They laughed when I sat down with these two writers–and never mind that both books arrived in the same box. The bad gay boy and the cold war saint! The apostle of derangement and the lexicographer of Newspeak! The red cape and the tweed jacket, the rotting knee and the lousy lung, the drunken boat and the memory hole! “I came to find my mind’s disorder sacred,” said the poet on a camel. “Good prose is like a window pane,” said the novelist who shot elephants.
But both Arthur Rimbaud and George Orwell did go down-and-out in Paris and London. Both their fathers were mostly absent, doing time as globocops in Third World tropics of the French and British empires. (On a sand dune, Captain Rimbaud taught himself Bedouin ways, the better to repress them. Orwell’s dad was a deputy opium agent, making sure the poppy juice got from India to the Chinese addicts.) Both their mothers loved cards more than kids. Both sons, hating school, gifted at languages, hostile to religion, intrigued by popular culture, would follow their fathers to the colonies, enlist in foreign wars, lose not only their tempers but also amazing amounts of manuscript and die younger than they should have, after dreaming up and acting out alternative identities. (Take a hike, Eric Blair: “I is somebody else.”)
Both live on as cautionary tales, litmus tests, celebrity role models and undead icons. In his wickedly entertaining revised version of Rimbaud, Graham Robb points to his posthumous career “as Symbolist, Surrealist, Beat poet, student revolutionary, rock lyricist, gay pioneer and inspired drug-user,” as well as “an emergency exit from the house of convention” for avant-gardes everywhere. Well-thumbed copies of A Season in Hell and The Illuminations are to be found in the portmanteaus of Picasso, Breton, Cocteau and Malraux and in the backpacks of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Bruce Chatwin and Kurt Cobain. Jim Morrison, that swinging Door, is even rumored “to have faked his death in Paris and followed Rimbaud to Ethiopia”–just the right splash of mythic Tabasco.
Whereas Orwell’s name is mentioned every time we are looked down upon by surveillance cameras, lied to by governments, read about journalists who have been “disappeared” or hear about dissidents in mental hospitals. Big Brother is a member of our extended family, the pigs go on drinking all the milk and eating all the apples, and the SLORC word for Burma in Newspeak is “Myanmar.” In Democracy, her 1984 (!) novel of skulduggery on the Pacific Rim, Joan Didion would notice that “all reporters had paperback copies of Homage to Catalonia, and kept them in the same place where they kept the matches and the candle and the notebook, for when the hotel was bombed.” So postmodern is Curious George that he has even been abducted by such aliens as Norman Podhoretz.
And both for a season or so professed revolutionary socialism. Even if the moment passed like measles, Rimbaud was there for the Paris Commune, and Orwell was there for the Spanish Republic, and these, of course, are two of the biggest Super Bowl games in the left’s long losing streak, and it makes you want to weep.
Robb reminds us that the massacre of the Communards in 1871 “was the bloodiest week in French history: a savage humiliation of the proletariat. Thousands were shot, inexpertly tortured or shipped to the penal colonies without a proper trial. Women carrying bottles in the street were bayoneted by soldiers who had heard of the mythical, bomb-throwing ‘pétroleuses.’ More people died during la Semaine Sanglante than in the Reign of Terror or the Franco-Prussian War.” While the Rimbaud article in my Britannica omits any mention of the Commune, the young poet yo-yo’d in and out of all of it, and Robb suggests that he may have been raped by a gang of soldiers while trying to slip through the lines a couple of weeks before the slaughter, after which he wrote his famous Lettre du Voyant–announcing the poet as Romantic Lucifer and Promethean Satan, whose job it was to rescue man from God.
On the open wound of the Spanish Republic, Jeffrey Meyers quotes Albert Camus: “It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many men, the world over, regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.” Certainly it was personal for Orwell. On his first Barcelona stop, he found a socialist community “where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking,” and dining rooms in the luxury hotels had been turned into canteens for the militia. But his second time around, he saw fat men eating quails while children begged for bread, and the commissars were hunting down his anarchist friends like deer. And then he took a bullet in the throat.
Anyway, both of them were lonely guys: vagabonds and vanishing acts. And they somehow hang together, coincidental and corresponding, in a rainbow arc from the Cult of the Artist to the Writer on the Barricades to Joe DiMaggio for Mr. Coffee and Bob Dole for Viagra. In Democracy, Joan Didion also quotes Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
It can only be the end of the world, ahead of time.
“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.
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:
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.
My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.
(Orwell, “Why I Write”)
Orwell lasted ten years longer, but all of it was much less thrilling. And so, compared to Graham Robb, is Jeffrey Meyers. Whether, after two volumes by William Abrahams and Peter Stansky, one full-length bio by Bernard Crick, another by Michael Shelden, a short and elegant “Literary Life” by the editor of the twenty-volume Complete Works, Peter Davison, and a brilliant black valentine by Raymond Williams in the “Modern Masters” series, we even need another account is open to question. “‘Father Knew George Orwell’ is a cracked old song,” wrote Williams almost three decades ago. But the centennial of his birth will be upon us in three short years, so batten down your aspidistra.
According to Meyers, he felt guilty about everything: “his colonial heritage, his bourgeois background, his inverted snobbery and his elite education,” not to mention his behavior as a policeman in Burma, his inability to get himself arrested while he was collecting material for Down and Out and maybe even the uncircumcised penis that so mortified him at Eton among such contemporaries as Anthony Powell, Henry Green and Harold Acton. And so his whole life was a kind of penance, never taking care of himself, doing it all the hard way, always off to another dangerous front, ending up on an island off the coast of Scotland as far away from medical attention as an Englishman with tuberculosis could get. “All these risky moves were prompted by the inner need to sabotage his chance of a happy life,” Meyers the schoolmarm tells us.
We’ve heard this before, from everybody else, and it still doesn’t explain anything. How many boys went to Eton and not to Spain? How many writers went to Spain, like Hemingway, and failed to notice anything peculiar? How come Lawrence Durrell and Anthony Burgess never felt guilty about their colonial service or imperial privilege? Who else (who didn’t have to) went down the Wigan mines, or into the casual wards of a public hospital to find out how the poor died, or saw a man hanged and decided on the spot, “When a murderer is hanged, there is only one person at the ceremony who is not guilty of murder”?
From Meyers, we also get a surprising amount of sex, all of it depressing. Orwell was nervous about women, apparently not much good in bed and would complain in his “Last Literary Notebook” about “their incorrigible dirtiness & untidiness” and “their terrible, devouring sexuality”:
Within any marriage or regular love affair, he suspected that it was always the woman who was the sexually insistent partner. In his experience women were quite insatiable, & never seemed fatigued by no matter how much love-making…. In any marriage of more than a year or two’s standing, intercourse was thought of as a duty, a service owed by the man to the woman. And he suspected that in every marriage the struggle was always the same–the man trying to escape from sexual intercourse, to do it only when he felt like it (or with other women), the woman demanding it more & more, & more & more consciously despising her husband for his lack of virility.
How does this square with his adventures in Rangoon brothels or among Parisian trollops and Berber girls in Marrakech? Was the former colonial cop and declassed intellectual only capable of getting it up with the lower orders? Raymond Williams was much exercised by this class angle in Orwell–an unconscious condescension, a double standard, a writing off of the brute masses because he’d come to feel all politics “was a mode of adjustment to one’s own wishes and fantasies.” Hadn’t he, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, projected his own apathy on the oppressed proles by insisting that, “Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me”?
But these are difficult thoughts, getting into what Williams called Orwell’s “submerged despairs”–the “radical pessimism” and “accommodation to capitalism” of this self-described “shock-absorber of the bourgeoisie.” Meyers will no more entertain them than he will explore the kind of craft questions that bring out the best in Peter Davison–on, for instance, how those magnificent essays about elephants, toads and Dickens got themselves written. Or the precise debt of Nineteen Eighty-Four to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Jack London’s Iron Heel and Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night. No mention in Meyers, either, of how the 1955 film version of Animal Farm omitted the last-scene melding of men and pigs, which might have opened questions about cultural expropriation, body-snatching and even Doublethink–all for the greater good of the cold war cause. In all Meyers’s many pages, not a single sentence stops us in mid-platitude to say anything half as intellectually arresting as these several in Raymond Williams, on Orwell’s recurring patterns:
This experience of awareness, rejection, and flight is repeatedly enacted. Yet it would be truer to say that most of Orwell’s important writing is about someone who tries to get away but fails. That failure, that reabsorption, happens, in the end, in all the novels mentioned, though of course the experience of awareness, rejection, and flight has made its important mark.
To think these thoughts is then to ask whether, on a fundamental level, Nineteen Eighty-Four had much of anything to say to Chinese students or the Velvet Revolutionaries, who turned out to be made of sterner stuff than Winston Smith.
Instead, we get the same old stories: St. Cyprian’s, with Cyril Connolly and Cecil Beaton; Eton and his unrequited crush on a younger boy; Burma, where he briefly imagined that the “the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts”; Paris, where he wrote and destroyed two novels; teaching boys, selling books, being rejected by T.S. Eliot, marrying Eileen; Spain, Morocco and the Blitz; the BBC, the adopted child and the dead Eileen; P.G. Wodehouse, Edmund Wilson, Animal Farm and the audition of the widows in waiting–after which egregious Sonia, the widow everybody loves to hate, who is said here to have spat in disgust whenever she passed a nun on the street.
And along with the famous decency, the equally famous abuse: W.H. Auden was “a sort of gutless Kipling.” William Morris, Bernard Shaw and Upton Sinclair were “dull, empty windbags.” Off with the heads of “the creepy eunuchs in pansy-left circles” and “all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearing and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.” Wouldn’t it be loverly “if only the sandals and the pistachio-colored shirts could be put in a pile and burnt and every vegetarian, teetotaler and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!”
Wilfrid Sheed once said that Orwell wrote best about the things he hated. So maybe we’re just lucky that some of the things he hated were more important than sandals and vegetarianism.
But for now, it’s the night before. Let us receive all influxes of vigor and real tenderness. And at dawn, armed with ardent patience, we shall enter the splendid cities.
(Rimbaud, A Season in Hell)
I am reminded of Simone Weil, who also negated herself, who willed herself out of this world. At her funeral, the priest arrived too late, because of a stalled train. At Rimbaud’s funeral, nobody came, because his mother kept it secret. Orwell is remembered on the one hand, by Malcolm Muggeridge, as having “loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future,” and on the other by H.G. Wells, as “a Trotskyist with big feet.” And George himself told us that “saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”
So Rimbaud gave up poetry when it failed to change the world. Orwell at the end must have had his doubts about language, too, or he wouldn’t have dreamed up Newspeak. Neither is remembered for his hard work at identity-making. Instead, the poet’s name is worn by freaks, geeks and videodrones as if it were a logo on a T-shirt or a jet-propelled sneaker, and the novelist is propped up on a horse like the dead El Cid to frighten the Moorish hordes. They have both been turned into the standard-issue celebrity flacks of this empty, buzzing time, selling something other than themselves, unattached to honor, glory, kingship, sainthood or genius. They join a talk-show parade of the power-mad, the filthy rich and the serial killers, the softboiled fifteen-minute Warhol eggs, the rock musicians addled on cobra venom, the war criminals whose mothers never loved them and the starlets babbling on about their substance abuse, their child molestations, their anorexia and their liposuction. “I have never belonged to this race,” said Rimbaud.