dr. Clinton Peter Verdonschot

philosopher // aesthetician // critical theorist

Change, but don’t improve your life: (mis)interpreting Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ (1908)

9 March, 2020
'Head of Rilke' by John Wragg, photo made by Wikimedia Commons user Rodhullandemu

Rainer Maria Rilke has a famous sonnet. It’s about a headless sculpture with a strong affective power. The poem eventually became very famous, particularly the very last part of its very last line of verse: “Du mußt dein Leben ändern”, usually rendered as “You must change your life”. Though it is very famous, it is not often understood. A particular catalyst of misunderstanding is German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who took this final line and made it the title of one of his books. The book is very long. But here, in this brief blog post, I will show that its length is not to be taken as an indicator of erudition. Rather, the interpretation of the poem which becomes the departure point of the entire book, is a blatant misreading.

Before I start, let’s have the poem. I give both the original German, and an English translation by Howard A. Landman (found on the internet, here). Landman’s translation, of all those I could find on-line, sticks closest to the semantic content of the poem. As far as I can see, no attempt is made to preserve metre or rhyme patterns. Since my criticism of Sloterdijk will consist of a close reading of what is said in the poem, this serves our purposes well enough.

The original German, “Archaischer Torso Apollos”:

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

And Landman’s translation, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”:

We never knew his fantastic head,
where eyes like apples ripened. Yet
his torso, like a lamp, still glows
with his gaze which, although turned down low,

lingers and shines. Else the prow of his breast
couldn't dazzle you, nor in the slight twist
of his loins could a smile run free
through that center which held fertility.

Else this stone would stand defaced and squat
under the shoulders' diaphanous dive
and not glisten like a predator's coat;

and not from every edge explode
like starlight: for there's not one spot
that doesn't see you. You must change your life.

Before I begin with Sloterdijk’s (bad) interpretation, please make a mental note of the following, relatively uncontroversial features: the poem is about an Ancient sculpture. The poem’s title tells us it is a sculpture of the god Apollo, but the poem itself makes no mention of whom the sculpture depicts. Instead, quite a bit of emphasis is placed on the fact that the sculpture is headless. The sonnet’s ‘volta’, I would say, occurs relatively early on: halfway along the first line of the second quatrain (“Sonst könnte nicht der Bug”/“Else the prow of his breast”), where the poem shifts from a direct appraisal of the headless sculpture to a counterfactual consideration of the things the sculpture could not have done, were it to have retained its head (though you might say the volta occurs even earlier, at the end of the second line of the first quatrain, “Aber”/“Yet”, from which point the torso’s lack of a head is shown not to be a lack at all).

The perfection of a fragment

Saying much more would be full-blooded interpretation, so let’s turn to Sloterdijk’s misinterpretation before I do so. After citing the poem in full, he has this to say:

Whoever absorbs anything vaguely concrete upon first reading has understood this much: the poem is dealing with perfection - a perfection that seems all the more binding and mysterious because it is the perfection of a fragment. (Sloterdijk [2009] 2013, 21)

The German word Vollkommenheit, refers to completeness, wholeness in itself, and can also be understood as perfection. Because a thing is complete, it could not possibly be a better version of itself. Now the torso is, of course, incomplete because it has lost its head. And precisely because it is without such a head, it is able to affect the person who looks upon it. And Sloterdijk is saying that this is a kind of perfection, “the perfection of a fragment”.

Maybe. At least on this reading, I can understand the connection with the idea of perfection, which is not at all mentioned in the poem itself, but of which Sloterdijk is sure that anybody noticing “anything vaguely concrete” will notice it immediately. But now we might ask why Sloterdijk is so intent on reading the poem as being about perfection? The matter has to do with Sloterdijk’s interpretation of the famous final part of the final line, “You must change your life”, and consequently with his own philosophical project in the book that is named after this line. Here is Sloterdijk’s take:

I am already living, but something is telling me with unchallengeable authority: you are not living properly. The numinous authority of form enjoys the prerogative of being able to tell me ‘You must’. It is the authority of a different life in this life. This authority touches on a subtle insufficiency within me that is older and freer than sin; it is my innermost not-yet. (Sloterdijk [2009] 2013, 25-26)

The language is flowery, so let me clarify: Sloterdijk is taking the line “You must change your life” as an ethical and religious command (“numinous” means: “arousing spiritual or religious awe”). That command speaks to our nature as finite, incomplete beings (“my innermost not-yet”). It is because of that nature that we must work to realise ourselves, or ‘become who we are’.

The experience of the torso, according to Sloterdijk, is significant because it reveals something about our own nature as human beings. And the ethical imperative that the torso communicates to us, is also a religious imperative because it depends on us making a leap of faith into accepting the sculpture as an agent who can communicate a demand to us. And for this reason, Sloterdijk takes it as significant that the sculpture depicts a god, since he makes much of the supposed religiosity of the poem:

In the position where the object usually appears, never looking back because it is an object, I now ‘recognize’ a subject with the ability to look and return gazes. Thus, as a hypothetical believer, I accept the insinuation of a subject that dwells inside the respective place [….]. (Sloterdijk [2009] 2013, 24)

And what sort of religion does the sculpture propagate? For all Sloterdijk’s fancy language, the religious imperative that he reads into the poem, can be summed up quite simply as follows: ‘be the best version of yourself’, or ‘cultivate your imperfections’. Because we are finite beings, we must continually work to improve ourselves: that is why, according to Sloterdijk the sculpture speaks to us of a “perfection of the fragment”.

Skin care poetry

For all the enthusiasm that Sloterdijk shows for the poem, there are some rather curious features of his interpretation. There is, already mentioned, the fact that Rilke himself makes no mention of the sculpture being ‘perfect’ in any way. But more importantly, it is also not necessary to read him as articulating an ethical demand at all. To be sure, the German ‘müssen’ as well as the English ‘must’, can mean ’to be required to do’. But it can also mean ’to be compelled, by a force of nature, to do’ (as in: “I must go to the toilet”, or “I must avert my eyes, because of the blinding light”). Moreover, we have to note, even if Rilke is articulating a normative precept rather than a physiological necessity, the demand is still “You have to change your life”, meaning: it has to be different, and not necessarily improved, better, or more perfect.

This may seem like nitpicking, until we actually try to imagine the poem along the lines of Sloterdijk’s interpretation. Let’s do it: let’s imagine the poem ending in the way that Sloterdijk’s reading requires:

Else this stone would stand defaced and squat
under the shoulders' diaphanous dive
and not glisten like a predator's coat;

and not from every edge explode
like starlight: for there's not one spot
that doesn't see you. You must improve your life.

Wouldn’t that beat the spirit right out of the poem? Wouldn’t that turn an unfathomable emotional depth into something like a cheap motivational slogan, or a commercial for a skin care product?

Finally, note that one of the main themes of the poem, the torso’s being headless, plays no role at all in Sloterdijk’s interpretation. It is important for his reading that the torso is incomplete, or fragmented, but the fact that the torso is missing its head, what we normally find to be the most important feature of (a depiction of) a human body, plays no role at all. But surely, this must mean something? After all, it is precisely the absence of a head (not legs, or arms, or whatever) that ultimately enables it to say “You must change your life”: “Else this stone would […] not from every edge explode like starlight […]”.

The force of the object

My own, better interpretation starts with this question: why is the torso’s headlessness significant? And in the process it may count as significant that the torso is a headless Apollo. As far as I can see, for Sloterdijk, it is only really important that the torso depicts a deity, since that goes some way towards clarifying why the torso’s imperative is a religious one.

Now, the Roman deity Apollo is (among other things) associated with light, knowledge, medicine and the sciences. With that in mind, the fact that we are dealing with a headless Apollo becomes immediately significant: the god of knowledge has lost his head. And so, the poem starts, fittingly, with a confession of ignorance: “Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt”, which Landman translates as “We never knew his fantastic head”. The original German actually emphasises the ignorance in two ways: first, we did not know his head, which was, secondly, unerhört, literally: unheard-of.

But while with his head, the torso of Apollo has lost his status as the patron of scientific knowledge or practical wisdom, he remains the patron of light: “Yet / his torso, like a lamp, still glows /”. What light is this? Besides science, Apollo is also the patron deity of the arts. And so one is tempted to read Rilke’s emphasis on the torso’s breast and loins (i.e. the places on the body where we metaphorically locate our feelings and our desires), as attuning us to the aesthetic and sensual, rather than the scientifically knowable.

At the very least, this reading allows us to make sense of the turn, the traditional element of a sonnet in which a change of perspective is accomplished. Although, or rather: because the torso has lost its head, we can now become attuned to its heart and loins. Although we cannot know, we can feel and desire, and this all the more brilliantly in the absence of knowledge.

Note further that the torso’s aesthetic power is not at all something personal, like a subjective interaction between the deity and the one who experiences the sculpture. Sure, “there is no place” on the torso’s surface that “does not see you”, but it sees you while having lost the head “where eyes like apples ripened”, or again: because it has lost its eyes, every aspect of its surface now looks at you. Only because it has shed a personified form, can the torso become an object that, from every point, sees you.

Ordinarily speaking, we encounter the world by seeing it. We thereby interpret according to mostly pragmatic categories: an object is either adequate for use as an instrument, or inadequate, as an obstacle to be overcome. Here, because of the sheer brilliance of the sculpture (“like starlight”, exploding “from every edge”), the roles are switched: it sees us, and the whole question becomes how we might be (in)adequate for it.

If that makes sense as an interpretation of the poem, consider what we should make of the famous “You must change your life”. In my reading, this is not to be understood as a command, or imperative at all, since those are things that subjects make to themselves or other subjects. The torso has lost its head, it cannot place demands on you. It has lost its eyes, so not a hint of subjective being is left. And if we follow the logic of the poem, it is precisely in losing this personified status, that the torso gains an ever deeper, or more primitive power, a force of (inorganic) nature: stone.

Sloterdijk argues that the object, through a leap of faith, can come to be seen as a subject imploring us to live up to a level of perfection that this subject already has. Moreover, he takes the interaction with the sculpture to be meaningful only insofar as the sculpture calls out to us as subjects. On my reading, by contrast, this is a complete and utter failure to interact with what the poem is trying to say. The torso is not another subject. To argue that we need to muster up a talent for religiosity in order to be able to pretend that it is, is precisely to miss the point.

The point is rather that the sculpture has lost all subjectivity, but that with this loss, it has gained the force to shake our subjectivity as well. The line “You must change your life”, according to this reading, is something like a necessarily inadequate vocalisation of a feeling that you are yourself inadequate (and so unable to even properly articulate that feeling). Your entire person is not going to cut the mustard, and this includes not only your cognitive capacities, but also any and all moral convictions about what imperatives are authoritative for you.

Thus, the feeling that one must change one’s life cannot be a normative demand. First, because these can only be made by subjects, and second, because they can only be addressed to subjects. But the interaction between the torso and the poet, is not between two subjects, but rather between a sculpture that has lost its subjectivity, to a human being that is pushed by it to something over and beyond subjectivity.

Conclusion: why am I being so mean?

I have my interpretation, Sloterdijk has his. If we put it in this way, you may start to wonder why I have been so mean-spirited to Sloterdijk. For instance, I have been consistently referring to his interpretation as a misinterpretation, a failure to interpret the poem correctly to begin with. And I admit, this is a little mean-spirited. There is, however, a point.

“Archaic Torso of Apollo” is generally considered, not only a sonnet, but also an exemplary instance of a ‘Dinggedicht’, literally: a “thing-poem”. This is a genre of poetry in which a poet will do her best to get to the things themselves, by articulating the world of the object without subjective interference, so to say. One may find this naïve, or outdated, or whatever. Personally, I find at least this poem to be an exceptionally powerful, even if sobering, testament to the finitude of human understanding.

But even if you disagree with that, it will not do to pretend for this reason that something else is going on in the poem instead. Then you are not only refusing to engage with the poem on its own terms. As a subject projecting your own fancy unto the poem, you are going against the grain of the entire spirit of the poem, and therewith against the entire philosophy of art that is contained within it.

That is to say: we can take the force of the sculpture to symbolise the force of the poem itself, as the experience of the headless torso can become a symbol of our aesthetic interaction with art: a type of interaction in which we distance ourselves from our subjective mindset of determining the world and open up to the possibility of us ourselves being determined otherwise: “You must change your life”. But on that reading, Sloterdijk is not just misunderstanding the poem, but also what the point of art is in general. And that mistake is no longer merely embarrassing, but also dangerous and important to correct.