Books: Cultural Amnesia — Rainer Maria Rilke |
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For those who look on the arts as a kind of celestial sports competition, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) is up there with Bertolt Brecht for the title of German Poet of the Twentieth Century. The standard view of the contending couple is that Brecht’s poetic art was dedicated to social revolution, whereas Rilke’s poetic art was dedicated to art. There is a lot to be said for that view as it applies to Rilke, because few writers who have died so young covered so much aesthetic ground. Born in Prague, he studied art history there and also in Munich and Berlin. The personalized melancholy of his early verse gave way to an overt quest for God after he made two trips to Russia, where he met Tolstoy and the Pasternak family. (Lou Andreas-Salomé, a recurring figure in his life as she was in the lives of many other famous men of his time, was along for the ride up the Volga.) In Paris he got himself appointed secretary to Rodin. An ideal aestheticism took over from mystic revelation in the poems of Neue Gedichte (1907). Some would say that his strongest and least self-consciously ethereal verse was to be found in that volume. Showing signs of believing that he had arrived at the apotheosis of art, he ascended to the empyrean in his annus mirabilis of 1922, when he wrote all of The Sonnets to Orpheus and all of The Duino Elegies: works in which the Poet is elected (some might say self-elected) as the only shaping force capable of dealing with natural energy. Rilke’s verse is hard to translate but some of the middle-period verse comes across in parts. The prose is a better bet, especially the deliberately approachable Letters to a Young Poet. When he actually had so much to say that he wanted to be understood, Rilke turned out sentences that you could write a book about.

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Fame is finally only the sum total of all the mis­understandings that can gather around a new name.

THE MOST OFTEN quoted thing Rilke ever said in prose, this was his equivalent of Mae West’s “Come up and see me some time.” She never said it quite that way, just as Bogart never quite said “Play it again, Sam.” But Rilke did say, pretty well exactly, this. He said it, of course, in German, where it sounded even more stately, because in German “fame” and “name” do not rhyme, so there is no cheap chiming of start and finish. Neat as it is in either language, however, here is a good example of a sentence begging to be misunderstood. The idea behind it is at least half right, although it would have no force unless it was partly wrong. To take an example: the actress Marion Davies remains famous only for being the mistress of William Randolph Hearst. The facts, however, say that she was an extremely talented comedienne, well capable of earning a high salary in her own right; and that she genuinely loved Hearst, who was in awe of her. It did him credit: though he could have had any woman who was available for money, he loved talent.

But the facts are hard to get at. Her films are not in circulation. The film that makes the myth is Citizen Kane, which, since the title character is based on Hearst, reinforces the idea that Marion Davies was a casualty, because Kane’s mistress in the film is an insufficiently gifted singer forced to humiliate herself to gratify Kane’s egotistical dreams for a young woman he loves like a toy. The cumulative power of a myth, and the difficulty of dispelling it, are both demonstrated by how generations of high-IQ film society attendees have prided themselves on their knowledge of Citizen Kane’s biographical subtext, down to and including the supposed fact that “Rosebud” was Hearst’s pet name for Marion Davies’s clitoris. In Rilke’s sentence, Inbegriff could possibly be translated as “essence,” but since the dictionary gives us the alternative “sum total” we might as well use it, because in myth-mongering the driftwood helps build the edifice. The Inbegriff of misunderstandings about Marion Davies would be very hard to shake even if a showreel of her comic moments on film were to be tacked on to the end title of Citizen Kane, however it was reproduced in whatever medium. Orson Welles did a terrible thing to William Randolph Hearst. To assault the tycoon’s reputation was one thing, and no doubt Hearst deserved it. But to belittle the woman he loved was cowardly, and it is worth wondering whether the crime remained on Welles’s conscience, and thus helped to explain some of his self-destructive behaviour in later years. Whatever the truth of that, there can be no doubt that Welles contributed mightily to the corroboration of Rilke’s remark. The fame of Marion Davies survived her death, but it had little to do with the woman who had once been alive. It was a sum total of misunderstandings.

Fame can be polarized between two contrary distortions and leave its true human subject untouched in the middle. Brecht is a classic case. As the poet and playwright of the international left he was revered by the progressive intelligentsia across the world. After Stalinism at long last became questionable, the international left was only reinforced in its fashionable authority, and Brecht’s reputation along with it: he was thought to represent what had been permanently valuable in the socialist world view. Apart from the operas, whose value was seldom challenged (only Lotte Lenya ever dared to say that Brecht would have been nothing without Kurt Weill), the plays were thought to be profound analyses of world capitalism in crisis. In my time as a student in Sydney in the late 1950s, The Good Woman of Setzuan was mounted with reverence and greeted with awe. The amateur actors concerned with the production, many of them my friends, had no idea that the body count of Mao’s Great Leap Forward was still mounting even as they fretted over trying to remember their lifeless, hectoring lines about the difficulty of jolting Chinese peasants out of their selfish ways. (It was from the producer of The Good Woman that I bought my set of the Brecht-Weill opera Mahagonny, on the understanding that if he had not been strapped for cash by the inescapable effects of world capitalism in crisis, nothing would have induced him to part with it.) Even as late as my undergraduate years in Cambridge, Brecht’s unswervingly charmless A Man Is a Man was one of the Cambridge Theatre Group’s gifts to the Edinburgh Fringe, the production having been given into the keeping of an earnest young theatrical vagabond on the grounds that he had once been with the Berliner Ensemble.

On subsequent investigation it turned out that he had been with the Berliner Ensemble only to the extent of sweeping the stage, but the mere connection was enough, such was the blinding effect of Brecht’s renown. The Berliner Ensemble was a long time turning into a bad joke, and indeed the joke was never as bad as all that: when the ensemble’s touring company of The Threepenny Opera visited London in the early sixties, Wolf Kaiser as Mackie Messer showed what a decade or so in the same role could do for an actor’s polish. (He also showed, with his perfectly believable naturalistic impersonation of Mackie’s charismatic savoir vivre, that Brecht’s theories about the alienation effect were balderdash; but that’s by the way.) In the long run, however, there was no reversing the erosion of Brecht’s shamanic prestige as the personification of radical theatre. Friedrich Torberg’s post-war criticisms of Brecht’s plays could not be dismissed as right-wing propaganda, although Torberg’s connections with publications partly financed by the Congress for Cultural Freedom were naturally used to blacken his name. (We have to imagine an intellectual climate in which it was thought that only a secret payment from the CIA could explain a sceptical reception for Brecht’s views on the Western conspiracy against socialist benevolence.) It had been apparent since The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui that Brecht had never had any intention of telling the truth about the central facts of politics in his own time. He knew what the truth was: nobody knew better, he just wasn’t going to bring it in, even by implication. Above all, the main truth was left out. According to his dramatic works, Nazism, not just at the beginning but throughout its career, existed because capitalism willed it so, and communism was the soul of freedom. In the end, there was no considerable audience left anywhere, west or east, for such a fantastic interpretation, and Brecht’s reputation as a seer melted away in good time to be replaced by a contrary reputation based on the repellent details of his real-life biography.

He emerged as an ice-cold, ruthless, self-serving egomaniac contemptuous of all decencies, and especially pitiless to the women who made the mistake of paying him allegiance. Even people who admired his work have given pen-portraits that turn the stomach. The psychologist Manès Sperber never lost respect for Brecht’s dedication to his gift, but Sperber was a witness to Brecht’s ruthless manipulation of actors and despised him for it. Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s admiration for Brecht went far beyond Brecht’s gifts as a poet: Reich-Ranicki really thought that Brecht was a force in the theatre. But Reich-Ranicki has given us an account of a face-to-face meeting from which Brecht emerges as such a titanic pain in the arse that you wonder why Reich-Ranicki didn’t reverse his lifetime opinion on the spot. That he did not is a tribute to Brecht’s aura. It might also, however—and here is the crucial point—have been an instance of accurate critical estimation. Somewhere in between the thoroughgoing con man Brecht was in real life, and the hollow prophet he was as a man of the didactic theatre, Brecht was a great poet. In the twentieth-century annals of German poetry, he shares pre-eminence with Rilke, who was no paragon of humanity either.

Rilke’s fame, however, was based on the assumption that he embodied art for art’s sake. Since the evidence for the assumption was overwhelming, his fame was impregnable. He had no other allegiance, and certainly no political one, to distract him from his pursuit of the exquisite. Everything in his life had to match up to the refinement of his wife, and if his wife didn’t fit the picture, she had to go. His notepaper was as beautiful as his handwriting. He was as careful in his dress as Beau Brummell. The various settings in which he wrote poems were chosen from a catalogue of the great houses of Europe. Titled women who owned the houses found themselves in receipt of his finely judged letters, delicately suggesting that if hospitality should be extended to him when the wind was in the right direction, masterpieces would ensue. The famous Schloss Duino, where he wrote the elegies, was not the castle that its name implies, but an Italianate palazzo with suitably comfortable quarters in which elegies could be written in lieu of rent. Rilke’s perfect taste accompanied him beyond death. Volumes of Rilke correspondence are still coming out from the publishing house Insel Verlag, all of them in the same prettily proportioned format. By now I have a five-foot shelf of books just by Rilke himself, let alone of books about him; and still there is no end in sight. I could never throw the stuff away. It looks too good.

And somewhere in the middle of it all is the relatively thin sheaf of poetry that justifies the bustle. Poets in English continue to line up for the inevitable failure of translating his short lyrics. The best translations I have seen are from Babette Deutsch but everyone falls short, even J. B. Leishmann, who devoted his life to translating Rilke poems both big and small. Though Rilke would be a bad reason to learn how to read his language, after you have done so he rewards you by proving, especially in such short lyrics as “Das Karrussel,” that he really was a wonderful poet. But you can’t chase up all the ancillary stuff without getting as precious as he was, and there is dangerous moment when, in the elegies, “the tear trees, the fields of flowering sadness” start sounding like fine shades of meaning, instead of forced exercises in sentimentality. Rilke had too much civilization, just as Brecht had too little: their matching deviations from normality make both of them toxic company. Take the two of them together and you barely end up with one man you would want to have a drink with. You also get a pretty fair idea of just how important it is to estimate a writer through his own language, and not through the language that gathers around him. Hannah Arendt has been much criticized for “Forbidden to Jove,” her essay about Brecht collected in her book Men in Dark Times. (This could be the moment to print a health warning: while Arendt’s journalism is nearly all valuable, her formal philosophy is nearly all unreadable.) John Willett, one of Brecht’s principal devotees and translators, vilified Arendt for that essay. At first glance, there is indeed something absolutist in the way Arendt assures us that Brecht ruined himself as a poet by praising Stalin. It reminds us of her thesis about the desk-bound bureaucrats who drove the Holocaust: an explanatory idea that left too much unexplained.

But a second glance is advisable. Even as a poet, as a master of lyric forms in which he could say anything, Brecht was inhibited by all that he could not bring himself to say about real life in the East. If his poetry is a tree, there is a whole side of its trunk missing. But we would hardly care if it were not for the sky-filling majesty of what is left. For most of his readers in English-speaking countries, the way to his poetic achievement was not open until the great parallel text came out in 1987. His use of German had always been colloquial, compressed, innovative and (“in der Asphaltstadt bin ich daheim”—I am at home in the city of asphalt) street-smart: hard to get at for a foreigner. In other words, there were no other words: even Rilke had been easier to translate. Thanks to the devotion of his translators to social minutiae, the supremely sociable courtier’s relentless preciosity of diction was something that a non-German reader could get a handle on, whereas Brecht’s tap-room argot remained strictly a foreign language. Even a linguist like Michael Frayn benefited from the new crib. I know that because he must have read through it in the same week I did. Meeting at a first night—one of his, as I remember—we got to the subject within a minute. Frayn said Brecht’s poetry had astonished him. I had to agree; and by then, perhaps rather piously, I had thought that nothing could astonish me about a man I had long since identified as the creepiest major talent of modern times. In the long view of history, Brecht’s fame as a creep will prevail, as it ought to. An unblushing apologist for organized frightfulness against the common people whose welfare he claimed to prize above his own, he was really no nicer than Sir Oswald Mosley, and a lot more dangerous. Brecht’s fame as a poet will depend on a wide appreciation of what he could do with language, and there lies the drawback: because the more you appreciate what he could do with language, the more you realize how clearly he could see, and so the more you are faced with how he left things out. You are faced, that is, with what he did not do with language.

Talent usually earns forgiveness, but there are good reasons that linguistic talent earns it least. Auden was right to pardon Kipling and Claudel (as his rhyme had it, he pardoned them “for writing well”) and eventually Orwell would have pardoned Auden for so glibly sanctioning “the necessary murder”: but nobody would have forgotten what anybody said. There is something about words that sticks. Painters are usually given the benefit of the doubt by writers: i.e., writers patronize painters. Picasso, for his backing of communism, is seldom given the same bad marks that we give to Brecht. Picasso was late to the game; he occasionally had the grace to be embarrassed by the outrages of Soviet foreign policy vis-à-vis the satellite countries; and anyway, he was “only” a painter. His character is more likely to be judged by the way he treated his women than by the way he read the newspaper: judged and then excused. In writing, talent intensifies crimes. In painting it dissolves them. Picasso will never be famous as a painter who abused his women, any more than he will be famous for having given aid and comfort to a totalitarian regime. He will always be famous as a great, protean painter—the great painter of his time, with only Matisse as a rival.

In that respect, Rilke’s statement needs to be amplified. Fame is not only the sum of the misunderstandings that can grow around a name, it also depends on the understandings that do not grow around it. Somehow Picasso’s domestic behaviour and political allegiance have not adhered to his central reputation. We are probably not wrong to be thus lulled. When a noxious idea turns up in a painting, it is more likely to make us smile than retch. Like painters but even more so, musical performers are issued at birth with a get-out-of-jail-free card. In my first year in London I heard Walter Gieseking play at the Festival Hall. I was not much bothered by his connection with Nazi Germany. If I had known then just how much of a Nazi he had been, I might have walked out, but I would have missed some good Beethoven. At least Gieseking was a German. Alfred Cortot was a Frenchman, and therefore would have been something worse than a Nazi sympathizer even if he had just played the piano at Parisian soirées well peopled with grey and black uniforms—a Sacha Guitry of the keyboard. Actually he did more: he was an active collaborator, denouncer and thoroughgoing rat. But he is not famous for it and probably shouldn’t be. After Rubinstein, two of the major players of Chopin are Rachmaninoff and Cortot. Rachmaninoff fled from totalitarianism and Cortot stayed to profit: but they both sound wonderful. At Covent Garden and the Festival Hall during my first years in London, you could hear German conductors who had been forced to flee and others who had chosen to stay: I heard, among others, Rudolf Kempe, Karl Böhm, Hans Knappertsbusch, Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer. Everyone knew that Klemperer went into exile and that Karajan had a Nazi party number, but who knows now, of Kempe, Böhm and Knappertsbusch, which one stayed on in the Third Reich? (Trick question: they all did.) And who cares?

Well, of course we should care. The question is how. In the brains department, and therefore in the area of moral responsibility, conductors traditionally rate above performers. Hearing and watching Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sing Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” with maximum purse-lipped projection of the umlauts, I had no trouble resisting the impulse to throw her a Hitler salute as a reminder of the sort of audience she had once wowed in Berlin. But if Furtwängler had been conducting the band it might have been a different matter. Ronald Harwood wrote an excellent play about Furtwängler (The Dividing Line) raising all the moral issues, and there were plenty to raise. The only point Harwood missed was Hitler’s 1944 offer to build Furtwängler a personal mini-bunker as a reward for his staying on in Berlin to conduct morale-building concerts. Furtwängler turned down the offer, generously suggesting that the bunker might be built for a few workers instead. The prodigiously gifted old ass seems genuinely to have done his best to keep civilized values alive. He just never realized that his services to an ideal world of art had been co-opted in advance by a force dedicated to its ruin. He was not alone in the anomaly. There were Aryan conductors who saved Jewish orchestra members from death, or at least delayed it. Unfortunately there were no Aryan conductors who, by lending the regime their prestige, did not aid its legitimacy. And over and above the conductors, at the exalted level of composer, the argument is even less equivocal, although still not quite as clear-cut as with the writers. The playwright Gerhart Hauptmann stayed on, first of all because he was adulated; second because he was too old to run if he didn’t have to; and third—he said so himself—because he was a coward. (Weil ich feige bin!) His reputation was ruined, as it deserved to be: but we should be sorry for its being so ruined that we can no longer appreciate just how revered he was before the Nazis came to power. (Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a raging theatre buff when young, saw everything of Hauptmann’s and generously records the euphoria in his autobiographical writings.) Understanding, not misunderstanding, became part of the Inbegriff of Hauptmann’s fame, and destroyed it utterly.

But the same thing never happened to Richard Strauss, who stayed on for two of the same reasons: he was at the height of his renown, and, as an Aryan who didn’t have to run, he felt old enough to excuse himself from doing so by choice. The third reason, cowardice, he was always too arrogant to plausibly claim, although his bravery soon evaporated when the Reichskulturkammer leaned on him. Stefan Zweig, whom Strauss had invited to write the libretto of Die Schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman), was disinvited in a tearing hurry when the Nazis got to hear about it. Like Heidegger but perhaps more plausibly, Strauss took pains later on to pretend that he had never been part of the Nazi landscape. The landscape he preferred being part of was the apocalyptic heap of rubble down which he strode in 1945 to tell the GIs that he was the composer of Der Rosenkavalier. While Wagner was alive, there were no mass exterminations of Jews at German hands. While Strauss was alive they died by the million. It was Wagner who took the rap. Strauss got away with it, partly because he was shrewd enough to look a bit daffy when the conversation got awkward, but mainly because his music proposed no analogy more embarrassing than Also Sprach Zarathustra, and was mainly about love, usually between a couple of sopranos, one of them in velvet pants. Filming once in Chicago, I called on Georg Solti at the opera house during a break in his afternoon rehearsal. I was trying to nail him down for an interview about Chicago, not about his own career. Clearly this was not a diversion of emphasis that he particularly relished, but he invited me to his dressing room to discuss the matter further. I was able to tell him, truthfully, that I thought his Eugene Onegin was one of the greatest opera sets ever recorded. He took unbridled praise no worse than I did and sent me out into the empty auditorium with the assurance that I had a surprise coming.

He was right about that. Strolling on to the stage came the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The maestro appeared in front of it, raised his baton, and launched into the opening measure of Also Sprach Zarathustra. Being Solti, he didn’t get further than the first eight bars before he brought the whole thing to a halt in order to re-educate a violinist, but I was already carried away by the magnitude of an historic moment. Here was a man whom the Nazis would have killed on the spot, and he was playing one of their tunes. But of course it wasn’t just theirs: that was the point. It was ours—something that Strauss must have realized, even while the Nazis were trying to bend him to their odious purposes. After all, he wasn’t a fool: just old, conceited and weak, and at some time in our lives we are all of us those things, although not, if we are lucky, all at the same time. The writers know straight away when they are being weak, whereas the composers can kid themselves for decades at a stretch. We think of the Soviet Union’s favourite epic novelist, Sholokhov, as a shameless liar, but of the composer Khachaturian as just a hack. Perhaps we should think worse of Khachaturian, since all the evidence suggests that for a true musician in the Soviet Union the price of seriousness was to suffer unmistakeable humiliation through being obliged to kiss the badly barbered behind of one cultural commissar after another. Shostakovich, on his own anguished confession, was a case in point. (And lest there be any doubt that Solomon Volkov’s recension of Shostakovich’s memoirs, even though largely a fantasy on Volkov’s part, had solid roots in reality, it should be noted that Ashkenazy settled the question in an article he wrote for the May 5, 2000, issue of the Financial Times. He wrote it because he had grown sick of listening to clueless debates about the basic facts of the regime from which he, unlike Shostakovich, had been lucky enough to find a way out.)

It remains a moot point, however, whether there was ever any such thing as specifically totalitarian music. Watching a couple of well-built slaves doing their love dance in Spartacus, it is hard not to think of all those people freezing to death in Vorkuta while pig-eyed Presidium members at the Bolshoi were doting on the ballerina’s bare thighs, but that was scarcely Khachaturian’s fault. (The divine Plissetskaya, incidentally, as her memoirs written late in life reveal, was well aware that she was dancing for murderers: but she was a dancer, and where else was there to dance?) In Sydney when I was first a student, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana was introduced to me by a European refugee who probably had no idea that its composer found favour with the kind of people who had gassed her family: there was nothing in the music to tell her, except perhaps a certain predilection for bombast. If Prokofiev had never gone home to Russia, he might not have written Romeo and Juliet, but he would still have been Prokofiev, not Stravinsky. There is enough historicist determinism in the world without our straining our wits to attach it to people who think up tunes. Doktor Faustus has some of Thomas Mann’s most marvellous writing in it, but there is something crucial it does not include: we get no idea of how Leverkühn’s bargain with the devil shows up as music. The safest bet is that it showed up as boredom.

There is a marvellous piece by James Thurber about an heroic solo aviator who earns the worship of America before anybody realizes that he is a prejudiced buffoon who will be a public relations disaster if sent abroad to represent his country. Finally he has to be pushed out of a window. Clearly Thurber meant Lindbergh. In real life, Lindbergh could never be manoeuvred close enough to a suitable window, but in the long run something more drastic happened. He was justly famous for his bravery and skill as a lone flyer. But when his baby was kidnapped and killed he showed a kind of courage that the media didn’t like: reticence. The way was prepared for his reputation to collapse when the isolationism he favoured (the America First movement) was discredited by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Understanding, it seemed, had gathered around his name, and certainly, on close scrutiny, there was nothing noble about his fondness for the dictators. (Gore Vidal, while making a good case for Lindbergh’s isolationism, neglects to explain why anti-Semitism had to be part of the package.) But there was a later phase, less known, that ought to be part of the picture. Lindbergh tested high-performance aircraft, probably shot down a Japanese aircraft in combat, pioneered long-distance routes for Pan Am, and generally lived out a productive life. His fame is in two parts, like Brecht’s: he is the hero and the villain. For the thoughtful, it is in three parts: he is also one of the first victims of the celebrity culture. (There would have been no kidnapping if he had not been so publicized that even a stumbling halfwit had read about him.) But it ought to be in at least four, because behind all the personae determined by events there was a personality that remained constant. He valued self-reliance, and possibly valued it too much: it made him hate collectivism so blindly that he thought fascism was the opposite, instead of the same thing in a dark shirt. Yet there is something magnificent about a man who could make a success out of any task he tackled. To complete Rilke’s observation—and it is an observation, because it answers visible facts—we must accept this much: to measure the distortion of life we call fame it is not enough to weigh the misunderstandings against the understandings. We have to see through to the actual man, and decide whether, like so many artists, he is mainly what he does, or whether he has an individual and perhaps even inexpressible self, like the lonely flyer.