Luke Fischer: The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems

Alex Cosmescu

The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems Book Cover The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems
New Directions in German Studies
Luke Fischer
Bloomsbury Academic

Reviewed by: Alex Cosmescu (Academy of Sciences of Moldova)

In his recent monograph, The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems, Luke Fischer tries to show that Rilke’s two volumes of Neue Gedichte, without ceasing to be poetry, have an intrinsically phenomenological character and are the product of a special practice of seeing / writing that Rilke learned and pursued based on his interaction with visual artists, including a deep engagement with Rodin’s and Cézanne’s work. According to Fischer, the practice of seeing / writing and its results have deep affinities with phenomenology. More than that, “Rilke’s vision and poetry can extend phenomenology, and for that matter, philosophy itself” (221).

In the Introduction, Fischer situates his project in the context of the “end of metaphysics” and the problem of dualism – whose experiential / existential aspect metaphysics misses. Thus, “Rilke’s praxis of perceiving the world in a similar manner to visual artists who paint en plain air led to a non-dualistic disclosure of phenomena that cannot be attained by other means” (62), experientially overcoming the duality between inner / outer, visible / invisible. The fact that he is facing the problem of dualism in this manner drives Rilke away from metaphysics – conceived as objectivating thinking, a theoretical attempt to define Being without any possible intuitive givenness – and makes him a potential ally for phenomenologists.

Modern dualistic views find a certain legitimation in our experience of the world, and for an experiential overcoming of dualism, “[p]ercept and concept, thinking and perception, meaning and appearance, inner and outer, would have to show themselves as two sides of the revelation of a single phenomenon” (21, author’s emphasis). Phenomenology can offer a basis for this, by creating the means for a non-reductive and attentive articulation of experience. Fischer takes phenomenology not only as a doctrine or as a corpus but, in the first place, as a methodological conception – which involves examining phenomena on one’s own, not only an exposition / repeating of other phenomenologists’ positions. Thus, in his phenomenological accounts, Fischer attempts to “communicate insights that are legitimated by an intuitive givenness or disclosure” (39) – which supposes that anyone able to assume a phenomenological attitude would be able to check / confirm them on their own.

The first analysis of this type is attempted at the end of the first chapter and it is dedicated to the “twofold seeing of the human Other”. It tries to show that an overcoming of dualism is implicitly present even at the level of everyday perception, while a “phenomenology of the exceptional” would show the way for a deeper overcoming. According to Fischer, these implicit aspects of everyday perception could make one aware of certain structures of perceiving and understanding, structurally similar to Rilke’s vision: “this consideration of the Other will reveal a kind of disclosure in which the sensible and the intelligible form two aspects of a single reality, rather than being opposed to one another” (43). Thus, following Scheler, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, Fischer tries to show, phenomenologically, that “the Other is first, and for the most part, perceived as a pre-dualistic psycho-physical unity – a unity not yet divided into the two terms “psyche” and “body.” Genetically considered, we do not begin with the “body” and then add “soul” to it, we begin with an as yet undifferentiated unity that is later divided” (53). Thus, the disclosure of the Other is richer than what an account in terms of Husserlian empathy, whose model, according to Fischer’s analysis, is based on self-perception, would allow us to say. Fischer also draws upon Scheler’s account of a reversed intentionality – the Other is not just an object for me, but is revealed when I become receptive for him or her.

In this way, according to Fischer’s account, “[f]or the most part the Other is revealed as an expressive Leib or dynamic physiognomy” (56) – in an analogous manner with the experience of a work of art. The Other is revealed to me not only via the what of his or her presence, but also through the how of his or her manner of being, that allows individuation and the perceiving of the Other’s own style. The situated way in which the Other appears to me when we first meet – not as an object, but in a world, in the same horizon in which I understand myself – may deepen in subsequent meetings, the dialogue / conversation having a central role in this context. Listening to the Other, I become able to think something else than my own thoughts; as Merleau-Ponty puts it, I am “freed from myself” (63). Thus, in a dialogue with the Other, another perspective on the world – that would be otherwise unavailable to me and that enriches me – becomes available (65).

This propaedeutic analysis of the non-dualistic disclosure of the Other – an intertwining of intelligible and the sensible, of passivity and activity – creates the context for the other three chapters of Fischer’s book, focused on the way Rilke cultivated his non-dualistic practice of seeing / writing and the manner in which it is reflected in the Neue Gedichte.

In the second chapter, Learning to See: Rilke and the Visual Arts, Fischer focuses on the sources of this praxis in Rilke’s engagement with visual artists. Rilke’s attempt at a “radically self-less seeing of things” (71) differs from a strictly philosophical methodology, but, nevertheless, is implicitly phenomenological and allows a deeper disclosure of the visible and invisible in their intertwining than a phenomenology of the everyday. Fischer justifies his choice of the Neue Gedichte over Rilke’s later poetry by arguing that the concrete poems about things present in the two volumes – Dinggedichte – are more clearly phenomenological and can deepen the understanding of his later oeuvre. In any case, the task Fischer outlines is not offering an exhaustive interpretation of the Neue Gedichte, but making explicit the manner in which the practice of seeing / writing they illustrate and the non-dual disclosure of Nature it makes possible work as an answer to the problem of dualism.

Fischer first discusses Rilke’s formulation of this problem in the context of landscape painting, as compared to portraiture. In the case of portraiture, we are accustomed to see the invisible – to read in a gesture or in a position what they express. But in the case of contemplating Nature an alienation can be noticed: landscapes are unintelligible, foreign to us, we feel alone and defenseless in front of them. Fischer sees this as a manifestation of dualism and the question he asks is whether this estrangement is correlated with a certain attitude / way of seeing that can be replaced with another one, one that could make us see the “life” itself of Nature (78).

In a commentary with clearly phenomenological overtones, Rilke states that, for the most part, we look at Nature as something “for us”, ready to hand, that we can modify – and this attitude hides from us its “life”. We regard Nature as a pure self-evident exteriority, as surfaces without depth, as if interiority would be synonymous with human subjectivity. On the other hand, the child’s attitude is, according to Rilke, characterized by “living inside nature” as “smaller animals” (79), in “sympathy with things” (82) – a pre-dualistic attitude, before any separation of inner and outer. Compared to that, adulthood is an impoverished experience (81), but its richness can be regained through the artist’s practice that cultivates another attitude towards one’s own childhood and towards Nature (84). This does not mean that the artist is trying to become a child again – but it is an attempt of consciously approaching Nature the way one was able to do in one’s childhood, without knowing it (87). By consciously instituting a manner of being-in-the-world similar to the child’s, the artist achieves a conscious unity with Nature – a passive activity, a conscious, intended receptivity, more intense than what happens in everyday perception. Fischer characterizes it as a kind of Gelassenheit, aware of both the mystical and the phenomenological connotations of this term – an “impartial, unconditional letting-be” (89). “Attentively, wakefully, the artist looks away from him- or herself” (90) and participates in Nature. Even if this ideal has certain common aspects with Romanticism (90-96), Rilke regards Romantics as “too subjective” (93) and cultivates a type of poetry which springs from the practice of an attentive seeing of things, that replaces inspiration (95) and brings poetry closer to Wissenschaft, without it ceasing to be poetry.

Fischer shows, based on Rilke’s literary work and his letters, as well as biographical details, that this practice derives from a sustained engagement with Rodin and Cézanne, where he encounters “1) the practice of a way of seeing, and 2) the translation of a vision of things into the composition of the work of art” (98). Thus, a work of art springs from the artist’s personal seeing; the practice of perceiving precedes the work itself. Even if it does not produce any definite work of art, “learning to see” allows an experiential overcoming of dualism (99) and establishes an artistic manner of being-in-the-world (100) marked by an attitude of Gelassenheit. In Rilke’s words, “we basically just have to be [dazusein], but simply, devoutly [inständig], the way the earth is [da ist], and gives her consent to the seasons, bright and dark and whole in space, not asking [verlangend] to rest upon anything other than the net of influences and forces in which the stars feel secure” (102). Thus, Gelassenheit allows the disclosure of the natural world in a manner that can be seen as an alternative to the “domination” of Nature: not a constitution of the object by a subject, but a co-presence in which both are seeing and seen, active and passive (105).

Another aspect of this artistic attitude is, according to Rilke, “poverty”, regarded as “a disposition or mood of non-possession, openness, and trust” (105), but also “impartiality”, which, according to Fischer, is a “necessary condition for the possibility of a truthful vision of things . . . . the demand on the artist to transcend habitual and conventional sympathies and antipathies. . . . The artist’s manner of seeing should transcend ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes.’ It should let things show themselves from themselves without distorting them with emotional reactions and conventional responses” (107).

Cultivating this attitude allows transcending an aesthetics of the beautiful, abandoning prejudices about what should be regarded as beautiful, as well as common attraction / disgust (109). For the person cultivating this attitude, what is, is – no matter how horrible and disgusting it may seem; one has to learn to perceive each thing, no matter how it would seem to one, not turning one’s back towards anything. This existential openness has to be towards any thing – otherwise no thing would be really disclosed (110). An attitude of acceptance without discrimination, without preferences and aversion, that, becoming habitual, is the ground for a practice of seeing from which the artist draws his or her inspiration, no longer depending on its ebb and flow (113).

Next, Fischer explores the manner in which this kind of vision is exemplified in Rodin’s and Cézanne’s modus operandi. For Rodin, the basic aspect is “the perception of three-dimensional form in terms of a dynamic and expressive interrelation of surfaces” (117), studying the model “through observation and drawing” (119), with a non-objectifying, yet objective gaze that allows the disclosure of the thing’s invisible (120-123). The artist’s gaze identifies the essential / invisible manifested in what she observes and, in her work, attempts a new expression of this invisible, eliminating every contingent feature of the model that does not express it (127). “The task of the artist is not to copy the visible, but to make the invisible more visible than it is otherwise . . . the creation of the work of art . . . can be conceived as the creation of the more perfect body” (128); “Rodin transfers the essential features of the model into the sculpture, such that the essence (Wesen) of the original comes to manifestation in the sculpture itself” (131); “The process of composition involves divining the invisible, which comes to partial expression in the thing, and composing a form (the work of art) which is a more perfect sensible manifestation of the same invisible” (134). Even when it is fragmentary, the work of art is an expressive whole (136-141), disclosing the thing and transforming the one who sees it (cf. Archaischer Torso Apollos).

Cézanne expresses the same manner of seeing. “Cézanne would suspend all habits of thought – scientific and everyday – and attune his gaze entirely to the play and gradations of color, to sensations of color” (144). Thus, “the devoted outwardly turned gaze leads to the discovery of an inexhaustible interior. An interior or invisible is revealed through a deep attentiveness to the exterior or visible” (145).

Or, in Cézanne’s own words, “[h]is [the artist’s] whole aim must be silence. He must silence all the voices of prejudice within him, he must forget, forget, be silent, become a perfect echo. And then the entire landscape will engrave itself on the sensitive plate of his being . . . I become sharply, overwhelmingly aware of colour gradations. I feel as if I’m saturated by all the shades of the infinite. At that moment I and my picture are one . . . I come face to face with my motif; I lose myself in it. My thoughts wander lazily. The sun penetrates my skin dully, like a distant friend, warming, fertilizing my laziness, and together we germinate . . . Only with nightfall can I withdraw my eyes from the earth, from this corner of the earth with which I’ve merged.” (147).

If Rodin is often metaphorical / allegorical, the task that Cézanne takes upon himself is that of articulating the thing in front of him – whose transposition on the canvas he calls réalisation. According to Fischer, Rilke tried to accomplish the same task, calling it sachliches Sagen (151): a work of art that would bring the thing itself in its facticity in front of the addressee’s eyes, based on the attitude of impartiality the artist cultivates and from her attention towards how it is disclosed. This kind of expression overflows the possibilities of a conceptual articulation of the thing (154).

In the third chapter, after the preparative work of the previous chapters, Fischer spells out Rilke’s practice and vision from which the Neue Gedichte spring. The chapter’s title, Rilke as Seer: A Twofold Vision of Nature, occasions a series of reflections on the sense in which Rilke can be regarded as a mystic: the tendency towards saying the ineffable / seeing the invisible, the assumed influence of authors from mystical traditions, as well as conceiving the artistic attitude in terms derived from the mystical one (172-173).

Fischer treats in the same context the topic of a “seeing” that overcomes the tension between sensible and intelligible – contemplating phenomena as “saturated” (Marion) in an active receptivity (Heidegger / Merleau-Ponty). Even if this “seeing” passes beyond the limits of everyday perception, its tendency toward the “givenness in person” of the invisible and towards experiential certification, not speculation, makes it implicitly phenomenological (175). The desire for contact with the invisible and its experiential attestation that one can notice in Rilke justifies regarding him in the context of mysticism, which, Fischer argues, is “a phenomenological and non-metaphysical approach to the divine” (176).

Describing Rilke’s practice of seeing, based on Rilke’s own confessional texts, Fischer characterizes it as learning a “sitting in front of Nature” similar to the artist’s (177-178), awaiting for the things to “speak” to him – a reversal of intentionality, where the object is the one that discloses itself, “touches” the “seer”. The attitude is not one of forcing this disclosure, but a ”submission”, “listening”, “openness” that does not objectivate – an “active-passivity or passive-activity” (181) that leads to the deeper revelation of intimate, unpredictable aspects of the thing (animal, plant, artistic object, etc.).

Fischer quotes several of Rilke’s letters, where he describes in detail his “field practice” of patiently observing animals, waiting for a revelation of their essence, and the subsequent writing that reflects this experience of seeing the essence – a Wesensschau in which the essence is not separable from appearance (188), in which “the invisible sense arises without precedence from the between of seer and seen” (189). Rilke calls it Einsehen; in his commentary on Rilke’s text, Fischer states that it involves an intimate contact with the essence implicit in what is seen, a participating in it “as though to see simultaneously involved being seen by that which is seen” (193), in which “the gaze of the seer is the opening that suffers, or makes space for, the gaze of things” (193). This kind of gaze allows for an erasure of boundaries, a participating in the Other (193) that has the character of an epiphany and generates a state of “blessedness” (196). The experience is analogous to a unio mystica in which the universe is felt as happening in the seer him- or herself (198), as a Weltinnenraum (198-206). In this context, Fischer claims that “Rilke’s ‘Weltinnenraum’ is not a metaphysical postulate but grounded in his transformed experience of the world, which included the disclosure of an invisible, an interior, that is the interior of things or of the world itself. . . . The only adequate overcoming of dualism lies in an experiential disclosure of the invisible and the visible in their wholeness in each case. I regard ‘Weltinnenraum’ as an attempt to give a name to such a disclosure” (206).

At the end of the chapter, Fischer tries to articulate Rilke’s task of a sachliches Sagen. Based on a seeing in which things are revealed in a twofold manner, without a clear-cut distinction between visible and invisible or interior and exterior, Rilke’s poems are “inspired by the things themselves” (208). In the same way, according to the Rilkean / phenomenological interpretation of Cézanne, “[t]he painting should not portray one’s feelings toward the things, but say the things themselves” (208). Thus, “the poems in their saying of things are organs of vision or insight into the things themselves” (209). This task has deep affinities with phenomenology, especially the variant presented by Heidegger in Sein und Zeit. But, even if the attempt to disclose things in a logos is what they have in common, poetry and philosophy accomplish this in different manners, so Fischer distinguishes between “a poetic phenomenology and a philosophical phenomenology” (211).

In the last pages of the chapter, the author presents some ideas for a philosophically informed literary criticism that would regard the poem as a whole with an excess of meaning and would not reduce it, substitute it with a theoretical / conceptual paraphrase. Instead, it would try “to keep in mental view the site that is opened by the poem itself and to shed reflective light onto the poem without losing its reality in an attempt to translate it into concepts” (213-214), aware that “any sort of criticism will always fall short of the poem. It will always be poor in comparison to the poetic work that it interprets” (225).

This type of work is what Fischer attempts in the fourth chapter, The Neue Gedichte as a Twofold Imagining of Things. He does not try to offer an exhaustive interpretation of the two volumes of Neue Gedichte, but to use the poems as illustrations of the Rilkean practice of seeing / writing.

Fischer begins by arguing for the phenomenological character of the Neue Gedichte, questioned by certain scholars. Thus, one cannot say that Rilke’s vision is Husserlian (although some of the arguments derive from a hasty interpretation of Husserl), but it has affinities with Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty (216-221). In Rilke’s poems, we don’t encounter a reflective description of the Lebenswelt, but a praxis of perception that allows an exceptional disclosure of things (218), an epiphany that does not cease to be also a Wesensschau (219), and thus at least an “analogue” of phenomenology in poetic practice. Nevertheless, it does not explicitly become philosophy, because poetic language, in its concrete and imaginative character, “sticks” to the things and brings to disclosure for the reader “a universal which is the very life of the particular” (224). In his analyses, Fischer attempts to indicate what the poems accomplish for the reader, regarding them not as objects, but as openings towards the things thematized (226).

Fischer insists mostly on Dinggedichte – texts focused on the description of a thing in which the sensible appearance and its meaning are given as an undivided whole (227). As it is the case with Rodin, “Rilke’s poems do not simply re-present things as they are perceived. His poems are artistic compositions, not reports. They conjure for the mind’s eye unfolding events in which every aspect and moment is revealing of the essence or meaning” (230).

Fischer’s interpretation starts from poems that thematize Nature – animals and plants – and it takes into account Uexküll’s influence on Rilke (232-236) and the way the former’s ideas resonate with the latter’s Der Panther (236-242). The analysis of other animal poems show that a “reduction to the essence” in the manner of Rodin facilitates the reader’s perceiving / imagining of the animal’s experience of its Umwelt, as both receptive and active. The poems about plants and other aspects of nature express, too, the same interplay of visible / invisible, inner / outer, where interiority is not simply the subjectivity of the beholder, but revelation of the thing itself (256, 275). Other Dinggedichte, presenting “a particular scene that is expressive of a universal significance”, merge “the sensible and the intelligible in a holistic manner” (278).

The poems that thematize cultural objects, including other works of art, have a special role here. For example, referring to the two poems on Apollo statues, Fischer argues that “ekphrastic poetry can evoke the essence of an artwork more profoundly than conceptual criticism” (287). In his analyses, he is also attentive to the musicality and allusions of the poems, that become “able to ‘attune’ the reader to the world in a certain way” (281), not just to describe. “Ultimately, the diverse poems can be regarded as individuated articulations of Weltinnenraum; they reveal both the broad scope and the specificity of twofold vision” (298).

In the book’s Conclusion, after summarizing the central argument, Fischer generalizes about the relation between poetry and philosophy, mentioning the necessity of a dialogue in which both practices would open themselves to being transformed by the other, but without losing their identity. The Poet as Phenomenologist… itself, explicating the philosophical value of Rilke’s poetry, can contribute to the deepening of this dialogue. The Epilogue regards the relation between philosophy and poetry from the opposite point of view: what philosophy can contribute to the writing of poetry. A philosophical vision can help poetry – an art of the concrete – not to dwell on insignificant details but to present the universal in the particular. As it is the case with Rilke, an implicitly philosophical orientation contributes to the value of the poetic text, without the poet becoming a philosopher, or poetry – philosophy.

* * *

Finally, I would like to make a couple of analogies.

First, the attitude towards phenomenology illustrated by Fischer’s book has some common points with what one could call the “praxical turn” of phenomenology, exemplified by Lester Embree or Natalie Depraz – an attempt to go back to “doing phenomenology” as a praxis that the philosopher cultivates by dealing with the “things themselves”. The praxis of seeing / composition that Fischer examines in detail through the example of Rilke, Rodin, and Cézanne can be tried, at least as an exercise, by the phenomenologist. In visual arts, similar practices – geared towards “learning to see” – were developed and popularized in the last decades (for example, the so-called Zen Drawing, advocated in the last years by Michelle Dujardin, that involves closely observing an object and “transcribing” it on a sheet of paper using blind contour drawing in an attempt to faithfully record one’s perception of it).

The second aspect I would like to mention is the tendency of certain phenomenologically disposed philosophers to write monographs in which they analyze one of their favorite poets as having a family resemblance with phenomenology. A good example would be Simon Critchley’s monograph on Wallace Stevens – Things Merely Are. Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens (Routledge, 2005). What makes The Poet as Phenomenologist… special in this context is that Fischer is a published poet and is able to analyze Rilke’s poetry from the perspective of someone with a first-hand familiarity with poetic craft. Arguably, previous exercise in an artistic practice (visual or verbal) can “train” the phenomenologist’s attention and is transferable in phenomenological writing.

Thus, the analysis of Rilke’s practice and texts in Fischer’s book can also be read as an example – of what can be done at the crossroads of literary criticism and philosophy, and also, possibly, of a practice of seeing / writing that the phenomenologist can adopt.

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