In his essay “The Sleep of Rimbaud,” Maurice Blanchot refers to Rimbaud’s decision to stop writing poetry as a “bewitching enigma,” and a scandal.
To renounce writing, when one has proven to be a great writer, certainly does not occur without mystery. This mystery increases when one discovers what Rimbaud asks of poetry: not to produce beautiful works, or to answer to an aesthetic ideal, but to help man go somewhere, to be more than himself, to see more than he can see, to know what he cannot know - in a word, to make of literature an experience that concerns the whole of life and the whole of being. From this point of view, the abandonment becomes a greater scandal. The poet does not renounce just any activity, but the very possibility that, glimpsed and pursued, cannot be destroyed without a diminution in comparison with which suicide and madness seem nothing.
A larger question is suggested here. Can one destroy the drive to write poetry if that drive is so integral to one’s very being? If one’s entire being is consumed with the fire of poetry, powered by a quest for the unknown, for the frontiers in the realm of the visionary and metaphysical, is that spirit an energy that can be destroyed, or simply suppressed? Because if it is suppressed but not destroyed, indications of its presence will be manifest one way or another.
It is no accident that Rimbaud emerged in his later life not just as a trader in ivory in coffee but exploration in its most earnest form. In 1883 he set out from his base in Harar to explore the barren Ogaden desert in search of fresh sources of gum, ivory and musk and was the first European to penetrate that far south. He bristles with plans and projects. He writes home to his mother requesting a book on exploration, Guide du Voyageur: Un manuel théorique et pratique pour l'explorateur, and to Monsier Bautin, a manufacturer of precision instruments in Paris, he writes a request for a full report on the best manufacturers, in France or elsewhere, “of mathematical, optical, astronomical, electrical, meterological, pneumatic, mechanical, hydraulic and mineralogical instruments.”
Is the drive to write poetry of a visionary and groundbreaking character so different than the zeal to explore uncharted terrain on a more literal level? It is a rage for a purity of experience that can only be had in extreme conditions, circumstances of an intellectual or spiritual character such as the inner journeys of the shaman or the symbolic transmutations of medieval alchemy. The more literal situations involving camels, tripods, and guns offer extremities of experience that inspire philosophies of risk and adrenalin. Well-being is a state that makes people ridiculous and contemptible, and yet we crave and envy it. If we dance in our chains it is because some divine madness has seized our inner being and awakened new life within our bones. Torment is beautiful. It is largely what fuels a life toward its fulfillment. There is life, and the enemies of life: limitation, regulation, boredom. It is this need to triumph over limitation that creates manias of speed and endurance and fills volumes with seering intellectual insight. It is the hatred of constraint that becomes an unappeasable incentive to walk monstrous distances in terrible cold or parching heat. Which makes rockets blast from the ground. Which puts people high in the mountains at elevations so extreme their breathing becomes a labor and the very rocks seem to scream out of the cold indifference of the universe in sharp penetrating silences.
Rimbaud did not, in fact, stop writing. He stopped writing poetry; he stopped writing anything remotely literary. But he did not stop writing.
His writing takes three major forms in his later years: letters home to his mother, sister and brother who he quaintly addresses as “dear friends,” several articles concerning the culture, geography and political conflicts of Abyssinia, and correspondence of a professional nature with other traders, explorers, and entrepreneurs.
“The world is very large and full of magnificent lands that could not be visited in a thousand lifetimes,” Arthur writes to his family from Aden on January 15th, 1885. “But, on the other hand, I do not want to wander in misery, I would like to have some thousand francs a year and be able to pass the year in two or three different countries, in living modestly and in doing a little occasional business to pay for my expenses. But to live forever in the same place, I would always find that extremely unfortunate.” Did he add this later qualification to appeal to his mother’s practical side, or did he feel in his older, later years a certain yearning for creature comforts that he could not quite balance with his zeal for exploration and vagabondage? By 1885, he had endured considerable privations and was understandably weary.
He adds, in a very beautiful French phrase, “Enfin, le plus probable, c’est que l’on va plutôt où l’on veut pas,” “After all, what is most likely, is that one rather goes where one doesn’t want to go.” Rimbaud is always lamenting his circumstances: complaint is a form of singing. He wants freedom, but the very act of breaking with society and its norms has put him at risk for poverty and bondage to whatever employment he can find to put food in his belly and a roof over his head. What is truly remarkable about the previous phrase is the way in which he rhymes ‘va’ with ‘veut.’ It is little linguistic glimmers like this, places where he forgets his hostility toward literature and a tiny bit of his love of language seeps through that reveal a spirit that isn’t really dead at all, but continually dodged, avoided, repressed. He has shoved his more authentic being, his true artistic self, down into some dark recess of his soul where it occasionally manifests during periods of exhilaration or sickness or anger. Times when his emotion gets the better of him and the poet suddenly reemerges. Times of great fatigue and despair when he comes close to realizing that these repeated attempts to attain respectability are a poisonous masquerade.
There is, for instance, a highly revealing letter written to Vice Consul Gaspary from Aden on November 9th, 1887, in which Arthur recounts the whole fiasco of attempting to trade in arms with King Menelik II, an enterprise which had so many things go wrong with it and was so arduous in its undertaking that it seemed cursed from the very beginning. Rimbaud goes into every detail of this debacle, writing with such vigor and colorful phrasing that it becomes all the more evident that the artistry he denied himself and the world was still very much a living entity. It wasn’t dead. It wasn’t sleeping. It was caged, fierce and restless as Rilke’s panther, pacing “in cramped circles, over and over, the movement of his powerful soft strides…like a ritual dance around a center / in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.”
Rimbaud relates how the caravan leader intruded on him just before departing from King Menelik’s court, demanding 400 thalers and using, for his lawyer, “the dreadful bandit Mohammed Abou Béker, enemy of European travelers and traders in Shoa.”
And which proved to be a lie:
But the King, without considering the signature of the Bedouin (for paperwork is nothing at all in Shoa), and knowing that he lied, happened to insult Mohammed, who furiously struggled against me, then sentenced me to only pay a sum of 30 thalers and a Remington rifle: but I paid nothing at all. I later learned that the caravan leader had withdrawn 400 thalers from the Azzaze’s own pocket, which was set aside for payments to the Bedouins, and that he had employed this money in the buying of slaves that he sent with the caravan of M. Savouré, M. Dimitri and M. Brémond, and they all died on the way. So Mohammed ran off to hid in Abba-Djifar, Djimma, where they say he died from dysentery. Thus, a month after my departure, the Azzaze had to reimburse those 400 thalers to the Bedouins - but if I would’ve been there he would’ve told him to pay me.
The confusion of people, arguments, and locations is dizzying, but Rimbaud does a credible job bringing a sense of coherence to it, which reveals a sharp intellect and determined temperament, and the strong emotion driving these words forceful enough to make Rimbaud forget his normal inclinations to write as objectively, factually, and sparingly as possible and allow some panache to enter into his narrative.
This letter, which hadn’t been included in either of three collections of Rimbaud’s writing from this period in my possession but can be found in Rimbaud’s Oeuvres Completes, has been translated by Mark Spitzer and included in his collection From Absinthe To Abyssinia: Selected Miscellaneous, Obscure and Previously Untranslated Works of Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud.
Rimbaud’s article about Abyssinia’s complex political and cultural life and highly varied geography which was published in the August, 1887 edition of the Bosphore égyptien, and written while Rimbaud was visiting Cairo, is more characteristic of Rimbaud’s strange approach to writing in his later years. It is written with surgical precision. It is severely dispassionate and exquisite in its lucidity and factual detail. Rimbaud seems to have assumed that in order to be published in mainstream society one must be as formal as a starched tuxedo, detached as a banker, and literal as a butcher’s block. It’s a good read, informative and clean, but it’s unlikely to stir any creative juices.
That is, unless one’s tastes lean toward the unvarnished, the scrupulous, and the starkly objective.
My response to Rimbaud’s later writing is filled with ambivalence. I’m fascinated by his life in these exotic regions (exotic to me, that is, never having been to the African continent, though having conversed with many a Seattle taxi driver from Ethiopia or Somalia who happened to be quite familiar with Rimbaud’s name), and fascinated also by his ability to write so well while writing not at all. How does one do that? How did he do that? I end up as always frustrated and feeling empty when I come across a brief passage in which there is an image or a play of words faintly similar to what Rimbaud accomplished in the magnificent Illuminations. My expectations rise and I hope there may be more. But there isn’t. What follows is generally a tiring, tedious inventory of coffee, hairbrushes, gum, silk and wool, cretonne and crepe, kitchenware, sugar, rice, sandals, shoes, musk, ornamental oyster shells and ivory. Scissors, fancy buttons, religious artifacts. There is, in its scrupulous detail, an acute sense of thingness, particularly when Rimbaud briefly describes a material, the color of silk, the quality of fabric, the degree of its usefulness and hence market value. As Charles Nichols remarks in Somebody Else, “the urge to specificity is almost obsessive.” Rimbaud’s lists, while basically sober business accounting, do seem to have a funny mania, the fever of the bazaar. This is promising. But the promise falls flat.
One apprehends a mélange of conflicting attitudes in these inventories and letters concerning Rimbaud’s caravans, anxiety about the condition of the goods, their potential to sell, the rates of currency, but also just beneath the surface a caressing voice, a real feeling for the poetry of these things that craves expression at the same time it is being denied expression. For to let any artistry slip into his language is to risk slippage into a Bohemian past that fills him with disgust and shame. He can permit himself specificity, as that pertains to the strict communicability required of the business world, a strictly utilitarian exercise of language, but he cannot go beyond that into a more transcendent domain where the natural metonymy of inventory fuses with a higher, more transcendent tendency toward metaphor, or surrender to a more musical, sensual employment of language than what is called for. There is no superfluity, no fat. His language is all bone and metal. His shirts are shirts, his shoes are shoes. There are no diamonds “sans contrôle,” no “leaps of eccentric harmony,” no “anarchy for the masses” as in the prose poem “Solde.” The ivory, at 374 kilos, is 494 thalers. The civet, at 550 ounces, goes for 93 thalers. That’s it. Take it or leave it.
One passage in particular gave me a thrill: here it is, I thought, at last. Real evidence of the persistence of the Illuminations in Rimbaud’s later writing, accidental thought it may be. This occurs at the beginning of a correspondence with the Swiss engineer Alfred Ilg, an exchange that occurred during Rimbaud’s last years, 1888 – 1891, before dying of cancer in Marseilles, and has to do with the conflict between Italy’s attempt to colonize Abyssinia and the newly emerging empire spearheaded by King Menelik II. Rimbaud describes an early skirmish at Massaouah (now known as Eritrea), in the following fascinating excerpt from Charles Nichol’s Somebody Else:
Your predictions about the Massaouah saga are shared by everyone here. They [the Italians] are going to make a conquest [underlined] of a few volcanic hillocks, scattered as far as 30 kilometres from Massaouah, and join them up with a scrap-metal railway line. Having planted themselves in these hinterlands, they will let loose a few volleys of mortar-fire to scare the vultures, and launch a light aircraft [aèrostat] garlanded with heroic devices. This will soon be over. It will then be time to sell off the last few hundred of the several thousand donkeys and camels they bought, and the timber of the camp-huts, etc., all that shoddy stuff which the military factories toil so proudly to produce.
And then, after this moment of legitimate delirium, what will happen? The charming plain of Massaouah is going to need a lot of people to guard it. This conquest will prove expensive, and will be dangerous to maintain…
Rimbaud’s later writing seems in many ways similar to the arid expanses he covered by camel and mule and the deliberate strides of his manic persistence. A land dotted by date palm, wild olive, mimosa, giant sycamores, junipers and laurels, myrrh and fig, strong growths surviving tremendously harsh conditions, which is one of the great beauties of the desert and rugged mountains, the intensity of things in their persistence to survive - to thrive - amid hostile conditions. What doesn’t enter into Rimbaud’s writings, what he refuses, what he denies, exists almost more powerfully in its very absence. It’s as if the very aridity became poetic, as if the anti-poetic became poetic. The clenched teeth and determined walk in his gold filled money belt. The rhythm of camels on hard salty ground. The jabber of tradesmen smelling samples of musk and chewing khat. The loud clamor of desire in the silence of denial.