A Meditation on Arendt, Rilke, & Guns12-06-2015
By Samantha Hill
“Because there is no true transcendence in this ordered world, one also cannot exceed the world, but only succeed to higher ranks.”
-- Hannah Arendt, “Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’”*
Arendt and Stern’s essay on Rilke’s Duino Elegies is a sumptuous meditation that weaves together questions of worldliness, being-in-hearing, alienation, the lover, time, and solitude. The despair expressed in the Elegies is an expression of our human world. It is a longing spoken in the space between making a home in this world and the acknowledgement that both God and the World have abandoned us. This “belonging-nowhere,” as Arendt calls it, constitutes both the nihilistic and religious quality of the poems. Arendt reads the Elegies as a “conscious renunciation of the demand to be heard.” In this conscious renunciation, there is despair at not being heard, along with despair in the desire to speak, knowing that there will be no answer. Despair, in these terms, is the only residuum of religiousness, and the elegy is the only form that can give expression not to what has been lost but the condition of loss itself.
What do guns have to do with Rilke and with loss?
I want to suggest that Arendt’s approach to understanding Rilke can be helpful in thinking about our own contemporary condition, that Rilke’s call to succeed to higher ranks might help us understand, or at the very least give language to, our own desperate and dramatic failure to confront the onslaught of violence to which we daily bear witness--not to give expression to what has been lost, but to the enduring condition of loss itself.
[caption id="attachment_17038" align="aligncenter" width="530"] Rainer Maria Rilke: The Duino Elegies (1987) (Source: The Petrarch Press)[/caption]
At the beginning of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt reflects, “Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena--homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.” Arendt was speaking about the phenomenal appearance of National Socialism, and in confronting the march of alienation, exploitation, and appropriation, she set out to understand how something so violent, so horrible, could emerge in the world. She was also reminding us that the exception--the Event--is in fact never the exception but the rule. Today we could easily voice Arendt’s lament: we keep watching the development of the same phenomena--homelessness, rootlessness, wars, revolutions, and unspeakable violence.
Now that mass shootings in the United States have been named as a daily occurrence, we can no longer think about them as an exception. Children used to practice duck and cover, afraid of Russian bombs; now they practice lock-downs, afraid a person will go on a shooting-spree. For many of my generation, our first political memory was the Columbine shooting in 1999. The threat of gun violence is imprinted upon us; it is a part of our constitution as individuals and constitutive of our collective memory.
The conversation around gun violence in the United States is at a standstill. What was once breaking news now appears routine. Instead of anger, our President hangs his head in resignation, pleading with Congress and with the American people to do something. But what can we do? What can we say that we haven’t already said? Flags are lowered to half-staff, public announcements are made, and the usual questions of pursuit ensue: Who? Why? How? People lay flowers, there are memorial services, and there are calls for prayer. Democrats demand gun reform. Republicans argue that the issue is not guns but rather mental health. And everyone demands that they are right.
[caption id="attachment_17039" align="aligncenter" width="529"] Evacuated workers pray in a circle on the San Bernardino Golf Course across the street where a mass shooting occurred at the Inland Regional Center on December 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. (Source: Mashable)[/caption]
Instead of asking why, perhaps we should ask who is listening.
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich den aus der Engel Ordnungen?
[Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angel’s hierarchies?]
So begins Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Traditionally, an elegy is a reflective poem; it is a lament for the dead. Arendt calls upon Rilke in The Human Condition to talk about the work of thinking, and in her short essay, she considers the poem’s character and mission beginning with the Fifth Elegy.
Arendt writes, “The paradoxical, ambiguous, and desperate situation from which standpoint the Duino Elegies may alone be understood has two characteristics: the absence of an echo and the knowledge of futility. The conscious renunciation of the demand to be heard, the despair at not being able to be heard, and finally the need to speak even without an answer--these are the real reasons for the darkness, asperity, and tension of the style in which poetry indicates its own possibilities and its will to form.”
[caption id="attachment_17040" align="alignright" width="300"] Rainer Maria Rilke (Source: Outlaw Poetry)[/caption]
How can we engage in the work of understanding when communication is not possible, when the listener is absent? How do we offer an account of an event when no one can hear us, no matter how loudly we speak? Sometimes we think if we speak loudly enough, if we draw the right connections between gun ownership and murder, or alienation and violence, or any number of arguments that could be made or that would lead people to say, “Right. We have to do something about that," others will understand what we intend with our speech. We think we can use language to convey meaning, but all too often, language fails us. We can cry out to the angels, but who among them will hear us? The answer we must accept, to which Arendt points us to in this essay, is that there is no answer to our cries. “The difficulty,” Arendt writes, “inherent to the subject under study is shown most clearly in the Fifth Elegy, in which it is impossible to construe any meaning, or to forge any links from line to line, because the association of images, in their incomprehensible uniqueness and situational dependency, is wholly arbitrary.” In our inability to construe meaning or understand--in the acceptance of arbitrariness--we must turn to the background of the “poem’s attunement.” It is this attunement that allows us to experience the seemingly disparate images as a whole, as a unity.
The media presents an endless stream of violence, erupting daily in public as disparate events. Similar to Rilke’s seemingly disparate Fifth Elegy, each image of violence we encounter is set against a backdrop of political and social discourse, and we as a people are not attuned to what these events are saying. We can draw lines between the events and try to wrest meaning from the resulting constellation, but Arendt reminds us that these lines “emerge disconnected,” and that “it would be perfectly conceivable to arrange them differently.”
She adds, “Despite this complete arbitrariness, despite the absence of images, the poetry does not congeal into a meaningless mass of associations. This is because every particular element, and everything resisting connection in its particularity, rests on the ground of what is actually to be said, the ground that first stirs up the isolated images.”
Each mass shooting, each act of gun violence, is an individual and particular event. We can try to order them and offer accounts of the constellation in any number of ways, but our ability to do so only illustrates our absence of understanding and our inability to force meaning onto the violence. These “tragedies,” as we call them, become systematized and interchangeable; we know the possible plot lines, story arcs, and we know how the narrative ends. But our creation isn’t the whole story, and when each of these particular events is met with the same demands, same cries, same condolences, we forget to ask upon what ground these events rest. We get caught up in what has been lost and forget to think about these events as expressions of loss themselves.
What is the ground that stirs up these isolated images? What moves them into being, makes them appear, causes them to exist?
Arendt tells us, “The ground here is the futility on the basis of which every image is only one among infinitely many images--a single image that carries others along with it, as it moves by itself.” Each image appears as independent, one among the many, but each contains a multitude, and so it never truly moves, or acts by itself. For Arendt, the world is in part defined by our condition of plurality. Even in our solitude, when we are thinking, we are yet among many. There is no such thing as a “lone shooter” or “isolated incident.” On his blog, the Charleston shooter Dylan Roof wrote, “The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case.” One person moved to “act” from another; the spiraling violence sweeps up and carries the others along with it. We can’t look at gun deaths as separate images, events. Rather, each contains the next.
[caption id="attachment_17041" align="aligncenter" width="531"] Number of Victims of U.S. Mass Shootings, 1966-2015 (Source: Inequality by Interior Design)[/caption]
Every sixteen minutes, someone in America dies at the end of a firearm. We are averaging one mass shooting a day. There are over 300 million guns in America. We can scream these “facts” and “truths” as loudly as we want, but we’re screaming at ourselves, and we’ve created a deafening silence. If we can’t just pay attention to the particular events, if we can’t just try to draw lines to extract meaning to formulate new political arguments, if we can’t just scream the so-called facts, then we have to pay attention to the attunement, to the background that allows us to look past the arbitrariness to what ties the events of violence together in America. We think we can demand truth from politics, but we can scream truths all day and nothing will happen, because there is no one to hear us screaming and what we’re saying has no greater meaning. Our claims to facts, to know what is happening, are like the lines we try to draw between the images. They contain no meaning.
Rilke poetically expresses the tragedy of our desire for a more perfect human world, a more complete human love that allows us to transcend among our own ranks. As Arendt reminds us, the religious quality of the poem is not reflective of religion itself. The angel represents a more perfect form of human consciousness. “The power of God is indeed felt; but who and where the Almighty is--this remains in the form of a question that no longer hopes for an answer. Still, the question does not perish from lack of an answer; rather, it survives in disquietude, suddenly changing into despair at the very encounterability [Treffbarkeit] of God.”
Rilke’s acoustic realm in the Duino Elegies reveals the essence of our solitary and worldly existence. The futility, the impotency, and the despair at not being heard when we exclaim, “We can do something about this! Why aren’t we doing anything about this?” Our exclamation is testament to our not being heard. Screaming into the void, our voices no longer even echo back. What, if anything, can we learn from this disquietude and despair? Rilke is turning us to face one another and confront the material plurality of our world. Our anxiety must turn us to confront the reality of the world we inhabit while turning us away from the transcendental promise that we’ll find truth in God or politics.
All of our knowledge, our facts, and our cries of truth have nothing to do with the one truth of which Arendt reminds us: that there is no truth in politics. Claims to knowledge are inseparable from violence, and we cannot be absolved from our complacency in the violence that exists in the world. There is a background, an attunement, of what is actually to be said that these disparate images--events of violence--speak to. We must hold one another and ourselves accountable, as political beings, and stop screaming into the void and listen to what we are not hearing. We must ascend to the higher ranks. There’s no redemption in Rilke’s Elegies, and there is no one coming to erase the existence of guns and cure the sickness of violence that society has spread. In the absence of being heard, in the absence of truth, perhaps we need to embrace the despair--to consciously renounce our demand to be heard, and embrace the disquietude. This place of solitude might be the only space from which we can re-emerge to build a better world in common and finally give ear to what is happening.
[caption id="attachment_17042" align="aligncenter" width="531"] Noah Nicolaisen, of Charleston, S.C., kneels at a makeshift memorial, Thursday, June 18, 2015, down the street from where a man opened fire on a church in June 2015. (Source: Kansas.com)[/caption]
* “Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’” is the only essay Arendt penned with her first husband Günther Stern. The essay was originally published in 1930 in the Neue Schweizer Rundschau, which was inspired by the opening line of Rilke’s Elegies. At the time, Rilke was not well known in Germany. As Jerome Kohn notes in his introduction to the volume Essays in Understanding, it is not clear who wrote what in the essay, but the themes and motifs of inner life, alienation, and worldliness are certainly already present in Arendt’s work at the time.
Featured image: A couple embraces following a shooting that killed multiple people at a social services facility, Dec. 2, 2015, in San Bernardino, Calif.