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Transformation of Language and Religion in Rainer Maria Rilke

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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 Two: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge 34

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Chapter Two The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge But where danger dwells, Rescue also grows. — Friedrich Hölderlin “Poverty-stricken 28-year-old male descendant of Danish aristocratic family encounters perils of modern human existence in turn-of-the-century Paris. His diary depicts various attempts at resolving this existential predicament.” One could imagine such a blurb on the back cover of Rilke’s major prose work, the novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I doubt this advertisement would induce anyone to purchase the book. But the above synopsis points to a crucial aspect of the novel, that is, the proximity of both danger and promise articulated in the protagonist’s writing. This is a work of crisis. Its ambivalent nature is already evident in a remark Rilke wrote on a manuscript sheet presumably dating back to the early months of 1904, when he began drafting the novel: If I had suspected that my life was standing so close to a great joy, how blessedly I would have borne its weight. Malte Laurids Larsen. (Cited in Schnack, Chronik 178) On the manuscript sheet, Rilke crossed out the proletarian name “Larsen” and replaced it with the more aristocratic “Brigge,” the name his protagonist would ultimately carry (cf. Schoolfield 157). The novel was completed on January 27, 1910. The sentence on the manuscript sheet enacts a paradoxical type of speech act. What are we to make of the first-person narrator? It appears these words are being uttered out of resignation; perhaps someone is looking back on his life, and...

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