What does Rilke mean by the Open? Certainly it is not unambiguous presence; it needs to be approached with caution, with patience, with the relinquishment of the desire to possess and of the measure of possession, the rejection of security and stability, of the desire for certainty. Then what we call the real must be rejected in its entirety; a profounder intimacy beckons to us – a connection to things that stills the desire to do and to act. This is what it would mean to become ‘as fully conscious as possible of our existence’.
The Open. Is this what Rilke experienced at Capri and Dunio: the Weltinnenraum, the inner space of the world: our intimacy with ourselves and with things? Rilke: ‘Through all beings spreads the one space: / the world's inner space. Silently fly the birds / all through us. O I who want to grow, / I look outside, and it is in me that the tree grows!’
What is this experience? There is a purification, an interiorisation through which things lose their falsified nature, their narrow limitations. In a letter, Rilke wrote of ‘becoming as fully conscious as possible of our existence’; ‘All the configurations of the here and now are to be used not in a time-bound way, but, as far as we are able, to be placed in those superior significances in which we have a share’.
Then the experience Rilke seeks is the attempt to approach the source of meanings, an enhanced, deeper consciousness. Though this great conversion, this inward-turning, the exterior realm is regained; the world is transmuted; the visible is taken into invisible and is reborn. ‘We are the bees of the Invisible. We ardently suck the honey of the visible in order to accumulate it in the great golden hive of the Invisible’. ‘Our task is to impregnate the provisional and perishable earth so profoundly in our mind, with so much patience and passion, that its essence can be reborn in us invisible’.
Beautiful lines. But how do we achieve this task when the Open, for the most part is closed to us? One approach: the movement of love. But only when your beloved is only the focus through which another space can be discerned. The risk is that love is always drawn back to the beloved. Perhaps the Open only reveals itself in our childhood (but isn't there a way of awakening a childhood in our adulthood?) . But Rilke writes ‘the young child, already / we turn him around and force him to look backwards / at the world of forms and not into the Open, which / in the animal's face is so profound’. The child is not innocent enough.
Is it left to the beast, to, the one who exists unreflectively, who lives in proximity to the Open? Perhaps. But what does the Open mean for us? Rilke writes in a letter of February 25, 1926 that it is by virtue of a low ‘degree of consciousness’ that the animal can enter reality. The creature belongs to the Open.
By Open we do not mean the sky, the air, space -- which for the observer are still objects, and thus opaque. The animal, the flower is all that without realizing it, and has thus before itself, beyond itself, that indescribably open freedom which, for us, has its extremely short-lived equivalents perhaps only in the first instants of love -- when one being sees in the other, in the beloved, his own extension -- or again in the outpouring to God.
Human consciousness is closed upon itself. The animal’s look reaches out into the things; it is where it looks. ‘With all its eyes / the creature sees / the Open. Our eyes only are/ as if reversed’. We lose the thing through our representation of the thing; making of it an object, fitting it into an objective reality, it answers a utilitarian demand. (It is as though what Husserl called the reduction was possible only for a child within childhood, an animal within the animal. And yet is there a way to recover this childhood, this animality, in our own lives?)
How to achieve this? Rilke invokes that death which opens its eyes in our own such that ‘we look out with a great animal gaze’, so that we gaze upon ‘the world's inner space’. ‘Death is the side of life that is turned away from, and unillumined by, us’. Death is not a beyond; it is not removed from life so much as turned from it. We are turned from death, from a relation which now appears impossible for us. We are limited; the limit turns us back to ourselves.
My consciousness may seem to leap beyond me, to go about among the things of the world, but I can encounter nothing other than myself. Death must become transparent (Rilke: ‘For close to death one no longer sees death, and one stares outward, perhaps with a great animal gaze’) – but is it not, in so doing, volatilised out of existence?
Death must become transparent, the authentic yea-saying; death must only say yes. But what does this mean? Recall Rilke’s prayer: ‘Oh Lord, grant to each his own death, the dying which truly evolves from this life where he found love, meaning and distress’. The effort is to return death to itself, to raise death to its proper level in order to maintain a responsibility towards things and the world.
Death is what Rilke calls ‘the pure relation’ – a purified relation which leaps beyond consciousness. Through death it is possible to achieve a new intimacy with things, replacing the imperious desire to master the world, the purposive activity which allows us to be content only with results. To save things is to turn towards the invisible, to allow death to affirm itself. What is this death? An enlarged consciousness – the broadening which reinstates a lost unity, a larger understanding. It reassures our faith in the oneness of things. Would this be the experience which would lead us into the profound intimacy we seek?
Death is our chance. Yet Rilke will say the animal that lives in the Open is ‘free of death’. We are not free; our perspective is limited and this is the point: ‘Death, we see only death; the free animal always has its decline behind it, and before it God, and when it moves, it moves in Eternity, as springs flow’. But then what chance does death offer us?
Death, for Rilke, is double. On the one hand, it is delimitation such that our freedom must be a freedom from death. And on the other? If, for Rilke, death no longer provides the passage for a soul to the heavenly beyond, it retains a kind of transcendence. There is, in Rilke, a movement to purge death of its pain, its brutality. But how is this to be achieved?
Poetry provides one approach. Rilke’s Orpheus, of the Sonnets which bear his name, is a mediator. A task which resonates with that of Hölderlin. To recall: for Hölderlin, the poet's destiny is to expose himself to the undetermined and to endure its extraordinary force and violence, such that he might, in his poems, give it form. For Rilke, similarly, the poet’s task is to determine the indeterminable, to give it exactitude and form, rendering it decisive in order to speak the Open in a determined form.
Rilke: ‘To sing in truth is a different breath \ A breath around nothing. A stirring in God. The wind’. The poem breathes, it becomes passage, it lets resound a kind of song in which the Open sings. This is how poetry saves things, lifting them out of oblivion, preserving a world from representation. Poetry accomplishes that conversion, translating things from a debased, exterior language to an interior one – to a kind of silence within language, a kind of silent space through the poem. A metamorphosis of the visible into the invisible, a speaking that allows us to settle back into our intimacy with things. A language of the silent and the invisible when the Open has become the poem, when the depth of being reveals itself in the poem’s space.