Sean Bonney was not impressed by a talk on French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the 1871 revolution in Paris
Last month, the Marx Memorial Library hosted a talk called “Rimbaud and the Paris Commune”, given by the latter-day “decadent” poet Sebastian Hayes. Hayes – whose qualification to talk about the revolutionary aspects of the poetic imagination didn’t amount to much more than having apparently hung out in Paris in 1968 – seemed to know little about Rimbaud, nothing about the Paris Commune and even less about Marx.
The most memorable part of the evening was his suggestion that Marx’s definitive account of the Commune, The Civil War in France was ‘not worth reading’ because it contains ‘too much detail’. It was also surprising to hear his claim that there had been no uprisings in France since 1968: presumably the riots in 2005, or indeed last month’s strikes – still going on while he was speaking – were not ‘poetic’ enough for him.
The talk consisted of a convoluted account of revolutionary France through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a quick biographical account of Rimbaud and a reading of a few poems. It all seemed to be cribbed from somebody’s encyclopaedia. Hayes basically reiterated the spurious myth that has grown up around Rimbaud as proto-punk rebel living a life of sex and drugs, writing a handful of brilliant poems before burning out around the age of 19. And he had nothing to say about what it was in Rimbaud’s work – or in avantgarde poetry in general – that could be read as the subjective counterpart to the objective upheavals of any revolutionary moment.
In May 1871 – that is, precisely contemporary with the massacres that concluded the Commune – Rimbaud wrote two letters, known as the “Lettres du Voyant”, where he laid out his poetic programme. As well as repeatedly expressing his desire to be in Paris and stating his feelings of absolute solidarity with the Communards, Rimbaud made two important claims for the poetic imagination, and what poetic work consists of. Put simply, the poet must subject him or herself to a “long, systematic derangement of all the senses”, a process that will destroy bourgeois subjectivity, leading to a point where “I is an other”.
Obviously its possible to read that biographically as a simple recipe for personal excess, but that would be as reductive and stupid as Francis Wheen’s attempts to explain away Marx’s writings on alienation as being to do with his relationship to Judaism. Given the historical context of Rimbaud’s writing and his own commitment to the values of the Commune, I don’t think its pressing the point too much to suggest that the “systematic derangement of all the senses” might include the social senses, and that the desire for “I” to become “an other” might refer to the transformation of the individual subject into the collective during moments of revolutionary upheaval. Certainly the Surrealists, themselves committed communists, thought so when they insisted that Rimbaud must be read alongside Marx to create, as they put it, a “real chemistry”.
I made these points in the question and answer session at the end of the talk. Hayes looked confused, mumbled that it was a “good point”. I could have added that it is in Rimbaud’s late poems, rather than the ones he wrote in celebration of the Commune itself, that he becomes truly political: I could also have pointed out that a ‘political’ poem is not necessarily so in terms of its content, but that’s another conversation. Those last poems are intensely hallucinatory and fragile, a picture of a mind at the end of its tether and in the process of falling apart.
If we take Rimbaud’s revolutionary attitudes seriously, as I think we should, then these poems become powerful accounts of the painful return to capitalist business-as-usual after the intensity of social upheaval, of the agony of the collective I gradually and painfully returning to its individuality as the uprising is defeated. Again, this is not such an eccentric reading: Rimbaud’s final specifically revolutionary poem, an apocalyptic fantasy about the destruction of the entirety of the bourgeois world, ends with the defeated cry “it’s nothing. I’m still here. my body is still here”. Tellingly, when Hayes read the poem out, he omitted that final line.
A poetry like Rimbaud’s is all too easily recuperable, hence the consistent misrepresentation of him, alongside other important revolutionary poets, as a forerunner of a sort of punk romanticism. This is a problem that Hayes, unable to look beyond the biographical surfaces, seemed be indifferent to. Nothing unusual, I guess, but in a Marxist meeting, imbecelic. There is a conversation to be had about the role of poetic thought and writing within revolutionary discourse, and about the ways in which it might work as the carrier of the utopian desire for absolute transformation that has to exist at the heart of communist thought. Such a conversation would involve taking seriously what a reading of Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov can tell us about the October Revolution, what Vallejo can tell us about the Spanish Civil War, what Brecht can tell us about the triumph of Hitlerism in Germany, and what Rimbaud can tell us about the Paris Commune.
But if the Marx Memorial Library are interested in seriously having this conversation, and talking about what poets and artists can bring to revolutionary struggles, then they ought to begin by inviting someone to speak who actually knows what they’re talking about.