Rilke on Murder

“Murderers are easy to understand,” bluntly says the German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his 4th Elegy.  Then why do we spend so much time on them?  When another awful one happens, the news media go berserk & everyone spends hours reading & watching & discussing the accounts.  Are we really that dense, that unimaginative?

In one of The Sonnets to Orpheus (II, 11) Rilke goes deeper & observes, “Killing is a form of our wandering sorrow . . .”  In contrast to that, we feel sorrow for the victims only briefly, and then we want vengeance & retribution & punishment.  But laws actually stop only some people.  The death penalty?  Kill people to teach people that killing people is wrong?  I don’t think so.

What about the murderer within all of us?  Even ol’ Jesus spoke of that:  “You have heard it said ‘You shall not kill & whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” (Matt. 5:21-22)

Perhaps the form our sorrow takes (for others) is misdirected.  Perhaps we are really unconsciously sorrowing for our own death.  Most people don’t like to think of their mortality, & indeed many think they won’t die when they die.  Good luck with that one, is all I (& Rilke) can say.

There ain’t nothing new in all this.  I discuss it a bit more in the “Epilogue” of my Rilke on Love book, which I wrote in 1972.

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