Exploring Depths of Experience in Arts, Letters, Science and Ideas
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

Behind the pose of aesthetic rebel, and the rebellious unorthodox life style of the dispossessed, one can also attribute to Rimbaud a truly original approach to interpreting sensual experience that envisioned and actually invented an alternative reality.

The most striking qualities of Rimbaud’s poetry are his extreme alienation from the social order of his time, resulting in a disillusionment with conventional language, and his unique portrayal of the senses as endowed with extra-perceptual possibilities that are capable of revealing new horizons of experience.

In a letter written to a friend, Rimbaud called this poetic the dereglement les senses; which is perhaps best translated as the rearranging of the senses with an emphasis on liberating their potential. (Synesthesia, “a mixing of the senses and sensation” is the English equivalent.) He saw his purpose as one of returning to poetry the immediacy of experience, intensified and enriched by a confusing and intermingling of different sensations. Rimbaud believed that this poetic would enable him to see and do miraculous, indeed magical, things such as see colors in the vowels, release fragrances, and pull remarkable visions from the commonplace events. As his early poems would show, and a prematurely-jaded Rimbaud would regret, by means of this method his life became “a fantastic opera,” and his poetry a kind of alchemy that transformed the poet himself into a “thief of fire.” Yet as we look at these visions today, many seem remarkable contemporary and others, futuristic and apocalyptic.

The Illuminations, for instance, contains colorful modern cities where remarkable events take place. Tenderness and love, which Rimbaud thought improbable in his personal life, are possible in these settings; as are heroism, song, freedom of thought, and movement. These cities are also apocalyptic, rising from the ruins of a collapsed culture. Yet Rimbaud revitalizes the Christian vision of a resurrected city, the New Jerusalem of Revelations, by primitivizing it and populating it with fierce images that combine pagan and technological elements. In the process, he created the image of savage cities:

Unknown music vibrates in towering
castles of bone
All legend evolves, and excitement
rushes through the streets.
A paradise of whirlwinds melts away.
Savage dance,
dancing the Triumph of Night
And once I went down into the tumult of Baghdad
in a boulevard, where companies
shouted the joys of new labor
into thick air, restlessly moving
but never escaping those phantoms come down
from the heights from where we were to
have met.
What strong arms, what shining hour
will bring me back this country,
the source of my repose,
moving the least of my movements?

Urban apocalyptic visions are nothing new, and indeed reach back to the Bible, but savage futurism is, as far as I know, a creation of Rimbaud; and here one finds the first relevance of Rimbaud’s imagery in our time and culture.

The imagery of similar cities has become nearly a standard motif in American art, and is most vividly portrayed in many American movies. The image of savagery in a highly-technological environment has become a common as an evening news report of urban street gangs roaming in the jungles of urban America; and in the context of such a highly-technological, yet primitive, civilization, modern artists have rediscovered Rimbaud’s alchemy of sensual confusion that rearranges the senses and brings reality to the point of a hallucinogenic experience.

Poetic synesthesia finds, as well, a counterpart in contemporary music, where Rimbaud’s imagery pops up in the concerting of chaos that appeared when American Rock’n’Roll was wedded to the early rock-cabaret movements of San Francisco.

During the early and mid 1960s, Rock’n’Roll artists brought popular music to a higher, more serious level by experimenting with electronic gadgetry. Technologized American hippies were by all indications the first to believe in and exploit the artistic powers of technology to disconcert the senses. Musicians rejected the simplistic and lethargic lyrics of earlier innocuous popular music and searched for resonance in whining feedback, supercharged electronic amplifiers, and apocalyptic lyrics.

Suddenly, the use of technology made Rimbaud’s dereglement les sense a very palpable and immediate experience. This new expression was accompanied by a renewed enthusiasm of primitive revel, set in the futuristic ambiance of light shows, strobe effects, forms, amplified colors and strange perfumes. What has happed to Rock’n’Roll since then, sadly, parallels what happened to Rimbaud: after an initial apocalyptic breakthrough, the music and the culture, with few exceptions, abandoned experimentation and returned to commercial conventionality, winding back down to the occasional anomaly of Heavy Metal or Punk that mistakes an oral or visual effect for content. Experimentation in much of Rock’n’Roll died like Rimbaud, with little critical attention or acclaim.

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