The Rimbaud Problem: The Modernist As Symbol
Sunday, 8 May 2011
In reading a recent Smartset article on Rimbaud, I realized suddenly that nothing new has been written about the young poet for the last five decades––even faced by a new, posthumously published collection, Illuminations, we faithfully recite the Myth of Rimbaud.
The article, written by Morgan Meis, made evident the contemporary readers’ tendency to happily mythologize Modernist writers, and, in doing so, produce awkward caricatures of our new-age aesthetic. Even now, with the availability of more informed anthologies, we continue to ignore accurate, biographical appraisals of our writer-heroes in favor of our grandiose imaginings of them.
“[Rimbaud's poems] are no less fiery today than when he first wrote them,” Meis writes. “[His poetry] isn’t written for understanding. It doesn’t enter the mind so much as it finds a way directly into the nervous system, the heart, the soul.”
This overblown assessment of a decent, modest writer harms any honest poetic memory that may positively inform his writing. As Wyatt Mason, translator and editor of the not-too-old Modern Library Classics’ Rimbaud Complete, writes:
“So accustomed have we become to these variations on the Myth of Rimbaud, that when we turn to the poems themselves it is difficult to keep our preconceptions at bay. We find ourselves looking for the Adolescent Poet here, the Hallucinogenic Poet there, the Gay Poet everywhere.”
Unfortunately, this ‘case of caricature’ isn’t restricted to Rimbaud, and that’s the problem; any writer who decidedly refuted a measure of the stodgy Enlightenment to the benefit of literature (and his career) has been praised––and subsequently satirized––since.
The list spans two centuries of writing: Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon.
Each of these authors has been worshiped––in increasingly peculiar ways––and fictionalized through seemingly ‘journalistic’ critiques. Certainly remarkable, these writers reinvented the prose of coming generations, only to be labeled by overzealous critics as “modernist,” “rebellious,” and “original.”
Inaccurate, critical assumptions of sexuality, drug use, versatile language, and care-free romping and rampaging have colored a generation of good artists as extraordinary demigods––an expectation that, because it cannot possibly be fulfilled, relegates important writing to a tiring, oft-falsified framework of unrealistic creative gallivanting.
Meis, unknowingly, chronicles this effect in one especially vivid description: “It seems that the poetry of the absolutely modern is both exhaustive and exhausting,” he writes. “…the tiredness sets in, the depression. Everything is the same. And then the sameness becomes exciting again because it means we can have it all, there is no beyond. The democracy of all experience fills up the heart. And then it collapses again…”
Considered objectively, this rephrasing of otherwise very accessible, lovely “modern” poetry propagates a type of readers’ Anguish which would probably best be excluded from a modern reading. ‘Anguish’ as philosophical pressure suitably describes Meis’ appraisal of Modernism, because his critiques (like most others’) are founded in the well-explored, over-referenced Existential Dialogue.
Meis’ writing reveals this : “To be absolutely modern is to recognize, finally, that nothing matters, not even the subject making that very observation.” This, almost a verbatim rehashing of Sartré’s landmark Being and Nothingness, in which he writes: “The being under consideration is that and outside of that nothing.”
Therefore, Meis unwittingly destabilizes his argument in the writing: When his unsupportable, explosive definition of Modernism “collapses,” he turns for support towards a century-old philosophy. This assessment––typical of most doe-eyed critics––espouses a sort of myopia that should be exposed, if not generally refrained from.
As for Rimbaud? Well, it seems there is a small dose of published honesty out there; Mason firmly believes in a healthy bit of realism:
“[If] we can manage to ignore what we know about Rimbaud or believe we know, if we can focus briefly on what he made rather than what he may have done, the opportunity to explore one of the most varied troves of individual expression in literature awaits us.”
Apparently, a majority of Modern literature deserves a little even-handed reinvestigation.