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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