“And [he] sits in the garden like an old dog, the dog of this work that is calling him again and that beats him and lets him go hungry. And yet he’s attached with his whole being to this incomprehensible master.”
Poetic even in his letter writing, Rilke’s at times rhapsodical, at times clairvoyantly insightful musings on the painter Paul Cézanne’s work and relationship to working found in his Letters on Cézanne are often praised for their distillation of art (Cézanne’s paintings in particular) into a kind of sublimely colorful essence, revealing the poet’s unusual sensitivity to the visual arts.
“…but all we can learn of these hands from his work is how massively and genuinely he labored unto the end. This labor which no longer knew any preferences or biases or fastidious predilections, whose minutest component had been tested on the scales of an infinitely responsive conscience, and which so incorruptibly reduced reality to its color content that it resumed a new existence in a beyond of color, without any previous memories.”
But the letters also reveal something more intimate: an artist in distress, full of the anxiety one feels when one compares oneself to greatness. The letters give the reader a unique glimpse into Rilke’s feelings of smallness, of his own sense of inadequacy when faced with Cézanne’s grandeur—a figure who, for Rilke, became a kind of Platonic, unattainable, form of the artist at work.
For the last 30 years of his life, Cézanne worked, Rilke writes:
“Actually without joy, it seems, in a constant rage, in conflict with every single one of his paintings, none of which seemed to achieve what he considered to be the most indispensable thing. La Réalization, he called it[…] To achieve the conviction and substantiality of things, a reality intensified and potentiated to the point of indestructibility by his experience of the object, this seemed to him to be the purpose of his innermost work; old, sick, exhausted every evening to the edge of collapse by the regular course of the day’s work[…] hoping nevertheless from day to day that he might reach that achievement which he felt was the only thing that mattered.”
Rilke’s letters are filled with a mixed sense of kinship and longing. He feels he is on the path to becoming the sort of worker Cézanne appears to have been, “I am on the way to becoming a worker, on a long road perhaps, and probably I’ve only reached the first milestone; but still, I can already understand the old man who walked somewhere far ahead, alone, followed only by children who threw stones.”
“…one is still so far away from being able to work at all times. Van Gogh could perhaps lose his composure, but behind it there was always his work, he could no longer lose that. And Rodin, when he’s not feeling well, is very close to his work, writes beautiful things on countless pieces of paper, reads Plato and follows him in his thoughts. But I have a feeling that this is not just the result of discipline or compulsion (otherwise it would be tiring, the way I’ve been tired from working in recent weeks); it is all joy; it is natural well-being in the one thing that surpasses everything else. Perhaps one has to have a clearer insight into the nature of one’s ‘task,’ get a more tangible hold on it, recognize it in a hundred details. I believe I do feel what Van Gogh must have felt at a certain juncture, and it is a strong and great feeling: that everything is yet to be done: everything. But this devotion to what is nearest, this is something I can’t do as yet, or only in my best moments, while it is at one’s worst moments that one really needs it.”
Though Rilke clearly idolized struggle and singular dedication to work, reading the letters you can also sense his deep and utterly sympathetic ambivalence to such all-consuming and overwhelming dedication. On the one hand, he believes that “’ultimate intuitions and insights’ will only approach one who lives in his work and remains there,” and yet he cannot yet bring himself to live in his work. He cannot devote himself:
“Ah, if only one did not have comforting memories of time spent without working. Memories of lying still and taking comfort. Memories of hours spent in simple waiting, or leafing through old illustrations, or reading some novel or other. […] If only one had nothing but memories of work from the beginning: how firm the ground would be under one’s feet.”
To work is to suffer. It is a constant struggle to bear the divide between your vision and what you create. It is a constant realization of and reckoning with your own perceived inadequacies, your distractibility, your vulnerability to what Rilke calls “the seduction of idleness”.
My experience of working is a daily struggle with impatience. My initial excitement over a new idea is quickly frustrated by my inability to bring the idea, impression, or image from it’s foggy origin somewhere in the recesses of my mind out into the clear light of day in a succinct, comprehensible form and satisfactorily efficient manner. I struggle to say what I mean. I struggle sometimes (often) to even know what I mean.
Anyone struggling to create something knows these conflicts intimately. It is not a struggle unique to artists. Many entrepreneurs describe experiencing the same cycles of emotion, the same sorts of inner conflict. The experience of being in the studio (an office can be a kind of studio) is the experience of not knowing where you are going, not knowing if you are even going anywhere at all, not knowing if you might be headed over a cliff, but deciding to go anyway. It is the experience of embracing uncertainty, of embracing doubt and insecurity.
Doing your work demands enduring the suffering, the anxiety, the uncertainty, the self-doubt and self-criticism. The knowledge that it is painful to follow a vision makes you long for those easy, idle hours. You must resist the temptation to sit in idleness and actively choose to submit yourself to these anxieties over and over. And the sweetness of idleness does not last. Not working leaves you tormented. To be in the grips of a vision or a calling such as Cézanne’s vision of La Réalization is to endure a constant catch-22. To work is to suffer. To not work is to suffer. Anyone desperately committed to a vision will tell you that each minute not spent working feels like a betrayal.
For Rilke, not working is the deepest kind of betrayal. The letters are imbued with an unconventional sense of God—a religion drawn from nature where devotion and worship are expressed through work. Working becomes a kind of prayer, connecting the artist to the ultimate source, to the original inducement. “Only a saint could be as united with god as Cézanne was with his work.”
The path through life that is illuminated by a vision inevitably takes its turns into darkness. As the believer may experience times when God does not feel present, the visionary too will experience times of darkness and doubt, when the light of the vision seems to disappear, when the voice calling you seems to grow faint or stop all together. A kind of faith is required to stay committed to the vision during such times of darkness.
“Ah, whom can we ever turn to in our need?/ Not angels, not humans, and already the knowing animals are aware/ that we are not really at home in our interpreted world.” (Rilke’s Duino Elegies)
One source of solace for me is the knowledge that others have struggled with the same doubts, the same disquieting certainty that despite all the work, they have not and perhaps cannot achieve La Réalization. The result will always fall short. It is, in a way, a life of great tragedy to follow a vision. The vision abuses you, taunts you, lets you go hungry, teases you with fantasies of fulfillment and realization and then leaves you outdoors alone and afraid. But like a loyal dog, you always return to the work because this vision is also the only place you feel at home; this is where love exists. There is often pain and struggle, but there are also times of unspeakable exuberance, connection, inspiration and fulfillment. There are moments of joy and the “natural well-being” that Rilke imagines. And these moments and experiences are so rich and meaningful that they make the pain worth it.
We all struggle with doubts. But if Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne are any proof, something beautiful and meaningful can be born even in the midst of struggle. Cézanne may have continued in desperate pursuit of La Réalization until the end of his life (he died, as Rilke puts it “engaged sur le motif”) but his work meant something profoundly significant to Rilke even if it did fall short of Cézanne’s vision. Of Cézanne’s paintings Rilke writes:
“One feels their presence drawing together into a colossal reality. As if these colors could heal one of indecision once and for all. The good conscience of these reds, these blues, their simple truthfulness, it educates you; and if you stand among them as ready as possible, you get the impression that they are doing something for you. You also notice, a little more clearly each time, how necessary it was to go beyond love, too; it’s natural after all to love each of these things as one makes it: but if one shows this, one makes it less well; one judges it instead of saying it. One ceases to be impartial; and the best—love— stays outside the work, does not enter it, is left aside, untranslated…”
And Cézanne’s paintings do seem to heal Rilke. They comfort and inspire him.
Reading Rilke’s letters heals me. They touch on the most profound aspects of painting and art in general. They remind me of the unflinching attention required for insight. The infuse the most trivial of moments (moonlight coming in Rilke’s window, for example) with an almost unearthly significance. And they remind me that the struggle itself can be beautiful and meaningful and perhaps, even if you never achieve La Réalization, your work may still be profoundly significant…at least to someone.
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