Rilke at the Louvre

Rilke writes to his wife on how to be alive and receptive and the incomparable Madonna Lisa.








“… That was such a good day, when one apprehended and understood. And the joy in such great things happens so entirely in nuances that one cannot later say it was of this color or that. And one recalls almost nothing of it if one hasn’t a few notes out of the immediate experience that might help. It is the same for me with the last year’s portrait in Berlin. Looking at such things a metaphor ought to come to one, something like a little entrance of one’s own through which one can always get in. It seems to me as if all that could be better if one put oneself into that state of mind of which I wrote recently, and it strikes me also that one must be able to reach and evoke it, because it is perhaps nothing but attentiveness.

I tried that in the Louvre recently. I had been there a few times and it was like looking at great activity; thus things kept happening and happening there before me. And then, a short time ago, there were only pictures and many too many pictures, and everywhere someone standing, and everything was disturbing. And then I asked myself why it was different today. Was I tired? Yes. But wherein did this tiredness consist? In the fact that I let everything possible come into my mind; in that everything possible went right through me like water through a reflection, dissolving all my outlines into flux.

And I said to myself: I will no longer be the reflection but that which is above. And I turned myself over so that I was no longer upside down, and closed my eyes for a brief moment and drew myself about me and stretched my contours, as one stretches violin strings, until one feels them taut and singing, and suddenly I knew I was fully outlined like a Dürer drawing, and I went thus before Madonna Lisa: and she was incomparable.

So, do you see . . . , it is this that one must sometime be able to do. Not to wait (as has happened until now) for the strong things and the good days to make something like that out of one; to anticipate them, to be it already of oneself: that is what one must sometime be able to do. And won’t everything be work then? For what in that state is unfruitful? It is precious black earth in us, and our blood has only to go ahead like the plow and make furrows. Then, while we are at the harvesting, the sowing will already have started again in another spot. . . .”

Letter to Clara Rilke, Sept 11, 1906 from Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke 1892-1901; Translated by Jane Bannard Greene and M.D. Herter Norton; 1972; pp/ 225. (Paragraph breaks added)