Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud

Henry Miller


  A Study of Rimbaud


  A New Directions Paperbook



  Part I: Analogies, Affinities, Correspondences and Repercussions

  Part II: When Do Angels Cease to Resemble Themselves?


  Other Titles


  P R E F A C E

  It was just a hundred years ago last October that Rimbaud was born. In France the centenary was celebrated in spectacular fashion. Celebrated writers the world over were invited to make the pilgrimage to Charleville, his birthplace. The festivities were in the nature of a national event. As for Rimbaud, he probably turned over in his grave.

  Since his death portions of Rimbaud’s voluminous work have been translated into many languages, among them Turkish and Bengali. Wherever there is still feeling for poetry and high adventure his name is a byword. In recent years the cult of Rimbaldiens has grown to amazing proportions and the literature devoted to his life and work increases by leaps and bounds. No other poet of modern times can be said to receive the same attention or consideration.

  Aside from A Season in Hell and the Illuminations, only a small number of his poems have found their way into our language. Even these few translations reveal a wide and inevitable variety of interpretation. Yet however difficult and unseizable his style and thought may be, Rimbaud is not untranslatable. To do his work justice is another matter. In English we have yet to produce a poet who is able to do for Rimbaud what Baudelaire did for Poe’s verse, or Nerval for Faust, or Morel and Larbaud for Ulysses.

  I should like to make it clear that this little study, written ten years ago, is the outcome of a failure to translate, in the fashion intended, A Season in Hell. I still nourish the hope of rendering this text in a language more proximate to Rimbaud’s own “nigger” tongue. The authors of Really the Blues, or a man like Lord Buckley,* are closer to Rimbaud, though they may not be aware of it, than the poets who have worshipped and imitated him.

  What Rimbaud did for language, and not merely for poetry, is only beginning to be understood. And this more by readers than by writers, I feel. At least, in our country. Nearly all the modern French poets have been influenced by him. Indeed, one might say that contemporary French poetry owes everything to Rimbaud. Thus far, however, none have gone beyond him—in daring or invention. The only living poet who is able to give me anything approaching the pleasure and excitement of Rimbaud is St. John Perse. (His Vents, curiously enough, was translated by Hugh Chisholm here at Big Sur.)

  The text herein reprinted originally appeared in two parts in the New Directions annual volumes, Nos. 9 and 11. Since then it has come out in French and in German, both editions published in Switzerland,* a country one is least apt to associate with Rimbaud’s genius. In this publication the order of the two sections has been reversed. I ought perhaps to add that I had originally intended to write two more parts; I have since abandoned that idea.

  It is my sincere belief that America needs to become acquainted with this legendary figure now more than ever. (The same is true of another extraordinary French poet who committed suicide a hundred years ago last January; Gérard de Nerval.) Never was there a time when the existence of the poet was more menaced than today. The American species, indeed, is in danger of being extinguished altogether.

  When Kenneth Rexroth heard of the untimely death of Dylan Thomas he dashed off a “Memorial” called Thou Shalt Not Kill.* Written at white heat, and not intended for publication, it was nevertheless promptly circulated and translated into a number of languages. If one has any doubts about the fate which our society reserves for the poet, let him read this “Memorial” to the Welsh poet who wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.

  The status and condition of the poet—I use the word in the large as well as the strict sense—unquestionably reveal the true state of a people’s vitality. China, Japan, India, Africa, primitive Africa, here poetry is still ineradicable. What we obviously lack in this country, what we are not even aware that we lack, is the dreamer, the inspired madman. With what ghoulish glee, when it comes time to shovel him under, do we focus attention upon the “maladaptation” of the lone individual, the only true rebel in a rotten society! Yet it is these very figures who give significance to that abused term “maladaptation.”

  In an article on “Baudelaire politique” in Beaux-Arts, January 25, 1955, Maurice Nadeau writes thus: “Dans Mon Cœur mis à nu il veut ‘faire sentir sans cesse (qu’il se sent) étranger au monde et à ses cultes.’ C’est le monde de la bourgeoisie dont ‘la morale de comptoir’ lui ‘fait horreur,’ ‘un monde goulu, affamé de matérialités,’ infatué de lui-même et qui ne s’aperçoit pas qu’il est entré en décadence, un monde que dans une singulière prophétie il voit de plus en plus ‘américanisé,’ ‘voué a l’animalité,’ ‘où tout ce qui ne sera pas l’ardeur vers Plutus sera reputé un immense ridicule.’”

  The impressive thing about the leading poets of the nineteenth century, and the twentieth as well, is their prophetic strain. Unlike Blake and Whitman, whose work is saturated with the ecstasy of a cosmic vision, our latter day poets dwell in the depths of a black forest. The spell of the millennium which obsessed such visionaries as Joachim of Floris, Hieronymus Bosch, Pico della Mirandola, and which today is tantalizingly more imminent than ever before, has been replaced by the thrall of utter annihilation. In the whirlpool of coming darkness and chaos—a veritable tohu-bohu—the poets of today are withdrawing, embalming themselves in a cryptic language which grows ever more and more unintelligible. And as they black out one by one, the countries which gave them birth plunge resolutely toward their doom.

  The work of assassination, for such it is, will soon reach its end. As the voice of the poet becomes stifled, history loses its meaning and the eschatological promise bursts like a new and frightening dawn upon the consciousness of man. Only now, at the edge of the precipice, is it possible to realize that “everything we are taught is false.” The proof of this devastating utterance is demonstrable every day in every realm: on the battlefield, in the laboratory, in the factory, in the press, in the school, in the church. We live entirely in the past, nourished by dead thoughts, dead creeds, dead sciences. And it is the past which is engulfing us, not the future. The future always has and always will belong to—the poet.

  Perhaps in fleeing from the world, Rimbaud preserved his soul from a fate worse than that which was allotted to him in Abyssinia. Perhaps La Chasse Spirituelle, if it is ever unearthed, will provide a clue now missing. Perhaps—who knows?—it will give us the link betwen A Season in Hell and that “Christmas on earth” which was once a reality to the adolescent dreamer.

  In the symbolic language of the soul Rimbaud described all that is now happening. In my opinion, there is no discrepancy between his vision of the world, and of life eternal, and that of the great religious innovators. Over and over again we have been exhorted to create a new vision of heaven and earth, to begin afresh, to let the dead bury the dead, to live as brothers in the flesh, to make Christmas on earth a reality. And repeatedly we have been warned that unless the desire for a new life becomes a living conviction for each and every one of us, earthly existence can never be more than a Purgatory or a Hell. The one and only question which faces us is—how long can we postpone the inevitable?

  When we reflect that it was a mere boy who shook the world by the ears, what are we to say? Is there not something just as miraculous about Rimbaud’s appearance on this earth as there was in the awakening of Gautama, or in Christ’s acceptance of the Cro
ss, or in Joan of Arc’s incredible mission of deliverance? Interpret his work as you like, explain his life as you will, still there is no living him down. The future is all his, even though there be no future.


  Big Sur, California


  P A R T I

  Analogies, Affinities, Correspondences and Repercussions

  It was in 1927, in the sunken basement of a dingy house in Brooklyn, that I first heard Rimbaud’s name mentioned. I was then 36 years old and in the depths of my own protracted Season in Hell. An absorbing book about Rimbaud was lying about the house but I never once glanced at it. The reason was that I loathed the woman who owned it and who was then living with us. In looks, temperament and behavior she was, as I later discovered, as near to resembling Rimbaud as it is possible to imagine.

  As I say, though Rimbaud was the all engrossing topic of conversation between Thelma and my wife, I made no effort to know him. In fact, I fought like the very devil to put him out of my mind; it seemed to me then that he was the evil genius who had unwittingly inspired all my trouble and misery. I saw that Thelma, whom I despised, had identified herself with him, was imitating him as best she could, not only in her behavior but in the kind of verse she wrote. Everything conspired to make me repudiate his name, his influence, his very existence. I was then at the very lowest point of my whole career, my morale was completely shattered. I remember sitting in the cold dank basement trying to write by the light of a flickering candle with a pencil. I was trying to write a play depicting my own tragedy. I never succeeded in getting beyond the first act.

  In that state of despair and sterility I was naturally highly sceptical of the genius of a seventeen-year-old poet. All that I heard about him sounded like an invention of crazy Thelma’s. I was then capable of believing that she could conjure up subtle torments with which to plague me, since she hated me as much as I did her. The life which the three of us were leading, and which I tell about at length in The Rosy Crucifixion, was like an episode in one of Dostoievsky’s tales. It seems unreal and incredible to me now.

  The point is, however, that Rimbaud’s name stuck. Though I was not even to glance at his work until six or seven years later, at the home of Anais Nin in Louveciennes, his presence was always with me. It was a disturbing presence, too. “Some day you will have to come to grips with me.” That’s what his voice kept repeating in my ears. The day I read the first line of Rimbaud I suddenly remembered that it was of Le Bateau Ivre that Thelma had raved so much. The Drunken Boat! How expressive that title now seems in the light of all I subsequently experienced! Thelma meanwhile died in an insane asylum. And if I had not gone to Paris, begun to work there in earnest, I think my fate would have been the same. In that basement on Brooklyn Heights my own ship had foundered. When finally the keel burst asunder and I drifted out to the open sea, I realized that I was free, that the death I had gone through had liberated me.

  If that period in Brooklyn represented my Season in Hell, then the Paris period, especially from 1932 to 1934, was the period of my Illuminations.

  Coming upon Rimbaud’s work at this time, when I had never been so fecund, so jubiliant, so exalted, I had to push him aside, my own creations were more important to me. A mere glance at his writings and I knew what lay in store for me. He was pure dynamite, but I had first to fling my own stick. At this time I did not know anything about his life, except from the snatches Thelma had let drop years ago. I had yet to read a line of biography. It was in 1943, while living at Beverly Glen with John Dudley, the painter, that I first read about Rimbaud. I read Jean-Marie Carré’s A Season in Hell and then Enid Starkie’s work. I was overwhelmed, tongue-tied. It seemed to me that I had never read of a more accursed existence than Rimbaud’s. I forgot completely about my own sufferings, which far outweighed his. I forgot about the frustrations and humiliations I had endured, the depths of despair and impotence to which I had sunk time and again. Like Thelma in the old days, I too could talk of nothing but Rimbaud. Everybody who came to the house had to listen to the song of Rimbaud.

  It is only now, eighteen years after I first heard the name, that I am able to see him clearly, to read him like a clairvoyant. Now I know how great was his contribution, how terrible his tribulations. Now I understand the significance of his life and work—as much, that is, as one can say he understands the life and work of another. But what I see most clearly is how I miraculously escaped suffering the same vile fate.

  Rimbaud experienced his great crisis when he was eighteen, at which moment in his life he had reached the edge of madness; from this point on his life is an unending desert. I reached mine at the age of thirty-six to thirty-seven, which is the age at which Rimbaud dies. From this point on my life begins to blossom. Rimbaud turned from literature to life; I did the reverse. Rimbaud fled from the chimeras he had created; I embraced them. Sobered by the folly and waste of mere experience of life, I halted and converted my energies to creation. I plunged into writing with the same fervor and zest that I had plunged into life. Instead of losing life, I gained life; miracle after miracle occurred, every misfortune being transformed to good account. Rimbaud, though plunging into a realm of incredible climates and landscapes, into a world of phantasy as strange and marvelous as his poems, became more and more bitter, taciturn, empty and sorrowful.

  Rimbaud restored literature to life; I have endeavored to restore life to literature. In both of us the confessional quality is strong, the moral and spiritual preoccupation uppermost. The flair for language, for music rather than literature, is another trait in common. With him I have felt an underlying primitive nature which manifests itself in strange ways. Claudel styled Rimbaud “a mystic in the wild state.” Nothing could describe him better. He did not “belong”—not anywhere. I have always had the same feeling about myself. The parallels are endless. I shall go into them in some detail, because in reading the biographies and the letters I saw these correspondences so clearly that I could not resist making note of them. I do not think I am unique in this respect; I think there are many Rimbauds in this world and that their number will increase with time. I think the Rimbaud type will displace, in the world to come, the Hamlet type and the Faustian type. The trend is toward a deeper split. Until the old world dies out utterly, the “abnormal” individual will tend more and more to become the norm. The new man will find himself only when the warfare between the collectivity and the individual ceases. Then we shall see the human type in its fullness and splendor.

  To get the full import of Rimbaud’s Season in Hell, which lasted eighteen years, one has to read his letters. Most of this time was spent on the Somali Coast, in Aden a number of years. Here is a description of this hell on earth, from a letter to his mother:

  “You cannot imagine the place: not a tree, even a withered one, not a sod of earth. Aden is the crater of an extinct volcano filled up with the sand of the sea. You only see lava and sand everywhere which cannot produce the slightest vegetation. It is surrounded by desert sands. Here the sides of the crater of our extinct volcano prevent the air from coming in and we are roasted as if in a lime-kiln.”

  How did a man of genius, a man of great energies, great resources, manage to coop himself up, to roast and squirm, in such a miserable hole? Here was a man for whom a thousand lives were not sufficient to explore the wonders of the earth, a man who broke with friends and relatives at an early age in order to experience life in its fullness, yet year after year we find him marooned in this hell-hole. How do you explain it? We know, of course, that he was straining at the leash all the time, that he was revolving countless schemes and projects to liberate himself, and liberate himself not only from Aden but from the whole world of sweat and struggle. Adventurer that he was, Rimbaud was nevertheless obsessed with the idea of attaining freedom, which he translated into terms of financial security. At the age of twenty-eight he writes home that the most important, the most urgent, thing for him is to become independent, no matter where.
What he omitted to add was, and no matter how. He is a curious mixture of audacity and timidity. He has the courage to venture where no other white man has ever set foot, but he has not the courage to face life without a permanent income. He does not fear cannibals, but he fears his own white brethren. Though he is trying to amass a comfortable fortune, with which he can travel the globe leisurely and comfortably, or settle down somewhere should he find the right spot, he is still the poet and dreamer, the man who is unadapted to life, the man who believes in miracles, the man who is looking for Paradise in one form or another. At first he thinks that fifty thousand francs will be sufficient to secure him for life, but when he almost succeeds in accumulating this sum he decides that a hundred thousand would be safer. Those forty thousand francs! What a miserable, horrible time he has, carrying this nest egg about with him! It is practically his undoing. When they carry him down from Harar to the coast in a litter—a journey, incidentally, comparable to the Calvary—his thoughts are frequently on the gold in his belt. Even at the hospital in Marseilles, where his leg is amputated, he is plagued with this nest egg. If it is not the pain which keeps him awake nights it is the thought of the money which he has on him, which he has to hide so that it will not be stolen from him. He would like to put it in a bank, but how is he to get to a bank when he can’t walk? He writes home begging some one to come and take care of his precious treasure. There is something so tragic and so farcical about this that one does not know what to say or think any more.

  But what was at the root of this mania for security? The fear which every creative artist knows: that he is unwanted, that he is of no use in the world. How often in his letters does Rimbaud speak of being unfit to return to France and resume the life of the ordinary citizen. I have no trade, no profession, no friends there, he says. As do all poets, he sees the civilized world as the jungle; he does not know how to protect himself in it. Sometimes he adds that it is too late to think of returning—he is always speaking as though he were an old man!—he is too used to the free, wild, adventurous life to ever go back into harness again. The thing he had always loathed was honest toil, but in Africa, Cyprus, Arabia, he toils like a nigger, depriving himself of everything, even coffee and tobacco, wearing a cotton shift year in and year out, putting aside every sou he makes, in the hope of one day buying his freedom. Even had he succeeded, we know he would never have felt free, never have been happy, never have thrown off the yoke of boredom. From the recklessness of youth he swerved to the cautiousness of old age. He was so utterly the outcast, the rebel, the accursed one, that nothing could save him.