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Transformation of Language and Religion in Rainer Maria Rilke


Johannes Wich-Schwarz

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), perhaps the most famous European poet of the twentieth century, exemplifies how the «crisis of language» inherent in literary Modernism also constitutes a crisis of religious discourse. In Rilke’s poetry and prose, language replaces God as the focal point of human experience. Yet despite his rejection of Christianity, Rilke crucially draws on Christian imagery to express his Modernist worldview. Transformation of Language and Religion in Rainer Maria Rilke offers new readings of major texts such as The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and The Duino Elegies, as well as analyzing some of Rilke’s lesser-known works, Visions of Christ and «The Letter of the Young Worker.»


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Introduction 1


Introduction Poets and priests were one in the begin- ning; only later times have separated them. But the true poet is always priest, just as the true priest has always remained a poet. And should the future not be able to bring about the old circumstances?1 —Novalis Throughout the history of Western culture, the marriage between religion and art has been a difficult one. In recent centuries, the two have been on the verge of splitting up; uncharitable observers may be tempted to conclude that art is remaining in this relationship only for the sake of inheriting religion’s numerous belongings. Max Weber’s analysis of the secularization process that permeates modern world history provides useful tools to gain insight into the relationship between religious and aesthetic discourse. Two aspects of his thought are of special interest in here: first, his thesis that Western societies are on a trajectory of increasing rationalization—what he famously referred to as “the disenchantment of the world” (350)—and second, the assumption of an evolving opposition between religion and art: Magical religiosity stands in a most intimate relation to the esthetic sphere. Since its beginnings, religion has been an inexhaustible fountain of opportunities for artistic creation, on the one hand, and of stylizing through traditionalization, on the other.[…] The relationship between a religious ethic and art will remain harmonious as far as art is concerned for so long as the creative artist experiences his work as resulting either from charisma of “ability” (originally magic) or...

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