Aesthestic Modernism in Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

Aesthestic Modernism in Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

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The aesthetic modernisms of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries sought to redress the role of art and the artist in an industrial society in flux. It was in the metropolis that these transformations originated and were most violently felt.
There is perhaps no work that more effectively addresses the challenges faced by the artist in modernity than Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1910 classic, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Rilke accomplishes this through an embedded discourse with the work of Charles Baudelaire and Georg Simmel. In particular, Rilke draws heavily from Baudelaire’s seminal work of criticism, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in formulating Malte’s goal in writing his Notebooks: to transfigure the present by rendering meaning onto the world. Yet, Rilke’s modernity appears strikingly different than Baudelaire’s; Malte’s experiences are violently enveloped by a more selfless, ordered, and stimulating urban environment of the early-twentieth-century metropolis. Rilke portrays the effects of Paris on Malte’s psychological condition through an engagement with Simmel’s 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” In this way, Rilke reframes the problems posed by Baudelaire in his own historical epoch: the age of metropolis.
The principal task undertaken by Baudelaire surrounds what makes a contemporary work of art effective, which he accomplishes through a study of the work of Constantin Guys. Baudelaire claims that Guys’s work proves so compelling because it immerses itself within its own place in history, a condition Baudelaire terms as a work’s “modernity.” Baudelaire’s modernity constitutes “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutabl...


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...bited in Malte’s encounter with the stranger with St. Vitus’s disease. In imitating the actions of the stranger who is most spatially near, Malte at once attempts to bridge what Simmel would call intellectual and physical space, and engage with him beyond a purely mental level. Nevertheless, this adoption of a paradoxical framework not only suggests that Malte embraces a more integrative metaphysics in his failure to gain meaning from “pure existence,” but also comes to recognize the self as fundamentally constituting this relation. This idea draws heavy influence from the philosophy of Keirkegaard, who claimed that such a relation fundamentally constitutes the despair of the human condition. By interacting with the metropolis, Malte is thrown into a crisis that eventually allows him comes to terms with this despair, and thus facilitates the artistic process.

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