Review: The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief, and Transformation by Rainer Maria Rilke

[1] Holiday seasons are among the most difficult for those in mourning.  Well-meaning platitudes fall short, leaving friends at a loss for words, not knowing how to accompany loved ones engulfed in sorrow or facing death.

[2] Letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke from 1907 to 1925 offer an intimate glimpse into the great poet’s understanding of death and the process of mourning.  His letters to bereaved friends address the particularity of individual loss and the great themes of transformation in death and life.  This small collection of letters is edited and translated by Ulrich Baer whose own difficult journey through his father’s death was transformed by Rilke’s words.  Baer writes that Rilke was able to “bring the bereaved back into communication, and coax them back into the conversation that we call life, right at the moment when they felt most cut off from the world.  He gave them words when those were lacking, and told them there is a way to articulate their pain even if that pain constricts their hearts and throats.” (Preface, xii-xiii.)

[3] Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague in 1875 to a German-speaking family. Best known for his poetry such as Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, he also wrote over 14,000 letters before his death in 1926 at the age of 51.  He considered his correspondence to be as important as his poetry.  Letters to a Young Poet and Letters on Life have been previously published.  This new volume collects and translates into English for the first time 23 letters dealing specifically with death, grief and transformation.

[4] This is the second volume of Rilke’s letters translated and edited by Ulrich Baer.  Baer is Vice Provost and Professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University. In his preface to The Dark Interval, Baer introduces themes running through the letters and shares the moving story of his own encounter with this correspondence during a time of personal grief.  While the preface provides minimal contextual information about Rilke, this is remedied in the helpful chronology of Rilke’s life and works located in the appendix that concludes the book.

[5] The body of this volume is 23 short chapters, each containing one “letter of condolence.” The Table of Contents identifies each chapter by an evocative quotation from the letter it introduces, e.g.  ” We must Learn To Die”, “Where Things Become Truly Difficult and Unbearable We Find Ourselves In A Place Already Very Close to Its Transformation,”  and “The Solitude Into Which You were Cast…Makes You Capable of Balancing Out the Loneliness of Others”.  Unfortunately these highlighted quotations don’t also appear in the chapter headings in the body of the book—a lost opportunity to capture the casual reader who might be thumbing through the collection.

[6] Rilke traveled widely and his correspondence reflects that.  While each letter addresses a particular person facing a particular loss, the collection offers a window into everyday life in the world of Rilke and his far-flung acquaintances.  We meet countesses, artists, poets and astronomers, as they encounter mosquito bites, illness, and even food poisoning by moldy casseroles.  But more importantly they experience intensely the life, death, and grief that is universal to human existence.

[7] In reaching out to these friends, Rilke rejects any easy consolation that tries to divert or minimize their grief.  Indeed, his messages could hardly be called “letters of condolence” in a traditional sense.  He speaks directly to their sorrow, urging unflinching acknowledgement of death and loss.  The recipients treasured these letters and saved them for decades.

[8] Rilke cautions against religious tendencies that focus on another realm (a “beyond”) in which we will be free of suffering.  Instead, he insists that we make sense of our own condition here and now.  We can let the loss of others and the loss of control press us more fully into this life. Instead of retreating from the pain, denying it, or struggling to overcome it, we can use it to forge another path back into life.  By moving with and through the grief rather than around it, we can reconnect more deeply with life in the present.

[9] Rilke knows this is difficult.  The loss of a loved one is the greatest challenge humans face. In his deep concern for a friend, Sidie, who seemed withdrawn and paralyzed by her brother’s suicide, he urged that she not retreat from her pain, but enter it. This may seem easier said than done, but Rilke is practical.  He suggests that she begin by touching the clothes of the beloved:

“You will freeze in place if you remain this way.  You must not, dear. You have to move.  You have to return to his things. You have to touch with your hands his things, which through their manifold relations are also yours.  You must, Sidie (this is the task that this incomprehensible fate imposes upon you), you must continue his life inside of yours insofar as it was unfinished; his life has now passed into yours. You, who quite truly knew him, can quite truly continue in his spirit and on his path. Make it the task of your mourning to explore what he had expected of you, had hoped for you….[H]is influence has not vanished from your existence.” (14)

Thus, not only does the beloved live on in our memories, but also in our daily conduct as we carry forward their lives and aspirations.  For Rilke this is a weight, and even a burden, that pushes us into the here and now.

[10] Rilke also recommends that Sidie start by playing Beethoven tonight as she mourns her brother.  The deceased is present with us now; he is free and we are free to feel him, to experience his influence and compassion.  Our relationships pass through life and death and thus we must be intimately at home in both.  We are part of the great whole. “Start this very evening by playing Beethoven; he also was committed to the whole.” (14)

[11] Rilke’s commitment to wholeness and unity in the interplay of death and life is a stream that flows throughout the book.  To fully live, we must affirm both life and death.  “To admit one without the other would be …to shut out all that is infinite.” (89)  For Rilke, death is simply the side of life that is turned away from us and upon which we do not cast our light.  We must cultivate an awareness that thrives in both realms and is nourished by each. (89)  The human spirit “cannot make itself so small that it concerns nothing but our existence in the here and now.” (23)  Indeed, “we, who live here and now, are not for a moment satisfied in the time-world nor confined in it; we incessantly flow over and over to those who preceded us, to our origin, and to those who seemingly come after us.” (90)

[12] To nurture our awareness of death is not to disparage or degrade the here and now. To the contrary, death throws present life into sharper relief and compels us to participate in its transformation “by imprinting this provisional, perishable earth deeply into ourselves.” (91)  Here is inspiration for ethics – a call to experience the  interrelatedness of all things in the processes of living and dying.  That we have “some stock in it” contributes to a personal foundation for loving and caring for the people and things of the earth. (92)

[13] But Rilke’s primary attention is elsewhere. While he knows that we “cling to the visible” and must care for it, his focus is on carrying the previously visible forward when we can no longer see or touch it. (92-93)  For Rilke, the “configurations of the here and now are to be integrated into the larger meanings of which we are a part.” (90) He is interested in continual transformation of the tangible into an ongoing presence beyond death and physical absence.  By imprinting the perishable into ourselves, its reality will live on in us invisibly. (91) Our entire existence, in which we carry forward the invisible, has implications for the whole of life – how we experience it and how we act in it — and in this way we contribute to the transformation of the earth. (94)

[14] Rilke’s letters are personal, spiritual and philosophical.  This is a book that crosses boundaries.  It offers a path forward to those in the midst of a “dark interval,” while at the same time providing scholars a glimpse into a part of Rilke’s world and work not previously available in English.  Readers who avoid poetry will find these letters a welcome introduction to Rilke and may be inspired to approach his verse. Newcomers to Rilke will appreciate the warmth, humanity and wisdom in his correspondence.  They may find, however, that the philosophical nature of the book’s final letter, in particular, is impenetrable without previous exposure to his work or at least to the process-relational strands of theology. Although Rilke moved away from Christian sensibilities, his work is beloved by theologians and other thinkers who appreciate the work of Alfred North Whitehead.

[15] While this book cannot compete with Rilke’s poetry, it may lead readers to it.  And on its own it is a gorgeous window into the ways a great thinker brought his philosophical and spiritual insights into compassionate daily relationships to lift up real people struggling with grief and loss.

Nancy Arnison

Nancy Arnison is a lawyer, theologian and nonprofit executive and serves as the Book Review Editor for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.