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The French Connection: Tracking Rimbaud’s Influence, By Ronald S. Kostar, Ills. by Dierdre Sheean, Photography by Ryan GallagherGo Back to Table of Contents
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Illustrations by: Deirdre Sheean
Photography by: Ryan Gallagher

The French have a special room in their Hotel de Coutoure for malcontents. Since Francois Villon, the first French poet and himself a convicted criminal, French culture has endured, and in all likelihood, been spurred along by, the noxious gases of its angry young men. Grumbling and cursing, spitting on the fine salmon-pink marble floor, are the likes of Baudelaire, Lautremont, Jarry, Artaud, and Rimbaud. Each keeps a respectful distance from the others, and all keep an even more than respectful distance from the latest newcomer, Celine, whom they all fear and secretly despise for having outdistanced them in their spleenful art. Otherwise, like the molecules in a cloud of green bacteria, they seem to get along fine, hating each other; and they are singularly delighted whenever one of their kind stalks into the hallway and insults the more proper guests.

Though strong enough to propel its own literature, the obnoxious influence pouring from this room is pure poison by the time it drifts over to the Americas. Most of the ideas and attitudes therein strike Americans as abhorrent: the harsh treatment of anything bodily with a reoccurring theme of disgust, are they not, for most Americans, a distasteful and very expendable relic of medieval Christianity? And what are we to make of their lack of sentiment that at times degenerates into overt cruelty, and their biting skepticism of anything that is not otherworldly. Cruelty, sadomasochism, fetishism, Neoplatonism, even Futurism - what could be further from the pragmatic instincts of most Americans, or from the concerns of American culture?

And yet, American poets and the artists of underground, and even popular, culture have responded to the discordant tones of these French poets.

One of these poets, Arthur Rimbaud, has impressed many American artists as being especially suited to the needs of modern culture. What is it that made Rimbaud, the enfant terrible of 19th Century French letters, whose meteoric writing career ended with his disappearance into Africa and his subsequent emergence shortly before his death, a powerful influence on contemporary culture?

The most enduring image of Rimbaud is of a brilliant, belligerent adolescent, lying in a park in his hometown of Charleville, indulging freely and excessively in the ecstasies of summer, alcohol and drugs.

During the summer of 1871 , when he was in full bloom poetically, Rimbaud’s anguish is the result of a series of severances from his family and culture. He is cut off from: (1) his family by a witch of a mother; (2) his fellow Frenchmen by occupying German soldiers fighting a war with France; (3) French poetic tradition and politics, since he had sided with the rebels in the Revolution of 1871 and spoken out bitterly against the poets of the day; and (4) by these fellow rebels, who physically abused him when he had taken up residence with them in their stockades.

From this point, Rimbaud went on to exacerbate his disaffection by further insulting the established poets of Paris, whom he had wanted very badly to impress; driving Verlaine, the one poet he respected and, by all indications, loved, to a point of despair until Verlaine eventually shot and wounded him. Rimbaud then stalked out on nearly 25 years of brutal traveling, mostly overland and on foot, around Europe and into Africa.

While living alone in Ethiopia, Rimbaud explored places where no European had been, gradually settling into the harsh, stoic mercantile life of a trader of, among other things, guns and men. He wrote no poetry during the last 19 years of his life and even his death in Marseille at the age of 37 seems to have been more miserable than most.

What many American artists, especially those coming of age in the 1960s, found appealing in Rimbaud was his radically disaffected attitude towards his society. Novelists, such as Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, have immortalized Rimbaud’s as a disaffected visionary, an image that has been celebrated and emulated by many writers and artists. The image alone, however, does not explain Rimbaud’s extraordinary appeal to modern artists. Fortunately, a record of his poetics remains and can be studied in order to trace his sphere of influence.

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