In 1998 I had the pleasure of reviewing Jungian analyst Murray Stein’s wonderful book Transformation: Emergence of the Self, published by Texas A & M., College Station. In this remarkable tour de force he demonstrates how transformations take place in people during periods of deep structural change. Metamorphosis or transformation, Stein asserts, involves a passing over (meta-, trans-) from one form (morph-, forma) into another (7). What passes over, during midlife and after, from a state of unconsciousness into consciousness is the archetype of the Self: the image of wholeness in the human psyche. This is an experience we can all partake in, to greater or lesser degrees, if we know how to cultivate the Self through psychological and spiritual practice. In this brief review I want to focus on what he has to say about Rainer Maria Rilke, as it may be of interest to readers of the Red Room.
Stein says that on the morning of January 20, 1912, while he was taking a walk outside the Duino Castle near Trieste and studying a letter from his lawyer, pertaining to his impending divorce, the poet was suddenly stopped in his tracks when a mysterious voice called out to him: “’Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angles’ hierarchies?” (25, 26). This was the voice of his poetic calling, the voice of his vocation speaking directly to him in a wonderful way. It became the opening line of the first of the Duino Elegies.
Rilke’s transformation, Stein tells us “began on January 20, 1912, and it continued until a second period of intense creativity shook the poet to his foundations in early 1922, when the image suddenly became complete” (26, 27). Stein describes this new image that changed him as the “poet archetype,” or “poet imago,” an image of metamorphosis which was not a “mere social convention... but the realization of a primal human form. The imago is grounded in the self archetype” (27). Stein continues: “In January 1922, almost ten years after the first announcement in the wind at Duino castle, Rilke entered into a period of nearly sleepless poetic creation that extended into February and left behind, as a monument to artistic enterprise and visionary exaltation, the completion of all ten Duino Elegies, as well as, remarkably, The Sonnets to Orpheus, a somewhat lesser companion work. After this intense labor, the butterfly was born and soared to meet the world.... Never before and never again afterwards would the poet be so thoroughly possessed by the Muse as when the text of the remaining Elegies poured from his pen. It was a furious culmination after ten years of waiting, a feverish burst into consciousness of images and thoughts and of a vision that had been waiting for release. (27, 29) When Stein searched for the psychological reasons for Rilke’s writing of the Elegies he found that “a mood of elegiac nostalgia and mourning dominates Rilke’s entire artistic life” (29) Born to “a mother who had recently experienced the death of her only child, a little girl, Rilke had a lifelong sensitivity to what he called the ‘youthful dead’” (29). Stein then goes on to clarify further the relationship between Rilke’s transformational image as an Orpheus and the fundamental structure of affect and feeling that pervaded Rilke’s childhood home. “It is as though the elegy—not as a technical poetic form, but as a fundamental structure of feeling—were an imaginal disc carried in Rilke’s unconscious from the moment of birth. ... His entire poetic oeuvre is, in a sense, a monumental lament” (29). Here Stein ascertains that the function of feeling is as important during midlife transformations as images of vocation are. Such feelings inevitably led Rilke to memories extending beyond the atmosphere surrounding his sister’s death, to the “mythic territory and the history of the Laments” (31). Stein postulates that “Lament is the occasion, the necessary condition for transformation” (28, 29).
To this end, Rilke leads the way: “By the age of forty-seven,” Rilke “had assumed fully the imago of an Orpheus, and he had also become the archetypal lyric poet for the twentieth century” (38). What Stein is describing here is the function of Rilke’s narrative poem to act as a transformer of psychic energy; a radical transformer of an old form into the imago of the poet that he was archetypally meant to be. The function of the Land of the Laments, furthermore, was as a metaphor for Rilke’s transpersonal origins; it acts for readers today as a symbol of creative transformation from which we may each draw deep feeling and inspiration.
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