I finished reading Rachel Corbett’s You Must Change Your Life, a double-biography of Auguste Rodin and Rainer Maria Rilke, and enjoyed it. Since it is a double-portrait, with many other artists and writers making appearances, it lacks the depth of a singular biography. What it lacks in depth, though, it makes up for in breadth, charting the intersecting courses of a wide variety of artists and writers at the turn of the century and seeing how they enriched and frustrated and haunted each other. Most of her portrayals are sympathetic, although I don’t know how it could have escaped Corbett’s attention that Gwen John was a real artist in her own right, not just a love-struck student mistress of Rodin’s, as she describes her in a single throwaway sentence.
My favorite parts of You Must Change Your Life are where she explores the creative growth of her two main protagonists, like this excerpt where she writes of Rilke’s developing poetic ideas:
“Inseeing described the wondrous voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart, wherein perception leads to an emotional connection. Rilke made a point of distinguishing inseeing from inspecting, a term which he thought described only the viewer’s perspective, and thus often resulted in anthropomorphizing. Inseeing, on the other hand, took into account the object’s point of view. It had as much to do with making things human as it did with making humans thing.”
She peppers her text liberally with wonderful quotations from Rilke’s letters and poetry and Auguste Rodin’s sayings. It is worth reading the book just to come across quotes that resonate as strongly as Rilke describing an artist as being “like a worm working its way form point to point in the dark.” Or Rodin declaiming: “There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character.” I think the quote that felt closest to my own feelings as I read was Rilke’s comment in a letter: “I yearn so strongly: to be a real person among real things.” I sometimes think that desire for the real is the driving force behind most art. It is the wonderful, terrible, quixotic attempt to capture some essence of life, some feeling of self, some of the texture of reality.