The Double Life of a Rebel
(Atlas & Co.)The weird life of Arthur Rimbaud is too well known for us to repeat here. Suffice it to say that Edmund White has dug up facts (some juicy, others quite dry) to satisfy the curiosity of all us literary Peeping Toms.
One that we quite liked was the famous shooting incident with Verlaine (Rimbaud got it in the wrist; Paul got two years in the pokey in Brussels). Or when Rimbaud, during his self-imposed exile in Arabia, tried to buy some slaves. Or, his various frothy attempts to blackmail his friends.
Then there are those political, social, or religious fanatics who later claimed Rimbaud as their own: the Anarchists, the Cabbalists, the French Patriots, Bolshevists(!), the Catholics(!!) ... and, for all we know, the Boston Patriots. Rimbaud, says White, probably could not identify with any of them, because he was nothing but a budding juvenile thug when he wrote; and didn't give a toot for his former life after his departure for the wilds of North Africa. Je est un autre he wrote. We would translate this as, "I be someone else, bro..." but White, more demurely, offers, "I is someone else."
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There is no doubt that Rimbaud was a royal pain in the ass to everyone, including his family and his artist friends. If he moved in with you, he'd muddy up your sheets, leave lice in your bed, and, if he could manage it, sell off your furniture and silverware to the nearest pawnshop.
He and Verlaine, when they weren't writing love-poems to each others' ruddy bums ("Sonnet du trou du cul"), would argue poetry and religion, play around lunging at each other with knives barely sheathed in paper bags: the first to draw blood won. Surrealism's fun couple, no?
Rimbaud met Verlaine when he was but a farmboy from Charleville (the equivalent of growing up in Clarksville, Mississippi). He was famous for his big meaty hands, his baby cheeks, and his ice-blue eyes. Soon enough with their regular violent orgies assisted by absinthe and hashish he and Verlaine became the terroristes of 19th Century Montmartre.
Rimbaud's poetry emerged from his fertile, larcenous brain when he was still in his teens. Afterwards, he referred to poetry in general --- especially his own --- as rinçures which, White tells us, means "'dishwater' or 'slops,' and is even used for 'bad wine.'" No worse curse could come from the mouth of a Frenchman.
Rimbaud and Verlaine were apparently hell-bent on destroying each other as they lived in and around the Western culture that was also hell-bent on destroying them (see Oscar Wilde). But Rimbaud managed to skip out of Paris and la vie artistique when he was nineteen. He died in Marseilles in 1891 at the age of thirty-seven. He had lived his last years in Cyprus, Aden, and for awhile, Harar, in what is now Ethiopia.
The best passage in this spare book tells of the charms and wonders of this desert town. "Each of the tribesmen who were paid to accompany him wore the testicles of his enemies in his headdress." The town itself
was surrounded by walls ten feet tall, which protected the villagers from lions and leopards. Sometimes hyenas would wriggle in through breaches in the mud wall to devour the sick and invalid who lived in the streets.
"The town," White concludes, "having no sewers, smelled. It was famous for the horse markets."
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We have praised White's writings before. His book from 1993, Genet: A Biography was careful and fine, and his contribution to Big Trips was one of the best of sixteen essays in an outstanding collection of gay travel pieces.
However Rimbaud has problems, and we aren't talking of the sullen thug who is the main character. It comes off as derivative ... more like a Master's thesis, drawn from various sources, along with some overstatements that may leave readers wondering if they wandered into the wrong book.
Some of Rimbaud's latter-day fame came from his ability to take French traditional forms (the alexandrine, say) and bend them to his needs and whims. But to say that "he was the father of modern poetry" seems to be stretching it a bit: how about John Clare, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, even Tennyson?
And to tell the reader that Théodore de Banville "didn't realize that Rimbaud was about to invent the prose poem" ignores the fact that it had probably been invented a decade before by Baudelaire in his Paris Spleen.
Finally, some of us who do not read French beyond the third-grade level will miss the impact of A Season in Hell or Illuminations. Part of the latter, "Genie," written when Rimbaud was eighteen or nineteen, is considered to be "inspired" (White tells us), "worthy of being counted among the great texts we label 'canonical' in a world such as ours, which comes after the retreat of the gods." Which gods exactly did we have in mind?
Some of us are daft enough to suggest that if a poem doesn't make it in translation then there may be some questions about its importance. Reading a translation of "Genie" doesn't bring the word "canonical" to mind. Instead, it might be thought of as "overripe" or "overstuffed." Like the furniture in Verlaine's London apartment:
O ses souffles, ses têtes, ses courses; la terrible célérité de la perfection des formes et de l'action.
O fécondité de l'esprit et immensité de l'univers!
Son corps! Le dégagement rêvé, le brisement de la grâce croisée de violence nouvelle!
Sa vue, sa vue! tous les agenouillages anciens et les peines relevés à sa suite.
Son jour! l'abolition de toutes souffrances sonores et mouvantes dans la musique plus intense.
Son pas! les migrations plus énormes que les anciennes invasions.
O Lui et nous! l'orgueil plus bienveillant que les charités perdues.
O monde! --- et le chant clair des malheurs nouveaux!
This is Edmund White's translation:
His breaths, his heads, his marathons; the terrifying swiftness of his perfect shape and movement.
O the fertility of his mind and the immensity of the universe!
His body! The dreamed-of detachment, the dissolution of grace joined with new violence!
The look of him! The look! When he saunters past, all humiliating sufferings are lifted.
His light! Music most intense drowns out all the groans of suffering in motion.
His step! Migrations vaster than the ancient invasions.
Hail to him and us! A pride more benign than all lost good deeds!
O world! And the soft song of new unhappiness!--- Richard Saturday