Why I don’t like Rilke.

June 21, 2006

I can't remember what year it was that I helped my dad deliver oxygen tanks to his patients. I think I may have been in college and on some sort of break, like Christmas or Spring break. I do remember it vividly, though, because there were many people who were elderly and suffering from emphysema who needed the oxygen. My dad is patient and nice to people (much more so than I am). He did this work without it getting to him at all. But then perhaps as in any job, you get used to what you see after a while.

I don't remember any specific examples of the elderly emphysema patients, but I do remember one young guy. He had some sort of disability, not emphysema, and he seemed fine to me. We went into his cabbage smelling apartment and he had a great number of books and papers spread out on the floor in an otherwise nice space. He had black curly hair and a beard and a mustache. I don't think at the time that he was even 30.

We chatted about what he was reading. It was Rilke. Now I was an English major, so I was acquainted with it and the genre. The man read some of the poetry to me while my dad fixed his oxygen tanks. It turned out that this guy passionately studied Rilke all day long. He had nothing else to do as he had qualified for government disability payments which obviated the need for a job to pay for his apartment and lifestyle. He read Rilke all day instead of working.

This left a very negative impression on me. It appeared to me that he was working. He was working the system. Sure I wasn't a doctor, but the guy moved around just fine and wasn't using the oxygen while we were there. Moreover, he didn't care whether he worked or not. He seemed quite adapted to the lifestyle of being a ward of the state. It suited him. It didn't suit me. So now, years later, I always associate Rilke with someone who doesn't want to work.

Rilke's personal life doesn't help my view of him. This is from Wikipedia: "Rilke was called up at the beginning of 1916, and he had to undertake basic training in Vienna. Influential friends interceded on his behalf, and he was transferred to the War Records Office and discharged from the military on June 9, 1916. He spent the subsequent time once again in Munich, interrupted by a stay on Hertha Koenig's Gut Bockel in Westphalia. The traumatic experience of military service, a reminder of the horrors of the military academy, almost completely silenced him as a poet." The article goes on to describe how Rilke flitted about the world, leaving his family for various poetic study.

With all due respect, Rilke seems rather insubstantial. Maybe it's these characteristics that appeal to those who run from responsibility instead of facing life's labors, at least in my observation. Oh, I'm sure there are exceptional people who love Rilke. This is just an anecdote, a memory from my past that colors and jades my viewpoint, right or wrong. But to this day, I still don't like Rilke.


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