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Reading Rilke’s Orphic Identity


Erika M. Nelson

This study of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) examines the poet’s understanding of the malleable nature of identity, while addressing the question of Rilke’s place in literary history. In line with contemporary literary theory which views the «self» as a societal «construction» and strategic narrative device, this study explores Rilke’s preoccupations with identity in his work, as he investigates the disintegration of the subjective self in the modern world. Rilke’s re-readings of the mythological figures of Orpheus and Narcissus in modern psychological terms, as well as in terms of traditional poetics, are keys not only to his poetics and his changing understanding of «self», but also to his evolving critique of society. This study tracks how Rilke’s Orphic work disengages traditional patterns of perceptions, not only to challenge fidelity to history, but also to recover the power of traditional elements from that history to help articulate subjectivity in new terms.
Contents: Reading and Re-Presenting Rilke in the Context of Fin-de-Siècle Literature – Orphic Identity and Poetic Invention – The Mythological Figure of Orpheus – The Orphic Mysteries – Orphic Voice and Sound in Poetry: The Modality of the Orphic Experience – Rainer Maria Rilke’s «Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes» – Hermes as Mediator to the Hermetic – Excavating Eurydice and Encountering Night and the Goddess Culture – Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge – Narcissus and Rilke’s «Wending» – Sonette an Orpheus (1922) – The Orphic Element in Sound and Rilke’s «Tempel im Gehör» – Rilke and the Modern Age: Orpheus as a (Post)Modernist Precursor – Wim Wenders’ Der Himmel über Berlin.