Comparing Rilke and Ricoeur

As i've little time for art work these days, I'm posting a piece I wrote last term (while working on my Masters in Humanities).

In this essay I will attempt to show how Ricoeur’s essay, “Appropriation” and Rilke’s poem “Catch only…” may be connected.

Within both texts I see three themes. First, the realm of essence, a place or state in which truth, or rather many truths are visible and in which the subject, or subjectivity is released and one moves beyond narcissism. Secondly, through entering this space, which Ricoeur calls play, and Rilke refers to as catching a ball, metamorphosis, transformation occurs. Third, there is a connection between the players and the object, the ball or text. All three themes relate to the act of reading, and by extension writing. Ricoeur’s text is about the act of reading, and Rilke’s poem can be read as such.

For argument’s sake I would say that despite the language of spirit/spirituality in Rilke’s text, catching a ball could be read as a metaphor for the act of reading, just as Ricoeur’s text uses play as a theory for reading. Rilke’s invocation of God can be seen as a reference to the spirit of creativity, the greater space of the unknown in which the open reader enters – that place of metamorphosis which is beyond us, greater than us, at least greater than our limited narcissistic selves.

There are three players or states – the writer and the writing of the text – the pitch; the text – the ball in play; and the reader – the catcher. Within these three spaces there is interplay or play, which itself is a critical place/space where the three meet, and must meet in order for the catching and the transformation of the catcher to take place.

We start where both Rilke and Ricoeur end, with the metamorphosis. While Ricoeur recognises that the reader will have an a priori understanding (by extension we could say that the writer would too), the process of appropriation is the key process of reading, during which “the revelation of new modes of being… gives the subject new capacities for knowing himself.” (97) Rather than possessing the text, or claiming ownership to it, the reader moves beyond ego, “dispossesses” it.

One might say that catching a ball is a simple act, however, catching a ball transforms one from a specific form, a stander, a static self, into a catcher – it is the act of catching that makes one so. A reader becomes a reader through the action of reading, and importantly through the act of appropriation, which transforms the reader from the limits of subject, the narcissistic self, into a reader, touched and transformed through the interplay into something more than before.

Ricoeur explains that the reader who can follow the “arrow” (97) of the text’s meaning and interprets along this line moves into a “new self-understanding” (97). This arrow can be seen as the trajectory of the ball in Rilke’s poem – one can catch the ball and be transformed into a catcher, a Reader, if one follows the trajectory of the text, is open to it, enters the space of play, and catches the ball to be metamorphosed. Play requires movement.

It is understood that truth doesn’t just show up, it must be sought, caught. Through movement we experience an unveiling. It is in the space of Rilke’s game of ball, and Ricoeur’s act of play/reading that one enters into the space of truth, or rather truths, the search for meaning, moves beyond the limits of one’s ego, toward an unveiling. One might argue that this is the true reality, that our static state of knowing is illusion; through reading we recognize rather than are cognizant; we ‘are’ rather than we think.

Ricoeur engages the reader, the “’me’ who believes in fiction”. (94) If one reads simply to possess a text, to own it, ‘check it off the list’ so to speak, there is no transformation. Essentially, reading, in Ricoeur’s context is a radical, as in a changing, act; one must believe, and one must subvert a limited act of consumption into an act of transformation that happens by merging with the essential.

The text’s space links us to universal recognitions. We are joined to “God” (Rilke), to creativity. Because open play is in a sense unconscious, free from ego, we are stripped to our essence and so meet the essence of a text “stripped of all that is fortuitous and accidental” (91). The pitch from a skilled player, comes “to your centre” (Rilke); cuts through the ego’s constructs - those things that are temporal, existential, untruthful - to what is essential. What is essential is universal and is the same for all time; “What is emerges” (91). The moment when (the place where) the writer, reader and text join through the act of reading, is the enactment of timelessness, and truth/s. The three are taken beyond subject and subjectivity, into a “universality and atemporality”. (97) It is here that readers of all time connect (as a ball with a glove) with a text that is beyond time.

Appropriation is not a taking but a deepening. If we think in terms of connectivity rather than separation, our perspectives shift. Ricoeur writes that the relation between the writing, the writing and the reader, is “absolutely reciprocal” (91).

While both texts focus primarily on the transformation of the reader, the catcher, it is implicit that the pitch comes from the writer. The three, including the ball or text are connected. Ricoeur does account for the entry of the writer into the universal sphere. He writes, “ The rise to writing implies the ‘suspension’ of the historical process, the transference of discourse to a sphere of ideality which permits an indefinite expansion of the sphere of communication.” (89). By sending the ball on its trajectory, the writer (in both texts) is sending the ball beyond the historical context of the place and time of writing, or pitching. The ball can be caught in any time or space, and has created any number of readers and metamorphoses (perhaps why in Rilke, the ball is ‘suddenly’ caught, because any number of readers if they open the text, can catch it). Such is the reference in Rilke’s poem to “not yours, but the world’s”. Universal truths, or essences within texts are beyond historicity, but not separate from any of them.

If one becomes a reader by reading, so too does the writer become a writer (a ‘bridgebuilder’ to use Rilke’s word) by the act of writing, and so is also transformed from the subject of self, into another. One could add for a writer, ‘write only what you’ve known yourself – all is mere skill and little gain’. A text that is strictly historical, factual and void of universal essence, does not live as ideality, or beyond time. “For poetry proceeds to the essential, whereas history remains content with the anecdotal.” (92) A writer both skilled with “measured and accurate swing”, and transformed by the act of writing, creates texts that move beyond historicity, into a ‘world’s’ text, as per Rilke.

The event of interpretation requires that both distanciation and appropriation be in play. The text becomes atemporal, the writer a “split speaker” (93), so that a non-authorial voice may be heard, another narrative caught. The writer is taken from the text, the text from time and historicity, and the reader from self – in other words the ball must leave the pitcher, be received by the catcher and put into play again to become something else. The reader, in the catching, releases something new, created by the play itself. The catcher must in a sense be a “split reader”, to appropriate what was alien and release the event, self as it is known cannot hold the ball. The self must become alien, or the ball alien to what is known otherwise the ball can only be caught but not played.

What I appreciate in Ricoeur’s text is the connectivity he makes between writer, reader and the act of reading. His theory of appropriation can apply to any form of writing, regardless of genre. His theory, the writing of it within the essay, and the content mirror each other and are connected. In effect, I could fain to say that as in Rilke’s poem, the essay was:

thrown by an eternal partner
with accurate and measured swing

I can hope that I have been transformed by this reading, as I sense a gathering of ideas, rather than a further segmentation of divergent theories; and so am experiencing a element of power, or understanding - but not ‘mine, a world’s’.

Texts Cited

Rilke, Rainer, Maria “Catch only…”,

Ricoeur, Paul “Appropriation”, A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination Ed: Mario, J. Vald├Ęs Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.


vjane said…
Hi Sophie,

An interesting essay. I am not familiar with the particular texts/authors at the foundation of this piece of writing. However I found it interesting to read this with "text' as synonymous with any discursive position.

I am still thinking about the relationship of historicity and essence - if either exist I think they may be contingent. I am just reading Roger Buergel's introduction to, Modernity? The first publication for Document Kassel and wrestling with this pair of ideas.

ps Do you subscribe to AKIMBO? I ask because it has job postings every week that would interest you.


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