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.