Currently I am reading Ranier Maria Rilke’s poems that have been selected, translated and commented upon by Robert Bly. I don’t know enough about poetry to evaluate Rilke’s literary merit. His poetry seems to verge on obsessively introspective. But, I have become enthralled by one poem—“Der Schauende” translated “The Man Watching” by Bly. I don’t know what copyright laws apply here so I want reproduce the total poem here. The poem begins by the describing the changes to the earth which come through storms, wind and weather. He then shifts to assessing our human experience.
“What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we could let ourselves be dominated
as things do by immense storm
we would become strong too, and not need names.”
He makes reference to Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel though he speaks of wrestling matches as though it occurred more than once and with more people than Jacob. He suggests that Jacob grew, became strong and sought growth not through the mastery of the world but through the submission to the divine elements that confronted him. The final lines of the poem: “This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, /by constantly greater things.”
Two thoughts occurred to me as I read and re-read this poem. First, that Rilke identifies not only with nature but also with a particular biblical character. It seems that identification with biblical heroes does not occur as much anymore. Nor, does it seem that we really want any heroes. Have we lost a sense that ancient myths stand in our place? That we can fight our battles through them. Win with them. Lose with them. Struggle and renew the struggle with them? Have we lost our ability to choose a mythical hero to be our hero? Have we lost it because so many were violent? Or that too few were women? Or because all were flawed? We lap up at the pools of scandals but do not want even the scent of one on us. So we deny heroes. Deny them because to say, “I am of Paul” is forbidden. Forbidden by Paul, yes, but with qualifications. Forbidden also by ourselves. Forbidden by our surroundings that believe the secrets people hide disqualify the virtues people wear.
Can our ship tossed about by life’s wind and waves not be Noah’s Ark? Can we not see bush’s burn or be guided by clouds Do people no longer leave nets simply at the sound of a voice? Can I not wrestle with the angel along side Jacob and in wrestling grow stronger.
The other thought that occurs to me concerns the idea of submission. Rilke’s poem suggest submission to divine or noble purposes. Read with a certain masculine lens, the whole suggestion of being defeated to grow stronger is anathema. We master, overcome, triumph, manage and manipulate. Yet Christ’s call is precisely the call to be “defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.” In particular, to be conquered decisively by God which is a metaphor for submission to God’s will. We can fill our lives pursuing the goals we set for ourselves and manage to accomplish little of merit or we can allow God’s vision for us to overwhelm and guide us and move forward in growth.