Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Whatever Happened to Arthur Rimbaud?
At a certain, early stage in my poetic development, especially my State College years, Arthur Rimbaud was a pivotal influence. I had, at one point, entire chunks of A Season in Hell memorized, and would spout them off at readings. Yet, not at Penn, or New England College, or Temple, has Rimbaud been presented to me in an academic setting. Come to think of it, Baudelaire and Verlaine haven't put in an appearance either. What gives? Aren't the Symbolists an interesting crew? Don't they have something substantial to offer? Upon re-reading Season in Hell, after many years, the simple answer is yes. Rimbaud's little manifesto is a fascinating melange of dynamic oppositions, animated by his distinctly adolescent (but compellingly incisive) sensibility: saved/damned, historicized/ahistorical, mad/sane, individual/socially involved. Rimbaud uses oppositions to crack open his own tender psyche like a nutshell. He both exposes the essential frailty of self-schemas and gives us an opportunity to watch him construct an identity-in-text right before our eyes. Construction of identity is really what Rimbaud is on about here:
I inherit from my Gaulish ancestors my whitish-blue eye, my narrow skull, and my lack of skill in fighting. My attire seems to me as barbarous as theirs. But I don't butter my hair.
I loathe all trades. Masters and servants--all--peasants, base.
I am the slave of my baptism.
I am not a prisoner of my reason.
Why is Rimbaud not being taught? My guess is that he is being taught: in France! There is a sort of provincialism endemic to academia which I am only now noticing. Schools tend to stick to the literature of their country, which is a rip-off, but there you are. Nonetheless, it is delightful to me that a text which I haven't read in years still has the power to transport me, especially since most of what I read back then I can't stand now. Our era puts great emphasis on identity construction as an aesthetic issue. The dialectics of the Deconstructionists, especially, would seem to be quite germane to Rimbaud's investigations. He deconstructs himself, and the thrill is in watching him put himself back together again.
P.S. I have some sonnets from When You Bit... out in Otoliths and in No Tell Motel.