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On Shooting at Elephants | The Nation

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On Shooting at Elephants

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We are now in familiar territory, with the familiar contradictions. Rimbaud the vandal, hooligan, sadist and "murderous" prankster is also the Rimbaud who writes a lovely article about "human alarm-clocks" who for a small fee rush around in the early hours in the poorer sections of the city waking up factory workers. The "vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy" is also the author of the marvelous "Voyelles," a poem in which each vowel has its own color (noir, blanc, rouge, vert, bleu)--inspired by Ernest Cabaner, a composer who plays piano in a bar, collects old shoes to use as flowerpots and believes that each note of the octave corresponds to a particular color and vowel. According to Robb:

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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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This is the ambiguity that lies at the heart of Rimbaud's work: the ardent search for powerful systems of thought that could be used like magic spells, conducted by an acutely ironic intelligence--a combination that rarely survives adolescence gracefully.

He loses a notebook, the Belgian poems and the manuscript of "Spiritual Hunt." Since he believes "every being...to be entitled to several other lives," why not go to England, live with Verlaine in Soho, grub sixpence from writing business letters and teaching French, admire the boys in tight-fitting suits waiting outside public urinals and read Shakespeare, Longfellow, Poe and Swinburne? Certainly, like all ex-Communards in jittery Europe, they are spied upon and hassled. So should they be. They hobnob with the socialist underground. They see Karl Marx. Robb even suggests that several of The Illuminations can be construed as glosses on Kapital--on "the alienated consumers of the modern metropolis, the disinherited masses, the resurrectionary mythology of the Commune and the magic wand of global capitalism."

Not so his astonishing A Season in Hell, in which Modernism rears its contrary head; in which experiments with language are investigations into the unstable self; in which, "like a particle accelerator," repellent forms of thought collide: Job and Goethe; fairy tales and Taine; Fleurs du Mal and "the Mouth of Darkness." "Rimbaud, at the age of 18, had invented a linguistic world that can be happily explored for years like the scrapyard of a civilization." After which, confoundingly, he abandoned literature, France, fame and Mme. Rimbaud.

Well, now: Brussels, Stuttgart, Milan, Siena. Enlisting in the Carlist rebel army, then absconding with the cash bonus. Enlisting in the Dutch Colonial Army, then deserting the minute he gets to Java. Trying to enlist in the US Navy, then having instead to run off to Scandinavia with a circus. Going over the Alps on foot, setting sail for Alexandria, learning Russian, Arabic and Hindi. Discovering at last that while no tree grows in Aden, there is a nearby Forbidden City unseen by Europeans since Richard Burton, and money to be made trading coffee, tobacco, incense, ivory, spices, spears, swords, ostrich eggs, animal skins and guns. He will wear a turban, keep a woman, chew khat, catch syphilis, ride camels, write mom, lose another manuscript (on Abyssinia) and then his right leg (to bone cancer). At the end, he refuses opium for fear of what he might say in his delirium to his sister.

Disregard previous rumors, even in Enid Starkie. He neither converted to Islam nor traded in slaves, though you couldn't do business in his part of Africa without cutting the warlords in on the deal. What he did do, by selling guns to Menelik, was help an African army defeat a European nation--well, at least Italy--for the first time. Disregard as well the Tragic Aura. He didn't die bitter and broke. He actually made a lot of money, which he hid from his mother in bank accounts all over the Middle East. Some people are still looking for it.

Some people are also still looking for the poet. Rimbaud killed him off when he stopped living with other people, after he realized that the world couldn't be changed by verbal innovation. Literature, Robb explains, hadn't worked:

For Rimbaud, poetry had always been the means to an end: winning esteem, causing irritation, changing the nature of reality. Each redefinition of the goal had rendered the old technology obsolete. The prose Rimbaud had shown no more nostalgia for verse than most mathematicians showed for their slide-rules after the invention of the personal computer.

It's hard to read this as anything other than a triumph of capitalism over Bohemia.

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