Thursday, October 9, 2008

Letters on Cezanne, by Rainier Maria Rilke

In this work, Rilke creates some very imaginative description, especially regarding colors. The color blue, for example, he describes in various "active" ways, attributing qualities to the color that aren't normally associated with colors, let alone such nuances of the color blue: juicy blue, full of revolt blue, blissful barely blue, Egyptian shadow blue, etc. Here he applies the same innovative descriptive prose to the smell of heather:
But how glorious it is, this fragrance [of heather]. At no other time, it seems to me, does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more than honeysweet where you feel it is close to touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost, and yet again wind; tar and turpentine and Ceylon tea.
First, Rilke transforms the smell of heather into the smell of earth itself, then he contrasts that description with the smell of the sea. Then he goes beyond simple comparing and contrasting to delve deeper into the nature of the comparison. He describes the smell of heather as bitter in one aspect (as it relates to taste) and as sweet in another (as it relates to hearing). The smell contains both the final end of everything (the grave) and the never ending movement of earth and the heavens (the wind). When he describes the smell as being of tar and turpentine and Ceylon tea, the reader can sense just what aspect of Ceylon tea Rilke is describing; the aspect that shares a quality with the earthly, resinous, thickly chemical smells of tar and turpentine. Absolutely genius description!
The bar is set inconceivably high for me to imitate Rilke's prose. I'm sure to fail; yet I must try. I must choose a smell and describe it in the style of Rilke, thus understanding his writing so much better after undertaking my own intimate struggle with it. In an attempt to survive this endeavor, I shall choose a smell that is complex and rich in contrasts:
How glorious it is, this smell of a city downtown, in the summer, from high above. It's only now, when the evenings are warm, the smells mix together into this one agreeable smell; a smell that isn't any less than the smell of fast food, a hamburger or a doughnut, almost rank where it touches upon grease, yet pungent with green where it resembles hay dirty from the sheep in their pens at the state fair. Layers of smell contain the sudden shock of exposure: the shirtless men mowing lawns are sweating; bodies are ripe; summer is ending, and yet again the heat; beer spilled in an alley, the low water of the nearby river, and Chinese food.

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