Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to Young Poet | Conventions & Superficiality | Philosophy Core Concepts



hi this is dr. Gregory Sadler I'm a professor of philosophy and the president and founder of an educational consulting company called reason IO where we put philosophy into practice I've studied and taught philosophy for over 20 years and I find that many people run into difficulties reading classic philosophical texts sometimes it's the way things are said or how the text is structured but the concepts themselves are not always that complicated and that's where I come in to help students and lifelong learners I've been producing longer lecture videos and posting them to youtube many viewers say they find them useful what you're currently watching is part of a new series of shorter videos each of them focused on one core concept from an important philosophical text I hope you find it useful as well one of the key themes in ryoga's letters to a young poet is the dangers of convention of allowing oneself to live a life to engage in relations with others and actions and words that are remaining at a conventional level and this is something that I think is just as relevant today as it was in Rilke zone time perhaps even more so given the proliferation of the internet and you know the ways in which we can reach human beings across the world we cannot get entirely away from convention I mean we're using language to begin with and we can't do something that's totally original because we wouldn't even be able to recognize it as such but convention when it's relied upon as sort of the the basis the criterion for what is valuable for what is authentic what is genuine leads us into some as Rilke is going to talk about it some sterile some lifeless even though there's life there some some fundamentally hemmed-in ways of existing and the other word that he uses quite a bit superficial you know meaning that we stay at the level of the surface and we donut descend into the depths where he thinks the real action of life is not that there is an action on the surface level as well and what's publicly observable but we need to have roots and conventions keep us from having deep roots they have their own little roots that go you know to the surface deep but they can't really withstand anything that goes deeper than that and Rilke talks about conventions in this work in three main areas of life one is in art his interlocutor mr. Campos sends him a poem which Rilke responds to by saying your poem I'm sorry just isn't very good you don't have a style yet you are and he's saying this without saying this in these very words you're kind of conventional you're just at that level as a matter of fact avoid any sort of reliance on you know conventions or tropes or the what you think of poet ought to be doing write about this instead and so that's one main area another that he discusses that considerable length particularly in letter 7 but in also a few other places has to do with sexuality love relations between men and women and Rilke says that there's actually no area that's so conventional as this the area that think about this he's writing this you know a little bit after the turn of the century and he's writing as somebody who's part of the European elite so he's quite liberated person he's writing this as somebody who sees all the possibilities ahead and says yes many of them are actually just new forms of convention don't kid yourself and then finally he talks in letter six about professions or vocations mr. compost is a soldier and Rilke is going give him some advice about the conventions that are involved in that as a matter of fact in his final letter to him he talks about you know his interlocutor he says I'm glad you have that firm sayable existence within you that title that uniform that service all that tangible and limited world with a twitch in such surroundings with such an isolated and not a numerous body of men takes on seriousness and necessity above and beyond the frivolity and mere time passing of the military profession so he's saying you have gone beyond the conventionality that is so dangerous in the profession that you have selected the convention that so many people within your unit probably has to come to so I have several different points that I thought were really relevant that I want to stress coming from different letters one is he talks about this is a really wonderful turn of phrase he talks about conventions being established like public shelters on this most dangerous road and the dangerous road that he's talking about there is love and sexuality and this points toward something quite central to conventions why do we have conventions if they're holding us back why don't we just get rid of them well we do need them as a matter of fact they allow us to you know venture forth a little bit gained a little confidence and then have something we can go back to so think about dating for example write a convention that is you might say under reconfiguration in the days of online dating apps like tinder or you know whatever else you want to bring up Grindr bumblebee that bumblebee bumble all these other plethora of things or you can you know connect with people on Facebook or Instagram or whatever those are just right with conventions people come in with expectations that's why you can have shows about dating where somebody can deconstruct a date and say this one well this didn't go well the criteria that they're using are essentially for the most part conventions right every once in a while you'll see an original moment arise during like holy crap something happened on television that isn't just canned crap but for the most part it's conventions and why do we have these established well somebody put up those shelters and other people take you know residents in them and word gets out and pretty soon you know you have something that people know about we could say the same thing for conversations we could say the same thing for politics we could say the same thing for pretty much anything even cooking you know oh the recipe didn't turn out the right way well there's there's an excuse for that an excuse that you've heard somebody else make so we have these conventions and you know they do serve some sort of purpose but we don't want to just live in a public shelter do we we want to venture out into the wide world and we want to go down as he says this dangerous road so you know he tells us that again with sexuality no area of human experience is so extensively provided with conventions and this one is and then he talks about it with another metaphor there are life preservers of the most varied invention boats and water wings Society has been able to create refuges of every sort for since it preferred to take love life as an amusement it also has to take an easy form cheap safe and sure as public amusements are he's writing this over a century ago but it applies just as well to our own time and we'll come back to this question of Convention and in sexuality in just a moment he also says that every profession or life situation is going to have some sort of convention involved in it right so this is in letter six he tell that you know when you look at adults you realize that their activities are shabby that they're perfect their vocations or professions are petrified and no longer connected with life he says why don't you adopt the viewpoint of a child as if you were looking at something unfamiliar out of the depths of your own world from the vastness of your own solitude which is itself work in status and vocation he's suggesting that you know we could have a vocation of solitude or iDEN some kite another very important real kata concept he goes on and he says who says that you have to have any attitude towards all these things at all I know your profession is hard and full of things that contradict you and I first saw your lament and knew that it would come because this is something that happens over and over and over again he says now that it has come all that I can say to reassure you is to suggest that perhaps all professions are like that filled with demands filled with hostility towards the individual saturated as it were with the hatred of those who find themselves mute and sullen in an insipid duty the situation you must live in now is not more heavenly heavily burdened with conventions prejudices and false ideas than all the other situations and if there are some that pretend to offer a greater freedom there is nevertheless none that is in itself vast and spacious and connected to the important things that the truest life seems to consist of and I'll mention as somebody who teaches philosophy and studies philosophy for a living that it he's really correct about this it's not just that you know within the creative world of artists there turn out to be all these conventions of the art world it's that way in the world of philosophy as well you'd be surprised how many of my peers are creatures of pure convention they seem to be doing something very you know original and interesting and creative and open-minded but they're all open-minded in the same way and they use the same book AB you Larry for it and it changes from place to place and it changes from decade to decade as the fads you know proliferate but it's still the same thing I mean you could think about cultural stuff as well you know you we can make fun of people for being woke right but woken us has turned into its own forms of conventions and even the people who criticize woke nests do it primarily in a conventional way why so that they can reach a larger audience who can respond to them immediately and we don't have to do a lot of thinking a lot of reflection a lot of dialoguing a lot of thinking things through and mulling things over and genuinely communicating with one another this is a problem in every profession this is a problem in every area of life now coming back to the sexuality part Rilke talks about young people not having fully developed enough and he says when they try with the best of intentions to escape the convention that is approaching them for example marriage they fall into the clutches of some less obvious but just as deadly conventional solution why because everything around them is convention whenever people act out of a prematurely fused muddy communion every action is conventional why because they don't know any better they haven't developed the capacity to respond in a more creative authentic way to each other he says every relation that such confusion leads to has its own convention somebody else has already done that probably written about it on a website or saying a song about it you know think about how people regulate their their sex life and their love life according to love songs those are primarily conventions and if you try something different you switch the channel and get a different song on well that's a convention too you know you don't want to get married you just want to have hookups that's a convention you want to reject you know the hookup culture and say you know I need something that's more substantive there was this very funny movie back in the 1980s called casual sex that had you know a few stars and like Rob Lowe and Demi Moore and and one of the characters actually said I just want to find somebody that I can have meaningful sex with and at the time that that was sad people are like oh yeah you know that seems to be something unconventional that was already conventional at the time that that actress said it and the audience nodding their heads in there were just acting out of convention as well it's very difficult to move out of that Roka goes on and says even separating would be a conventional step an impersonal accidental decision without strength and without fruit and he tells us that we're in a special time where the goal is to consider the relation of one individual to a second individual and to live out such relationships without some sort of model in front of us now does that mean that like you have to like be even further beyond convention know you would be living within the heart of conventions but you would live in a very different way without buying into them entirely as other people do and this is another key point Broca thinks that convention stands in the way of developing individuality and what he calls solitude I'm Tom kite which is a central concept in this entire work and by doing that it stands in the way of the possibility not of only being on our own but of having more genuine relations to other people to nature and to what he calls things so I'm going to give you just a few examples of how this could stand in the way I mentioned in the passage that I read that he thinks that there are many people who are living lives that are essentially convention and they're hostile to the individual in part because they can't be individuals in the full sense and they want everybody else to have the same sort of restricted world that they do they may actually get quite angry at somebody who doesn't fit into one form of convention or another he also talks about irony and this is in letter two he says don't let yourself be controlled by it especially during on creative moments when you're fully creative try to use it as one more way to take hold of life use purely irony can be pure but if you feel yourself becoming too familiar with it if you're afraid of this growing familiarity then turn to great and serious objects in front of which it becomes small and helpless turn towards other things why because irony has the tendency to lapse into its own sort of conventionality doesn't it and we live in an age of irony so this can actually be a major issue for us another thing that he talks about this is in letter five he says that you know one of the things that you want to attain is a holy individual relation to sex one that is not influenced by convention and custom and then you no longer have to be afraid of losing yourself and becoming unworthy of your dearest possession he talks about bodily delight there and he says that most people have muddied bodily delight into something else because of conventions we want to be able to have an individual relation as an individual to the things that matter most in life and so that would include what our book profession or vocation or even job happens to be it would include sex and love and it would include not just art but any sort of creative activity that we are involved in convention stands in the way of these if we allow it to and the last thing that I'll say is one cannot simply reject convention immediately it requires some growth within the depths on one's own part to be able to go beyond it you

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