Feel Better

Rilke’s Panther & The Cage of Self

  1. I, ICH, EGO

On the 1st of May 1889, the young (33 year old) psychoanalyst-on-the-make Sigismund Schlomo Freud took on the case of a “a lady of about forty years of age”, a Frau Emmy von N., who we now know to be the Swiss noblewoman Baroness Fanny Louise von Sulzer-Wart. Baroness Fanny had married 29 years previously at the tender age of 23 the 65 year-old Swiss watchmaker and industrialist Heinrich Moser, who died 4 years after the marriage from a heart attack. In the minds of Moser’s five children from his previous marriage, the idea got around that Fanny might have toe-tagged their father after having him sire her two new Moser offspring with birthright claims to his vast fortune. 

This is the first time that Freud decides to give his friend Josef Breuer’s technique of “investigation under hypnosis” a try-out as he attempts to help his new patient with her suffering somatizations (which resemble very much the symptoms of Fibromyalgia today). Freud starts using techniques which will in time become, after he has ditched the overt hypnosis angle, his own special contribution to human animal therapeutics. 

Were we to travel back in time and watch or record Sigi and Fanny’s interactions over the three-week period in which he devoted on a daily basis a great deal of his time to her, “determined” he writes in Studies in Hysteria, “to do all I could for her recovery”, we might refer to these interactions as one of the first modern examples of “the talking cure”. Or simply: “therapy” as we now like to call our pre-eminent secular religion, a psychological technology or treatment, which can be found, a century later, in 101 exciting flavours including the “original” or classic psychoanalysis. All of it, every single flavour that now contributes to this worldwide billion-dollar industry, harks back to that original recipe concocted by Freud and Breuer in the late nineteenth century, and written up in their co-authored book Studies in Hysteria.

Freud finds Fanny on their first meeting “lying on a sofa, with her head resting on a leather bolster.” He takes a moment to register her from the vantage point of what we might now call The Male Gaze. “She still looks young,” he tells us, “and has finely-cut features, full of character. Her face,” he writes, “bears a tense, pained expression; her eyes are screwed up and cast down; she has a heavy frown and deep naso-labial folds. She speaks as if it were arduous, in a quiet voice that is occasionally interrupted to the point of stuttering by spastic breaks in her speech. When she speaks she keeps her fingers, which exhibit a ceaseless agitation resembling athetosis, tightly interlaced. Numerous tic-like twitches in her face and neck muscles, some of which, in particular the right sternocleido-mastoid, protrude quite prominently. In addition, she frequently interrupts herself in order to produce a peculiar clicking noise, which I am unable to reproduce.”

So as to help his readers, Freud provides a footnote on the ‘clacking’ or ‘clicking’ sound, telling us colleagues with “sporting experience” have informed him, having heard it, that it somewhat resemble “the mating cry of the capercaillie”. Hunting for this call online, I find a youngish David Attenborough being chased around a Highland Pine Forest by a fierce-looking male capercaillie wearing red eye-liner, it’s mating cry eliciting from my memory the sound of those last few drops of a fizzy drink slurped out of a can by a late-twentieth century human child through a plastic straw. 

It also reminds me of John Burnside’s poem “First Footnote on Zoomorphism” which has these lines of anthropomorphic longing in it: 

It seems we have said too little about
the heart, per se,

how it sits in its chambered nub
of grease and echo

listening for movement in the farthest
reed beds — any feathered thing will do,

love being interspecific, here,
more often than we imagine.

If anything, I’d liken us to certain
warblers, less appealing in the wild

than how we’d look
in coloured lithographs,

yet now and then, I’m on the point of
bitterns at the far edge of the lake,

that cry across the marshes like the doom
you only get in books, where people die

so readily for love, each heart becomes
a species in itself, the sound it makes

distinctive, one more descant in the dark,
before it disappears into the marshes.

Freud and Breuer’s novel take on hysteria would of course factor these movements of the heart into the suffering human animals they treated, with their quasi-poetic linguistic flurries and strange somatizations. Which also makes this the Origin Story for psycho (psychological) therapy as we now understand the talking cure to imply. Rather than just standing to one side, like our medical doctors do and observing symptoms so as to make a diagnosis of perceived dysfunctionality or illness, the doctor now begins to listen to the patient, in the belief that they may be able to assist both the doctor and themselves in understanding what lies at the heart of their suffering. Freud perhaps implicitly or even explicitly understood that new kid on the block, science, and our “scientific” explanations are ultimately also mythological ones. 

Reading through the case study, we find that that Freud’s main tasks in helping this beleaguered young woman, is to give her lots of massages, some of which, this was common at the time would have involved stimulating the genital region until, well, until the patient felt better. Let us not forget, that the vibrator which is nowadays sold in sex shops was first and foremost a medical tool called a“percuteur”:  invented by the British physician Joseph Mortimer Granville in the 1880 in order to help physicians carry out their increasingly sought-after “pelvic massage” procedures without having to go through that tiresome manual operation requiring the physician’s fingers needing to stroke, rub and chafe against parts of the pelvic zone until the sought-after energetic release was accomplished. After carrying out these manipulations, Freud would put Fanny Moser into a trance-like state, perhaps assisted by the after-effects of an orgasm, so as to implant through various suggestions ways for her to be more skillful or functional (according to the requirements of the time) in her relationships and domestic affairs. While she was languishing on the couch, he would also encourage her to talk about past traumas in order to process or “work through” this material so that the so-called “hysterical” push-pull of her nervous system might settle down and find some peace. 

In the Strachey translation of Freud’s text into German,when discussing his ideas about the non-biological provenance of Fanny Moser’s hysterical symptoms, we find one of the first uses of the word Ego in the Freud Canon. Freud is explaining in the text how the hysterical conversion of neurotic energy into “somatic innervation” (tiredness, bodily pain and loss of perceived strength in arms and legs)) were all part of the process whereby “the ego” tries to repress troubling emotions such as anger or guilt, often triggered by painful reminiscences. And in so doing puts up “defensive measures” which according to Freud might be viewed as “acts of moral cowardice” towards the psyche’s suffering, a sort of shutting down on one’s own suffering self.

Freud never used the word Ego in any of his writings, even though we attribute this word to him. The word is used thousands of times though in our English translations of Freud, but the term that Freud himself came up with to describe our conscious or semi-conscious awareness was “ich” (I). This was set against the expression he used to describe the unconscious realm, from which all our painful emotions and thoughts mysteriously emerge, which with equal simplicity, Freud called “es” (it). This is also the title of his 1923 book Das Ich und Das Es. Which in English has the title The Ego and The Id

“The psychological processes Freud discusses are personal and internal” writes Bruno Bettleheim in The Soul of Freud. “The translation of these personal pronouns into their Latin equivalents—the “ego” and the “id”—rather than their English ones turn them into cold technical terms, which arouse no personal associations. In German, of course, the pronouns are invested with deep emotional significance, for the reader has used them all their lives; Freud’s careful and original choice of words [would have] facilitated an intuitive understanding of his meaning, for no word has greater and more intimate connotations than the pronoun “I.” It is one of the most frequently used words in spoken language—and, more important, it is the most personal word.”

To mistranslate Ich as “ego”, Bettleheim warns us,  “is to transform it into jargon that no longer conveys the personal commitment we make when we say “I” or “me”—not to mention our subconscious memories of the deep emotional experience we had when, in infancy, we discovered a Self, in the process of learning to say “I. I am hungry. I am thirsty. I want this. I don’t want that. I love you. I hate you. Etc.

Bettleheim fears that what has occurred here in this translation of the word “ich” into Ego is the creation of a concept that leaves lived reality behind us in favour of a concept. The reality of Ich, of I, this simple presence-filled container of impressions, thoughts and feelings, Freud made sure to tie down in language to our ongoing, embodied experience by using a term that made it practically impossible to leave reality behind: ich, ich,ich. 

Reading or speaking about the “I” forces one to look at oneself introspectively, to really become aware of seeing the world through two subjective eyes, forming as the I, the Ego does, a somewhat cohesive psychic entity around the disparate thoughts, feelings and narratives present in conscious. The I, the ich, denotes a unitary self, designated by a single capital letter which also stands for the first numeral. I am. I am a unit of self. 

By contrast, an “ego”  is something that can be studied from the outside, more like when observing others. “With this inappropriate and—as far as our emotional response to it is concerned—misleading translation,” Bettleheim explains “an introspective psychology is made into a behavioural one, which observes from the outside what is happening within. This, of course, is exactly how most Americans view and use psychoanalysis”

And perhaps, we could extend this critique to how we all now view and use psychotherapy, as a kind of one-stop Ego-repair shop. A place where everyone is told to go for all their major Ego workouts: our Life MOT tests, resilience checks, air conditioning (aka emotional regulation), repairs for traumatic wounding, wheel alignments, steering, suspension, clutches, anxiety brakes, engine management, and all the rest. 

And yet, even a century’s worth of naval-gazing after Freud, the profound mystery of just having an I, a conscious self, and the way this self (this Ego) is set up to help us and hinder us in the management of everything that we perceive to be “inside us” (thoughts, feelings, perceptions) hasn’t been clarified in any significant way. Did Plato and Aristotle have less of an understanding about their Egos, their conscious experiential points of I-ness than Freud did, than we do? Unlikely. The Ego, this I speaking to your You (your Ego) is anarchically heterogenous: thoughts, feelings, and reactions, as well as the suppression of behaviours originating from these thoughts, feelings, reactions all play their part. We’re all now au-fait with the notion of this I, this Ego being caught somewhat piggy-in-the-middle between the demands of a pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding “It’ or “Id, the inner Homer Simpson, and the cultural or familial super-ego, reflecting back to us, or demanding we take action to manifest as Idealised Selves, carrying out Idealized Actions. These selves and actions are often formulated through a moral and ethical language (you must, you should, you have to), which creates a kind of clash or opposition with the inner Homer Simpson. 

But would reading the complete works of Sigmund Freud, Skinner, Rogers, Erikson, Maslow, Beck, Adler, Bowlby, and all the rest reveal to us any more about these archetypal inner entities than we already know just from the experience of having them? Which is why I’m going to suggest for this episode of Poetry Koan, that Rainer Maria Rilke, rather than Freud, perhaps understood as much as needed to know about his Ego, as his contemporary Sigismund Shlomo Freud did. And maybe, as you will see, they both arrived at their understanding of what or who the Ego is, the I, the you, the they, is, am, are by engaging in an empathic form of inquiry. Rilke with an animal in a cage, a panther, who he would cage or uncage, depending on your reading of it, in a poem. And Freud, with his patients, sitting behind them, smoking his cigars, and observing as they lay spread out on the couch before him, the ways in which the Ego, the I, leads us on all a merry, which is to say, somewhat suffering, dance.


Before we get to Rilke, let’s talk empathy.

At the end of the 19th century German Philosophers and neurologists were combining expertise to create a new science of the mind which was given the name of phenomenology. Phenomenology was established as a discipline to study the nature of consciousness. Psychoanalysis however had its target primarily set on the unconscious. All the yadda-yadda, Ich, Ich, Ich coming off the couch, let us remember, was for Freud just that, a box of psyche-content, a sort of pick-and-mix selection of received opinions and neurotic expostulations. But by furrowing around in this box of conscious Ich, Ich, Ich, Freud hoped he might break through to something more primal, or at least more meaningful, some sort of jewel of inner-awakening and insight, which would resolve the central suffering Koan or paradox of this absurd creature’s life, so that they might somewhat mournfully get on with things, without being plagued by overwhelming and undefended distress.  

Art, and the study of art known as aesthetics, became a common point of convergence for these two other disciplines. Psychologists began to see how looking at people’s emotional responses to art, and the motivations that drove some to create it, could help explain aspects of human nature that had never been fully grasped before. One of these conundrums might be conceptualised by the follow question: What is a Self, an I, a conscious and self-conscious Ego. And what universal or variable factors might lie at the heart of such a phenomenon.  

One figure who was especially interested in this new discipline of psychology was Theodor Lipps. Lipps had been taking note of the work done in the 1860s by the German doctor Wilhelm Wundt who had begun to researching neurological phenomenon like reaction time to stimuli, and in so doing, had stumbled on interesting gaps between the brain and the mind that Freud would fill in with something called The Unconscious. Lipps’ research focused on why art, painting, poetry, and music gives us pleasure, and to this required an understanding of the subjective elements at play when we look at a piece of art. Something his contemporary, the art historian Alois Riegl called ‘the beholder’s involvement’. Some essence inside us is being touched or spoken to when we behold a work of art. In some way the act of looking or reading then becomes a creative process, and the viewer in tackling the koan of an artwork, also becomes the artist. How does this happen?

Lipps found a name for his theory in an 1873 dissertation by a German aesthetics student named Robert Vischer. When people project their emotions, ideas or memories onto objects they enact a process that Vischer called einfühlung, literally “feeling into.” The British psychologist Edward Titchener translated the word into English as “empathy” in 1909, deriving his word from the Greek empatheia, or “in pathos.” For Vischer, einfühlung revealed why a work of art caused an observer to unconsciously “move in and with the forms.” He dubbed this bodily mimesis “muscular empathy,” a concept that resonated with Lipps, who once attended a dance recital and felt himself “striving and performing” with the dancers. He also linked this idea to other somatosensory imitations, like yawns and laughter. 

Paradoxically, empathy is by definition a somewhat selfish emotion: we empathize with the external in order to enjoy or appreciate something of this in ourselves. In order to, we might say, “find ourselves”, to find and see the contours of the self, the Ego, our Ego, which is alwayslooking for ways in which it might Self itself into the world and the lives of those of the people we inhabit it with. Empathy is both life-affirming, and ego-affirming: it allows us to permeate and move through the world. No ego, no go-go.

Freud certainly read Lipps’ work. In fact, we know that he wrote to a friend in 1896 that he had “immersed” himself in the teachings of Lipps, “who I suspect has the clearest mind among present-day philosophical writers.” He would later go on to argue that Lipps’s research demonstrated that empathy should be embraced by psychoanalysts as a tool for understanding patients, urging his students to observe their patients not from a place of judgement, but from a place of empathy. The empathic self ought to recede into the background like a “receptive organ” and strive toward the “putting of oneself in the other person’s place,” Freud remarked.

At the turn of the last century, as I have suggested, artist and the psychoanalysts were not entirely distinctive categories as they are now, and so it is no surprise that Freud’s initial research into the I, is exactly the kind of thing that the poet Rainer Maria Rilke found himself drawn to when in 1902, at the age of 26, he managed to get a gig shadowing the artist August Rodin (who was at that point  two generations ahead, as a man in his sixities). The ostensible reason for doing this was that Rilke wanted to write a monograph about the I (in both senses of the word) of Rodin, which he would go on to do.

“Like Joshua following Moses to the Promised Land,” writes Rachel Corbett in her book about the meeting of these two figures, “Rilke saw this journey as the beginning of a new future. A new understanding.”

The plan was to immerse himself in Rodin’s praxis and philosophy so as to write a long and potentially unique essay on the artist, and in so doing, perhaps more fully understand and develop Rilke’s own artistry, which like everything he wrote, was always intrinsically exploratory of his own Ich, the essence of his Egoic manifestation in the world as this thinking, talking, love-seeking poetry missile, Rainer Maria Rilke.

Having let Rilke trail around with him for a few days, Rodin tired of the German snoop, and decided he needed some space to himself. He would visit a friend in Italy, and perhaps Rilke could get on with something else for a while. So he suggested that Rainer maybe try out an assignment which Rodin himself had undertaken as a student many years earlier. Regardez les animaux, professor Barye had told the young Rodin. To the aspiring figurative sculptor, staring at beasts had seemed a second-rate task. But in regarding les animaux Rodin soon understood why non-human animals had been objects of reverence for artists dating back since the cave painters. Now he would impart this quasi-shamanic teaching to the young fanboy Rilke: Regardez les animaux.  

In a letter to his somewhat estranged wife Clara, Rilke describes how “Rodin has a tiny plaster cast, a tiger (antique), in his studio . . . which he values very highly . . . And from this little plaster cast I see what he means, what antiquity is and what links him to it. There, in this animal, is the same lively feeling in the modeling, this little thing (it is no higher than my hand is wide, and no longer than my hand) has hundreds of thousands of sides like a very big object, hundreds of thousands of sides which are all alive, animated, and different. And that in plaster! And with this the expression of the prowling stride is intensified to the highest degree, the powerful planting of the broad paws, and at the same time, that caution in which all strength is wrapped, that noiselessness.”

The panther Rilke will study in the Jardin des Plantes in his bid to follow Rodin’s Regardez Les Animaux injuction begins, even in this lettert to find its words. A tiny plaster tiger with a prowling stride and broad paws, the bars of his cage borrowed from the Luxembourg Gardens, and th  gaze from the poet’s own, as well as his sense of desperation. 

Rodin’s surfaces are there to suggest a reality that can only be inferred, just as fingers or a face, by gesture or expression, disclose a consciousness that would otherwise be indiscernible. Sculptures are things: they start as stuff, stuff taken from stuff like rock or clay, and they stay stuff until the artist gives them a determinate form so that, through that form, they may have life. The poet’s problem is precisely the opposite. Language is our most important sign of elevated awareness, but language has weak presence. Though often on paper, it possesses no weight. A poem is like a ghost seeking substantiality, a soul in search of a body more appealing than the bare bones mere verses rattle. It is consequently not the message in a bottle that Rilke previously thought it was, nor a young man’s feelings raised like a flag. All of us have emotions urgently seeking release, and many of us have opinions we think would do the world some good, however the poet must also be a maker, as the Greeks maintained, and, like the sculptor, like every other artist, should aim at adding real beings to the world, beings fully realized, not just things like tools and haberdashery that nature has neglected to provide, or memos and laws that society produces in abundance, but rather that Kantian idea of the ding an sich (the Thing-in-itself, as it is, independent of observation and perceptual mediation). 

To guide him on this journey, Rilke recalled the teachings of his old professor from Munich, Theodor Lipps, and devised a process of conscious observation, which he Rilke would come to call, with a nod to Lipp’s einfuhlung, einsehen, or “inseeing.” 

Inseeing describes the voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart, its essence, 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 only results in anthropomorphic projective identification. 

Inseeing, on the other hand, takes into account the object’s point of view. It has as much to do with making things human as it does with making humans things. If faced with a rock, for instance, one might stare deep into the place where its rockness begins to form. We might then keep looking until our own egoic centre, our own Ich, starts to sink with the stony weight of the rock forming inside us too. It is a kind of perception that takes place within the body, and so it requires the observer to be both the seer and the seen. To observe with empathy, one sees not only with the eyes but with the skin. “Though you may laugh,” Rilke wrote to a friend, “if I tell you where my very greatest feeling, my world-feeling, my earthly bliss is, I must confess to you: it is, again and again, here and there, in such in-seeing in the indescribably swift, deep, timeless moments of this godlike in-seeing.” In describing his joy at experiencing the world this way, Rilke echoes Lipps’s belief that, through empathy, a person could free themselves from the solitude of their self, their Ego, their egoic minds, in order to truly see and comprehend the soul of another, or even an object. 

Although as Freud would come to recognise in his early work on transference and counter-transference: when we are looking in this deep phenomenological way into the soul of another, are we not also in some sense always seeing ourselves, our own egos in some way, or at least aspects of them. 

All of this though is mere hypothesis besides the real, thing-in-itself experience of  Rilke on an autumn morning somewhat like this one, grey, a bit mizzly seating in front of a large iron cage in the Jardin De Plantes in Paris. A cage that has been constructed, as much to attract the artists of the day for this very purpose, as the children being taken to the zoo by a parent looking to fill an afternoon of boredom in a pre-iPad era. 

There is of course good “scientific form” in this mode of Inquiry that Rilke may have even been aware of, for noot 65 years before his meeting and writing about that Panther, who is himself, at the Jardin Du Plante, we find Charles Darwin, recently having returned from his own important travels on The Beagle sitting in a zoo, admiring the first orangutan to be shown by this establishment, purchased the year before from a certain Mr Moss for £150 and named Jenny. 

£150 was quite a lot of money in those days. With the help of the internet and Ian Webster’s Composite Price Index Inflation Calculator,  I arrive at around £14,000 for the purchase of Jenny. Human slaves were being purchased for similar prices at the time according to recent research

When Darwin met Jenny the orangutan on the 28th of March 1838, he was was still two decades away from publishing The Origin of The Species, in which our longheld view of ourselves as godly humans or even human gods was swiftly dismantled to show our true status as humanoid animals who had achieved our dominion through circumstantial luck, primate guile, and all the other twists and turns of the evolution algorithm, including a devastating asteroid impact 66 million years ago which wiped out not just the dinosaurs, but most life on earth, allowing in the next few million years, much smaller mammals to diversify and thrive, some of these scurrying rat and raccoon sized mammals eventually evolving into you and me.

Darwin, who was also a young father at the time, experienced Jenny behaving just like a one of his own children when denied something they wanted. Initially getting “sulky”, then throwing a temper tantrum, and then negotiating with one of the keepers for good behaviour in return for a special treat. With this in mind, he wrote in his notebook: “Let us visit Ouranoutang in domestication, hear expressive whine, see their intelligence when spoken [to]; as if they understand every word said – see their affection. – to those they knew. – see their passion & rage, sulkiness, & very actions of despair; … and then let us boast of our proud preeminence … Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.”

Darwin visited Jenny two more times after this, and saw how “astonished beyond measure” she was when she saw her reflection in a mirror. Jenny had self-consciousness, just like us. Jenny had a sense of her self as a Jenny. Just like us. 

Back to Rilke, seated in front of the panther’s cage hour after hour, feeling himself into the non-human animal before him. The mythos is that he sat the whole day observing the panther before attempting to write his poem. Perhaps he did. At a certain point Rilke would have begun to experience the essence of this creature, an essence we share with all living things, our essential life force. But to put this essence into words, words always being, unless reduced to legalese or academic hoity-toit, the carapace of the self, the ego. So understandably, in this portrait of an Other, an I emerges, Rilke’s I, Rilke’s Ich. Which makes this kind of sound. Or rather puts this kind of meaning of itself into the world. Here’s the poem: 


His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

A poem allows us to take a thousands of experiential sketches made in our minds as we interact with the world, all the thoughts, feelings and fleeting glimpses of truth and falsehood, and turn these into something that feels embodied the way we feel ourselves, which to say our own Egoic I to be embodied. The Panther becomes a living koan of the self, something which both encapsulates and can never be fully encapsulated. This process he had also learnt from Rodin, who would sit a make drawings, the way other humans shed skin cells, about 500 million a day then, if we’re going to take that analogy seriously. Here is a passage I love about this process from the monograph Rilke published about Rodin a year later: 

“Lines have never been so expressive and yet so unintentional, even in the most extraordinary Japanese drawings. For there is no representation here, no plan or purpose, and no trace of a name. And yet, what is not here? What holding on, or letting go, or no longer being able to hold on; what bending over, stretching out, and contracting; what falling or flying has ever been seen or imagined that is not to be found again here? If they had been seen somewhere once, now they were lost: for they were so fleeting and fine, so far removed from a single meaning, that no one had ever been capable of ascribing them one. And it is only now, when we see it unexpectedly in these drawings, that we understand this meaning: the extremes of love, suffering, despair, and bliss emanate from them, although we don’t know why….We see their depravity, and it is like the growth of a plant, growing in madness because it cannot do otherwise….And a touch of blue behind a falling form is enough to bring space tumbling onto the page from all sides, enveloping the figure with so much nothingness that one grows dizzy and reaches involuntarily for the hand of the master who is holding the drawing out in a delicate, generous motion.”

The Ich who reaches for this fresh new drawing, the glimpse of everything in the making of a contour to express another contour, a seen object, is attached in an embodied way to the hand of someone we now call Rilke. The hand that reaches is motivated by something essential to Rilke, essential to what it means to be Rilke, who also writes that Essence onto the page when he sees it, or rather finds it, in the shape of a panther. 


What might the essence of Rilke’s Egoic soul reveal to us, if we tried to put it into words, using all our knowledge of the poems transmitted through an Ich, Rilke’s Ich, over many years, as well as the letters, and notebooks, and biographies we have of him to guide us, and our ability, now a century after Freud to also apply everything we have learnt in the last 100 years about the mechanism, or the Operating System if you like, of the Ego, of the Self? 

The word that I find best describes both the Panther’s predicament as well the predicament of Rilke’s Ego or Ich, is LONGING. Samuel Johnson in his dictionary of 1755 describes longing as “an earnest desire”. Also: “a continual wish”. The word comes from the Old English langian “to yearn after, or grieve for,” with the literal meaning of “to grow long, or lengthen”. Is this not the image that enters into the panther-mind, which for all we know, may be minded not entirely divergently to us. An image, in the panther’s case, without language for something to be yearned after or grieved for: the loss of connection to Essence, a nurturing habitat perhaps and the ways that allows us to be in flow with ourselves, the opportunity to live our animal destiny as biology has designed our particular life form to process. There is of course, perhaps for the panther too that longing expressed in blood vessels becoming engorged in the pelvic area, pressing or urging the creature who might be a panther or a human towards a kind of release, a completion of sorts which we fold into terms like: sexual desire and a romantic relationship. But longing can also be seen as a kind of extension of the self, the egoic self, through the elements of wanting. Wanting an object (a person, or a thing), or an experience, or a different situation where the ego perceives this longer-for other as offering a kind of integration, realization, or perhaps just a discharge, a wholeness that all egos sense they may not fully possess (because they don’t), some sort of beneficial transfiguration in how the world appears to us, and we to it, at least, a new way of seeing the world.

 We find this perspective, especially with regard to love throughout the life and work of Rilke, as it often is with the personality type known as Enneagram Four. Here’s another poem where the panther now wears trousers, shoes, and some sort of torso covering, wandering hither and thither in virtual and non-virtual realms in search of the Beloved.  

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don’t even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of the next
moment. All the immense
images in me—the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers, and bridges, and un-
suspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods—
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.
You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house—, and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me. Streets that I chanced upon,—
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back
my too-sudden image. Who knows? perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening.

Again, in this poem, the image of both the painfully (too-sudden) alone poet hanging around the changing rooms of Gap or Dorothy Perkins in the hope of finding The One. Or accessing, at least in a metaphysical sense some union in the shared resonance of bird song between one longing Romeo and their Jules or Juliet.

In a well-known Rumi poem, a man is castigated by a cynic for his perpetual longing.  “So! I have heard you calling out, but have you ever gotten any response?” The man of longing is shamed for his desires, forced into recognising the emptiness of this impulse, having “never heard anything back.” Until another Friend, employing a script we often hear from modern therapist tells him: “This longing [itself] is the return message.  The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.” 

The union referred to here is perhaps that  of the bodily separate life-force to a more conglomerate Being, the mystery of Presence, to use the language of Spirit that we find in the work of Hamid Almaas who has decided to name his form of seeking The Diamond Approach. “Your pure sadness / that wants help (another word for this help might be “satisfaction”)/ is the secret cup,” the inner friend goes on  to advise the poet. “Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. / That whining is the connection.”

This is a nice idea, but it also strikes me as a kind of sophistry. I think of my own beloved Maxi Jacks who lies nestled into my legs on the bed as I type this on a Saturday morning in bed with the flu. If he were to be separated from me, or me from him, our longing for each other would connect us in our shared deprivation, but as Lear says somewhat churlishly to Cordelia who refuses to give him the response he is longing to hear from her: “nothing will come of nothing”, at least not on the material plain in which we mostly reside. 

If longing is the Ego’s passion, it must I would imagine stem from some kind of perceived lack. The Enneagram Four personality type (that of Rilke, Kafka, Plath, and a whole bunch of other funsters), could be rendered very simply by a kind of icon or emoji of the empty, or almost empty glass. Some specific context might also be required to charge that emptiness with longing. An empty glass sitting on the IKEA shelf for purchase or display is not a glass of longing. This glass needs to be held in a hand, or alongside other glasses in other hands, each waiting for some beaker of The Good (joy, connection, pleasure, meaning; whatever feels to us to be the most precious liquor of human experience) the beaker filling each glass moving around the circle and depositing an equal measure of this good thing into each receptacle. Until it gets to the Fourth glass, and alas, sorry, only just enough for a tantalising sip, but no more.

There can be no longing without a comparative notion with regard to receiving or taking in place. For longing to occur in the way it does in the Panther, and in most Fours, there needs to be the perception of others getting what we need in those realms of value, whilst we get less or nothing. We imagine our friends or ex-partners waking up today with some kind of external love, care, satisfaction in their lives that we are missing in ours. The bottle of champagne is brought around the circle, filling each glass with some pleasurable nectar until it reaches ours and gives up. Everyone else is perceived as sipping and snacking, carried along by the inclusivity and reciprocity of their individual and shared pleasures, whilst the person left holding the empty glass is alone, and probably lonely. Rilke is also the poet of loneliness, but only perhaps he craves a certain kind of company with the ardour he does. 

All of this comparative evaluation is of course absurd, relatively speaking. But the feelings that hurt most, the emotions that sting most, are those that are absurd: the longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was; the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world’s existence. All these half-tones of the soul’s consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are or were. The sensation this poetic type comes to have of itself is of a deserted field at dusk, sad with reeds next to a river without boats, its glistening waters blackening between wide banks.Are these feelings a slow madness born of disconsolation or  reminiscences of some other world in which we’ve lived – jumbled, criss-crossing remembrances, like things seen in dreams, absurd in the form they come to us but not in their origin, if we knew what it was. 

“My longing to be whole put me into this state of useless regret,” another longing Four, Fernando Pessoa writes in his Book of Disquiet.

The focus for my current longing, a form of longing that strikes me at various times of the day with the urgency of the hysteric’s somatizations, is all quite useless, quite, quite useless, in tht there is nothing that I can do with it, other than allude to it now and again, as I am doing here, but otherwise, it serves no purpose other than as an image of a certain glass with a certain kind of content to it, rushing down through tensed, arrested muscles, plunging into the heart (as a knife, a traumatic memory, an ache, an intense craving for something or someone) and is gone. But it will return, especially if mulled over when we see or feel the internal image again, the way we might mull over a poem.

Rilke, Pessoa, Kafka, Camus, Rumi. All Fours. But not Rodin, who was an Eight. Freud, a mental type, probably a Six. The Panther Fours as we can see, are all trying to work out in their writing how to make peace with the cage of self they find themselves in, find themselves barred by, as well as ultimately, how to break out of the cage itself. 

My friend Rez has been on this Diamond Path for some years now, and claims that it has given her wings, which in our conversations, sounds like the ability to shrink or expand metaphysically at will, in order to slip out of or fly from the cage of subjective and limited egoic self. At first, she explains to me in a voice note she sends about the Rilke poem, it allowed her to pilot the cage through space and time a little more deftly, but this was then no longer needed when she was better able to experience her True Nature (I imagine these two words to be capitalised, even though in her voice note it’s hard to tell what is capitalised Special Language Usage, and what is just ordinary discourse). 

True Nature is that which is unfiltered by egoic structures. This is her interpretation of the poem. The panther and the poet-as-panther are being given inklings, little glitches in the Matrix perceived through everyday experiences of suffering, which eventually will lead me and anyone who is interested, to fully grock the five experiential dimensions of the Diamond Path: the dimension of absolute emptiness (where both inner and outer perceptions no longer seem tight and constraining, but have space, perhaps even infinite space surrounding them. The dimension of pure nonconceptual awareness, unmuddied by egoic ideation. The dimension of pure presence as I’ve attempted to described above, where being and the knowing of being are the same. And then, maybe just for us Heart types, the dimension of Pure Universal Love, where presence, in all states, becomes sweet and appreciative. She admits in her message though, that she is still struggling with this one, but then, like Almaas, she too is a Five, and no doubt that comes with both the territory and whatever remains of her Ego Cage. 

I don’t have a particularly snappy way of ending this, so let me leave you with an update on Jenny, just in case, of all the characters introduced in this little tale, you might want to know what happened to her after she and Charles Darwin got acquainted.

The Jenny who confirmed Darwin’s revolutionary evolutionary theories,  died a year after their first meeting. The zookeepers replaced her with another orangutan, perhaps also purchased from Mr Moss for another £150/14 grand, and promptly named Jenny’s replacement, Jenny too. Not Jenny Numeral Two, but just Jenny once more. 

This is not that peculiar a form of behaviour for our species. Some people, having lost a family pet, will call the next one by the same name. And sometimes humans do this to their own children. Rainer Maria Rilke’s mother, whose birth name was Sophie, though she preferred to be called by the more forthright and feisty sounding Phia, had lost a baby daughter the year before giving birth to her son. Rilke’s arrival in the world was equally premature and sickly, and she feared that she might lose him as she had lost her first child. So when it came to christening her son, she gave him two female names in the midst of all the others: Rene Karl Wilhelm Johann Joseph Maria Rilke. This was carried out much to the chagrin of her husband, Josef Rilke, a railway official with pretensions of being a Military Man. Rene and Maria were not considered cis male names, even in 1875 Prague, even in the German-speaking, Austro-Hungarian Prague of Rilke’s childhood.

For five years, until he went to school,  Rene’s mother dressed him in “long dresses,” Rilke recalled many years later. There are even photographs of the young Rene and his doggo chum posing on a large Afghan rug, his hair cut to fall below his shoulders, the dress ornately patterned with embroidery and pleated trimmings, cute ankle-length fur-lined leather booties rounding the whole outfit off in a very charming way. 

“Until I started school I went about like a little girl,” Rilke informed an interviewer. “ I think my mother played with me as though I were a big doll.”

This may be true, but I wonder if he perhaps tried to make this a special or unique part of his identity (very Four) as it would appear that lots of mothers in the late Victorian period both in England and abroad, dressed their children in this style. Only in the twentieth century would fashion start to become gendered for children’s clothing in the way that it was in the late 20th century, and somewhat still so now. 

But back to Jenny. Queen Victoria, did not see the first Jenny, but she did see Jenny’s replacement, the next Jenny, and found her to be “frightful”. Also “painfully and disagreeably human”. And so maybe doubly frightful for that reason. The Queen, not yet a Darwininan, might have also recognised something of herself in Jenny, for she too had awoken that morning as a weird, quasi-hairless primate with its bladder and small intestines full of smelly matter to be excreted, and other stuff to be cleaned and cleared and wiped away. Maybe this image, or something akin to it, presented itself to her conscious or unconscious mind on seeing Jenny, only to be repressed or dispatched, or dissociated from in some way, a momentary plunge into the heart, ouch, ouch, ouch, and then gone.