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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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Chapter One: Visions of Christ and “Evening Meal” 9


Chapter 1 Visions of Christ and “Evening Meal” Your thoughts don’t have words every day They come a single time Like signal esoteric sips Of the communion Wine Which while you taste so native seems So easy so to be You cannot comprehend its price Nor its infrequency —Emily Dickinson Much has been made of Rilke’s intense Catholic upbringing. Critics have frequently admonished his mother, Sophie Rilke (1851–1931), for her alleged religious fanaticism in raising her only child. Various anecdotes have provided material for those who want to explain Rilke’s “almost excessive anti-Christian attitude”1 by referring to harrowing childhood experiences.2 Sophie regularly forced her son to kiss the wounds of Christ on the crucifix and told the three-year old “that great suffering came from the Savior and that therefore we must never complain when we suffer” (quoted in Mandel 12). But regardless of the possible biographical roots for Rilke’s rejection of Christianity, his mother’s efforts at providing a religious education did bear fruit in one respect: the ubiquitous presence of Christian imagery and narratives of his upbringing furnished Rilke with a point of reference against which he could develop his personal notions of the spiritual life. Given the problematic religious experiences of his childhood, it may be surprising to find that a substantial part of his early oeuvre draws upon religious tropes. I want to argue that this paradoxical state of affairs can be attributed to a therapeutic impulse: Rilke’s early writing might be considered an attempt to...

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