It’s been a strange sort of day, with sunshine and rain alternating. I’ve been sitting in the breezeway working on a long post for this blog about diversity in science fiction. The topic makes me think about distances, literal and metaphoric, about solitude, about the difficulties of relating to the other, who may be an alien, your next door neighbor, or both. As I’ve been writing, dark has been falling, bringing rain. I love the sound of rain drumming on the roof. It makes me long for samosas and hot tea, and music from the likes of Lata Mangeshkar. But for some reason tonight the rain has brought me a desire for Mahler. So I’ve been playing this youtube video of one of my favorite lieder ever Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. The music is fabulous, soaring, somber. Since I first heard this in a little student flat over two decades ago with my Korean roommate, it has haunted me. It was sung in a remarkable French movie, Le Maitre De Musique. All these years later I find myself humming the melody under my breath at odd moments.
The poem is by Friedrich Ruckert (1788 – 1866), who was a poet and a professor of Oriental Studies at the University of Erlangen. I wish I knew why and how the words came into his mind. I wish I’d studied German enough to be able to directly understand the words. I’d begun an informal study of the language when I was about fifteen. I found a book in a trunk belonging to my parents, called Teach Yourself German. Learning on my own, I didn’t know how to pronounce anything, but theoretically I could order fish for dinner from a German marketplace.
But yes, this song of Mahler’s. It leaves me inarticulate because it reaches a part of me that is beyond words. So the song must speak for itself.
Is there hope for us as a species then, that a poem and music by a couple of dead men from Germany and Austria respectively can mean so much to a middle-aged Indian woman? Perhaps the gap between Self and Other is best bridged through non-verbal communication, through art.
So something odd just happened. I thought I would look for something by Rilke, another dead German-language poet, whose works have always spoken to me, and, randomly searching on the theme of night, I found this site with this poem. Rilke on dark of night, bridging distances with music. Synchronicity, anyone? Is that the ghost of Carl Jung nodding from a corner of my breezeway? Rain, Mahler’s music, poetry. Some nights are like that.
At the Brink of Night
By Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1928)
Translated by James Burnham
My room and this distance
awake upon the darkening land,
are one. I am a string
Stretched across deep
Things are violin bodies
Full of murmuring darkness
Where women’s weeping dreams
Where the rancor of whole generations
Stirs in its sleep…
I should release
my silver vibrations: then
everything below me will live
and whatever strays into things
will seek the light
that falls without end from my dancing tone
into the old abysses
around which heaven swells
through narrow, imploring rifts.
Because translations are what they are, I include another site, which has a different translation as well as the original German.