Mediterranean Aesthetics: Rilke in Spain

Rafael Argullol

Philosopher and writer

At the start of the 20th century, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke visited and travelled through Spain over a period of four months. His perspective of Spanish culture was heavily imbued with the German perception constructed from Romanticism and influenced by the works of Cervantes and the theatre of the Spanish Golden Age. For romantic writers, the creative freedom and the tragicomic capacity of the “Spanish soul” were admirable. Thus, the journey became a mystical communion of a cosmic-existential nature, and the cities visited hardly altered the vision Rilke had previously constructed of them. It was, therefore, an exclusively literary journey, which had a very strong initiating component, as well as a desire for change to escape the quotidian reality that imprisoned the writer.  

On 31st October 1912, Rainer Maria Rilke left Bayonne for the Spanish border. Two days later, coinciding with All Soul’s Day, he reached his great objective, Toledo, where he stayed for a month. In early December he visited Cordoba and Seville. After leaving the latter, upset by what seemed to him to be a lack of spiritual seriousness, he arrived in Ronda on 7th December the same year to take rooms in the Hotel Reina Victoria. On 19th February 1913, he was in Madrid, although only with the aim of seeing the works of Goya and El Greco. Finally, we know that one week later he wrote to his friends from Paris.

Rilke’s Spanish visit lasted, therefore, a little under four months. Nevertheless, it was an “exemplary” journey, which encompassed, as inheritance, many of the successive perspectives of German culture with respect to the “Spanish soul”. Most notable was the limited impact of the poet’s real journey through Spanish lands on the ideal journey previously conceived. Rilke left Spain, after physically visiting several of its cities, with a vision that greatly resembled what during years prior to the visit he had constructed in his mind. His mental Spain was barely altered by the journey. It was still what he had previously imagined: an extreme landscape of existence in which it was possible to undertake an initiating and cathartic apprenticeship. Rilke went to Spain in search of a spiritual change of direction (la nouvelle opération) and left Spain convinced that this change had taken place.

If we look at his words, the spiritual healing phase began in Ronda, where the fascination for the setting gave him a new poetic intuition of which we find an immediate resonance in The Spanish Trilogy. But more eloquent is the case of Toledo, the city that the poet had longed to know since his youth. After staying there a month the city became, in Rilke’s own words, unbearable. He had to get away from it. This, however, was not the reason that Toledo failed to fulfil the mission established by Rilke, becoming a “journey of journeys”. The landscape of Toledo “becomes the world, creation, mountain and abyss, Genesis. In this landscape I can only think about a prophet, a prophet who rises from the banquet, the feast, the meeting, and then, still on the threshold of the house, the gift of prophecy, the immense prophecy of implacable visions, hovers over it: such is the posture of nature around this city.”

Toledo is the “mountain of revelation” where the invisible becomes visible and the interior landscape of the poet communicates with the Castilian landscape in a mystical communion of a cosmic-existential kind. Rilke, in fact, had previously anticipated this communion, as indicated by various annotations which reflect his desire to know Spain. Rilke’s Spain, before and after the journey, is the supposedly baroque Spain in which Velázquez and, especially, El Greco occupy a privileged place alongside the mystics and the theatre of the Golden Age. Therefore, if his journey was “exemplary”, Rilke’s attitude was also so, in some way, when he emerged as a receiver of an image of the “Spanish soul” that had been nurtured in German culture since the end of the 18th century. Rilke was still wholly indebted to the image of Spain shaped in the era of German Romanticism.

In the late 18th century the “Spanish soul” served, in Germany, as a reference confronting the rationalist and enlightened hegemony of French culture. As the interest of German travellers in the Iberian Peninsula increased, Lessing and Herder acted as authentic re-discoverers of Spanish literature. In Hamburg Dramaturgy, Lessing turns to Spanish dramatic tradition to distance himself from French classicism. He is attracted by its creative freedom, and its capacity for the tragicomic. For Lessing, Spanish drama, with its contempt for rules and norms, is the best support for the future development of modern drama. Even more convincing is Herder, who sees Spain as “the isolated romantic country of enthusiasm” that avoids the levelling rationalist cosmopolitanism. Against the black legend disseminated by enlightened culture, Herder worked in depth the stereotype of the “Spanish soul” rescuing, for his own purposes in relation to Germany, a heroic-chivalric image of which literature would be the best form of transition. According to this perspective, the Poema de Mio Cid or the Romancero would embody the “genius of the people” and the “popular spirit” (Volkgeist), in the same way that Don Quixote would emerge, through the outlines drawn by Cervantes around the protagonist, as an extraordinary example of that national character that German civilisation still lacked.

Spain as an expression of religious fanaticism or Spain as “a country of [heroic and mystical] enthusiasm”: the balance of the German literary perception was moving towards this last vision, although the mark of the black legend, originated by the successive religious struggles in the Reformation and then encouraged by the Enlightenment, is still present in works as important as Don Carlos by Schiller or Clavigo and Egmont by Goethe. However, with respect to the latter, we must not ignore a growing influence of the theatre of the Spanish Golden Age, and in particular of the Calderón’s “universal mythological drama”, in his definitive conception of Faust. Thus, with few probabilities of error, it is possible to find open Calderonian resonances in the second part of Goethe’s masterpiece.

Nevertheless, the first decade of the 19th century was when the apogee of “the Spanish” reached its maximum manifestation, to the point that it has been possible to speak of an authentic “Spanish decade”. The ground had been laid by Lessing and Herder, but, in its turn, the political admiration unleashed by the War of Independence contributed powerfully to crystallise it. A literary-intellectual component is overlaid on the political component: the “Spanish soul” is identified under the Cervantes-Calderón prism. Cervantes and Calderón are poles of reference not only to understand the Spanish tradition but to foster the possibilities of a new German literature.

Cervantes, subject to the romantic craft, supplied the prototype of the modern individualist and anti-rationalist hero. The taking of positions is, in this respect, very abundant. For Friedrich Schlegel, Don Quixote was the perfect example of the romantic novel, while, closer to the archetype, Hegel found in Don Quixote the quintessence of the romantic individual. For his part, Schelling, broadening the perspective, observed the Cervantes hero as a true myth of the human condition. Tieck, Hoffmann, Novalis… the silhouettes of Don Quixote, with his continuous exchange of reality and imagination, are particularly ideal for the romantic conscience to recreate new silhouettes.

Calderón, on the other hand, sought to identify a special metaphysical ability of the “Spanish soul”. The Schlegel brothers romanticised the Calderonian drama until raising it, together with that of Shakespeare, to the maximum reference of romantic poetry. August Wilhelm Schlegel, following Herder, saw in the works of Calderón the reflection of the Spanish “national character” and the “national genius”. With respect to the same works, Friedrich Schlegel praised the glorification of the interior man, the powerful penetration of the mysteries of the ineffable and the “poetry of the invisible” explored by Calderón’s dramaturgy. Life is a Dream became one of the favourite plays of the era, capable of prompting multiple attempts at re-adaptation. Suffice it to cite Heinrich von Kleist’s masterpiece Prince of Homburg, whose parallelism with the Calderón’s Segismundo is indisputable. Schelling sums up this climate perfectly when he wrote in his Philosophy of Art: “Spain produced the genius that, although its matter and object already meant a past for us, is eternal for its form and craft, and presents, achieved and materialised, what theory only seemed to be able to predict as a mission of future art. I refer to Calderón.”

The romantic and idealistic image of Spain, essentially literary, although also pictorial, continues to go back to a determined interpretation of medieval and, above all, baroque Spain. One hundred years later, Rilke continued to drink from the same source upon setting out on his “initiating journey”.

In criticism of Rilke’s Spanish journey it has been argued that he lacked a perception of the “real” country that he was visiting. However, this is only true from a sociological viewpoint. And Rilke, as we might suppose, is in the antipodes of the sociologist. His journey must be observed from a completely different perspective that informs us of the authentic motives of the writer-traveller. Rilke assumed this figure – or perhaps mask – of a particularly radical nature although, in acting in this way, he only adopted one of the options intrinsic to writers. It could even be said that, in a certain sense, it is redundant to talk of a writer-traveller as, although unconsciously, all writers are essentially travellers.

What we call literature is the unlimited metaphorisation of the – limited – journey of life. It does not matter that this metaphorical projection takes place from an immobile scenario, nor that its creator rejects all physical displacement: in all cases the writer travels under the impulse of the essential motor of the imagination. Without that motor there is no possibility of artistic creation. We can all agree with this. Let us recall, however, that any attempt to enlighten the meaning of imagination has always be done, obligatorily, in travel terms and, more specifically, with recourse to the contrast between the empirical, quotidian, reality of man and “another reality” crossed by the infinitude of paths that lead everywhere and, simultaneously, nowhere. Imagining is following, adrift, some of those paths. Writing is trying to overcome the drift in pursuit of the illusion of a set course.

It is not surprising, therefore, that our literary inheritance and awareness revolve around a perpetual journey. Homer set out on a journey with Ulysses, Apollonius with Jason, Virgil with Aeneas. Dante, more explicit, travelled on his own in hell, purgatory and heaven while he fell in a profound sleep in Good Friday 1300. At the same time, many other writers nurtured other courses and later, with the passing of the centuries, the renewed efforts of renewed seafarers ran, for the umpteenth time, into the trail that Homero, Apollonius, Virgil or Dante had left behind. We still hear the song of the mermaids, we seek the Golden Fleece or we shudder at the lament of the condemned. Literature is a unique journey to which we return constantly, not to reach a determined country, but to accumulate thousands of maps of a non-existent country.

This is why we cannot judge the writer-traveller from the perspective of the tourist. The latter knows, in the best of cases, because he goes; the former goes, even without leaving home, because he knows. In the writer-traveller the mythical dimension prevails over the real, however much the physical experiences of the journey can modify essential elements of his perception. The prevalence of the myth is what, to a great extent, excites the play of connections between desires generated by sensibility and the spaces conceived by imagination. In this way, the authentic geography confronted by the writer-traveller emerges: a mythical geography whose coordinates powerfully alter the meaning of the itinerary. The axis of the compass is guided according to the magnetism dictated by the spirit. 

Baudelaire believed that the true traveller is the one who “travels for the sake of travel” and in the last verses of his poem The Journey he wrote: “Heaven or Hell, what matter? If only to find in the depths of the Unknown the New.” For Hölderlin, the most decisive journey was the return to the origin. Both were right: we pursue the new, the unknown, as the only path of return. We seek our past in the future guided by the thirst to transcend this present that, although it is our only territory of possession, is at the same time our prison, our limitation. We travel to break down the enclosure that imprisons our everyday, to disrupt what appears as excessively structured and, consequently, as dangerously asphyxiating. In this task, literature and journey coincide again.

This is, in short, the meaning of the mythical geography that anticipates the possibility of later adventures in the geographies of reality. Hence, all the itineraries of the writer-traveller involve, in the first instance, an initiating component: an apprenticeship, a test, knowledge. Moreover, as a complement, a desire for change that is manifested in the supposition that the journey will entail, for its protagonist, an alteration of existence. To the extent that these motives play a fundamental role, we understand the essentially utopian character of the places towards which the traveller moves. Naturally, those places can have, and do have, in an immense majority of cases, very real topoi, but what decisively matters is the utopian notion that has transfigured them, making them into regions of desire.

The sea, the desert, the jungle, the mountains are still the sea, the desert the jungle and the mountains. However, they are much more than this when they are the result of symbolic projections that identify the physical features of nature with phenomena of sensibility. The same happens with certain cities, whose real presence is exceeded by the creations of dream. Feeding a parallel process, the coordinates of the world have, with extraordinary frequency, their own symbolic life: North and South, West and East, are far from only indicating a direction, or a zone of the planet, to become great metaphors constructed by imagination. The common aspect, in all the geographies of mythical scope, is their promise of vital alteration and, together with it, their offer of freedom.

Since its beginnings, literature has been imbued with the exciting aroma that emanates from the mythical journey. But, without doubt, in modern literature this aroma is stronger, more penetrating, because it is linked to greater awareness of asphyxia in the relation of the writer with his everyday life. In this respect, the 19th century is exemplary as the scenario of maximum effusion of mythical travels and symbolic topographies. The long tradition of the “journey South” or of the “journey East” – often juxtaposed – is merely the spectacular expression of this desire of the other, and of being other, which invades European literature. 

Rainer Maria Rilke is a particularly explicit exponent of the writer-traveller shaped since Romanticism. His vital nomadism takes him, as we know, to frequently change country and residence. However, the authentically decisive is that this nomadism is closely connected to the development of his literary work, so that one of the safest keys for the reading of Rilke leads us to his own condition as a traveller in reality and, of course, in imagination. With special emphasis, the poet links his travels – and his travel projects – to a desire for change, to a permanent longing for vita nuova whose primordial effects are felt in his poetry. Obsessed with sterility, change for Rilke is always oriented towards creative fertility. More than the man, the poet needs to travel.

In the mythical Rilkian geography there are two extreme sides that, although apparently contradictory, complement each other: Russia and Spain. The system of symbols of both is relatively transparent if one considers the usual hermeticism of the poet. They have in common their extreme character in relation to a centre occupied by European and, more specifically, German tradition. They participate in an open dimension, exogenous in some way, faced with the excessively structural pressure of the central core. They are, for different reasons, poles of tension that give magnetism to a fabric, that of European civilisation, which seems to succumb to the pressure of its own rationalist gravitas. They both mean, for Rilke, sources of otherness. 

The motives were, logically, distinct. Russia attracts the poet for its Slavic roots, for its orthodox religion, for its steppe dimension. He deduces from this a special spirituality. Opting – like the Spanish – for the mystic, in which violence and depth dynamically come together. The steppe is the ideal space to break the dykes of contention that oppressively enclose European man. It is the landscape where the traveller can wander like a provisional castaway as a last resort.

Spain involves a symmetrical horizon, equally attractive but undoubtedly more complex. Rilke, as we have seen, inherited a solid legacy of German culture in respect to the interpretation of the “Spanish soul”. Assuming it, he gives it, however, a personal stamp, full of subtlety in relation to the most frequent commonplaces. Moreover, Spain, like Russia, is exogenous in respect to the endogenous pressure of the European centre, but in its case it is so primarily as it represents a crossroads of civilisations that for the poet is enriching. It is the triple Christian, Jewish and Islamic substratum of Spanish culture which forms a specific spiritual scenario. If Russia is the country of the chaotic shipwreck, Spain is the country where the pilgrim can expect redemption.

This conviction explains the assessment of Rilke’s journey in Spain. Certainly, his empirical knowledge of the lands he covered was very lacking. It is even quite likely that, with the exception of Ronda, the cities visited disappointed him and this was why he shortened his stay in the country. But seen from another angle, there is no doubt that Rilke was the pilgrim who desired to be and that, realising the revelation, the “journey of journeys” had achieved its objectives. We will never know the real importance of what he saw in comparison with what he had already “seen” before starting out on his journey and with what his imagination made him see after it. However, there is nothing surprising about this ignorance: all real travellers set out on the journey in the hope of confusing what is experienced with what is dreamed.