OMNI ESSE DEO DVBITANDVM
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On the thirtieth of September 1871, the poet Paul Verlaine introduced to the Parisian literary Bohemia one Arthur Rimbaud. The poetic fraternity known as the Vilains Bonshommes’ were quite eager to meet the young writer from the Provence who had manifested some quite startling and unprecedented poetry; an unexpected and equally unlikely shock for the literati not experienced since the time of Baudelaire’s entrance onto the Parisian stage of social obloquy. Little could they have known or surmised that the course of literary history was now at a critical nexus and was about to converge on their little soirée. Over the next three years between Paris, Brussels and London, a truly original and insuperable mind was unleashed upon our culture whose ensuing repercussions have yet to ebb. Are we still to be surprised at this phenomenon or does hindsight offer up its usual ex post facto logical certainty to such an event? Necessarily this kind of literary judgement entirely depends upon the writer being scrutinized.
So with such a profound and demiurgic writer such as Rimbaud, it was as close as we can ever get to certainty that scholars and lovers of his writing would still be arguing about the mind behind this writer and his ultimate creative motivation. One of the cardinal marks of a genius writer is in their ability to remain ambiguous about their intent, and that is assuming that there is any intent to begin with. This allows the art itself to be validly interpreted by anyone while creating meaning unique to the individual subjective consciousness. Nonetheless, Rimbaud’s writing is usually examined through the lens of that vortical period of our lives known as puberty. Obviously this is due to the fact of the age that he was when he composed his work. Yet this contingency can not and more importantly, does not distract from the numinous quality of his writing by any means. What it does prove though is the more than ostensible breadth and scope of his genius.
The one quality of Rimbaud’s writing which has not changed in significance for me, ever since I first encountered him at the age of fourteen, is in the admiration of his stylistic acumen. His genius endowed him with such an insatiable appetite and ability to read across multitudinous texts, that most scholars are still amazed at his ability to have written in any style of literature at that time. This predication explains why one can regularly read his canon and reliably experience on every occasion the same feeling of frisson emanating off the pages. How then could anyone not tout Rimbaud along with Nietzsche as being the two greatest stylists of the nineteenth century? And Rimbaud will not just remain a luminary in literature as every generation of artistic, self-expressive, and passionate frei geist will unfailingly find transcendent commiseration with Rimbaud’s preternatural words and unique approach to the art of living.
After an individual’s work, the other half of a dyad of creativity to look for in others is in their existence itself. More often than not, I am more influenced by a creative persons’ life and the way in which they live it, than their actual expressive output. So for those of you not in the know about Rimbaud’s life, you are highly entreated to seek out the biographies by Graham Robb and Enid Starkie (her biography having initiated Rimbaud scholarship in the first half of the twentieth century). The sheer originality of this man’s mind and life is ineffable and awe inspiring, most especially to those who find themselves not so readily fitting into societies tapestry. For he did not just pioneer in the literary arena but also within the social spheres, in short, a true non-conformist; just as rare an individual (in the truest Emersonian sense) then, as it is today. This is most apparent in the way in which he dealt with not only his homosexuality and vertiginous relationship with Verlaine but also with his atheism within an age of unctuous piety. This is all the more impelling when one considers that their exploits were enacted within the suffocating aegis of Victorian society with all of its sexual hypocrisy and opprobrious moralizing. Simply put, Rimbaud was a unique manifestation and epitome of heterodoxy; a human quality in great and lamentable dearth within our culture.
Of the many translations which one can possess of Rimbaud’s work in order to begin a proper initiation, there is perhaps no better source than Oliver Bernard’s translation of the Pleiade edition of Une Saison en Enfer. There are so many exquisite passages and lines to entrance and ensnare oneself with, that it is always difficult to isolate any part of this dense and magnum poem. Be that as it may, I still find after all these years that the passage I feel the most empathy for is the introduction for it not only initiates the poem but it also invites us to descend into one man’s mind where we are destined to find our own visage staring back at us through the pages with an irresistibly inviting and vulpecular grin:
” Once, if I remember rightly, my life was a feast at which all hearts opened and all wines flowed.
One evening I sat Beauty on my knees–And I found her bitter
–And I reviled her.
I armed myself against justice.
I fled. O witches, O misery, O hatred, it was to you that my treasure was entrusted!
I managed to erase in my mind all human hope. Upon every joy, in order to strangle it, I made the muffles bound of the wild beast.
I called up executioners in order to bite their gun-butts as I died. I called up plagues, in order to suffocate myself with sand and blood. Bad luck was my god. I stretched myself out in the mud. I dried myself in the air of crime. And I played some fine tricks on madness.
And spring brought me the appalling laugh of the idiot.
But just lately, finding myself on the point of uttering my last croak, I thought of looking for the key to the old feast, where I might perhaps find my appetite again.
Charity is the key–This inspiration proves that I have been dreaming!
‘You’ll go on being a hyena, etc…’ cries indignantly the demon who crowned me with such pleasing poppies. ‘Reach death with all your appetites, your selfishness, and all the deadly sins!’
Ah! I have brought along too many – But my dear Satan, I beg you, an eye a little less inflamed! And while we are waiting for a few little overdue cowardly actions, you, who appreciate in a writer the absence of any descriptive or instructive talent, for you I tear off these few hideous pages from my notebook of a damned soul.”