"The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge", by Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
"That I cannot give up sleeping with the window open! The trams rattle jangling through my room. Automobiles drive over me. A door slams. Somewhere a window smashes; I hear the laughter of the larger shards and the sniggering of the splinters. Then suddenly a thudding, muffled noise from the other direction, inside the house. Someone is climbing the stairs, coming, coming steadily, reaches my door, pauses for some time, then goes on. And once again the street. A girl shrieks: ‘Ah, tais-toi, je ne veux plus!’
The tram races up all agitated, then rushes on headlong. Somebody shouts. People are running, overtaking each other. A dog barks. What relief: a dog. Around dawn, a cock even crows, affording balm unlimited. Then quite abruptly I fall asleep.
I am learning to see. Why, I cannot say, but all things enter more deeply into me; nor do the impressions remain at the level where they used to cease. There is a place within me of which I knew nothing. Now all things tend that way. I do not know what happens there.
Today, as I was writing a letter, I realized that I have been here for a mere three weeks. Three weeks in some other place – say, in the country – could seem a day; here they are years. I have resolved to write no more letters. Why should I inform anyone of the changes within me ? If I am changing, I no longer remain the person I was, and if I become someone else, it follows that I have no friends or acquaintances. And to write to strangers, to people who do not know me, is quite out of the question.
Have I mentioned already that I am learning to see ? Yes, I am making a start. I have not made much progress yet, but I mean to make the most of my time. To think, for example, that I have never consciously registered just how many faces there are. There are a great many people, but there are a great many more faces, for every person has several. There are people who wear the same face for years on end; naturally it shows signs of wear, it gets dirty, it cracks at the creases, it splays out like gloves worn on a journey.
These are simple people, practising economies, and they do not change their face or even have it cleaned. It'll do fine, they insist, and who is to prove them wrong ? The question, of course, since they have several faces, is what they do with the others. They keep them for best: their children can wear them some day. But it has been known for their dogs to go out wearing them, too. And why not ? A face is a face.
Other people are disconcertingly quick to change their faces, one after another, and they wear them out. At first they suppose they have enough to last for ever, but hardly have they reached forty when they come to the last of them. There is of course a tragic side to this. They are not used to looking after their faces; the last is worn out in a week, holed and paper-thin in numerous places, and little by little the underlay shows through, the non-face, and they go about wearing that.
But that woman, that woman: she was wholly immersed within herself, bowed forward, head in hands. It was at the corner of the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. The moment I saw her, I began to tread softly. The poor should not be disturbed when they are lost in thought. The thing they are trying to think of may yet come to them.
The street was too deserted, its emptiness was wearied with itself and pulled out the footfall from under my feet and banged it about as if it were knocking a wooden clog. The woman was startled and started out of herself too rapidly and roughly, so that her face was left in her hands. I could see it lying in them, the hollow mould of it. It cost me an indescribable effort to keep my gaze on those hands and not look at what had been torn from out of them. I was appalled to see the inside of the facial mask, but I was far more terrified still of seeing a head bare and stripped of its face.
"What such a small moon can achieve. There are days when everything about one is luminous, light, scarcely defined in the bright air, and nonetheless distinct. Even the nearest of things have the shades of distance upon them; they are remote, merely sketched in rather than bodied forth; and all things that do indeed partake of distance – the river, the bridges, the long streets and the prodigal squares – have absorbed the distance within
themselves and are painted on to it as upon silk.
Who can say what a light green vehicle on the Pont Neuf might be at such times, or some red bursting forth, or even a mere poster on the fire wall of a pearly-grey group of
buildings. Everything is simplified, rendered into a few exact, bright planes like the face in a portrait by Manet. And nothing is of slight importance or irrelevance. The booksellers along the Quai open up their stalls, and the fresh or faded yellow of the books, the violet brown of the bindings, the more commanding green of an album: all of it is just right and has its worth and is a part of the whole and adds up into a fullness where nothing is lacking.
I suppose I ought to embark on some work or other, now that I am learning
to see. I am twenty-eight, and next to nothing has happened in my life. To recapitulate: I have written a study of Carpaccio, which is poor; a play titled Marriage, which deploys ambiguities in the attempt to prove a truthless point; and verses.
Ah, but verses are so paltry an achievement if they are written early in life. One should wait, and gather meaning and sweetness a whole life long, a long life if possible, and then, at the very end, one might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For verses are not feelings, as people imagine – those one has early enough; they are experiences.
In order to write a single line, one must see a great many cities, people and things, have an understanding of animals, sense how it is to be a bird in flight, and know the manner in which the little flowers open every morning. In one's mind there must be regions unknown, meetings unexpected and long-anticipated partings, to which one can cast back one's thoughts – childhood days that still retain their mystery, parents inevitably hurt when one failed to grasp the pleasure they offered (and which another would have taken pleasure in), childhood illnesses beginning so strangely with so many profound and intractable transformations, days in peacefully secluded rooms and mornings beside the sea, and the sea itself, seas, nights on journeys that swept by on high and flew past filled with stars – and still it is not enough to be able to bring all this to mind.
One must have memories of many nights of love, no two alike; of the screams of women in labour; and of pale, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been with the dying, have sat in a room with the dead with the window open and noises coming in at random. And it is not yet enough to have memories. One has to be able to forget them, if there are a great many, and one must have great patience, to wait for their return. For it is not the memories in themselves that are of consequence. Only when they are become the very blood within us, our every look and gesture, nameless and no longer distinguishable from our inmost self, only then, in the rarest of hours, can the first word of a poem arise in their midst and go out from among them."