All entries for Wednesday 13 June 2007

June 13, 2007

Summoning Angels: Judith Ryan on Rilke

Rilke, Modernism and the Poetic Tradition is a study that ‘traces the many ways in which contemporary culture is “constituted and contested” in Rilke’s work’ (3). In doing so, the author, Judith Ryan, breaks down the borders between supposedly separate periods in Rilke’s writing.

In dealing with the Duino Elegies, Ryan compares the treatment of Blake’s prophetic texts in Rudolf Kassner’s Die Mystyk, die Kunstler und das Leben (Mysticism, Artists and Life) to the feeling of Rilke’s elegies, because both are like ‘fragments of ancient epics’ that ‘develop spatial and visual imagery that resists ordinary logical modes of understanding’ (111). Ryan notes that Kassner was an influence on Rilke and that he might have drawn on any number of Kassner’s descriptions of Blake’s work including the visions of fiery angels. Rilke may also have been influenced by Kassner’s discussion of Burne-Jones and William Morris in relation to his vision of angels as ‘self-reflecting mirrors’ (112). Like Rilke, the Pre-Raphaelites were preoccupied with angels in paintings like The Annunciation, The Prioress’ Tale and The Flower of God in which ‘angels, architecture and the aesthetic are linked’ (112). Ryan wonders whether the patron of Rilke was ‘susceptible’ to angelology, ‘the special art of calling on one’s guardian angel’ (112).

Ryan decides to focus on the second elegy with a mind to explaining ‘why the angel appears in this context at all’ and she feels that Rilke’s interest in Blake does not explain it fully (113). Turning to Stefan George, Ryan notes that George describes a period of writer’s block as being cured after a vision of a ‘naked angel’, a figure who instructs the poet ‘to learn his art from the simpler and more straitened lines of gentler landscapes’ (113). Ryan compares George and Rilke and she suggests that there are similarities in ‘the agonised search for a way to express despair; a hope for renewal of the poetic faculty; and the angel as a figure for the aesthetic’ (113). However, unlike George, Rilke is ‘against a simplistic conception of the beautiful’ and he ‘discovers that great art must also take account of all that is ugly, unpleasant and horrifying’ (114).

In addition to the influence of George, Ryan also recalls two poems (written in an earlier work The Life of Mary) life entitled ‘The Annunciation to Mary’ and ‘On Mary’s Death’. Ryan suggests that these poems have similarities with the elegies due to similar ‘unusual vocabulary’ and ‘descriptions of real and psychological space’, and she notes that the episode where Tobias is led by Raphael is omitted from the Mary poems but included in the elegy in order to lament the missing angel. The loss of Raphael in the second elegy represents a loss of protection for the young according to Ryan.

Ryan also sees the influence of medieval mysticism. In Duino Elegies, Rilke ‘reworks this evocation of imaginary space’ that he has already experimented with in other poems in The Life of Mary. Rilke’s angel departs from Pre-Raphaelite representations, because it is ‘disembodied and almost unrepresentable, an abstract figure of the imagination, creativity and the aesthetic’ (115). In contrast, people, at least initially, ‘seem more solid than angels’, yet Rilke figures human beings too in insubstantial imagery (115). Ryan sees ‘continual interchange […] between one human being and another, between human beings and nature, between human beings and the space in which angels move’ (116). The human speaker is ‘overwhelmed by a sense of continual self-dissolution’ and wonders whether in this breakdown, ‘some small part […] might be captured by the angels’ (116).

In contrast, the act of love is eternal like the moment of a smile or the Romantic ‘eternal moment’. In addition, the lovers cannot explain what they experience in human language, just as Rilke cannot encapsulate the angel’s being in plain speech. In contemplating the eternal, Rilke also describes the ‘human gesture /on Attic gravestones’ (qtd. Ryan, 117). Ryan responds by wondering whether Rilke read Keats’ ‘On a Grecian Urn’ and she sees both poems as ‘a meditation on the transience of human existence’ as opposed to the immortalising qualities of art (118).

By the end of the second elegy, Rilke has positioned human beings between the earthly and the divine with an awareness that ‘human emotions’ can ‘transcend the limitations placed on bodily experience’ (119). However the ‘physical’ part of being cannot follow the ‘emotional’ part, so the divine remains distant as ‘a more moderated or balanced version of overwhelming human feeling’ (119). The reference to following the divine with one’s eyes, reminds Ryan of the Orpheus story which was so significant to Rilke’s work and she notes that the first elegy ends with a reference to Linos, Orpheus’ teacher, an allusion that directs the reader back to the origins of elegy in this mythic tradition. While the First Elegy poses the cathartic power of song, the second questions ‘aesthetic representations and religious belief’ (120). While the first elegy directs one away from an embodied angel to the ‘voices that still resonate in nature’, the second elegy ponders the loss in ‘the transience of human life and also that of cultural tradition’ (120). The everyday Biblical communications of the divine are gone and while love might take human beings some way towards further knowledge, neither love nor the aesthetic sphere are adequate replacements.

Ryan notes that critics have tended to ignore the piecemeal form in the Duino Elegies and she suggests that its structure offers ‘a collection of fragments that remain in human consciousness like broken columns from an earlier age’ (120). Similarly the angels themselves seem to be incomplete:

Bodily parts – hands and torsos – seem oddly disconnected, and facial expressions – a smile, an upward glance – appear independent of the body to which they belong. The sheer abstraction of their language brings these elegies closer to allegory, and yet it resists any kind of simplistic decoding that would yield an easily articulated message. It seems to speak to the deepest and most primitive layers of our consciousness, and yet to go beyond any merely human conception of reality. (121)

Ryan, Judith. Rilke, Modernism and the Poetic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Methodism in Wales

Methodism emerged from Pietism, Moravianism and the Puritan tradition. The eighteenth century Evangelical Revival is sometimes called the Methodist Revival and the term emerges out of a contemptuous term used to describe the ‘Holy Club’ surrounding Wesley in Oxford. However, Methodism began to develop in Wales before the Wesley conversion through the figures of Howel Harris and Daniel Rowland. The result was a network of religious organisations led by ‘an exhorter’ (“Methodism”).

Methodism also refers to ‘the theological emphasis and moral self-discipline which developed in Methodist bodies and in Wales especially, among the Calvinistic Methodists’ (“Methodism”). Calvinistic Methodists in Wales broke away from the Church of England in 1811 basing their theology on ‘the sovereignty of God and his grace in Christ and the election of the saints’ (“Methodism”). Methodism is now established as the Presbyterian Church of Wales or Yr Hen Gorff and the sect has succeeded particularly in the north of Wales, where as Independency and Baptism has dominated the south. Writers of Wales inspired by Methodism include William Williams, Ann Griffiths, Lewis Edwards, Islwyn, Daniel Owen, Robert Ambrose Jones, Gwenallt and Kate Roberts.

“Methodism”. The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales. Ed. Meic Stephens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Nonconformism in Wales


After the Reformation, a number of denominations began to emerge out of the Established Church including Baptists, Independency, Methodism (Calvanistic and Wesleyan), Quakerism and Unitarianism. The first dissent in Wales emerged via John Penry who was martyred in 1593. The first Dissenting denomination (apart from that of the Celtic Church) was comprised of Independents and Baptists in 1639 in Llanfaches, Mon. However with the rise of Methodism, by 1851, seventy percent of places of worship were Nonconformist. After the ‘golden age during the first half of the nineteenth century’, Nonconformity continue to exert an influence on ‘private, social and political responsibility’ (“Nonconformity”). This manifested itself in ‘Nonconformist Conscience’, which symbolised ‘the battle for religious and educational equality, missionary enterprise and the Temperance Movement’ (“Nonconformity”). Nonconformity also went hand-in-hand with radicalism in its ‘political responsibility to lead the Welsh people’ and this role did not ercede until after the Second World War when writers like Caradic Evans and Rhys Davies began to criticise Chapel culture.

Much literature in Wales came out of Nonconformism: ‘biblical commentaries, sermons, biographies […], doctrinal and controversial books, scriptural dictionaries and concordances, periodicals, historical works, poetry (especially hymns), moralistic novels and translations of Nonconformist writings in English’ (“Nonconformity”). Through the chapel and Sunday School, Welsh people were introduced to ‘the experiential sublimity of the hymn’, although Nonconformism was suspicious of novels, the theatre and the Eisteddfod. Writers inspired by Nonconformism are Morgan Llwyd, Charles Edwards, William Williams, Ann Griffiths, Thomas Jones of Denbigh, Islwyn, Daniel Owen and Gwenallt as well as Glyn Jones, Emyr Humpries and Roland Mathias.

“Nonconformity”. The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales. Ed. Meic Stephens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Wilks and Brick on Naming and Exclusion

Wilks and Brick use ‘a sociolinguistic perspective’ in this essay to consider ‘major channels of communication in France, political parties and the press, with regard to the naming of traditionally exclusive groups such as women, homosexuals and ethic minorities’ (145). They proceed from the assumption that French language is seen as ‘a sacred artefact, a forbidden preserve untouchable by all but an elusive, normative elite’ (145). How can marginal groups be represented by such a language? How does ‘discriminatory language’ marginalise them and what subversive practices can allow the groups access to the language again e.g. ‘the reappropriation of pejorative terms’?

Linguistic Purity and the Norm
Terms such as ‘purity’ and ‘corruption have strong currency in attitudes towards the French idiom. Wilks and Brick admit that exclusion of some forms of language is inevitable in the process of standardisation, yet following other critics, they direct attention to three kinds of norms that are inherent in this kind of debate. The first is a objective norm, ‘the language that speakers actually produce’; the second is the prescriptive norm, ‘the institutionally prescribed standard to be found in dictionaries and grammar books and traditionally promoted through the education system’; and finally there is the subjective norm, that is ‘individual value judgements about language’ (146).

In the French context, Wilks and Brick recognise that prestige is associated with a standard of language (they quote R. Bourhis), and they point out that the French idiom has been manipulated by the state since the sixteenth century when pressure was exerted by ‘a self-perpetuating elite group: scholars and grammarians and those in attendance at the centre of power, the court of Louis XIV’ (146). Those excluded from the norm of language were ‘the “powerless” population’ (147). The ‘legacy’ from this initial intervention is summarised (through A. Lodge’s French: from dialect to standard) as promoting the following ideas:
• that the French spoken by the elite is best or of more value;
• and that reason and clarity are inherent in the best French.
The result, according to Wilks and Brick, is ‘linguistic intolerance and linguistic insecurity’ (147). As a consequence, ‘any unsanctioned attempt to change language may be experienced by self-styled ‘purists’ as an attack; language is a forbidden place which must be detached from the incursions of “outsiders” ’ (147).

Awareness of Discriminatory Language
If language is a forbidden territory, in what ways is language used and what are its ‘naming practices’ (148). The insider shores up the idiom as ‘an elite space’, while those outside of the norm see this site as ‘a forbidden territory’ (148). The insider’s language may be as discriminatory towards the outsider as ‘an active form of discrimination’ (148). Wilks and Brick suggest that there is a need for change in language use of insiders (‘the press and political parties’ or those who have an influence in the shape of the language) about outsiders (‘women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities’) (148).

To assess this problem, Wilks and Brick commenced with interviews of typical readers of Libération and Le Monde and with members of political parties like Le Parti Socialiste, Le RPR, Les Vertes and Le Front National. The results found that there were two extremes with participants either believing wholeheartedly that discriminatory language exists or denying its existence entirely. Of those who were aware of discriminatory language (the two newspapers, Le Parti Socialiste and Les Vertes), the focus was mainly on women as ‘a potentially excluded group’, apart from Les Vertes who were also aware about other marginal groups (149). Of those who did not recognise the existence of discriminatory language (Le RPR and Le Front National), there were ‘differences in levels of sensitivity’ (151). While Le RPR suggested that the language used was not problematic, she did show ‘covert sensitivity’ about difficulties for women. The situation is different for Le Front National, which, in spite of its status as ‘a high profile public “insider”’, has begun to present itself as ‘an “outsider” denied access to the forbidden domain of “dangerous” vocabulary’ (151-152). To Wilks and Brick, this represents ‘a bunker mentality’ and ‘a mirror game’ that plays with notions of insiders and outsiders (152).

Wilks, Clarissa and Noëlle Brick. ‘Naming and Exclusion: The Politics of Language in Contemporary France’. Lloyd, Fran and Catherine O’ Brien eds. Secret Spaces, Forbidden Places: Rethinking Culture.New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000. 145 – 153.

Lloyd and O'Brien on Secret Spaces, Forbidden Places

1. Spaces, Places, Sites/Sights of the Secret/Forbidden
Lloyd and O’Brien begin their introduction by noting that ‘the cartography of secret spaces and forbidden places extends far beyond physical locations and is present in realms as disparate as art, language, literature, philosophy, cinema, memory and social and political life’ (xv). The aim of their approach is ‘to uncover what has been hidden, displaced, repressed or suppressed in spaces of cultural and political history’ (xv). Space in this theorising can be ‘an interactive social sphere’, a site of power relations, in which different cultures negotiate to promote their own ‘presence’ (xv). Lloyd and O’Brien wonder how the secret and the forbidden have been manifested in different spaces. The essays included discuss ‘how the secret and forbidden intersect and are constructed through and against the regulatory social systems embedded in such accepted notions as: the public and private, the interior and exterior, and the male and female’ (xvi). It is Lloyd’s and O’Brien’s argument that the secret and the forbidden are especially relevant to ‘the formulation of our sense of belonging to a particular territory, whether a geographical space or a mental space’ (xvi).

Lloyd and O’Brien pause for a moment at this point to consider what the secret might mean; they suggest that it might refer to ‘the suppression of truth, the concealment of information or the preservation of desires or dark knowledge, whether by individuals, groups, or governments’ (xvi). The conclusion is that ‘the secret is both the space and the site through which, and upon which, the forbidden operates’, the two tending to co-exist (xvi).

But what about the forbidden? Lloyd and O’Brien see the forbidden working through ‘the symbolic orders of language, or the law of the father and/or nation’ and they suggest that ‘the forbidden excludes certain groupings or individuals, marked by difference’ (xvi). The forbidden is realised in ‘the refusal of entries into specific geographies or domains, the exile from designated spaces or sites/sights, or the taboos that create social or cultural prohibitions’ (xvi).

2. The Politics of Visibility
Visibility and invisibility are themes that are very relevant to the secret and the forbidden. Visibility can on the one hand indicate a physical embodiment of being, yet it can also signal the controlling gaze of ‘regulatory systems of power and knowledge which work differently both within and across the proscribed boundaries of different cultures and groupings’ (xvi). Similarly, invisibility has good and bad implications. While it implies in some cases being ‘absent in time and space, disenfranchised and disempowered’, Lloyd and O’Brien also recognise that, ‘in the face of a totalising system, a powerful elite, a patriarchal order or a potential attacker, invisibility may become a space of safety; a secret space that protects and obscures one from the controlling gaze, at home or abroad’ (xvii).

3.Inclusion and Exclusion
In keeping secrets, it is necessary for some to be excluded from the knowledge of an individual or group and Lloyd and O’Brien see emerging from this necessity, ‘the intriguing but frightening question of how reality may be constructed or manipulated’ (xviii). In the case of women, the interior secret space of domesticity and the private is now clearly being invaded by the public, while other ‘divisions’ are also being ‘transgressed’ in a similar fashion (xix).

Much has been written recently on the effects of displacement, of exile, and the crossing of cultural and territorial boundaries, and feminist theorists in particular have seen such ‘deterritorialisation’ as a potentially productive site for women artists and writers. Nevertheless, one does not have to leave one’s homeland to be displaced – practices of exclusion operate at all levels of society, including the personal. While exclusion may lead to alienation, marginality may […] be an important factor that enables self-discovery. (xx).

4. Bodies/Boundaries/Identities
The most important factor in thinking about the secret or forbidden, according to Lloyd and O’ Brien, is ‘the regulation of bodies of difference at the levels of the individual, the group and the nation’ (xx). Lloyd and O’ Brian add: ‘Gendered, sexed, raced, classed and ethnicised bodies are both the site/sight of the secret and forbidden, and the space of their embodiment and negotiation’ (xx). This regulation works through ‘an assumed set of values’ that are often unstable and secrets occasionally become legible (xx).

Secrets slip out, they cross boundaries, and what may be forbidden in one space or place may be permissible in another. More importantly, at certain key moments, before attempts to police and reinstate the status quo via surveillance of the public and private, bodies that have been excluded through the multiple and fractures lines of gender, race, religion, class, ethnicity, generation or sexuality, have negotiated visibility. (xx).

However identity is often not simply defined by one factor:

Identities are not monolithic, uniformly constructed or reducible to singular categories, whether by religion, language, geography or gender. Like all identities, they are produced by the different ways in which the embodied subjects are positioned and position themselves along multiple lines, according to gender, race, religion, ethnicity, generation, sexuality (and so forth) at specific historical junctures. (xxi).

Lloyd, Fran and Catherine O’ Brien eds. Secret Spaces, Forbidden Places: Rethinking Culture.New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000.


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