Friday, March 6, 2015

"Rimbaud" by Julio Denis (Julio Cortázar). 1941.

Assez connu. Les arrêts de la vie. 
Ô Rumeurs et Visions!
Départ dans l'affection et le bruit neufs.

~A. Rimbaud

We know now that Arthur Rimbaud is an origin, one of the fountainheads from which the arboreal liquid of our Poetry sprays forth. When faced with the miracle that is Rimbaud, any reticence based on language or nationality becomes impossible. It is not important in the least that Rimbaud drank only from the history of his “ancêtres galois”, just as it is not important that our Spanish-language poetic tradition—which exists in constant dialogue with the classics, with Baudelaire and with Mallarmé—has paid Rimbaud such scant attention. Only our own prejudice and inconsistency could drive us away from a body of work that taps into the very roots of human poetic experience. And yet, very few young Spanish poets—now spread far and wide on a wave of hatred, like sparks from a bloody firecracker—have been direct recipients of Rimbaud’s vital influence. But, in these times of poetic sincerity, in which we have finally learned the difference between grace and mere technique, no one can escape his influence. While the Surrealists openly recognize their connection to Rimbaud, (as well as to Lautréamont, so unjustly overlooked in the Americas), Alberti and Neruda, Aleixandre and Federico García Lorca, as well as new, still quavering voices in Latin American poetry—Mexico, Argentina, Cuba!—hold Rimbaud’s bleeding heart in their hands, they listen to it beating, even though many of them have never opened Les Illuminations.

Rimbaud (and this is a basic difference between him and Mallarmé), is first and foremost a person. His was never a problem of poetics, but rather of an ambition toward human actualization, for which the Poem, the Oeuvre, is merely the means. In this sense, Rimbaud is close to those of us who see in Poetry a complete unfettering of being, its most absolute manifestation, its entelechy. We intuit, moreover, that within this achievement there lies a kind of recompense, something that transcends, a kind of grace that answers an abiding need in certain human hearts.

When we think in terms of this face-off between means and ends—and the distinctions between these notions are perhaps more to do with one’s vantage point than with any real categorical difference—, we can begin to contemplate the true grandeur of Rimbaud’s ruined figure. Mallarmé knew as much or more than Rimbaud about creative anguish, about the battle against impurity of expression, against the ineffable. But Mallarmé was a being of, by, and for poetry. He is, in his own words, “l’homme chargé de voir divinement”. Everything culminates in a book. That goes for poets as well, who understand their failure every time they reach for that supreme experience, almost touching music, or silence. In Rimbaud and Mallarmé there exists an “Icarism”; they both believed themselves capable of breaking open the logical strictures of our unacceptable reality, of recreating the world in order to find themselves wholly immersed in it. “Je notais l’inexprimable. Je fixais de vertiges”, Rimbaud once wrote in a famous passage. And Mallarmé, in the most hermetic of his poems: “Gloire du long désire, Idées”. But their paths move apart, they feud and split, ultimately placing the two poets in antipodal relation to one another, as distant as two people born with a gift for poetry can be. Mallarmé focuses his being on achieving Poetry, with a cathartic urge to see, perhaps, the poem’s pure flower. The whole of his oeuvre is the same attempt, a hundred times renewed and a hundred times destroyed by disillusionment. Nothing satisfies him, because he finds nothing that understands Poetry. His work represents a terrible fate for any poetry taken up with a lightness in the heart, for any romantic hope. Mallarmé found out that Poetry is a sacrifice, that one does not find it along well-worn paths. Sapped by the effort, dehumanized in the end—he descended into a hermetic existence from which he was only freed by death—, his oeuvre is a betrayal of all that is vital, an attempt to escape the part of himself that was complex, tellurian. He is the angelic Icarus; his fall leads him not to the sea, but rather to an ideal disintegration, a coming apart, to becoming an idea. His poems look toward the absolute, resolutely turning his back on this low world that was his bitter cradle. Night falls, the faun sleeps, and the nymphs run free.

Rimbaud starts off along the same path. Still in Charleville, he bursts forth; we find him concerned with the search for a poetics whose roots can be understood; this is the period when he writes the famous Lettre du voyant, in which he attempts to establish the elements that make a creation worthy. It is there that he wrote, “Car je est un autre”, a phrase which, having been misunderstood in every way possible, will find its explanation in Surrealism, whose only point of intersection with Rimbaud is the belief in unconscious imperatives, deep archives of being that shape poetry and rule over it. The acceptance of this belief renders invalid any poetics based in rhetoric, carefully constructed analogies, and craft. The Surrealists, being pragmatists, made of this hypothesis a method; some of them wrote beautiful verses born of a waking dream or automatic writing. But all of that was of little interest to Rimbaud; he wasn’t after the liberation and sublimation of the “autre” but rather of the “Je”. (Of course, Freud wasn’t around to advise; that would have to wait for our century.) It would be a fundamental mistake to believe that Rimbaud was a poet who trusted himself to the impulses of the unconscious; nothing could be further from his intentions. Even though he recognized the power of the “other”, his work was profoundly considered—just have a look at Jacques Rivière’s study which compares drafts—; his is a sophisticated architecture, as sophisticated as Mallarmé’s, fully deploying resources of thought and language in order to approach the mystery of Poetry. 

There is a seldom-noted difference between the Rimbaud of Lettre de Voyant and the later Rimbaud leading up to his silence. Any reflection on aesthetics, any explicitly revealed method is directly transmuted into Oeuvre, though the relationship between the two is sometimes obscure. It seems as though Rimbaud, with the key still in his hand, throws himself out the window. After that point, the poems become travelogues. And what travels! It does not seem to me, contrary to the opinion of Maritain and others, that Rimbaud was looking for some absolute of Poetry. I have always thought that his descent into hell—Je me crois en enfer, donc j’y suis—was an attempt to find the Life that his nature was clamoring for. Desperation, insult, bitterness, everything that incites him upon contemplation of the bourgeois existence he was obliged to tolerate; all this is proof that in him there is a man anxious to live. Were this not the case, he would have leaned toward stoicism, toward a process of existential winnowing, of retreat and of disdainful silence. Rimbaud rejects the route taken by someone like Amiel because he feels in himself the strength to keep fighting, he wants to blaze a trail through hell, through Poetry, and finally attain his I, free from the leg-irons of convention. He is rebellious, so he fights; he is proud, so he argues. Life lies in the beyond—poetry, freedom, divinity—, and the whole of his terrible journey is a beyond that repeats and repeats. Even if we accept that there was in him a hope for arriving at Poetry’s absolute, for attaining knowledge of the unknowable though poetic apprehension, all of that was no end in itself, as it might have been for Mallarmé, but rather the ultimate vantage from which to contemplate himself, free of dross, pure as a diamond, facing divinity as an equal.

Rimbaud’s pride! A satanism that sends him lurching toward the angels; a root mass sunk deep in negativity that feeds a flower open to the sky. All of this comes crashing down the day a moral crisis—something that he abhorred and that finally took its revenge—leads him to write Une Saison en Enfer, which you should be reading instead of this essay if you really want to understand how deep a soul can be and how profoundly an ambition can fail. At the conclusion of this punch to the gut of a travelogue, Rimbaud wakes up to his new existence as a failure who understands the importance of resignation. Why didn’t Rimbaud kill himself? The thing is, he did. What remains of him is just the habit of living, of traveling, a memory with a body, a living portrait. But Arthur Rimbaud, the poet, had already died back in his rented room in Roche, with these, his last lines: “et il me sera loisible de posséder la verité dans un âme et un corps”. This paradoxical optimism, the result of taking stock one last time, turns out to be nothing more than a prod in the back, a reason to keep stepping forward. I don’t believe, as Carré and other biographers of Rimbaud do, that in those days a new chapter was opening for the poet, that an even more extraordinary destination awaited him. The man walked on, now merely life-sized, not the Rimbaudman he had dreamed of being during his tumultuous bohemian days, his face pressed against the windowglass, his hand sunk in his unruly hair, his “perfectly oval face of a castoff angel” contorted in an expression of hopeful ire.

For these very reasons, because he played Poetry as his highest card in the fight against a hateful reality, Rimbaud’s work comes to us saturated with existential fury; for us, anguished people who have lost faith in rhetoric, his work sounds like a personal message, an admonishment. I have never thought much about those sentences in Rimbaud that, to naive ears, might sound like prophesy, like secret formulae, like old reliable tools for picking the locks of the beyond. But the work of our magnificent, cursed lad is no grimoire, no book of enchantments; it is a chunk of his flesh bearing a tatouage decipherable only–simply—by reading with requisite openness. One cannot inhabit Rimbaud’s work by merely grasping his formulae; indeed, earlier poets followed these thought directives much more than the author himself (but they did not manage to do what he did, which shows how vacuous our notions of pedigree and influence really are, with apologies to André Gide).

It is the Icarus of flesh and blood who crashes upon the water and, rescued by life’s inertia, seeks to flee from that which he considers closed forever. Mallarmé casts himself on the rocks of Poetry; Rimbaud returns to this world. The former leaves us an Oeuvre; the latter, a story written in blood. Even with all my devotion to the great poet Mallarmé, I feel that my being, as a whole, leans toward Rimbaud with an affection that is brotherhood and nostalgia. One can love Góngora, but it is San Juan de la Cruz who grabs one by the shoulders and meets one's eye. One can say that poetry is an adventure toward the infinite, but it departs from humanity and to us it must return. It is given to us as a kind of grace that allows us to cross dimensions, but our victory does not consist of “haunting what lies beyond” as Federico called it, but rather in being [the ones haunted]. Rimbaud’s adventure is a starting point for today’s poetry of injury, a poetry more self-aware than any other in history; today we are at once more modest and more ambitious; we now understand both the grandeur and the misery of this Poetry, we divine its sources and seek out the aquifer below. In this sense, we are the “voyants”, the seers, that Rimbaud was calling for. Does this mean we no longer run the risk of being Icarus? I think not. In every poet there is a fatalism that drags him along, an obsession. If we are doomed to fail, if that which is absolute is not to be given to us, if poetic knowledge, like mystical knowledge, is inexpressible, our journey will not be in vain. Of Rimbaud, the businessman in Abyssinia, there is nothing left worth remembering; it is the adolescent who opened his veins into the fabric of the impossible who has left us the deepest, most vigorously alive works in modern poetry. And, in Rimbaud’s own words, though success be elusive, always deferred, viendrons d’autres horribles travailleurs: ils commenceront par les horizons où l’autre s’est affaisé!

~translated from Spanish by Neil Anderson

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