[Marxism] Jairus Banaji on Artur Rimbaud

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 25 07:43:27 MST 2019

(From FB)

A photo of Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), taken in 1883. In May that year 
Rimbaud wrote to his family from Harar on the Ethiopian plateau, “One of 
these photographs shows me… standing in a café garden; another, with my 
arms crossed in a banana garden”.

Rimbaud, France’s most revolutionary poet from the latter part of the 
19th century, spent the last ten years of his life moving between Aden 
and Harar (with a brief spell in Cairo), working for much of that time 
for a French commercial firm run by a Marseilles coffee merchant, Alfred 
Bardey. Bardey’s business went bust in 1884, leaving Rimbaud stranded 
but determined to carry on trading. In one letter from Aden, Rimbaud 
claims that in 1883 he bought more than 3 million francs’ worth of 
coffee for his employer, “and my profit from that is nothing more than 
my wretched salary”. The letters from Aden and Harar suggest that 
Rimbaud was desperate to save enough money from his commercial ventures 
to be able to have a family and settle down. Yet it is equally clear 
that he saw himself living outside Europe (“I can’t go to Europe, for 
many reasons”) and remained as deeply infected by his “vagabond 
disposition”, as he calls it, as he had ever been as a youth wandering 
the Ardennes countryside. In 1883 he described himself as “losing 
interest” , day by day, in the way of life and even the languages of 
Europe, and felt he was “condemned to wander about” for the rest of his 
life. As it happens, he died less than ten years later, in November 
1891, aged 37, having spent the last years of his life in almost 
complete isolation in Harar, six thousand feet above sea-level.

It is these last ten to twelve years (1879–91) that are called 
“Rimbaud’s silence”. Why would the most brilliantly iconoclastic poet 
France had produced till then (Baudelaire excepted) give up poetry so 
decisively? In a classic study from 1961 the Irish critic Enid Starkie 
suggested it was Rimbaud’s period in London in 1872–73 that formed the 
watershed here. In Season in Hell, which he started writing in April 
1873 after coming back from London, Rimbaud was effectively repudiating 
his past to move to a more active kind of life. So what did London 
contribute that Paris couldn’t to jolting Rimbaud in this way?

Rimbaud of course is famous for his two masterpieces, the magnificent 
prose poems that make up Illuminations (1872–74) and the anguished 
self-indictment of Season in Hell. Many of the prose poems were written 
in London and about London. London was an imperial, cosmopolitan, 
thoroughly “modern” metropolis with no counterpart in Europe and 
impressed Rimbaud no end. In “Cities” (Illuminations) he refers to the 
“imperial glitter” of its buildings and writes, “The official acropolis 
surpasses the most colossal conceptions of modern barbarism”. This 
“acropolis” was the imperial heart of the Victorian city, and beyond it 
Rimbaud would see for the first time ever a “modern industrial capital, 
with its dreary streets, straggling on in sordid never-ending lines” 
(Starkie, Arthur Rimbaud, pp.257–8). Starkie notes his fascination for 
the London docks where he and Verlaine “saw all types of humanity, 
swarming from all the four quarters of the world” and heard “strange 
languages spoken”. (Later, in the winter of 1875, he would start 
learning “Arabic, Hindustani, and Russian” in the library at 
Charleville.) Rimbaud “spent in the docks more and more time, examining 
the various types of goods” and talking to the sailors whom he met 
(p.256). “The docks are impossible to describe, they are unbelievable!” 
he wrote to Verlaine. What resonates here is the sheer exhilaration of 
being “up close and personal” with the very hub of the world economy. 
“It was in London that Rimbaud formed a connection amongst sailors who 
came from all quarters of the globe, that he discovered from them what 
were the commercial possibilities in those distant lands…”. And it was 
in the “east-end by the docks”, in the Chinese dens, that he and 
Verlaine “learned to smoke opium”.

Illuminations is full of those “countless hallucinations” that Rimbaud 
later ascribed to the “monstrous mouthfuls of poison” he swallowed 
during his spells in London. There are images of unmatched beauty in its 
prose poems, childhood memories triggered and transformed by the 
“Chinese ink” and “black powder”. Season in Hell looks back at this 
poetry, recapping some of it as if he were writing a biography: “I 
dreamed of crusades, of unrecorded voyages of discovery, of republics 
with no history, of hushed-up religious wars, revolutions in customs, 
displacements of races and continents”; “I wrote out silences and the 
nights. I recorded the inexpressible”; “I became a fabulous opera”; and 
so on.

Rimbaud finished Season in Hell in August 1873, abandoned writing 
altogether by the middle of 1875, and left Europe permanently towards 
the end of 1878, but not before enlisting in the Dutch colonial army to 
go to Java (in 1876) and then deserting three weeks after arrival. In 
the spring of 1873 he had announced, “Here I am on the shore of 
Brittany. Let the cities light up in the evening. My day is done. I am 
leaving Europe. The sea air will burn my lungs. Lost climates will tan 
me. I will swim, trample the grass, hunt, and smoke especially”; “I will 
come back with limbs of iron and dark skin and a furious look”.

“[P]erhaps implicated in the slave traffic” was how Starkie restated her 
earlier argument that Rimbaud had been a slave trader when trading in 
Abyssinia. But the slave trade between Abyssinia and the coast was an 
Arab monopoly dominated by Sudanese merchants. In his book Rimbaud in 
Abyssina Alain Borer demolishes the misconception that Rimbaud’s 
commercial transactions in Harar included slave-trading. Rimbaud died in 
Marseille on 10 November, 1891. The cause of death has now been 
established as bone cancer. With a massively swollen knee-cap at the 
start of that year and the disease spreading to his thigh and finally to 
his calf, he literally had to be carried 300 kilometres to Zayla before 
he could leave for Europe via Aden.

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