Hark, how the night grows fluted and hollowed... da Vinci, Duino Elegies, the Kantian sublime

Da Vinci's The Annunciation shows the angel Gabriel speaking the divine will to the Virgin Mary. As the exemplar of Rilke's mother figure, she touches the noumenal and phenomenal worlds, both communing with something sacred beyond and protecting from the terror that lies there. The terror of the eternal, the terror of the night, the seduction of its horror, the sublimity therein. Taking a Kantian notion of the sublime, we are getting close to Rilke's night-time world, growing fluted and hollow. For Kant the sublime had to be overwhelming, but only intimate terror, rather than actually embody it. To be in a situation of real fear or danger would render impossible a true feeling of sublimity, wherein our imagination is subordinated to our supersensible faculty of reason. 

The third stanza gives a distinctly Rilkean sublime, though its universality and eternality are made quite clear. Loved his interior world...that primal forest within... where his tiny birth was already outlived... descended, lovingly, into the older blood... And every terror knew him.... Yes, Horror smiled at him... immemorial sap mounts in our arms... That our interior world has already outlived our personal history, our tiny birth, gives us a sense of the Kantian forest within. Within our faculties, we border a world that transcends our sensuous existence. We can never know it objectively, but we can feel it, sense it. It is terror and delight, the holiest kind of pleasure that moves us into the beyond. We are protected from it in various ways; the safety of childhood, of the mother, who forms a sort of blanket of comfort, whose movements are our most familiar. Too, without courage, we can fear, but it is never a sublime fear, it never reaches, branches out, touches the eternal. That lesser fear is destructive only; it neither liberates us nor extends itself - rather, is an inhibitive loop that weakens our souls, our capacity for movement. It is selfish in its circularity, its single-mindedness. It revolves around us, and us alone. We posit ourselves at the centre of a solar system and are crushed by the burden of our own metaphysical weight. We are Dostoevsky's Underground Man; actionless, neutered. Such a great burden to be the prime focus of the world! And yet, in the sublime we recognise something greater, some transcendent universality, and, at the same time, our place within it, for the experience is ours. Ah, we are liberated from ourselves! We realise that we are not so very important, but that we are sublime; we are freed. 

In the Kantian mathematical sublime, we are overwhelmed by our imagination's inability to comprehend the infinite, though our reason, as a totalising faculty, steps in and allows us to grasp the infinite as a totality, though a kind of unfulfilled one. The fact that we can hold as a totality what is objectively impossible to grasp is an indication of our higher calling as rational beings. We are in touch with both a humanity that is universal and our ability to transcend sensuous experience. The dynamical sublime is the confrontation of nature as might, which gives us a sense of our physical destructibility. As long as we are not in real physical danger, we can feel an overwhelming fear at the power of nature that is not tied to our immediate physical situation but to our concept of our sensible selves as insignificant compared to it. Immediately (or in a kind of whirring oscillation) we seem to sense something higher in ourselves, indeed a kind of humanity, a transcending of the physical world by our supersensible faculty. That we are in touch with some kind of eternal essence, whether (as it was for Kant) God or (for the atheists) a sense of rising above the individual self to feel a part of a universal humanity, indicates a higher vocation, that of our rational moral selves.

Leonardo da Vinci; The Annunciation, c. 1472-5

We sell the thrones of angels.. Bracelli, Emerson

In the deep of the night you open your eyes and you see, against the wall,  a piece of furniture bathed in moonlight. What does it mean, this couch, so lit by the moon? What does it mean that it did not mean before you closed your eyes, or yesterday in the sunlight? It has been changed. Its presence has grown immeasurably. Sitting there, under the window in your slanting walls, it has been chosen to glow. But more than its being chosen, have you been chosen, or, have you chosen; you opened your eyes. Once, if you couldn't sleep, you would shut your eyes and still your thoughts, just as you had stilled your body into a curved, hugging mass. But this night is different and you know it. First, you willed your eyes open, all the while noting that this was out of character. Today a phrase stuck in your head, stuck to the roof of your mouth, the backs of your eyeballs, cloying at your earwax, your nose hairs, refusing to leave your body for the cold, funny air; fear and laziness. Is it possible, you asked yourself, that one could live? That one could choose not to become a mere accident of existence, of time and place? Could what happens to this life, someone's individual and never to be repeated existence - could it really be chosen and not simply left to circumstance? Or chance, habit, culture, convention? Who are these beings to you? Yes, it is possible. 


O blessed Spirit, whom I forsake for these, they are not thou! Every personal consideration that we allow costs us heavenly state. We sell the thrones of angels for a short and turbulent pleasure.

Emerson; Circles (1841)

Giovanni Battista Bracelli; Oddities, c. 1624

A dark and veiled thing; the young soul tells itself...

Caravaggio; St John the Baptist, c. 1604

"None of this is for yourself," the young soul tells itself. No one can build for you the bridge upon which you alone must cross the stream of life, no one but you alone. To be sure, there are countless paths and bridges and demigods that want to carry you through this stream, but only at the price of your self; you would pawn and lose your self. There is one single path in this world on which no one but your can travel. Where does it lead? Do not ask, just take it. Who was it who made the statement: "A man never rises higher than when he does not know where his path may lead him"? †

But how can we find ourselves again? How can the human being get to know himself? He is a dark and veiled thing; and if the hare has seven skins, the human being can shed seven times seventy skins and still not be able to say: "This is really you, this is no longer outer shell." Besides, it is an agonising, dangerous undertaking to dig down into yourself in this way, to force your way by the shortest route down the shaft of your own being. How easy it is to do damage to yourself that no doctor can heal. And moreover, why should it be necessary, since everything - our friendships and enmities, our look and our handshake, our memory and what we forget, our books and our handwriting - bears witness to our being. 

But there is only one way in which this crucial inquiry can be carried out. let the young soul look back on its life with the question: What have you up to now truly loved, what attracted your soul, what dominated it whilst simultaneously making it happy? Place this series of revered objects before you and perhaps their nature and their sequence will reveal to you a law, the fundamental law of your authentic self. Compare these objects, observe how one completes, expands, surpasses, transfigures the others, how they form a stepladder on which until now you have climbed up to yourself; for your true being does not lie deeply hidden within you, but rather immeasurably high above you, or at least above what you commonly take to be your ego. 

† Emerson, in his essay Circles. Found here

Nietzsche; Schopenhauer as Educator (1874)

And why not? A face is a face... Rilke, Sokurov, Nietzsche, Noh

Alexander Sokurov - Hubert Robert; A Fortunate Life (1996)

Slowly, quietly. The smallness of silence pierces the world of noise, of largesse. The bold and fast, whose hurried movements expand and fill the air, leaving no gap, no hollow, no reprieve - are suddenly, quietly pierced. The pure surface of noise is not a sheet, nor a blanket. It does not cover, for it does not leave a hollow, an underneath. It permeates; it is atmosphere. It is in the air, it amplifies itself through vapour, through clouds. It is not broken by the moving interstices of human bodies, but uses them as second skins, stirring over their surfaces and through their bones. Pierced by the quiet, we are stilled. It is only now that we enter. There is not something behind the surface of noise, no special essence. We are terrified, it is infinite. We are in ekstasis, standing outside ourselves. Noise holds and holds in; surrounds, comforts. And yet in silence we are home.

Have I said it before? I am learning to see. Yes, I am beginning. It's still going badly. But I intend to make the most of my time.
For example, it never occurred to me before how many faces there are. There are multitudes of people, but there are so many more faces, because each person has several of them. There are people who wear the same face for years; naturally it wears out, gets dirty, splits at the seams, stretches like gloves worn during a long journey. They are thrifty, uncomplicated people; they never change it, never even have it cleaned. It's good enough, they say, and who can convince them of the contrary? Of course, since they have several faces, you might wonder what they do with the other ones. They keep them in storage. Their children wear them. But sometimes it also happens that their dogs go out wearing them. And why not? A face is a face.
Other people change faces incredibly fast, put on one after another, and wear them out. At first, they think they have an unlimited supply; but when they are barely forty years old they come to their last one. There is, to be sure, something tragic about this. They are not accustomed to taking care of faces; their last one is worn through in a week, has holes in it, is in many places as thin as paper, and then, little by little, the lining shows through, the non-face, and they walk around with that on.
But the woman, the woman: she had completely fallen into herself, forward into her hands. It was on the corner of rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. I began to walk quietly as soon as I saw her. When poor people are thinking, they shouldn't be disturbed. Perhaps their idea will still occur to them.
The street was too empty; its emptiness had gotten bored and pulled my steps out from under my feet and clattered around in them, all over the street, as if they were wooden clogs. The woman sat up, frightened, she pulled out of herself, too quickly, to violently, so that her face was left in her two hands. I could see it lying there: its hollow form. It cost me an indescribable effort to stay with those two hands, not to look at what had been torn out of them. I shuddered to see a face from the inside, but I was much more afraid of that bare flayed head waiting there, faceless.

Rainer Maria Rilke, from the Diary of Malte Laurids Brigge

and yet is lossless doomed to die unchanged... Hildegard the ecstatic and her Weltall

I have seen that certain things be
Willed yet Fate will not consent.
What moods have been sent me are
Nearly-not mine own, but Time's, who
Only holiday in this encrusting flesh.
I'll not challenge and will I'll not
Control blessings that seem as curses,
So allow'd meagre pleasure in the storm.
And be they not moods but questions,
Set me not to them with ink, but as
Hildegard the ecstatic, upon sable wax,
And over various heatings of the soul,
The script will change, so will the gouges
Grow and growéth out with life.

Be not cold, my soul, wanderer of the
Dawn wind, for then the marks ever
Will remain, but decadent, less-life.
Not lost, and yet is lossless doomed
To die unchanged. Warmth is life and
Giveth out some vital moisture to the air.
My soul! By loosing loses not, but grows
Through space and time, and reaching past
The first orb, a head, into that greater
Orb of earth and all, which doth contain
All other souls who pray to, like me,
Be in the world, not out. Out of my head,
In that orb of other heady orbs, will
One day I touch the breath of Other.

 Hildegard von Bingen - Die Weltall (the universe)

Hildegard herself and the tentacles of ecstasy

whole before an immense sky... Bergman, Rilke, Bloom

A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole before an immense sky.

Rainer Maria Rilke

I sometimes suspect that we really do not listen to one
another because Shakespeare's friends and lovers never
quite hear what the other is saying, which is part of the
ironical truth that Shakespeare largely invented us.

Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence

tethered to the stake of the moment; Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, les Amants du Pont Neuf

Bridge scene; Les Amants du Pont Neuf

Anyone who cannot forget the past entirely and set himself down on the threshold of the moment, anyone who cannot stand, without dizziness or fear, on one single point like a victory goddess, will never know what happiness is... All action requires forgetting, just as the existence of all organic things requires not only light, but darkness as well.

Nietzsche, On the Utility and Liability of History

There are seconds, they come only five or six at a time, and you suddenly feel the presence of eternal harmony, fully achieved. It is nothing earthly; not that it's heavenly, but man cannot endure it in his earthly state. One must change physically or die. The feeling is clear and indisputable. As if you suddenly sense the whole of nature and suddenly say: yes, this is true.... If it were longer than five seconds — the soul couldn't endure it and would vanish. In those five seconds I live my life through...

Dostoevsky; Demons

Observe the herd as it grazes past you: it cannot distinguish yesterday from today, leaps about, eats, sleeps, digests, leaps some more, and carries on like this from morning to night and from day to day, tethered by the short leash of its pleasures and displeasures to the stake of the moment, and thus it is neither melancholy nor bored.

nature and her silence startle you... Goethe, Pipilotti Rist

Pipilotti Rist; installation view

We talk far too much. We should talk less and draw more. I personally should like to renounce speech altogether and, like organic Nature, communicate everything I have to say in sketches. That fig tree, this little snake, the cocoon on my window sill quietly awaiting its future - all these are momentous signatures.

A person able to decipher their meaning properly would soon be able to dispense with the written or the spoken word altogether. The more I think of it, there is something futile, mediocre, even (I am tempted to say) foppish about speech. By contrast, how the gravity of Nature and her silence startle you, when you stand face to face with her, undistracted, before a barren ridge or in the desolation of ancient hills.

Goethe c.1800, quoted in Huxley, 1954