by Mara Jebsen
There was a special skull in Paris in the late 1800s. Like all skulls, it once belonged to a larger structure–a display at the Ecole des Beaux Arts offered to young artists studying anatomy. Amongst these is the young poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke, though struck by the “manifold interlacing of the muscles and sinews” and the “complete agreement of the inner organs with one another”, can’t handle the majesty of an entire corpse. He comes to fix his attention uniquely on the skull. He gets hold of it.
Rilke takes the skull back to his student quarters to spend many nights with it. He contemplates it by candlelight, and keeps it company, until, as we’d expect (for its Rilke, Paris, candlelight, skull) he has a strange thought. . .
But first I want to turn your attention to another skull. This one appears in a poem which appeared to me, appropriately enough, in an anthology of Russian poetry : “In the Grip of Strange Thoughts”. The second skull is a photographic reproduction, an X-Ray, of the one inside the actual poet’s head. Its no good– me trying to describe this skull–as Elena Shvarts does it with such stinging radiance that I can hardly describe her powers of description. She writes:
And my God/growing dark/Slipped me this photograph/In which my glowing skull/Etched from the invisible/Swam, blocking out the dusk/And the stripped naked park
She’ll go on in the poem to be bemused, casual, even crude. But in this moment she’s struck and trembling with the oddness of her own skull. She seems to be naming something intrinsically weird. . .
Now here is the strange thought that occurs to Rilke: the coronal suture on the skull reminds him forcibly of the line made by a needle, during his childhood, when a brilliant schoolmaster compelled his group of noisy boys to hush up and make a rough phonograph from materials hanging around. The boys made the phonograph; the needle made a line, and that line made an indelible impression on Rilke. In an essay written a good fifteen years after his “strange thought” as a young student in Paris, Rilke shyly offers this proposition: he wants “to conduct a series of unheard of experiments”; to make a phonograph needle run along the line of the coronal suture. He has some notion that by doing so he can reverse and switch up the fields of the senses, which brings him to newer thoughts, still fairly strange, but out of the realm of science and back onto planes Rilke can occupy more comfortably—supernatural planes of poetry and love.
There’s a third skull, however, that I want to attend to. This one turned out not to have belonged to Agamemnon. We don’t know who it belonged to. Schliemann, a German archeologist, deeply hoped that it was Agamemnon’s skull. Leonard Cottrell’s account in “The Bull of Minos” gives a totally fascinating character study of young German Schliemann, a greengrocer’s son, who was obsessed with the myths of Homer and determined to go to Greece to dig up evidence of Troy. So he does. He makes a great deal of money as a merchant first, learns seven languages, and then, although the girl he’d hoped to impress with all of this has already married another, heads off to Greece to prove that the myths are true.
Schliemann turns out to be sort of wrong and sort of right. The skull isn’t Agamemnon’s but after three years of fruitless digging, he has stumbled upon Mycenae. A treasure trove. He’s convinced that he’s gotten it right. Schliemann touches the golden bull of Mycenae and holds it in his hand.
So here’s what I’m getting at:
When Rilke begins to reflect on his desire to conduct “a series of unheard of experiments”, he admits that his idea, though scientific in nature, is powered by his deep awareness that most of what we “know” (I mean, really know), we know through our senses. This crazy scheme of his; putting an phonograph needle to the coronal suture in order to birth a “primal sound” is an extension of his desire as an artist to “pass through the five gardens of the senses in one leap.” He’s been hanging out with this skull, and it makes him think that he can make the magic of the mind into a physical thing.
But my problem is that I find the whole thing funny.
Elena Shvarts writes, later, in Elegy for an X-Ray of My Skull:
Something else strikes me as weird/That I can’t sense my skull inside.
I agree with Shvarts, here. It is weird. And its weird that I’ve got skulls on my mind.
I’ve got skulls on my mind?
I find this hard to explain, but thinking about my skull makes me laugh. In a dizzy way, like my head’s a helium balloon. Its as if my organs could sit around deeply contemplating skin. Or, I imagine neuroscientists might feel the slightest bit hypocritical? Brains studying brains. How can I have skulls on my mind when I’ve also got a mind in my skull? A skull literally ON my mind?
Its all very strange. It’s the grip of one of those “strange thoughts.”
The end of the story of Rilke’s skull is this: it made him write this crazy little essay, “Primal Sound”, which I never hear people talking about, maybe because it offers an embarrassing example of poets dabbling in science. But while he’s said many brilliant things about poetry and love along the way, Rilke’s ultimate move is to recommend, shyly again, the conducting of the “unheard of experiments”. He’s not unlike Schliemann in this way, trying very much to make something mythical, that he has intuited, into something tangible, sensual, and real. Rilke, at the end of the essay, seems unsatisfied with heaven and poetry. He want proof on earth of what he can sense without his senses. He wants a sign, and if one will not come, he’ll make it.
Shvarts might understand, really, that Rilke and Schliemann are madmen, to be hanging out with skulls by candlelight, by gravesite. She is more amused and bemused by this bizarre container, than inspired to interpret it as a sign. Holding the x-ray of her skull, she’s startled and becomes a little giddy in a way I understand:
O Lord/What shall I do with it?/Spit in its eyesockets?/Fill it up with wine?
Or put it on my neck and wear it once again?
I’m not sure, either, what one is to do with the life of the mind, or with the eerie sensation of that mind possibly bumping into the skull, which goes on unobtrusively hanging out in the head. What’s sure is that I will never see my own skull, though I’ll go on believing its there
So I hurl it aside—this light-looking shell
And it flies off thundering among the stars like a pail.
Which at the moment, strikes me as good an answer as any.