For almost a century, writers and other creative people have found inspiration and a profound sense of validation in the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s posthumously published Letters to a Young Poet. Many a sensitive soul has felt as if Rilke’s letters, written to a young man who had asked him for advice on whether to become a poet, were addressed directly to him or her. One of those people was the actor Dennis Hopper.
“Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is a great book,” Hopper says in this short film from 2007. “For me the letters are a credo of creativity and a source of inspiration. After reading Rilke it became clear to me that I had no choice in the matter. I had to create.” The ten-minute film, Must I Write?, was directed by Hermann Vaske and photographed by Rain Li. Hopper reads the first of the book’s ten letters, in which Rilke tells the young man to stop seeking approval from others:
You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can help and counsel you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places in your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all–ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.
Hopper is reading from the 1934 translation by M.D. Herter Norton. There are a few minor slips, in which Hopper deviates slightly from the text. Most seriously, he inverts the meaning of a passage near the end by adding (at the 7:23 mark) the word “not” to Rilke’s phrase, “Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist.” That passage, one of the most memorable in the book, reads:
A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgement of it: there is no other. Therefore, my dear sir, I know no other advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.