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On Shooting at Elephants | The Nation

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On Shooting at Elephants

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It can only be the end of the world, ahead of time.
      (Rimbaud, Illuminations)

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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"The first poet of a civilization not yet born," as René Char called him, showed up on October 20, 1854, in Charleville in French Flanders, three years after Napoleon III's coup d'état. At age 4, already precocious, he tried to trade his baby sister for some colored prints in a bookshop window. At age 6, his father shipped off for Algeria and never came back, leaving Arthur at the mercy of a mother devoted to church, shopping and whist, with a "phenomenal capacity for not showing affection." At age 7, he entered the "corpse-yellow" rooms of the local lycée as if preparing "for a life in prison." By age 14, he had inhaled all of French poetry, won every academic prize and developed acute self-consciousness:

I have the bluish-white eyes of my ancestors the Gauls, their small brains, their clumsiness in battle. I find my dress as barbaric as theirs. But I do not butter my hair.

Picture him in the summer of 1870, chatting up navvies and quarrymen, reading Verlaine for the first time and stowing away under a seat on the train to Paris, where he will be arrested on suspicion of republicanism and/or spying for Bismarck, and spend maybe a week in prison, during which not even Robb can say for sure what happens to him, except lice. There followed, as if on an elastic string that kept snapping him back to "the Mouth of Darkness," as he called his disapproving mother, an itchy six-month period of itinerant journalism, cafe polemics, bohemian sonnets and shopping for surrogate fathers, during which he swore like a prisoner, ate like a pig, refused to pass the salt and came to believe that "the mind could be shaped by an act of will," that morality "is a weakness of the brain" and that Society "will fall to the axe, the pick and the steamroller."

In the cities, the mud suddenly appeared to me red and black, like a mirror when the lamp moves about in the next room, like a treasure in the forest! Good luck, I cried, and saw a sea of flames and smoke in the sky, and, to left and to right, all riches blazing like a billion thunders.

This is a kid ready for a Commune. He sells his watch for a third-class ticket to Paris in February 1871, and for two weeks walks the streets "feasting on theatre bills, advertisements, pamphlets and shop signs," sleeping on coal barges, competing with dogs for scraps of food--a "vagrant poet with a fish in his pants." Six days after he has hoofed it home, workers rise, generals are lynched and he has to go back again: "Paris had fallen to poets who worked with laws and human beings instead of words." A new chief of police removes "Saint" from every street name and issues a warrant for God's arrest. Maybe words actually do have "a direct, controllable influence on reality."

"Order is vanquished!" declares the 16-year-old, and writes his own revolutionary Constitution: A permanent state of referendum! Abolition of families and their "slave-holding" of children! Communication with animals, plants and extraterrestrials! He will return in late April, at the delirious height of the Commune, to enlist as a Left Bank guerrilla: "To whom shall I hire myself? What beast should I worship? What holy image are we attacking? Which hearts shall I break? What lie must I keep?--In what blood shall I walk?" When government troops bomb their own capital, he slips away, suffers what he suffers and enters the gaudy tent of his own legend: "I owe my superiority to the fact that I have no heart."

In fact, says Robb, he has decided "to seize control of the means of intellectual production.... In terms that were unavailable to him in 1871, he was considering the possibility of detaching the censorious superego from the endlessly imaginative id." And the "superego incarnate" is Mme. Rimbaud, from whom he's always hiding out in attics, cellars or latrines, and to whom he always returns, until Africa. You are saying this is reductive. But every once in a while, praxis so improves on theory that we get a penguin.

That summer of 1871 he posts a batch of poems to Verlaine so full of kinky innuendo that The Nasty Fellows raise a subscription to bring the prodigy to the capital and subsidize his genius. Rimbaud arrives with "a strange nostalgia for the future," one of the most remarkable poems in any language, "The Drunken Boat," and a plan to fold, bend, spindle and mutilate his own personality. Almost immediately, he will trash hotel rooms like a rock star and leave turds behind on pillows. Verlaine, of course, will fall in love with him, when he isn't rotting his brain with absinthe or setting his wife's hair on fire. Verlaine is easy to make fun of only if you've never been smitten by somebody bad for you, or until you are reminded that Pol Pot was one of his great admirers.

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