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October 1, 2012

Losing too is still ours; and even forgetting
still has a shape in the kindgdom of transformation.
When something’s let go of, it circles; and though we
[are rarely the center
of the circle, it draws around us its unbroken,
[marvelous curve.

☛ “For Hans Carossa” by Rainer Maria Rilke, Muzot, February 7, 1924, tr. by Stephen Mitchell, Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, Modern Library, 1995, p. 165. The translation is available here.

For more details about this poem as well as alternative translation and the original German version, see below. But first a short comment on the very first part of the first verse: “Losing too is still ours”.

It seems to be Rilke’s opinion not only that it is possible to have or possess a loss, but more importantly that we can share this possession among us, an idea also expressed in the English expression “It is our loss too”. Moreover, the possession of this lack (something missing, absent) is sometimes paradoxically presented by Rilke as the most precious thing two individuals can cherish together. If we agree to understand solitude as some sort form of social lack ―although not necessarily a pejorative one― than Rilke’s comments about love in his Letters to a Young Poet (1929) are quite eloquent:

And this more human love (which will fulfill itself with infinite consideration and gentleness, and kindness and clarity in binding and releasing) will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other. (tr. by Stephen Mitchel, First Vintage Books, 1986, Letter 7, May 14, 1904).

In fact, this lack or solitude is a recurring topic in most of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The idea that a loss is constitutive of the individual in his relation to others is also shared by Georges Bataille who expressed it in the most succinct form when he wrote:

L’homme est ce qui lui manque. (Oeuvres complètes, Paris: Gallimard, tome 2 “Écrits posthumes 1922-1940”, 1970, p. 4191)

Man is what he’s missing or lacking. Bataille shares with Rilke the idea of a loss that is only negative in the sense that it indicates an absence, not it the sense that it is bad or undesirable (like in “Your test came back negative”). For Bataille, the lack is an opening ―a hole or a wound― through which the immune individual let go of his or her immunity and exits toward the Other in a sacrificial movement. In Bataille’s view, I exist only if I’m willing to lose myself in the process of this strange “communication”:

“Communication” only takes place between two people who risk themselves, each lacerated and suspended, perched atop a common nothingness. (On Nietzsche, (tr. Bruce Boon, London: Continuum,[1945]2004, p. 19)

In a small essay published in the Fench magazine La Quinzaine littéraire, Denis Hollier offers a striking synthesis of Bataille’s views:

Chaque être, dès l’instant où il est pris dans un système de communication, est défini, non par des caractères positifs, mais par une insuffisance, par un défaut essentiels. L’homme «n’est rien d’autre sous un soleil malade, que l’oeil céleste [l’oeil pinéal] qui lui manque». «L’homme est ce qui lui manque.» Telle est la proposition fondamentale de la logique de la communication élaborée par Bataille. L’être n’existe qu’en communication, c’est-à-dire que blessé et, par cette blessure, s’’écoulant en une dépense à plus ou moins longue échéance mortelle. La communication est le sacrifice de l’être, l’être comme sacrifice. (“Bataille paraît”, no. 97, June 16-30, 1970, pp. 5-6).

It should be clear that Rilke’s shared loss and Bataille’s “common nothingness” do not solely concern the individual, but concern the coexistence of individuals among themselves. It is a “political” matter as well. This observation ―with its somehow aporetical structure: to share the opposite of something, to exist by risking our lives― is at the heart of Roberto Esposito’s book Communitas:

(…) the wound that we cause or from which we emerge when we ouselves are changed when we enter into a relation not only with the other but with the other of the other, he too the victim of the same irresistible expropriative impulse. This meeting, this chance, this contagion, more intense than any immunitarian cordon, is the community of those that manifestly do not have it, when not losing it, and losing themselves in the very same process of flowing away from it. (Communitas. The Origin and Destiny of Community, tr. Thimothy Campbell, Standford: Stanford University Press,[1998]2010, pp. 18-19)

I wrote about those issues before: 1) About the idea that a community is not necessarily something which is defined by a completeness or a substantial unity, but rather that we may encounter each others through processes of exclusion and separation. See Some thoughts on the 2012 Quebec student protests. 2) About this strange, uncanny form of communication which create precarious but intense relation through incommunicability. See Incommunicability: Kafka’s “On Parables”. 3) About the fact that what we have in common is something missing: a common unit of measurement. Or to put it in other words: we share a common incommensurability. See On the threshold of knowledge: Pythagoreans, irrationality and the experience of modernity. Incommunicability: Kafka’s “On Parables”.

• • •

The poetic inscription by Rainer Maria Rilke quoted at the very beginning of this entry was written for his friend Hans Carossa. Here’s an explanation offered by the translator Don Mager:

Hans Carossa (1878-1956) was a German physician and novelist known mainly for autobiographical novels. During Rilke‘s time in war-time Munich, his social circle included artists and professional people. Carossa was among them.

There are some mentions of Carossa in Rilke’s correspondance. See for example Letters Of Rainer Maria Rilke Vol II 1910 1926 at

Below is the same inscription first in its original German form:

Auch noch Verlieren ist unser; und selbst das Vergessen
hat noch Gestalt in dem bleibenden Reich der Verwandlung.
Losgelassenes kreist; und sind wir auch selten die Mitte
einem der Kreise: sie ziehn um uns die heile Figur.

Here’s another English translation, this time by Don Mager (Beginnings and Fragments From the Thematic Material of the Elegies and Duino Elegies, [1991] 2010, p. 175. PDF):

Loss is also ours: and forgetting itself has
a shape in the enduring realm of transformation.
What is let go, circles back; and, though we‘re seldom centered
In such circles, each draws us into its healing shape.

Finally a French translation by Philippe Jaccottet (published as part of Poèmes éparsPoésie in Oeuvres 2, Paris: Seuil, 1972, p. 445).

Même perdre est encore nôtre; et l’oubli même
a forme encor dans la constance des métamorphoses.
Ce qui fuit a son orbe: si rarement que nous en soyons le centre,
autour de nous, ils tracent la figure sauve.

I know of another French translation of the first verse: “Car perdre aussi nous appartient”. I was unable to identify the name of the translator or the edition where it could have been published (it may come from Gallimard’s Pléiade edition). I stumbled upon it in an interview Jacques Rancière gave back in 2005: “Perdre aussi nous appartient. Entretien avec Jacques Rancière sur la politique contrariée de la littérature” (by Martin Jalbert, Contre-jour : cahiers littéraires, no 8, winter 2005, pp. 69-89. PDF).

• • •

1.Here’s some additional information about the quote “L’homme est ce qui lui manque”. In Gallimard’s Oeuvres Complètes (tome II), it exists as a note referring to page 13 in the same volume. Page 13 is the very first page of the small essay “Le Jésuve” which is itself part of a collection of texts titled “Dossier de l’oeil pinéal”. The sentence “L’homme est ce qui lui manque” actually appears –it is said in Gallimard’s note– on the back (verso) of the enveloppe where the 33 manuscript pages of “Le Jésuve” were kept. The sentence must have been written in 1930. Below is a reproduction of all of Gallimard’s notes for “Le Jésuve”. ↩︎︎

“L’homme est ce qui lui manque” Georges Bataille, note added to “Le Jésuve” manuscript, as part of “Dossier de l’oeil pinéal”, Oeuvres Complètes, tome II, Paris: Gallimard, 1970, p. 419
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