The Duino Elegies are a sequence of exquisite variations on the theme of the intersection of finitude and infinity, of beings and Being. Humans for Rilke are dark scars on a blissful self-present landscape; their self-consciousness – shadows chasing shadows – sunders them from nature and from themselves. As desiring, temporal creatures, they are always launching themselves ahead of themselves out to the horizon and beyond. Between the brute unconscious being of animals and the terrifying, self-rejuvenating Dasein of the angels, man is a quivering beast who is always ahead and yet still catching up.
What does love look like in a world like this? There are several kinds of love in the Duino Elegies. The first is that madly passionate, all-consuming love: through total possession of the physical body of the beloved, the lover attempts to raise herself to infinity, to destroy herself in exchange for blind glimpses of bliss. In moments of climax, the self dissolves and briefly folds itself into the oneness of Being. And yet this is only an ersatz, transient permanence, not the real thing:
When you lift one another, raise each other to drink
the full draught, mouth on mouth – oh, strange
the way each drinker grows distant from the act.
At the heart of this seeming communion of the Two into the One, the alienation of the separation seems somehow to live on, there beneath the screams of unified oblivion.
So what is the alternative? Here, Rilke turns to the ‘Attic stellae’ (gravestones) with their gestures of restraint:
…Didn’t love and parting
sit so gently on their shoulders that they appeared
to be made of material other than this world?
Remember how lightly the hands pressed, though there
was such great strength in the torsos? Those people knew
This type of love is the polar opposite of, say, True Blood, of the vampiric drinking of the beloved, a consummation which is at the same time a consumption. There is a certain tragic, aristocratic poise in this second kind. It recognises limits and doesn’t make a virtue of overstepping them. Just as Proust’s Marcel, sat reading in the garden, discovered a fine almost invisible lining at the edge of all things, making it impossible for his mind ever truly to know them, so this kind of love looks on the beloved and lightly, gently caresses her, knowing that in the holding-back the love itself may synchronise with the time of desire and grow into something much more potent.
The extension of this self-restraint is everyday, mundane companionship, the love that emanates like a warm glow from simple daily chores. In the third elegy, the beloved has fooled herself into thinking that she is the source of her lover’s desire. But Rilke mocks her innocent vanity:
Do you really think you could have startled him so
with your gentle arrival, you who move
as delicately as a breeze at dawn. Of course,
you gave his heart a shaking, but really
it was these older horrors, driven to his depths
at your touch.
She has awakened in him the old gods of desire, the ‘primal forest within’, the ‘ancient blood’; she is but the cue for him to love the bloody secrets of himself. Only everyday companionship can stand a chance against this Narcissistic excess:
[…]Let him watch you
at some steady, everyday task – lovingly, lead him
close up to the garden, give him whatever might
outweigh the nights…
Hold him back…
To break the circuit of infinite self-desire the beloved must reinstate the claims of the here and now, of the subtle delicacies of labour in the mundane world. Like classical self-restraint, labour itself seems to offer hope of fruitful self-limitation.
The other type of ‘restraint’ is involuntary:
[…]if desire tempts you, sing of the lovers,
those famous ones, though even their love’s
not immortal enough, those – you almost envy
them this – forsaken, abandoned and unrequited,
who have so much more loving in them
than those who are satisfied.
The ‘forsaken, abandoned and unrequited’ – the ordinary Didos of this world – have access to a melancholy sweetness unknown to the successful amant. A first kiss, a first walk, a first foray into the madness of the night: these are ephemeral joys, soon to be replaced by the dull mechanics of habit. But to be forsaken or heart-broken, to love a person who does not love you back, this is the realm in which the imagined first kiss can last forever. It endures ‘as the arrow endures the tensed bowstring’, and though the arrow never flies, though the lover will never know the first tentative touching of mouths, the shudder of excitement as the lining of the self begins to come undone, and – after much fumbling and courageous shame – the final surrender to the passionate embrace, at least he can relive them forever in the purity of his mind, ever young and alive.
For Rilke, then, love is a constant to-ing and fro-ing between excessive Narcissism and objective self-restraint. But there is one type of love he fails to mention: first love. Surely, first love is the most powerful of all? It combines all the types of which he speaks, and yet it recognises no separation between them. First love is when the lover sees the beloved at work, and when the inner terrors of lust and the classical self-restraint all surge together in a floodtide of which the lover is as much an onlooker as a protagonist. The first love is the second Mother, she goes all the way down; she is the ultimate object of desire in whom the self can disappear as easily when she is waiting for the bus as when you’re locked in the throes of midnight. She is the conduit for all your vitriolic hatred and the delta of your self-emptying desire. Only when first love ends, when you fall from the Imaginary into the Symbolic for the second time, when your self is rent in two, and your dreams become forever haunted by a memory, only then does the Rilkean economy of love become actual.
(All translations from Martyn Crucefix’s version)