Rilke, Joy, and a Spring Morning That Feels Like Fall

This is my third attempt to sit down and write an academic post on J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace.

And apparently, this attempt too is about to prove futile.

The truth is I have a lot on my mind. The end of the semester is imminent; my to-do list looms over me. The run-off in the presidential elections will take place next Sunday, already casting an air of tension and uncertainty. And I have this sense of dread and hope, a curious blend that Ferrante eloquently captures in her novels as “happy agitation.”

But today I woke up to a misty morning, reminiscent of a crisp Fall day, in a place that is not home. I have missed this feeling. The lush greenery of the trees is juxtaposed beautifully against the slightly chilly breeze. And just like that, I am now thinking of pumpkins, Halloween festivities, and falling leaves. I will take a stroll by the sea in a bit– before everyone wakes up. And maybe have another cup of coffee.

This is my third attempt to sit down and write an academic post on J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace. And sometimes it slips my mind that this page is mine, a space that solely belongs to me, where I can share whatever my heart desires. In this recognition, I find a profound sense of solace and liberation. I’m feeling my shoulders relax, and as I look out the window, I see an elderly couple, in their late sixties or early seventies, out on a morning stroll. In the face of the brisk breeze, they appear at ease, well aware that in a matter of weeks, they will need to start their walk with the first call to prayer of the day at dawn. They will want to avoid the inevitable humidity and sweltering heat that materialize with the sun’s first rays.

The woman pauses momentarily, rummaging through her backpack, and her companion instinctively pauses too, holding the bag for her. I see that she is feeding a stray dog. This gorgeous, unfortunate soul is probably abandoned despite having been adopted– like the thousands of strays that roam these streets. It must be a special breed, a Dalmatian mix maybe, for whose companionship most in the West would pay thousands of dollars. Regrettably, it is the thousands of dollars that hold inherent value in this country, not the intrinsic worth of the dog itself. Regrettably, it is the thousands of dollars that hold inherent value, not the sanctity of life itself.

I am saddened by this thought, but then I watch him watching her. Hands clasped behind his back, with, what seems to me from afar, a tiny smile. Is it contentment, love, or a sense of pride? Perhaps it is all a figment of my imagination. In witnessing this moment, a mere flicker, I am overcome by a bittersweet feeling, an amalgamation of sorrow and joy. Perhaps it is all a figment of my imagination– does it even matter? What I see in this moment is harmony and unwavering commitment. In this day and age where the illusion of infinite options pervades, where anyone can be replaced in an instant, this is perhaps what I choose to see. The couple’s bond seems steadfast, real, and warm, a testament to the enduring strength of the human connection.

Genuine human connection.

As the couple continues their stride, leaving behind a jubilant pup, the melancholy I feel gives way to joy.

This is my third attempt to sit down and write an academic post on J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace, and it gives me joy that I am not writing it.

And I am reminded of Rilke and his meditations on joy.

By  Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Poetry Foundation

In a letter to Ilse Erdmann on January 31, 1914, Rilke writes:

“The reality of any joy in the world is indescribable, only in joy does creation happen (happiness, on the contrary, is only a promising and interpretable pattern of things already existing); joy, however, is a marvelous increasing of what already exists, a pure addition out of nothingness. How superficially must happiness engage us, after all, if it can leave us time to think and worry about how long it will last. Joy is a moment, un-obligate, timeless from the beginning, not to be held but also not to be truly lost again, since under its impact our being is changed chemically, so to speak, and does not only, as may be the case with happiness, savor and enjoy itself in a new mixture.”

For Rilke, joy, “a pure addition out of nothingness,” is transformative–

joy, “a marvelous increasing of what already exists,” leaves an indelible imprint on our being, for it unearths that which lies both within and beyond our immediate grasp.

He writes in another letter:

“There is only a single, urgent task: to attach oneself someplace to nature, to that which is strong, striving and bright with unreserved readiness, and then to move forward in one’s efforts without any calculation or guile, even when engaged in the most trivial and mundane activities.

Each time we thus reach out with joy, each time we cast our view toward distances that have not yet been touched, we transform not only the present moment and the one following but also alter the past within us, weave it into the pattern of our existence, and dissolve the foreign body of pain whose exact composition we ultimately do not know. Just as we do not know how much vital energy this foreign body, once it has been thus dissolved, might impart to our bloodstream” (p. 673).

Existence is a practice, Rilke seems to suggest. To its essence we can “reach out with joy” if we pause and register the subtle ripples of experiences we often overlook. Each element and fragment, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, merits our unwavering attention. It is through this scrupulous scrutiny that joy emerges as a transcendent force. To me, this scrutiny means being present and honest. Being open to a state of full presence even in moments we deem mundane and/or painful.

This is my third attempt to sit down and write an academic post on J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace, and it gives me pure joy that I am not writing it at this moment. Instead, I will go on a walk and embrace the autumnal breeze, fully aware that in a matter of weeks, I will have to go out at dawn for a morning stroll. I’m looking forward to that shift too, I realize. But now I will take my copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with me and reread my favorite lines as I sit by the sea.

Borgeby gard, Fladie, Sweden, August 12 th, 1904

To Frank Kappus

“…We have already had to rethink so many of our concepts of motion, we will also gradually learn to realize that that which we call destiny goes forth from within people, not from without into them. Only because so many have not absorbed their destinies and transmuted them within themselves while they were living in them, have they not recognized what has gone forth out of them; it was so strange to them that, in their bewildered fright, they thought it must only just then have entered into them, for they swear never before to have found anything like it in themselves. As people were long mistaken about the motion of the sun, so they are even yet mistaken about the motion of that which is to come. The future stands firm, dear Mr. Kappus, but we move in infinite space” (65-66).

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