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Rainer Maria Rilke, "Closing-piece"
I want to speak of a phenomenon all of us know too well: getting hit with “it’s too difficult” or “it’s not possible” for ludicrously simple requests. Requests, say, for more information. Or for stopping harmful behavior, behavior sometimes not even benefiting the person doing the harm. A few years ago, I believe many of us would have said this intransigence was a product of comfort. No one likes being uncomfortable, and unexpected discomfort is especially upsetting.
Now, I believe we’re far more familiar with it, more apt to identify it as militant ignorance. “Militant” is key. The intransigence can be shameless and extreme, excusing the inexcusable while denying the legitimacy of being questioned. But it also dresses in sheep’s clothing, seeming gentle and reasonable in order to avoid disclosure or change. Either way, those asking for the most basic things are on the defensive. In sum, it’s a culture of denying rights, where the powerful and their apologists communicate their displeasure to make others look unreasonable.
At times, the apologists resort to rhetoric with a vaguely philosophical cast. I’m reminded of an old joke: “What makes God laugh? People making plans.” However, we’re really dealing with this: You want to change things? Here are the obstacles which will prevent you from making sure poor people get food or stopping crooks from lying. These obstacles are insurmountable, in large part because I’m grateful they’re there, that they exist to prove you wrong no matter what. Ian Danskin’s “I Hate Mondays” video essay was exceptionally good on this topic. We engage a number of people who aren’t just opposed to change, but refuse to conceive its possibility.
With that in mind, I want to think aloud about Rilke’s poem “Closing-piece.” Indirectly, it serves as a political statement because of the terrible attitudes around us. Like all Rilke, though, it is a thorough work of art. I am consistently impressed by Rilke’s ability to build with profundity, not just to profundity. I’ll demonstrate what I mean:
Closing-piece Rainer Maria Rilke Death is great. We are His laughing mouths. If we mean ourselves in the middle of life, he dares to cry out in the middle of us.
“Death is great” alone is a book. How is it said? Maybe at a bar, a bit loose after a few drinks, hearing someone put together a genuinely stupid plan. Like, you know, getting back together with an ex. “Do you want to do that? It's corny, shameful, and you'll regret it. You wanna be known for this?”
The opening “Death is great” can connect to the middle “if we mean ourselves.” This challenges us to be exact about death, humiliation (“We are His / laughing mouths”), and authenticity. Our failures aren’t exactly death itself, but they may come close. We get upset at our lack of agency, foresight, or luck. Depressive spirals abound, and this makes sense. What good is life if we can’t do anything with it?
Still, death laughing because we “mean ourselves” remains a puzzle. Someone after catastrophic loss may say they feel dead, or worse, but it is strange to equate death with being who we truly are. This is not a direct statement of self-reflection. Rather, it is a dark eulogy, lamenting the loss of another. Someone else did something amazing. They were able to “mean” themselves, show who they were, and impress Rilke. And then they were gone. Rilke wants to be as authentic as they were, but this leads to a problem: in dying, were they humiliated?
This would merely be the pettiest of considerations if it were not for the people I described at the opening of this essay. Underneath the opposition to knowing or changing is incredible fear. Fear of being wrong, fear of having to confront anything larger than oneself. Anxiety about death is not just an existential problem, but present in a number of political phenomena. People don’t want to think about death, so they mock the sacrifice of others. It’s the only way they feel sure about their own deeds, if they do anything at all.
Of course, death doesn’t humiliate. It laughs, it “dares to cry out / in the middle of us,” but it depends on the fact we lived. Rilke speaks to this slyly in his use of personification. Death needs us to be his “laughing mouths;” he has no mouth, nor any other feature, otherwise. Moreover, when we truly live, death “dares to cry out.” It’s our sense that it could all come to an end that matters, not Death or his greatness.
It’s our worry that we could be humiliated that’s the issue. For myself, I’m still learning not to take bad opinions seriously. This is hard for me, especially when I’m confronted with people who really know their field. I’d like to know what they know. Shouldn’t I be able to trust them when they opine on other issues? Shouldn’t I trust them when they tell me what to do? No amount of knowledge can substitute for sensitivity, I keep telling myself.