In 2008 Stephanie Dowrick wrote a doctoral thesis entitled Rainer Maria Rilke: Bearing Witness. Around the same time she completed In the Company of Rilke: Why a 20th-century visionary poet speaks so eloquently to 21st-century readers yearning for inwardness, beauty and spiritual connection.
I would not have known this had I not been hovering around the number 831.912 in the local library. German poetry is not my usual go-to shelf. I do, however, own several works by Stephanie Dowrick so when I spotted her name on a book spine I was curious enough to add the book to my underarm clutch.
So how does a not particularly religious person get drawn to the writings of an Interfaith Minister? In my case, I think it’s due to the absence of dogma in her work on spirituality and the human condition. Over the years, Dowrick has explored such topics as resilience, solitude, forgiveness and intimacy. Her words are both accessible and deeply thought provoking.
Dowrick’s thesis description begins thus.
This study of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) explores both epistemological and ontological themes, explicitly asking what readers may “bear witness to” within themselves, as well as on the page, through their reading. The primary question of the study comes from Martin Heidegger’s essay on Rilke when (quoting Hölderlin) he asks: “What are poets for (in these destitute times)?” and whether this has genuine significance beyond entertainment or diversion.
The book written alongside her thesis incorporates biographical and theological elements. Dowrick expresses impatience and disdain for Rilke the man which contrasts greatly with her response to his work.
Dowrick spends time exploring the accuracy of translated poetry, noting that the translators of Rilke’s work from German to English often created very different interpretations. So it is, with all readings or listenings to poetry in one’s own language, Dowrick argues. We are all translators. The poem becomes what we make of it in the reading, much like our individual responses to spirituality.
The writer’s history shapes what sits on the page; the reader’s own history and conditioning are also inevitably present, shaping the encounter and limiting or delimiting comprehension and appreciation.
Dowrick talks about what she describes as ‘surrendered reading’,
a way of ritualising the meeting point between the writer and the reader that requires a willing letting-in as much as a letting-go. Reading then becomes a brave and profound experience of being, not simply of ‘doing’.
For the reader, Dowrick argues, finishing a (polished) work is the beginning of ‘complex processes of engagement’
The sparks that lit me up in the reading In the Company of Rilke were not necessarily the biographical details of Rilke or the theological elements, although they provided great context. It was about the exploration of the processes of reading and writing.
Reception is critical in reading: I make this point repeatedly. It is no less critical in writing.
Dowrick goes on to quote the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel.
What Rilke teaches us better than anyone, and what I think such writers as Neitzsche or Kierkegaard have generally either never known or in the end forgotten, is that there exists a receptivity which is really creation itself under another name. The most genuinely receptive being is at the same time the most essentially creative.
If the success of a book or poem is that the reader begins a ‘complex process of engagement’ once the ‘reading’ is over, this book has worked a treat.