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.

rainer_maria_rilke_1900
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.

Lou Andreas-Salome

louandreassalome

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.

 

 

Teaser Tuesday

The Purple Booker hosts a weekly meme known as Teaser Tuesday.  Here is my tease:

Parisians seemed to feel the will to live more keenly than others.  Rushing commuters “made no detour around me but ran over me full of contempt,” as if Rilke were a pothole in the street, he wrote.  (80)

This is from Rachel Corbett’s nonfiction book You Must Change Your Life, about the friendship between sculptor Auguste Rodin and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the late 19th-early 20th century.  Corbett illumines the two artists’ struggles with what it means to be an artist and how an artist should live.  It is an intellectual history that explores creativity, aesthetics, urban living, modernity, friendship, empathy, and much more.

What are you reading?

ERVL0016505

Corbett, Rachel.  You Must Change Your Life.  New York: Norton, 2016.

Here is more information on Teaser Tuesday:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers! Everyone loves Teaser Tuesday.