Friday, January 27, 2006

Rilke’s Test

In Letter to a Young Poet, Rilke gives the budding artist some stern advice:

“There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.

“So, dear Sir, I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist.” (Letter One.)

I used to find such advice disheartening. I’m romantically attached to the dream of being creative. But when asked if I must Create or Die, the answer is No.

Yet, there is hope. Perhaps the test is more generally applicable. Rather than, “Must I Create?”, it could be “Must I Foo?”, where Foo is whatever activity that most defines each of us. Perhaps it’s schmoozing, perhaps it’s looking, perhaps it’s being bossy.

For me, Foo = Analyze. Being a nitpicker is not as picturesque as being a poet (I can’t imagine Rilke writing, or anyone publishing, Letters to a Young Stickler), but realizing that I have Rilke’s inferred permission to build my life around it is better than moping about not being an artist.