Arthur Rimbaud: The Third Man

Arthur Rimbaud: The Third Man

The enigmatic trio of the Place Vendome. The ‘third man’ stands closest to the camera, smiling.

Positive choreography

In Bruno Braquehais’ group-portrait most probably showing Arthur Rimbaud in the Place Vendome the poet is the psychological focus of the plinth-group. An inverted triangle comprises the poet himself, his friend from the 88th regiment (who places his left hand on Rimbaud’s left shoulder in a cordial and protective gesture) and a third man who stands in the foreground almost like a herald. I’d now like to examine the identity of this last figure.

The third man is the nearest person to the camera, which works to his advantage because in this position his height is amplified by his proximity. In fact we don’t realize how small he really is because of this clever photographic positioning. (The placement of this individual contributes to the argument for a completely choreographed ensemble where selected characters are represented in symbolic poses. Note also how the middle-distance group of Communards are distributed in geometric symmetry, strung like beads on the guard-rope which defines the central third of the composition. A triangle touching both ends of this rope will have its apex exactly in the centre of the photograph, while its two lower points neatly bisect the lower corners. This layout of this image has been proportioned for visual harmony.)

The third man thrusts himself importantly into the foreground yet at the same time he seems to make it clear that he doesn’t consider himself worthy of standing on the plinth. His kindly and intelligent face wears a slightly bashful expression. This individual seems to say he’s proud to be near Arthur Rimbaud but we note that he consciously places himself so as to obscure only the giant while leaving the visual path to the poet clear. By his act of stepping-aside our view of Rimbaud is absolutely unimpeded. (One more argument for careful choreography.)

Bruno Braquehais’ main image of the demolition of Napoleon’s column in the Place Vendome.

A man of Napoleonic stature

The third man smiles quite broadly but a heavy moustache blocks this expression. (He looks a bit too genial for a soldier.) While Rimbaud holds his rifle correctly by the butt, shouldering it menacingly – ready-for-action – this man rests his rifle more casually on the ground. This fusil – with bayonet affixed – is almost as tall as its diminutive bearer. We notice a white collar at the third man’s neck; also a watch-chain half-way down his chest: both these suggest some kind of military bureaucrat. We note too that he carries no ammunition, unlike the poet who slings his cartridges to his left in a small lightweight metal case, well out of the way yet easily accessible on his hip. The fact that the third man carries no live ammunition could denote an administrative role in the Communard military structure.

So who is this third man in the plinth-group? I want to suggest that this person who steps forward so authoritatively towards the camera – as if to say ‘I created all this!’ – is the man who actually signed the bureaucratic order which triggered the demolition of the Vendome Column. I want to speculate – more recklessly than any banker – that this small stocky figure with the genial expression and the bushy moustache is none other than Jules Andrieu. Who? (Even some Rimbaud fanatics have never heard of Jules Andrieu.) If I am correct in this surmise then another significant link has been found which makes the identification of the boy-soldier as Arthur Rimbaud much more probable.

Jules Andrieu. In the studio portrait (left) it is important to note that lighting and camera-angle have flatteringly hidden the prominent and chubby cheeks which are so much a feature of the Place Vendome shot. We are also looking at a younger Andrieu in the studio-portrait. (He appears here to be about twenty-five or so, whereas during the Commune he is thirty-three.)

Jules Andrieu’s photograph of the Place Vendome, post-demolition. Andrieu’s Parisian sequence Disasters of War is a photojournalistic masterpiece, like Braquehais’ Paris During the Commune. It is highly likely that the two photographers – working in a new and very specialized field – knew eachother professionally and even socially.

A polymath and an autodidact

Jules Louis Andrieu was born in Paris in 1838 and he died in exile aged only 46 in Jersey. He is usually described as a ‘short, shaggy-haired man’ who ‘smiles easily’. (We have two portraits of Andrieu and he smiles in both of them, unusual facial language for the time.) Jules Andrieu was something of a polymath and an autodidact (like Rimbaud himself). A poet, a linguist, a teacher, an occultist and a civil-servant, he was also a prolific author and a photographer. Before the Commune he worked for the Paris Prefecture in a fairly subordinate position in the municipal administration. Yet in his spare time he gave free lessons in secondary education to working-class Parisians, openhandedly sharing his passion for poetry, history and philosophy. In 1860 he published Palmistry: a Study of the Hand, Skull and Face. Six years later his History of the Middle Ages appeared. In 1867 followed Philosophy and Ethics. At some point during this period, as a habitue of the poetry cafes of the Latin Quarter, Andrieu met and became friends with Paul Verlaine.

Now, in 1871, the Commune’s utopian reverie begins, and Andrieu, with his altruistic curriculum vitae, is immediately appointed chief of staff of the Hôtel de Ville de Paris. Now he rubs shoulders daily with Verlaine who is elected head of the press bureau of the Central Committee. But it is Andrieu, and not Verlaine, who becomes what Graham Robb describes as ‘ringmaster of the republican Parnassians’. (The ‘Parnassians’ were a post-romantic, pre-symbolist poetry movement probably started by Theophile Gautier. De Banville, Mallarme and Verlaine all belonged to this group which was mercilessly swept away by Rimbaud.) Robb describes Andrieu as ‘an encourager and facilitator’. Robb also expresses the interesting opinion that Jules Andrieu’s poetry is valuable and worth reading. (At this point I have not read him myself and so cannot comment, but Robb’s bibliography mentions two collections both of which will have to be explored, both aesthetically and forensically.)

We know that later, in London, Andrieu and Rimbaud will become extremely close, so close that Verlaine will have an episode of jealous rage about their intimacy. (Andrieu’s contemporaries all hint at his homosexuality.) We also have Delahaye’s testimony that in exile Andrieu becomes Rimbaud’s ‘favourite intellectual brother’. In London, these two banished poets discover that they have much in common, sharing not only the craft of making poems but a fascination with mysticism, folklore and alternative history. In fact, as evidence of the closeness between Rimbaud and Andrieu, as proof of how long their friendship endures, we have the recently-discovered ‘Splendid History’ document, turned up among family-papers by the great-grandson of Andrieu, Alain Rochereau. This is a letter from Rimbaud to Andrieu written on the 16th of April 1874. It is addressed from 30 Argyle Square in London’s Kings Cross St Pancras district. (This is the small hotel where Rimbaud’s mother and sister stayed with him for several weeks while he attempted – rather half-heartedly – to find work in England, still effectively an exile, still unable to return to France.) In the ‘Splendid History’ letter Rimbaud sets out a plan for a visionary and alternative historical text which the poet hopes Andrieu is going to help him publish. (I intend to look at this extraordinary letter in detail in a future essay.) From the dating of this correspondence we know that Rimbaud’s friendship with Jules Andrieu lasted long after the ‘London pilgrimage’ period. While Rimbaud was writing his ‘Splendid History’ letter in Kings Cross St Pancras in 1874, Verlaine was languishing in a Belgian prison cell looking back to 1873 and the crisis in Camden Town. (In fact Argyle Square is only a ten minute walk from Great College Street, where the Infernal Bridegroom and the Foolish Virgin descended into the relational insanity delineated in A Season in Hell.)

The point that I am trying to make here is that contact between Rimbaud and Andrieu – however glancing – might just have been initiated during the seven weeks of the Paris Commune. And it is possible that if that such contact was made Rimbaud might have referred to it in his first letter to Verlaine, the text of which has been almost completely lost, destroyed by Verlaine’s wife Mathilde. We have only fragments of this crucial first letter, so we don’t know exactly what connections Rimbaud used in reaching out to the famous Parnassian. But the tone of his letter is warm, intimate and autobiographical, very different in style to a letter previously written to Banville. It is just possible that Rimbaud – knowing that Andrieu was close to Verlaine –  might have mentioned some (even anonymous) contact made during the Commune (when most aritsts making political statements used pseudonyms). 

These are necessarily tentative speculations, but how could contact with Jules Andrieu have actually happened?

Jules Andrieu in a second studio portrait (left). Once again clever lighting and camera-angle have hidden the chubby cheeks which are so much a feature of the Place Vendome shot. Both studio portraits would seem to be taken at least eight years before the Communard group-portrait in the Place Vendome.

Hands full of horsepower

It is not difficult to imagine a man like Jules Andrieu spending a lot of time in the poetry cafes of the Latin Quarter. As a man of influence under the new pre-socialist regime his project is to cast a cultural dragnet through the literary underground of Paris hoping to discover some new voice which truly articulates ‘the resurrectionary mythology of the Commune’ (Graham Robb’s phrase.) We can easily suppose that in one of these atmospheric smoke-filled dives he witnesses a young hoodlum called Jean Baudry – or is it Alcide Bava? – reciting the most inflammable verses he has ever heard. This baby-faced soldier-poet in the uniform of the Paris Irregulars is declaiming a seasick poem of mysterious violence. Nautical imagery amplifies an orgiastic nightmare in which the stern of a vessel is rammed in a nauseant assault. As the baby-faced poet howls his Stolen Heart a subterannean gas-lit den begins to sway side-to-side like a drunken ship. (Someone spews quietly in a corner.) Now the mass-hypnosis intensifies with a poem titled The Hands of Jeanne-Marie. As the grim singer chants a hymn of rage to the anger of Parisian working-class women he suddenly seems to become one of them. (His huge red hands flail the shadows as he declaims his republican battle-song.)

More fatal than machines
these hands full of horsepower.

Andrieu is left breathless. Stunned, he has just seen some transgender petroleuese set fire to the fabric of reality, burn down the sky. When the demented recitation finally subsides he goes over to a candlelit table  where the young poet sits with a bulky companion who seems to act like a personal bodyguard. Andrieu introduces himself, not as a poet but as a photographer. (Andrieu’s valuation of his own verse has just sunk several octaves lower.) He elegantly compliments the adolescent genius, then mentions casually that the following day, a colleague and close friend of his – the deaf-mute ‘collodion-gunner’ Bruno Braquehais – is planning to capture the demolished Napoleon lying in the rubble of the Place Vendome. Would this young poet deign to appear in the composition? Gustave Courbet has promised to be there.

The young poet gives a surly grin and mumbles something non-committal. (He enjoys the street-game of pussyfooting around.) Andrieu, baffled, plays his ace-card:

‘I’m the one who signed the demolition-order!’

The revelation has no impact. There’s zero response. An infernal adolescent grimace remains firmly superimposed on the baby-face.

Doomed brother-Communards

Like the Commune itself our dream has been brief.

If the third man is really Jules Andrieu then we know that the plinth-grouping is intentional. If Jules Andrieu as-it-were introduces Rimbaud then the symbolism of Braquehais’ masterpiece is complete. Now we see ‘the resurrectionary mythology of the Commune’ expressed by the mighty youth of armed revolution, backed-up by his best friend (Hercules of the warm-heart) and introduced to the world by the Communard chief-of-staff.

To conclude.

I have a notion about the crowbar, that crowbar so obviously placed as a prop right next to the third man, the emblematic and phallic crowbar which screams ‘I toppled a military dictator. Deal with that!’ I want to speculate – if possible without crashing the literary stock-market – that it just might have been Jean-Arthur himself who suggested to Andrieu the employment of some ugly stage-furniture. As the poet about to invent literary symbolism it would have been a nice ironic gesture on the poet’s part to provide the miniscule Jules Andrieu with the lever which brings the Second Empire down. That crowbar gives Jules a bit of extra weight, makes a small man seem a lot more substantial.

It’s just a vague suspicion.

But isn’t life itself a second-guess?

Andrieu’s crowbar is the symbolic lever which has turned the Second Empire upside-down.

Arthur Rimbaud: Racing the Clock

Arthur Rimbaud: Racing the Clock

Picasso’s sketch of Rimbaud

No paper-trails

Based on Rimbaud’s movements in the spring of 1871 there is one possible chronological objection to the authenticity of the Place Vendome images. This argument suggests that the poet is unlikely to be in Paris on the 16th of May for the demolition of Napoleon’s Column because one of his date-stamped letters proves that on the 15th he’s a hundred-and-fifty miles away in Charleville. However, though rail links are obviously compromised at this time, some of Rimbaud’s biographers believe the ‘man shod with the wind’ could just have managed to be in Paris on the 16th. And yet, as we will see, this is not absolutely essential to the argument for his appearance in the Braquehais images.

There have been many misunderstandings about Rimbaud’s activities in April and May of 1871 partly because of the internecine chaos sweeping northern France at this time. Sequential precisions fly out the window as two separate governments begin a fight to the death over Paris. Then – as I’ve just mentioned – a question-mark hangs over transport options as train timetables vaporize in the ultimate lunacy of a civil war. And finally there’s the biographical stumbling-block: Rimbaud doesn’t leave a paper-trail. Intense and infrequent, his letters reveal next to nothing about his day-to-day affairs. (Arthur Rimbaud wasn’t on Facebook.)

Jean-Luc Steinmetz, perhaps Rimbaud’s most illustrious biographer, himself a French poet of distinction, clearly defines the poet’s timetable during the crucial seven weeks of the Commune. He writes:

‘There are two strongly circumscribed periods of time – April 17th to May 12th and May 15th to May 28th – during which he could have gone to Paris and demonstrated his solidarity with the insurgents.’

(Arthur Rimbaud: Presence of an Enigma, p.59)

The Vendome Column about to come down

Postliminary images

The Vendome Column falls on the 16th of May. We realize from Jean-Luc Steinmetz’ calculations that Rimbaud can indeed witness the actual demolition if he races to Paris the day after writing ‘the letter of the Seer’ in Charleville on the 15th of May. In this scenario he rides a train part way to the city –  perhaps to the outer suburbs – slips through Versaillais lines and enters the metropolis. However, against a backdrop of collective pandemonium this journey is more likely to take a few days. Which means that Rimbaud cannot be present when the column comes down on the 16th of May. (Though Steinmetz deems it possible.)

But another possibility opens up if we conservatively suppose that Rimbaud gets back to besieged Paris on either the 17th or 18th of May.   (We know how frantic he is to be there. In a letter dated the 13th of May he says that ‘mad anger drives me towards the battle of Paris where so many workers are dying as I write to you now.’) Arriving on the 17th he misses the climactic moment of the Commune by one day. Yet though this disappointment matters greatly to him it doesn’t matter at all to us, because of course the Vendome Column still lies across the square; and will continue to lie there for many long months, until 1873 in fact. And the poet is still in time to be captured by Bruno Braquehais because his photographs are not taken on the 16th! The Braquehais images are clearly postliminary. Every detail of these images betrays the fact that they are carefully orchestrated group-portraits, artificially composed and thoroughly choreographed. The Braquehais photographs are taken several days after the actual toppling of the Emperor. It’s a mistake to challenge the authenticity of the Braquehais images based only on the date of the actual demolition.

The actual fall of the Vendome Column on the 16th of May, 1871

Smoothly Driven

There exists one photograph – of unknown provenance – which does seem to record the immediate aftermath of demolition. We note that in this shot a vast crowd of soldiers (and maybe civilians) is in a state of great turbulence and excitement. Here no one has dared to ask the mob to hold still through a long exposure-time. Naturally the result is a blurred sea of forms in which we can make out the ghost of a face here and there. Hundreds of people appear in this composition, ranks upon ranks retreat into the background. In the foreground there is debris and dust everywhere. From extreme left to extreme right people jostle against a crowd-barrier in the form of a long rope slung on stakes. We can safely assume a circular multitude completely surrounding the military idol. If it weren’t for the stout line holding them back this excited rabble would be dancing on the fallen god. Almost certainly this is the 16th of May. As we look at this image we can almost hear the Marsellais roaring out a thousand throats.

There is nothing composed about this raw image. (If Rimbaud is here we certainly can’t see him.) Compare this turbulent, seething photograph with the relative tranquility of the Braquehais image and immediately we understand that the Rimbaud group-portrait is shot several days after the event, when the fuss has died down, when the mob has dispersed, when the first delirious excitement has subsided.

So, erring on the side of caution, if we allow a driven Rimbaud four days to make the difficult journey to Paris, this means that he arrives on the 17th or 18th of May. Now the movement of the clock runs smoothly and easily. Now the chronologies work properly. Because, before the beginning of Semaine Sanglante (which commences on the 22nd of May) there exists an interval of almost a week during which Bruno Braquehais has the opportunity to set up a complex photgraphic procedure; and Arthur Rimbaud has time to get to Paris.

The fallen idol of military France. (Image of unknown provenance, thought to be taken on the 16th of May 1871.)

The handsome renegade of the Place Vendome stands as tall as he can, the franc-tireur incarnate. With his rifle-butt raised in his right hand and his bayonet pointing at God’s blue sky he challenges all the basic premises. Europe is going to hell and has to change. As poet and freedom-fighter he dreams of transformation. The free-state of Paris will show the rest of the world. A new order of cosmic socialism is coming.

Beside him stands the one true friend he can trust. Everything seems possible at this moment. Holy Paris may be encircled with devils, just as Troy was surrounded long ago.  But he is the Trojan prince who has slept with Beauty. And now – like Hector – he guards Her under seige. He and his companions may be outnumbered, they may be encompassed by demonic enemies. But his muse is immortal. She cannot die.

In my next piece I plan to analyse the triumvirate, to decode the mystery of the Third Man who stands in front of Rimbaud and his nameless friend.

Please stay tuned!

The enigmatic triumvirate of the Place Vendome. The ‘Third Man’ stands closest to the camera, smiling.

Arthur Rimbaud: The Secret Police File

Arthur Rimbaud: The Secret Police File

The dark side of Arthur Rimbaud. (A portrait of the poet by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, 1978, drawing on the Etienne Carjat studio portrait of October 1871.)

Rimbaud on File

I saw myself in front of an infuriated mob, facing the firing-squad. (A Season in Hell.)

There is a famous sentence in a French police dossier of 1873: ‘Young Raimbault (sic) belonged, under the Commune, to the Paris Irregulars.’ There is nothing tentative about this statement, the file is clear: ‘young’ Rimbaud is accused of a crime against the state. In 1873 any definite affiliation with the Communard regime was still an imprisonable offence. To have actually been enlisted in the Paris Irregulars in 1871 was much more dangerous. During Bloody Week it had meant the firing-squad.

At the time when this file on him was compiled Rimbaud had fled to London. In 1873 many of his fellow-communards were also London-based, hardcore revolutionaries like Andrieu and Vermersch. Rimbaud (and Verlaine) fraternised and socialized in these circles. They most probably rubbed shoulders on several occasions with Karl Marx who quite frequently lectured French Communards in London.

Do we know how the secret intelligence on ‘young Raimbault’ was gathered? Was it based on anything more than hearsay? Was there ever any substratum of proof for such an explicit and clinical assertion? An interesting fact has come to light regarding the photographer of the Place Vendome, Bruno Braquehais, evidence which may possibly help to elucidate these questions.

Bruno Braquehais, pioneering photojournalist of the Place Vendome.

An Objective Artform

Bruno Braquehais was born in Dieppe in 1823. Deaf from birth he was educated at the Royal Institute of the Deaf and Mute in Paris. In his twenties Braquehais started working for a well-established Parisian photographer who specialized in coloured daguerrotypes and stereoscopic prints. At some point he married his employer’s daughter and eventually inherited his father-in-law’s business. Throughout the 1850’s and 1860’s Bruno Braquehais continued to explore portraiture. His subjects were usually fashionable artists, minor composers and ballet choreographers and the like. Relatively successful in this field he also created nude studies (which were coloured by his wife, Laure).

Bruno Braquehais was 48 when the Commune was declared in 1871. By now he was quite well-known and had exhibited his portraits at several notable Parisian institutes and galleries. However with the rapid evolution of the Paris Commune Braquehais suddenly transformed his modus operandi. Overnight the studio photographer became a photojournalist, one of a new breed of objective artists recording historical events with advanced technology. Bruno Braquehais became one of the mysterious ‘collodion-gunners’ who terrrifed the citizens of Paris with their ‘painting-machines’. Parisians who’d lived through the Prussian seige were not easily intimidated; they were accustomed to the sight of armed Communards on street-corners. Yet when bizarre spider-like contraptions started appearing on the shell-scarred boulevards, Parisian workers – most of whom had never been inside a photographic studio – were baffled and frightened. Strange three-legged monsters had invaded their city! Black boxes raised on stilts remained threateningly pointed in their direction for hours at a time, while trousers moved about disconnectedly beneath huge sombre skirts. (It took a long time to shoot a collodion plate. It was dangerous too; cameras could explode with a build-up of nitrate.) Civilians spread the half-serious rumour that these black boxes were some new secret weapon resourced by the Communards to perpetuate socialism. And in a sense they were right because images captured by Braquehais (among others) did eternalize the demographic experiment which turned the world upside-down for seven weeks.

Braquehais shot a great number of Parisian scenes during the Commune, perhaps as many as 200. In these he portrayed insurgents of both sexes at the barricades, showed mixed classes in carefree mood in the streets, captured collapsed railway-bridges, picturesquely ruined buildings and so on. From a total of approximately 200 images he published 109 in a pamphlet titled Paris During the Commune. (The unpublished images have all been lost.) It is important to emphasize that the published Braquehais photographs were largely forgotten until 1971, which partly explains why Rimbaud’s presence in two of them was never detected before now. It is also important to note that among Braquehais’ 109 plates in Paris During the Commune the standout image is the Place Vendome. The picture which seems to present us with a new portrait of Arthur Rimbaud is the master-image of the entire collection.

While we are discussing Braquehais I cannot resist suggesting that a very wonderful phrase of Rimbaud’s – which has delighted and puzzled many commentators  – could be related to the technical process of producing a collodion wet-plate.

I dried myself in a criminal air. (A Season in Hell)

Braquehais would have had to bring a portable dark-room to the Place Vendome because the entire procedure of coating a glass plate with collodion solution, exposing and developing the image all had to be done within the space of ten to fifteen minutes. The crucial  ‘drying’ of the plate would have been done in situ, and Rimbaud, with his interest in the new ‘objective’ artform might well have been the witness of his own theophany  as a negative image magically emerged. It would be in keeping with Rimbaud’s techniques to superimpose a straightforward physical phenomenon on top of an abstract reality in order to achieve the strangeness of this phrase, which works so well because criminals must harden themselves, ‘bake’ the outer crusts of personality, evaporate all softer elements. 

Bruno Braquehais’ master-image from Paris During the Commune. Rimbaud stands on the plinth at Napoleon’s feet.

House-to-House Searches

The long-forgotten photographs of Braquehais are now universally admired. What is often not remembered about Paris During the Commune is the fact that this pamphlet was used by the French secret police as a reference manual for hunting down underground Communards. Agents would actually take copies of the Braquehais publication with them as they seached house-to-house for fugitives, identifying suspects by checking them against Braquehais plates. (Suddenly the humorous term ‘collodion-gunner’ acquires a more sinister resonance.) Effectively Bruno Braquehais, against his will, was transformed into a forensic photographer. His work was resourced as incriminating documentation, undoubtedly causing the artist much heart-searching and hand-wringing in the process. Bruno Braquehais understood that during Semaine Sanglante – the bloodiest week in French history – numerous men and women were executed as a direct corollary of the click of his lens-shutter.

Fire! Fire at me! (A Season in Hell.)

Now we can perhaps more fully understand that Rimbaud’s moment of bravado and machismo in the Place Vendome may have powerfully fed into into his lifelong paranoia. To explain the poet’s fuming and fretting from the African continent biographers have come close to assuming something like a persecution complex on Rimbaud’s part. He grills his mother from Abyssinia, he involves his family in complex liasons with French military authorities over questions of his eligibility for National Service, and all this while he knows very well that he is exempt because his older brother Frederic has already served. Then there is the mysterious and unsavoury business of this same brother’s attempt to blackmail the poet, apparently hoping to raise the money for his marriage. (Frederic was a bus driver and, we assume, badly paid. And he guessed his younger brother had amassed a small fortune in Abyssinia.) What exactly was the dark secret that the apparently not-so-brainless Frederic threatened to expose? Frustratingly we don’t know much about any of these issues. Most of the letters from the family side have been lost so we only hear Rimbaud’s part of the dialogue: an everlasting lamentation on the emptiness of his life mingled with hysterical outbursts regarding military authorities. I don’t think it at all unlikely that the Place Vendome portrait – considered by the French police to be the scientific record of a crime scene – could have haunted Rimbaud for the rest of his short life, casting a long and persistent shadow in his mind. As we have already seen, the demolition of the Emperor’s ‘sacred’ column was by far the most provocative statement made during the Commune.

What sacred image are we attacking? (A Season in Hell.)

Marching to an Open Grave

Rimbaud must have known that Braquehais’ pamphlet was being used to identify ‘terrorists’. Furthermore, knowing that his friend from the 88th regiment – the man I have previously called the Gentle Giant – was shot during Bloody Week, Rimbaud may well have traced a connection between his friend’s tragic fate and the infamous Braquehais image of the Place Vendome. He may have reflected ruefully that his friend guaranteed his own death by standing beside him so protectively on the plinth. One thing is clear. Had ‘young Raimbault’ remained in Paris during Semaine Sanglante he too could have been marched in chains to a grave-pit and summarily executed without trial. (Some estimates of Communard dead reach the terrifying figure of 20,000.) The poet’s life of relentless wandering, and even his desire to put a literary lifestyle behind him, make more sense if we know, as Rimbaud may have known, that the evidence against him was scientific, forensic and unambiguous.

I called to my executioners to let me bite the ends of their guns, as I died. (A Season in Hell.)

In my next piece I am planning to discuss the problematic timings of Rimbaud’s movements in April and May of 1871. Is it feasible for him to be in the Place Vendome?

Please stay tuned!

The triumvirate of the Place Vendome.

Rimbaud: In Arthurian Country

Rimbaud: In Arthurian Country

The soldier-boy of the Place Vendome (left) and (right) Picasso’s enigmatic portrait Boy With A Pipe, believed by Sir John Richardson (the painter’s best biographer) to be a portrait of Rimbaud.

Virgin Soldier of the Place Vendome

A soldier-boy stands in the Place Vendome. A mighty youth with a gimlet stare personifies and incarnates revolution. The shockwave of his gaze is intense. It’s the look in the eyes of an angel on the burning lake. It’s a blast of white-hot rage which seems to say: Here’s faster-than-light vengeance for centuries of enslavement. Here’s instant justice,  death to your martial gods. An androgynous nineteenth-century Che Guevara glares nastily out of the Place Vendome, personally overseeing the destruction of the Imperial cosmos. We are looking at some ‘marvellous boy’ who has just masterminded the coup d’etat of all time. (We don’t even really see the eyes but the black fire coming out of them is unmistakeable.)

We also observe ultra-narcissism here. (Note the carefully-cloned attitude in both images. The second Braquehais is reproduced below.) A very self-consious young man has been spending a lot of time in front of mirrors recently. He’s been double-checking the validity of his self-presentation with great care. We detect massive arrogance in his bearing, his assumption of the role of nemesis to all power-structures; but we see also the vanity of some brand-new recruit who has only donned his war-uniform in the last few weeks. Whoever gazes out of the Place Vendome – aged roughly sixteen and a half? – we sense he’s quite new to the business of insurrection. He’s putting on his grimmest face for the camera.

Yet this is no simpleton boy-soldier proud of carbine and tight-fitting kepi. Here we seem to observe some Dostoyevskyan Raskolnikov ‘stepping over obstacles’ as he rises up rapidly through the ranks, ready to wade through blood, armed to the teeth. Or we could be viewing some obscure corporal singled-out for valour and fanaticism. This young man on full display has about him the aura of some future general. (That familiar Napoleonic-Hitlerian profile.) This virgin-soldier – whoever he is – has been chosen to epitomize the symbolic dimension of the ritual being performed in the Place Vendome. His solemn, standardized deportment and demeanour, his lasering look and his stance with ‘left-foot-forward’, drive the whole composition powerfully. He is the essential presence in an epic group-portrait. (There are echoes here of Delacroix and Jacques-Louis David. The canvas of Braquehais has certainly been planned with the mythical, legendary and historical in mind.)

Arthur Rimbaud as Paris Irregular during the Commune of 1871.

Battlefields of the Spirit

Someone has consciously made the decision that the ship of revolution needs a figurehead. But  who stands in the Place Vendome as the ‘figure on the prow’ (as the French expression translates)? I propose that the stern-featured rebel-angel vaunting over the fallen Napoleon is none other than the poet Arthur Rimbaud. I propose that if the soldier-boy on the plinth is not him then the poet must have had an unknown twin-brother who joined the Paris Irregulars in May of 1871 (when Rimbaud is supposed to have done exactly this). And if this outlandish theory collapses (like the Vendome Column itself) then in desperation we can only suppose that the poet’s occult studies in the libraries of Charleville somehow suddenly accelerated to the point where he was able to project his doppelganger into besieged Paris at will.

I admit that such theories are too far-fetched for me. I also confess that hair crackled on top of my skull when I – accidentally – enlarged the main Braquehais image from a thumbnail and saw the face of the great poet of France in a flash. There was no tentative moment at all, I experienced immediate recognition! Later, the filters which exclude the impossible kicked-in, and ‘It cannot be Rimbaud‘ and similar assumptions surfaced. (But not for long.) My very first glance proved fatal to me because it removed all possibility of long-term doubt. Yet my own subjective and automatic faith is irrelevant. Rimbaudian experts will have to decide whether new images of the poet have miraculously – and very unexpectedly – emerged. Where this process will end is hard to say but I am convinced there has definitely been a beginning. Perhaps if Rimbaudians worldwide unanimously wish it Napoleon will be demolished for a second time and the poet will be appropriately remembered in the Place Vendome. (A sacramental crystalline obelisk with no ‘dot in the sky’ might best serve. Arthur Rimbaud is already in the stars.)

As he faces us from the Place Vendome a brave footsoldier is marching towards a battlefield. He has seen terrible carnage  in the Rue d’Babylone. (Most biographers are agreed that Rimbaud was sexually assaulted in the Babylon Barracks very shortly before Braquehais’ photograph was taken.) But the poet is marching on towards an even more traumatic event: the spiritual battlefield of A Season in Hell. Written in 1873, only two years after the demolition of Napoleon’s column, Rimbaud’s nekyian masterpiece shows us his own personal Waterloo. (Yet clearly the battlefield he describes in his short prose-poem is actually situated inside every one of us: this is what makes the work so universal.) Only two short years after the Place Vendome the poet faces the culminating crisis of his life. Though we can’t be quite certain exactly what he thinks about the outcome, Rimbaud seems to tell us that he loses this great fight. Apparently he emerges empty-handed from the battlefield. He wins nothing and loses everything. His pride dies but he still does not love God. (So he says.) In one interpretation of A Season in Hell the poet cannot differentiate between God and Lucifer. Why? Because as he looks back at all his magnificent superstructures, his holy cities of bacchanalian happiness, his good – as revealed by the devil – he sees that only evil was generated in the world. He marched in cold blood over too many ‘obstacles’. He pushed too hard and he assumed too much. He said in his pride: To a good man all things are good. But he wasn’t good enough. (In his own opinion.) Now – as he tells us in A Season in Hell – he falls back to earth from his pedestal of transcendence. Now he crashes down from the sky of human conceit. And admitting the truth of his unholiness he finally breaks the demonic code and exposes the self-esteem which fell for false promises. (The devil is such a humanitarian!) Yet he still won’t acknowledge the Christian God who punishes him now with nervous breakdown and near-madness. (As he richly deserves, he informs us.) Thus God becomes the devil and vice-versa. And there is no vision at all, just the sense that human existence is a meaningless farce. He is left with nihilism and fragmentation.

Two years after the Place Vendome, in the loft of a grim farmhouse (in a place called Rocks) Rimbaud takes on the cosmic mystery of the problem of evil: and comes up with no solution. (The very name Roches seems to hint at some desert for the tempatation of a St Anthony.) When the spiritual battle is over Arthur Rimbaud is left speechless; and the poet remains mute for the rest of his life. Rimbaud cannot say, as Goethe says after the battle for the soul of Faust has taken place:

Evil is that force which constantly wills evil but against its own will ends up doing good.

At this point Arthur Rimbaud has no such faith. And that’s why the poet is an existential saint. His terrible silence is his gospel of Nothingness. He is like some Nietzschean superman who overcomes himself yet reveals no new dogma. (Example alone is efficacious, he seems to say.) And precisely this absence of evangelizing in the French poet is what makes Rimbaud so appealing to agnostics – even to atheists – many of whom have found something in his Nothing. One very great attraction lies in the fact that Rimbaud says clearly and squarely: I do not know. This humble admission, this negative testament – coupled with his transcendental verse, some of which is profoundly religious – makes Rimbaud the international poet-laureate: quoted in hip hop, studied in academe. Here is the purest European poet since Dante. Rimbaud is both high-brow and low-brow. Ultimately Arthur Rimbaud is no-brow. He takes poetry out of the study, liberates poetry from the library and restores her to some primordial countryside.

Here is his early Sensation (in my translation).

On blue summer evenings
I’ll walk the trackways
over stubbled grass
needled by the wheat.

Daydreaming, I’ll feel
the coolness at my feet
letting the wind bathe
all of me, bareheaded.

I will not speak;
I will have no thoughts.
Yet infinite love
will mount in my soul

And I’ll go very far
like a vagabond
across the country
happy as if with her.

In Bruno Braquehais’ second image Rimbaud stands fifth from the right, adopting exactly the same stance as he takes in the main image: rifle raised, left foot forward. The Mystery Man stands ninth from the right, hooded.

Mystery Man

Can we absolutely pinpoint the identity of anyone in Bruno Braquehais’ main image? So far, definitively, we cannot. (There is no objective proof that Arthur Rimbaud is in these photographs.) But in Braquehais’ second image, where the soldier-boy stands over the fallen Napoleon’s head, we do know the identity of one very special person. This is the ninth figure from the right: the man with the heavy beard and the hood. (He is the only hooded figure in the image.) We can just detect the glint of his spectacles as he peers out towards us from the very back rank, possibly a shy and myopic man, a man who keeps himself to himself, unlike the top-hatted gentleman next to him who smiles with great complacency into the camera. This hooded man – who also wears a military kepi underneath his dark hood  – is the celebrated American Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg.

(Just a split-second of bufoonery, testing to see if I’ve put any readers to sleep.)

Ninth from the right – and fourth from Rimbaud – stands the great French realist painter, Gustave Courbet. Gustave Courbet was the original driving-force behind the project to dismantle the Vendome Column. In the summer of 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, Courbet had written a letter to the then-government stating:

In as much as the Vendôme Column is a monument devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation’s sentiment, citizen Courbet expresses the wish that the National Defense government will authorize him to disassemble this column.

The artist went on to elaborate his view that the Rues de la Paix – which actually commences in the Place Vendome – was being degraded by the presence of Napoleon perched on top of his egomaniacal column. When the Communards took charge of Paris the bold idea of cleansing the Street of Peace suddenly made a lot of sense to many people. And on the 16th of May 1871 the maypole of Imperium came crashing down onto a bed of sand prepared for its landing. Its magnificent serpentine coating of bronze – made out of melted-down enemy cannon from Austerlitz – lay in a thousand twisted fragments in the dust. Courbet’s bright idea had run away with itself.

In fact the clandestine, hooded outfit of the painter suggests that he was already terrified of possible repercussions. And indeed, once the Commune had been annihilated by the ‘legitimate’ government of France, Courbet rapidly had to go into hiding. The luckless painter was soon caught however (the new government actually used Braquehais’ photographs to identify many Commiunards). Courbet jailed for six months, an extremely light sentence considering his role in the demolishment. (In prison he was allowed easel and paints, but no models.) But even when the sentence had been served this wasn’t the end of the affair by any means. The restored government quickly decided that the Emperor Napoleon’s erectile dysfunction was an huge embarrasment to all self-respecting Frenchmen. (As the column crashes down we can imagine the crowds chanting ‘Not tonight, Josephine!’) And shortly after poor Courbet’s release from prison he was presented with a vast bill for the re-erection. Relatively penniless the painter fled to Switzerland where he died the day before the bill fell due.

So much for the fall of the Vendome Column. But what truly interests about Gustave Courbet is that the painter was a close and lifelong friend of Charles Baudelaire, who for Arthur Rimbaud was the modern poetry-god. (Courbet’s famous 1847 portait of Baudelaire is warm and intimate. The poet sits at a little table smoking his pipe and deeply absorbed in a book. A large white quill stands ready for the page.) Thus a strong literary linkage can be established which makes Rimbaud’s presence in our image much more understandable. As a member of Charles Baudelaire’s inner circle and a lover of poetry himself Courbet might very well have got wind of a young Communard who happened also to be a poet of prodigious virtuosity. And as a painter – supposing Courbet actually met Rimbaud – he would have been very sensitive to his extraordinary beauty. Immediately the artist (who we can safely assume to have known the celebrated photographer, Braquehais) would have recognised in the young man – this Arthur Rimbaud – the perfect figurehead for a historical moment. (Of course an advantage was there for the painter as well. With the handsome boy-soldier as the focus of the composition, Gustave Courbet could then retire to the background, cover himself up as much as possible and remain visually dissociated from the scene in case of later political complications.)

Can we possibly identify the man standing next to Rimbaud?

The Gentle Giant

I’d now like to return to the main image and look at a second figure of significance. This is the towering man who stands next to Rimbaud, who seems a few years older than the poet, who shelters and almost protects him as his left shoulder cordially overlaps the poet’s right. His enormous chest is twice the size of Rimbaud’s. We notice that his gently smiling expression creates a perfect counterpoising geniality which contrasts starkly with Rimbaud’s infernal scowl. Another point to notice is that though this man is clearly a soldier he’s not in full uniform, he’s dressed in army fatigues. Off-duty, he seems faintly amused by his friend’s central role in the proceedings, the soldier-boy’s prominent placement at the heart of the drama. A big, warm sun-like face is the avuncular antithesis of Rimbaud’s dark lunar visage. Together they form an alchemical dyad, opposites conjoined from archetypical extremes.

I assert that we know the identity of this gentle giant. Charles Nicholl, in his Somebody Else: Rimbaud in Africa tells us

Rimbaud was befriended by a soldier in the 88th Infantry, of whom he afterwards spoke ‘with a tender sadness, thinking it certain that he was shot during the Versaillais victory.’

This crucial information comes through Delahaye, the closest friend of Rimbaud’s early years. Pursuing Delahaye’s revelation we discover that the 88th Infantry Regiment were specially venerated during the Commune since they refused to open fire on women and children at a vital phase of the ‘Paris-as-free-state’ experiment when the Versaillais tried to impound Communard cannons. Effectively the 88th Infantry disobeyed orders and prevented a bloody massacre of defenceless civilians during the so-called ‘Louise Revolution’ (when women-Communards in Montmartre became involved in street-fighting).

Delahaye recounts Rimbaud’s belief that his great friend was shot at some point in Bloody Week when the Versaillais regained control of Paris. (Estimates of the numbers shot in Semaine Sanglante vary, some suggest the mass-execution of as many as 20,000 Communards.)  The gentle giant standing next to Rimbaud in the Place Vendome could very possibly be this nameless friend. There seems to be a significant closeness between them. (The Californian poet Arturo Mantecon has pointed out to me recently that the giant’s left hand actually rests on the poet’s left shoulder. What I had subconsiously dismissed as an epaulet turns out to be demonstrative and moving evidence of friendship.)  If we are correct in this identification we owe this gentle giant a great deal. Without his protection and real friendship Rimbaud could have been murdered in the Rue d’Babylone. And without this champion and protector the poet might never have returned to Paris after fleeing to his hometown in anguish in early May, traumatised by his experience in the Caserne d’Babylone. The certainty that he had one true friend in the city might just have tipped the balance. I feel we can definitely assume that without this friend by his side Arthur Rimbaud would never have taken his central place in the Braquehais portrait.

Yet the gentle giant – this hero who saves the lives of women and children in Montmartre and who then saves Rimbaud in the Caserne d’Babylone, – stands in the shadow of a tragic destiny even while he smiles and lays his hand on the shoulder of his magnetic young friend. When death pits are dug in parks and squares, when thousands of Communards are marched in chains to mass-graves, our gentle giant sadly loses his life. Delahaye is clear: Rimbaud believed his only friend was murdered in the Semaine Sanglante.

We may need to thank this man for one more thing. It is possible that our unknown soldier of the 88th regiment actually warned his young friend that after the excitement of the Place Vendome photoshoot his face would be ‘on file’. He’d be a marked man!(As I pointed out earlier, the Braquehais images were actually used to track down Communards.) Perhaps Rimbaud’s champion, with his greater knowledge of the world, instructed the poet to get out of Paris just before the commencement of Bloody Week, a few days after Braquehais’ photographic happening.

Ironically, the gentle giant may himself have been condemned by the act of standing next to Rimbaud in the bright May sunshine. Perhaps the poet was so certain of his friend’s death because he understood that the flattering lens actually represented the barrel of a gun. (Parisians complained during the Commune that wherever they went they were confronted not only by armed insurrectionaries but also by those they termed ‘collodion-gunners’.) Now we realize that the unknown soldier may have saved Rimbaud’s life twice in the space of a month.

Child-Pantocrator

A banal countryside somewhere in the wilderness of Rocks. The midday sun is a machine of death countersinking light into the brain. (The riveting of all things has come loose.) Hot screws penetrate the cortex, winding into bone.

Alas, the Gospel has gone by. The Gospel. The Gospel.

In the heatwave someone is suffering from sunstroke. He’s been immobilized in the house, a dehydrated fieldworker probably. His memory seems to be affected, he’s forgotten his own name. They’ve brought him indoors, given him the day off, bathed his temples with cool well-water. He’s resting in an airless attic, isolated.

He’s less than nineteen, still a boy really.

Up in the dusty rafters pigeons hum. Muted wingbeats fan a superheated mind.

Drink.

When he whispers he is taking flight into the past, hidden from him like the doves in the roof: his secrets fight with one another in the darkness. Once there were innocent flights of wanderlust, bids for freedom, bohemian roads. Once there were out-of-the-body trajectories across transdimensional bridges of light. But he travelled too far into the sun and crashed  to the shadows of the Rue d’Babylone. Then the wax which had sealed his wings melted as hot blood pooled behind his knees. Then came the sulphurous fogs of Camden Town.

Through the spirit we go to God. What a disaster!

Now he’s reached the lowest point. With the stigmatic wound where Verlaine nailed him throbbing like the pulse of Jormungandr, he’s finished. With his left arm in a sling he sits and writes. In between dizzying panic-attacks he pulls himself upright at a packing-case desk and describes a Faustian pact with occult principalities. (Now will-to-power intersects with hell-on-earth.) In the pages of a strange discontinuous diary he confesses a long history of possession. Certainly he’s been given the miraculous gifts and shown the super-utopian visions. Yes! He has even levitated like Simon Magus, using his breath to manipulate weightlessness. But the siddhi have brought only overshadowing. (The two-faced spirits have often told half-truths in order to finally insinuate the lie.)

They promised me to bury in the dark the tree of good and evil, to destroy the dictatorial honesties, so that I might bring forward my very pure love.

If evil is only a catalyst there is no danger. With our energies behind you you will push against evil and lever yourself towards grace. (All men believe in saints after all. And that selflessness proves something about the world.) If you overwhelm yourself with our powers we’ll show you where the rites of the Great Work end. You’ll change the world with a cabbalistic alphabet. We’ve shown you the sunchild dancing in the Tree of Life. You’ve seen the vision of Seth, the third son of Eden. Now imagine your good, its implementation. To a good man all things are good. Remember that!

Yet deep down he knows he’s not good enough. (It was vile to use Verlaine as a stepping-stone. He deserved the bullet, he deserved to die.) Now he feels filthy inside. Christ Jesus! In broad daylight he turns and looks over his shoulder. In the still of the night there are others in his solitude. He has reached the spiritual battleground of near-madness.

Drink! No more dust behind you.

He sweats in the noons of Thermidor. Outside they’re working in the fields. Now rays of sunlight move the harvesters this way and that like little marionettes. (Smells of burning float through a tiny window.) They’re reaping hot coals in the harvest of hell. Now commandments of Shadowmouth reverberate, knife-like and strident, sharp decrees stabbing. The glad time of his harvest will never come.

Be as wise as serpents, as gentle as doves.

Sometimes when he hears the night-train to Luxembourg he returns to Somers Town in the rain. (Winged thoughts stir like a pigeon dreaming in the eaves.) Once upon a time he was close to the place and the formula.

The spiritual battle is as brutal as the battle of men. But the vision of justice belongs to God alone.

Picasso’s pen-and-ink study of Rimbaud.

Arthur Rimbaud: The Discovery of Two New Portraits of the Planetary Poet-laureate.

Arthur Rimbaud: The Discovery of Two New Portraits of the Planetary Poet-laureate.

On the left the possible new face of Rimbaud, on the right the well-known Carjat studio-portrait.

Rimbaud Forever

The burnout of the messianic Arthur Rimbaud makes the mythological fall of Icarus seem more like a minor hang-gliding accident. The world’s most original modern poet autodestructs so mysteriously and so rapidly that biographers are forced to build his image out of stardust. Particles of evidence about this damned poet’s life seem to have been collected from the coma of comet Wild 2. Rimbaud is aerogel, frozen smoke, solid air. His life itself vaporizes on impact. Rimbaud defines the legend of otherness.

There isn’t much work in the Rimbaudian canon. His complete oeuvre can be read in a day and a night. (How to transform your life in twenty-four hours.) Critical texts and biographical studies pour from presses, raise eyebrows, galvanize controversy. (One can spend three lifetimes reading about the poet.) But Rimbaud’s multiform faces defy analysis. Apart from being the modern world’s poet-laureate, Rimbaud becomes in his meteoric life: teenage runaway, Abyssinian explorer, circus manager, angel of deviance, venture capitalist, philosophical freedom-fighter, Gnostic magician, Wandering Jew, pseudonymous mariner, Moslem prophet, African ethnographer, amateur photographer, gun runner, Communard and finally, military deserter. The list seems to never end. (Rimbaud forever!)

Old Plates

Three major problems exist for Rimbaud studies. First, why did he abandon poetry at eighteen when he had almost single-handedly reinvented the art? Second, what was the exact nature of his relationship with his mother, the tight-fisted but highly intelligent woman the poet venomously nicknamed Shadowmouth? And third, what happened to Arthur Rimbaud during the superviolent Paris Commune when, in the spring of 1871, the French capital was in the hands of a revolutionary government for seven weeks?

The first two questions are monolithic difficulties. And the third has also seemed insoluble – until now. Very recently, while researching Rimbaud’s circle of friends in London (all of them political exiles like him) I came across two photographs taken in the Place Vendome at the height of the demographic convulsion which was the Paris Commune. As luck would have it I enlarged one of these old plates and – suddenly – there right in front of me I seemed to see the sacred presence, the most elusive man in belles lettres, Arthur Rimbaud, the man ‘shod with the wind’.

Rimbaud as Paris Irregular during the Commune. In a follow-up article I will be discussing the identity of the giant to the poet’s right.

A Searing Gaze

In these two photographs (by Bruno Braquehais) we see the poet as we have never seen him before. Here we discover explosive and controversial evidence that Rimbaud was radically involved in the Paris Commune. From these old photographic plates we learn that the poet became nothing less than a juvenile figurehead of revolution. We see him dominating a great public space, surrounded by members of the National Guard; or possibly by the Paris Irregulars: or both. With a searing gaze the poet looks straight into the camera. Recovering from the shock of that gaze we register next that almost everyone apart from the young poet is smiling. Only Rimbaud, with his incredibly distinctive lips, downturns his mouth in an iconic scowl. Now for the first time we really see the Rimbaud grimace, echoed by a million rock-stars (from the second Carjat studio-portrait). But here in the new image that grimace is amplified and intensified.

The second point of interest is that the hard-bitten, middle-distance characters – nasty fellows to a man – all give pride of place to Arthur Rimbaud. It’s not just that the poet stands on a pedestal while they stand further off. No, here we see psychological deference. Whoever he is, this young man on the plinth is so charged with charisma and electricity that he commands the respect of men much older than him. And that could be because this wildman in his grimy kilt of serge, this Lord of the Dance with his regulation rifle, this holy monk of androgynous demeanour is actually Arthur Rimbaud, freedom-fighter. (It is my belief that Rimbaud was quite well-known as a poet during the Commune, though this fame mostly resonated at street-level.) In this new portrait we seem to meet the ‘dear, great soul’ – Verlaine’s words – while understanding that Camus was absolutely correct when he famously called Rimbaud ‘the poet of revolt’.

The full image, shot by Bruno Braquehais some time after the 16th of May 1871.

Rebel Angel of the Place Vendome

How can we contextualize this theophanic surfacing? What is the setting for Rimbaud’s emergence in this image?

In both of these Bruno Braquehais portraits we are in the Place Vendome in May of 1871. At the height of the Commune an exorcism of empire is being – or has recently been – enacted. As the Communards see it the Rue de la Paix (Peace Street) is being polluted by the presence of Napoleon Bonaparte on top of the column he set up to commemorate Austerlitz. And after much discussion, spearheaded by the painter Gustave Courbet, they finally decree its demolition. And precisely where the Rue de la Paix begins – in the Place Vendome – Arthur Rimbaud is presiding over the exorcism. He takes up a military stance – first at the feet and then at the head of Napoleon – who is represented as a laurel-crowned Caesar. (We know the poet was recruited to the Paris Irregulars so his uniform is not problematic.) But clearly Rimbaud is more than soldier here. The whole grouping is highly choreographed and the poet has been given an emblematic role. He is high-priest at this revolutionary mass where verticality stands for hierarchy. What delights is that the poet is so cheekily poking fun at the figure of the prostrate Bonaparte. We can only interpret his body-language to mean that he has just used his left elbow to overthrow the Nightmare of Europe.

Brute force and easy pride have fallen. A symbol of barbarism lies in the dust. Paris has been cleansed of Napoleonic earth-magic. Triumphalist and negative symbolism has been defused. (The workers of Paris are not to be treated like idiots.) The 50,000 dead of Austerlitz are no longer insulted. These are the thoughts in Rimbaud’s mind as he gazes into the future from the Place Vendome.

Two mindblowing portraits of Arthur Rimbaud have been hiding in plain sight for more than a century. If they are genuine they are possibly the most dramatic visual study of any poet in the history of the West. Byron, for all the freedom-fighting in Greece, never assumed such a Byronic pose. If Chatterton in his fatal attic had been captured by camera obscura; if Pushkin had been filmed striding through the snow to his doom; if John Donne had been photographed in the pulpit of St Paul’s in the moment of saying No man is an island; if some prehistoric daguerrotype existed which showed us Dante climbing the staircase of exile: then we would have images to place beside Rimbaud in the Place Vendome.

The second Braquehais image. Here Rimbaud (fifth from the right) adopts exactly the same posture as in the first image.

Authenticity and implications

Are these images genuine? To my way of thinking they are authentic. The chin and the mouth are unquestionably Rimbaud’s. Examine closely the slight asymmetry of the Cupid’s bow, one of Rimbaud’s most famous features (apart from his turquoise eyes). Looking closely you will notice that the central portion of the upper lip is shifted very slightly to the left side of the poet’s face. Now look at the perfect oval of the chin. The harsh and infinitely sad expression of the mouth is offset by this perfectly rounded chin: feminine, cherubic and utterly recognizable. The real problem in the first image is the nose. It looks too broad and flat. Yet if you look closely you will see a white square of light beginning on the bridge of the nose, ending at the tip. This square of light seems to spread the nose laterally. If you half-close your eyes the square disappears and the nose becomes Rimbaud’s: thin with a slightly upturned tip. I feel that this square of light is almost certainly an optical effect – caused perhaps by enlargement of the image – but a professional opinion is needed here. What is certain is that when the square is filtered out the problem disappears.

Arthur Rimbaud – the rara avis of all time – appears to have been fabulously captured in collodion-brown. Yet scowling out of the new portrait the world’s most controversial poet may be secretly smiling to himself. Hardcore Marxists are going to jump on these images as proof that Rimbaud was a full-blooded Communard. And as contemporary poster-boy for Extinction Rebellion the teenage Communard Arthur Rimbaud will empty classrooms faster than Greta Thunberg. But the truth is that Rimbaud was a magpie-Marxist at best. After the dissolution of the Commune he became rapidly depoliticized. Admittedly at the time – aged sixteen – he was one-hundred percent drunk with utopianism. While the red flag flew over the Hotel de Ville Rimbaud saw himself as a partisan. (Of course in the 1870’s this was still the flag of the French – not the Bolshevist – revolution.) In the Place Vendome he incarnates the Commune. But the image’s significance is much greater than this. It is not just Napoleon that Rimbaud topples with a casual nudge from his left elbow. By implication it’s the whole military industrial complex.

Many people are in for a shock. The Rimbaud damage-limitation exercise is over. With the emergence of these new photographs it is time to conclude that Arthur Rimbaud went through a phase of proto-communism. When Paris became an experimental city-state the poet was on the frontline of class-war. (Graham Robb, Rimbaud’s best biographer by far, has taken the view that any role in revolutionary Paris was fairly minimal; while Terry Eagleton and Kristin Ross are now likely to see, however wrongly, radical political convictions reinforced.) Yet, as the dust settles after the controversial materialization of Rimbaud in the Place Vendome, it must be remembered that after the failure of the Commune the poet continued to evolve a supernaturalist philosophy. Without a massive cosmic frame of reference even Rimbaud could never have written A Season in Hell. The confessional metaphysics of this work far transcend dialectical materialism. And Rimbaud’s primary, non-reductionist faith will always be in the occult praxis of his art. At the height of his powers (in ’72 and ’73) he believes that the world can be magically transformed through his art. His engagement is truly with his holy guardian angel.

I repeat: many are going to read into the new images a narrative affirming Marxist engagement. Yet this would be a selective interpretation. In The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune I note that Kristin Ross makes no mention at all of the Rue d’Babylone assault – when Rimbaud was almost certainly gang-raped in a Commune barracks. This ordeal takes place only a week before the photo-shoot in the Place Vendome. All the maladjustment to come pours out of the vortex of what the poet goes through at this time. All Rimbaud’s cruelty to his only real love – Paul Verlaine – is explained by events in the Rue d’Babylone. The harsh and sad expression in Rimbaud’s face as he stands in the Place Vendome has to be related to this recent nightmare experience. Yet Kristin Ross does not – in her rush to recruit Arthur Rimbaud for the revolution – even critique Stolen Heart, the poem which dramatically codifies the poet’s core-trauma, the poem in which the poet’s heart is ‘degraded’ by the ithyphallic soldiery. In my opinion Rimbaud’s text is excluded on purpose since the poem makes manifest a dystopian aspect of the Commune. (Revolution has changed everything except the human heart.) In a sometimes highly perceptive investigation Ross more or less overthrows her own thesis by this glaring omission. And similar errors of selective analysis need to be avoided when deconstructing the new images.

After the rape in the Rue d’Babylone Rimbaud doesn’t give in. The poet is not defeated. He doesn’t go back to his hometown and collapse in provincial bitterness. Instead he issues his doctrine of the Seer – Suffer everything so as to be in mystic solidarity – and returns to Paris to take a heroic stand. His face tells the full horror of what he has been through. But in the Place Vendome he shows what it means to be a hero.

Ecce homo.

Let’s leave the last word to Rimbaud himself. Let’s have the poet tell us precisely what he thinks about armed risings.

At dawn, armed with burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities.

Here the impatience of the revolutionary, the understandable hunger for change, has been transformed into something far more impressive. Now the enemy within has been identified. Now the ultimate traitor has been exposed. Instead of burning Paris (as the Communards did when outgunned and outmaneuvred by the Versaillais) Rimbaud lights the lamp of interior alchemy and says with Mahatma Gandhi:

Be the change you wish to see in this world.

In the next article (of a series) I will be discussing the idea that Picasso may have known the Place Vendome images and used them when painting Boy with a Pipe.

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