Making Art as a White Guy: Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke has two main ideas: that you must be compelled to be an artist and that to do so you must dive deep into yourself by keeping the world at arm’s length. In isolation, Rilke says, is where truthful, real art is produced.

I like art; I appreciate it. I don’t feel that my existence is not complete without creating art. I am not an “artist” to Rilke and that’s just fine with both of us.

But I take real issue with Rilke’s other big idea: that young artists must embrace solitude. This year I have realized how lonely being an adult can be. The great benefit of my college experience was that all of my best friends lived less than a ten minute walk away. Since June and with my friends scattered to the wind, I’ve struggled with what it means to be a long distance friend, to keep in touch, to feel that friendships are real without being immediate. How do I have friends, make friends, meet people? Self-isolation simply isn’t healthy. Sure, many human interactions are “redundant,” but can’t you be mindful and self-reflective and take joy in the support and companionship of others?

But I’m not an artist, so this advice doesn’t apply to me, in Rilke’s view. But let’s say I was.

At moments Rilke is extremely egalitarian: he writes at length about how most depictions of sex and love are from a “male” perspective and not a “human being” perspective and thus incomplete and “uneternal.” But his dogged insistence on solitude feels particularly masculine. It certainly coincides with a European tradition of both artist and protagonist as a solitary, yearning, moody male. Knights off on their own seeking to prove themselves worthy of women. Male sonneteers lusting after women who do not return their gaze. Dr. Frankenstein. Milton’s Lucifer. Of the most famous classical authors and texts, solitary, independent women simply do not exist without, as a consequence, facing punishment or doom. Mary Wollstonecraft authored one of the greatest feminist texts ever written, but her “unconventional lifestyle” discredited her for almost a hundred years. Some English Puritans argued women were too connected to the earthly world of sinners because they could bear children to ever be truly pure or holy.

All of this is to say that I resent Rilke’s assertion that isolation is required for good art. It’s unhealthy advice to give a young person and it, knowingly or not, embraces misogynistic notions of European culture that long discredited and disallowed women as anything other than mothers and wives.

Does Rilke’s philosophy even make good art? Perhaps, but a very narrow kind of art indeed. What about the role of social and political art? Mustn’t those creators be deeply engaged in their communities and the world?

Rilke’s prose are beautiful. His thoughts on reading literature make my heart sing. But boy is it time to read some art not written by a white dude.

Up next: Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks
Why? I haven’t read any plays yet and, as I said, I’m over white guys writing about white guys, at the moment.

On deck: The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton (we’re almost done with it in Ms. Holmes class!)

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