Freud and Rilke on Loss and Getting Over
The psychoanalyst and the poet present opposing models of loss and grief.
Posted December 3, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Freudian psychoanalysis and Rilke's poetry were divided on the topic of transience.
- Poetry can help us to live through phases of grief and mourning.
- Psychoanalysis can be oblivious to irreplaceable loss.
In 1915, Sigmund Freud wrote a short text on loss and how to cope with it. Freud's essay, entitled “Vergänglichkeit” [German for transience], recalled a meeting between himself and a “young but already famous poet and taciturn friend.”
Most likely, this friend and poet was no other than the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. This short writing, in which Freud was unashamedly perplexed by the poet’s anti-psychoanalytic thoughts of loss, grief, and recovery, is largely unknown today despite the centrality of the concept of transience in therapeutic practice.
Freud and Rilke presented us with two opposing models of loss and how to cope with it. They can help us, each in their own way, to live through phases of grief and mourning.
Freud, the optimistic humanist, thought that transience must always equal growth. Whatever is absent now is absent for a reason. The lost object is a transformational object. It transforms the subject's internal and external world. Absence is simply one step in a transformational process.
Rilke, the poet, on the other hand, resisted Freud's optimism. Some things are simply lost, once and for all. There is no growth, no transformation, just absence. “All of what he has loved and admired,” Freud noted in his essay, “seems to him to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.” Extinction, said Rilke, leaves nothing behind.
How did the subject of loss, grief, absence, and recovery come about? Freud described how Rilke admires the beauty of nature but denies himself to find any pleasure in it. The young Rilke, Freud noted as they walked through the “smiling countryside,” was disturbed by the thought that all this beauty is transient.
The poet Freud wrote about in his notebooks was worked up about “all human beauty and all the beauty and splendour that men have created and may create” someday ceasing to exist. Freud couldn't quite comprehend why Rilke seemed to deeply detest transience itself. For Freud, “[t]ransience value is scarcity value in time.” Rilke, however, was not quite impressed by Freud’s optimistic take on loss.
Freud analysed Rilke’s response. He concluded that the young vulnerable poet had been so disturbed by the reality of loss that through “a revolt of his mind” against the inevitability of loss, he had spoilt all his enjoyment of beauty. He reminded the readers of his essay that mourning–one of the ego’s many defences–will, however painful the loss may be, “when it has consumed itself,” someday come to a spontaneous end. Inevitably, the subject’s life forces will return as the lost object is replaced by a new, equally, or even more valuable object.
For Freud, we have lost whatever is lost to find it. We will inevitably find a replacement as we escape the “prison of dead objects.” On the other hand, Rilke was acutely aware that some things just cannot be replaced.
Freud's dispassionate analysis, for whatever its standing in psychoanalysis, won’t soothe us after heartbreak, the death of a friend, or the loss of a dear object. Rilke’s poetry might. Transience and loss, and how to cope with it, are repetitive themes throughout Rilke's poetry and prose. Was Rilke’s mind really revolting against change and loss, oblivious to their transformative potential, as Freud diagnosed? See for yourself! Here is one of his poems:
It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.
In his Notebooks, Rilke reflected on how his younger self reacted to the losses he experienced in his late childhood and early adulthood. Writing in the third-person, as if he analysed himself, he said:
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You sat there as if you had disintegrated–totally without will, without consciousness, without pleasure, without defence. You were like an empty space. I remember that at first this state of annihilation almost made me feel nauseated.
In the face of loss, Rilke described his younger self as in a state of complete ego fragmentation. Rather than accepting loss as an inevitable part of life, as Freud would recommend, Rilke seemed to be rebelling against the inevitable.
Elsewhere, Rilke wrote how loss made him want to “imprint this provisional, perishable earth so deeply, so patiently and passionately.” Rather than accepting loss quietly and patiently and replacing the lost beloved with a newfound one, Rilke is up to fight the unfightable–a fight that has an inward-looking dimension. He wrote of how he wanted to create an inner life in the emptiness left by the lost object “so that reality shall arise in us again.”
Freud would famously call this a “sublimation.” In response to loss, Rilke turned to art "so that reality shall arise in [him] again and to “imprint this provisional, perishable earth so deeply.” Unlike Freud, Rilke acknowledged and accepted that some losses cannot simply be mourned, gotten over, and replaced. Some things are lost once and for all–no growth, transformation, just absence.
Rilke’s response to irreplaceable loss was to re-create himself through art. He was not simply looking for a replacement object. He created the world anew, in the shadow of loss, inside the absences. That’s perhaps a healthier response to loss than the passive optimism of the Freudian transformation. When it comes to loss, might Rilke be a better psychoanalyst than Freud?
Rilke’s work describes an unconscious psychic reality unknown to the mechanistic Freudian analysis. His poetry can help us endure the fierce feeling of absence that descends upon us after any loss. And it acknowledges that dogmatic faith in the inevitable replacement of what's lost might be a (protective) delusion.
Freud, D. (1916): "On Transience", retrieved at https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pdf-library/Freud_Transience.pdf.Source: Adrian Kreutz