You Must Change Your Life

In You Must Change Your Life, Rachel Corbett elucidates the unlikely friendship between French sculptor Auguste Rodin and Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  Not only was Rodin 35 years Rilke’s senior, but their personalities were polar opposites. Rilke was sensitive, delicate, refined, while Rodin was robust and carnal.  At the time of their meeting in 1902, Rodin was famous and admired, while Rilke was still unknown. his poetic gifts unformed.   Their meeting was transformative for them both.  Rilke was transfixed by the older artist, and they developed a master-disciple relationship that lasted until Rodin’s death.

Photograph of Rainer Maria Rilke Photographer unknown

You Must Change Your Life provides a sketch of both artists’ biographies.  Corbett includes information on the most significant relationships of the two men’s lives, especially the women who surrounded them.  (I wrote a previous blog post here on one of these

NPG x6573; Auguste Rodin by George Charles Beresford
Photo of Auguste Rodin by George Charles Beresford

fascinating women: Lou Andreas-Salome.) Corbett is most interested, however, in exploring the process of creativity and artistic development.  In doing so, she delves into the intellectual and artistic currents of late 19th century in order to explain to readers the influences on both Rilke and Rodin.  She explores not only aesthetic theories, but also on other intellectual currents such as philosophy, psychoanalysis, and the newly explored concept of empathy.  Corbett also illuminates the significance of particular places in creativity—especially the city of Paris, which has been the incubator of so many artists.

Of all the many influences on Rilke, Rodin was one of the most important. Rilke allowed himself to be like clay in his master’s hands, yearning to be shaped into something memorable.   He learned many things from the sculptor, especially “the meaning of structure.  [Rodin] had given [Rilke] the blueprint to build his poetry like a carpenter builds four walls around him” (246).  Learning structure was immensely valuable to the poet.

However, Rilke also misunderstood some of Rodin’s advice, much to his detriment.  Rodin urged Rilke to “travailler, toujours travailler” (work, always work).   Unfortunately, Rilke followed this advice literally, sacrificing close relationships and many of the pleasures of his life in order to pursue his art more fervently.  “He had sat around empty hotel rooms, stared at cathedral towers and caged lions, slept in empty beds.  But deep within the body of this lifelong observer was the trace of a ‘still feelable heart’ that had been ‘painfully buried-alive by images,’” observes Corbett.  Rilke had abandoned life “in anticipation of future payoff” (247).

It was only later that Rilke realized that “Rodin had not made any of the sacrifices that he, Rilke, had.  Rodin was no martyr for his art.  How did he live? Full of pleasure, and exactly as he pleased, it turned out” (247).   At first, Rilke felt disillusioned when he realized his mentor was not what he thought he was.   Eventually, though, Rilke realized that nobody, no master, could tell their disciple how to live.  The artist has to figure it out for themselves.  The important thing about art, Rilke realized later in his life, is that “there was never anything waiting on the other side: There was no god, no secret thing, and in most cases no reward.  There was only the doing” (247).   Rilke does, of course, become a great poet.  Corbett does not suggest that Rodin was the only reason for Rilke’s greatness.  He was, nonetheless, a pivotal figure in Rilke’s artistic development.

I found Corbett’s book fascinating.  I would recommend it to readers who are interested in the arts, in creativity, in the cultural and intellectual currents of late 19th century Europe, or even in the city of Paris.  The book contains a number of different “threads,” of which I only touched on a few here.  Perhaps one could fault Corbett for trying to cover too many different topics, leaving a somewhat “meandering” feel to the book.  I, however, enjoyed her excursions into some of the facets of fin-de-siecle European art.

Truman: A Biography by David McCullough

Harry S. Truman (photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Harry S. Truman (photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

I recently started reading David McCullough’s biography of President Harry S. Truman. I chose it because  I am interested in learning more about Truman and because McCullough is a very engaging writer. However, at over 1000 pages, the book is rather daunting.I thought it might motivate me to read all of it if I posted on it periodically, rather than waiting until the end.  Right now, I have read about 200 pages.

What has struck me most so far is astonishment that Truman ever became president of the United States.  I do not mean this in a derogatory way to Truman.  I simply mean that he grew up in such ordinary circumstances, far from money, power, or any other kind of privilege.  He was born in 1884 in Missouri, and grew up on a farm near Independence, Missouri.  He had a happy childhood, but it was far from pampered. He worked hard on the farm and also was quite a book worm, with a particular love of history.

He did not go to college because his family could not afford to send him.  Instead, he did a variety of jobs, including farming and working in a bank. Although he worked hard all everything he undertook, he was not particularly successful at anything.  He entered World War I even though he did not have to; he was over 30, with bad eyesight and he was the sole support of his mother and sister.  It was during the war that he realized he had a gift for leadership and he thirsted for more opportunities to exercise it.

If McCullough is to be believed, Truman was squeaky clean morally, with sterling integrity.  He genuinely liked people and got along with most of them.  According to Truman, the only woman he was ever romantically interested in was Bess, who eventually became his wife–only after he returned from WWI and was in his thirties..

It was not until Truman was well into his forties that he became involved in politics.  Even that was as a judge (an administrative positive) at the county level.  Then, when he was around 50, he ran for and was elected as a  Democratic senator on the national level.  The irony of his election is that despite his squeaky clean personal reputation, he was elected because of the famous Kansas Pendergrast “machine,” which had mob connections.  He came to Washington, then, under a cloud of suspicion because “he was sent to Washington by gangsters.”

That’s as far as I have read up to this point.  McCullough is a wonderfully engaging writer, so that the book reads almost like a novel, not at all dry.

Stay tuned for more updates!

David McCullough (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
David McCullough (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)