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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


Still, I think the legacy of the aesthetics behind this music, and the imagery it provoked, can be heard in the music and lyrics of Jim Morrison and The Doors to this day as their work holds up well under scrutiny so many years after it was created.

On relistening to “LA Woman” and “The End,” for example, one hears electronic music combining with Morrison’s raspy, desperate and eerie voice to create a series of apocalyptic scenarios. Bizarre imagery and Brechtian theatrics are at work and the effect, as Rimbaud envisioned in his poetic, is synethetic: the listener’s senses are attacked and asked to yield and expand. As Morrison revealed in the only book he authored, his artistic purpose was similar to Rimbaud’s in that he wanted to change himself and others: transform personality by means of verbal insight and sensual onslaught; or as Rimbaud wrote, the purpose of poetry was to “change le vie.” Like Rimbaud, Morrison understood that the purpose of poetry, and by extension Rock, lies in it cathartic power as a healing process. Morrison wrote that “the lowest and widest aim [of art]...is for the purgation of perception [for the purpose of] rewinning... the life source from demon possessor.” Morrison, like Rimbaud, was a Dionysian, descending into a phantasmagoria of images that he believed would soothe, heal, and purge in order to “cull a cure from ecstasy, revise the sick, and regain the stolen soul.”


Subsequently, Morrison’s work consists of the same combination of apocalyptic and primitive elements working for purgation that one finds in Rimbaud. In Morrison’s regrettably neglected book of poetry, one finds lyrics such as:

Stare into the parlors of town
where a woman dances
in her European gown
to the real waltzes
this could be fun
to rule a wasteland.

And:

The Negroes in the forest
brightly feathered
They are saying forget the night, live
with us in the forests of
azure.
Free to dissolve in the streaming summer.

The same primitive flooding and shaking of the sense, the same urbane post-apocalyptic savagery, the same tone of elegant desperation appears in Morrison’s work, as it did in Rimbaud’s.

In fact, a century after the French poet, Morrison seemed to have been riding the same wave of disaffection and alienation, and recommending the same “cure by fire” that Rimbaud had known and prescribed. But while Rimbaud’s poetry drove him finally into a stolid and arid mercantile way of life, Morrison was never able to control the deluge of images that accompanied, and perhaps accomplished, his freedom; and eventually he succumbed and drowned, ironically in Paris, while trying to get away from the “Rock scene” and establish himself as a poet.

Despite much stagnation or regression of Rock since, I think it is arguable that Rock music reached it high-water mark aesthetically just before and after Morrison’s era in the early 1970s; and that Morrison was one of the leaders in Rock’s breakthrough toward rearranging the senses. The use of synesthesia indicated both alienation and search for new expressions of experience in a highly volatile era.

The second aspect of Rimbaud’s poetic-his alienation from and animosity toward conventional language-foreshadowed a tendency of modern writers to disinherit the land of their time. Many modern American artists see, along with Rimbaud, that there can be an ideology contained within language that appropriates subjective experience into prefabricated units of meaning. Such standardized language accompanies sterile closed-mindedness that reduces language to formula and enslaves people by discouraging their own free expression of personal experience and feelings. This recognition, seen a century earlier by Rimbaud, is resonant in modern American poetry; and an excellent example of this tendency is exhibited the American poet Tom Clark.

Clark, in keeping with the attitude of literary modernism, takes the stance of an antagonist who stands off to the side of society, intoning in a voice that invokes the Biblical prophets as often as the shrill spleenful cry of the French. In one poem he represents himself as a sort of cultural gadfly, a self-proclaimed “pain in the ass” with all the charm and ability to please as “your average Sudanese mercenary killer” and yet, strangely, as morally vigilant as an Isaiah or Ezra Pound.

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