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is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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In Which Just Saying It Could Even Make It Happen

Almost Divine


Alice in the Cities
dir. Wim Wenders
110 minutes

Philip Winter is stricken with writer's block. Having missed his magazine deadline, he sells his car to a garage in Queens, bringing to a close his failed American road trip. Nearby an organ ushers us through a pan of Shea Stadium on a clear day and eventually settles on the organist, an elderly woman with cat-eye glasses and a sedate smile.

This scene near the start of Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities, isn’t extraordinary. In fact there is something remarkably untouched about it, as if it were cut from a reel of lost documentary footage. The camera's surveying sweep and soft focus appears infinite yet arbitrary, as though the movie might turn on itself entirely and follow a trail of summer vestiges instead: colossal cranes at a downtown construction site; teenagers on the boardwalk; an overcrowded public pool and the patter of kids racing to the diving board, oblivious to the lifeguard's warning whistles.

In road movies these tangents acknowledge the necessary — stops for food, sleep, an empty gas tank — but also salute those fugitive, sometimes beguiling pockets of prosaic realism; a young boy bicycling alongside a stranger's car, peddling fast to keep up, or another child, in another city, leaning against a café jukebox and humming along tunelessly to "Psychotic Reaction." As long as there is road ahead, digressions like these last two, collect, and the push to keep moving abides.

But momentum isn't pure motion; it's also the power that inhabits a moving object. Meet Alice (Yella Rottländer), a nine-year-old girl who Philip (Rüdiger Vogler) is forced to care for while her mother, Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer), disappears for a few days. With nothing more than a photograph of her grandmother's home in Germany, Alice and Philip return to Europe and set out to find the house. In this odyssey, the capricious and improbable nature of their relationship--largely buoyed by Alice's intuitive silence and gamine stomp — outdoes the possibility of threat. Instead, their shared withdrawal and homelessness induces a sense of fantasy.

In one scene Phillip concedes and deposits Alice at the local police station in Wuppertal. In vintage Wenders design — serendipitous Americana souvenir — he attends a Chuck Berry concert in the same German city. The event is surreal. The departure is loud and electric, and resembles a dream. But once the show is over, as if waking from this dream, Alice reappears at Winter's car door. Though their reunion is expected, the way in which it materializes is almost divine. Like the Polaroids that Winter compulsively takes, she too 'develops' promptly and somewhat eerily.

There are two types of precocious girls that exist in film. The first being more patent, cherubic and dovelike, who parades her show business smile and displays a homespun sense of superiority towards adults. Her accessories? Germane. A balloon, a hula hoop, a gold fish, a letter from a dead father, a loose ribbon in her hair that she might later tie around a boy's wrist. This girl asks questions about morals, her mother's first time, and local, unsolved murder mysteries. We won't wonder about her once the movie is over.

And then there are girls like Alice. Agile around adults yet slightly departed. Breathless. She sort of knows what's going on in the next room; she is suspicious of sex. She is clever but not cheeky and her affections might be confused as indifference. We envy her retroactively, hope to win her approval, and wonder about her adolescence: in love for the first time, she'll appear disenchanted; corruptible and sometimes curt, she'll still wear the same ALASKA varsity jacket from childhood. We imagine her in the future as slightly inelegant, a fast runner, whip-smart, warmhearted but impatient. Alice's gestures anticipate a later self rather than entertain a temporary quirk or tap dance.

For Philip, she offers something foreign, or at the very least, forgotten: the dewy and resolute charges of childhood. Alienated by the American landscape, Winter meets Alice at a particularly lonely time in his life. "Not one picture leaves you in peace," he announces near the beginning as he considers the lifelessness of his Polaroids — a rest stop like any rest stop; the framed ashen fragment of a nameless beach. But Alice does not fill this void, she joins it.

At first their exchanges are limited and take on a Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, incoherence. Later he takes a Polaroid of Alice as they ride the ferry. As it develops, Winter's worn-out reflection appears on the photograph. A barefaced metaphor, this image does however band with the movie's larger influence. While some films wonderfully entertain and distract, and offer immediate familiarity, humor, distress, fear, or romance, others impart mood and psychic moments of recognition that inexplicably resonate despite foreign intrigue, foreign relationships, humiliation and heartache. Instead of happening to you, these movies chime in and out with discerning reciprocity.

Less involved with choice, Alice in the Cities patiently imparts emotion to inaction. Stillness, like Philip slowly unplugging the bathtub with his toe, is who we are when our emotions no longer have dramatic gestures or words. Delay, dissatisfaction: these sensations cannot be seized in one cartoonish sigh. These sensations exist uninterrupted. Like Alice, slouched in the passenger seat, as if her entire self might stem from the center of her wilted torso. When I see it, I will know, she repeats to Philip as they drive up and down Wuppertal's gangly streets. Her certainty tolls, and we believe her.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here

"Everything Trying" - Damien Jurado (mp3)

"Dimes" - Damien Jurado (mp3)

"Sorry Is For You" - Damien Jurado (mp3)


In Which We Try To Discern What Condition Our Condition Is In

Not Ungrateful


"She won't make it," Ahmed Abdullah, an elderly bodega cashier, told me. "No way. They never do." He made Hurricane Irene sound like a clueless Southern lounge singer with Broadway aspirations.

An early drinker entered the store, contorted and hungover. He looked worried: "Why are there so many people outside?"

Abdullah peered down at him: "Don't you watch the news, man? The mayor says a hurricane is going to hit New York City tonight."

"Oh, that shit," the customer said. "I heard about that shit. Don't believe it. They just want people to buy stuff."

"I know!" Abdullah said.

"Or maybe they want to install some secret shit in the tunnel to monitor people."

The mayor was on television telling people to "get out"; the New York Post's cover page bolstered his argument with a close-up of Irene "Zeroing in on New York City!" Very few of the people still in town on Saturday seemed to believe the dire predictions. (Next time, one assumes, even less people will evacuate voluntarily.) Instead many felt entitled to make predictions of their own. The most popular and safe answer: "it's not gonna be as bad as they say it is." A Bangladeshi cabdriver told me that the predicted wind speeds were "a joke" compared to the ones which with he was acquainted from monsoon season at home. Overnight it seemed like almost everyone had acquired a rudimentary knowledge of hurricanes.

There was a lively public discussion on the streets between strangers small talk about the weather. With the storm approaching, even the most disparate residents had something in common a condition. The notion of a hurricane hitting the city sounded implausible to most everyone I spoke to, like that much nature couldn't logically establish itself in the big city, like our civilization was too dense for Irene's winds to penetrate. New York confers a claim to toughness. Bloomberg may have insulted that self-perception with his nannyish evacuation advice: "Staying behind is dangerous."

"They shouldn't tell us to evacuate our homes," Albert Consero, a plumber, told me. "Who's gonna clean all that up?" The Daily News captured a classic New York riposte from a family in Coney Island (a grade A flood-zone) doing exactly the opposite of what they were being told: "We'll come out here anyway - we're New Yorkers," crowed Nelson Rolon, 50, of the Bronx, who brought his girlfriend, Tanya Rios, 30, and their daughter, Suehaley, 9, to the beach. "We're like the mailman; no matter what, we're out here."

By Saturday afternoon most evacuees had fled, leaving only those who couldn't afford to flee, those who didn't know the storm was coming, those who wanted to witness the storm and storm skeptics, on the streets of South Williamsburg. As shops neared closing time, the neighborhood went on a final crazed shopping spree. By then the air was humid and smelled of damp pennies, and the sky looked grey and swampy (everything seems ominous when a catastrophic storm is looming). Inside Food Bazaar, an extensive supermarket at the intersection of Broadway and Manhattan Ave, locals stocked up for what appeared to be a nuclear holocaust. The check-out lines reached around the store. Full shopping carts produced miniature traffic jams. Outside, people dashed to buy flashlights, dashed home pushing shopping carts the size of dumpsters.

Then the first rain fell and the streets emptied. I put on my ridiculous rain suit, baggie and black and shapeless, and walked around to research a story on the hurricane (this story).

At 11 p.m., South Williamsburg's streets were largely deserted, except for troupes of ironic twenty-somethings in between hurricane-themed parties, gypsy cabs out to charge hurricane-induced prices, and a segment of the local homeless population, standing in the lights of the few open delis. I spoke to Harold, a Williamsburg native who'd lost his fed-ex job a decade ago for drinking during work hours and since resided outdoors.

"I haven't seen these streets this empty in twenty years, even during the snowstorm last year," he said. I asked him what emptied the streets twenty years ago. "Back then it was always like this," he said. "You'd only see drug dealers and hookers here. Before the white kids moved in. You could get everything."

I asked him if he preferred it now. He snickered at the question. "I'll be honest with you: I liked it more then. It's nicer for girls here today. But for me: much better then. Now you can't even stand anywhere around here anymore without somebody trying to sell you something expensive. Back then you did what you wanted. And you could live here. I had a loft, a big one, right here. 400 dollars!" He looked down the street and smirked. "It's as dark as then, tonight."

Manhattan's squares and shopping miles, empty and dim, were being battered with rain when I arrived shortly after. Here the few remaining pedestrians moved faster than in Brooklyn. In Chinatown, I saw the personnel of a dumpling spot dart out of its doors, wearing makeshift rain suits composed of garbage bags; on the LES I witnessed a man holding his chihuahua to his chest, under his umbrella, and begging him to pee. Nearby, in Washington Square park, a squadron of aspiring hipsters rolled around singing predictably "It's Raining Men" in their gym clothes.

One of the drunker exemplars, Josephine Baker, 22, complained about the storm's laxity. "Irene's been a bit of a disappointment, so far, I'm not gonna lie. I hope it gets better." She'd come outside for the 12 foot waves she'd heard about on television, equipped with an ironic but very real boogie board. Her boyfriend wore armbands. They all rallied for whiskey shots, toasted with a chorus of boos aimed, presumably, at the gods.

But they wouldn't be tempted. Walking around at 3 a.m. I couldn't help but feel like this amounted to little more than "shitty weather, category 3." The buildings appeared as unimpressed with the storms as its residents. Professionally this was a bit irksome, since I'd walked over to the city to cover the hurricane, to chase ambulances as it were (only to the scene, of course). As a mere resident of the city, however, I was pleased to have nothing to cover. Lower Manhattan was a museum, stocked with life-sized models of its parts. A night tour. No coruscated lights to distract from the buildings. Nothing to consume. Just the city: civilization without its usual discontents.

When the downpour became tedious, I sat under some scaffolding and read over my damp notes. An old range rover pulled up and a man climbed out, and ducked under my scaffold. Like me, he was shrouded in a black bi-laminate suit, but he was significantly taller and thinner. He looked down at me and patted his pockets: "Do you have a lighter?"

His name was Andy. He turned out to be 29, a native of Ireland, a gym instructor, and nine-year resident of Far Rockaway. Asked to evacuate, he'd packed all his clothes in his Range Rover, and driven over to Manhattan to survey the flood situation.

"If a disaster goes down in my city, I want to see it," he said, in between hits of a joint. "It is, after all, a big fucking event." He said he planned to check possible flood points all over the city, until the bridges shut. "Maybe I can get a good overview of the situation, and help the police with intelligence, like."

We drove uptown, ploughing through puddles. Andy started to freak me out a bit when he launched into a monologue about his desire to be on television. Times Square looked to be operating on screensaver. The police pulled us over.

"You shouldn't be on the road," the officer said.

"I'm a trained driver," Andy protested. "And I think I can help you."

"You can help me by staying the fuck off the road," the heavyset mustache responded, with a sense of routine.

Andy and I returned to our previous scaffolding. There he grew increasingly resentful of the system "ungrateful prack!" and burned his hands while trying to heat a can of baked beans with my lighter. The wind howled ever so often but it was only a tease. Andy climbed into his car every few minutes to listen to the news updates on 1010 WINS ("a brilliant station!"). By 6:30 he had lost hope. "This thing is never coming, right?" he said, apparently pleading for positive reinforcement. It was the most personal question he'd ask me that night, and I chose to reassure him. Everything could still go haywire. "I hope so," he said. "I need some excitement!" But it wasn't to come, and I'm glad I wasn't with Andy when he realized this.

I gave up on Irene at 9 a.m. that morning, near Union Square. Bowing to keep rain off my face, I stumbled into a squad of giddy police officers in front of a 24 hour donut store. The sky was drizzling. "Is this it?" I asked a bearded ginger policeman. "Yeah. That was it, kiddo. Soak it up." His colleagues chuckled. A female officer approached me, to offer me a more official line: "they're saying there could still be some strong winds coming up."

Soon the streets of Chelsea were visited by couples with dogs, registering the severed branches, the strewn trash, as if they were a bit embarrassed for Irene, all talk, no bite. As the day progressed, more skeptics sneaked out of their houses, going on short survey walks. By the evening the conversation shifted from Irene's underwhelming performance to the mayor's overreaction. Several interviewees of mine used the term crying wolf, as if it all had been a hoax. If you live in the New York bubble, Irene might as well have been: she made a whole lot of noise down south, but hardly registered on the city's discerning radars.

Leon Dische Becker is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. This is his first appearance in these pages.

Photographs by the author.

"The Man In Me" - David Bazan (mp3)

"The Man In Me" - The Clash (mp3)

"The Man In Me" - Bob Dylan (mp3)


In Which Rodin Distinguishes Himself From Ordinary Things

The Birdlike Ones


Deeply affected by the loss of her infant daughter, René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke’s mother Phia dealt with parts of her grief by dressing her young son in girl’s clothing. As historian Ralph Freedman put it, "on one occasion when he was expecting to be punished the seven-year-old boy made himself into a girl to placate his mother. His long hair done up in braids, his sleeves rolled up to bare his thin, girlish arms, he appeared in his mother’s room. 'Ismene is staying with dear Mama,’ he is quoted as saying. ‘Rene is a no-good. I sent him away. Girls are after all so much nicer.'"

The connections between verse and a feminine sensibility were made uncomfortably explicit by Phia herself, who exposed her son to poetry before he was able to read. A catalog of vivid imagery and language accumulated in his mind, as his mother saturated his childhood with stories of saints’ lives, holy relics, religious art and ardent devotional rhetoric.

His parents separated in 1884. After their divorce they insisted Rilke attend a military academy, which he left in poor health. He wrote,

Someone will tell a story of a child that often forgot to eat because it seemed more important to him to carve cheap wood with a cheap knife, and someone will relate some event of the days of early manhood that contained promise of future greatness – one of those incidents that are intimate and prophetic. 

He was accepted into university and studied literature, art history, and philosophy in Prague and Munich, where he met and fell in love with the sophisticated, articulate and married Lou Andreas-Salome, at whose urging he had his name changed from Rene to what she considered to be the more masculine "Rainer." Rilke traveled with Salome and her husband Friedrich Andreas into Eastern Europe, Bohemia, and Russia.

In 1900 Rilke visited the artists’ colony Worpswede, where he met and wed sculptor Clara Westhoff. The couple’s child Ruth was born at Worpswede, but a year later Rilke traveled to Paris to begin his treatise on Auguste Rodin, to whom he acted as secretary. While in Paris he lived adjacent to Rodin at 77 Rue de Varenne, in the old mansion surrounded by a park which is now the Musee de Rodin. Clara followed soon after, leaving their daughter with her parents. Their efforts at divorce in the coming years were thwarted by the technicalities of Catholicism.

Rilke’s writing on Rodin begins,

It is a life that has lost nothing and has forgotten nothing; a life that has absorbed all things as it passed, for only out of a life such as this, we believe, could have risen such fulness and abundance of work; only such a life as this, in which everything is simultaneous and awake, in which nothing passes unnoticed, could remain young and strong and rise again to such high creations. 

Rodin in 1910

Auguste Rodin was the son of a police department clerk. In his school years, his drawing teacher believed that in order to encourage his students to draw from recollection and with independent vision, the personality should be developed and encouraged before artistic instruction began. Rodin’s sister Maria died of peritonitis, an abdominal infection caused by rupture to a hollow organ, and exacerbated by the flexing of the hips. Rodin was wracked by guilt at the possibility that the suitor to whom he had introduced Maria had been unfaithful.

Consistently denied access to Parisian art academies, Rodin spent his early career earning a living as a craftsman and an architectural ornamenter. Rodin’s sense of interior and surface evolved during the course of his work with goldsmith and animal sculptor Antoine-Louis Bayre, a fine worker in musculature and movement.

The Crying Lion, 1881

Of animals rendered in stone, Rilke writes:

There were small figures, animals particularly, that moved, stretched or curled; and although a bird perched quietly, it contained the element of flight. …There was stillness in the stunted animals that stood to support the cornices of the cathedrals or cowered and cringed beneath the consoles, too inert to bear the weight; and there were dogs and squirrels, wood-peckers and lizards, tortoises, rats and snakes.

Other animals could be found that were born in this petrified environment, without remembrance of a former existence. They were entirely the natives of this erect, rising, steeply ascending world. Over skeleton-like arches they stood in their fanatic meagerness, with mouths open, like those of pigeons; shrieking, for the nearness of the bells had destroyed their hearing. They did not bear their weight where they stood, but stretched themselves and thus helped the stones to rise. The birdlike ones were perched high up on the balustrades, as though they were on their way to other climes, and wanted but to rest a few centuries and look down upon the growing city. Others in the form of dogs were suspended horizontally from the eaves, high up in the air, ready to throw the rainwater out of their jaws that were swollen from vomiting. All had transformed and accommodated themselves to this environment; they had lost nothing of life.  

Rilke has that innate consciousness of internal structure, of the rigid constraints that provide so much of the impetus for creativity, that play a key role in a poet’s work. It is easy to see how his understanding of rhyme might lend itself to that of a gargoyle: of both as ornamental and architecturally functional. 

His muscular prose has no trouble conveying the immense energy contained within these stone creatures, whose appearance is that of halted motion – in physics, of potential. Words regarding Rodin’s later piece Illusion, the Daughter of Ikarus also call to attention the motion found here, this time in bronze and in human form, calling her that dazzling embodiment of a long, helpless fall.

Rodin called Rilke’s finished book, Auguste Rodin, the definitive interpretation of his work. Rilke’s writing on the sculptor is in its essence an act of translation: from visual to written, from one artist to another. It is unsurprising that to Rilke, who wrote with equal ease in his native German and in French, translation came naturally.

The task of the translator is a weighty one: he is bound inextricably by several opposing responsibilities. As only a creative mind is able, he must somehow see past the gleam of the finished product to discern the masonry beneath, and in retracing these steps seek to follow them himself. But translation as a creative effort gives little creative license: the translator has to understand that the tool he uses is not his own; that in his case creativity serves only to aid in the production of a loyal representation of an original. In short, the translator must look deeply into the polished surface of a work without pausing at his own reflection.

The act of translating is a process marked by its tenuous balance between dutiful distance and moments of measured emotional release, at once intimate and bound by the most formal kind of duty and restraint. One must seek, find, and convey something without for a moment claiming it; one must break apart and reconstruct but leave no mark or signature. One must hold with no intention to own.

At that time the war came and Rodin went to Brussels. He modeled some figures for private houses and several of the groups on top of the Bourse, and also the four large corner figures on the monument erected to Loos, City-mayor in the Parc d’Anvers. These were orders which he carried out conscientiously, without allowing his growing personality to speak. His real development took place outside of this; it was compressed into the free hours of the evening and unfolded itself in the solitary stillness of the nights; and he had to bear this division of his energy for years. 

Beginning in 1870, Rodin’s work sat in his workshop, unseen, as he was unable to afford castings. His submissions of models to competitions for sculpture commissions failed but on his own time he began work on St. John the Baptist Preaching. 

And we have that “John” with the eloquent, agitated arms, with the great stride of one who feels another coming after him. This man’s body is not untested: the fires of the desert have scorched him, hunger has racked him, thirst of every kind has tried him. He has come through all and is hardened. The lean, ascetic body is like a wooden handle in which is set the wide fork of the stride. He advances, advances as though all the wide spaces of the world were within him, as if he were apportioning them with his stride. He advances. His arms express it, his fingers are widespread, seeming to make the sign of striding forward in the air. This “John” is the first pedestrian figure in Rodin’s work. Many follow. 

We recall John later on, when Rilke outlines Rodin’s progression from master of the face to master of the body, of the gesture, of surface, and of the step.

When Rodin won the 1880 commission to build a portal for a museum of decorative arts, he begun what were to be four decades of work on Gates of Hell. The museum remained unbuilt and the gates themselves unfinished, but several of the work’s more famous elements include the now-ubiquitous The Thinker and The Kiss. 

Implicit in Rilke’s exploration of Rodin as a reader is the sense that literature and art have a natural relationship and in many cases can share a vocabulary. At times he wrote of literature’s direct, emotional effect on Rodin:

He read for the first time Dante’s Divina Comedia. It was a revelation. The suffering bodies of another generation passed before him. He gazed into a century the garments of which had been torn off; he saw the great and never-to-be-forgotten judgment of a poet on his age. There were pictures that justified him in his ideas; when he read about the weeping feet of Nicholas the Third, he realized that there were such feet, that there was a weeping which was everywhere, over the whole of mankind, and that there were tears that came from all pores. 

At others, he used the vocabulary of plastic arts to illustrate the relationship between sculpture and writing, and the ability of one to communicate the sense of the other:

He gave reality to all the figures and forms of Dante’s dream, lifted them as it were from the stirred depths of his own memory and gave to each in turn the silent deliverance of material existence. Hundreds of figures and groups were thus created. But the movements, which he found in the words of the poet, belonged to another age; they awoke in the creative artist, who restored them to life, the knowledge of thousands of other movements, gestures of appropriation, of loss, of suffering and of resignation which had been evolved in the intervening years, and his tireless hands went on and on beyond the world of the Florentine poet to ever new gestures and figures. 

From Dante he came to Baudelaire. …In this poet’s verses there were passages, standing out prominently, that did not seem to have been written but moulded; words and groups of words that had melted under the glowing touch of the poet; lines that were like reliefs and sonnets that carried like columns with interlaced capitals the burden of a cumulating thought. He felt dimly that this poetic art, where it ended abruptly, bordered on the beginning of another art and that it reached out toward this other art. In Baudelaire he felt the artist who had preceded him, who had not allowed himself to be deluded by faces but who sought bodies in which life was greater, more cruel and more restless...

Later, when as a creator he again touched those realms, their forms rose like memories in his own life, aching and real, and entered into his work as though into a home. 

It seems effortless for the poet to understand the way that words might so energetically produce images and shapes in the mind of the sculptor, perhaps because as a writer his mastery is in putting shape and object to words.

isabelle adjani & gerard depardieu in "Camille Claudel"

Rilke recalls how Rodin’s maturation as an artist followed a series of revelations he experienced as to the nature of surface, of body and of the relationship of the conceptual to the physical. These developments took place around the same time as his drama-filled affair with sculptor and graphic artist Camille Claudel.

While he was working on the Exchange of Brussels, he may have felt that there were no more buildings which admitted of the worth of sculpture as the cathedrals had done, those great magnets of plastic art of past times. Sculpture was a separate thing, as was the easel picture, but it did not require a wall like the picture. It did not even need a roof. It was an object that could exist for itself alone, and it was well to give it entirely the character of a complete thing about which one could walk, and which one could look at from all sides. And yet it had to distinguish itself somehow from other things, the ordinary things which everyone could touch. 

And further,

It must be intercalated in the silent continuance of space and its great laws. It had to be fitted into the space that surrounded it, as into a niche; its certainty, steadiness and loftiness did not spring from its significance but from its harmonious adjustment to its environment.

Of the Danaide, Rilke praises spatial presence: flinging herself from a kneeling position into her flowing hair… it is wonderful to pass slowly round this marble, to follow the long, long way which passes from the full, rich curve of the back to the face losing itself in the stone as if in a great weeping….

He goes on to expand upon Rodin’s development of the body as a medium and as a vehicle to and from ideas.

Rodin knew that, first of all, sculpture depended upon an infallible knowledge of the human body. … Rodin had now discovered the fundamental element of his art;…it was the surface,– this differently great surface, variedly accentuated, accurately measured, out of which everything must rise,– which was from this moment the subject matter of his art. … His art was not built upon a great idea, but upon a minute, conscientious realization, upon the attainable, upon a craft. …With this awakening Rodin’s most individual work began. 

The public’s disdain at Rodin’s early work reflected a culture that, in Rilke’s words,

held to the superficial, cheap and comfortable metier that was satisfied with the more or less skillful repetition of some sanctified appeal. In this environment the head of The Man with the Broken Nose should have roused the storm that did not break out until the occasion of some of the later works of Rodin.

This face had not been touched by life, it had been permeated through and through with it as though an inexorable hand had thrust it into fate and held it there as in the whirlpool of a washing, gnawing torrent.

When one holds and turns this mask in the hand, one is surprised at the continuous change of profiles, none of which is incidental, imagined or indefinite. There is on this head no line, no exaggeration, no contour that Rodin has not seen and willed. One feels that some of the wrinkles came early, others later, that between this and that deep furrow lie years, terrible years.

But this beauty is not the result of the incomparable technique alone. It rises from the feeling of balance and equilibrium in all these moving surfaces, from the knowledge that all these moments of emotion originate and come to an end in the thing itself.  

However great the movement of a sculpture may be, though it spring out of infinite distances, even from the depths of the sky, it must return to itself, the great circle must complete itself, the circle of solitude that encloses a work of art. This is the law which, unwritten, lived in the sculptures of times gone by. Rodin recognized it; he knew that that which gave distinction to a plastic work of art was its complete self-absorption. It must not demand nor expect aught from outside, it should refer to nothing that lay beyond it, see nothing that was not within itself; its environment must lie within its own boundaries.

rodin in 1862, photograph by charles aubryUnlike a portrait, which as children freaked us out because its eyes always seemed to meet our gaze, "the sculptor Leonardo has given to Gioconda that unapproachableness, that movement that turns inward, that look which one cannot catch or meet." Rodin’s studies of the body, of a surface "with infinitely many movements," reflected his new commitment to his medium and to craft, and produced two of his most famous pieces and nods to literary influence, Monument to Victor Hugo and Balzac.

In response to the former, the Times observed in 1909 that "there is some show of reason in the complaint that his conceptions are sometimes unsuited to his medium, and that in such cases they overstrain his vast technical powers." The latter was panned with “there may come a time, and doubtless will come a time, when it will not seem outre to represent a great novelist as a huge comic mask crowning a bathrobe, but even at the present day this statue impresses one as slang."

Monet and Debussy, on the other hand, signed a manifesto in its defense. Rilke too was into it: if The Man With the Broken Nose was proof of Rodin’s mastery of the face, he writes, The Man of Early Times had shown his adeptness at the body and the entry of gesture into Rodin’s work; of John and The Burghers of Calais – with their lean, rough musculature and strikingly directed movement: "setting out on their grievous journey – …all his walking figures seem to be but a preparation for the great, challenging step of Balzac."

Rilke had a rough time in Paris at first. His exposure to and fascination with Rodin’s work eventually contributed to a stylistic overhaul in his poetry. The man who once wrote a short book of letters to God with stunning if intangible subject matter (The Book of Hours) turned now to ideas as concrete as to be titled The Book of Images, and finally, simply, New Poems in 1907. These gemlike poems each stemmed from a discrete idea or image, and yielded markedly physical, visual, and aesthetic works. "The Panther" deals with the gaze, with supple movement and occupation of space, with musculature, physicality, and emotion.

Strong and supple strides around
and back to their beginning come.
A swirling play of power surrounds
a noble will that stands there numb.

This could almost be a continuation of Rilke’s writing on sculpture. In it there are the elements of life; of endurance; of physical representation of self that he alludes to when describing the impossibly lifelike lines etched in face of The Man With the Broken Nose. 

But it is in "Morgue" that Rilke outdoes himself, subtly but definitely, in creating a poem whose nuance is so great, its allusions to creator and created, of seer and seen, of captured life so complex, that it seems inevitable to compare it to a finely-wrought object, a gesture, a step.

They lie here ready, as if we ought to find 
a mission for them — something they’d be told 
was urgent, which might reconcile and bind 
them to each other, even to the cold:

An invitation to a final club, 
an unexpected scrap of paper found 
in one of their pockets. The bored look around 
their mouths, which someone gave a rub,

did not come off, but just got very clean. 
Their beards are waxy, stiffer on the chin, 
trimly agreeing with the warden’s taste.

He wants us to appreciate the scene. 
Beneath the lids, their sight has been replaced 
with rolled-back eyes that dwell on things within.

Isabella Yeager is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She twitters here and tumbls here.

"Book I: X. La cathédrale engloutie (Profondément calme)" - Walter Gieseking (mp3)

"Tell the World" - Vivian Girls (mp3)

"Elephants" - Warpaint (mp3)