But Kappus’s loneliness was not typical adolescent angst; it had led him to the brink of self-annihilation. In moments of despair, he wrote to Rilke, “All my footsteps feel like walking in quicksand, I feel like I’m choking at every moment. I’m so lonely that it’s like death might suddenly overpower me.” He confessed that he had been “twice tempted” to end his life.
In Rilke’s first letter, when he asked Kappus to contemplate whether he would die if he could not write, it sounded like a thought experiment. Nine months later, Kappus was telling Rilke that self-destruction had been a very literal possibility. Knowing this, Rilke’s advice can sound astonishingly unfeeling, even reckless, in its dogmatic insistence. “Almost everyone has moments when they would so much rather trade [loneliness] for a feeling of community,” he wrote. “But maybe these are precisely the moments when loneliness grows, for its growing is painful, like a boy’s, and sad, like the start of spring. Don’t let that fool you. What we need, after all, is only: solitude, a vast inner solitude.”
Rilke wrote this letter in late 1903, from a cottage at the Villa Strohl-Fern, an artists’ colony on the outskirts of Rome. There, according to his biographer Ralph Freedman, “Rilke became more and more of a recluse.” His wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, had her own cottage at the villa; the two maintained their distance. The “vast inner solitude” that Rilke urged on Kappus was not, in other words, something to which he had been resigned but instead a life that he had carefully cultivated. It was among the preconditions that allowed Rilke to break loose from a brief period of artistic stagnation and write “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” That poem’s hero, as in the Ovidian myth, is granted passage, by the beauty of his singing, to the underworld to retrieve his dead lover. Looking back at her on their ascent—giving in to his desire for companionship—would make her vanish. Worse yet, Rilke seems to imply, it would spoil his song.
Kappus did not know if he was truly a poet, but his correspondence with Rilke could make his lonely life feel like poetry. Receiving these letters, Kappus wrote, felt like being summoned into another world: “When I think that all these unsayable, marvelous, beautiful things you’ve entrusted to me are meant for me alone—that you find me worthy of sharing in these riches, meant only for the few, the solitary—I feel very proud.” There’s a magical kind of logic at work here, whereby receiving Rilke’s attention somehow also confers the glowing light of his art. To be included within the reaches of someone else’s fame was to reconsider the boundaries of the self: Kappus’s future might have been unknown, but he no longer was.
Did Rilke and Kappus’s correspondence really create such a connection? “Writing letters,” Franz Kafka once complained (in a letter) to Milena Jesenská, his Czech translator and the object of his tortured love, “is actually an intercourse with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing.” In a letter, a version of yourself has to be pinned to the paper, made into something that can fit inside an envelope. Because of the inevitable delays of the mail, the self that finally reaches its recipient will bear only a spectral relation to the self that you have meanwhile become. And when their letter arrives, in response to yours, the lags compound. Ghosts commingle in the mail, and all the while actual correspondents remain painfully out of touch.
For Kafka, this doomed the project of immediacy—“How did people ever get the idea they could communicate by letter!”—but for Rilke and Kappus it was an essential feature of letter writing’s occult technology. “So much has to happen,” Rilke warned Kappus, in his second letter, “has to go right, a whole constellation of circumstances has to be in place, for anyone to actually advise, much less help, another person.” They were in many ways out of synch, misaligned. But, precisely because their letters produced so many ghostly selves, they made it possible for Rilke and Kappus to meet in a higher realm. The constellations we see in the night sky have, after all, been formed by light sent from vastly distant points in space and time.
In his introduction to the 1929 edition of the letters, Kappus told the story of how he had come to write to Rilke in the first place. One autumn day, he had been reading Rilke’s poems in the garden of his military academy, when the chaplain walked by and spotted the volume; Rilke, it turned out, had also been a cadet. When Kappus wrote to him, the older poet might have imagined that he was being contacted by the self he’d left behind. Kappus, for his part, found the story of the transformation of a “pale, skinny boy” into the man whose poems he revered a kind of miracle—and one that portended a similar transformation for himself.
“What we call fate,” Rilke wrote to Kappus, “emerges from out of the person, it doesn’t impinge on the person from without.” Was he offering advice or merely describing a future that he was already living—and for which Kappus, if he could answer yes, might be bound? “The future is stationary,” Rilke wrote. “It is we who are moving in infinite space.” There’s something frightening about being addressed in this way, about being told that your future lurks within you, but that you will have become a different person once it has emerged. This is a strange way to imagine the flow of time—and the new edition of letters helps to make its disorder visible. In his translation, Damion Searls has decided not to interleave the correspondence. Instead, he prints Kappus’s letters at the back of the book, as though they make up an appendix. A curious effect of that editorial decision is to make the letters from the young poet feel as though they’ve been added after the fact—almost as though Kappus’s letters had been fabricated to complete the constellation begun by Rilke’s responses.
In a sense, I think, they were. What Kappus was learning was not how to be like Rilke but instead how to be like the person whom Rilke was addressing: how to recognize the recipient of Rilke’s letters as the man he might become. In May, 1904, on Kappus’s twenty-first birthday, he received his seventh letter from Rilke. Surrounded by family and friends—the people whose company could not fill the void he felt—the envelope arrived as if from another world. It contained a surprise. Kappus had sent Rilke another poem, a sonnet full of adolescent longing—and this time Rilke had responded. He told him it was the best poem that Kappus had shared so far. Then he copied it out, word for word, and sent it back. Why? “Because I know that it is important, it is a new experience, to rediscover one’s own work in someone else’s handwriting,” Rilke wrote. “Read the lines as though they were someone else’s and you will feel deep inside how much they are yours.”
Rilke’s act of transcription captures something crucial about the nature of letters. When we correspond by mail, the words we get to keep are the words of the other—not our own. Near the end of his life, Kappus added a new explanation for why his own letters were superfluous: “The reader learns more about the recipient from Rilke’s letters than from the letters he wrote himself.” These were the letters that Kappus had held on to for decades; for him, they were the most enduring archive of his inner life. We might find something distressing in this willing assumption of someone else’s narrative of our lives. And yet, Kappus’s correspondence has something else to teach us, something fundamental and unnerving about what self-creation often entails: to change your life, you may have to invite its destruction.
A decade after receiving Kappus’s first letter, Rilke began to write the poems commonly thought of as his greatest, “The Duino Elegies.” (A new translation, by Alfred Corn, was published in April.) Those are the poems, even more than the letters to Kappus, that I remember reading when I was seventeen. I was, obviously, lovelorn. I had written her a letter, and, in the quiet hours of the summer, waiting for what increasingly seemed like a response that wasn’t coming, I discovered that Rilke’s poems, in Stephen Mitchell’s translations, were writing back to me. By that I mean not simply that the lines offered wisdom that was keyed to my (all-too-common) predicament, but rather that, as I read, my ordinary, incoherent life seemed artfully arranged there on the page ahead of me, point by suddenly luminous point. The poems were reading my mind and reflecting it back as someone else’s poetry. Was I that someone else? My edition is full of the startled pencilled underlinings of that summer. I remember waking from a dream one night and feeling like the space around me was electric, charged with strange new words.
Those words came to Rilke out of nowhere. In January, 1912, he had been nearing a crisis in his mental life, cut off from his ability to write poetry, and considering entering psychoanalysis. He had been invited by Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis to stay at her castle in Duino, Italy, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. According to her memoirs, Rilke was pacing in front of the house during a violent storm one day, thinking about a letter that he had to write. As if from the wind itself, Rilke heard the lines that began his “First Elegy”: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / hierarchies?” It’s a strange story, even as myths of poetic origin go. The wind spoke to Rilke, but it also spoke for him, throwing its voice into his body.
When Kappus wrote to Rilke, he may as well have been asking the same question. Who, if he cried out, would hear him? From where Kappus received his letters, Rilke did seem an angel, a messenger with divine power. To allow himself to be written into existence by Rilke, to be told that he was something, he would first have to submit to a kind of erasure.
In “The First Elegy,” Rilke describes a similar crisis. He would, he realized, have to risk his life in order to go on living: “For beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, / and we are so awed because it serenely disdains / to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.” In Duino, when the wind began to scream, Rilke muttered aloud, “What is that? What is coming?” The answer was one that he had already written to Kappus. It was the future toward which he was moving; it was coming from inside him; it held in its days both his life and his death.