A defective reading of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”

The “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rainer Maria Rilke is a poem of great power. (Here is a link to the Stephen Mitchell translation, which I recommend you read before proceeding with the rest.) The surprising shock of the final words (You must change your life.) always seem new and true to me, no matter how many times I read it. The poem at once shifts from a detached aesthetic gaze to a hard ethical demand (i.e. subjectivity in Kierkegaard’s sense), from potency to actuality. (It is not surprising to discover that Rilke studied Kierkegaard intently in the years leading up to writing this poem.) Let’s begin by taking the title apart:

A torso is a remainder/reminder of a living whole. A torso is a metaxy (an in-between) that connects the envisioning mind to the organ of generativity, nous to dynamis. The word “torso” suggests also “torsion” and it is common for classical sculpture to adopt a slight twist in order to produce an illusion of movement. As we can see in the movements of a graceful golfer or discus thrower, a torso at the still limit of its winding, ready to uncoil, is a figure of latent potency. For Aristotle, motion is always the expression of an unwinding potency, but we can see in both the statue and the athlete under torsion a potency that looks like rest. The final sentence is the moment of unwinding, of discharge.

Archaic is an adjective based on the Greek word arche, meaning origin, foundation, principle, beginning. Archaic literally means “ancient” in the poem, but takes on the meaning of an originating cause of the ripening power of the absent eyes:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit.

Legendary comes from the Latin gerundive legenda, meaning “things needing to be read.” There is a hint of both obligation and incompletion in the meaning of the gerundive — as if the statue itself needs/demands to be interpreted. There is more than a hint of the “good beyond being” in the declaration that we cannot know his head, and yet...

And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power.

What is the source of this light? We are told it is “inside” but not necessarily inside the statue. I want to read it both that the gleaming brilliance is inside the observer and that it is the implicit perfection that makes the statue’s defects manifest. How, if the lamp is turned to low, is it still able to gleam in all its power?


the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

First, let’s consider this otherwise, which is duplicated in the next stanza. The most natural way to read this referent to this otherwise is as connected to the inner lamp, that without this lamp there could be no dazzle and no smile. Obviously, this is its first meaning. But otherwise also refers back to our own incapacity to know as stated in the first line. Knowledge, in the ordinary sense, would be a perfected understanding of the unbroken statue. It would be just a statue. Our view would be complete and would summon none of our own powers to overcome any defect. The statue as unbroken would be a lifeless thing, no longer an open door onto the transcendence of form. The “smile” is the “V” formed by the iliac creases from the top of the hips to the lower groin; these creases converge like an arrow tip toward the genitals, the locus of creative power. There is no generativity that doesn’t point outside of itself, toward that which itself needs to be fostered toward the wholeness of being and form. The centripetal gaze lost in the dark center brings forth a centrifugal longing for completion, toward the injunction “You must change your life.”

Finally, I want to consider the last word/name in the title, Apollo. Obviously, this refers to the god of order, harmony, health. But I also want to claim that it bears a close relationship to Plato’s Idea of the Good. In Book 6 of the Republic, Socrates reveals to Glaucon the highest of studies, the Idea of the Good. Comparing the Good to the sun, Socrates declares it not only the source of the light of all knowledge but also the power of bringing into being. He declares that “the Good is not being but is still beyond being, exceeding it in dignity and power” (509b). We cannot know the Good since knowledge is adequate only to the level of being, but we also cannot know without the Good, the source of all generative power. Without the Good, all defect would merely be brokenness and not an active summons toward an unachieved wholeness:

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

In response, to Socrates’ assertion of the Good’s status “beyond being,” Glaucon responds “Apollo! What a demonic excess!” (509c) The appeal to Apollo is in response to what must seem to Glaucon like unmeasured hyperbole. But the “excess” is really a recognition of the inherent defectiveness, incompleteness of being-as-being. Being when confronted with a Good that exceeds it must respond by becoming, as a plant stretching towards the sun. Being as a power, as a dynamis, only is in its reaching toward the source of wholeness. Plato, according to legend, once gave a lecture called “On the Good” that made the inscrutable claim that “the Good is the One.” The transcendent Good for Plato is an immanent injunction in every being toward integrative wholeness. Forgive the fanciful etymology, but the name “Apollo” breaks into a-polloi, i.e. “not many.” All of us live lives, at least partially, that are scattered, broken and confused. The inner light summons us to be otherwise: You must change your life.

Every dialogue of Plato is an Archaic Torso, which demands-to-be-read, which is infused with a summons to change one’s life to those who enter its defective becoming. I will end by citing a thumbnail description of Defective Reading from a previous post:

My working hypothesis is that defects can only be experienced as defects if there is at work an anterior/immanent norm of completion or wholeness. The defect is “seen” by the “light” provided by the sense of wholeness/completion animating the beholder. The light is not seen, but seen by. Once one become aware of a defect, in an argument for instance, an inner norm becomes energetic and operative. Defects excite such norms, whereas self-satisfied opinions depress them. Moments of such defective awareness thus present the best chance to catch a glimpse of these norms in action, norms which cannot be fully expressed but can be fully inhabited.

Rilke, I think, knew this.


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