Celebrity duel: Kleist vs. Rilke

Have just emerged from reading Rilke’s Letters to a young poet. Surprised by how much I like it, given that I’ve come to think of myself as basically unsympathetic to Romanticism. I’ll chalk this one up to my general sensation of reverting to adolescence. But…

I tend to forget how late Rilke is. When he’s writing, well over a century has passed since the revolution in France and Young Werther in Germany. The years since had been filled by the aftershocks and farcical imitations of one, and the gradual swelling and dissipation of the Romantic movement kick-started by the other. Kleist, for example, feels like he should be writing later than Rilke. just as Marx had seen and analyzed capitalism at the moment of its birth, perceiving and criticising the mechanisms of the next decades, so did Kleist perceive the opposition between Romanticism and the Enlightenment, and find their synthesis. I’m thinking of his essay on hte Marionette Theatre, which punctures the Romantic idealisation of youth and innocence, while describing how the essential Romantic intensity can be reborn through experience:

…grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god…..we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence

Rilke, in 1903, is still a believer in innocence. His advice to the young poet remains at the level of “to thine own self be true”, never touching on the possibilities of schizophrenic self-invention which now endure as the only conceivable engine of intensity in a time of post-modernism.

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