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A Torso For Rilke // Drew Knapp


1 beauty

Wittgenstein wrote that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it. It brings copies of itself into being, in replication, resemblance, recounting, and recycling. Diotima calls it a longing for immortality. Scruton compares it to a kiss--the compromise of a move of one self to another, and a summoning of the other onto the surface of his being.

It is descended from desire and adjacent to nostalgia and has a longing for immortality. It closes some set of past actions to time and opens a vast future of potential trajectories out ahead, each one full of those recherche gestures only accessible by performance of their prerequisite.

A juxtaposition of subject and object that exists only to herald its own existence. A resolution of the antagonism between what the beholder perceives and what he thinks.

2 boundary

The rat is a sturdy forager and a fierce escape artist, so adept at survival he has earned the descriptor invasive. Each dusk, however, re-establishes his rank as prey in the wild hierarchy.

The fox arrives like a delusion, pops like a carmine umbrella. At apex he is all potential energy, collapsing with the blur of a lit match dropped over an anthill. There is a swarm of fleeing bodies and a singular squeal, then the silent exhale that follows every successful hunt. He doesn't move to eat immediately. There is the resplendent sheen of his heaving ribcage, the come-and-go snow globes of breath, the temple-tight sobriety that follows a killing. Satisfied, he vanishes, iridescently upborne through the bright drench and yoking waves of downy brome.

Man too navigates this economy of finitude--this is to say he has a boundary limited by the various historical forces operating on him--though he manages a host of artificial environments along with the organic. The result is such: his ability to do work on the space he inhabits is influenced by unseen forces existing outside the capabilities of his body that are somehow also dependent on that body. The discipline or brevity offered by this status is how we might define opportunity. The absurdity of this achievement seems as circular as the machine that comprehends it--we are centers of useless splendor exacting what abstractions we can on the reality of the world.

3 tension

When particular beauties offend or inspire, the population forms into voyueristic segments--each one working to invalidate certain realities at the defense of others.

Put another way, beauty can be protected and exposed by worship. This is something like an alchemy of the aesthetic, soliciting the grandeur of the general.

Man hangs from his experience like a pendulum and produces the opposing gestures of faith and belief as functions of beauty under fluctuating conditions of power.

4 object

We preserve instances of beauty within membranes of language, and the shape of these boundaries is maintained in custodial fashion.

Each turn of dialogue produces for the next a simple bifurcation of further possibilities--acceptance or rejection of a “move” within the interaction. The bifurcation itself is a reduction of complexity and, by this very fact, an enforcement of selection. Each selection of further communication must accept the previous one or adjourn the task.

Mallarme’s answer to Nietzsche's “Who is speaking?” with “Language itself” earns a caveat: language reacts within a framework of enforced choice, and this condition is renewed no matter the context. Culture acts as a memory for language in which we store valid responses. The cost incurred by a dominant culture on this maintenance of language is a calcification of these enforced validities into norms; one set of experiences is maintained as worthwhile, while others are dismissed. From this perspective, mandating presentation can be seen as an act of discipline by authority.

5 structure

History is always more a statement for the future than the past. It fashions the immutable everything that has occurred into something comprehensible and incomplete.

For a time I think each of us had this idea in our heads--that history was some kind of Tower of Babel; that if we could forge honesty into our language the way a stonemason building a cathedral doggedly transforms himself into the composure of stone, we might together be able to architect a level of certainty that would address this incompleteness.

But the accumulation itself causes more inconsistencies. Ones that challenge convictions. Ones that create conflicts.

Reality is always pending--and if you can convince a man he lacks the power he has, deliverance becomes an easy thing to provide. And when someone truly believes you’ve rescued them, they will turn and do almost anything for you.

6 act

Notes from a cognitive science paper by Allen & Friston: natural selection is nature’s way of offering up bodies as plausible hypotheses for explaining the occurrennce of life, selecting organisms whose structure best predicts their environment and the actions needed to survive within it as those with the most evidence for further existence.

A body is often actively molding the environment to maintain and justify itself. This leads to a scenario in which the world the body inhabits is both a constituting and constraining feature of its embodiment.

To communicate is to bring forth a structure beholden to these same rules. The speaker conspires as a collection of natural forces to birth everything from utterance to tome and between. Under this fallible production, prayer is an organism made of language, destined to be annihilated by the environment it is given to or expose something fundamental about that environment previously misunderstood.

7 practice

If language were set up to produce consensus, it would soon come to an end. Niklas Luhmann put this another way: all acts of communication arrive inextricable from their own contingency. In deciding what to communicate, we also establish what might have been changed but wasn’t. The act fixes a form on the horizon of potential that is unified by the fact of its distinction.

The particular decision of prayer is distinct in its challenge of action’s trajectory, in its petition of history to bend in the future. When the act is fulfilled, it ceases to be prayer. When the act is rejected, it is a sacrifice that still manages to ensure language is produced and reproduced in an environment now better understood. Prayer becomes an integral part of language’s dynamic adaptation toward viable interpretations of experience. By definition the thing created is a suicidal kind of language; for this it is an intense burden and those performing this labor against authority rarely see remittance.

But the form cuts two ways--in dividing the world into form and everything not of it, the act also splits down a line between observer and observed. The one who prays is re-defined in observance of the prayer. It is in the act of praying that one recognizes himself as such. In this way, it is a fatal self-indulgence, one that often, as poet Joshua Bennet wrote, Grants us the strength of a rage/ we can barely fathom.

Against this there is harbor in acknowledging the arbitrary ways we are moving away from the settled formulations of an established past, and the power we have to affect this arbitrariness with creative acts. Each time I look out that window from the room alight on the gathering dusk, I see the reflection of myself in the glass, rather than the darkness that lays beyond it. I pray for something stupid here, impossible--that I am somewhere else, far away from the mundane necessities around me.

Along the ocean left of me there is earth, then there is nothing. The gentle curve in the joist of a new wave is my only evidence we’re still drifting like a soap bubble around our aureate little detonation. In the other direction, the streets are stunned in marrow, an indefatigable fact. Near the road, torched gardenias are wobbling like saints.

DREW KNAPP is a writer and editor based in Astoria, NY. His other work can be read at He can be reached on Twitter @drewjknapp.

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