BIOGRAPHIES & NEWS
TESTI BIOGRAFICI IN INGLESE
THESE TEXTS ARE IN ENGLISH
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RIMBAUD IN HARAR
He roamed all over Europe, enlisted with the Dutch army to go to Java, deserted, returned to Europe as an able-bodied seaman on a British ship, worked as a fore¬man in a stone quarry in Cyprus, wandered from port to port along both shores of the Red Sea looking for em¬ployment and eventually found some in 1880 as an assistant to a trader in Aden. His employer,* finding him hard-working, energetic and reliable, sent him to Harar in November to open a branch store. His job was to collect coffee beans, hides, wax, gum and ivory from Harar Province and to barter these for European goods, particularly cotton cloth. His salary was raised to nine shillings a day plus his keep and he was promised a 2 per cent commission on all profits.
The Harar which met Rimbaud's eyes had been under Egyptian occupation for six years. Though it had lost the prosperity it had enjoyed in the 16th and 17th cen¬turies, some new buildings had been erected under Rauf Pasha's rule. Many shops, drinking-booths and coffee¬houses lined the streets. Rimbaud had high hopes of making a fortune quickly. Until the arrival of Father Taurin Cahagne, a Catholic missionary, the following year, he was the only Frenchman in the town and he thought he could gain a monopoly of all the trades. He wrote to his mother for a collection of cheap manuals, imagining that he would quickly learn to master all the crafts : iron-forging, thatching, glass-blowing, candle-making, brick-making, etc. He soon understood, how¬ever, that all his energies would be engaged in keeping open his store, for all the Greek and Armenian shop¬keepers resented his intrusion and tried to hinder him in every possible way.
It is difficult to determine where exactly in Harar Rimbaud lived on the three occasions when he became a resident. On his first visit it is believed that he occupied a house of two storeys with a balcony opposite the old mosque (now the main mosque). It opened on to a large courtyard where caravans could be loaded and un¬loaded ; on the ground floor was the store and above it, his living quarters. This house and courtyard may still be seen and have been depicted in Afework Tekle's painting on next page ; the street in which it stands now bears Rimbaud's name.
Rimbaud remained in Harar for a year buying coffee and hides and sending them by camel to Zeila and thence by ship to Aden. All the time his discontent and loneli¬ness grew as he felt cut off from his family and had difficulty in sending and receiving mail. At the end of 1881 he left for Aden hoping to find better luck in other parts of the world.
A year later, however, all his projects had failed and his carefully accumulated savings were running low in Aden where the cost of living was high. He accepted his former employer's offer to return once more to Harar as his agent. At the end of March, 1883, he crossed to Zeila and travelled back through the desert, disappointed to be still only another man's employee. From Harar he set out to explore the Ogaden in search of fresh sources of gum, ivory and musk. He was the first European to penetrate so far south, though a few years later, two Austrians - Dominik Kamel von Hardegge and Philip Paulitschke - followed him. In a report on his expedition he describes having seen crocodiles, elephants, giraffes, hippopotami, rhinoceroses and gazelles as well as large flocks of ostriches. Every chief had several ostriches which he greatly prized. They slept with their owners, close to the fire and had guardians specially appointed to look after them. Rimbaud brought back many feathers - a valuable new export. This report, with its detailed account of the inhabitants and their lives, brought him some attention from learned societies but when the Societe de. Geographie asked him for biographical information he did not bother to reply. Had he done so, they might have helped him to lead a scientific mission which he would have greatly enjoyed, for he loved travel and had the stamina to resist its hardships.
Rimbaud was now thirty. The days of his impatient, rebellious youth were over. Though he still could not tolerate being under any kind of obligation to another person, he began to look for companionship in the human beings around him. He had neither the interests nor the discipline of a scholar, but in his leisure time he would teach the Harari boys to read the Koran, for he had a great facility for languages and had mastered Harari as well as Arabic.
In September, 1884, the Egyptians evacuated Harar and Emir Abdulahi, son of the last Emir, was made governor by the British. Foreign traders, fearing a return of Moslem fanaticism, closed their stores and left the town. Rimbaud was given three months' salary in lieu of notice and departed. Like his fellow traders he was disappointed that the British had not stepped in to occupy Harar :
" It is precisely the British with their absurd policy," he wrote home, " who have undermined and continue to undermine all the trade along the coast. They wished to improve everything and they have done more damage than the Egyptians whom they have successfully ruined. Their Gordon is an idiot and their Wolseley is an ass. Everything they touch is a never-ending progression of absurdities and waste."
He brought with him to Aden a girl who was probably a Hariri. According to the servant of his employer who used to visit her, Rimbaud had her educated at a mission school and intended to marry her, but after a year she either went, or was sent back home. Rimbaud never mentions her in his letters to his family, although he mused to them about the possibility of finding a French wife to live in Ethiopia with him. On his deathbed he spoke only the name of Yami, his Harari servant, to whom he left some money. Yami never received it as he could not be found.
In Aden, Rimbaud signed a further year's contract with his firm, and by the end of it had saved a capital of £500. He decided to invest it in arms and ammunition, like most of the other Red Sea traders. Fortunes were being made at this time, selling obsolete arms bought cheaply in Europe to Emperor John and to Menelik, King of Shoa. As an arms trafficker, however, Rimbaud was a total failure. He set out from Tajoura in October, 1886, after many months of waiting, with a caravan of a mere thousand rifles. His partner died leaving hungry creditors who pursued him everywhere. Menelik was not in Ankober, his capital, so that Rimbaud was obliged to follow him to Entoto. When at last he was received in audience he found in Menelik a hard bargainer for the king had taken Harar and obtained the weapons in its arsenal. Furthermore, he had been informed that a large arms caravan was on its way from the coast. Rimbaud decided to cut his losses on an expedition which cost him 60 per cent of his capital and set out for Harar. He was the first foreign trader to take a caravan by the route which Menelik had opened and which the Jibouti-Diredawa-Addis Ababa railway was later to follow.
Menelik had given Rimbaud a draught-order asking Ras Makonnen to pay it in Harar as he himself was short of ready money. The Ras, who had been made governor of the Province, paid Rimbaud and a sympathy developed between them which lasted many years. When Rimbaud lay dying in Marseilles, Ras Makonnen wrote to him :
" How are you ? As for me, thank God, I am well ! I learnt with horror and compassion that they had been obliged to take off your leg. From what you tell me, I gather that the operation has been successful. I thank God for that ! I hear with pleasure that you are proposing to come back to Harar, to resume your business. I am glad of that. Yes ! Come back quickly, and in good health. I am always your friend.
"—Written in Harar, July 12, 1891. " Ras Makonnen.* "
Back in Aden Rimbaud offered articles to the Societe de Geographie but they refused on the ground that his fee was too high. Instead they were willing to publish for him, free of charge, any memoir he might care to write describing his travels. But Rimbaud was concerned more with keeping alive than with fame. He considered the possibility of becoming a war correspondent of a French newspaper in the then pending Italo-Ethiopian War, which terminated with the Battle of Adowa in 1896. With his experience of the country and his know¬ledge of local conditions, he was well qualified, far better than the ordinary reporters who were sent out from France, but there was no one in Paris to support his application.
For ten months he struggled on in Aden, but as a result of the war, normal trade was at a standstill. The only prosperous business was gun-running. By this time Rimbaud had scarcely any capital but he obtained a licence from the French Government and used it to go into partnership with an important firm of traffickers in arms (nominally coffee, hide and musk exporters) Tian and Savoure of Aden. This firm was known to deal also in another forbidden " commodity " namely slaves.
By May, 1888, Rimbaud was back in Harar as agent for this firm. It must be assumed that in the course of his duties Rimbaud was in charge of caravans which travelled up from the coast with arms and ammunition, and returned with slaves. Although he protests in letters home that his conduct is irreproachable (November 10, 1888), Alfred Ilg, Menelik's Swiss adviser, sends him the following letter (August 23, 1890) : " As to the question of slaves, please excuse me, I cannot consider the matter ; I have never bought any and I do not wish to start now. I would not do it even on my own account." Dr. Enid Starkie in her book " Rimbaud in Abyssinia," states that there is proof in a report to the Foreign Office in London from the Italian Foreign Minister that Rimbaud accompanied a slave caravan from Shoa to Ambos via Harar—a caravan which went under French protection to Tajoura. She also points out that Rim¬baud was not the only one ; every French trader who wished to trade with the interior was dependent on the goodwill of the Abu Bekr family which controlled all the trade routes from the coast and lived chiefly by the slave traffic. Neither Menelik nor the French were strong enough to suppress it at this time.
Menelik in a letter to the European Powers had early protested that he could and would suppress the slave trade if Ethiopia's seaports were restored to Ethiopian control. Menelik also complained of the arras traffic which was operated through the ports held by the Moslem and European Powers. The arms purchased by the slave traders facilitated their hideous traffic in human beings.
The friendship which after his death, the friends of Arthur Rim¬baud alleged had grown up between him and Ras Makonnen could certainly not have existed had the Ras been aware that Rimbaud was taking part in the slave traffic from which some degenerate Europeans still managed to profit, though it was officially repudiated in their own countries.
If the evidence cited against Rimbaud is authentic, one is obliged to conclude that whatever may be his merits as a poet, he was sadly tacking in character as a man.—Editor, " Ethiopia Observer."
Once again Rimbaud travelled widely in Harar Province collecting coffee, hides, ivory and musk, "etc., etc.," as he puts it in letters home and selling chiefly arms—clandestinely at first, openly later when other Europeans were competing.
After the vicissitudes of the past years Harar seemed to Rimbaud a kinder place than it had appeared on previous visits. He was glad to be back in a refreshing climate in a city which bore some slight resemblance to European towns. His facility for languages and his absence of racial arrogance made him popular with the local population. He was kind and generous, often when he knew he was being cheated. " The people of Harar," he wrote home in February, 1890, " are neither more stupid nor greater scoundrels than the white niggers of countries alleged to be civilized. They are merely of another kind, that is all. They are, if anything, less nasty and can, in certain cases, show gratitude and fidelity. It is only a question of being human with them."
When he had been in Harar one year Menelik became Emperor. Prosperity returned to the Harari traders, but only ten foreigners remained in the town. It is probably at this time that Rimbaud became Ras Makon-nen's friend. Ras Makonnen must have appreciated Rimbaud's intelligence and witty conversation which is praised by several travellers who enjoyed his hospitality ; and Rimbaud must have felt less lonely intellectually in a town whose Governor was so cultured and humane a person. The fact that no reference is made to his friend¬ship with the Ras in Rimbaud's letters to his family does not prove that such a friendship did not exist. Although Rimbaud wrote vivid reports to his firm and articles for the press on life in Harar and its province, his letters to his mother and sister are mostly devoted to his financial affairs, requests for books, a camera, medicine, etc. They are full of complaints about the harshness of his life and the lack of news from his corres¬pondents. And yet the house he had now built for him¬self became a kind of foreign visitors' club ; he for¬warded mail, arranged camel transport, kept money on deposit. Robecchi Bricchetti, the Italian explorer, spent many nights as his guest ; so did Count Telecki, the Hungarian traveller, on his way back from West Kenya, and Jules Borelli, the French explorer, who became Rimbaud's friend.
In February, 1891, Rimbaud began to be seriously disturbed by a pain in his right knee-cap which he had ignored for many months, thinking it was rheumatism. Finally it began to swell and became intolerable. In great pain he wound up business and had himself carried to the coast. For thirty hours he was without food or drink, for sixteen days torrential Tain beat down on his stretcher. From Zeyla he crossed to Aden and from there to Marseilles, where his leg was amputated. On November 10, 1891, he died, a broken and disappointed man.
RIMBAUD: INTERMEDIARY MILITANT
THROUGH RIMBAUD'S SEASON IN HELL
"If the poet can no longer speak for society,
but only for himself, then we are at the last ditch"
– Henry Miller
"It is possible that the impossibility of poetry is itself the condition of poetry" – Georges Bataille
The question of how to subvert power, to live a life, was a problem that Arthur Rimbaud didn't so much formulate as enact. Reading his poetry again, a poetry of improvisational emotion, it's possible to be struck by a forceful contemporaneity that has such works as 'Season In Hell' read, now, like a political manifesto. But it is a politics of a different kind, a politics that has given up any redemptive vectors. Instead Rimbaud seeks to create an exodus, a chimerical materiality of the possible, that can lead us to a politics of becoming. As he drifts towards the end of the word Rimbaud takes us on a detour through composite cities and countryside trysts, passed colonial beachheads and debauched bars, and delivers us into the company of quotidian messiahs; revolutionaries of everyday life whose unaimed benevolences reek of crimes against self-interest. Accompanying Rimbaud in his flight from a permanent state of emergency based upon this 'right of self-interest', we can get an inkling of what we can leave to politics: national origin, institutional representation, inherited morality, wage-labour, Christ, Satan, wise-guys. But Rimbaud's exodus, his self-abandonment, is not a bid for a transcendence that would posthumously mark him out, but a deep, nomadic immersion in the social unconscious. Thus, with Rimbaud, there is the inkling of a preemptive strike on a pleasure-principle that would, like the politics of security based on a disavowed abundance, make pleasure and pain equate to an equilibrium that is made indicative of a death drive – a return to an inanimate state; the fear of experience that fuels a legislated neutralisation of life. Instead Rimbaud surmounts sociable equidistance and Caucasian equations through an inveigling of death; he took the piss out of its politicised threat, facing up to death-in-life with a surfeit of energy that turned trauma into the will to experience, into autotraumatisation: "I summoned my executioners so that I could bite their rife butts before I died".
Rimbaud's politics of becoming was premised on a use of trauma that gets beyond pleasure and pain. This is the experience of living life that Rimbaud unprotectedly sought out and, as we read, it is not so much that these experiences were chased-after as the raw material of a 'poetry' that could make him belong, as they were experiences that ensured a lack of fit between himself and the literary norms of the time – "I thought laughable the great figures of modern painting and poetry". This scorn for his precedents, akin to his scorn for the sovereignty of the law, was not so much a transgressive pose as a means for a heightened affectivity: the very raw material, not exclusively of poetry but, of a politics of becoming, an abandonment of the 'self' from all the apparati of identity as they are assured by family... state... poetry. So, at the very outset of a Season In Hell, one of his last works, Rimbaud abandons the coordinates of belonging even to his own autobiography. He has no antecedents, he is a non-pseudo nigger, a pagan. He has made himself an orphan, a potentiated multiple, that, being no longer an individual but a precipitate of emotional layers, can only identify with those that are 'a law unto themselves'. Seeking thus to see through the eyes of a criminal and becoming "the great criminal, the great accursed", Rimbaud intuits that the law is a personalisable lexicon and that the most feared crime is to communicate your own self-contesting law, to be amply prepared for the trauma of self-abandonment. That both poets and politicians can be cast as 'legislators' leads Rimbaud to be a stranger in his 'own' language: "But always alone; without family: I even have to ask what language I speak." Rather than seeking release in the form of a pleasure or pain, rather than seeking synthesis in the form of a single persona or a character that speaks the 'truth' in a possessable language, Rimbaud's deliberating incognito, his immanence, becomes a source of experiential tension, an enlivening contradiction. Permanently unfulfilled, at odds even with a language that can liberate him, Rimbaud embraces a mode of living that can lead to freedoms beyond those enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man: affectibility. As Deleuze has written, "affectibility... is a capacity of affection without personality... that becomes all its modifications and yet... constitutes a manner of existence that is positive" . Rimbaud slides between the multiple personas that voice him and pulls every conceivable face. His mug-shot is a composite. His poetry is 'free indirect discourse'.
Rimbaud's 'affectibility' is what has him outside the law. Even before the pleasure principle came along to announce its death sentence, its fear of the positive energy of desire that took on the pronunciation of lack, Rimbaud's hatred of the law makes us reflect that the fear of life has become entangled and codified in legislation. This fear translates into the concept of 'security' which, as Marx wrote, guarantees to each of the members of a society "the conservation of his person, his rights and property" . But this conservation, which makes people into the objects of a legislative mediation, presupposes the lives it legislates for to be bounded entities, it presupposes that what is feared in life is an 'affectibility', a giving-ourselves-over, which can not only pierce our 'binding', but lead to the self-abandonment of becoming. Such autonomous expenditure has no need of a legislation that protects only those who seek to conserve. Not having anything to conserve – personality, property, a name, a country – Rimbaud, for better and for worse, lives at the uncodified behest of the senses. He 'becomes all modifications'. This taste for life as becoming, as 'self-mediated being', is what, on the one hand, makes Rimbaud's 'poetry' a free indirect discourse, a compound of cited voices that shift, and, on the other, stakes-out the import of his writing as a political manifesto that affirms life as that which it is possible to live without guilt: a living exchange of linguistic ardours. Rimbaud, who seems to intuit that the law is based on protecting the private property of private persons, and who, wanting more than the conservation of the self, being desirous of more than a choice between the war of pleasure and the law of pain, is not one who seeks to pay back the inherited debt. Scorning the securities market of the state, Rimbaud leaves it to the leftists to conserve the law by changing it: "I armed myself against justice". But he has another form of life in mind, an inconvertible demand for a politics of becoming: "several other lives, it seemed to me, were owed to every being".
Rimbaud seemed to know that to abandon oneself to 'affectivity', to become a 'being' between, was to drop beneath the scan of a characterlogical radar. To fall from a law's eye view, to become a non-person, a self abandoned shadow of a self ("I am hidden and not hidden") is to embrace the trauma of being declared 'a nothing': "Quick a crime, so that I may plunge into nothingness, according to human law". But this 'nothingness' is more than full. It is declared as nothing by 'human law' because, as an act of becoming, it does not seek to preserve itself, it does not seek a stable representation that could be merited, weighed, accounted for. As Bataille has said of nothingness: it can sometimes be "the being envisioned in the totality of the world" . Being in the world thus, unmediated and unindividuated, being "absorbed by everybody... a multiplier of progress" , is to run the risk of 'anguish', which is to say, Rimbaud runs the risk of no longer offering himself up for the protection of being represented by political pleasures, but of, instead, attempting to make himself heard as an unrepresentable collective. Responsible for humanity, Rimbaud sheds guilt : "I belong to a race which sang on the scaffold; I understand nothing of laws; I have no moral sense". His poetry, amoral to the degree that it rejects utility, criminal to the extent that it urges the formation of a new language, is a poetry that, facing up to the inexpressible, defies itself as being authored by himself as an individual: "Universal intelligence has always thrown out its ideas, naturally; men picked up part of these fruits... author, creator, poet, this man has never existed" . Thus can Rimbaud rail against the 'egotists' and 'one eyed intellects' who call themselves 'authors', for the affectibility that Rimbaud pursued led him not only to urge a war on law, but to challenge the very limits of experiences as these are represented by a possessable knowledge voided of sensuality and a use of language that insulates us against the risks of a stumbling expressivity: "What a life. True life is somewhere else. We are not in the real world."
Affectibility as a modality of thought is, possibly, a way to bypass what Rimbaud calls the "false significance of the ego". It is the ego, cathecting itself, that the legislators seek to secure through means of constitutional documents. It is this same ego that valorises personality, that, reigning-in our becomings, conserves our failure to communicate because, being in possession of a point-of-view, we seeks to 'express our self' rather than to 'be expressive', to be a locus for 'expressivity'. This impasse has been revolutionised by Rimbaud as an experience of struggling with a language that, not being always malleable enough to resist inherited knowledge, can result in the end of the primacy of the word as it is alloyed to the primacy of knowledge: "I understand, and, incapable of expressing myself without pagan words, I would rather say nothing." Here Rimbaud, who always valued music, indicates, perhaps, how affectibility as a form of thought enables 'understanding' without it necessarily having to be be written or spoken. Sensualised, Rimbaud 'understands' without having recourse to the right words. 'Saying nothing' for Rimbaud is not the end of thought, but the end of being said and the beginnings of a communication by means of 'pagan words', words that may not even be formed from letters, but from sounds ("I became a fabulous opera") or from coloured letters ("I invented the colour of vowels"). In this way affectibility, in conflict with a use of language that limits thought to an accumulation of concepts, changes not so much what we think, but the way we perceive that we think: "It is wrong to say: I think. One ought to say: I am thought" . Rimbaud rejects the inherited knowledge of philosophy that, in linking thought to an individual and making knowledge a matter of private property, conserves our failure to communicate. Instead communication is enhanced through a mistrust of a knowledge that has declared war on the praxis of the senses by means of the law of the Logos: "Since the declaration of modern knowledge, Christianity, man has been deceiving himself, proving the obvious, puffed up with the pride of repeating these proofs, the only life he knows!... Mr Wise Guy was born with Christ!". In this light the 'universal intelligence' which Rimbaud mentions is not so much an indication of an ethereal God but, after Marx, a matter of the 'general social wealth' of culture. Thus 'to be thought', as Rimbaud says, is not just to be a mouthpiece, but to actively place the onus of thought onto affectibility; a mode of sensual apprehension that can lead to a reformulation of knowledge as that which arises from being open to the 'universal intelligence' of the world: a shared ability to experience life, to be a locus for poetic expressivity ("Your own ardour must be the task").
Rimbaud's conflict with language, leading him to utter the phrase "no more words!", is a way that he takes his conflict with the law into a new dimension. Rather than having a personality to 'conserve' and offer-up to representation, Rimbaud, voicing in his 'poems' the characteristics of a multiple personality ('free indirect discourse'), seems to embark upon guerrilla actions against those substructures of language that ensure that we remain opaque and separable from one another: the decentred voice of his poems is simultaneously masculine and feminine, singular and plural, active and passive, past and present, sardonic and sincere. Language as a material, its suppleness, is that which is lost when, its substructures intact, it is promulgated as a means to shore up an ego that expresses its self, that reiterates the possible. Bataille: "Language is lacking because language is made of propositions that make identities intervene" . These ego driven identities that speak in order to be returned-to their own subjection are what Rimbaud seeks to be exiled from, they are what provoke him to flee from the men of letters ("I don't know how to talk!") and which lead him to say of Baudelaire that "he lived in too artistic circles". For him, before the end at any rate, language should be supple enough to sound-out a compound emotion that renders us dumb, it should be the means to bring to expression what it is impossible to say. As Giorgio Agamben has pointed out "it is the very sayability, the very openness at issue in language, which in language we always presuppose and forget... because it is at bottom an abandonment and oblivion" . Yet, just as language is not an abstract entity (it does not doesn't possess 'openness' in and of itself), the utterance is dependent upon its situated addressees and Rimbaud, in declaring his open defiance of State-sanctioned laws that enshrine alienation and lead to death and servitude, surmounts oblivion and abandons himself to his capacity to say anything. Having a variety of places to talk from and a variety of personas to talk through, securing thus his 'affectibility', a guiltless Rimbaud can use language not as a mode of dissemblance, but as a means to communicate his 'inner experience'.
But Rimbaud wanted more from language, more from himself than was possible by means of language: "the point is to arrive at the unknown by the dissoluteness of the senses" . To 'arrive at the unknown' is not only to reject the common knowledge of the day but it is, by means of the 'dissoluteness of the senses', a way to re-experience a prelingual phase. The fluctuation of the emotions, our wordless affectibility, is what overpowers language, makes us stammer, and renders us dumb even though we have won the power of speech. To experience the prelingual is to be rendered disarticulate and decentred and, yet, it is not so much that Rimbaud resents a 'fall into language' as an estrangement from the 'pure life of feeling' as it is a means to bring forth affective knowledge by means of gaining access to inner experience. In many ways this inner experience is what is deemed superfluous. It is not required in the world of work ("I abhor every trade"). As a timeless compound of affect this very 'unsayability', its traumatic pressure, is what ensures the drive to communicate. In many ways, then, the 'unknown' which Rimbaud wants to arrive at could be said to be inner experience, the sensorium of affects, that, unable to be fully articulated in language, are what come to form the raw material for becomings: approximations of feelings that can be enacted through language, a 'capacity for affection without personality'. So, when Rimbaud speaks of an "alchemy of the word" and of "turning words into hallucinations", it is as if he intends to work the fracture of language, its lack of fit with inscrutable affect, and, from there, situating himself in the fluctuational space of inner experience, to, by means of 'poems' as prearticulations, translate affects into insinuations of shared meanings. Such a semiotic of the impulses, whereby language is made malleable by its being compacted with a re-experienced memory of the prelingual and by its simultaneous intent to make affect communicable by means of language and against language, is perhaps what was hinted-at by Rimbaud in one of his most famous passages, a sequence that heralds the avant-garde of the next century: "I invented the colour of vowels... I organised the shape of every consonant, and by means of instinctive rhythm, flattered myself that I was the inventor of a poetic language, accessible sooner or later to all the senses."
When, in his famous letter to Paul Demeny, Rimbaud offered that he wanted to "make himself" a seer rather than a poet, it is not so much an aspiration to religious fervour that Rimbaud is urging onto himself, but a politics of becoming, a living self-production and hence an abandonment of conserved being. To be a seer requires an access to 'inner experience' rather than to the divine logos, for the knowledge of the unknown which Rimbaud seeks cannot be a knowledge that is preformed and readily articulatable in language, but a new form of knowledge, a 'non-knowledge', that, in surpassing any usefulness, comes to register an affectibility, a passion, that is crucial for wider bonds of communicativeness to be established than are possible between poet and reader, politician and citizen. As Marx has said at the onset of the communist movement: "What is needed above all is a confession... to obtain forgiveness for its sins mankind need only to declare them for what they are" . This is the sense in which Rimbaud is a seer. He has dropped his defences to such a degree that his inner experience does not make him feel guilty. Quite the opposite: he has no secrets because, expressing his inner experience, pursuing unsayable affect, he reveals that the interminable mystique of inner experience (the domain of poets and priests) is what ensures a mysticism that trades in pleasure and pain, deferment and punishment. Beyond the pleasure principle, the abandonment of equilibrium, Rimbaud reveals that inner experience is what is eminently shareable – there is an 'otherness' of inner experience ("I is another") that is reduced to a self-flagellating privacy. It is social separation, instituted in the affectless language of politics and by a common knowledge reduced to proprietorship, that hinders this inner experience being communicated between people and its being seen as 'sinful'. For the 'sins' that require forgiveness are nothing other than private thoughts that have not remained private and unenacted, but have been uttered and acted-out between people. The sharing of 'sins', the 'declaring them for what they are', thus loosens the hold of the law and reduces the power of guilt, and enables social bonds to form that are not mediated by judgmental knowledges (commandments, constitutions) that lead to voluntary servitude, but, in Rimbaud's case, are the relational material of a law beyond law, the formation of contracts of trust: "Poor men, workers! I do not ask for prayers; with your trust alone I shall be happy".
With these contracts of trust we are faced with the paradox of giving a legal form to an openness that enables inner experience to be shared between people, an openness that, in its affective interminability, cannot be subject to decrees or judgments. In other words, what does it mean when, beyond the law, we seek recourse to some means to be at ease with an articulation of our inner experience? At one level an answer lies in the form of poetry itself; the way that by becoming aligned with a recognisable tradition of writing we seek a means with which to expose ourselves; our feelings and fears. But Rimbaud, in his trajectory towards abandoning poetry, is always moving beyond this. His rejection of the law and the state, of nationality and poetic antecedents, has him not only quest for a new language of affectivity ("this language will be from the soul to the soul, summing up everything, perfumes, sounds, colours..." ), but has him begin to run this idea of a new language alongside a poetical practice that is indistinguishable from the living of his life. For Rimbaud it seems that writing poetry is a means of writing the autonomous law of his life that he hands down to us not on stone tablets, but on scraps of doodle-filled paper. He becomes a stateless legislator and his poems become contracts of trust that can encourage the propertyless to speak to one another. This possible contract between the affective – the ones who own little except their ability to empathise and feel-for – is, in Rimbaud, moved on from its submergence in literary craft towards the realm of a recast 'free speech' that has no need of parliaments and courtrooms for its legitmation. With affectibility as a modality of thought, the unknown in us, our inner experience, is what can change our lives. Shared between us without being reified into knowledge it is the communicative risk that presupposes a politics of becoming that is instinctively opposed to the way we are inveigled to live our lives. As Foucault, in his late seminars on 'free speech' has said: "The problem of freedom of speech becomes increasingly related to the choice of existence, of the choice of one's way of life. Freedom in the use of logos increasingly becomes freedom in the choice of bios" .
This choice of the way to live a life, vouchsafed in Rimbaud by his being free enough with language to want to turn 'words into hallucinations', is a traumatic encounter with possibilities that are withheld in favour of the profitable maintenance of an equilibrium. Not only does Rimbaud present these choices with the metaphor of his own displacement and nomadism, his coming up against the dialectic of language, testing the logos against the bios leads him to abandon the writing of poetry altogether. For Henry Miller, Rimbaud's renunciation of his 'calling' is related to his standing "so clearly revealed to himself that he no longer had need for expression at the level of art" . This may be the case, but it is also worth suggesting that Rimbaud's abandonment of poetry is concerned with his inner experience having less and less need of artistic mediation, a mediation that would neutralise this inner experience as a canonical expression. What was needed was not so much the invention of a new language that would isolate Rimbaud the orphan even further, aligning him with the roll-call of poets he scorns, but the invention of a free speech, a distribution of inner experience, that could bring people together as becomings. To this end when, in his letter to Paul Demeny, he urged upon himself the role of seer, he outlined a future in which 'poetry would be ahead of action' and envisioned also that poets would be citizens. In choosing not to say that 'citizens would be poets' and in thus not elevating poets to a position above others, Rimbaud's rejection of poetry can be related to the absence of addressees. This is put to dramatic effect when, in A Season In Hell, he says "... in front of several men, I chatted very audibly with a moment from their other lives." In many ways this hallucinatory line is indicative of Rimbaud having to create addressees, addressees that, it can be suspected, do not fear that very inner experience that is creative of 'other lives', becomings. Could it then be that Rimbaud's rejection of poetry was indicative of missing addressees that could comprise a 'missing people', a people becoming? Deleuze, writing on cinema – the art that combines colour, movement, sound and words – offered that "this acknowledgement of a people who are missing is not a renunciation of political cinema, but on the contrary a new basis on which it is founded... art must take part in this task: not that of addressing a people, which is presupposed already there, but of contributing to the invention of a people." 
When Rimbaud refused the trappings of sovereignty – nationality, compatriotism – and refused to see himself as a part of a People legislated for in law, it was not simply a matter of his becoming an individualist rebel devoted to the cause of art. This thesis of Henry Miller's can be countered by the way that Rimbaud, in being a poet of 'free indirect discourse' and in his consequent adoption of the tension of contradictory standpoints in his verse, is not seeking a representational status for himself. As an 'undecidable' becoming cultivating lawless contradiction, Rimbaud subsists beneath the level of visible identities that can be constitutionally accounted for: "my life lacks solidity, it flits and floats away up above action, that focus the world holds so dear". Such a solidity may be indicative of the refusal to listen-to and attempt-an articulation of 'inner experience' in such a way as to bring affectibility to the fore as precisely that which gives rise to the potential of living life differently: emotional states not only have their own duration and means of relational bonding they are what enable us to relate differently to what we know, 'subtilise' our language and resist being defined as an abstracted People in whose name we are ruled. Scornful of the colonial adventure through which national identities were intensively being constructed, Rimbaud's 'minority of one' was opposed to the abstract generalities of such a People and posited instead a multiplicity of identities that, in uncoupling affects from their poetic personification, make affects into timeless components of identity that are always reaching after articulation. In this way any solidity that can be achieved is not a solidity that can be legislated for, that can be secured by a private property of rights or a proper space for speech, but, beyond such laws, is a matter of contexts of free speech that encourage the 'missing people' to become responsive addressees, co-authors of their becomings. Rimbaud's rejection of poetry – backed by a surplus of shareable affect, by the abreaction of inner experience and by a respectful connectivity to 'universal intelligence' (general intellect) – is tantamount to bringing the creativity of the addressee to the fore. This creativity, a politics of becoming, is constitutive of passionate associations that mark an improper place of the polis. After Rimbaud, poems, contracts of trust, become collectively authored social relations. The impossibility of poetry becomes a renewed possibility for free speech.
~ Howard Slater - (March 2002)
~ * * * ~
Unless otherwise noted all citations are drawn from 'Season in Hell'. See Arthur Rimbaud: Collected Poems, Oxford 2001, p211– p255. Translated by Martin Sorrell.
1. Gilles Deleuze cited by Giorgio Agamben in Potentialities, Stanford University Press 2000, p230.
2. Karl Marx: On The Jewish Question in Early Writings, Penguin 1981, p230.
3. Georges Bataille: The Unfinished Theory Of Non-Knowledge, Minnesota 2001, p31.
4. Arthur Rimbaud: Letter To Paul Demeny(15/5/1871).
7. Georges Bataille, ibid, p64.
8. Giorgio Agamben, ibid, p35.
9. Arthur Rimbaud: Letter to Georges Izambard (13/5/1871).
10. Karl Marx: Letter To Ruge (September 1843) in Early Writings, ibid, p209.
11. Arthur Rimbaud: Letter to Paul Demeny, ibid.
12. Michel Foucault: Fearless Speech, Semiotext(e) 2001, p85.
13. Henry Miller: The Time Of The Assassins, New Directions 1952 p43.
14. Gilles Deleuze: Cinema Two, Athlone 1989, p217.
~ * * * ~
THIS GAME OF THE DISCURSIVE REAL
Much has been left open, unsaid. Bataille's presence, his unfinishd system of non-knowledge, haunts the text.
As the text – my half project – draws to a close, Rimbaud lives on in his intermediary position: the herald
of a militancy that's been, is to come and is here now. The emotive instant. The emotive motion of time travel
wherein, across history, links accrue without forming an object. The whole thing could spiral out of control.
I cease with Rimbaud: such a false word 'cease' when Rimbaud is now inside me, incomplete, possessing me;
when Rimbaud, my brother by means of 'non-human sex', has become another means to practice 'free indirect discourse':–
I have always only dared to speak of myself while ostensibly speaking about someone else; there is always this
experience of thought passing through the persona that I can be in the text, and the personae of the others text,
an experience of thought by means of an assemblage, an experience of thought as a pretence, an access to a 'field'
never populated by individual persons, but by the liberating conductance of energies across time, the 'general intellect'.
So to Bataille. 1953. I continue with Bataille after adding him to the assemblage: it's a matter of me, Rimbaud and Bataille now.
No 'I' at the end of the sentence. The same person. We're one and the same. This is the power of imagination.
To undeludedly say such a thing, to be given so much confidence, is to accept, not pseudo prominence, an equality
of sameness, but is to accept the 'general intellect', the possibility of making connections, which is, after all,
the baseline of a knowledge that is feted out of all proportion to this simple operation: that I am conscious,
conscious of the breach of my unconscious, conscious of the unconscious of social relations and thus open to
history as a means of permanent potentiality, thus open, disgustingly open, to the sharp signs of affectivity:
spinning in a word-sea of stimuli, of poetry as free speech. Knowledge, if we are to greet it openly, is only experience.
If we must state the obvious then it is not to re-utter something that's been said before (and hence nondescript to say it again),
but both a sad, crushing, indictement of the way experience is today a matter for legislation and, with Marx's Letter To Ruge,
an acknowledgement that "mankind will not begin any new work, but will consciously bring about the completion of its old work".
We 'complete' this work by experiencing thought as an emotional praxis, inhabiting the affective minutiae of history
(the hole in Rimbaud's shoe). So, if affectivity is outlawed by knowledge (thus the link between law and knowledge is made present),
non-knowledge frees our capacity for affectivity with the bonus risk of ... here comes Bataille, anguish and ectasy.
Which is another way to pronounce 'Rimbaud', which is another way to say that poetry is "reflective experience" (p138)
that should be recast as free speech. But Bataille 'knows' something else (maybe he learnt it from Rimbaud who learnt
it from a drunken rioter). Bataille hopes to know how to not know, how to get out of the framework of the law too:
"...And if the violation of the law, being the origin of all that we love, after the law, more than the law,
destroyed the foundation of thought no less then it put an end to the power of the law?" (p204). For Bataille,
as with Rimbaud, it is a frightfull delight to be leaving knowledge and the law behind. To have understood, intuited,
that it is a matter of books, access to books, access to the language-key, to a sanctioned means of expression,
that links knowledge and the law – the latter being that most difficult of subjects to ever know: a non knowledge
masquerding as absolute knowledge. So. Exodus. Rimbaud in the Eden of Arden. No more project. Rimbaudian Bataille:
"Today I could say that the slightest thought granted to my projects, which exist despite me, surpasses me and overwhelms me.
But the Instant! It is always infinite delirium" (p202). Surpassed by your own project is: the 'general intellect', 'alienation'.
At worst it's work, forced labour, the labour of pride. At best it's history again, a laying down of unsuccessive strata,
the ineffable of the unexpected, the affectivity of the minutiae, the suprise that re-triggers access to risk, to
'reflective exprience', to non-knowledge (Benjamin – coming across Bataille at the College of Sociology and calling a book
'Illuminations' after Rimbaud, as well as making One Way Street follow the poetic prose of A Season In Hell –
knows this as a "shot through with chips of messianic time"). Rimbaud and Bataille. I, their intermediary,
who pulls their conjunction point forward towards its third point – a starburst in a future that's ahead of me and behind them.
Endless points of contact, shared and sharded: "The unappeased multitude that I am (will nothing permit my withdrawal?...)
... is generous, violent, blind. It is a laugh, a sob, a silence that has nothing, which hopes for and retains nothing" (p200).
To chalk a poetry of the most simple utterance on the pavement and to hope for a shower. A blissful release from expression
into being an expressive loucus for becomings that populate the worn out shell known as an individual.
This will be your permit to withdraw, this risk of depossessing your own, our own, autobiographies. Exodus = untested feasibilty.
The interminable instant of anguish and ectascy: living life as an experience. "Fuck the writers", says I, speaking in tongues,
"they are the ones who enshroud us in silence without ever having shared in our struggle to attain silence as the limit-point of
language, as the maximum mentasm of the 'general intellect'". The point of silence is not just to be an everything –
the nothing that is uttered fills the interclocuter with a violent conjecture – but it is to rely on someone else,
somewhere else, to say for us what we would want to say, hope to say, without being mindful of changing the words or
their intonation (the latter swathes us with music, the former is the loving gift of solidarity).
The point of silence is to acknowledge a kind of trust that results from struggle,
it is to suspend ourselves as the centre of even our own body, it is to practice the dialectic of the logos and the bios,
to be part and not apart from the conversation: "My writing is always a mixture of the aspiration to silence and that which speaks me" (202).
Bataille speaks for me and I'll have him speak for Rimbaud too. There is always anguish in having a voice that the rhythm of
silence and free speech can appease. It encourages laughter, self mockery, which itself says "All I know is that I know not".
The freedom of belonging to error is not terror: "In this equality with limitless error, wherein I myself am led astray,
have I ever felt more plainly human?" (197). Only the excessive, obscene pride of the most writerly, those written into life,
those who haunt the fringe of the glossed-over page, can bring us to this 'bare life', this unabashed honesty,
this slush of confession and fascination with 'sin'. Inside out. "The honesty of non-knowledge, the reduction of knowledge to
what it is" (201). It is defensive pride, it is defences constructed with too accurate characters i.e. it is annihilation
of the multitude within, and hence severence from the multitude at large. It gags us all with its legalised tag.
For Bataille, as with Rimbaud, there is this constant tension between isolation and belonging. This is the rhythm of Exodus.
It depends upon a death-in-life, it is vouchafed for by a familiarity with the little deaths that can be experienced in life:
anguish and ectasy, insight and idiocy. These little deaths destroy our self. We help the process along.
We burgeon into...free speech that builds bonds, contracts of trust on flaming paper. First something needs anihilating. What?
The ego linked to pride, the super-ego linked to law, the ego-ideal linked to knowledge.
We anihilate possession in order to be 'sovereign' in Bataille's sense i.e. to rebel against suboordination,
to thus discover the motor of desires rather than the satisfaction of vanity: "I know that without this annihilation already
within my thought, my thought would be servile babble" (204). Remember Rimbaud biting the rifle butts?
Here Bataille, no stranger to the long dark lucid Night, to defeating the idea of death by making it into a release from thought,
a confrontation with non-knowledge that he will never know or turn into project, here Bataille, like Rimbaud, assures himself that,
desiring, he can never dominate anything: "Sovereignty is an act of rebellion against every rule, including the logical rule. A negation of every limit, of every condition, this is the taste for an experience that can no onger be limited by any of the given conditions..." (161). This 'taste for experience' is simultaneously cast as a pursuit of the 'instant' that assures 'non-knowledge' be nothing less than "a bond before knowledge" (158). That which is inarticulateable, that escapes language, and hence the conceit of pride, of knowledge as possession, is what also escapes a practice of thought severed from affectibility. This is a new dynamic for consciousness trailblazed by poets such as Rimbaud: anguish and ecstacy are registered in the consciousness but are, from there, means of access to the unconscious – there is no dividing line when experience subtends knowledge and there is no protection from autotraumatisation other than instinctive bonds that can refigure our means of socialisation. Vanity, instilled in us by knowledge, comes to be outmanouvered by desires distilled in us by non-knowledge, the unknown that's ahead of us because it's always behind us: "How could I be depressed in refusing to take the world and what I myself am for an unavoidable measure and a law? I accept nothing and am satisfied by nothing. I am going into the unknowable future. There is nothing that I could have recognised in myself. My gaity is founded on my ignorance. I am what I am: being is at stake in me, as it wasn't, it is never what it was" (205). Rimbaud.
Georges Bataille: The Unfinished System Of Non-Knowledge, University of Minesota, 2001
Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, Fontana Press, 1992
Karl Marx: Early Writings, Penguin 1981
INTRODUCTION TO TRANSLATING RIMBAUD
There could be few better ways of crystallizing the questions raised by attempts to translate Rimbaud than to scrutinize a single poem and the renderings it has generated. ‘Bonne Pensée du Matin’ is a short piece, lyrical in mode, dated May 1872. Rimbaud also quotes it in A Season in Hell, prefaced by the words ‘J’écrivais des silences, des nuits, je notais l’inexprimable. Je fixais des vertiges.’ In the original, it reads:
BONNE PENSÉE DU MATIN
À quartre heurs du matin, l’été,
Le sommeil d’amour dure encore.
Sous les bosquets l’aube évapore
L’odeur du soir fêté.
Mais là-bas dans l’immense chantier
Vers le soleil des Hespérides,
En bras de chemise, les charpentiers
Dans leur désert de mousse, tranquilles,
Ils préparent les lambris précieux
Où la richesse de la ville
Rira sous de faux cieux.
Ah! pour ces Ouvriers charmants
Sujets d’un roi de Babylone,
Vénus! laisse un peu les Amants,
Dont l’âme est en couronne.
O Reine des Bergers!
Porte aux travailleurs l’eau-de-vie,
Pour que leurs forces soient en paix
En attendant le bain dans la mer, à midi.
Four translations of this poem, spanning a period of some sixty years, can be shown in chronological sequence:
PLEASANT MORNING THOUGHT
At four A.M. in summer’s light
the sleep of love is heavy still
in thickets; from the dawn distil
the smells of festive night.
Then down in the huge work-shop, faced
towards the Hesperidean sun,
the carpenters, with shirt-sleeves braced,
Placidly in their foaming waste
they make the precious canopies
where soon the city’s wealth and taste
shall laugh beneath false skies.
Venus! For these dear labourers,
slaves whom a cruel Pharaoh sweats,
quit briefly your philanderers
with souls in coronets.
O Queen of Shepherds, bring
the workers brandy, so that soon
their muscles may stop quivering
while they wait for their bathe down on the beach at noon.
-(Norman Cameron, 1942, rept. 1994)
PLEASANT THOUGHTS FOR THE MORNING
At four o’clock on a summer morning the sleep of love still lasts. Under the spinneys the dawn disperses scents of the festive night.
But down there in the huge workshop near the Hesperidean sun, the carpenters in their shirtsleeves are already astir.
Peaceful in the midst of their wilderness of foam, they are preparing the costly canopies where the riches of the city will smile beneath painted skies.
Ah! for these charming Labourers’ sakes, subjects of a king of Babylon, Venus! Leave Lovers for a little while, whose souls are wearing crowns.
O Queen of the Shepherds! Take strong liquor to the workers, so that their strength may be calmed until the sea-bathe at noon.
(Oliver Bernard, 1962)
A GOOD THOUGHT IN THE MORNING
At four in the morning in summer,
The sleep of love still continues.
Under the arbors dawn evaporates
The scent of the festive night.
But yonder in the huge lumberyard
Toward the sun of the Hesperides,
In shirtsleeves the carpenters
Are already moving about.
In their desert of moss, calm,
They prepare the precious panels
Where the city’s wealth
Will laugh under false skies.
Ah for these charming workmen,
Subjects of a Babylonian king,
Venus! leave Lovers for a little while,
Whose souls are crowned.
O Queen of Shepherds!
Take brandy to the workers,
So that their strength may be at peace
As they wait for the bath in the sea at noon.
-(Wallace Fowlie, 1966)
GOOD MORNING THOUGHTS
At four in the morning, in summer,
Love’s sleep slumbers on.
Beneath the bowers, dawn stirs
The scent of evening celebrations.
But there, under the great oak,
Near the Hesperidean sun,
Carpenters in shirtsleeves
Are already in motion.
At peace in their mossy desert,
They fashion precious woodwork
For rooms where the wealthy
Will laugh beneath painted skies.
Ah Venus! For these dear Workers’ sakes,
Subjects of some Babylonian king,
Leave the Lovers be,
Their souls entwined.
O Queen of Shepherds!
Bring these workmen eau-de-vie
To restore their vigor
For swimming in the noontime sea.
-(Wyatt Mason, 2002)
None of these four translations is without merit. To take a single example from each, the first evocatively captures the deep sleep of ‘Le sommeil d’amour dure encore’ in ‘the sleep of love is heavy still’; and the line’s iambic rhythm leading to a final masculine ending in ‘still’, persuasively catches Rimbaud’s contrast between new day and continuing sleep. The second version, which is self-confessedly a ‘plain prose’ rendering, nonetheless captures plastic, fluid effects: ‘are already astir’ for ‘déjà s’agitent’, and ‘wilderness of foam’ for ‘désert de mousse’. The third, again avowedly a close rendering, deploys the strength and directness of monosyllables to considerable effect in ‘Whose souls are crowned’ (‘dont l’âme est en couronne’), and ‘So that their strength may be at peace’ (‘Pour que leurs forces soient en paix’). And the fourth and most recent translation persuasively renders ‘faux cieux’ as ‘painted skies’, as well as moving towards an effective rhythmic cadence in ‘For swimming in the noontime sea’.
These kinds of strength – of diction, rhythm, tone – are to be found in many translations of Rimbaud’s work. And yet, pulling against such imaginative persuasiveness, are equal (and perhaps even stronger) examples of verbal limitation. The first rendering vividly presents the dangers of trying to copy Rimbaud’s rhyme scheme, and of the consequent wrenching of meaning by the exigencies of sound: ‘For these dear labourers /…quit briefly your philanderers’, or ‘O Queen of Shepherds, bring / so that…their muscles may stop quivering’. In the second translation, the pull of ordinary, unremarkable prose (‘At four o’clock on a summer morning’) dilutes the sensory power of what immediately follows (‘the sleep of love still lasts’). The third version seems to crash together different registers of the English language (the archaic and knowingly poetic ‘yonder’ against the American English ‘lumberyard’, or the even more strongly American ‘as they wait for the bath in the sea at noon’, which to English ears sounds ludicrous). Even the most recent rendering presents instances of ‘translationese’ or actual mis-translation that undermine its effectiveness: is the clause ‘carpenters…are already in motion’ [‘les charpentiers / Déjà s’agitent’] actually idiomatic English? Can the meaning of ‘immense chantier’ really be narrowed down into not merely a ‘timberyard/lumberyard’ but to an ‘oak’?
Such a divided response to renderings of a single poem could, no doubt, be duplicated for almost every word that Rimbaud ever wrote. And the translations offered on this site cannot hope to avoid a similar division by others into strengths and weaknesses. But, in the light of the details above, it is worth noting what I have sought to avoid, and what to embrace.
I have tried to avoid, first, a sound-world where the demands of rhyme fashion, undermine or actually distort the demands of meaning. Almost always, Rimbaud uses rhyme in his poetry (in characteristic patterns of abab, abba, aabb, and so on); yet the attempt to imitate these patterns in English results in either unnecessary acoustic emphasis, or incongruous comic or bathetic effects. A stanza from the first translation above is more than cautionary:
Then down in the huge work-shop, faced
towards the Hesperidean sun,
the carpenters, with shirt-sleeves braced,
Why ‘braced shirt-sleeves’ (apart from the need to rhyme with ‘faced’)? Why do the carpenters ‘already run’ (apart from the need to rhyme with ‘sun’)? Equally, I have tried to avoid the extremes of an English that is either completely contemporaneous with Rimbaud (that is to say, a pastiche of late 19th century English verse), or that is completely fixed in the passing present (a pastiche of the language spoken, written, sent by text in 2003). Translating Rimbaud into, say, quasi-Swinburne, or into quasi-gangstarap, might be a genuinely illuminating exercise for one or two poems; but it could not survive the demands of his entire poetry and prose.
What I have tried to embrace in these translations, rather, is a sound-world of persuasive rhythm rather than rhyme. Rhyme – whether end-of-line, internal, para-rhyme – inevitably foregrounds individual words. Rhythm, however, underpins every single word that is written or spoken. Unsurprisingly, given its prevalence in English poetry, the dominant pattern here is iambic, with varying shifts in trochaic, dactylic, anapaestic, as appropriate. Above all, the rhythm of each and every line has been fashioned by the sense, rather than vice versa. And I have tried to convey that sense and meaning in a vital, lived modern English that is free of both incongruous archaism and of passing colloquial modernity. If there is a single, impossible image that has lit the way, it is of a 16 to 19-year old Rimbaud, now totally bi-lingual, naturally and effortlessly writing his words again in English, and in the first years of the 21st century. If this translation captures even a tiny part of that impossibility, it will have more than achieved its goal.
~ Tim Chilcott - (June 2003)
RIMBAUD IN YEMEN
-Arthur Rimbaud, Jean-Jacques Lefrère, Paris: Fayard, 2001;
-Rimbaud, Graham Robb, London: Picador, 2000;
-Rimbaud à Aden (Rimbaud in Aden), Jean-Jacques Lefrère, Pierre Leroy (text), Jean-Hughes Berrou (photographs), Paris: Fayard, 2001.
~ * * * ~
Anyone setting out today to produce a new life of the late nineteenth-century French poet and adventurer Arthur Rimbaud will need to convince the reader of four things over and above the general plausibility of the picture presented. Given the well- excavated character of Rimbaud studies, the new biographer will need to have something interesting to say about what Graham Robb, whose biography appeared last year following earlier books on Balzac and on Victor Hugo, calls "the crucial moments of Rimbaud's life": his stormy relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine; his political views and activities during the 1871 Paris Commune when a mixed bag of communists and anarchists briefly took over Paris before themselves being massacred; "his explorations and gun-running expeditions, and his financial, political and religious interactions with the slave societies of the Horn of Africa." Something on the poetry would be nice too.
Robb, like the French Rimbaud specialist Jean-Jacques Lefrère in his Rimbaud, has succeeded triumphantly in providing a prospectus of all known facts about Rimbaud, correcting certain misconceptions and substantially enlarging upon research presented by Enid Starkie in her Arthur Rimbaud (3rd edition, 1962), still a standard work on the poet in English. If finally neither he nor Lefrère quite manages to produce a wholly satisfying portrait of the poet, it is because Rimbaud has somehow slipped through the cracks in the great mass of detail that both authors, and especially Lefrère, have accumulated. Perhaps, on the other hand, it would be truer to say that the fault is Rimbaud's: did not he somehow slip through the cracks in his own life?
Rimbaud, with Verlaine, the "poet's poet," and Baudelaire, dominated nineteenth-century French poetry and through it that of Europe in general. Paris, according to the German author Walter Benjamin the "capital of the nineteenth century," at least as far as Europe was concerned, produced the fashions, literary and otherwise, to which the Western world then turned, exercising the kind of cultural ascendancy that has long since fled European shores for the United States. Rimbaud, an uncouth young man from the provinces whose astonishing precociousness had brought him to the attention of a leading cultural arbiter of the day, Paul Verlaine, arrived in Paris clutching the poems that he hoped would make his fortune: as Robb and Lefrère both point out, it is a story straight from Balzac. Rimbaud's writings never made his fortune -- gun-running between Yemen and the Ethiopian coast apparently did that -- but they did make his reputation as the leading poet of the day, ironically at a time when that poet had either renounced poetry, which he did at the age of 20, or was dead -- at 37 as a result of an illness developed while trading in what is now Ethiopia.
Rimbaud did not leave much behind him, publishing only one book, Une Saison en enfer (“A Season in Hell”, 1873), himself and thrusting the grubby manuscripts of a second into the hands of Verlaine (published as Illuminations in 1886). However, what he did leave is tended with the same care by those interested in traditional European literary culture as is now afforded to the relics of modern celebrities burnt out by the newer televisual one. While Robb's portrait is an ironical sketch in the Oxford manner, Lefrère's fuller-bodied work is encyclopaedic in its scope, supplying the detail that Robb leaves out. Furthermore, both authors have much of interest to say about the final decade of Rimbaud's life, when he was based in Aden in Yemen.
Notwithstanding the four desiderata listed above, it seems unlikely that anyone now will have anything new to say about at least the first two of them, Rimbaud's relationship with literary Paris and with Verlaine and his activities during the Paris Commune. The general shape of Rimbaud's life is too well-known, and, more importantly, the source materials are too few for anything startlingly new to emerge on either score; indeed, much of the primary material employed by Robb and Lefrère in constructing their versions of events was already available to Starkie when she set out to reconstruct the poet's life in the 1930s. However, it all depends on how that evidence is used and for what purposes, for fighting started early, even when Rimbaud was still alive, as to how posterity should view the poet.
Isabelle, Rimbaud's sister, for example, made every effort to promote her view that her brother, the author of propositions vaguely threatening to the established order such as, famously, "je est un autre" [I is somebody else], "le poète se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens" [the poet makes himself see by a long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses], and "l'amour est à reinventer" [love has to be re-invented], had later reconciled himself to Catholicism, and she, together with her husband Paterne Berrichon, tried to ensure that Rimbaud's life be seen firmly within this perspective, (Berrichon publishing his Life of Jean-Arthur Rimbaud in 1897 and Isabelle her Reliques in 1921).
Therefore, while Robb has produced by far the more readable account and has much more of interest to say on the poetry, one of the virtues of Lefrère's version is that at seemingly every turn he will stop carefully to assess the evidence. He notes, for example, that the story that Rimbaud cultivated lice in his hair when living with Verlaine and his wife in order to flick them at passing priests is not necessarily true. In fact, Malthide Verlaine, the estranged ex-wife of the poet, attributed this remark to her former husband in her Mémoires de ma vie [Memoirs, 1935], and she was not a disinterested witness. Nevertheless, subsequent biographers have repeated it, claiming that it shows Rimbaud's attitudes at the time, though Robb is more circumspect saying only that it shows how Rimbaud struck Madame Verlaine. There are many further questionable stories of this sort.
In general, the result of both authors' weighing and re- weighing of the evidence is to show that the relationship between Rimbaud and literary Paris was pretty much what one had taken it to be, and as Rimbaud himself had described it (bad), and that Rimbaud's activities during the Commune, as opposed to his rhetoric, were either negligible or non-existent. In this respect, Rimbaud was far less compromised when reaction set in than was Verlaine, who had briefly held a position under the Commune, his twenty-four-year-old friend, the poet Raoul Rigault, being appointed Chief of Police and publishing the names and addresses of police informers under the previous regime of "cartoon idiot" Napoleon III in the newspapers. Isabelle Rimbaud later made every effort to distance her brother both from the Commune and from Verlaine; later still, however, the left-wing British writer Terry Eagleton, quoted by Robb, has wanted to do the contrary and "rescue Arthur Rimbaud for a Left that is in dire need of him." The truth is that nothing said or done by Rimbaud at this time "amounts to political engagement" (Robb). Rimbaud regretted that the Commune had not burnt the Louvre, as it had sundry other symbols of the Cartoon Idiot's regime, in order to "force humanity to confront the irreparable destruction of this symbol of its dearest and most evil pride." But this is hardly an attitude that anyone really needs, leftist or otherwise.
Rimbaud spent the last decade or so of his life based in Aden in Yemen, living in that country considerably longer than he ever did in Paris. Starkie, whose habit of always siding with Rimbaud's mother is gently guyed by Robb, only had the fruit of her own research in East Africa, snatched during Oxford long vacations, to go on when discussing Rimbaud's activities in Yemen, and she tends to dismiss the interest Rimbaud took in those activities as well as the reader's potential interest in them, much as "Widow Rimbaud" herself would have done. Both Robb and Lefrère, on the other hand, have been able to use 50 years of subsequent research to feed their accounts of this period, and both devote considerable numbers of pages to doing so.
One result of this is that the centre of gravity of Rimbaud's life changes. Earlier, one could have been forgiven for seeing in it an allegory of the nineteenth-century artist shipwrecked in bourgeois society, and this is more or less what British playwright Christopher Hampton, now more usually known for his screenplays, did in his 1969 play Total Eclipse, often revived, which ends without Rimbaud even having left Europe. Today, however, having digested the results of more recent research, it might be truer to see Rimbaud in the mould of the independent European "trader" of the kind memorably described by the Anglo-Polish writer Joseph Conrad in his novella Heart of Darkness (1899) and elsewhere. Such men, operating in the final decades of the 19th century during the European "Scramble for Africa" and for much else, set up trading stations in societies that had often hitherto been largely, or entirely, closed to external penetration, such societies, in turn, falling under the explicit political control of one or other of the European powers.
Rimbaud was based in Aden, then a British port attached to a hinterland that was gradually falling under colonial control, in order to trade in coffee. However, the area immediately across the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa, comprising what are now the separate states of Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, was then being opened up to European penetration, particularly as a result of recently established, but short-lived, Egyptian political control in the area. There was a civil war in this area then called Abyssinia, and not only individuals, but also states, were watching from the sidelines, thinking that there would be rich pickings. Rimbaud, basing himself in Harare to the east of the present Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, undertook to supply arms to one side in the conflict.
It used to be thought that he had not made a success of this, largely because in his surviving letters home he complains continually of his poverty and misery. Yet, as Robb is able to show, Rimbaud was always deliberately vague about how much money he was making and what he was doing with it. On a trip to Cairo in 1887, Rimbaud deposited the sum of 16,000 francs in the Crédit Lyonnais Bank (around $70,000), which was no mean amount, particularly when added to what he was at the same time repatriating to France and banking elsewhere. If Rimbaud really was being "swindled" by the Abyssinians to whom he was supplying arms, as he frequently claims he was, where did this money come from? On this same visit, Rimbaud published accounts of the situation in Abyssinia in Cairo's Le Bosphore égyptien newspaper, and Robb describes these as containing "more accurate detail and analysis than several years' worth of diplomatic dispatches." Rimbaud apparently also became fluent in Arabic.
Ten years ago there was great excitement among Aden's francophone population because it was believed that the house that Rimbaud had lived in in that city had at last been positively identified. Swiftly renovated, it was turned into a French cultural centre. However, as the detailed maps and nineteenth- century photographs in Jean-Jacques Lefrère, Pierre Leroy and Jean-Hughes Berrou's photo-essay Rimbaud à Aden show, this house could not possibly have been Rimbaud's. Not only was it in the wrong place, but it had also been built several decades after the poet's death, and so, stripped of its cultural associations the building was then turned into a hotel, Aden's Hotel Rambow.
This sorry episode should perhaps stand as a cautionary tale, both Lefrère and Robb thinking further investigation in Yemen, Ethiopia or Cairo unlikely to turn up further Rimbaud memorabilia. It is interesting, though, that at the same time that Rimbaud, who had come to view French literary life with unutterable contempt, was being feted as the leader-in-exile of various new Parisian "movements," from the Decadents to the Zutistes, the ex-poet was writing instead on prospects for trade in Abyssinia for what was at the time a leading Egyptian newspaper. Few until now will have seen the need to recognise in Rimbaud not only an outstanding poet, but also an outstanding geographer. For his account of Harar and of the surrounding part of Africa is only the second ever attempted, after reports made by the great English traveller and polymath Sir Richard Burton following his expedition of 1855.
~ Reviewed by David Tresilian
RIMBAUD: "THE IMPOSSIBLE FLAME" (POETIC ANNIHILATION)
by A. Gargett
~ * * * ~
"Conditioned to ecstasy, the poet is like a gorgeous unknown bird mired in the ashes of thought. If he succeeds in freeing himself, it is to make a sacrificial flight to the sun. His dreams of a regenerate world are but the reverberations of his own fevered pulse beats. He imagines the world will follow him, but in the blue he finds himself alone. Alone but surrounded by his creations; sustained, therefore to meet the supreme sacrifice" (Henry Miller).
How like the drifting stellar splinters of the heavens are poets. Do they not, like the planets, seem to be in communication with other worlds? Do they not tell us of things to come as well as of things long past, buried in the racial memory of man? What better significance can we give to their scant time on Earth than that of emissaries from another world? We live among dead fact whereas they live in signs and symbols. Their desires coincide with ours only when we approach an Icarian path. They try to free us from gravity; they urge us to fly with them on wings of spirit. They are always announcing the advent of things to come and we crucify them because we live in dread of the unknown.
In a letter dated the 13th May 1871 Rimbaud writes to George Izambard from the maze of poetic delirium and the loss of self-possession. In a play upon the classic formula of Cartesian subjectivism, poetry is depicted as a shattering derangement of vision and a dislocation of the ego:
"Now I degrade myself as far as possible. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working to render myself visionary: you will not understand any of this, and I scarcely know how to explain it to you. It is necessary to arrive at the unknown by a deregulation of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one must be strong, to be born a poet and I recognize myself as a poet. This is not at all my fault. It is false to say: I think. One should say: one thinks me…I is an other".
As if the pandemonic cyclone of poetry had already laid waste the resources of articulation, Rimbaud says that he cannot explain himself; just two years later in "A Season in Hell" he will write: "I understand, and not knowing how to explain myself without pagan words, I would rather be silent" This is not to say that words come to an end, but only that discourse ceases to dominate them. The motor is not discursive competence, but the vacant eye of the storm. In a further letter, this time to Paul Demeny, dated the 15th of the same month, Rimbaud repeated the phrase "a deregulation of all the senses" (only the emphasis is changed), the phrase "I am other", and the rhetoric of the "poete maudit" from the Izambard letter, stressing the necessity of intoxication, suffering, and exile:
"The poet makes himself a visionary by a long, immense and rational deregulation of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness: he searches himself, he exhausts all poisons in himself, in order to preserve only their quintessence. Unspeakable torture where he has need of all faith, all superhuman strength, where he becomes among everyone the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed one — and the supreme scholar! — Because he arrives at the unknown, since he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than anybody! He arrives at the unknown, and when, bewildered, he ends by losing the intelligence of his visions, he has seen them! Let him die as he leaps through unheard of and unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where the other collapsed!".
A method or an anti-method, the will to chance, a voyage into loss of control, and this impossibility is the desolate core of poetry, a space of slippage. To slip is not to plan, to work, and to struggle. "I have a horror of all trades. Masters and workers, all peasants, ignoble. The hand at the quill just as the hand at the plough". Rimbaud confesses that he is "lazier than a toad" without decency, an alien to the civilization of toil. "I have never been of this people; I have never been a Christian; I am of the race who sings under torture; I do not understand the laws, I am a beast: you fool yourselves…" (R 308). An explorer of the sacred, traversing wildernesses beyond piety or sense charred by the flame of the impossible, Rimbaud treads the edge of the maze, scraping away his tight European skin.
"I am of an inferior race to all eternity".
The poet-seer will create a new universal language:
"This language will be soul for soul's sake, summing up everything, perfumes, sounds and colours, thought latching on to thought and pulling" ("Lettre du Voyant" 1871).
So the poet must distort himself into a specialized instrument of perception. He will do this by a deliberate disordering (dereglement) of the senses, which eventually makes him a "grand malade" — one thinks of Rousseau and Proust, or criminals Villon, de Sade, Jean Genet — a "grand maudit", a doomed outcast of the Byronic tradition, the self-characterized Baudelaire of "Les Fleurs du Mal", even the noble pariahs of Vigny's poems.
There are two main components in this initiative of Rimbaud's. First, a fairly direct development from the Satanism of Baudelaire, which led him to believe that physical debasement of various kinds, would broaden experience of evil as of good and would lead to spiritual lucidity. Secondly, Rimbaud the adolescent — his adolescence is vital — feels himself on the brink of life and has no patience with the prospect of maturing slowly. He must grasp at everything — experience, knowledge, understanding — and get it at once in its integrity. The only way to achieve this is by a shortcut, which is also the direct route: through sensation, which is instantaneous and within his immediate grasp. Afterwards it will not matter if he has destroyed himself. At least he will have "been there" and others can go on — he believes — from the point he has reached.
The conception of the poet as "voyant" opens Rimbaud's passage towards the "letter du voyant", on pre-rational or anti-rational methods of apprehending reality. The notion of the unconscious is certainly here, though this is thirty years before Freud, but more than fifty after Coleridge. This also directs a view towards Surrealism — in results and in theory — but with a significant distinction. Rimbaud prescribes a deliberately willed sacrifice at the outset of the journey and by his reference to "suffering", "torture", and to "losing the understanding (intelligence) of his visions" seems to have in mind a consciously lucid victim on the Racinian model. The disintegration of understanding is the end for him, as also for Baudelaire. Beyond this point other "horrible workers" must take up the search. And here the Surrealist quest arose. A state of no-reason — but drifted into automatically, and without deliberate effort or suffering — was for them the state in which "real reality" was attained. Although Rimbaud can be claimed as a forerunner of the Surrealists, his kinship with them is thus incomplete. He belongs collaterally to the family of the despised Musset, who conceived the poet as performing a voluntary sacrifice in which his rational identity remains intact to the last.
Along Rimbaud's trajectory the "letter du voyant" implied both a plan for living and for poetry. "All language being idea," said Rimbaud, "the day of the universal language will come…This language, the new or universal, will speak from soul to soul, resuming all perfumes, sounds, colours, linking together all thought." The key to this language, is the symbol, which the creator alone possesses. It is the alphabet of the soul, pristine and indestructible. By means of it the poet, who is sovereign of the imagination and the unacknowledged ruler of the world, communicates, holds communion with his fellow man. It was to establish this bridge that the youthful Rimbaud gave himself up to experiment. The magnificent "Bateau ivre" may be described as the first great Symbolist poem. The "drunken boat" is a ship which has gone adrift down some American river when its haulers were captured and massacred by "shrieking redskins". Free and crewless it is carried about the seas, traversing storms, amid seascapes and landfalls of incredible strangeness and beauty. The underwater world and the sky display their terrors and marvels while it drifts for months as almost part of them:
"[I was] almost an island, tossing on my beaches the brawls and droppings of pale-eyed, clamouring birds. And I was scudding along when across my frayed cordage drowned men sank backwards into sleep!…”
But still the boat, even if "drunk" with sensation, is a conscious identity. Finally it is exhausted by incessant wanderings and desires to break up or else to creep into some European water — say a puddle on which a child is sadly launching a toy boat:
"If there is one water in Europe I want, it is the black cold pool where into the scented twilight a child squatting full of sadness launches a boat as fragile as a butterfly in May" .
Rimbaud apparently identifies himself with the boat — prophetically so if one thinks of his two existences: the first escape from home and Charleville with the intoxicating adventures of the senses which lay ahead, then the return, sobered and disillusioned, after Verlaine's condemnation; next the geographically distant adventures of the traveller, ending in his death in Marseille from disease and exhaustion. It is not necessary to believe that Rimbaud foresaw these things with clarity to conjecture that he may have perceived the general pattern of his destiny.
The great strength of "Bateau ivre" lies in its evocations of the violence and colours of the sea and of their concordances with human experience. As his biographers duly note, he had not yet seen the sea, yet far more lucidly and successfully than Hugo, he is a cosmic poet. He suggests the unity of all forms of life at an intuitive level by his mastery of the image which, whether implicit or fully explicated, is greater than that of any French poet before him. Since he has been equalled only by Mallarme and Valery, who, however, worked on a more intellectual level and a different scale.
"I have come to know the skies splitting with lightning, and the waterspouts, and the breakers and currents; I know the evening, and Dawn rising up like a flock of doves, and sometimes I have seen what men have imagined they saw!
I have seen the low-hanging sun speckled with mystic horrors lighting up long violet coagulations like the performers in antique dramas; waves rolling back into the distances their shiverings of venetian blinds!
I have dreamed of the green night of the dazzled snows, the kiss rising slowly to the eyes of the seas, the circulation of undreamed-of saps, and the yellow-blue awakening of singing phosphorus!
…I have struck, do you realize, incredible Floridas, where mingle with flowers the eyes of panthers in human skins! Rainbows stretched like bridles under the seas' horizon to glaucous herds!
I have seen the enormous swamps seething, traps where a whole leviathan rots in the reeds! Downfalls of waters in the midst of the calm, and distances cataracting down into abysses!
Glaciers, suns of silver, waves of pearl, skies of red-hot coals! Hideous wrecks at the bottom of brown gulfs where the giant snakes, devoured by vermin, fall from the twisted trees with black odours!
I have seen archipelagos of stars! And islands whose delirious skies are open to sailors: Do you sleep, are you exiled in those bottomless nights, O million golden birds, Life Force of the future?".
In Rimbaud's verse, "Bateau ivre" is the peak of this kind of writing, not equalled in any of his other poems. But a similar merging of sensations and concepts — the comparison of the dawn to a flock of doves rising into the sky, of rising sap to rising tide, metaphors like "black perfumes" — and some of the same verbal richness, run through many of his poems. The language of the poet is asymptotic; it runs parallel to the inner voice when the latter approaches the infinitude of spirit. It is through this inner register that the man without language, so to speak, is in communion with the poet. Rimbaud's ingenious poetic suggestions leave the reader still free to interpret his words with whatever imagination he or she may bring to it. It is useless to apply too much logic to a poet who deliberately rejected it. There is no question of verbal education involved but one of spiritual development. The purity of Rimbaud is nowhere more apparent than in this uncompromising pitch which he maintained throughout his work.
It is Rimbaud's unique use of symbol which is the warrant of his genius. This symbology was forged in blood and anguish. It was at once a protest and a circumvention of the dismal spread of knowledge which threatened to stifle the source of the spirit.
When, in his early youth, Rimbaud chalked up on the doors of the churches "Death to God!" he proved himself to be closer to God than the powers who rule the Church. His arrogance and defiance were directed against the poor, the unfortunate, the truly devout; he was fighting the usurpers and pretenders, fighting all that was false, vain, hypocritical and life-destroying. He wanted the earth to re-become the Paradise which it was, which it still is beneath the veil of illusion and delusion. He was uninterested in the transcendental Paradise situated in a mythic realm. Here and now, in the flesh, as members of one community fired with life - is how he envisaged "Christmas on Earth".
Along Rimbaud's quest there is no truth that is not a war against theology, and even the word "truth" has been plastered by the spittle of priestcraft. It cannot be an attachment to some alternative conviction that cuts here, but only relentless refusal of what has been told. The dangerous infidels bypass dialectics. It is the sceptic who assassinates the lie.
The dangerous sceptics are those Kant fears, "a species of nomads, despising all settled modes of life" (K 8) who come from a wilderness tract beyond knowledge. They are explorers, which is also to say: invasion routes of the unknown. It is by way of these inhumanists that the vast abrupt of shamanic zero — Pyrrho's scepticism — infiltrates its contagious madness onto the earth.
How much industrialism lies dormant in the notion of thought? As if one could ever work things out. One does not think one's way out; one gets out, and then sees.
Literature is a ghoul that haunts only ruins, and the broken croaks of our hymns to sickness have scarcely begun. Borne by currents of deep exhaustion that flow silent and inexorable beneath the surface perturbations of twitch and chatter, damned, shivering, claw-like fingers hewn from torture and sunk into wreckage, drawn with unbearable slowness down into the maw of flame and snuffed blackness, twisted skewers into fever-hollowed eyes. Eternal Recurrence is our extermination, and we cling to it as infants to their mothers' breasts.
Poetry leads from the known to the unknown. Poetry is fluent silence, the only venture of writing to touch upon the sacred, because the unknown is not only distinguished from nothingness but anything that discourse can announce. To write the edge of the impossible is a transgression against discursive order and an incitement to the unspeakable: poetry is immoral.
"Indeed, we philosophers and 'free spirits' feel, when we hear the news that 'the old god is dead,' as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectations. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an 'open sea'." (Nietzsche GS, 343).
The death of God is an opportunity, a chance. It makes sense to ask what is meant by the word "noumenon", but chance does not function this way, since it is not a concept to be apprehended, but a direction in which to go. Monotheism is the great gatekeeper, and where it ends the exploration of death begins. If there are places to which we are forbidden to go, it is because they can in truth be reached, or because they can reach us. In the end poetry is invasion and not expression, a trajectory of incineration; either strung-up in the cobwebs of Paradise, or strung-out into the shadow torrents of hell. It is a route out of creation, which is to each their fate interpreted as enigma, as lure. The hard inexorable voyage commences — a quest into the greatest possible distance. "I said good-bye to the world". Even the most angelic curiosity — when multiplied to the power of eternity — must find its way to end in the abyss.
Death lies in separation, in living apart. It does not mean simply to cease being. A life which has no significance here below will have none hereafter. Rimbaud understood this significance. He gave up the struggle on one level to resume it on another. His final renunciation was in this sense an affirmation. He realized that only in silence and darkness could the ingredients of art be restored. He followed this trajectory, shattering all forms, his own included. At the very beginning of his art he understood what others only understand at the end, if at all, that the sacred word no longer has validity. He realized that the poison of culture has transformed beauty and truth into artifice. He takes beauty and he finds her bitter. He abandons her. It is only in this way that he can honour her.
Rimbaud writes from the other side of Zarathustrean descent/death (Untergang), anticipating the labyrinthine spaces of a Nietzsche for the sick, and of what escapes from/due to the cultural convulsion Nietzsche reinforces. "The poet makes himself a visionary" and "the sufferings are enormous" Rimbaud insists. No organism is adapted to "arrive at the unknown", which makes deregulation as necessary as it makes pain inevitable. Our nerves squeal when they are re-strung upon the phylogenetically unanticipated, "experiences strike too deeply; memory becomes a festering wound" (Nietzsche EH, 230): a descent into the inferno. "Nuit de l'enfer", where the entrails of nature dissolve meanderous into lava, "this is hell, eternal pain", and Rimbaud burns, "as is necessary".
Yes, the poet must be a visionary. The East knows a true lucidity, but to be an inheritor of the West is to hack through jungles of indiscipline, devoured by vile ants and words unstrung from sense, until the dripping foliage of delirium opens out onto a space of comprehensive ruin. This has never been understood, nor can it be. The foulness of our fate only deepens with the centuries, as the tracts of insanity sprawl. From bodies gnawed by tropical fevers we swim out through collapse to inexistence in forever, fated for dissolution.
True poetry is hideous, because it is base communication, in contrast with pseudo-communicative discourse, which presupposes the isolation of the terms it unites. Communication — in the transgressive non-sense Rimbaud lends it — is both an utter risk and an unfathomable degradation, associated with repellent affect. The ego emerges in the flight from communicative immanence, from deep or unholy community, initiating a history that leads to the bitter truth of the desertification of the isolated being. From the anxiety of base contact, which it can only experience as dissolution, the ego stumbles into the ennui of autonomy, the ante-chamber to a harsh despair, whose horror is accentuated by the fact that it arises at the point where escape has exhausted itself, where the ego has quarantined itself to the limit of its being against extraneous misfortune. Ennui is not any kind of response to the compromising of the ego from without, it is not an impurity or a contamination (the negation of such things are for it a condition of existence), but rather, it is the very truth of achieved being; the core affect of personal individuality. Ennui cannot be mastered, surpassed, resolved, "aufgehoben", because it is nothing but the distillate of such operations, indeed, of action as such. Ennui is insinuated into the very fabric of project, as the necessity of leaving oneself. If the soil of Rimbaud's poetry is volcanic it is not only due to the sporadic convulsions of a devastating incandescence, but also because its fertility is anticipated by a monstrous sterilization. Beneath and before the luxuriant jungles of delirium is the endless crushing ashplain of despair.
"'You'll go on being a hyena, etc…,' cries indignantly the demon who crowned me with such pleasing poppies".
"I believe that I am in hell, and therefore I am there". Blake might have written such words, although their sense would have been quite different. Twisted from Rimbaud's convictions they point less to a potency of imagination than to a corporeal crisis of justification, approaching a perfect epistemological irresponsibility. It is not for us to defend the rights of truth, truth is decreed by the masters. What matters is to adapt, nursing the meagre resources of our reactivity, of our base cunning. "Belief" — the cloak of confession — is too precious a resource to be squandered on the zealotry of idealism. What value is there to be extracted from a committed belief, from a last-ditch belief? Such things are for the strong (or the deluded), for the allies and slaves of light, for all those who do not rely on the subterranean passages beneath belief to avoid the panoptic apparatuses. Adaptability can only be lamed by commitments. We have seen enough true Christians: rabbits transfixed by headlights. When draped about the inferiors beliefs are not loyalties, but rather sunblocks against inquisition. We creatures of shadow are hidden from their enlightenment. We believe exactly what they want.
The inferior race "await God with greed", scavenging at Christ "like wolves at an animal they have not killed". Creation, testament genealogy, the passion of Christ…none of it is their story, nor is any other, for they are too indolent to have a story of their own, only theft and lies are "Proper" to them: "pillage". Rimbaud's inheritance, "above all", consists of "mendacity and sloth". "I have never been a Christian; I am of the race which sung under torture" he remarks. It is precisely obliviousness to Christianity, to fidelity or duty, to privileged narratives, that eases the inferior races into singing the praises of the Nazarene. The white man has guns, therefore the truth. "The whites disembark. The cannon! It is necessary to submit to baptism, dress oneself, work".
"Philosophers: The world has no age. Humanity, quite simply, moves about"
In contrast to the pompous declarations of the orthodoxy, which are delivered from on high — like a stroke of the whip — an infernal message is subterranean, a whisper from the nether-regions of discourse, since "hell is certainly below". Just as the underworld is not a hidden world — a real or true (Wahre Welt) — but is that hidden by all worlds, so is the crypt-mutter from hell something other than an inverted scene, concept, or belief. In their infernal lineaments words are passages, leading into and through lost mazes, and not edifications. Acquisition is impossible in hell. There is nothing "en bas" except wandering amongst emergences, and what is available has always come strangely, without belonging. Infernal "low-life" has no understanding for property. Even the thoughts of the inferior ones are camouflage and dissimulation, their beliefs mere chameleon dapplings of the skin.
Poetry does not strut logically amongst convictions, it seeps through crevices; a magmic flux resuscitated amongst vermin. If it were not that the Great Ideas had basements, fissures, and vacuoles, poetry would never infest them. Faiths rise and fall, but the rats persist.
Rimbaud's "saison en enfer" pulsates through a discourse without integrity. Teaching nothing, it infects. Like matter cooked-through with pestilential contagions of energy, it collapses into a swarm of plague-vectors. Substance is only its host. Words, books, monuments, symbols, are nothing but the paths of this contagion, its passages.
Rimbaud is not the locus of secular reason but of shamanic religion; a poet who escapes any philosophical conceptuality in the direction of ulterior zones, and dispenses with the "thing in itself" because it is an item of intelligible representation with no consequence as a vector of becoming/travel. Shamanism defies the transcendence of death, opening the tracts of "voyages of discovery never reported." There is a fissure of abysmal scepticism, which passes out of the Kantian "noumenon" — or intelligible object — through Kant and Schopenhauer's "thing in itself" — stripping away a layer of residual Platonism — and onwards in the direction of acategorical, epochal, or base matter that connects with Rimbaud's "invisible splendours": the immense deathscapes of a "universe without images".
Death is the reality of the impossible, making fictions of us all, and it is only in fiction that we separate ourselves from it. Wandering in the labyrinth one finds that not-one is only distanced by a complication of terrain, and that passages leading out of the possible can never be walled-off. If reasons were needed why literature and poetry cannot be supplanted by philosophy this is one, even though it is unreason itself.
"I have swallowed a famous gulp of poison — Thrice blessed be the idea which came to me! - My entrails are burning. The violence of the poison racks my limbs, twists me out of shape, throws me to the ground. I am dying of thirst, I am choking, I cannot cry out. This is hell, the everlasting torment! Look, how the fire rises higher! I am burning in the proper manner. There then demon!".
Stories celebrate life, poetry exults in death. Wherever a story disintegrates into pain and confusion poetry begins, and whatever stinks of imperfection crawling crippled out of a howl is a poem. To become degraded to the level of a writer is to be perpetually captivated, and then betrayed, by the figments of method, a resource for creation, and inevitability. As poetry is to prose, so would this be, in turn, to poetry itself: a summit from which the flood-plain of textuality could be perpetually re-inundated, a hieroglyph of utter fertility. But the word "method" is rather too philosophical, for what is at issue here is a map for traversing unknown terrains, and not one for domesticating them; a chart for discoveries that accentuate the enigma of the world. "Method" not as lucid preparation, but as a passage to the point of delirium, to the point of unconsciousness through excess. Method as a map that is indistinguishable from the voyage, a track, traced out in figures that already attest to the exoticism it announces, and leading towards what is ferociously up-stream. What is craved throughout the long nights of entrancement is that one be obliterated at the source of the deluge. To be spared a prosaic death. But where the foaming torrents should be found, is dust, and even worse than this: the powdered remains of ancient sea-shells. Relics of the same movement, which denudes necessarily and makes one, enter naked into a desert. Those who sink to their knees in despair, after clawing their way to such places in a fever of excitement, are at least granted visions of divine cruelty; of a laughter more acute than any to be found upon the flat-lands of the earth.
When compared to the dark heart of writing, despair is almost a temptation. Yet, despite the black farce of wreckage that a fate crippled by writing effects of itself, there is something about such a fate that remains unbroken, or at least, something that outlasts every vestige of the individual it condemns. Rimbaud spent a decade trying to dissolve it in the Ethiopian sun, but he still died as a poet who had long been silent, rather than as someone who had salvaged their humanity from the insanity of words.
Hell inspires the urge towards self-destruction and physical violence.
"Priests, doctors, masters, you are mistaken in handing me over to justice. I have never belonged to this people; I have never been a Christian; I belong to the race used to sing under torture; I do not understand the laws; I have no moral sense, I am an animal: you are making a mistake…".
Rimbaud proclaims that, not worshipping God, he cannot sin, while the exasperated crowd, being Christian, has damned itself. Even though the criminal or savage follows Satan's law, he cannot be damned like the sinning Christian. Therefore "salvation" is principally open to the savage. Satanic innocence is opposed to Christian damnation.
The poet's meanderings remain trapped in the maze, unless they cross over into a blind slippage into death, a slippage outside oneself that necessarily produces itself when death comes into play. A slippage produces itself, we do not do so, a chasm opens, chaos, something horrific in its depth, a season in Hell that slips immensely into the impossible, the intensity and intimacy of a sensation opening itself onto an abyss where there is nothing which is not lost, just as a profound wound opens itself to death. Poetry is this slippage that is broken upon the end of poetry, erased in a desert as beautiful as death. There is no question of affirmation, achievement, gain, but only a catastrophe without mitigation compared to which everything is poverty and imprisonment.
Visions of divinity and power are stealing over Rimbaud. First Jesus appears, to the poet, who seems to have taken a seat among the disciples in the boat on the Sea of Galilee (John 6; Matthew 14) The omniscience of deity then possesses the narrator; "I shall now unveil all the mysteries religious or natural, death, birth, future, past, cosmogony, void. I am a master of phantasmagoria." He presents himself as the supreme magician, a role which Satan traditionally enjoys: "Listen…I posses all the talents! — There is no one here, and there is someone: I do not wish to spill my treasure — Shall it be negro songs, houri dances? Shall I disappear, shall I dive in search of the ring? Shall I? I shall manufacture gold, cures.". Rimbaud is uncertain up to this point whether there are other people around him. This eerie paranoid mood vanishes however at the height of his delirium, where he is no longer simply Satan but Christ as well, come to redeem the waiting throngs: "Have faith in me, then; faith soothes, guides, cures. Come, all of you — even the little children — let me console you, let a heart go out to you - the marvellous heart!". This passage contains reminiscences of Matthew 11 and 19, and as usual charity symbolizes Christianity for Rimbaud. The false conversion is complete in all its divine and infernal ambiguity; heaven and hell are united, and the poet imagines himself the master of both. His conversion is thus false not only in the sense that the two eschatological realms are brought together, but also because it represents not so much a conversion as an attempted usurpation of superhuman power.
The price of attaining godhead, however, is dissolution: in the course of his unreal visions the poet himself has become unreal and discarnate. Lassitude steals on him as he has a last vertiginous vision of a castle and eternity.
"Decidedly, we have left the world behind. Not a single sound, any more. My sense of touch has disappeared…Evenings, mornings, nights, days…How tired I am! I ought to have a hell for my anger, a hell for my pride - and a hell for caresses; a whole concert of hells.
I am dying of lassitude. This is the tomb, I am going to the worms, horror of horrors! Satan, cheat, you intend to destroy me with your enchantments. I appeal. I appeal! For one prick of the fork, one drop of fire".
"The flame rises again with its damned soul".
Being prey to hallucinations differs considerably from inventing and exploiting a new language. The latter indeed becomes subsidiary to the poet's mental disorder: "Then I explained my magic sophisms by means of the hallucination of words!". Language is no longer the means by which reality is transformed; it has become merely an instrument for communicating madness.
"I loved the wilderness, dried-up orchards, faded shops, luke-warm drinks. I would drag myself through stinking alleys, and, with closed eyes, I would offer myself to the sun, god of fire….".
Summer is a common symbol of growth, vigour, and godhead, but the summer of "Une Saison en enfer" must be seen as a false symbol of divinity, the grace of a mendacious god who is Satan in disguise. It is associated not with fecundity but with destruction and drought. Rimbaud believes himself a magician and actually participates in a supernatural power but a demonic one. He finds himself in a landscape, which is a mockery of summer's fertility, under a sun that dissolves rather than regenerates. Unaware of the sinister character of his experience, at the height of his ecstasy the poet turns into pure light:
"At last, O happiness, O reason, I removed from the sky the azure, which is a blackness, and I lived, a spark of gold of the natural light. Out of joy, I took on the most clownish and exaggerated mode of expression possible:
It has been found again! What? eternity. It is the sea mingled with the sun".
For the moment the poet has achieved the fulfilment of his longings, but at a price that he does not realize. Since this summer, which Rimbaud places in the lowest depths of hell, is unnatural, a demonic artifice, it must yield again to darkness. Sleep, shadow, and winds overcome the exhausted poet: "I was ripe for death, and by a road of perils my weakness led me to the confines of the world and of Cimmeria, the home of shadows and whirlwinds".
The seasons are the infernal summer of hell with its deceptive vision of the castle of spiritual attainment. "O seasons, O towers! What soul is blameless? I pursued the magic lore of happiness, which no one escapes" (R 336). The morning of salvation for mankind will be the hour of the poet's death, for he has beguiled himself with false hopes and fatal visions.
Christianity is dualistic in Rimbaud's conception, and any real aspiration toward godhead must be double, at once divine and Satanic.
"My life is worn out. Come on, let's pretend, be idle, O pity! And we shall exist on amusing ourselves, dreaming of monstrous loves and fantastic universes, complaining and railing against the outward appearances of the world…".
No sooner do dreams of perversion, escape, debasement, and violence comes to the poet's mind than priests, incense, and holiness surround him. In "L'Impossible" and "L'Eclair" Rimbaud ranges through various philosophies in the hope of finding some substitute for perverted Christianity. Yet in conclusion the poet discovers his dreams of redemption to be impossible. "Une Saison en enfer" is based on the refusal to accept the dualism of good and evil. Beyond lies the realm of real conquest: "Spiritual combat is as brutal as the battle of men; but the vision of justice is God's pleasure alone" (R 346). The energetic warfare imagery contrasts with the weary feeling of dissolution, which characterizes the poet's ventures into Christianity and Satanism. Rimbaud's ultimate vision, the taking of a heavenly citadel at dawn, unites his twin longings for light and strength. The final paragraph of "Une Saison en enfer" acquires all its force from an implied contrast with Christian thought and the dialectics of damnation:
"What was I saying about a friendly hand! One fine advantage: I can laugh at the old false loves, and strike shame into those lying couples — I have seen the hell of women down there — and it will now be permitted to me to posses truth in a soul and a body".
The poet's adventures in damnation have constantly taken the form of bodily violence or aspirations to ethereality, both of which are forms of death. The otherness/worldliness of Christianity — including both the divine and infernal realms — is untenable: the poet insists on the abolishment of distinctions between here and beyond. The synthesis of body and spirit, the material and immaterial, is the essence of Rimbaud's conception of "salvation", and stands in total contrast to the devious and painful scruples of Christianity.
Life is a scream which one cannot desire to ameliorate. It is rather that one would exacerbate it. Agony alone has the power to seduce us, and it is to our most savage torments that we most ardently cling. We know that a life which was not torched into charcoal by desire would be an unendurable insipidity - pain however remains pain, a word that is easily written, perhaps there is little point on remarking upon it. One could imagine innumerable spurious reasons for reiterating the word scream for instance, that life is itself filthy hurt, who could care about this being discussed? "Everyone and no-one," as Nietzsche suggests?
The vision of chaos is a sort of ritual bath, a regeneration through immersion in the original fountain, a return to the "life before". Primitive tribes, the early Greeks, the Chinese, Taoists, and other peoples have had no fear of this awesome contact. The western attitude is unwholesome. It is moral. Morality, the great isolator, the great separator, divides humanity in half. To return to the unity of the vision is to reconcile body, soul, and the world.
Rimbaud's divine vision — inseparable from the demoniacal vision, since both are revelations of unity — begins with the appearance of gods. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, one after the other in an endless file, an infinity of august countenances. And seas of light, clinging to the divine perfection of the continuation of Being through time, a continuation that is so beautiful — so beautiful that the poet loses consciousness — so beautiful that as the Mahabharata says, the gods themselves grow jealous and come to admire it. This vision of gods is followed by nonvision: we are at the very heart time. This journey is a return: a letting go, an unlearning, and a travelling homeward to birth. Nonvision: outside of actuality, history, purpose, calculation, hate, love, beyond resolution and want of resolution, beyond preferences, the poet journeys back to a perpetual birth and listens to the endless poem, without rhymes, without music, without words, that the universe ceaselessly recites. Peace in the centre of the whirlwind, the reconciliation of humanity — what remains of humanity — with total presence.
Rimbaud's "Illuminations" recounts, in prose-poems of great imaginative richness, his dreams, his hallucinations, his voyages beyond reality or his transpositions of it. It is the work of a great visionary. Even more than his poetry in verse, it is the realization of Rimbaud's conception of the poet as "voyant". It corresponds to his view that "inventions of unknownness demand new forms", and supposedly was the work he was writing in 1872-3 during his period of a general "disordering of the senses". It alone of his surviving writings belongs naturally to the phase which came to an end with "Une Saison en enfer" and it fits his description in the latter work of the "lying visions" which he has renounced.
The "Illuminations" themselves imply a gradual change of terrain rather than a sudden precipice. Few poets, in fact, pursue such a coherent line. Ever since the songs of 1872, Rimbaud had been narrowing the gap between experience and expression, squeezing out the memory which orders and interprets and dredges up the old defeats. Any form of poetry that was based on a process rather than on a fixed set of principles was bound to fall off the edge of its own world. Rimbaud's ideologically flattened globe, where the old anxieties are replaced with ingenious forms of distraction and self-deception, now looks alarmingly familiar.
In "Illuminations", poetry comes close to communication in its relation to evil. Its proximity, however, is also a cause of hatred in that it only represents what is crucial in the experience of communication. Broaching a leap beyond the givens of law and nature, poetry involves the simple evocation through words of inaccessible possibilities, opening desires to an excess, revealing a power of the unknown. Poetry is, then, a middle term, since it conceals the known within the unknown: it is the unknown painted in blinding colours. Even in early works Rimbaud had already linked the dark radiance of poetry to a form of sacrificial expenditure, a creation by means of loss. It occupies the heterogeneous place once accorded religion, and also suffers the same fate. From being a mode of sacrificial expenditure, exposing the heterogeneous realm through the energy of loss, it becomes a form of appropriation, returning to the world with any number of aesthetic homogeneities. Poetry's escape, its excess follows an Icarian path: it drives upwards in a transgressive trajectory only to reach its limits and fall. Hence the ambivalent role of the arts in relation to extreme states of being.
Three consistent themes run through "Illuminations": success, with an almost worldly connotation; new beings and visions, with erotic and aesthetic overtones; and the fraternal redemption of mankind. These three aspects of the poet's enterprise, however curious a combination they make, return in the poems and constitute the fundamental themeology of most of the "Illuminations".
"In whatever evening, for instance, the simple tourist, retiring from our economic horrors, finds himself, the hand of a master awakens the harpsichord of the meadows; they are playing cards at the bottom of the pond, the mirror which evokes queens and favourites…To his slave's eye, Germany scaffolds upwards towards moons; Tartar deserts light up; ancient revolts ferment in the heart of the Celestial Empire…The same bourgeois magic wherever the mailboat takes us! The most elementary physicist feels that it is no longer possible to submit oneself to this personal atmosphere, this fog of physical remorse, which to observe is already an affliction".
Magical diversions in which all time and space — real or imaginary — become present are promised in this poem, which has something of the tone of a schematic outline. "Soir historique" is one of the best examples of Rimbaud's fondness for qualifying his visions with the language of commerce and science. Rimbaud finds something poetic in the sciences and modern economy. This unwillingness to restrict poetry to the pre-contemporary world is one of Rimbaud's great strengths. At the same time his playing with the language of the practical world while evoking mythic realms provides with a fundamental strain of irony. There is a self-conscious disparity between the imaginary domains evoked and the narrator[']s matter-of-fact tone. One is always aware of the virtuosity, which holds together the oddly assorted elements, and of the precariousness of the equilibrium.
The personal fog of physical remorse, as Rimbaud calls present life, is a fairly complex image, suggesting isolation from the surrounding world, a guilty absorption in the self, and a kind of moral malaise provoked by matter. What he would escape from our ethical morass, which would seem to be an emanation from our familiar landscape. The "changing of life" is a release from our conscience as well as from ordinary sights and sensations.
In "Solde", on the pretext of a liquidation sale, Rimbaud offers treasures beyond good and evil, time and knowledge: "The Voices reconstituted; the fraternal awakening of all choral and orchestral energies and their immediate application; the opportunity, unique, of freeing our senses!". Music is appropriately the first symbol for the release of the senses and the transformation of the material world, for it alone of physical pleasures has no relation to present nature .A new eroticism accompanies it, likewise divorced from known experiences: "For sale bodies above price, not to be found in any race, world, sex, or line of descent! Riches spurting at every step! Unrationed sale of diamonds!". Diamonds are associated with eroticism and here the image sustains the theme of an impossibly advantageous bargain. The next items offered make us more aware that it is essential fulfilment which is being sold with no ethical considerations involved: "For sale anarchy for the masses; irrepressible satisfaction for connoisseurs; frightful death for the faithful and for lovers!" The poet offers perfect consummation to all, whether it be pleasureful or not; The material possibilities of modern life, such as the 19th Century could foresee them, are also thrown in; comfort, amusement, and freedom from work have economic implications which sustain the basic metaphor of the poem: "For sale dwelling-places and migrations, sports, perfect magic and perfect comfort, and the noise, the movement, and the future they create!" Finally for the intellect the poet offers the ultimate transfiguration of mathematics and language: "For sale unheard-of-applications of reckoning and leaps of harmony. Lucky finds and terms unsuspected, with immediate possession." "The sequence of rather general conceptions which are detailed in "solde" culminates in a burst of abstract words whose enthusiastic raid on the unintelligible is made more energetic by a jangling repetition of sounds: "Wild and infinite impulses towards invisible splendours, intangible delights, with its maddening secrets for every vice and its frightful gaiety for the crowd. " With the last sentences, however, we are left in doubt as to the good faith of the sale: "For sale bodies, voices, the immense unquestionable opulence, that which will never be sold. The firm is not at the end of its clearance stock! Our travellers won't have to turn in their accounts for a long time yet!"
The treasures have no price, and the merchant is not willing to let them go so easily. The insidious final change of direction is Rimbaud's characteristic signature. "Solde" is a tentative revelation of what mankind's fulfilment of its amoral nature would be. At the same time, it hints at the incapacity of humanity to realize itself and at the poet's exclusive possession of true power.
All these visions of life transfigured bear some relation to "Une Saison en enfer", but they remain apocalyptic without theological reference. Their epiphanies are assimilated to magic in a vague way and are largely purged of a religious meaning except insofar as one senses in them a rejection of the Christian metaphysic of good and evil. At least one "Illumination" however, brings us into the climate of thought of "Une Saisons en enfer" with its exploration of history and religious philosophy. "Genie" is a primary text, both in its stylistic distinction and in it's drawing together of motifs to be found explicit or implied in other "Illuminations".
"He is affection and the present because he has made the house which is open to the frothy winter and to the murmur of summer, he who has purified drink and food, he who is the charm of fugitive places and the superhuman delights of halts. He is affection and the future, the strength and the love which we, standing in rage and boredom, see passing in the stormy sky among banners of ecstasy.
He is love, the measure perfect and reinvented, marvellous and unexpected reason, and eternity: beloved machine of the fatal powers. We have all known the terror of his yielding and of our own. O delight in our health, impetus of our faculties, selfish affection and passion for him, him who loves us for his eternal life…".
In "Genie" the poet's aspirations are associated not with his own oeuvre but with an external force. Even more clearly than in "A une raison" (R 249), however, this force is a deity, and the first two paragraphs detail his epithets and attributes. These flowing sentences have the hypnotic character of invocatory prayer with their monotonous repetition of words and notions. The genie is connected with the spectacle of the natural world but in a specific manner: its influence is always from above like that of the sun or moon, and thus this conception is not pantheistic but rather comparable to that of God in the Psalms. It is almost nature, but not quite. Among the genie's promises and attributes are terms by now familiar: strength, health, and love re-invented; reason — with the special and somewhat cryptic sense Rimbaud gives the word — and eternity. Some of this language — "him who loves us for his eternal life…" — resembles Christian devotional expression, but one must note on the other hand the particular physical and sensual emphasis in the passage: words like "terror of his yielding", "selfish affection" and "passion" have a decidedly erotic character. The Oriental connotations of the word genie — which derives in this sense from the Arabic "jinn" rather than the Latin "genius" — contribute further towards the voluptuary suggestion of the poem. The cult of the genie is contrasted with Christianity:
"And we call him back to us and he travels on…And if Adoration goes away, ring, his promise rings: "Away with these superstitions, these old bodies, these couples and these ages. It is this epoch that has sunk!"
He will not go away, he will not descend from any heaven again, he will not achieve the redemption of women's anger and men's gaieties and all that sin: because it is done, because he exists and is loved".
"Adoration" is Christian worship, and with it are associated outmoded forms of love and eroticism. The genie's refusal to retreat from it's pre-eminence or to descend and redeem humanity is in obvious contrast with Christ's mission, but a delicate ambiguity is suggested by the declaration that redemption is already accomplished by his very existence. There is a curious play on the notion of time and the point of epiphany in this poem: the genie is both present and future, promise and fulfilment. The correct inference is probably that, unlike Christ, the genie need not manifest itself vulgarly and that the burden of realizing transfiguration lies on humanity alone. The syntax of the poem suddenly changes to a series of exclamations, as the genie's attributes and powers are again proclaimed and in fuller detail:
"O his breaths, his heads, his runnings: the terrible swiftness of the perfection of forms and of action.
O fruitfulness of the mind and the immensity of the universe!
His body! The dreamed-of redemption, the shattering of grace meeting with new violence!
The sight of him, the sight of him! All the old kneelings and pains lifted at his passing.
His light! The abolition of all audible and moving suffering in more intense music.
His step! Migrations more enormous than the old invasions.
O He and we! Pride more benign than wasted charities.
O world! And the clear song of new misfortunes!"
The kneelings and charities — symbols of Christianity — are replaced by a new pride, the primordial Christian, and a rejoicing in the body's form released from its previous bondage. The physical attributes of the genie are even further associated with the universe in this passage; its body is somehow an image of the world transfigured, perfect form and action. Thus its pace and the possible migrations of humanity correspond; the light of its eye its own new atmosphere. The conclusion of the poem returns to harmonious periodic sentence structure and repeats the key words of the preceding sections in a formal coda:
"He has known us all and loved us all. May we know, this winter night, from promontory to promontory, from the tumultuous pole to the country house, from the multitude to the beach, from looks to looks, strength and feelings wearied, how to hail him and see him, and send him away, and, beneath the tides and at the top of the desert of snow, to follow his vision, his breath, his body, his light".
These last lines intensify the most persistent image of the poem, that of the globe embraced by the revolving spectacle of the atmosphere and the genie, whose position is suggestive of that of some great celestial body. From the image of the house in the opening line through to the end the earth is felt as something surrounded and the genie as a moving but ever-present force: it goes away, it is action and speed, yet it still remains. Though not part of the earth, it is contiguous with it and influential upon it.
Violence and suffering have been implied in the evocation of life transformed in "Solde", but not exalted as here. Both terms seem perhaps curious in a poem which envisages the redemption of humanity, but they are actually congruent with Rimbaud's imaginative processes: the fraternity and salvation of humanity does not in his poetry have the sentimental connotations it often has elsewhere, no more than does the future "amour reinvente" resemble chastity. Since he speaks of states beyond good and evil determined solely by considerations of aesthetics and satisfaction, they can include violence, suffering, and cataclysms like the cosmic upheaval with which "Soir historique" ends. No ethical values are present.
The "Illuminations" like all of Rimbaud's later work are built of mythic, poetic conceptions. He explores the different resonances, which the word love bears: idealistic and fraternal, tranquilly voluptuous, or violent and bestial. Similarly Rimbaud's vision of a future race ranges from the exalted one common in humanitarian myth to a more sinister conception of a superman. The term which runs concurrently through Rimbaud's writing describing a common thematic dynamic, "changing life" is itself an ambivalent idea with suggestions in turn of building and renewal and of destruction and extinction. Magic can be called the means toward the changing of life, but the concept of magic for Rimbaud is so rich as to include both apocalyptics and grandiloquent spectacle.
Poetry is the language that Rimbaud used to try and express something that is truly inexpressible. But is it a question of expression? Perhaps Rimbaud has never tried to express anything. All his efforts have been directed at reaching that zone, by definition indescribable and incommunicable, in which meanings disappear. A centre at once completely empty and completely full, a total vacuum and a total plenitude. Rimbaud's oeuvre - his poems, his real and imaginary travels — is an expedition winding its way towards some of our infinities — the most secret, the most fearful, and at times the most derisive ones.
Rimbaud travels via his language. And he does not hesitate to break the back of a word, the way a horseman does not hesitate to wind his mount. Language as a passage/crossing, but also language as a knife and a miner's lamp. Their utility is paradoxical, however since they are not employed to foster communication, but rather pressed into the service of the incommunicable. The extraordinary tension of Rimbaud's language stems from the fact that it is an undoubtedly effective tool, but its sole use is to bare something that is completely ineffective by its very nature: the state of non-knowledge that is beyond knowledge, the thought that no longer thinks because it has been united with itself, total transparency, a motionless whirlwind.
Rimbaud could say: I left my life behind to catch a glimpse of life.
"Une Saison en enfer" tells, symbolically, the story of Rimbaud's spiritual adventure and its failure. From the opening: "In other days, if I remember rightly, my life was a feast at which all hearts were open, all wines flowed," it leads up to his reaction against not only his companionship with Verlaine, but the whole of his superhuman effort to live by the senses. Overstrained physically, in revulsion against alcohol and drugs, he is inclined, as Baudelaire once had been, to seek a healthy rule of life. But at the same time he is spiritually disintoxicated. The vision glimpsed earlier in the "letter du voyant" is now admitted to have been false - or unattainable. He renounces it expressly, calling it "delirium", "folly". And, though not without a last regretful glance backwards, he braces himself to go forward into a "real" world of practical achievement, of science, hard work and heard hearts:
"I created all festivals, all triumphs, all dramas. I tried to invent new flowers, new stars, new flesh, new tongues. I thought I had acquired supernatural powers. Well, I must bury my imagination and my memories. A fine reputation for art and story-telling has collapsed!
I! Who called myself Magus or angel, excused from all morality, I am brought back to earth, with a duty to discover and rugged reality to embrace. Peasant!
Was I mistaken? Could charity be the sister of death for me?
Anyhow, I will ask pardon for having fed myself on lies. And let's get going."
Rimbaud repudiated his "youthful indiscretions" and went to live in the benighted continent where "the natives called him the Saint because of his miraculous charity". One has the feeling that in Abyssinia he even tried to amputate the organ of memory. Whatever the motive of his renunciation of his art, certainly the paramount drive was loss of faith.
"Sometimes I asked him why he didn't take it up again. All I ever got were the usual replies: 'absurd, ridiculous, disgusting, etc.'" (Alfred Bardey).
After travelling across the mountains, Rimbaud swung round to the south-west onto what is now the main road north from Addis Ababa. In Choan territory, the journey was less harrowing.
Three days later, on 7 April 1887, Rimbaud marched into Menelik's new capital…
"Enotto was a bald hill occupied by hundreds of mud huts dotted about among the stumps of what had once been a magnificent cedar forest. At the top of the hill, enclosed by three concentric stockades, stood Menelik's thatched palace. Entotto was home to several thousand Abyssinians and a handful of Europeans - some wandering wrecks…and some adventurous young professionals, like the Swiss engineer, King Menelik's chief foreign adviser, Alfred Ilg.
Rimbaud settled in to wait for the King. A few days later, Menelik's return was announced by the ear-splitting wail of Egyptian trumpets, stolen from Harar, followed by the King's army and his booty, which included two Krupp cannons, each one carried by eighty men.
Menelik conducted his business in front of a lurid portrait of himself flanked by two lions. He sat on a divan, draped in a black silk burnous, surrounded by cushions and courtiers. Negotiations were swift and successful" (Robb).
Life decomposes into filth as it explores the vicarious death of the universe. In no case does the heterogeneous belong to any scale, since it is exactly the irruption of decomposability. Heterogeneous (base) matter is characterized negatively in relation to every possible stratum of elemental organization, which is why it resists the discourse on "things". Vomit, blood, and decomposing flesh do not proffer unproblematic solidity or comprehensible form, but rather quasi-fluid divisibility, imprecise consistency, multiple, insufficient, and evanescent patterns of cohesion. All of which are mixed with words slimed with sanctity. To write is to investigate chance but the explosive excess that breaks in a black foam of poetry is not merely a risk, because risk implies the possibility of a benign outcome. It is a ruin without limits, the submission of humanity to the blank. Excess is venom.
Rimbaud's poems are a hecatomb of words without gods or reason to be, led back down through the crypts of the West by a furious impulse to dissociate theism and religion, and thus to return the sacred to its shamanic impiety, except that nothing can ever simply return, and Hell will never be an innocent underworld again. The depths have become infernal, really so, quite irrespective of the fairy tales we are still told. Flames surround us and an abyss opens beneath our feet, an abyss that does not end in the satiate contemplation of an absence because its edge is the charred ruin of even the most sublimed subjectivity. It is not only due to the inquisition that all the great voyagers have forever been blazed. For well over a century all that have wanted to see have seen: no profound exploration can be launched from the ruins of monotheism unless it draws its resources from damnation.
"It was his destiny, it seems, to have wings and to be chained to the earth. He strains as if to make the outermost stars, only to find himself wallowing in the mud. Indeed, the more he flaps his wings, the deeper he finds himself imprisoned in the earth. In him fire and air war with water and earth. He is an eagle chained to a rock. The little birds are the ones which eat his heart out" (Henry Miller).
Rimbaud sought a poetic communication with the rupturing intensity of flames, electrical discharge, lightning. Inner experience and the communication it involves, takes the individual being to the extreme limit of the possible. At this limit everything gives way. Non-knowledge bursts forth with the intensity of anguished ecstasy. Non-knowledge lays bare. Non-knowledge or unknowing - the knowledge of the absence of knowledge. In communicating ecstasy, inner experience induces torment and anguish, revealing the yawning gap in which subject and object are dissolved. Communication exposes an "unavowable" sense of community. Being circulates around a void that lies at its heart and limit, while the insufficiency that marks all beings establishes the constitutive apprehension of alterity that shapes community.
Transgression is not a criminal action, but a tragic fate; the intersection of an economically programmed apocalypse with the religious anti-history of poetry. It is the inevitable occurrence of impossibility, which is not the same as death, but neither is it essentially different. This ambivalence responds to that of death "itself", which is not ontological but labyrinthine: a relapse of composition that is absolute to discontinuity, yet is nothing at the level of immanence. The very individuality that would condition the possibility of a proprietary death could only be achieved if death were impossible. One dies because discontinuity is never realized, but this means that there is never "one" who dies. Instead there is an unthinkable communication with zero, immanence, or the sacred. There is no feeling that throws one into exuberance with more force than that of nothingness. But exuberance is not all annihilation, it is the surpassing of the shattered attitude, it is transgression.
"I dreamed of crusades, voyages of discovery never reported, unrecorded republics, suppressed religious wars, revolutions in manners, movements of races and of continents: I believed in all enchantments".
~ A. Gargett
Bataille, George. Oeuvres Completes. Gallimard: Paris, 1970-1988.
Miller, Henry. The Time of the Assassins. London: Quartet Books, 1984.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. Trans. Walter Kaufmann in Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern Library, 1968.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books, 1968.
Rimbaud, Arthur. Collected Poems. Introduction and edited by Oliver Bernard. London: Penguin Books, 1986.
Robb, Graham. Rimbaud. London: Picador, 2001.
A DECADE IN HELL
An account of Rimbaud's years on the Horn of Africa.
by Ben Downing
(October 24, 1999)
In 1888 Arthur Rimbaud received a letter from Paris that said: ''You have become, among a little coterie, a sort of legendary figure. . . . This little group, who claim you as their Master, do not know what has become of you, but hope you will one day reappear, and rescue them from obscurity.'' A most flattering invitation, but the reluctant messiah did not respond. He had come to think of his poems as ''rin-->ures'' (dregs) and wanted nothing further to do with them. Besides, he was at that moment waiting in a flyspeck port on the Gulf of Aden for a shipment of percussion rifles; he had better things to do.
* * *
Just how Rimbaud (1854-91) came to such an outlandish pass is the topic of Charles Nicholl's elegant biography, ''Somebody Else.'' He begins by rehearsing Rimbaud's singular adolescence, beginning with the 15-year-old's repeated escapes to Paris from his hometown of Charleville, in northern France. Meanwhile his poetry developed at an astonishing rate. Having swiftly mastered the decorous poetic conventions of the day, he chucked them all and in the manifesto known as ''Lettre du Voyant'' (''The Prophet's Letter'') advanced a new poetics fueled (in his famous statement) by a ''long, immense and systematic derangement of all the senses.'' In 1871 he foisted himself upon Paul Verlaine, and before long the impudent young hayseed was razzing the Parnassians and involving the married Verlaine in a perpetual roister of absinthe, hashish and sodomy. When things got awkward in Paris, the two fled first to London, then to Brussels, where their garret opera luridly culminated in July 1873 with Rimbaud shot and Verlaine hauled off to jail.
The very next month Rimbaud wrote ''Une Saison en Enfer'' (''A Season in Hell'') and began weaning himself from literature, commencing a period of fitful vagabondage. Stuttgart, Milan, Marseilles, Vienna -- no city could hold him. In 1876 he signed up as a mercenary with the Dutch colonial army but deserted after 13 days of service in Sumatra; the following year found him the cashier of a Hamburg circus. Gradually he drifted south, to Alexandria and Cyprus, where he was foreman of a construction gang. In August 1880, he wandered to Aden, springboard into the Horn of Africa.
Rimbaud first worked for a fellow Frenchman as a coffee trader, then was placed in charge of a caravan to the legendary city of Harar, broached by Sir Richard Burton only 25 years earlier. Reaching Harar meant getting past the capricious local sultan, Abou Bekr, a member of the fierce Danakil tribe, which was known for harvesting its enemies' testicles. Nicholl vividly conjures up a meeting between the former poet and the potentate:
''You are ushered into his courtyard. He lounges on a couch of animal skins. He is wearing a dirty white Arab gandourah, and an enormous gourd-shaped turban of white muslin. He has prayer beads in his left hand which he sifts and turns and flicks with a sound like miniature billiard balls. In his right hand he holds a tooth-cleaning stick, and all the while you converse he is working away at his teeth, which are still good despite his age. After each polishing, with a soft hiss, he ejects a gob of saliva, without much caring where it lands. . . . To every statement concerning the caravan he replies 'Insh Allah': if God pleases. This is the habitual reply of any good Muslim, but in the mouth of Abou Bekr you know it means: 'If I please.' ''Luckily, Abou Bekr did please, and Rimbaud not only made it to Harar but became manager of the outpost there.
Rimbaud would have liked his next avatar to be that of explorer -- he wanted the Societe de Geographie to finance his travels, as the Royal Geographical Society did Burton's -- but he ended up as something rather less glorious: a gunrunner. In 1885 he joined in a venture to provide King Menelik II of Shoa with firearms. It was a prolonged fiasco. First Rimbaud had to wait 11 months in the dismal backwater of Tadjoura. His partners died. Then, after a four-month trek, he reached Shoa only to be dunned by swarms of his main associate's creditors, who nibbled at his profit until little was left.
In 1888 Rimbaud returned to Harar, where he haggled as ''commission agent'' for another French trader and, increasingly, on his own account. (That he dealt in slaves is a longstanding contention Nicholl vigorously disputes.) He now eased into a steadier life, setting up house with his mistress and his beloved servant boy, Djami, swapping gossip with the city's European colony; he became, in short, a real ''Africa hand.'' How ironic, as Nicholl wryly observes, that ''the 'somebody else' he had to search to the end of the world to find was nothing more than this rather upright, serious man, this homme d'affaires.''
But the idyll was not to last. In early 1891 he came down with synovitis in his knee and had to be carried, excruciatingly, to Aden. From there he was evacuated to Marseilles, where his leg was amputated. Brought home by his sister, he soon insisted, despite his worsening condition, on striking out again for Harar. He got no farther than Marseilles. His last days were terrible: eaten by what turned out to be cancer, Rimbaud wasted slowly away. He died in November, having made his sole bequest, of 3,000 francs, to Djami.
There are temperaments deep down into which we seem able to peer and others, like Rimbaud's, that rebuff us utterly; he is one of the most inscrutable figures in literature. What drove Rimbaud? Why did he bid poetry a rude adieu and tough it out in Africa? One cannot explain him. Nor is he easy to like. Brooding, haughty, bored, splenetic, unappeasably restless, he is the very type of raging human discontent; small wonder he wanted to scramble his senses, be somebody else. And yet Nicholl manages to get, if not quite inside, at least near Rimbaud during his most mysterious decade. Where Enid Starkie, his standard English biographer, harps on his bungling, dilettantism and gullibility, Nicholl evokes a more impressive and sympathetic picture, one of a man who, having harried himself into the middle of nowhere, found modicums of competence and peace there.
Written in an atmospheric prose at once voluptuous and clipped, ''Somebody Else'' deftly interlards scenes from Rimbaud's African sojourn with poems that seem curiously to adumbrate them. Pithy, glancing, pungent and graceful, the book is a distinguished contribution to belletristic biography.