Rilke’s angels and metaphor

Are we seeing a theme emerge? A lot of thinking about figurative language lately. William Empson writes, in The Structure of Complex Words, of metaphor as the sudden perception of an objective relation:

It is clear that we may do this before we can explain it […] Original pieces of thinking have, I suppose, nearly always been started on metaphor, and so far from being peculiarly “emotive” and indulgent of folly, a metaphor is often a loophole for common sense.

We have all read of engineers and scientists, as well as poets and artists having this sudden perception of an objective relation, of a connection that appears to have always been so. If we ask this type of language and thought a question, if we ask “what is metaphor… for?” where does this lead us? This may require expansion, so when do we employ metaphor, and to what end? True, all language contains metaphorical elements, or shows itself to be a sedimented cross-section of previous ages’ figurative language, petrified into varying degrees of literalism. This is a large part of the point Mark Turner makes in The Literary Mind. It is a concern, sure, but a secondary one, when we consider how a metaphor is consciously deployed. Is it not used rather in order to convey a novel and original insight? This is the metaphor made, rather than Empson’s metaphor found.

Insight here I would take to mean not simply a new fact, or new emotion, or new description, but more interesting still, a new perspective. This new perspective can invert an entire way of  conceiving of reality, and can indeed go on to disclose new facts and new descriptions from this, perhaps even new ways of considering emotions too. With this, I have in mind Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, I.14 and II.24. Here we have the ‘traditional’ modes of nature poetry and romantic imagery effectively destroyed and reconstituted by a change of perspective, from that of the living, to that of the literal impossibility of considering things from the stance of the dead. This is, as is my major point here, the relevance of angels in Rilke in the Duino Elegies (in German and English), since in this context, the first elegy suggests (Stephen Mitchell’s translation is superior to the one linked to above):

Angels (they say) don’t know whether it is the living

They are moving among, or the dead. The eternal torrent

whirls all ages along in it, through both realms

Forever, and their voices are drowned out in its thunderous roar.

An angel in Rilke is the manifestation of the purest expression of the metaphor, of poetic language as the ability to reconstitute reality.

As is usual in my hands, metaphor begins to explode out into all figurative uses of language. Trying to settle myself, and keep to the matter at hand, I think Rilke has shown us something instructive here. In writing of two realms, with angels and the messengers between the two, we have a figurative explanation of the phenomenon of figuration (say five times quickly). The “eternal torrent” suggests that insight takes place continually. As I wrote in a previous post, metaphor is the traversing of two realms, crossing the gap, and if we do this well then metaphor will engender new metaphors. Metaphor is not zero sum game, and it cannot be exhausted. All metaphor has a history, but this synchronic aspect is in continual danger of being emphasized to breaking point. This literary archaeology of words runs the risk of becoming an exercise in box ticking, a literary “gotta catch ’em all!” What I emphasize continually is the diachronic, the daemonic force of metaphor – it stands outside of time. This is Rilke’s angel.

The voices of the ages (as diachrony) crowd in on one another, coming to a point of crisis where there is a “thunderous roar”, the chaos and cacophony of all voices is rendered unintelligible by the passage of time (a synchronic sedimentation of metaphor). This must be read so that it is not the “eternal torrent” which roars, but the fact that as time goes on, more voices will rise. Unlike merely human voices, the voices Rilke speaks of here die, but are not dead. More and more voices crowd out those of the angels, those elevated connectors, sparks between the gaps. The anxiety expressed here when Rilke writes (“…strange/ to see meanings that clung together once, floating away/ in every direction…”) is that of the Sonnets to Orpheus, I.14Our manner of expression crowds out expression itself, in some ways. Rilke, as a poet, cannot make this absolute, and notes in II.10: “But still, existence for us is a miracle, Still there are words that can calmly approach the unsayable…”, and I.26 “Oh you lost god! You inexhaustible trace!” The circle never closes, as Rilke says elsewhere, but is open to…what exactly?

This is where the metaphor serves and rules. The crowded realm is that of language as a belated phenomenon. Metaphor whittles and empties, searching for those loopholes of insight. It brings connections to bear through the void. Where nature supposedly abhors a vacuum, art thrives on this absence. The first elegy: “but listen to the voice of the wind/ and the ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence”. From the sonnets (I.3): “True singing is a different breath, about/ nothing. A gust inside the god. A wind.”

Erich Heller wrote that both “Nietzsche and Rilke have made themselves administrators of the impoverished estate” (The Disinherited Mind, p. 140), and this is true of them both, but in radically different respects. Nietzsche protests as a philosopher who would be a poet, but in failing to become one (via the Dionysus Dithyramben and the interesting if failed project of Also Sprach Zarathustra) he cannot traverse the crossing, and so rails against it. He is a reactionary administrator. Rilke, in contrast, is a poet, and so is a visionary, seeing beyond the limitations of our culturally and spiritually empty treasury. Heller draws comparisons between Rilke and some existentialists, given a common concern for

“the defencelessness of the frontiers of human against the neighbouring void, that area which was once established as the divine home of souls and now the unassailable fortress of the nihil… (p. 144)

but once again this misunderstands the poet’s mission, if we can call it such. The poet creates angels anew, they are our messengers between the realms. Nothing is unassailable, or rather in the poetic mode of paradox, the “nihil” can be assailed by our messengers, our poems, our metaphors. As Heller correctly observes, “if the Duino Elegies were the invocation of the Angel, some of the poems that come afterwards sound like the Angel’s own poetry.” (p. 146)

Let it not be forgotten that the Angel is ours, a creation, a necessity in Wallace Stevens’s sense of the necessary angel. Of this, can we expand this point outwards, to observe the points and places where angels stepped down to earth, in our literature?  Were they anxious responses to our worldly fears and preoccupations, the hope crying out in the darkness for the imagination to overcome the painful, fatal limits imposed on us by reality. From Rilke here, to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and the AIDS crisis, all the way back to the exposure of Judaism to Zoroastrianism’s angels during the Babylonian exile… Are angels (even in that popular, quasi-pagan phenomenon of “an angel a day” books) metaphors used as a throw rope, a distinct cognitive tool to make it across the gap? Are they  a hope-against-hope given shape? I quite like Mother Pitt’s pragmatic take on the fantastic, from Angels in America, when she says “An angel is a belief, with wings, and arms that can carry you. It’s not to be afraid of, and if it can’t hold you up, seek for something new.”

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