, ohne Besinnung, ohne Lust, ohne Abwehr. Man war wie
   eine leere Stelle. Ich erinnere mich, dafi dieser vernichtende
   Zustand mir zuerst fast Ubelkeit verursachte, eine Art
   Seekrankheit, die ich nur dadurch uberwand, dass ich mein Bein
   ausstreckte, bis ich mit dem Fuss das Knie meines Vaters beruhrte,
   der mir gegenubersass. [...] Und nach einigen Wochen krampfhaften
   Ertragens hatte ich, mit der fast unbegrenzten Anpassung des
   Kindes, mich so sehr an das Unheimliche jener Zusammenkunfte
   gewohnt, dass es mich keine Anstrengung mehr kostete, zwei Stunden
   bei Tische zu sitzen; jetzt vergingen sie sogar verhaltnismassig
   schnell, weil ich mich damit beschaftigte, die Anwesenden zu
   beobachten. (III, 471)

This passage reveals the palimpsest of the subject position: the disorientation and anxiety of space that the young Malte experienced is layered over with the rational commentary of an adult Malte. The overwhelming height and impressiveness of the space appears in relation to the child figure, but the inserted suspicion that the room is "wie ich vermute, gewolbte [...]" does not belong to him. Though this belated architectural identification interrupts the child's view of the room, it also offers us a helpful contrast with the adult Make's interposition of a ceiling metaphor as decisive resistance to metaphors of infinity and epistemological uncertainty. (22) As the young Maltes initial, bare perception of the space renders only limited features of the room's construction, it also shows no interest in aristocratic or bourgeois discourses dealing with the aesthetics of such marked enclosure. (23) This child figure asks us to peel away symbolic aspects of the room's design; the perception of space is most noteworthy here.

Perceived by the child, the room is neither borderless nor shapeless but, rather, lacks all determinate or rational spatiality, and the subsequent disorientation of the child viewer becomes apparent as the corners of the room withdraw into darkness. This produces "eine Art Seekrankheit" as "Raum" is imagined to be incomprehensibly expansive. Without a horizon, the space begins to swim, causing young Malte to reach for the touchstone of his father's leg to steady himself. The ordinariness of a vaulted ceiling is transformed into a space so vast that it "fast Ubelkeit verursachte." (24) The apparent absence of the ceiling's limits begets even more absence. Projected into the child's own subjective boundaries, formlessness and vast emptiness reproduce themselves: "Man war wie eine leere Stelle." The interaction of raw sense experience (hyle) with mental form (morphe) (Ideen [section] 85) (25) draws this self-presentation of the dining room inward. The object of sublime expanse is reproduced, as it were, in the intending subject. Like the fantastical expansion of the narrow children's parlor in the Notizen, Malte's inversion of space follows Rilke's narrative of poetic imagination: an ordinary domestic interior is opened up in the child's perception, and then, following the logic of horror vacui, Malte's "vernichtende Zustand" of retreating walls becomes a creative source of (obsessive) childhood production and reproduction. Malte, the narrator, thus begins to busy himself by populating the room, filling the void with family members and ghosts.

The perception of the ordinary dining room can also be seen as an optical drama. As a metonymy of both the limits of visual perception and the poetic value of childhood experience, the play of light and dark in the room serves as a reminder of an epistemological problem. Indeed, the term that appears frequently in the text with regard to both childhood and darkly visible (or wholly absent) aspects of the home is "unaufgeklart."In this passage, it is shorthand for the unlit corners of the ceiling, but when Malte elaborates on the poet's need for a well-seasoned life, his list includes "die Kindheitstage, die noch unaufgeklart sind" (III, 466). For Rilke, this chiaroscuro-like effect is more than a question of having a taste for the poorly lit; the dark corners of the home--and, similarly, of the poet-subject--are sites where the rational loses its hold and the play of imagination does its work. The lines that precede the description of those high ceilings bring the tension of darkness-enlightenment and perception-imagination to the fore. This vaulted dining room, though used every evening, seems to have no existence in the daylight or in relation to daytime.
   Ganz erhalten ist in meinem Herzen, so scheint es mir, nur jener
   Saal, in dem wir uns zum Mittagessen zu versammeln pflegten, jeden
   Abend um sieben Uhr. Ich habe diesen Raum niemals bei Tage gesehen,
   ich erinnere mich nicht einmal, ob er Fenster hatte und wohin sie
   aussahen; jedes mal, so oft die Familie eintrat, brannten die
   Kerzen in den schweren Armleuchtern, und man vergass in einigen
   Minuten die Tageszeit und alles, was man draussen gesehen hatte.
   (III, 471)

Though Rilke's child-subject describes for us the partial image of the room, it is nonetheless explicitly characterized as a complete image of a room ("[g]anz erhalten"). Like a young philosopher's assistant, he carefully brings our attention to the way in which childhood intuition reveals the effective edges of sensory information (hyle) at work against the accumulated experience of the adult mind-- that which could fill in the dark spots within the child's "horizon." With regard to young Malte's perception, the rest of the room cannot be co-intended: the absences of light, visible windows, or a ceiling that connects to the tops of the darkened walls are precisely not taken for granted. (The intervention by an adult Malte of "suspected vaulting" highlights exactly this difference.) The phenomenological epoche, however, demands recognition of these shadowy absences. As we have already seen, an object's unity in space has a perspectival limit. The unity of objects in space only appears to us as what Husserl calls "abgeschattet" [adumbrated], where the single identity of a manifold thing is synthetically available only to the extent that it can be intuited via possible perspectival positions (Ideen [section]41). Malte's view here is of portions of a room in which windows simply are not visible. This shadowiness of intention is as legible in the term Abschattung (and even in the English adumbration) as it is in the Brahes' poorly lit dining room. However, the unavailability of any given aspect of an object to intuition does not affect the possibility of that aspect having a mental "form" (morphe). Indeed, Rilke's notion of the poet's "unenlightened" sight is revealed--literally and metaphorically--as the partial depiction of the room. This produces the relationship between the "physical"--or transcendent--room (with windows of a certain number and kind) and the apparently windowless, phenomenal--or subjective--room, which, to Malte's young eye, remains inexorably ambivalent.

Rather than simply reading this as an intermingling of interior-exterior tropes, (26) we should ask, How is it that the demand for poetic response arises from this shadowy, indefinite, and ambivalent experience? It is the child's ability, and even propensity, to misperceive that provides space for imagination and creative production. While this work of poetic prose can be read generically as an aesthetic experiment, the child's explicit attempts to render a coherent world (Lebenswelt) also require a generative (i.e., poetic) response. To explain how the imagination fills in missing or inconclusive sense data, let us consider Dagfinn Follesdal's discussion of Joseph Jastrow's famous duck-rabbit image, (27) which illustrates how the mind productively accounts for deficient and ambiguous sensory impressions (hyle).

In the duck/rabbit case, this was obvious, we could go back and forth at will between having the noema of duck and having the noema of a rabbit. In most cases, however, we are not aware of this possibility. Only when something untoward happens, when I encounter a "recalcitrant" experience that does not fit in with the anticipations in my noema do I start seeing a different object from the one I thought I saw earlier. My noema "explodes" [...]. (Follesdal 32-33)

The purpose of Jastrow's image is to illustrate the ways in which prior experiences shape noematic sense. In Malte's case, it is his lack of "architectural" experience that prevents a categorical or nominal response, producing instead a "recalcitrant" effect. We can see in the duck-rabbit image that ambivalence itself produces a manifold of mental activities. The child-subject Malte is predisposed to this kind of "explosion" of noemata. Neither could he have cause to co-intend an invisible ceiling nor would such a ceiling be automatically affixed to the sense (Sinn) of "being vaulted"; it is rather the sensory (visual) data that institute the production of multiple meanings (Sitine). Just as the sublime scale of the dining room produces a kind of nausea in him, so too does it yield an excessive need to "fill in" missing data. Limited hyletic data thus afford a capacity to see more. In essence, the narrower the "anticipation" the greater the need for "tilling" activities; accordingly, the lion's share of labor must fall on noetic components like imagination.

Rather than simply suggesting that the imagination is the sole source of productivity in children (and poets), Rilke shows us that imagination itself is a response to the instability and contingency of connections between sensory data and mental activity. In the image of the "windowless" dining room, we see one moment of a child's "recalcitrant" experience, where the given information allowed for an ambivalent multiplicity of noemata (because he never saw the room by day, he could not co-intend any windows). The original image of the dining room suddenly was more: a room both with and without windows, whose possibly infinite expanse could never be pinned down into a single, stable image. Not only the scale but also the shape of the room could be imagined, reimagined, or left as whole and yet still "partial." Like the infelicities made possible in the simultaneity of Jastrow's duck-rabbit, Malte's impressions of the room are both unified (in the fact of its dim sublimity) and also multiple (What time of day was it outside? Which way did the room face?). Malte's young mind had to fill in those empty spaces with manifold possibilities.

The structure of the Kinderstube that Rilke offers us through the representation of experience as the bracketing of spatial perception now appears as experimental (returning us to the notion of the epoche). In this way, reflection on the act of making meaning (Sinn) is starkly thematized. The imagination does more than simply "fill in" in the holes (or horror vacui); it makes room for the possibility of poiesis. If this network of stairs and hallways is akin to the body of the dweller, then the sublime possibility and ambivalence of space reveal the explosion of possibility in the child's fantasy. Reading these structures in the quotidian scenes of childhood and the home allows two crucial aspects of Rilke's work to emerge: (1) the child is an intending subject, constituted along phenomenological lines; (2) through representation that operates between material intuition and noematic activity, the child-subject is revealed as poet-subject.

If we permit ourselves one final comparison with the "Vogelbauer" of Goethe's childhood, we can now understand his investment in the relative permanence of domestic architecture: it is a wooden framework ("Gerams") to which he might affix some hope of epistemological stability. Rilke's space of childhood--whether impossibly large or claustrophobically narrow--is open to poetic revision. It is not a failure of memory or the anxiety around empirical fidelity that causes such rewriting to occur; it is rather the child-subject's experience of each space. Through her subjective freedom, the child figure's material encounter with the limits of a bourgeois interior initiates poiesis: the banal canvas of the home becomes the landscape of epic fantasy. Confronting the sublime shape of a room that escapes a child's knowledge and prior experience, Rilke locates the catalyst of poetic experience at the intersection of the child's infelicitous perception and the responding mental activity, imagination.


(1) To the extent that Dichtung und Wahrheit can be read as an account of the "discovery of his own vocation," Perloff remarks that this "seemingly trivial incident" with the pots and pans suggests the "embryo of the poet, wanting to perform as long as anyone will applaud" (270).

(2) As Paul Fleming has argued, for Goethe, childhood--and perhaps any scene of origin--only gains its meaning belatedly. He notes that because a child possesses unknown potential, the fact of its potentiality cannot be interpreted further. It is only from some later point in time--namely, adulthood--that the "true meaning of childhood" is legible (33).

(3) The word that Goethe employs here for the "bird-cage"-shaped feature of the house, "Gerams," can be used to describe a wooden latticework (Gitterwerk) as well as a framework or structure (Rabmenwerk).

(4) By the end of the nineteenth century, children are the center of the bourgeois familial structure, and "everything to do with children [...] has become a matter worthy of attention" (Aries 128-33).

(5) In her chapter "Sources of Ecstasis in Childhood Experience," Jennifer A. Gossetti-Ferencei makes a strong case for reading Rilke alongside phenomenology. She argues that this captures the "vitality" of "native originality" in how objects "might be first be encountered by an awakening consciousness, how it comes to be constituted in experience." However, she sets Husserl aside as ultimately too "technical" in his approach to be able to capture this "not yet self-reflecting" position. This essay reconsiders her position by proposing that Rilke was indeed interested in the "technicality" of perception as a lived experience, where "naive" reflection gives way to fantasy (41).

(6) Like his Romantic forbearers, Rilke represents poetic imagination as predicated on the child's autonomy. This corresponds to what Aleida Assmann has described as the "spontaneity of fantasy," which is central to the Romantic ideal of childhood that poets seek to emulate (120). Rilke, I will argue, transposes this ideal structure into quotidian terms.

(7) Bernstein's Housing Problems offers readings of literal, historical domestic spaces and their textual correspondences, with a central focus on the tension between the empirical "architectural" and its transcendental counterpart, "the architectonic." Although my essay addresses such renderings of space--and their value as part of cultural history--it does not consistently treat them as "actual" spaces. Both her study and mine, however, regard the "usual sense of architecture" as "das Gewohnte, or habitual," as that which provides a crucial "juxtapositioning of the theoretical and the trivial" (13).

(8) The popularity of the nursery is one of many indicators of the division seen between childhood and adulthood. Physical quartering (and extent to which children were sequestered) lies at the heart of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century debates about the proper environment tor children's education: from Rousseau's argument for radical isolation from the detrimental effects of society to Jean Paul's claim that children were essentially social beings, who therefore required carefully selected access to society. See Ewers 13, 109.

(9) Rilke repeats this connection between writing and calling in "Uber den jungen Dichter" (IV, 674). Just as the children call to each other ("rufen sich an"), so too does Rilke refer to the poet's work as a calling ("Beruf").Thus, this scene of imagining further emphasizes that childlike vision is akin to the poet's vision.

(10) Three decades later, Walter Benjamin's Berliner Kindheit urn Neunzehnhundert and Berliner Chronik take up the relationship between childhood, architecture, and (disenchantment. The current article arises from my book-length study on literary-philosophical representations of nineteenth-century childhood, which includes a chapter on Benjamin's extensive writings on his own childhood. In this manuscript, I discuss correspondences (and differences) between the two authors at length.

(11) Although Bachelard's Poetics of Space touches on a number of issues raised by my reading of Rilke's prose texts, this essay seeks to argue along slightly different lines: rather than seeing the home as a reflection of the poet's "intimate being," here it is considered as the material conditions of poetic production. See, for example, 19-21,26,50,157-58.

(12) Articulating the relationship between sense perception and imagination (or representation), Aristotle writes, "And, since sight is sense perception par excellence, the name for imagination (phantasia) is taken from light [phaos], because without light, it is not possible to see" (De Anima 428b30). And this quasi-causal relationship parallels the intellect's creative capacity (430al0). I use these terms in anticipation ot Husserl's phenomenological approach, not intending to wade into debates about Aristotle's usages in De Anitna, Metaphysics, or elsewhere. For a discussion of the relationship between sense perception and imagination, see Polansky 431.

(13) Goethe also shared the prevailing view of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century that rationalized vision was the key to artistic skill, and that visual (and geometric) acuity could be developed through training (Arndal 213).

(14) As Eva Fauconneau-Dufresne has argued, Malte makes a shift away from the drive toward "rechten Sehen," focusing instead on two planes of consciousness--"erlebte Welt" and "Vorstellung."This follows from the anxiety produced by the discrepancy between visual perception and mental activity (260-61).

(15) For a more complete discussion of Rilke's relationship to the Reformpadogogen, see Arndal 213-15.

(16) For my purposes, the use of Husserlian terminology will fall roughly along the lines of Smith and Follesdal, where intentionality is a "mental act" (i.e., directing one's attention and perception toward an object) that constitutes its object through consciousness and where noematic Sinn potentially corresponds to linguistic Sinn. For more on debates around the interpretation of Husserl's terms, see Follesdal; Smith and McIntyre.

(17) In agreement with previous scholars (e.g., Bollnow) that Rilke's lyrical work is indeed a "dichtende Gestaltung des Gedankens," Hamburger argues that the interpretation of Rilkean poetry might be expanded through a specifically Husserlian phenomenological perspective. Focusing primarily on the period around the Neue Gedichte, she suggests that one can draw "zeitgeschichtliche Parallele" between epistemology and poetry. She uses the concept to emphasize the idea of affinity without "Beruhrung."Though Hamburger also pays close attention to the act of"Schauen,"she arrives at the "intentionality" of the lyrical I by way of personification--i.e., the noetic process in "Wesenschau" (179-85, 188-95). My essay looks primarily at "transcendent objects" rather than such "immanent" and "eidetic" images.

(18) This passage, typically read as the fragmentation that occurs through memory, reasserts itself as present-tense mental act ("So wie ich es [...] wiederfinde"). When interpreted as memory, this fragmented image also lends itself to a "psychical" narrative of a generally "incoherent" childhood (Nurmi-Schomers 196). Andreas Huyssen's classic essay "Paris/Childhood" argues that the "hallucinatory perception" and "fragmented" body (and language) in Rilke's novel reflect the fragmented modern subject in the metropolitan context (117-20, 125-26, 131-38). For more on Rilke's narrative strategies of constructing subjective identity, see also Martens; Fulleborn.

(19) Cavell's sense of a child's limited capacity for intuiting the "entirety" of Manhattan also parallels a notion of the "intuitional indefiniteness" of an individual object, whereby "immediate" acquaintance with the object does not necessarily bring about a full accounting for that object's meaning. As Smith and McIntyre have noted, Husserl himself does not elaborate on the problem of "indefinite intentions." They do remark, however, that the act of intention determines the object in a final manner, thus "mak[ing] the act's object count as this one and no other" (Husserl and Intentionality 20-21).

(20) Although I will address the processing of largely limited sense data of a physical object as a definite side of mental representation, from the perspective of experience of the self or ego ("Ich-Erfahrung"), moments of excess perception can be said to blur the distinctions between exterior space ("Umwelt") and interior subject identity (Fauconneau-Dufresne 264-66; Fulleborn 251-73).

(21) I thus argue against Luke Fischer's quasi-Romantic claims that, for Rilke, childhood is a "time of experiential monism" and is "pre-dualistic," and that Rilke envisions an "identity" and "radical sympathy" between children and things (78-87). Despite the appearance of monistic unity between the child subject and the object (e.g., that the image is "in mir"), Rilke's depiction of the child's incomplete perspective or infelicitous intention ultimately underscores the child as emphatically "estranged" from "nature."

(22) The image of a vaulted ceiling is what Albrecht Koschorke calls a "Sanktionierungszwang"--that is, the image of a Himmel against which one could bump one's head. Vaulting has the double task of symbolizing heaven in cathedral architecture (as the immaterial, infinite) while also designating its opposite (as a ceiling, it is by definition a finite and material limit) (258-59).

(23) Koschorke further stresses that nineteenth-century literature (realism in particular) corresponds to a philosophical investment in domestic space (as either limiting or expansive) as an aesthetics rendered through metaphors of containment. For a comprehensive discussion of the trope of space across nineteenth-century literature, see Die Geschkhte des Horizonts.

(24) Rilke's description of this sensation using "Ubelkeit" and not the Latinate "Nausea" (i.e., seasickness) further underscores the infinitely transformative possibilities of childhood perception. As the Grimms note, the etymological roots of ubel include the notion of excess: "das uber das maasz, die norm hinausgehende."

(25) Husserl articulates the unity of consciousness of transcendent (physical) objects as the perception of sense-data ([text not reproducible]) and mental, or noetic, processes that "bestow sense" or form ([text not reproducible]) to that sensuous objective "Stoff" (Ideen [section]85). As Smith and McIntyre note, although Husserl borrows from Aristotle's matter-form dichotomy, he puts the terms to new use here (Husserl and Intentionality 137).

(26) Gosetti-Ferencei includes Rilke's term "Weltinnenraum" in her discussion of "Zwischenraum." She attributes the peculiarity of space in Rilke's lyrical and prose writing to a representation of perception that must be thought of as "challeng[ing] [...] a Cartesian separation between a subject and the object [...]" (303). This form of "poetical consciousness" creates the effect of "felt space between subject and object which annuls their division"--namely, "interstitial space" (ibid.) In Rilke's writings on childhood, this effect is particularly visible in the intensity of perception of the external, "sensuous" world (304). See also Hamburger.

(27) This "bi-stable" image is a drawing that, depending on what the viewer focuses on, appears to be either a duck or a rabbit. He invented it to demonstrate how perception arises from a combination of external stimuli and mental activity. It was later made famous by Wittgenstein's simple line drawing in Philosophical Investigations. See Jastrow 299-312.

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Lauren Shizuko Stone

University of Colorado, Boulder
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