PRINT January 1987


An excerpt from G. Craig Houston’s New Translation Of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Rodin And Other Prose Pieces

The following passages are prepublication extracts from three forthcoming books. The first is a group of essays by Rainer Maria Rilke, including a series of writings on Auguste Rodin, newly translated by G. Craig Houston. It will be published under the title Rodin and Other Prose Pieces by Quartet Books/Salem House Publishers, of Topsfield, Mass., in March. A 167-page paperback, it will contain 16 black-and-white illustrations. (©Ausgewãhlte Werke II, Insel Verlag, 1948).

RODIN WAS SOLITARY BEFORE he became famous. And Fame, when it came, made him if anything still more solitary. For Fame, after all, is but the sum of all the misunderstandings which gather about a new name.

There are a great many about Rodin and it would be a long and difficult task to elucidate them. Nor is it necessary. They surround the name, not the work which has far outgrown the sounding greatness of the name and is now nameless, as a plain is nameless or an ocean, the name of which is found only on maps, in books or in the mouths of men, but which, in reality, is only vastness, movement, and depth.

The work of which we are to speak here has been growing for years and grows every day like a forest, losing no hour of time. Passing amongst its thousand manifestations, one is overwhelmed by the wealth of the discoveries and inventions it embraces, and instinctively one looks for the two hands from which this world has come forth. One thinks of the smallness of human hands, of how soon they weary and of how little time is granted to their activity. And one longs to behold these hands which have lived the life of a hundred hands, of a nations of hands, that rose before daybreak to set out on the long pathway of this work. One asks about the owner of these hands. Who is this man? . . .

And now? Was not this again an age demanding [a] . . . strong and penetrative interpretation of all in it which defied utterance, which was confused and enigmatic? The arts had in some way become renewed, filled and animated by eager expectation; perhaps it was just this plastic art, still hesitating in the shadow of a great past, which was destined to find that which the sister arts were feeling for gropingly and with a great desire. It surely possessed the power to bring help to an age tormented by conflicts which lay, almost without exception, in the realm of the invisible. The language of this art was the body. And when had this body last been seen? Layer upon layer of clothing had been laid upon it like constantly renewed varnish, but beneath these protecting incrustations the living soul, breathlessly at work upon the human face, had transformed the body too. It had become a different body. If it were now uncovered, it would probably reveal a thousand forms of expression for all that was new and nameless in its development, and for all those ancient secrets which, emerging from the Unconscious, like strange river gods, lift their dripping heads from out the wild current of the blood. And this body could not but be as beautiful as that of the Greeks. It must possess even greater beauty Two thousand years more of Life had held it between its hands, had wrought upon it, caught its secrets and had not ceased to work upon it day and night. Painting had dreamt of this body, had adorned it with radiance and steeped it in twilight, had surrounded it with delicacy and charm of every kind, had felt its texture as one feels the petal of a flower, had been borne along by it as by a wave—but in plastic art, to which it properly belonged, it was as yet unknown. . . .

We can feel what it was that led Rodin to form this head, the head of an aging and ugly man, whose broken nose only tends to accentuate the tormented expression of the face; it was the immense concentration of life in these features; the fact that there was no symmetry in the planes of this face, no repetition, no part empty, uncommunicative or neutral. Life had not simply touched this face, it had wrought it through and through, like some inexorable hand thrusting it into destiny and holding it there as in the rush of swirling, cleansing waters. Taking it in one’s hands, and causing it to revolve slowly, one is amazed by the ever-changing profiles, not one of which is accidental, uncertain or indefinite. Not a line, not a join, not a contour in this head but had been seen by Rodin and executed with intention. One seems to feel that some of these furrows must have appeared earlier, others later, that different deep-cut marks across the features were separated by years of time and trouble; one knows beyond question that some of the marks on this face were inscribed slowly, almost hesitatingly, that others were at first lightly traced, then firmly drawn in by some recurring habit or thought, and one recognizes the sharp incisions which must have come in a night, as if cut by the beak of a bird, in the weary brow of one whom sleep evades. Only with an effort does one recollect that all this is contained within the space of a face, so great and nameless is the life issuing from this work.

Putting down the mask, one has the sensation of standing on some high tower and looking down upon a rugged landscape, over whose devious ways many peoples have passed. And, taking it up again, one has in one’s hands something which must be called beautiful on account of its perfection. But its beauty is not entirely due to its incomparable perfection. It comes from the feeling of equilibrium, of balance between all these living surfaces, from the feeling that all these factors of disturbance come to rest within the thing itself. One’s immediate sensation, on feeling the many-voiced torment of this face, is that it utters no accusation. It makes no appeal to the world; it seems to carry within itself its own justice, the reconciliation of all its contradictions and a patience great enough for all its burdens.

When Rodin made this mask he had a man sitting motionless before him with unmoved countenance. But it was the countenance of a living person, and as he studied it, behold, it was full of movement, full of restlessness and the rhythm of waves. There was movement in the direction of the lines, movement in the incline of the planes, the shadows moved as if in sleep and the light seemed to pass softly over the brow. There was, then, no such thing as calm, not even in death; for in decay, which is also movement, even what was dead was still subordinated to life. In Nature there was only movement; and an art that wished to give a conscientious and credible interpretation of life, might not take for its ideal a calm which was nonexistent.