Shapes of Their Horrible Dungeons

It is 1902 and Franz Kappus is in Vienna attending a military school. One day, he is sitting under a chestnut tree, reading a book by a poet called Rainer Maria Rilke.  A chaplain walks up to him. Seeing who Mr. Kappus is reading, he tells him that he knows Rilke. Rilke had attended that same military school a long time ago and had been one of his students. The chaplain describes Rilke as a quiet chap who kept mostly to himself. Soon after, Kappus decides to send Rilke poems he had written. He attaches to the first set of poems a letter and shares with Rilke his private struggles with the solitary life of the military academy, the uncertain prospects of a military profession, and his dream of becoming a poet. Letters breed more letters and by 1908 Rilke has sent 10 letters to young Mr. Kappus. These letters are collected in a book called Letters to A Young Poet.

Below is an except from Letter VIII, written in Sweden in 1904. In this particular correspondence, Rilke is puzzled that people run away from solitude, difficulties, and sorrows. We tend to be drawn towards familiar places, to seek the security of company, and to shy away from things we do not understand. But all these, Rilke thinks, are delusions. If we do not want a life of “unspeakable monotony and boredom,” we must find “the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.”  Rilke wants us to put the familiar world of whatever–home, nation, language, etc,–on hold for a moment and instead love the strange, the dangerous, and the not-too-easy.

To drive this point home, Rilke evokes the metaphor of space in a rather striking way. And the reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and The Pendulum is unsettling but lovely nonetheless:

For if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security. And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells. We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares have been set around us, and there is nothing that should frighten or upset us…We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.

How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

Photo credits: danmihalache.wordpress.com


Tags: , , ,

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Archives

Announcing the Brittle Paper Literary Awards: The Shortlists

Facebook - The Brittle Paper Literary Awards

August 1, 2017 was Brittle Paper‘s seventh anniversary. In celebration of this milestone, we are launching the Brittle Paper Literary Awards, […]

It Starts From Writing Honestly | A Conversation with Wana Udobang | By Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún

Screen-Shot-2017-08-20-at-5.05.05-PM-e1503266832468 copy

Wana Udobang is a versatile artist. She has worked as a radio presenter, movie actor, television and web broadcaster, journalist, […]

British-Nigerian Erotica Writer Kiru Taye Opens Up About the Difficulty of Finding an Audience

kiru taye -

When we take the likes of Chimamanda Adichie as the model of authorship, achieving success in writing can appear effortless. […]

The 2017 Writivism Kofi Addo Prize for Nonfiction Goes to South Africa’s Charles King

The South African Freelancers' Association (Safrea) offered their members the opportunity of having a quick portrait done to improve their images on their social media pages - Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.  Professional portrait photographer, Anna Morris, agreed to do the portraits.

The 2017 Writivism Kofi Addo Prize for Nonfiction has gone to South Africa’s Charles King. He won for “Meat Bomb.” Alongside […]

On Reclaiming Memory | Interview with Kechi Nomu, 2017 Brunel Prize Finalist

1528617_881012648578490_5897868622052699107_n

Africa in Dialogue published an e-book of interviews with the ten poets shortlisted for the 2017 Brunel Poetry Prize. The interviews were […]

The 2017 Writivism Short Story Prize Goes to Nigeria’s Munachim Amah

13173450_1619200638400857_2469687830281826926_o

The Writivism Short Story Prize has gone to Nigeria’s Munachim Amah. He won for his short story, “Stolen Pieces.” He will […]