The City of Light (and Lunacy)

Rainer Maria Rilke

“I have a notion that, at big fires, a moment of extreme suspense can sometimes occur, when the jets of water slacken off, the firemen no longer climb, no one moves a muscle. Without a sound, a high black wall of masonry cants over up above, the fire blazing behind it, and, without a sound, leans, about to topple. Everyone stands waiting, shoulders tensed, faces drawn in around their eyes, for the terrible crash. That is how the silence is here.”

So says the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his 1910 semi-autobiography, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The topic of his trepidation is the city of Paris, where he stayed for an extended period of time at the opening of the twentieth century as a secretary and pupil to the sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Rilke found the City of Lights to be a dark, disconcerting place -the brighter the light, the deeper the shadow- far removed from the romantic imagery of riverside cafes and the white stainless marble of the Arc de Triomphe and the majesty of Tuileries. From behind the guise of the titular Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke saw a maze-like Paris slick with grease and full of air that reeked of iodoform; the buildings sat in a state of half-collapse (on one, missing an exterior wall, he saw all the wallpaper of various apartments stitched together like a concrete patchwork quilt); trams and other vehicles congested the roads and rang their bells; and citizens with worn, cracked, dirty faces walked to and fro, to and fro, in streams of flesh and rags. The Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, the oldest hospital in the city, fascinated him – “In the days of King Clovis, people were already dying in some of the beds. Now they die in five-hundred and fifty-nine of them. It is a factory production line, of course…” Over all this pell-mell loomed the long dead neck of the Eiffel, a heap of gun-grey metal sticking out of the landscape like a thorn.

Rilke’s reason for staying in Paris was primarily economic, but another reason was that he sought inspiration. A couple of years before his arrival in Paris, he wrote to the famed Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (who he had famously visited in 1899) from Germany, asking time and again for writing tips. Tolstoy’s reply was succinct:


The young poet found himself wandering through Europe in search of something transformational. He arrived in Paris on September 1st 1902, and it was in Rodin, not a writer, not a poet, that he found his inspiration. He wrote to his friend Lou Andreas-Salome, with whom he had visited Tolstoy:

“I still lack the discipline, the being able to work and the being compelled to work, for which I have longed for years. Do I lack the strength? Is my will sick? Is it the dream in me that hinders all action? Days go by and sometimes I hear life passing. And still nothing has happened. Still there is nothing real about me.”

Later, he wrote again to Lou:

“It is becoming apparent to me that I must follow him, Rodin: not in a sculptural reshaping of my creative work, but in the inner disposition of the artistic process; I must learn from him not how to fashion, but deep composure for the sake of the fashioning. I must learn to work, to work, Lou, I am so lacking in that! … Somehow I too must manage to make things; written, not plastic things, realities that proceed from handwork.”

“What inspired him about Rodin was how hard he worked,” noted Robert Hass. “Rilke’s idea of art had been based on the symbolist myth of solitary inspiration, in which an artist was a passive receptor of intimations of large spiritual realities. But Rodin made things, worked hard for long hours with a great concentration of energy.”

Rodin’s approach to art and work would inspire Rilke (“any kind of work delighted him: he worked even during meals,”) but the city itself disquieted him somewhat. His very first impressions were serene. On September 5th, 1902, just four days into Paris, he wrote to his wife Clara, “I went with Rodin into the garden, and we sat down on a bench which looked out wonderfully over Paris. It was still and beautiful.” By New Years Eve of the same year, he wrote to a friend: “I really wanted to tell you about Paris. Dear Otto Modersohn, stick to your country! Paris is a difficult, difficult, anxious city … one must suffer from the cruelty and confusion of the streets and the monstrosity of the gardens, people, and things. To my anguished feeling, Paris has something unspeakably dismaying. It has lost itself utterly, it is tearing like a star off its course towards some dreadful collision. So must the cities have been of which the Bible tells that the wrath of God rose up behind them to overwhelm them and shatter them.”

Paris had fallen in Rilke’s esteem, from a “great city”, to a Sodom or Gomorrah.

“One goes through smells as through many sad rooms… And what people I meet… almost every day: fragments of caryatids on whom the whole pain still lay, the entire structure of pain, under which they were living, slow as tortoises… and under the foot of each day that trod on them, they were enduring like tough beetles… twitching like bits of a big chopped-up fish that is already rotting but still alive… Oh, what kind of a world is that! Pieces, pieces of people, parts of animals, leftovers of things that have been, and everything still agitated, as though driven about helter-skelter in an eerie wind, carried and carrying, falling and overtaking each other as they fall.”

It’s hard to see Rilke’s Paris today. Even with all our high-school lessons about Robespierre’s short, bloody reign, it’s still difficult to comprehend that this was a city that once slaked its thirst for revolution on the blood of the bourgeoisie  before the movement ultimately cannibalised itself, capitalising ‘terror’ along the way. The city’s loose relationship with sanity was most notably announced to the world in the aforementioned Revolutionary Age; later, the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, an eminent expert on neurosis and a teacher to Sigmund Freud, would conduct landmark studies into hypnosis and hysteria at the city’s Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. This hospital originally served Paris as a gunpowder factory, then as a prison for prostitutes, and then a madhouse where, during the revolutionary riots of 1792, it was stormed and twenty-five women were dragged from their cells and massacred outside its doors.  The Hospital’s gardens, according to one lithograph, teemed with those overcome with megalomania, dementia, acute and erotic mania, and melancholia, (modern day patients have included Michael Schumacher, Jacques Chirac, Gérard Depardieu, and the fatally wounded Diana Spencer – we can infer that Salpêtrière’s wards and gardens are now noticeably quieter.) “I am in dread of all these hospitals everywhere,” Rilke wrote. “You suddenly sense that in this vast city there are legions of the sick, armies of the dying, whole populations of the dead.”

“And all these people,” Rilke continued in his letters, “men and women who are in some kind of transition, perhaps from madness to health, or perhaps into madness; all with something infinitely delicate in their faces, a love or knowledge or joy, as if it were a light burning just a little dimly and fitfully, which could surely grow bright once again if only someone were to see and help… but there is no one who does…”

But Paris, during the Second Industrial Revolution, or the so-called Age of Synergy, was host to all manner of visiting visionaries who came, saw, and lost their minds in the jumble. One of Rodin’s lovers, the sculptor and artist Camille Claudel, lost her mind in 1905, destroyed a great deal of her own work, developed a persecution complex and accused Rodin himself of stealing her ideas and even of conspiring to kill her. Eventually, she sequestered herself away from the public, and then spent the last three decades of her life in an asylum.

The young Arthur Rimbaud, nicknamed the “infant Shakespeare.” Rimbaud didn’t find himself maddened by Paris, rather the reverse.

Poet and l’enfant terrible Arthur Rimbaud made Paris his playground in the 1870’s. In addition to teetering around drunk and high, he stripped naked in front of his neighbours; wiped his backside with the inventor Charles Cos’ journals; attempted to stab the journalist and satirist Etienne Carjat with a sword-cane; and, allegedly, ejaculated into the musician Ernest Cabaner’s milk whilst the pianist was out of the room. On his first ever trip to Paris, Rimbaud in fact found himself in trouble the moment his train pulled into the station “Arrested getting off the train,” he wrote to an old teacher in 1870, “for not having a sou and owing the railway thirteen francs.” By 1872 he was playfully writing his return address on letters as ‘Parashit’, giving us some small indication of his feelings regarding the Capital, (though it should be noted that the young Rimbaud displayed an irreverent attitude towards almost everything he encountered.) Still, he found time to appreciate the beauty of the city, though his anecdotes are a strange alchemy of poetic peacefulness, hedonism and frustration:

“Last month, my room in the rue Monsieur-le-Prince looked out on a garden in the lycée Saint-Louis. There were enormous trees under my narrow window. At three in the morning, the candle goes pale: all the birds call out at once in the trees: it’s over. No more work … At five [am], I went down to buy some bread: that’s the time. The workmen are on the move everywhere. For me, it’s time to get drunk in the wine-shops … I don’t see the morning, I don’t sleep, I suffocate. And that’s it.”

Still, Rimbaud fed on the city’s mad energy, and found the countryside intolerable. Whilst visiting the Canton d’Attigny he wrote: “I’m abominably hard up. Not a book, not a bar within range, not one incident in the streets. What a horror the French countryside is.” Rimbaud retired from poetry and literature at the age of twenty, then became a travelling vagabond, a circus traveller, a soldier in the Dutch Colonial Army, a déserteur, a quarry foreman, a trader and a gunrunner. He traded weaponry -and debts- with King Menelik II of Abyssinia (later, Ethiopia), complained about the country, the indigenous tribespeople, the Africans, the English, the French, the European winters, his business partners, his wages, his health. “I’m past thirty,” he said in one letter to his family, “and have had a pretty bad time, and I can’t see that that is going to end, far from it, or at least that it’s going to end by getting any better.” This could have been prophetic: the ex-poet contracted rheumatism and an inflammation in his right leg that caused him incessant pain. “I’ve become a skeleton,” he said, “I scare people. My back is all raw from the bed; I don’t sleep for a minute.” Rimbaud returned to France, and his leg was amputated on the 24th May, 1891. “Death would have been preferable,” he stated, before admitting: “However stupid his existence may be, man still clings to it…”

In 1891, Rimbaud’s sister wrote to their mother: “Here we have a poor boy (Arthur) who is slowly leaving us, his life is a matter of time, a few months perhaps … he weeps over the present in which he suffers cruelly, he takes me in his arms sobbing and shouting and begging me not to abandon him … On waking, he looks out of the window at the sun, which is still shining in a cloudless sky, and begins to weep, saying that never again will he see the sun outside. ‘I shall go under the earth,’ he says to me, ‘and you’ll be walking in the sunshine!’ And that is how it is all day long, a nameless despair, an everlasting lament.”

Rimbaud, wasting away in a Marseilles hospital, dictated one last letter on November 9th, 1891, and died the next day with, as his sister wrote, “all his paralysed, mutilated, dead limbs around him.” He was thirty-seven years old. Probably the most insane thing about Rimbaud was not his European antics and early, incendiary poetic career, but that he gave it all up and without nary an explanation.

Some years after Rimbaud’s demise, and a few years before Rilke’s arrival in Paris, came the Swedish author, painter and playwright, August Strindberg. Strindberg, like Rilke, recorded his experiences in a semi-autobiographical work, written between 1896-7 and ominously titled The Inferno. “There was some talk of putting me into an asylum because of my tragedy,” Strindberg wrote to Friedrich Nietzsche, referring to his 1887 blasphemous work, The Father (the correspondence between the two writers would come to an abrupt close in 1889 when Nietzsche, of course, lost his mind). The content of The Inferno seems like an appeal to be sectioned.

According to this work, Strindberg spent his time in Paris, also like Rilke, as a tortured, aimless flâneur, and his experiences were marred by paranoia, hallucinations, misogyny, misanthropy, and quixoticism. What Carl Jung would simply term synchronicity (or most of us would dismiss as coincidence) Strindberg saw as either divine or infernal intervention. There were ‘Powers’ at work, diverting or driving his destiny from beyond the thin curtain of reality. At first these coincidences, or interventions, were benign. He frequently saw his initials, and those of his absent wife, inscribed or painted on walls and gates. Later, he reads a work by Mathieu Orfila, in which he suspects he has found the key to “lay[ing] down the formula for sulphur,” (at this time, Strindberg is striving to become an accomplished alchemist.) Later, in a churchyard at Montparnasse, he stumbles upon a statue of Orfila, and then, “a week later, passing through the Rue d’Assas, I stop to admire a house which looks like a convent. A large shield on the wall informs me that it is ‘Hotel Orfila’. Again and again, Orfila!”

August Strindberg, circa 1891.  Amateur alchemist. "I haven't a sou left, and my tobocca and postage stamps run out. Then I rally my willpower for a last attempt: I will make gold ... I manage to borrow some money and procure the necessary apparatus: an oven, smelting-saucepans, wood-coals, bellows, and tongs. The heat is terrific and, like a workman in a smithy, I sweat before the open fire, stripped to the waits. But sparrows have built their nests in the chimney, and smoke pours out of it and into the room."

August Strindberg, circa 1891. Amateur alchemist. “I haven’t a sou left, and my tobacco and postage stamps run out. Then I rally my willpower for a last attempt: I will make gold … I manage to borrow some money and procure the necessary apparatus: an oven, smelting-saucepans, wood-coals, bellows, and tongs. The heat is terrific and, like a workman in a smithy, I sweat before the open fire, stripped to the waist. But sparrows have built their nests in the chimney, and smoke pours out of it and into the room … not a grain of gold is there, and I give up my effort.”

Later delusions were slightly more antagonistic: Stindberg imagines that an American artist friend is in fact a doctor who has fled the United States, and seeks to catch him out. An old rival comes to Paris solely to destroy him. He visits another old friend who Strindberg has inadvertently slated in one of his books and, persecution complex and paranoia in full sway, he imagines that this friend is out to “interfere with my destiny.” This friend’s brother and sister later lose their minds and, a year later, the brother kills himself – to which Strindberg can only gloat: “three distinct blows descended on the head of this man who had wished to play with lightning.” Again in Paris, he sees the shape of Napoleon and his marshals forming on the cupolas and cornices of buildings. A cushion in his room takes on the appearance of a sculpted head.

One evening, upon returning home, “I discover in the half-shadow of the alcove where my bed is, what looks like a gigantic Zeus reposing on it.” At another point, when walking through a town on the outskirts of Paris, he comes across, in an alley, a suited knight, sessile and protruding from the ground. This knight points out to Strindberg more elemental properties to aid him in his alchemy.

All of this from a man who claimed that “I have never been plagued by visions,” but who then bookends such a statement by describing his many visions of historical figures, dreaded associates, and even demons – by the point the latter appears, Strindberg is so assaulted by visions that he can no longer be surprised: “I am greeted on my return by a mediaeval demon, a devil with a horned head and other appurtenances. I was not at all frightened; it looked so natural…”

“I edify myself by reading The Book of Job, and arrive at an ever clearer conviction that the Eternal has handed me over to Satan to be tried. This thought comforts me again, and suffering seems to be a mark of confidence on the part of the Almighty.”

Rilke also spoke of reading the Book of Job within his first few months in Paris. In July 1903 he wrote: “And often before going to sleep, I read the thirtieth chapter in the Book of Job, and it was all true of me, word for word.” The two even shared anxiety over their hotel neighbours. Strindberg wrote in The Inferno:

“My curiosity is aroused by a stranger who has taken the room on that side of mine where my writing table is placed. The Unknown never speaks; he appears to be occupied in writing on the other side of the wall which divides us. Curiously enough, whenever I move my chair, he moves his also, and, in general, imitates all my movements as though he wished to annoy me … If I prepare to go to sleep,  he also prepares to go to sleep … when I lie down in bed, I hear him lie down on the bed by my wall. I hear him stretch himself out in parallel to me; he turns  over the pages of a book, then puts out the lamp,breathes loud, turns himself on his side, and goes to sleep. He apparently occupies the rooms on both sides of me, and it is very unpleasant to be beset on two sides at once.

Rilke, in the guise of Brigge, wrote in his Notebooks:

“There is a creature that is perfectly harmless if you set eyes on it; you hardly notice it and quickly forget it. Should it somehow get into your ears unseen, however, it begins to evolve, and hatches, as it were; there have been cases where it made its way into the brain and flourished there, with devastating effect, like the pneumococci in dogs that enter by the nose.
This creature is your neighbour.
Now since I have been living like this in various places, on my own, I have had countless neighbours, above and below, to the right or the left, at times all four at once. I could simply write the history of my neighbours; that would be a life’s work.”

One can almost imagine these three poets -existentialist, libertine, and madman- as neighbours, cell-mates, jammed into the building’s capillaries, their ears to the walls, each one hunched over their writing desks and contemplating and scorning the other…

August Strindberg left Paris and recovered from his lapse of sanity, and his famed and celebrated career continued until his death, presumably from stomach cancer, in 1912.

Arthur Rimbaud, as noted, renounced his vaunted poetic career -and Europe- and fulfilled a variety of roles within a Colonial administration in Africa. After contracting an inflammation in his leg that was later diagnosed as cancer, Rimbaud’s limb was amputated, and he floundered for the short remainder of his life. He died, paralysed and in physical ruin, in 1891. He remains regarded as a boy genius. His epitaph reads, Pray for him.

Rainer Maria Rilke, after the publication of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, wrote his poetic masterpiece, Duino Elegies, which he pieced together between 1912 and 1922. He was visiting Germany when the Great War broke out, and his belongings in Paris were all auctioned off. He was drafted and worked as a clerk in the War Records Office. After the war he returned to his life as a poet. Rilke, who wrote in his Notebooks that “in sanatoriums … people die so readily and with so much gratitude towards their doctors and nurses,” died, open-eyed and in the arms of his doctor, in a sanatorium on December 29th, 1926. The cause of death was leukaemia. His epitaph reads, Rose, oh pure contradiction, delight of being no one’s sleep under so many lids.


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