Gadi Goldberg On:
Gym Period by Rainer Maria Rilke
Known primarily as a poet, Rilke’s most renowned work of prose is his novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,” which can most certainly be described as lyrical prose. Few know that Rilke wrote many short stories, especially during his adolescence. Rilke wrote the story “Gym Period” in his journal on the evening of November 5, 1899, when he felt that: “…the military novel suddenly became so pressing that I believed, that I would have to begin to write it—if not right away—then at least today,” as he mentioned in the entry preceding the story. Rilke planned on writing his experiences from the military academy he attended during his youth. But his plan to write the “military novel” never materialized, because he felt he simply he couldn’t do it. The storyline is rather simple, focusing on one episode, a single frame from the lives of the academy cadets. The story zeros in so sharply on its subject matter that the first lines are read like stage directions of an opening scene of a play. But the conflict at the center of the story is not simple at all. In a mere few pages, Rilke manages to illustrate one of the modern world’s most distressing and problematic conflicts—the suppression of the individual by the collective. To amplify the image, Rilke chooses a collective whose strict authority and discipline only further erodes the humanity of the individual. And when the individual attempts, only once, to overstep the boundaries of military conduct, it ends tragically, as if Rilke wishes to convey that only death can release us from the loss of individual identity that occurs in militaristic environments. The fact that after Gruber’s death, the teacher-officers continue to maintain the strict discipline without loosening the iron fist with which they preside over the class, only intensifies the sense of the individual’s erosion in the militaristic yoke. The story’s ending shows just to what extent the military academy stripped the cadets of their humanity. Even when one of their own dies, his fellow classmates are able to respond only in a joking manner, unable to grasp how far gone they are, indoctrinated by the military machine.