Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet has become my meditational text. In the past four years, which has been a time of tremendous transition and sadness, expansion and death and rebirth, these 10 letters, written to a young man who asked Rilke how to become a poet, have fed me.
I thought of them again this morning, as I was reflecting on the past few days. I also, once again, thought of Sisyphus. (The material on Sisyphus is recycled from an earlier diary; the Rilke material is new.)
One of the immense comforts that Rilke provides is that he accepts that sadness and loss are great gifts in life. It’s not about the nobility of suffering; for Rilke, sadness is a time when the “new” enters, when seeds get planted without our being aware, and only later do we reap the new crop.
He talks about the dislocation, the numbing, the sheer vertigo of grief, and, as my anger over this past weekend has waned, I find new emotions have come up. Sadness. But also a sense that from this sadness, something magnificent is going to happen.
For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.
It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing. That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, – is already in our bloodstream. And we don’t know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate; and later on, when it “happens” (that is, steps forth out of us to other people), we will feel related and close to it in our innermost being. And that is necessary. It is necessary – and toward this point our development will move, little by little – that nothing alien happen to us, but only what has long been our own. People have already had to rethink so many concepts of motion; and they ill also gradually come to realize that what we call fate does not come into us from the outside, but emerges from us.
And so, on the personal level, I take comfort from the words of Rilke. But as we all know, the larger problems of the world still confront us. Some of us feel as if we are stuck in an 8-year nightmare, that January 2009 can’t come quickly enough, and we hope that perhaps, January 2007 will bring enough change that at least we’ll be able to breathe again.
I know that many of us woke up on that cold day in November and felt as if we’d been run over by a truck, nay a boulder. Not unlike Sisyphus.
I’ve been thinking about Sisyphus these past few weeks, as I’ve watched what appears to be a march toward oblivion taking place in my country. I admit, since the coronation in January, or perhaps well before it, I’ve felt this increasing dread that we’re on the road to nowhere, that we are confronted with a juggernaut that seeks to destroy all of us people of good conscience who oppose the immoral, unethical, unholy alliance forged on the Right.
They believe that what they are doing is justified by a God of their understanding, and we, many of us who consider ourselves religiously unmusical, struggle to re-frame the debates so that we might claim moral high ground without having to bring God onto our team.
For those of you out there who are guided by a belief in God, I say hallelujah. But what of those, like me, who do not believe in God, but yet who believe that treating human beings in a compassionate manner is the core essence of my politics, how do we find comfort in these days when we are branded with so many ugly names, the likes of which I refuse to say outloud?
In 1940, a young writer named Albert Camus looked at the devastation around him, the carnage that was taking place and building in Europe, and asked an essential question. If life has no meaning, why not commit suicide? The essays, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” were first read by me as a teenager. 25 years later, I take out the essays again, and I find much to comfort me as I contemplate the seemingly Herculean task before us as progressives.
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.
For those of you who don’t know the story of Sisyphus, he got himself into trouble with the gods for a number of reasons: he was a trickster, a questioner, and ultimately, thought he could defeat death. For his sins, he was punished with the eternal task of pushing the rock.
Many of us thought that the advances made by progressives-environmental protections, civil rights protections, abortion rights, a social safety net for the struggling, gender equity-we thought those rights, that were fought for and died for-we thought they would not be taken away from us. And yet, since January 2001, we have watched those rights be attacked by people who claim that our hubris–our beliefs that humanity was the paramount consideration in politics-has led us into sin, and to appease the Almighty, we must be made to suffer.
His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.
They want to tell us that we have accomplished nothing. They want us to watch our rock rolling back down the hill, to laugh at our despair as we contemplate the ruins of the things we have achieved; they want to mock us.
Some of us feel overwhelmed by the pain of this all. Some of us want to give up. But I cannot give up. I have children-girls-and I cannot give up because I cannot bear the idea that my daughters will grow up in a culture that tells them that their fate was determined by Eve’s sin, that they are less. I just won’t.
But I’m not going to be miserable in this fight. Yes. It’s hard. Yes. I have days when it feels absolutely fucking hopeless. But I turn back to Camus, Camus who in 1940, could still write these words.
If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much. Again I fancy Sisyphus returning toward his rock, and the sorrow was in the beginning. When the the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy rises in man’s heart: this is the rock’s victory, this is the rock itself. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.
The myth of Sisyphus reminds us that our compassionate politics, our empathy, drives us.
It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.
There will be days when our tears at what we have lost will overwhelm us. But, we are already at the bottom of the hill. We have begun to push back. The rock is beginning to move. Progress is slow. It will not happen overnight. But it will happen. And you know what? I, for one, am going to be laughing as I push. Will you join me?
All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasingI leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth wihtout a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Cross-posted at Menstruating She-Devils