||by Eric Torgersen (Ethiopia 196466)
Northwestern University Press, $29.95
Reviewed by Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 197880)
Eric Torgersens account of the complex friendship between the poet Rilke and the talented painter Paula Becker-Modersohn makes for a highly readable and psychologically compelling story. Relying on a wealth of letters as well as the body of previous scholarship on the subject, Torgersen seeks both to illuminate the nuances of the Rilke-Becker relationship and to suggest how it influenced the artists work. By staying away from ideological interpretations that would reduce the human intricacies of their relationship to a simplistic overlay of one sort or another, he manages to depict fully the people involved and the world in which they moved. Ideas about the role of the artist that were current in the early twentieth century are at the heart of the study, and their delineation in context is one of Dear Friends accomplishments. Although the book will doubtless find its niche in the scholarship of the period those interested in Becker will find it as useful as those who study Rilke its virtue for the non-specialist is its easy readability.
In 1998, Rilke makes an easy target. His late Romantic opinions sound offensively fulsome to our post-post-modern ears. His ability to manipulate people while couching his actions (or inaction) in the rhetoric of total devotion to his art now seems particularly perfidious. Pressuring his young wife to leave their child with family members in Germany so that she and Rilke could live a less fettered life in Paris at the feet of the aging Rodin now appears indefensible. Feminist scholars will rightly take umbrage at the psychic colonization on display in Rilkes relationships with both Paula Becker and with his wife, Clara. Under the guise of protecting their privacy and allowing their artistic individuality to flower, he in fact sought to put them in a straitjacket of his own devices.
A balanced description of Rilke
Nevertheless, Torgersen does not yield to the temptation to take unnecessary easy shots at Rilke. He consistently maintains a judicious balance in describing the poet and what drove him as a writer. The portrait that emerges is of a man of his time who shared the biases of that time, a man with a deep need to build a myth that would justify and reinforce his personal and aesthetic beliefs. His idealization of Paula Becker as an artist derives in part from the prevailing views of the scope and role of women. Rather than simply lambasting Rilke for what now reads as his egregious shortcomings as a man, the author takes pains to show how the friendship itself, and Beckers work, and the poets willful revising of her art and her mission all reinforce the mythic construct on which his own opus rests.
Rilkes belief in an unresolvable conflict between the challenges of a normal life and the imperatives of high art is central to understanding his relationship with Becker. He chose to see the arc of her life as a kind of tragic falling away from those imperatives in order to make peace with her identity as a woman living in the real world. Unable or unwilling to sustain a workaday life himself he lived frequently on the patronage of wealthy women who believed in his higher calling Rilke seriously underestimated the body of work that Becker produced. He did so because seeing her work as a mature whole would have imperiled his profound conviction that life and art were at invariable odds, and that choosing art over life was the noble option reserved for a few. Without losing a degree of sympathy for the poet, Torgersen makes clear just how flawed Rilkes understanding was.
Torgersen avoids the deadly dullness of many academic writers. Though the book would have benefited from editorial tightening, his language is accessible and clear, and the author successfully masters the challenge of contributing to scholarship in his field while at the same time communicating to the well-educated lay person. The book jacket is handsome, featuring a reproduction of Beckers 1906 portrait of Rilke. Northwestern has obviously produced this book with a great deal of care.
Mark Jacobs is the author of three books. His collection of stories, The Liberation of Little Heaven, was published by Soho Press in January. His novel Stone Cowboy was the winner of the 1998 Maria Thomas Fiction Award presented by RPCV Writers & Readers.