Matter as yearning

Our path through the history of the concept of matter in German thought has put us on the trail of longing. We are finding that matter, in its long history in philosophy, is not the inert stuff out of which bodies, corpuscula, things, objects, are made – rather it is the drive, longing, urge, the pulse-beat of existence itself. It is no accident that matter has been misunderstood and always again leads to its own misapprehension. We are beginning to see why materialism is a much more central motif in German thought than we may have thought, and also much more central than what we usually call German idealism. In fact, this idealism is the systematically determined misapprehension of matter itself.

On the basis of our emerging conception of matter, we can start to make sense of periods and phenomena in German intellectual and cultural history – the movement from Sturm und Drang to Classicism, to Romanticism, to Biedermeier for example.

In this poem by Rilke the depth of materialism, the way it reclaims human desire from its religious reification, is expressed in a gripping way which looks ahead hopefully but also darkly ominously, despairing, at the century that was to follow, as in a Blochian Vorschein (pre-illumination) shining a not-yet fully conscious light on the reconstitution of the materialist drive that was possible, and – so devastatingly – missed; a daydream as an invocation of a possibility. The absence of the conjunctive expresses no certainty but a deeply human shyness, human longing realising its own greatness and tremendousness: it has to think what is greatest. The more intensely and perciptively it does so, the surer, clearer, the way towards it – but also the longer, more difficult and precarious, the less assured the arrival. The poem whispers our heart’s desire, its impossible possibility.

Alles wird wieder groß sein und gewaltig.
Die Lande einfach und die Wasser faltig,
die Bäume riesig und sehr klein die Mauern;
und in den Tälern, stark und vielgestaltig,
ein Volk von Hirten und von Ackerbauern.

Und keine Kirchen, welche Gott umklammern
wie einen Flüchtling und ihn dann bejammern
wie ein gefangenes und wundes Tier, –
die Häuser gastlich allen Einlassklopfern
und ein Gefühl von unbegrenztem Opfern
in allem Handeln und in dir und mir.

Kein Jenseitswarten und kein Schaun nach drüben,
nur Sehnsucht, auch den Tod nicht zu entweihn
und dienend sich am Irdischen zu üben,
um seinen Händen nicht mehr neu zu sein.
Rainer Maria Rilke, 20.9.1901, Westerwede


[Everything will be great and tremendous again.

The lands simple and the waters rippled,

the trees enormous and the walls very low;

and in the valleys, strong and diverse,

a people of shepherds and tillers of the soil.


And no churches, which fence God in

like a fugitive and then bemoan him

like a trapped and wounded animal –

the houses hospitable to all knocking

and a sense of boundless sacrifice

in every action and in you and in me.


No waiting for hereafter and no peering out to a beyond,

only the longing to keep death sacred

and in service to practise the earthly,

to no longer be new to its hands.]


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