With Kierkegaard and Nietzsche looming in the background, Rilke’s extraordinary influence on the generation of philosophers and theologians rising to prominence after 1918 (e.g., Guardini, von Balthasar, Buber, Scheler, Heidegger) and on the generation following (Gadamer, Fink, Adorno, Josef Pieper) has long been recognized. Inevitably, if also controversially, it is Heidegger’s account of Dasein that is most frequently associated with Rilke, mainly insofar as key tropes found in Sein und Zeit (1927) – e.g., Sein zum Tode and the existential dispositions (Befindlichkeiten) of Angst, Gerede, Neugier – are often felt to resonate with Rilke’s poetic and epistolary oeuvre. Such reverberations would later be reinforced by Heidegger’s exploration of Rilke (“Wozu Dichter?”— 1946), even as the philosopher’s approach to exegesis, fueled by a willful etymologizing and crabbed parsing of words lifted out of all syntactic, formal, and cultural embedding would draw a sharp and largely justified critique by Adorno (“Parataxis” – 1963). Yet if Heidegger’s approach to poetry not only fails Rilke by superimposing univocal philosophical concerns on the rich textures of lyric speech. For already in its early development, Heidegger’s strictly immanent analysis of Dasein in Sein und Zeit appears to originate in a strangely one-sided conception of existence notably at odds with what we find in Rilke’s Duino Elegies and his Sonnets to Orpheus.
Unsurprisingly, and confirmed by Heidegger’s epistolary exchanges with Arendt and Jaspers during the early 1920s, Rilke had been a significant presence in Heidegger’s thinking for some time. Yet a parallel reading of the late Rilke and earlier Heidegger reveals a disconcerting flattening-out of the poet’s attempts to capture how fleeting, albeit potentially epiphanic experiences both confront Dasein with its inescapable finitude and mortality and in so doing place it at a certain transcendent remove from this very predicament. Thus, in affirming “die herrlichen Überflüsse / unseres Daseins,” and maintaining that “noch ist uns das Dasein verzaubert; an hundert / Stellen ist es noch Ursprung” (RW 2: 262) Rilke locates in finite Dasein’s encounter with the ontic realm (“der unerschöpfliche Gegenstand”) an interweaving finitude and transcendence: “Gesang, wie du ihn lehrst, ist nicht Begehr, / nicht Werbung um ein endlich noch Erreichtes; / Gesang ist Dasein.“ – Well before spawning reductive and often tone-deaf readings of poetry (Rilke, Hölderlin, Trakl, George), the philosophical project of Heidegger’s Fundamentalontologie appears to spring from a fundamental misprision of Rilke’s far more nuanced view of the relationship between finitude and transcendence. To advance such a view is not to reclaim Rilke for a particular theology. Rather, it is to recognize that a strictly disjunctive view of phenomenology and theology of the kind asserted in Heidegger’s eponymous 1927 essay necessarily precludes or, at the level of exegesis, misses a poetic knowledge of the kind that the later Rilke seeks to develop.