"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Rilke and The Limits of Criticism


Is there any serious reader who hasn't, at some time, grown exasperated or simply jaded at the unstoppable tsunami of literary criticism, even if we know how vital it is to have it, like a visit to the dentist? Re-reading Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet in Stephen Cohn's translation for Carcanet (2000) I came across these scraps of wisdom: "...there is nothing which touches works of art so little as does the language of criticism; nothing ever comes of that but more or less felicitous misunderstandings. Few things are in fact as accessible to reason or to language as people will generally try to make us believe. Most phenomena are unsayable, and have their being in a dimension which no word has ever entered; and works of art are the most unsayable of all - they are mysterious presences whose lives endure alongside our own perishable lives." In a later letter to the young poet he writes: "Works of art are infinitely solitary, and nothing comes so little near them as does criticism. It is love alone that can grasp them and do them justice. You should always trust yourself and your intuitions against that kind of analysis or argument or presentation...To allow each thing its own evolution, each impression and each grain of feeling buried in the self, in the darkness, unsayable, unknowable, and with infinite humility and patience await the birth of a new illumination: this alone is what it means to live the life of an artist - in understanding as much as in creating...patience is everything."

Love, patience, understanding, humility in the face of the text. One day, perhaps.

9 comments:

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

Rilke is marvellous critic!

Nicholas Murray said...

Well, quite, and therein lies the paradox, I suppose. What I would say is that the best criticism always seems to have a glancing, incidental quality - a sudden insight rather than a conclusion reached after a plodding exegesis. Or as Borges put it: "The art of writing is mysterious;the opinions we hold are ephemeral." Bad criticism is usually Newsnight-Review-style "opinions" ("Dante is rubbish") but good criticism has Rilke's qualities of patient listening-in. In my opinion.

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

The paradox is a necessary part of literature, I'd say. And then there's the quotation from Blanchot from which my blog gets its name:

"Critical discourse is this space of resonance within which the unspoken, indefinite reality of the work is momentarily transformed and circumscribed into words. And as such, due to the fact that it claims modestly and obstinately to be nothing, criticism ceases being distinguished from the creative discourse of which it would be the necessary actualization or, metaphorically speaking, the epiphany."

Dante said...

Rilke is rubbish.

Nicholas Murray said...

Well, that was an intelligent contribution from Florence.

Dante said...

I'm actually thinking of adding a circle to hell just to place Rilke in it, along possibly with Borges while I'm at it. Man is never more innocently occupied than when he is devising eternal torments for his enemies.

Dante said...

I'm not quite sure why I believe them to be my enemies, but one can nver have enough enemies.

Nicholas Murray said...

I agree that it's bracing to be a good hater and making enemies is so much easier than making friends, being negative a doddle compared with being positive, but the problem here is that the world hasn't the faintest notion of what it is that makes you hate Rilke and Borges. We are invited to approve your dismissal - as if we were watching "Newsnight Review" on the BBC - but we haven't the foggiest what your beef is. But by all emas go one adding to the circles of Hell, it is, as you say, an innocent pastime and far better than vandalising phone boxes.

Dante said...

There's the rub, as the poet said, Nicholas. I haven't the foggiest idea why I imagine themselves to be mine enemies either, but since since the devising and populating of circles of hell is, as you say, a charming pursuit and to be preferred over the vandalising of phone boxes( they didn't have them in my day, you know), if pressed I will justify my activities on the basis of vanity and its offshoots of envy and spite that allegedly plague the literary hemisphere. On the other hand, as I say, they didn't have phone boxes in my day, and it might make a change to do some vandalising.