Sunday, May 6, 2012

Prolegomena to Any Future Life

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly—. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Panther” 1

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other’s an atheist, and they’re arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says, “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God-and-prayer thing. Just last month, I got caught off away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I couldn’t see a thing, and I was totally lost, and it was fifty below, and so I did, I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out, ‘God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled: “Well then, you must believe now,” he says. “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist rolls his eyes like the religious guy is a total simp: “No, man, all that happened was that a couple Eskimos just happened to come wandering by, and they showed me the way back to the camp.”

— David Foster Wallace, This Is Water 2

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” 3


Du mußt dein Leben ändern: You must change your life. That much is certain.

But I cannot tell you the way; you must find it yourself. For I am not a wise old fish, either.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

1 Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. & trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage International, 1989, pp. 24–25.
2 David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009, pp. 16–23.
3 Rilke, op. cit., pp.60–61.

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