Rainer Maria Rilke: “Letters to a Young Poet”, an astonishing wealth of ideas on love

RilkeLetter_Poet Rilke Letters to CezaneLetters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke is an outstanding collection of his correspondence with a 19-year-old cadet named Franz Xavier Kappus who aspires to be a poet but is struggling between a life path either as an artist or as an army officer. These beautifully written letters raise questions and apprehensions that Kappus and many other aspiring young poets shared in their correspondence with Rilke who was always modest to give advice and ideas how to deal with their emotional issues.

These letters are in some ways connected with Rilke’s own painful experiences as a young man in his early years in a military school where he was mistreated and unhappy – a condition that led him to solitude and poetry writing. Most importantly, in the Letters, Rilke, at that time already a mature solitary writer, projected his own feelings and struggles to understand the difficulties of real love as well as the fundamental characteristics of human relationships, which he had been pursuing with great efforts.

Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, together with The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his brilliant autobiographical novel in the form of a diary during his stay in Paris, and the essays on August Rodin, to whom he became private secretary between 1902 and 1907, show his talent as an introspective prose writer. The content of these books blends naturally with his highly admired poetry books such as his beautiful Sonnets to Orpheus, the Book of Hours, the Book of Images, Duino Ellegies etc.

It was Kappus who published ten letters that he received from Rilke between 1902 and 1908 and gave the title to the book in June 1929, three years after the Poet’s death – we don’t know how many letters he received as he only published ten. Kappus did not include his own letters in this volume. The readers would need to guess what he wrote to Rilke. In his brief Introduction to this book, Kappus explained that he had been troubled by his future as a military officer:“I felt to be directly opposed to my inclinations”, therefore decided to send his “poetical efforts to Rainer Maria Rilke and ask for his opinion”. Rilke answered from Paris, the beginning of a devoted correspondence between the two until 1908, ”..then gradually trickled into nothing, since life drove me off into regions against which the poet’s warm, delicate and touching solicitude had really tried to guard me’, Kappus confessed in the introduction.

In his first letter Rilke talked about one of Kappus’ poems. He suggested that he not show his work to anyone or send it to publishers so as to avoid rejection, “You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do.” “Nobody can help you”, Rilke wrote, “Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine…its roots down to the deepest places of your heart”. Rilke showed in this paragraph a personal inclination for introspection, one of his own strengths as a solitary writer.

The correspondence shows that Rilke was often traveling since his letters were sent from Italy, Germany, Sweden and the last one from Paris. All his answers are full of wisdom related to the subjects that burdened Kappus in different moments and situations. He recommends him to read books starting with The Bible and J. P. Jacobsen’s novels especially The Six Tales.

Rilke’s letters reveal his generous personality by modestly sharing his knowledge about books, authors, virtue, sex, love, relationships, voicing his avant-garde opinions and ideas which even today can be considered controversial.

Like in most of his poetry, love and eroticism occupy a central place in the correspondence with Kappus who was at that time a young man experiencing romance and probably also physical contact with women. These letters allow Rilke to express his unconventional views on sex and love. He refers to the famous German poet Richard Dehmel, finding his poetry disappointing by turning “..what is charming into something unworthy”. He goes further in his criticism by accusing Dahmel of being “no entirely mature” when he writes about sexuality in a way “which is not human enough, merely masculine, which is heat, intoxication and restlessness, and loaded with the old prejudices and arrogances with which men have disfigured and burdened love.”

Continuing with the same topic in another reply, Rilke expresses his sympathy for Kappus’ struggle to understand sex: “a complicated topic”, he says, associated to many socially sanctioned ideas and misconceptions. “Our acceptance of it is not bad; what is bad is that almost all men misuse and squander this experience” Rilke wisely argues, probably recalling his own life.

The conversation on these topics is intensified in a letter sent from Rome in 1904 when Kappus seemed to have fallen in love. Trying to help the young cadet to deal with his natural romantic tribulations, Rilke expresses his views on what he considers to be real love, an emotional state that is very close to his poetry. With great candor and details Rilke writes: “..young people who are beginners in everything, cannot know love yet: they have to learn it”, adding, they..“love falsely, that is simply surrendering, letting solitude go…”

Rilke frankly suggests to Kappus that he must be patient and let maturity lead him to appreciate love as a distinct “difficult” human experience that is different from mere sex, which according to the poet, the “..social perception has contrived to create shelters of every description, for as it was disposed to take love-life as a pleasure, it had to mould it into something easy, cheap, innocuous and safe, as public pleasures are”. In the context of describing the difficulties of love, Rilke talks about what he considers to be a “good marriage”, whose aim is not a “hasty communion…” but “..rather one in which each appoints the other as guardian of his solitude and shows him this greatest trust that he has to confer. ”

The last published letter was sent from Paris in 1908, four years after the previous one in the book. In this particular letter, Rilke expresses the satisfaction of the fact that the young cadet chose the military profession of a “steady expressible existence” with title and uniform, “a duty, all this which is palpable and defined”. Kappus served for 15 years as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army and continued to write poetry and novels although without too much success. Later he became an editor for various newspapers, including his own “Kappus Deutsche Wacht” and eventually died in 1966.

Rilke wrote more than 1,000 letters to friends, lovers, colleagues and some artists that he admired. After his death in 1926 his publisher acquired some and published most of them as collections which have been translated into dozens of languages. Among them, the most widely read are perhaps The Letters to a Young Poet, as well as those addressed to Lou Andreas Salomė, a lover, a travelling companion and a long time friend. Letters on Cezanne published in English in 1985, is another important collection of Rilke’s correspondence addressed to various friends about his admiration as well as the mystical experiences and influence that the famous French artist’s paintings have on him and his poetry. “…after the master’s death, I followed his traces everywhere”, Rilke wrote in one of his letters to a friend.

We should be thankful to Franz Xavier Kappus for publishing Letters to a Young Poet, which offers an “astonishing wealth of ideas which the poet here raises”, as Reginald Snell mentions in the introduction of his English translation of the book.


= Excerpts From: Rainer Maria Rilke. “Letters to a Young Poet.” Dover Publications. Print 2002. IBook 2012: https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=504543167

= Excerpt From: Rainer Maria Rilke. “Letters on Cézanne.” North Point Edition: iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/letters-on-cezanne/id498300676?mt=11

Irvin D. Yalom. “When Nietzsche Wept”, a Teaching Novel

Yalom1yalomcoverFntYalom’s virtuosity has resided in a particular capacity to meld philosophy, literature and psychiatry into a corpus of work that illuminates life-as-lived for all” wrote his colleague and biographer Dr. Ruthellen Josselson. Yalom’s books on psychotherapy are widely read around the world and one of his most well know theoretical books on mental health practice, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy has been translated into seventeen languages and together with Existential Psychotherapy is considered a classic in its field, making Yalom a highly acclaimed scholar.

Yalom has also been internationally recognized as a fiction writer for his novels, particularly When Nietzsche Wept, a best seller translated into more than 20 languages. In this novel Yalom’s experience as a therapist is manifested together with his knowledge of philosophy, a field that he has cultivated since his early years as a student at the university.

Yalom’s novels could be considered historical fiction, a literary genre that has been popular since ancient times. The Iliad by Homer about the Trojan War and Shakespeare’s tragedies are some examples of old classic texts. In modern times, Joseph and his Brothers by Thomas Mann, based on the Book of Genesis, The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder about the last days of Julius Caesar and more recently The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, a well-acclaimed novel about a manuscript of a monk describing convent life in the Middle Ages and the struggle between different church orders, as well as The Medici Boy, a novel by John L’Heureux published a short time ago, about the life of Donatello, the famous Italian artist in the 15th century, provide other relevant examples.

In this type of novel, the characters are historic figures appearing with their real names and the plot is built around well documented historic facts, including descriptions of epoch, location, situation, background, physical appearance of the characters and, in some cases, complete texts from published books or letters. This genre is so demanding that its writers not only have to be good at fiction, but also need to equipped with research skills to create a sense of historical reality.

Regarding When Nietzsche Wept, its principal characters include Nietzsche, the famous philosopher, and Dr. Joseph Breuer, the prominent Viennese therapist who has been considered as one of the founders of modern psychoanalysis, together with Lou Andreas Salome, a controversial Russian writer with whom Nietzsche was obsessively in love. Sigmund Freud also appears in the novel as a close young disciple of Breuer’s at the time. The roles and conversations of the characters, although mostly based on actual events mentioned in their biographies, published letters and writings, mainly Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, are partly fictionalized.

The novel begins with a meeting in October 1882 at a cafe in Venice where Lou Andreas Salome, then a young good looking and sophisticated Intellectual woman, asked Dr. Breuer to help her friend Nietzsche as he was deeply depressed and would probably kill himself. “It would be a great loss for me, and a great personal tragedy because I would bear some responsibility,” she pleaded. Andreas explained that Nietzsche was madly in love with her and after living together in a “chaste” ménage à trois which also included Paul Rée, another philosopher and Nietzsche’s disciple many years before. The “intellectual honeymoon of our unholy Trinity was also brief. Fissures appeared”, Andreas explained that Nietzsche was deeply hurt when she refused his marriage proposal. This affair briefly mentioned in the novel happened in real life and is well documented, including a famous photograph taken in Lucerne showing Nietzsche and Rée pretending to pull a cart with Lou Andreas inside brandishing a small whip —- many attributed this moment, regarding the problem with Lou Andreas to a famous quote from Thus Spake Zarathustra, First part XVIII. Old and Young Women: “Thou goest to women? Do not forget thy whip!”

PhotoLASDr. Breuer seemed reluctant to take the case but became interested in the story and offered to recommend other doctors. Salomé insisted. “Nietzsche has exhausted the medical resources of Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. No physician has been able to comprehend his malady or relieve his symptoms” and she added, “you are a doctor for despair”. Breuer replied, “Despair is not a medical symptom, Fraulein.” Already hinting to a future therapy for mental illness, Salome, undeterred by the answer, reminded Breuer that her brother had attended Breuer’s classes, in which he, as a practitioner described how “uncovering of the origin of each symptom somehow dissolved it. ”

To make the case more complicated and at the same time appealing to Breuer, Lou Salome told him that Nietzsche “doesn’t know that I’m speaking to you. He is an intensely private person and a proud man”, therefore Breuer had to conceal any previous knowledge of the situation of his future patient and his relationship with her.

At the end of a long intriguing conversation, Lou Andreas’ description of Nietzsche’s ideas and work together with exceptional circumstances made Breuer accept the challenge. “my dear lady…, I will see your friend. That goes without saying. After all, I am a physician”.

The framework of the story is now set and the plot centers around the meetings, conversations, notes and internal dialogues between the two brilliant minds of Nietzsche and Breuer, both suffering from the despair born from impossible obsessive love with younger attractive women.

The story shows how the roles of the therapist and patient blur when the fictional Nietzsche starts to take notes about Dr. Breuer’s obsessions and how he can best help him, turning the philosopher into a healer or a therapist. We can assume that the same kind of experience happened to Yalom in his own professional practice since he regularly refers to his passion for stories about old healers particularly to Hermann Hesse’s novel Magister Ludi, which tells a tale about two renowned healers and indirectly touches on the nature of the patient-therapist relationship. In his own words, “.. the echoes of these tales ring throughout the pages of the novel.”

By choosing a psychotherapist and a philosopher with historical relevance as the main characters of When Nietzsche Wept makes it possible to uncover other elements in Yalom’s biography. In her book Irvin D. Yalom: On Psychotherapy and the Human Condition, Ruthellen Josselson reveals how Yalom “was intrigued by the links between philosophical reflection and the healing that takes place in psychotherapy, implying that, like in the story “the philosophers were covert therapists.”

Making Nietzsche a therapist was one of the ideas that inspired Yalom to write the fiction novel, a possibility which, he thought, “could have happened”, quoting Andre Gide: ‘history is fiction that did happen. Whereas fiction is history that might have happened.”

When Nietzsche Wept clearly shows Yalom’s talent as a fiction writer, a philosopher and one of the most admired psychotherapists of our time, particularly displaying his knowledge and imagination to vividly portray Nietzsche’s broken relationship with Lou Andreas Salome, the torments that followed and the path to recovery.

At the end of the story, Yalom included a special section titled “On Writing a Teaching Novel”, where he describes in some detail the sources that inspired his book together with some of the ideas underlying the novel, written in a style that allows the readers to become acquainted with some important moments of the history of psychotherapy: the terminology and the healing process for despair and depression, ailments that afflicted Frederich Nietzsche. Clearly Yalom has achieved his goal by making up a story of a complex relationships, an exciting thriller full of interesting insights into philosophy, psychology, and the fragility of the human being.

Excerpts From:

Irvin D. Yalom. When Nietzsche Wept. Basic Books 1991 & HarperCollins Publishers 2011

Ruthellen Josselson. Irvin D. Yalom: On Psychotherapy and the Human Condition. Jorge Pinto Books, Inc. 2007 Available in iTunes iBook