#35. “I is somebody else”: Arthur Rimbaud
Robert Greer is a writer and poet. Here, he assesses the twenty-first century from the perspective of French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), best known as the provincial enfant terrible who upset the Parisian literary establishment as a teenager, abandoned poetry aged just 21, and is now often considered one of the forerunners of European Modernism. As Robert notes, Rimbaud would likely have disapproved of his own canonisation and by extension articles like the one here presented, a point not lost on us. Nevertheless…
Words: Robert Greer
First a short note on Rimbaud’s short, but remarkable biography: after being shot by his lover, the poet Paul Verlaine in 1873, Rimbaud left the manuscripts for works such as Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) and Illuminations to a friend to publish, reportedly burned around half of his work, and never wrote poetry again. He quickly joined and then deserted the Dutch army in Indonesia, and later became a trader in modern day Ethiopia, where he befriended the father of future emperor Haile Selassie, and explored unmapped regions of eastern Africa. He died aged 37 following complications to an amputated leg, his influence has been registered steadily since.
1. Canary Wharf
Although Rimbaud is often associated with Paris, he actually spent less time there (12 months) than he did in London (14 months). Rimbaud wrote a large part of Illuminations in London, where he was fascinated in particular by the ‘interminable docks’ of Wapping, and by the ceaseless energy and industry of the city, which in his eyes made Paris look like ‘a pretty provincial town’. As a Symbolist poet, he would have loved the totemic quality of the Canary Wharf tower, lit with sleepless electric light and topped with a pyramid. Canary Wharf ties together Rimbaud’s use of symbols, his awareness of history and empire, and his later career in global commerce. Indeed, the ruthlessness of high-capitalism can be found in the last poem of Illuminations, “Solde”:
“For sale: Bodies, voices, immense unarguable opulence, what will never be sold. The vendors haven’t stopped selling! Travelling salesmen won’t have to hand in their receipts just yet!”
For more Rimbaud poems inspired by London, see also “Metropolitan”, “Ville”, “Bridges” and A Season in Hell.
2. Ludwig Wittgenstein
As an old man, Wittgenstein (1889–1951) returned to the philosophy circuit to completely denounce his earlier, logic heavy (but renowned) philosophical works, in a series of lectures that would result in the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. Rimbaud would have appreciated the recklessness with which he turned a potential sabotage of legacy into the real legacy itself and, like Rimbaud, in his late period Wittgenstein was able to transcend everyday boundaries of perception. Rimbaud’s Vowels can be read alongside this section of Wittgenstein, where one can compare the breakdown of words from signifiers laden with emotional baggage, to arbitrary tools that arouse nothing but humour and game-speak. In this, the two seers are uniquely linked.
3. The internet
In Graham Robb’s biography of Rimbaud (the most accomplished in a sea of Rimbaud biographies), he recounts that by the time Rimbaud began writing to Verlaine at the age of 15, Rimbaud had consumed almost the entire canon of French literature, including everything Hugo and Balzac had written up to that point. As a child Rimbaud read ferociously, stole endless books that he could not afford, and would have been overjoyed at the endless resources available on the internet. Rimbaud was also an accomplished traveller, visiting England, Germany, Scandinavia (where he worked as an interpreter for a circus), Cyprus, joining the Dutch army to go to Indonesia before deserting to explore the country (risking the firing line to do so), before settling in Yemen, then charting previously unmapped territories in Ethiopia, where he established himself as the first European trader in Harar. All of this without an inter-rail ticket or a Hostelbookers app.
4. Writer as career choice
The history of Arthur Rimbaud’s identities runs something like this: poet, factory worker, tutor, beggar, key-ring seller, docker, circus worker, quarry foreman, mercenary, trader, gun-runner, part-time commentator on the Koran. Where writing for most acts as a kind of retirement from the world, Rimbaud retired from poetry to propel himself into the world. Biographer Graham Robb has suggested that every stage of Rimbaud’s writing had a purpose: he wrote to get to Paris, he wrote to become a seer, and that once these goals were accomplished, he moved on.
For his many faults, Rimbaud was not one for half-hearted literary effort. He plunged a reading by a prominent Parnassian poet into chaos by shouting ‘Merde!’ after every line, and responded to concern voiced by one of Verlaine’s literary associates by calling him an ‘inkshitter’. Although as a student he was fond of the works of both Victor Hugo and Balzac, it is difficult to see Rimbaud as the modern day institutionalised poet, or as a self-referencing novelist churning out work.
By the time he left Paris, there were few left who would even read him. Rimbaud had violently or verbally assaulted most of the literary establishment, with notable mentions to the suplhuric acid poured into Charles Cros’ drink, the stabbing of the photographer Carjat, and to Cabener, whose room Rimbaud broke into in order to masturbate into his cup of milk.
5. His own canonisation
“And from that time on I bathed in the Poem
Rimbaud is not a very good ‘greatest hits’ poet. If you read individual lines, it’s rare to find something that grabs you, but when read together a great metamorphosis occurs. This is the true ‘rational derangement of all the senses’, rather than his hedonistic early life. His approach to language was the main influence of the next few generations of French poets, from Mallarmé to Breton that through Dada and Surrealism helped shape Modernism.
But Rimbaud was aware of the growing cult around him towards the end of his life. He received a lot of fan mail in Africa requesting more poems, but never replied to any of them. When his employer in Aden discovered his past as a poet, Rimbaud became angry, and called the claims ‘absurd, ridiculous and disgusting’. In letters to his mother, he referred to his work as ‘slops’, and ‘dregs’. As in his youth, the adult Rimbaud seemed offended by sentimentality. When fellow trader Pierre Labatut died in Harar, Rimbaud raided his house, and burned all 34 volumes of his memoirs.
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© 2013, The Fertile Fact / Robert Greer