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The Brother of Us All

Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters

Introduction, Prose Translations, and Notes by Wallace Fowlie
University of Chicago, 370 pp., $12.50

Rimbaud: A Critical Study

by Wallace Fowlie
University of Chicago, 280 pp., $6.50

If you happen to be on the right subscription lists, the mails have been delivering some extraordinary “literature” to your address for the past year or so. It is sent out by recently established Institutes engaged in a campaign to correct the categories of our education and to undo and recombine the traditional disciplines of thinking and living. One organization in Chicago offering a curriculum of religious studies for adults describes courses in “creative participation in civilization.” The phrase made me laugh on first reading—and then think again. One of the fancy illustrated brochures from California proposes “More Joy: a Five-Day Workshop.” Life could be different; don’t be left behind because of timidity or lack of the proper catalogue. The mood may even have sprung forth in Austin, Texas. I am writing these words in the eye of Flipped-Out Week on the university campus. It combines protest against the war in Vietnam with a tone of “Mellow Yellow and all things gentle.” When outrage lies down thus with the pastoral, we and our institutions are taken unawares. Even the Presidential helicopter rasping overhead has a new sound.

In the face of these goings-on, it seems perfectly natural to speak of Arthur Rimbaud. Even more than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he carried within him both a revolutionary desire to change life and a bucolic impulse to return to Nature as he knew her in earliest childhood. He had lived through his own momentous flipped-out week, his historic five-day workshop. In the beginning of May 1871, aged seventeen, he ran away for the fourth time from his mother and the provincial town of Charleville, near the Belgian border. This time he went to Paris to join the Commune at the height of its glory. Out of that brief interlude of political euphoria and subsequent disgust came not only several important poems but also two letters. The texts of those lettres du Voyant are now seared into the very flesh of Western culture. They constitute a formal declaration of war against literature as an instrument of order and reason, and sketch out a Promethean program for attaining personal divinity.

Rimbaud’s creative participation in civilization took the form first of joining a social revolution soon to be quelled in horrible bloodshed, and then of trying to act out a personal revolution of poetic living that engaged all the energies of his imperious genius. Both ventures failed, I suppose, but the record is incredibly rich and convincing. In what may have been the last of his works, Illuminations, he appears finally to make peace with the world and to seek, by name, the order and reason he had scorned earlier. A burnt-out case? Not by a long shot.

Rimbaud was the last great poet that our civilization will see—he let off all the great cannon crackers in Valahalla’s parapets, the sun has set theatrically several times since while Laforgue, Eliot, and others of that kidney have whimpered fastidiously. Everybody writes poetry now—and “poets” for the first time are about to receive official social and economic recognition in America.

That is Hart Crane in 1926—aged twenty-six. Two years later in a letter to René Taupin, Ezra Pound wrote that he had systematized into an aesthetic what Rimbaud had discovered by genius and intuition. Young poets have been identifying with Rimbaud for decades. The myth relates the story of an adolescent evil angel who had recapitulated all human history and knowledge in a few years of schoolboy writing, and then forged ahead alone toward becoming himself, an absolute consciousness beyond good and evil. At twenty he had nothing left to try except travel, trading, and gunrunning. The reality of the life and the reality of the work are just as fascinating as the myth. We have been able to approach far closer to them in recent years thanks to Enid Starkie’s biography in English and Yves Bonnefoy’s searching study in French, Rimbaud par lui-même.

ASIDE FROM the still unresolved questions of chronology in a life where every week counted, and beyond all the autobiographical allusions in the work, the central question about Rimbaud has now an acceptable composite answer. How did this poetic sensibility come to burn so bright and so early and for so short a time? I believe we are confronted by a rare coincidence of fusion and fission in a human mind. The fusion process brought together several profound sources of knowledge and inspiration in a boy avid to know all. In Jules Verne and James Fenimore Cooper he discovered the allures of adventure. He was spottily versed in alchemy and magic and ready to accept them as powerful versions of reality. From Michelet he absorbed a form of messianic evolutionism that proclaimed a world made new through the mechanics of history. After the events of the Commune, he saw the need for a real political revolution that would liberate all humanity. He did not shrink from drugs or unnatural sex or any abomination. More than any other writer, Baudelaire instilled in him a belief in poetry as a transformation of life itself. The energy released by the fusion of all these elements gave so great a velocity to Rimbaud’s work that it often appears incoherent. Yet in the process he welded together popular and poetic language at the precise moment when Mallarmé was carefully taking them apart. The pace of Rimbaud’s imagination in all but his earliest work is so rapid that little room remains for any form of comedy or humor. Sarcasm is the best he can do. At top speed he is utterly alone, unaware of any public, talking to himself, lucid.

A mere mingling of these elements would never have led to fusion unless something else had been happening at the same time in the very center of his consciousness. I believe I can get at it best through a widely known and erroneous theory applied by T.S. Eliot to literary history. Eliot borrowed the theory and the term “dissociation of sensibility” from. Remy de Gourmont and applied it to the loss, in English poetry after Donne, of any real sensitivity to ideas as sensuous entities. In Remy de Gourmont, however, an individual poet and not a poetic tradition was the subject. He was trying to describe “The Sensibility of Jules Laforgue.”

He had a lively intelligence, but closely linked to his sensibility. All original minds are constituted this way: they are the expression, the flowering of a physiology. But by dint of sheer living one acquires the faculty of dissociating one’s intelligence from one’s sensibility. Sooner or later it comes about through the development of a new faculty, indispensable even though dangerous, known as skepticism. Laforgue died before having reached this stage.

Laforgue died at twenty-six and his sensibility can be best explained by the exact reverse of Gourmont’s theory. Skepticism, irony, the sardonic mood divided his sensibility very early, and the entire tonality of his work testifies not to a prolonged unity but a precocious inward division. Under even greater pressure, Rimbaud went through the same fission process very early, so that he was capable of being detached, of observing himself even at his moments of greatest intensity. We all come to it, as Gourmont says, sooner or later. But when this inner distance declares itself so prematurely that a boy of sixteen can declare lucidly “Je est un autre” he is obviously living on two sides of his experience at once. The I of “The Drunken Boat” is both a boat and a person, both object and consciousness, submitting and directing. At sixteen Rimbaud seemed already to have lived long enough to have lost his childhood and to be in search of it. Yet that can have been the case only if he had split off from himself in some exceptional fashion. He seemed to be two ages at once.

AN EARLY ONSET of the dissociation of sensibility defines Rimbaud’s particular kind of precociousness. It lies a long way from the sheer superfluity of talent that produced a phenomenon like Mozart. Rimbaud’s career displays a strong element of deliberate decision to follow a course despite its perils. In effect, Rimbaud chose quite lucidly to become Rimbaud, including our myth of him. Even Keats and Büchner caught onto themselves late in comparison.

Throughout his teens Rimbaud was forever watching himself. He also had limitless self-assurance and unyielding egoism. He would have been a supremely obnoxious person to meet in the flesh—pretentious, calculating, humorless, and outrageous in his willingness to employ even an obvious physical attractiveness to further his own arrogant ends. The photographs tell the story pretty clearly, from the tightfaced boy in his first communion collar to the tanned, emaciated adventurer in a sailor’s blouse. But we are now concerned with what this monster wrote.

On the surface his work appears to divide itself naturally into three parts. There are the poems, highly personal and written in more or less regular verse, something like a hundred pages spaced out across the three years from 1870 to 1872. Then there is the auto-biographical prose work, A Season in Hell, thirty intense and loosely connected pages composed in four months beginning in April, 1873. Passing harsh judgment on his recent past, Rimbaud appears to bid farewell to the long turbulent relationship with Verlaine and to the “madness” that Rimbaud had cultivated in order to achieve a new level of living and writing. Thirdly, there is the miscellaneous collection of prose poems called Illuminations, which were probably written and reworked between 1872 and 1874. Like Finnegans Wake and Un Coup de dés, they mark one of the furthest frontiers of literature. But Rimbaud lies in a different direction from Joyce and Mallarmé. In the Illuminations a totally hallucinated universe becomes indistinguishable from a literally noted sensuous realism. Language is not extruded as an autonomous reality but absorbed as the most direct instrument of thought.

NOW THE PERENNIAL problem in Rimbaud studies has been to reconcile two facts. One is that the Illuminations would appear to be the kind of writing he was saying goodbye to in A Season in Hell. The other fact is that, among the extensive quotations in the section called “Delirium II,” A Season in Hell cites nothing from the Illuminations. In other words, is it possible that the Illuminations were composed entirely or in part after A Season in Hell? Verlaine said so in the beginning and no one listened. Recent debate has brought in handwriting experts and the whole artillery of polemics. Scholars and critics are still very attentive to this dilemma of chronology and interpretation. It looks doubtful that many more hard facts are going to be added to what we already know. But one question has been asked too seldom. Are we to take “Delirium II” at face value and accept the short, delicate, transparent poems it does in fact quote as the ultimate expressions of Rimbaud’s “derangement,” of his systematic unhinging of his mind? During the first few readings, these little song-like verses seem entirely out of place as illustrations of the truculent prose. (I use Wallace Fowlie’s translations unless otherwise indicated.)

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