Arthur Rimbaud, in his famous letter of May 15, 1871, argued that a poet could only make himself into a “seer by a long, immense and reasoned disordering of all the senses.” The French poet, playwright, and novelist Alfred Jarry couldn’t have read this letter, which was only published in 1912, five years after Jarry’s death at the age of thirty-four from a mixture of tuberculosis, poverty, and alcoholism, but there can be little doubt that he would have agreed with Rimbaud’s assessment of what it took to become a “seer.”
Here is the memoirist and femme de lettres Rachilde’s description of a typical day in the life of her friend:
Jarry began the day by consuming two litres of white wine, then three absinthes between ten o’clock and midday, at lunch he washed down his fish, or his steak, with red or white wine alternating with further absinthes. In the afternoon, a few cups of coffee laced with brandy or other spirits whose names I’ve forgotten, then, with dinner—after, of course, more aperitifs—he would still be able to take at least two bottles of any vintage, good or bad. Now I never saw him really drunk….
When he couldn’t afford alcohol, he imbibed ether instead. For both Rimbaud and Jarry, the aim of this systematic self-poisoning was to achieve god-like power: “he becomes,” enthused Rimbaud, “the sickest of the sick, the great criminal, the great accursed,—and the Supreme Knower!—For he arrives at the unknown!” Rimbaud was only sixteen when he wrote this, and his projected life of visionary excess lay all before him. Jarry, writing toward the end of the journey, in one of his last texts, the autobiographical La Dragonne of 1906, presented himself assuming a somewhat different kind of godhead: “He became like a monstrous divinity with the face of a bull, his forehead enlarged and his eyes parted.”
The word “monster” hovers over many of the descriptions and discussions of the life of Alfred Jarry, who is surely Rimbaud’s only true rival for the accolade of the most terrible of the many enfants terribles thrown up by French literature. One should at once point out that, for Jarry, to call something “monstrous” was to praise it in the highest possible terms: “I call ‘monster’ every original inexhaustible beauty,” he observed in an essay published when he was only twenty. His most enduring and resonant creation was the monstrous Père Ubu, who so scandalized Parisian theatergoers that a full-scale riot broke out in the auditorium on the night his play Ubu Roi opened—and closed—at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre on December 10, 1896; and the tyrant Ubu, in all his unregenerate monstrosity, might be said to have stalked through the monstrous history…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.