Rilke's Russian Encounter and the Transformative Impact on the Poet
Beicken, Peter U
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Russian culture had a pivotal role in the development of Rainer Maria Rilke's poetic perception and evolution. As late as 1922, Rilke emphatically claimed that Russian culture made him into what he is. Decades earlier, during his visits to Russia in 1899 and 1900, Rilke encountered many Russians from different walks of life: writers, artists, intellectuals and ordinary folk. Having immersed himself in the study of Russian language, literature, visual arts and religious ritual, Rilke prepared himself for a most intensive acculturation of Russia as a cultural other. This cultural encounter often has been critiqued as shallow and tainted by the poet's preconceived Western ideas. In contrast, by examining opposing critical views, this study investigates, interdisciplinarily and from the perspective of transculturation, how three central concepts of Rilke - poverty, love, and the artist's role - were substantially transformed by his absorption of Russian cultural and literary discourses. Russia is defined here as a `representational space,' employing Henri Levebvre's concept of geographical space consisting of both physical attributes and imaginary symbols. Using Wilhelm Dilthey's concept of `lived experience', the study approaches Rilke's Russian encounter as a holistic intercultural experience on both conscious and unconscious levels. Incorporating these theoretical aspects into a modified concept of transculturation, the study transcends the question of accuracy of Rilke's Russian depictions so often raised in biographical studies that insist on positivistic factuality. Instead, approached transculturally, Rilke's Russian encounter highlights the transformative changes that the poet's subjective perceptions and poetic development underwent. This is enhanced by the references to and analyses of Rilke's works informed by his Russian encounter. Most significantly, Rilke's transculturation as informed by his transformative Russian encounter generates the development of the concept of a compassionate imagination based on the idea of universal interconnectedness. This fostered Rilke's unique view of the individual as an integral part of a universal unity, by which the individual is considered inherently worthy regardless of limiting attributes such as social class or gender. This perception channeled Rilke's idea that the tragedy of the poor and the root of modern inability to love are to be found in the constant construction of identities imposed on an individual by others. For Rilke, after his Russian encounter, art's purpose was to create awareness of the individual's place in the universal unity.