Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rimbaud: “Je est un autre” the constructed self

Parents who fear for the future of their rebellious teens might take heart from the life of Arthur Rimbaud who, born in Charleville on this date in 1854, wrote his renowned and iconoclastic poetry before the age of majority and lived, a runaway, his wild, debauched, drugging (to derange his senses) days in Paris, London, and Brussels while still a teen. Rimbaud then put poetry and rebellion behind him to become, for the remainder of his short life (he died in 1891 at the age of thirty-seven), a lucrative coffee and guns trader in colonial East Africa for a French trading company. Not unlike teenagers today, Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud, before running off to Paris, scrawled graffiti (“Shit on God”) on town walls, smoked, grew his hair long, and mocked a town priest with an homage to his holy bowel movements (the poem “Squattings”).

Teens have been discovering and held anthem the revolutionary works of precocious, adolescent Rimbaud ever since. Marcel Proust, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan (who refers in one of his songs to Rimbaud’s tumultuous experiment with homosexuality and Verlaine); singer-songwriter Patti Smith (who wrote Rimbaud’s Illuminations “became the Bible of my life.”) have all, in some way, cited Rimbaud’s influence. Even the film Eddie and the Cruisers (with its nod to the poetic lyrics of Bruce Springsteen) referenced Rimbaud, with Eddie’s lost album entitled Seasons in Hell.

Rimbaud wrote to his friend and former teacher Georges Izambard: “I'm working to turn myself into a seer: … It has to do with making your way toward the unknown by a derangement of all the senses.” And “It's wrong to say I think: one should say I am thought.” and “I is someone else”. Rimbaud was perhaps the most avant garde in this statement “JE est un autre” ( I am an other) intimating, like Hegel before him, that the subjective self, the “I”, is constructed, the other, constitutive. A useful construct, yes, but within it are multiple components, opposing sameness, what today we call multiple selves.

And with nothing merely as its constructed façade, Rimbaud saw the value of writing not only of internal things but also of ordinary things as experienced through the unique subjective self. This required a new way of constructing poetry, including synesthesia (as Baudelaire had done), such that chaos was captured in correct form (Oh, that my keel might rend and give me to the sea!). Soon after, he contacted the Symbolist poet Verlaine.

Mothers of prodigal sons might also appreciate that Rimbaud returned again and again, after many escapes, to the home of his own stern mother, his father having abandoned them when he was five. At fifteen, Rimbaud sought his fortune in Paris, for the Franco-Prussian war had led to closure of his school and he was too young to be allowed to be a soldier. This runaway, homeless in Paris, arrested, destitute, was, most likely, also raped. His suffering and early losses are reflected in his poetry. (See, e.g., The Drunken Boat below.)

In Enid Starkie's biography, she writes that Rimbaud gave up poetry when he realized it would not bring enlightenment. His mother’s influence, when she wrote to encourage the suicidal Verlaine: “..each of us has a wound in his heart, more or less deep...true happiness consists solely in fulfilling of one's duty, however painful it may be. …you'll see that misfortune will grow weary of pursuing you, and you'll become happy once more”, may be evident in Rimbaud’s choice to become an industrious trader of goods. In a twist of fate, his capitalististic endings perhaps mock his earlier work, just as his poems had earlier mocked French conventional verse, liberating it from its 19th century themes and form.

Rimmbaud's suffering is evident in this excerpt from Oliver Bernard’s translation of The Drunken Boat

But, truly, I have wept too much! The Dawns are heartbreaking.
Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter:
Sharp love has swollen me up with heady langours.
O let my keel split! O let me sink to the bottom!
If there is one water in Europe I want, it is the
Black cold pool where into the scented twilight
A child squatting full of sadness, launches
A boat as fragile as a butterfly in May.

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