Mention his name and the Carjat photograph showing that oval face with the shock of dark hair, the faraway look and the wilful, almost sulky mouth springs instantly to mind. Paul Verlaine, with the gaze of a lover, found a "kind of sweetness" that "glimmered and smiled in those cruel, pale-blue eyes and on those powerful red lips with their acrimonious curl". Carjat himself, who suffered physical injury at his hands, came to call Rimbaud "that little toad". This view of Rimbaud as a satanic angel has perpetuated his legend. The extreme ambiguity of both his nature and his work guarantees that his image will be stencilled on walls, along with some of his gnomic utterances, for as long as a spirit of revolt remains alive.
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Shelves: literary-biography I must state at the outset that my comments here do not constitute a review of Graham Robbs biography of Rimbaud not in any strict sense that I know, not entirely, that is.
I, for one, am unable to form any conception of another life that might approach a clear and accurate approximation of past reality by grappling with only one biography.
The reasons are many, and I need not recount them here. Regarding Arthur Rimbaud — my confection. AR was, of course, a highly intelligent, imaginative and verbally gifted individual, who was born to parents of the worst possible sort — his father an absence, his mother - grasping, avaricious, narrow, mean-spirited, bigoted, cracker filth of the lowest order, a joyfully sadistic killer of souls.
And how does he cope? How does he manage to forefend soul-murder and save a vestige of himself for another day? First he uses his considerable powers of observation, which extreme necessity renders even more acute, to take the measure of the very dangerous world he inhabits, which he knows is fixed and settled, a world he is utterly powerless to alter or amend. And in his early years he learns that in his very dangerous world the self is vulnerable to extermination, extinction — in every imaginable way.
And in such a world how does one survive? By hypocrisy, lies, cunning — always. But cunning is multiform. As a child, AR — like Margret Fuller — went into hiding, in compartments. In one persona he becomes an outwardly compliant little boy, an altogether brilliant student, etc. He cultivates his verbal gifts, which he deployed with genius. He also develops an inviolate private sphere of the mind. He also cultivated boundless rage, which he employed, when he could a bit later in life, in order to destroy all convention, all constraints to the self.
Every threat — a target, which he engaged relentlessly, unremittingly, without concern for consequences and without remorse. Every form of extreme behavior he ever enacted is also a precise reflection and measure of the abuse he endured. And so he lives a life devoted to preservation of a vulnerable and fragile self, whom he is always already at the point of loosing. But this loss is also multiform.
But then, over time, life in extremis, at least of this particular life in extremis, becomes familiar, known — rather tedious, boring, and well, conventional in its own way.
Life that at first enacted a sense of the authentic self becomes conventional, scripted, a litany, and a threat. A threatening sense of self under siege, now under attack from another quadrant, builds. It may well be that only persons who have been the targets of sadistic killers of souls can grasp the blinding terror and rage that such circumstances evoke.
In any case, it is terrible and leads one to desperate responses. And so AR jettisons entirely whatever past his current way of life has accumulated — to the point of loosing memory of it. And the cycle returns — and returns. In the end, AR becomes his mother in certain ways — a rather grasping, cunning trader and coffee merchant in Africa.
But with this telling and vital difference — he is well known for his eager assimilation into the cultures and societies he inhabits; he is continually and unstintingly generous to those at the edges of survival. They did not need to solicit anything.
AR sees, observes, understands and gives open-handedly. And then he dies. What evidence allows one to present such a conclusion? To what evidentiary standard does that evidence rise? He seems content with rather vague notions. I am not. It also seems to me that one might see him working out this project in three different phases of his life.
This focus on himself at this stage was inseparable from self-preservation into adolescence and adulthood. And I also think that he must have realized that, in parent-child relationships of the kind he survived, power shifts from the parent to the child over time - a little bit every day - as both the parent and the child age.
Then comes the second phase, when AR had come to realize that he had the power to smash his compartmented life. And of course, his assessments were correct. Just not worth the bother. At some point in his late adolescence he enters a third phase of his life - most effectively presented in Nicholls, "Somebody Else". In this phase, he tires of all this smashing of convention and constraint. He realizes that there is much more in him than he had already discovered.
Then he came to need an understanding of the circumstances under which life would become hard for him, really, really hard, as hard as any he could survive. Was there in him the stuff of survival under the harshest conditions that he could contrive to encounter?
Perhaps this need was instinctual by that point in his life. And then he devoted the years remaining to him and all his extraordinary energy, vitality and altogether towering, preternatural, strength of will, to discovering exactly what he was made of.
And then he died - in bed - from cancer of the bone, it appears.
The infernal bridegroom
Rimbaud: A Biography