In 1925, the Austro-German poet Rilke wrote a perfectly cryptic letter to the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. It was a bad time for poets. World War I had scarred Rilke’s soul and the Revolution had scarred Tsvetaeva’s. Beauty itself seemed to lie in the ashes of progress, machines, diesel, the lock step rhythms of an age ruled neither by God nor man, but technology. Rilke lived in Muzot, Switzerland. Marina and her daughter Asya had fled west and Marina was eking out a living as a tutor and translator. This most exquisitely educated of women – her father had been a professor at Moscow University – could not even properly school her own daughter. Too much hunger and cold and dislocation. She tried making peace with the regime that had stolen her soul, but it cound not be. In 1941, after returning home, she would hang herself in exile in Elabuga.
By 1926, Rilke would be dead of leukemia. It is almost tempting to say that his blood was not robust enough for the new age of marches, movements and masses, that the uncontrolled growth the century would witness ravaged his own small body. The bodies of artists and saints hold a lot of meaning. In 1925, he wrote Marina the following prophetic lines, couched in a strange, almost incomprehensible poem:
“We have ceased to live and have instead become survivors.”
This was one of those statements that literally changed my world.