In his 4th Duino Elegy, Rilke gives a metaphoric statement of the problem of language and recommends a procedure for approaching as far toward the horizon of silence as he considers feasible. A prerequisite of “emptying out” is to be able to perceive what one is “full of,” what words and mechanical gestures one is stuffed with. like a doll; only then, in polar confrontation with the doll, does the “angel” appear, a figure representing an equally inhuman though “higher” possibility, that of an entirely unmediated, trans-linguistic apprehension. Neither doll nor angel, human beings remain situated within the kingdom of language. But for nature, then things, then other people, then the textures of ordinary life to be experienced from a stance other than the crippled one of mere spectatorship, language must regain its chastity. As Rilke describes it in the 9th Elegy, the redemption of language (which is to say, the redemption of the world through its interiorization in consciousness) is a long, infinitely arduous task. Human beings are so “fallen” that they must start simply, with the simplest linguistic act: the naming of things. Perhaps no more than this minimal function can be preserved from the general corruption of language. Rilke suggests that language may very well have to remain within a permanent state of reduction. Though perhaps. when this spiritual exercise of confining language to naming is perfected, it may be possible to pass on to other, more ambitious uses of language, no more must be attempted than will allow consciousness to be unestranged from itself

From The Aesthetics of Silence by Susan Sontag

photo by djuliete

Dolls and Angels – Rilke on the problem of language

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