Rainer Maria Rilke: The Song of the Beggar
I am always going from door to door,
whether in rain or heat,
and sometimes I will lay my right ear in
the palm of my right hand.
And as I speak my voice seems strange as if
it were alien to me,
for I’m not certain whose voice is crying:
mine or someone else’s.
I cry for a pittance to sustain me.
The poets cry for more.
In the end I conceal my entire face
and cover both my eyes;
there it lies in my hands with all its weight
and looks as if at rest,
so no one may think I had no place where-
upon to lay my head. (1)
I am in a very elegant house. It’s my house, and I’m having a party. Everyone “who’s-who” is there. Suddenly a bitchy old woman comes down the stairs, tells me that the house is hers, I have only rented it, and I have to leave. It is very embarrassing, I’m being thrown out, from what I thought was my house. Out there in the street I meet a beggar. He is homeless, crazy, doesn’t really know how to speak, and doesn’t know who he is – he is without identity. It’s frightening.As a negative of our ego-ideal and the socially adjusted persona, the shadowy image of the beggar abides in our soul, as if without identity. Without a persona, there can be no pretension—which comes from Latin’s praetendere, to extend in front. We need to ‘extend in front’ of ourselves, to reach out and forwards. Thereby, some degree of falseness and pretension are inevitable and undeniable. In contrast to the persona, the beggar “huddle[s] in the shadows,” and unmasks those who come his way,(2) that is, everyone who ventures far away from the royal court of unquestioned convictions. Without the protection of a social façade, the image of the beggar expresses the Inner Voice or the Daemon. The beggar becomes the genuine persona, that is, he is an image of the means by which the Voice comes across; persona, per sonare, by means of voice. But since he lacks the appearance of an external persona, he is not easily seen and attended to, but must be heard and listened to, for us to grasp the meaning of his words.(4) In Dr. D’s dream (page 176), he attends to the voice of the old, shabby, hardly visible, wise man.
The crippled beggar cries.When Gandhi after more than twenty years in South Africa stepped ashore in India, he spent a year of wandering, “his ears open but his mouth shut.” The notable poet Tagore called him “The Great Soul in Beggar’s Garb.” Soul is a perspective, perspective, by means of spection, looking, introspective and extraspective, which enables us not to just act and do. It is reflective between us and events, and makes us relate to our deeds,(6) thereby inducing what we do with life, with inspiration. Without soul we may constantly fight wars with an ever-more evil enemy, or we may fall into paralyzing crippleness. The voice that speaks through the image of the beggar is not formulated by his words, but by our listening in spite of there being nothing to see. The soul that the beggar brings is one of pure interiority, which brings life only if attended to. At the end of the Grimm brothers’ tale of The Golden Bird, for instance, the king’s (in some versions the gardener’s) youngest son arrives secretly at the king’s court, dressed in a poor man’s ragged clothes. As he arrives, scarcely within the doors, the horse began to eat, and the bird to sing, and the princess left off weeping. The soul appears in the least of garments, secretly, invisibly, without known identity. The following was the final dream that a fifty-five-year-old man brought at the end of a seven-year analysis:
His weeping masks the sun’s eye,
hides the flowers.
a smoldering barrier
between me and God.
The crippled beggar demands
that I thrust my whole life
into his hand–
that which is revealed
and that which is hidden,
all that could have happened
and all that yet will happen.
The crippled beggar demands
that I let him eat
from the Carmel in my soul
and from the sea,
from the risings of the sun
and from the depths within me.
The crippled beggar spits in my face
because I have not forgotten myself,
because I have not died.
His scorn is right.
To the quiet, inner core
that exists even in the heart of the lost,
to the axis of immortality
that exists even in the heart of the insane,
I have not given over
my whole self.
I have almost forgotten
that he, too, the impoverished one,
is a child of the sun,
that his soul, too,
will turn into a rose at twilight.(5)
I am walking with a group of people in a field. It is rather dark. It is like walking along a wadi [dry river valley] at the slopes of a gray mountain. From somewhere high up I hear a voice telling me – and it seems he is calling just me – I have to get up on top of the mountain and read prayers from a book.This man knew he had further work to do, but also felt that there always would be, and at some stage he needed to take it on himself. The need of a soulful attitude in this man’s further undertakings was unmistakable. His tendency not to remain serious, but to dismiss the hard work by joke and avoidance, had been prominent. A sense of lack of meaning in life had been the reason to come for analysis.
I then stand on a cliff high up on the mountain, with the man who had called me. He doesn’t look like the kind of prophet you would imagine – or perhaps you would! He is very unimpressive, small, ugly, hunchback, disgusting! No, sorry, not disgusting, but you’d hardly notice him, or, rather, if you met him in real life, one would try to avoid him, like those poor sick beggars you see more and more in the city.
He just hands me the book. Looks like a bunch of old papers. The prayers are a combination of Jewish and alchemical texts or prayers. I have to do this, supposedly because I am accused of some crime, possibly having assassinated someone. But before climbing higher on up the mountain, I go into a cave, supposedly my cave, where there are lots of wine glasses, kind of grails, some in glass, others in metals, that I have to serve to people, though I don’t really see the people; they will arrive later. The wine glasses are placed on an old wooden table, and the tin cups on an even more antique wooden table. Everything is semi-dark. I don’t know what kind of mixture or drink is in the glasses, especially in the tin cups – probably some alchemical tincture – just joking! But it has that kind of flavor, so I guess I have to accept that! Then the man, the beggar/prophet or whatever, his daughter comes running. She has been running very quickly, and I meet her at the entrance of the cave as I am on my way to depart to ascend the mountain. She is clearly taken by her long and quick run, breathes visibly, tells me that the whole accusation against me is a mistake. I feel relieved. I know that you [the analyst] won’t die from me leaving, even if you’ll be somewhat sad, just like I will be as well, but I still know that I have to carry out the task, even if you can’t help me any further, and I must go ahead and do it alone.
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1.Selected Poems, Translated by Albert Ernest Flemming, p. 78.
2. Elie Wiesel, A Beggar in Jerusalem, p. 3
3. It is noteworthy that the root of the Hebrew word for meaning, maSHMAot, means to hear. Martin Buber claimed the Jews were inherently a people of the “ear,” “summoned to ‘hear,’ as in ‘Hear, Oh Israel’ ” (Elon, The Pity of it All, p. 262.)
4. Cf. Depth Psychology and a New Ethic, p. 39; The Hero and His Shadow, p. xvi
5. “The Crippled Beggar,” from The Spectacular Difference: Selected Poems of Zelda, p. 39-41. Translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by Marcia Falk (Hebrew Union College Press, 2004). Copyright (c) 2004 by Marcia Lee Falk. Used by permission of the translator
6. James Hillman, Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account, pp. 6-10; Andrew Samuels, Jung and the Post-Jungians, p. 244.
7. Gershom Scholem, Alchemy and Kabbalah, p. 16f.