ARTHUR RIMBAUD by Comandante Chispas
"Rimbaud's where it's at.
That's the kind of stuff
[that] means something.
That's the kind of writing
I'm gonna do."
-- <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Another_Side_of_Bob_Dylan">Bob Dylan</a>, 1964 --
The beginning, the middle, and the end: the living standard of middle class rebellion is the life and work of the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891).
As for what that rebellion is, where it comes from, where it ends up: watch.
The writer Alain Borer remarked that Rimbaud was the man with “that extraordinary laugh, not communicable, perhaps the first laugh of the twentieth century.”(1) Rimbaud’s consummate expression of middle class rebellion is the source of enchantment he continues to incite -- and to exact. Like no other person, he showed what that rebellion is, that is to say, its limits.
Arthur Rimbaud was born and raised in Charleville, France, a small town near the Belgian border. His mother, Vitalie Cuif, came from a background of small farmers. His father, Frederic Rimbaud, was an infantry captain.
When Rimbaud was five years old, his father abandoned the family. Her income reduced, Vitalie and her children were forced to move. Enid Starkie, Rimbaud’s best known biographer, observed: “Rue Bourbon had not the distinction of the Rue Napoleon with its rich shops; it was somewhat sordid and slummy, inhabited only by the poorest working people.”(2)
As a boy, Arthur Rimbaud was provincial, pious -- a First Communion still life. Looking back, he wrote:
“Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast where all hearts opened.”(3)
In 1868, 14-year-old Rimbaud began to write poetry. The following year, he won the Grand Prix in the competition of the Douai Academy for his poem “Jugartha,” 82 verses in Latin written in less than three hours.
In 1871, he ventured to Paris. It was the time of the Paris Commune, a period of tremendous upheaval. Rimbaud found reality hard, squalid. He rejected it, conjuring up poetry filled with magical solutions from the pre-Christian cabala period, from Merlin, from the alchemists. He passionately rebelled against Christianity which he had so ardently embraced as a child:
"My heart and my flesh, embraced by your flesh,
Swarm from the putrid kiss of Jesus.…
Christ, oh Christ! Eternal thief of energies…"
Only one recourse remained: a quest. In the summer of 1871, he mailed some 10 poems to the poet Paul Verlaine in Paris, who responded in September. “Come, dear great soul, you are called, one awaits you.”(5)
A two-year roller coaster ride began. Rimbaud used sex, drugs, alcohol, absinthe, and exhaustion to break down conventional barriers and their derived, dictated senses:
"Misfortune was my god. I stretched out in the mud. I dried myself in the air of crime. And I played sly tricks on madness.
Even as a child, I admired the incorrigible prisoner upon whom the prison is always closed;…
… [A] voice clenched my frozen heart:…´You do not know where you are going or why, enter everywhere. Answer everything. One will not kill you any more than if you were already a cadaver.´….
I have never been a Christian; I am of the breed that sang under torture. I don’t understand laws; I have no morality, I am a brute:.."(6)
Soon, however, Rimbaud came to conclude that his poetry had no value -- that it was the rotations of a capsized mind mistaken for the movements of eternal truths: “I swallowed a monstrous dose of poison.” (7) He undertook an impassioned confession against his idleness, drugs, licentiousness, pride.
“My weakness, the cruelty of the world! Oh God, pity me, hide me, I behave too badly! -- I am hidden and I am not.”
In 1874, not yet 21 years old, Rimbaud gave up poetry. His renunciation took the form of an obsessive self-deliverance to the monotonous, everyday world. He studied math and science; he taught French in London. He took up German in Stuttgart. “I enter the true kingdom of the children of Ham.”(9) In May of 1876, he joined Holland’s colonial army; a few months later, he deserted.
In 1880, Rimbaud moved to Africa. He found work in an export house in Aden, which he described in a letter home as “the most boring place in the world, second only to where you live. It is 40 degrees [centigrade] here inside the house. We sweat liters of water daily.…”(10) His hair turned grey. He walked around with eight kilos of gold hidden in his belt. He poisoned dogs that urinated on his merchandise. He organized an elephant hunt. He sold rifles and bullets to King Menelek of Shoa. A lion ate his horse.
Rimbaud ended up as a small merchant in Abyssinia. He wrote home, “I have never harmed anyone. On the contrary, I do a little good whenever I find the occasion, and it is my only pleasure.” He incessantly worried about having “a small guaranteed revenue; I would be able to take it easy for a bit.”:(11)
"Heavens! Of what value are all my comings and goings, and these fatigues and adventures in a foreign land among strange races, and languages that one crams into one’s memory, and these pains without name, if I should not be able one day…to settle down in a place I like somewhat and to have a family, and have at least one boy with whom I can pass the rest of my life raising my way…and who I would see become a famous engineer, a powerful man made rich by science?"(12)
In April of 1891, 16 porters carried Rimbaud across the desert from Harar to the port of Zeilah, some 300 kilometers. The journey lasted 12 days. He wrote his family, “No need to tell you what horrible pains I suffered en route. I could not take one step out of my stretcher; I could see my knee swell up, and the pain constantly increased.”(13)
He returned to France, dying from cancer. He right leg was amputated. He wrote to his sister, Isabelle, from the hospital De la Conception in Marseille:
"As for me, the only thing I do is cry day and night. I am a dead man, I am mutilated for the rest of my life…I have no idea what to do. The worry is driving me mad. I don’t sleep a single minute. In the end, life is misery, misery without end! Why, then, do we exist?" (14)
After spending a month at the family home at Roche, on August 23, 1891, Rimbaud, accompanied by Isabelle, returned to the hospital in Marseille. The cancer advanced, leaving his right arm without feeling, his left arm paralysed. His left leg turned cold, his left eye opened only halfway.
On October 28 Isabelle wrote her mother that Arthur Rimbaud underwent a religious conversion.
“My Lord be blessed a thousand times!...One of the priests returned and asked if he wanted to take confession; and Arthur truly wanted to!…He no longer blasphemes; he calls to Christ on the cross, and he prays, yes, he prays, him!”(15)
13 days later, on November 10, Arthur Rimbaud died at the age of 37.
“I am a slave of my baptism,”(16) he had written as a teenager: “I was condemned by the rainbow.”(17) He then summed up what would prove to be the essential movement not only of his own life but also of middle class rebellion:
“The real torture is that…man performs, proving to himself the obvious, and puffs himself up with pleasure in repeating those proofs, and thus only does he live! Subtle, silly torture; source of my spiritual vagrancies.”(18)
The authorities also summed up:
In Charleville, where Rimbaud was raised, raised hell, and which as a 16-year-old he denounced as “supremely idiotic among small provincial towns,”(19) the local officials knew what to do -- they personally knew the trials. On the tenth anniversary of Arthur Rimbaud’s death, they unveiled a monument to him.(20)
The monument’s consecration was a consummation. The assumptions were foregone; the conclusions, pre-ordained.
Accordingly, during the monument ceremony, Vitalie Cuif, Arthur Rimbaud’s mother, hid.(21)
(1) « rire ‘extraordinaire’, non communicable, peut-être le premier rire du vingtième siècle. » Alain Borer, Un Sieur Rimbaud : La Terre et les pierres, Lachenal et Ritter, Paris, 1984, p. 129. All translations are mine.
(2) Enid Starkie, Arthur Rimbaud, New Directions Publishing Company, New York, 1968, p. 32.
(3) « Jadis, si je me souviens bien, ma vie était un festin où s’ouvraient tous les cœurs, où tous les vins coulaient. » Arthur Rimbaud, prelude to Une Saison en enfer, in Arthur Rimbaud, Œuvres complètes, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, Paris, 1994, p. 93. All citations and correspondence of Rimbaud come from this edition unless indicated otherwise.
The most complete English translation of Rimbaud’s works is Wallace Fowlie’s Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1966. Wallace Fowlie related in a later work that in 1968, he received this letter: “Dear Wallace Fowlie, Just wanted to say thanks for doing the Rimbaud translation. I needed it because I don’t read French that easily….I’m a rock singer and your book travels around with me.” The letter was signed by Jim Morrison. Wallace Fowlie, Rimbaud and Jim Morrison, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 1994, p. 15.
(4) "Et mon cœur et ma chair par ta chair embrassée
fourmillent du baiser putride de Jésus ! [...]
Christ ! ô Christ, éternel voleur des énergies [...]."
Arthur Rimbaud, « Les Premières communions », op.cit., p. 65.
(5) « Venez, chère grande âme, on vous appelle, on vous attend. » Paul Verlaine, « Verlaine à Rimbaud, Paris, septembre 1871 », ibid., p. 261.
(6) "Le malheur a été mon dieu. Je me suis allongé dans la boue. Je me suis séché à l’air du crime. Et j’ai joué de bons tours à la folie. [...]
Encore tout enfant, j’admirais le forçat intraitable sur qui se referme toujours le bagne ; [...].
[…] [U]ne voix étreignait mon cœur gelé : [...] « Tu ne sais ni où tu vas ni pourquoi tu vas, entre partout, réponds à tout. On ne te tuera pas plus que si tu étais cadavre. » […]
Je n’ai jamais été de ce peuple-ci ; je n’ai jamais été chrétien ; je suis de la race qui chantait dans le supplice ; je ne comprends pas les lois ; je n’ai pas le sens moral, je suis une brute : [...]."
Arthur Rimbaud, prélude et « Mauvais sang », in Une Saison en enfer, ibid., pp. 96, 97.
(7) « J’ai avalé une fameuse gorgée de poison. » Arthur Rimbaud, « Nuit de l’enfer, », in Une Saison en enfer, ibid., p. 99.
(8) « Ma faiblesse, la cruauté du monde ! Mon Dieu, pitié, cachez-moi, je me tiens trop mal ! -- Je suis caché et je ne le suis pas. » Ibid., p. 101-2.
(9) « J’entre au vrai royaume des enfants de Cham. » Arthur Rimbaud, « Mauvais sang », in Une Saison en enfer, ibid., p. 97.
(10) « le lieu le plus ennuyeux du monde, après toutefois celui que vous habitez. J’ai 40 degrés de chaleur ici, à la maison : on sue des litres d’eau par jour ici. » Arthur Rimbaud, « Rimbaud aux siens, Aden, 22 septembre 1880 », ibid., p. 315.
(11) Arthur Rimbaud, « Rimbaud aux siens, Aden, 22 janvier 1882 », ibid., p. 345 ; « Labatut et Rimbaud au Ministre des affaires étrangères », ibid., pp. 415-419; « Rimbaud aux siens, Le Caire, 23 août 1887 », ibid., p. 441; « L. Bremond à Rimbaud, Aden, le 10 février, 1889 », ibid., p. 515; « Rimbaud à sa mère, Harar, le 21 avril 1890 », ibid., pp. 622-23. See also Alain Borer, op.cit., pp. 131, 239-247.
Enid Starkie touched off a controversy when she wrote that she discovered documents dealing “with the last ten years of [Rimbaud’s] life. I found amongst them further and conclusive proof that he was, in some measure, implicated in the traffic of slaves.…I now found proof that he himself had tried to purchase slaves.” (Enid Starkie, op.cit., p. 21).
This proof consisted of a letter from Alfred Ilg, King Menelek’s Swiss confidant, to Rimbaud in which Ilg apparently responded to a letter from Rimbaud that has never been found: “As for slaves, please forgive me, I cannot get involved in it, I have never bought any and I do not want to start. I recognize your good intentions, but even for myself I would never do it.” (« Quant aux esclaves, pardonnez-moi, je ne puis m’en occuper, je n’en ai jamais acheté et je ne veux pas commencer. Je reconnais absolument vos bonnes intentions, mais même pour moi je ne le ferai jamais. » « Ilg à Rimbaud, Entotto 23 août 1890 », ibid., p. 638.
Some five years earlier, however, in a letter to his family, Rimbaud had written, “Do not believe that I have become a slave merchant. The merchandises we import are rifles….” (« N’allez pas croire que je sois devenu marchand d’esclaves. Les marchandises que nous importons sont des fusils [...]. ») Arthur Rimbaud, « Rimbaud aux siens, Tadjoura, le 3 décembre 1885 », op.cit., p. 409.
Starkie’s conclusion that Rimbaud was engaged in the slave trade has been disputed by other Rimbaud scholars, e.g., Alain Borer, op.cit., pp. 199-220.
(12) "Hélas ! à quoi servent ces allées et venues, et ces fatigues et ces aventures chez des races étranges, et ces langues dont on se remplit la mémoire, et ces peines sans nom, si je ne dois pas un jour [...] pouvoir me reposer dans un endroit qui me plaise à peu près et trouver une famille, et avoir au moins un fils que je passe le reste de ma vie à élever à mon idée [...] et que je voie devenir un ingénieur renommé, un homme puissant et riche par la science ?"
Arthur Rimbaud, « Rimbaud aux siens, Harar, le 6 mai 1883 », op.cil., p. 365.
(13 )« Inutile de vous dire quelles horribles souffrances j’ai subies en route. Je n’ai jamais pu faire un pas hors de ma civière ; mon genou gonflait à vue d’œil, et la douleur augmentait continuellement. » « Rimbaud à sa Mère, Aden, le 30 avril 1891 », ibid., p. 660.
(14) « [J]e suis un homme mort, je suis estropié pour toute ma vie. [...] Je ne sais pas du tout quoi faire. Tous ces soucis me rendent fou : je ne dors jamais une minute. Enfin, notre vie est une misère, une misère sans fin ! Pourquoi donc existons-nous ? » Arthur Rimbaud, « Rimbaud à sa sœur Isabelle, Marseille, 23 juin 1891 », ibid., pp. 671-2.
(15) « Dieu soit mille fois béni ! [...] [L]’un des aumôniers est revenu et lui a proposé de se confesser ; et il a bien voulu ! [...] Depuis, il ne blasphème plus jamais ; il appelle le Christ en croix, et il prie, oui, il prie, lui ! » Isabelle Rimbaud, « Isabelle Rimbaud à sa mère, Marseille, 28 octobre 1891 », ibid., pp. 704-5.
Enid Starkie concluded that
"whatever may be our personal view of the spiritual value of deathbed conversions, there can be little doubt that Rimbaud was so converted. The letter which Isabelle wrote to her mother, immediately after the event, rings too true. In this she has given too exact a picture of Rimbaud’s mind for it to have been invented…"
Enid Starkie, op.cit., p. 424. Other authors, however, are not convinced. See Pierre Michon, Rimbaud le fils, Gallimard, Paris, 1991, p. 97, and Yves Bonnefoy, Rimbaud, Seuil, Paris, 1991, p. 184.
(16) « Je suis esclave de mon baptême. » Arthur Rimbaud, « Nuit de l’enfer », in Une Saison en enfer, op.cit., p. 100.
(17) « J’avais été damné par l’arc-en-ciel. » Arthur Rimbaud, « Délires II : Alchimie du verbe », in Une Saison en enfer, ibid., p. 111.
(18) « Mais n’y a-t-il pas un supplice réel en ce que [...] l’homme se joue, se prouve les évidences, se gonfle du plaisir de répéter ces preuves, et ne vit que comme cela ! Torture subtile, niaise ; source de mes divagations spirituelles. » Arthur Rimbaud, « L’Impossible », in Une Saison en enfer, ibid., p. 113.
Montesquieu: “Everybody likes to play, and the wisest people do it willingly as long as they do not see the appearances of play, its tangents, its violence, its dissipations, the loss of time and even of life.” (« Tout le monde aime à jouer ; et les gens les plus sages jouent volontiers, lorsqu’ils ne voient point les apparences du jeu, ses égarements, ses violences, ses dissipations, la perte du temps, et même de toute la vie. ») Charles de Montesquieu, De L’Esprit des lois, in Œuvres complètes II, Bibliothéque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, Paris, 1994. p. 590. (Book XX, Chapter VI).
(19) « supérieurement idiote entre les petites villes de province ». Arthur Rimbaud, « Rimbaud à Georges Izambard, Charleville, 25 août, 1870 », op.cit., p. 238.
(20) Official awards are an established rite of social re-integration of middle class rebels.
A commemorative plaque adorns the birthplace of Karl Marx in Trier, Germany; another marks his apartment in the Soho district of London, above the Italian restaurant, "Quo Vadis."
The city officials of Zurich placed a plaque at No. 1, Spiegelgasse where the Dadaists opened their Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. The Dadaist Hans Richter (1888-1976) recalled:
"Diagonally opposite, at No. 12, Spiegelgasse, the same narrow thoroughfare in which the Cabaret Voltaire mounted its nightly orgies of singing, poetry and dancing, lived Lenin.…It seemed to me that the Swiss authorities were much more suspicious of the Dadaists, who were after all capable of perpetrating some new enormity at any moment, than of these quiet, studious Russians…"
Hans Richter, Dada Art and anti-Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1997, p. 16. When I saw the building in 1998, it appeared to be an abandoned warehouse. The small plaque on the wall was still there, but too high to be noticed by most pedestrians.
The City of San Francisco officially recognized the cultural value of the City Lights Bookstore,
"a hub for Jack Kerouac and the restless rebels called the Beats. It became a proving ground for free speech by selling radical works. And it has always been a refuge for leftists, anarchists, free spirits and literary outcasts, all howling against the establishment.
But the soul of this city is changing.
So much, in fact, that preservationists struggling to protect a way of life as much as a building are giving Mr. Ferlinghetti’s bookstore a new distinction. It will be among the first spots in San Francisco deemed an endangered landmark purely for cultural value, not architectural merit (because it has none)….
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors still must approve City Lights’ landmark status, but Tim Kelley, vice president of the board said the vote was a formality. ´This decision has broad appeal,´ he said. ´There’s a lot of anxiety in the city. People want us to help keep places like this around.´…
Mr. Ferlinghetti finds no solace in the new mood. A culture that was once high-minded and distinct, he says, is becoming shallow and homogenized.
Just up the block, sidewalk cafes crackle with the young breed of dreamers who talk on cell phones about stock options and the limitless possibilities of the Web."
Rene Sanchez, “Preserving a Literary Landmark in a City on Fast Forward,” International Herald Tribune, September 5, 2000.
(21) Alain Borer, op.cit., p. 67.
@ello @ellowrites @ellopoetry @notforprint @elloart @picasso @rimbaud #Rimbaud #Picasso #HenriFantin-Latour @bobdylan #BobDylan #WallaceFowlie @thedoors @jimmorrison #TheDoors #JimMorrison