Archaic Torso of Apollo,
after Rainer Maria Rilke (my translation)
We’ll never know his unheard-of head,
where the apples of his eyes ripened. But
his torso glows like a lamp;
his gaze, now shuttered,
remains, beaming. If not, the curve
of his breast would not dazzle you now, and in the slight
swivel of his hips, a smile could not
alight on that fertile center.
Or this stone would stand defaced, squat,
with veiled and sunken shoulders,
not this flickering fur for a beast of prey;
and would not sing from every edge
like a star: here, there is no place
which does not see you. You must change your life.
Archaischer Torso Apollos,
Rainer Maria Rilke
Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,
sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.
Sonst stünde dieser Stein enstellt und kurz
unter der Shultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;
und brächte nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.
The past few days have brought a lot of thinking about the idea of change, and how difficult real change appears to be. The poem by Rilke kept coming to mind. The best way of engaging with a poem is often to try to translate it, so I did. This translation is very sketchy, but it’s a start.
The poem is one of the most demanding works of art I know. It makes a beautiful, seamless transition from describing something — the infinite demands placed on us by art and history, incarnate in a Greek torso fragment of Apollo — into actually being the thing it describes.
It transfers the demand through the statue onto the reader. The headless, sexless torso of Apollo, with its connotations of mindlessness and impotence, becomes whole again, art turns it into a whole thing that addresses itself in full to the reader. It’s a mindbending little reversal. The Greeks used to speak often about art’s power to make the dead things speak, the orphic quality of art (after Orpheus, who almost, but not quite, sang his wife back to life). That’s what’s happening here.
(This infinite demand made by the meeting of the self and the other is a major theme in philosophy, particularly Christian philosophy and a lot of modern ethics. If you want to delve deeper, check out Emmanuel Levinas.)
Rilke uses the torso to show us that there is a way of looking at ourselves in a decentered — there’s that word again — way. Looked at from outside our small and close concerns, looked on or seen, in a sense, by the eyes of history, by the perfection of art, by the certainty — represented in the statue — that one day your life will be left in ruined fragments, to be studied as a single thing by those who come after us. Your life, seen sub specie aeternitatis.
As Wittgenstein, apparently, puts it in a notebook: “The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis; and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis. This is the connection between art and ethics.”
The poem is right. I want, I need to change my life. Life as a whole demands it. Here, there is no place that does not see you. But actual change, meaningful change, is the most painful of things. A cutting. For the rhyme, I wanted to end the poem in this way, but it isn’t really true to the text:
It would not sing like a star,
from every edge a knife:
Every place here sees you from afar.
You must change your life.