THE FLOW OF COMPASSION
Pondering the photograph above, one thing which
might be said about water in flowing movement is
that, like the air we breathe, it belongs to no one.
Water is truly in some sense of the whole, and not
of any isolated fragment thereof. We may build dams
in the course of its flow, we may pollute it, waste it,
but we can not in a fundamental way impede its
timeless journey throughout the lifebody
of the Earth.
So, in a way, pondering water prepares the mind
to consider the nature of natural borders generally,
and in this particular context, the borders—real or
imagined—which we sense or perceive between each
other. Our theme is compassion. Compassion
in the sense that I see myself in the other, that
the other’s suffering is also in some, inescapably
profound sense, my own. This means that the borders
between myself and, say, the homeless man on the
street, or a people ravaged by poverty and disease,
or yes, also the destruction of a watershed, are not
as sharply drawn and as rigid as we as a culture have
come to assume.
The two poems I’ve brought together here from Rilke’s
The Book of Images (circa 1905) are both exceptional in
this sense because they imply a new way of see-
ing the world in which these divisions are questioned.
They point to something like an incipient compassion in
the sense I am using the word here. Without going into
the biographical considerations which Rilke scholars
frequently cite in reference to these works, especially
the famous collection called The Voices: Nine Poems
with a Title Page, from which I’ve included the signature
piece, the point I would like to bring out here is that the
poet himself has become a kind of sounding board for the
voices of others. How different this is from the generally
exceedingly narrow scope of much English poetry of the
current era. And this, despite the fact that these pieces
are now almost 100 years old, makes them in my view
as challenging and as relevant today as the moment
they were first composed:
Wer jetzt weint irgendwo in der Welt,
ohne Grund weint in der Welt,
weint über mich.
Wer jetzt lacht irgendwo in der Nacht,
ohne Grund lacht in der Nacht,
lacht mich aus.
Wer jetzt geht irgendwo in der Welt,
ohne Grund geht in de Welt,
geht zu mir.
Wer jetzt stirbt irgendwo in der Welt,
ohne Grund stirbt in der Welt:
sieht mich an.
And here’s my English translation:
Whoever cries now somewhere in the world,
without reason cries in the world,
cries about me.
Whoever laughs now somewhere in the night,
without reason laughs in the night,
laughs at me.
Whoever goes now somewhere in the world,
without reason goes in the world,
comes to me.
Whoever dies now somewhere in the world,
without reason dies in the world:
looks at me.
RAINER MARIA RILKE (TR. CLIFF CREGO)