Put Out My Eyes
Put out my eyes, and I can see you still,
Slam my ears too, and I can hear you yet;
And without any feet can go to you;
And tongueless, I can conjure you at will.
Break off my arms, I shall take hold of you
And grasp you with my heart as with a hand;
Arrest my heart, my brain will beat as true;
And if you set this brain of mine afire,
Then on my blood-stream I yet will carry you.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Translation from German: Babette Deutsch (1895-1982)
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote this poem for Lou Andreas-Salome, with whom he was deliriously in love. I discovered the poem in Rachel Corbett’s recent book You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin. Corbett’s book explores the relationship between Rilke (a poet) and Rodin (a sculptor). Corbett focuses on how Rodin’s artistic example helped to shape Rilke’s own growth as a poet. While the main thrust of her work is on the Rodin-Rilke friendship, Corbett also brings to light many of the other important influences on Rilke, one of whom was Lou Andreas-Salome.
Before reading Corbett, I had never heard of Andreas-Salome, who lived from 1867 – 1937. (She was born in Russia of German parents.) Her role in You Must Change Your Life is minor, but I am devoting this post to her because I find her fascinating, and I think she deserves to be more famous than she is today. (In her own time, she was well known in intellectual European circles.)
A prolific writer, Andreas-Salome penned more than a dozen novels. She was also a philosopher, critic, and one of the first women psychoanalysts. She published several critical works as well, including major studies on Ibsen, Nietzsche and Rilke.
Andreas-Salome also known for her personal life as a femme fatale and a “serial muse” who captivated and intellectually guided a number of famous men. Corbett observes that
Andreas-Salome’s main gift was her acutely analytical mind. She had an uncanny ability to comprehend abstruse ideas from the era’s most formidable thinkers, often illuminating aspects of their own arguments that they had not even conceived. She was a kind of intellectual therapist: listening, describing, analyzing and repeating back their ideas in order to illuminate the places where shadows fell in their logic. (26)
Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the men she inspired. He referred to her as “by far the smartest person I ever knew” and proposed marriage to her twice. (She declined.) Later, she became a close friend to Sigmund Freud and studied psychoanalysis with him. She became a pioneer in the psychoanalysis of women’s sexuality. Freud and Salome exchanged ideas about psychoanalysis in over two decades’ worth of letters. These letters are published and are available on Amazon here.
A free-thinker, Andreas-Salome made her own rules about how she should live. Her life was remarkably, even scandalously, liberated for a woman of her time. She was married for over 40 years to Carl Andreas, but with the understanding that there would be no sex and no children. Further, both people were free to take other lovers. (It was rumored that Carl Andreas had threatened to kill himself if Lou did not marry him.)
One of her deepest relationships was with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was 14 years her junior. Rilke regarded her as not only a lover, but as a muse. Corbett explains that
Andreas-Salome did not return Rilke’s unhinged adoration, but she began to genuinely appreciate his talent and believed that the qualities she disliked in him could be fixed with a little grooming. She began to mold the poet into a version of himself that she found more attractive. . . The poet hungered to become her creation. More than his first great lover, Andreas-Salome was his confidante, his mentor, his muse, even a kind of mother—if not to the young man, then at least to the artist maturing inside him. “I am still soft, I can be like wax in your hands. Take me, give me a form, finish me,” he wrote in an autobiographical story when he met her” (28).
It is hard (probably impossible) to speculate on how different Nietzsche’s, Rilke’s, and Freud’s works would have been without the intellectual influence of Salome. I find it sad that few people today have heard of her, while these three men are household names.
Corbett, Rachel. You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin. New York: Norton, 2016.