Arthur Rimbaud: Love’s To Be

Arthur Rimbaud: Love’s To Be

The Place Vendome image side-by-side with the Carjat studio portrait. Note that Rimbaud tilts his head down on the left, making his nose look wider than in the Carjat, where his head is slightly thrown-back, a standard studio technique to achieve exactly this more aristocratic look.

Christmas on Earth

I’m chanting – eyes closed – under my breath:

Love’s to be.

Over and over I’m breathing a spell, letting it drift in my bloodstream, work in my spine, cycle over and over:

Love’s to be!

Slowly I surface from five times deeper than sleep. The world seems more tranquil. Has it been reinvented? I hear the old-fashioned sound of children at play on the green, how quaint, how charming. They should be locked up in classrooms. Isn’t that so?

All schools should be under trees. (Who said that?)

The sun is shining. I look up. For the first time this century vast skies are clear of contrails, those white cancellations which cross-out the blue, which slash our atmospheres horizon-to-horizon, the whip-scars of our self-hating civilization. Has the selfish giant who writes human destiny – out of limited identifications – gone to sleep? Has he swallowed his own toxic marker-pen? For the first time this century clean turquoise skies are clear of poisonous transports, thundering machines. The jets which service our restlessness have been grounded. The big planes which relay jetlagged industrialists back and forth across the international dateline sit idle near runways where grass begins to grow.

Should I weep?

These big dreamy skies make me think of the eyes of Rimbaud. In his eyes we see the light of the oversoul, in his eyes we see the possibility of ‘Christmas on Earth’. Rimbaud dreamed that we could ‘reinvent’ love.

Bruno Braquehais’ main image of the demolition of Napoleon’s column in the Place Vendome. The Communard Rimbaud stands on the plinth nearest to Napoleon, scowling into shot with his feminine baby-face.

After the Pandemic

Our world has changed in just a few weeks. In March we were living under a capitalist system, now in April some sort of quasi-socialist dispensation is in place. With world-populations under house-arrest many are saying that democracy has died. with so many businesses destroyed by self-isolation Covid-19 could be the beginning of guaranteed basic income. (We’re seeing ramped-up digital surveillance; mobiles are fast becoming pocket-informers.) It would seem that  governments are trying to act selflessly,  putting the sick and the elderly first, funding vastly-accelerated medical research.

Yet the heartening scenario of what humans can do together is overshadowed by the question of what remains to be done. When this pandemic is beaten the real work begins. One in ten people on this planet perishes from drinking foul and contaminated water. (That’s more than all the wars put together.) Seven-hundred and eighty-five million souls slake their thirst each day with stagnant filth, refresh their children from a putrid source. (Can anyone imagine fighting C19 fevers with ditchwater?) Yet suddenly, when the developed world is threatened, governments are trying to act responsibly. If such principled actions and mobilizations had happened before the pandemic struck we might not be in the present apocalyptic situation.

Capitalism is flawed. The price of an individual claiming his or her freedom is fiscal slavery for the collective, this we know. It is scientifically proven in Das Kapital. On the other hand, socialism also is broken. Marx based his theory of rapid social change on Hegel when he would have done better to use a Darwinian model. Nature evolves gradually over time. Revolutions are sudden spikes of chaos creating vacuums of power to be occupied by monsters and tyrants. Revolutions have changed everything except the human heart.

Rimbaud doesn’t like what he sees as he gazes at us from the Place Vendome.

Picasso’s Boy With A Pipe alongside Braquehais’ image of Rimbaud in the Place Vendome. In my next essay I will be investigating Picasso’s most arcane portrait, said by Sir John Richardson to be based on Verlaine’s poem about Rimbaud, Crimen Amoris.

Overcoming the Plague

Arthur Rimbaud dreamed not of a revolution but of something far more impresssive: a transformation.

The children sing to you: Change our fate, overcome the plague.

Cosmic socialism could not persecute the Falun Gong simply because their disciplines are non-reductive. And altruistic capitalism could function in the way medieval monasticism related – comfortably – to the marketplace. Yet while nature transforms and man’s possibilities are infinite, we’re throwing away our most precious resources. The loneliness of the modern world means that the streaming of pornography is the only solace for isolated males addicted to self-stimulation. The internet is hypersexualized; it is 60-70% pornography.  Dirty servers – euphemistically called ‘the cloud’ – running on carbon-based fossil-fuels contaminate our skies (and our souls, in some cases).

Love is not here yet.

It’s on the horizon. It’s recently come a bit closer, like Rimbaud himself.

Unconditional love is within reach.

Love’s to be!

AAD in front of the House of Arthur Rimbaud in Kings Cross St Pancras, Central London. Rimbaud lived here for seven or eight weeks while writing Une Saison en Enfer in 1873. AAD’s epic poem Vale Royal unlocks the psychogeography of this mystic zone of London to which many visionary poets have been drawn, among them William Blake, WB Yeats, Shelley and Chatterton, who (dying at 17 in Kings Cross) can be considered the English Rimbaud.

A Dark Place

I have travelled with Arthur Rimbaud for many years. He changed my life in a supernatural manner when I was in a dark place, turning twenty. Two decades later I stood on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in front of five-thousand people to recite the prologue of an epic poem which had taken twenty-three long years to write, years spent living on the streets of London, years spent meditating in derelicts. That poem, Vale Royal, was – in a sense – dictated to me by Arthur Rimbaud. (I will go into this elliptical history in a later piece.) In another – more famous – example of theophanic intervention, Paul Claudel was transformed on Christmas Day in 1886 when Rimbaud seemed to lead him into Notre Dame Cathedral. There – as an atheist – he went through a spiritual initiation which made him the greatest Catholic poet of the 20th century, the man who visibly stood up against the Nazis, condemning them as ‘wedded to Satan’, ‘utterly demonic’.

Do I think of myself as a Rimbaud scholar? Yes, but my approach to his biography is less individual, more universal. I base my understanding of this poet at archetypal levels. Over the years I have come to regard his emergence onto the world-stage as nothing less than mythical. His unique presence in contemporary world-culture makes him a Mighty Youth: an Absalom, a Hermes. I see him as messenger, winged runner between dimensions. Rimbaud is an interpreter of the multiverse, decoding the realities folded into our world. For all these reasons – and many more – I believe that this Christlike poet has appeared in the Place Vendome for revelatory purposes. The greatest Frenchman (like the greatest Englishman, William Blake) has a message for us in the time of plague.

Through the Spirit we go to God. Heartbreaking misfortune.

Rimbaud began with a doctrine of excess, driving himself at any cost to become a seer. He ended – only three years later – by saying the words above, his wonderful irony coming to bear on the fact that our five senses are circumscribed and limited but human superconsciousness is infinite. Rimbaud is teaching that death – in the context of the multiverse – represents the supreme misunderstanding. He says that death is a false interpretion based on partial data and incomplete experience. Yet the ‘absolutely modern’ seer adds that the manner of our dying is very real; and he asks us not die miserable deaths.

A bad death would be one where the meaning of life dawns too late; where an ego-driven individuality understands only on the threshold of the unknown that if unconditional love had allowed forgiveness – and freedom! – an experience might not have involved monotonous repetitions.

The plague could come back if we don’t transform.

Chant the Aquarian prayer with me:

Love’s to be!

Rimbaud in the Place Vendome with his nameless friend (who places his left hand on Rimbaud’s shoulder). The small man in front of Rimbaud may be Jules Andrieu.

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.

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