Fredric Jameson | Rimbaud and the Spatial Text

Version 2

I want to see if I can make a very schematic contribution to the problem of the preconditions, the conditions of possibility, of a particular realization of what we generally call modernism, namely the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. The problem I want to focus on has to be initially distinguished from both the analysis of that poetry and its interpretation. But the question of the “objective” conditions of possibility of these texts must also be differentiated from the biographical approach, even from those sophisticated contemporary psycho-biographies which offer an expanded sense of the very complex determinations in the construction of what we used to think of as an individual psyche or subjectivity. Rimbaud’s psyche will be taken here as an objective given, as one crucial factor, among others, of the conditions of possibility in question. And since we necessarily find ourselves in a pluralistic climate in which a host of labelled and personalized “methods” compete, honesty requires me to avow a kinship with the aims of Jean-Paul Sartre in his last work, most notably the long and unfinished Flaubert project: even though it seems possible that my own judgements of detail and of historical interpretation alike will be very different in spirit from those of Sartre in that work and elsewhere.
As I read those three thousand pages, Sartre’s project presupposes something like a fundamental gap between subject and object in the modern world, a gap which it proposes to maintain methodologically in order to surmount it epistemologically. What I mean by that is that The Family Idiot presupposes two distinct kinds of explanations for “Flaubert”: on the one hand, a subjective, familial, psychoanalytic one, which will turn on Flaubert’s trauma, his famous seizure at Pont-L’Evêque in 1842; on the other, a set of social determinants which range from the strategic configurations of bourgeois ideology at Flaubert’s moment to the socially symbolic value of the conception of art his generation inherited and modified. The three completed volumes of the work will then stage these two enormous loops as something like a preestablished harmony between the subjective and the objective: the extraordinary historical accident which makes of the Flaubert, bearer of a kind of private neurosis on the one hand, and the privileged spokesperson and form-creator for that collective and “objective neurosis” which was the ideology and daily life practices of the mid-nineteenth-century bourgeoisie on the other. The unwritten final volume was then to have set all this in motion around Madame Bovary, considered as a symbolic act overdetermined by these two distinct impulses, which are however in the work of art uniquely fused and ultimately indistinguishable.
Something like this, on a far reduced scale, is what I propose to sketch out for Rimbaud. On the side of the subject, “Rimbaud” is to be understood as a distinct physical and experiential, phenomenological configuration, something I will call “the production of the adolescent body”; and this is, I believe, a historically new and specific sensorium for which a host of unique determinants made this particular figure a privileged recording apparatus. On the side of the objective dimension, or that of social history, “Rimbaud” marks the moment—and this prematurely and in a uniquely anticipatory and prophetic fashion—of the passage from market capitalism to the monopoly stage of capital (or to what Lenin called the “stage of imperialism”), the moment therefore, of a whole mutation in the world system, something which demands a little fuller explanation. We are, in other words, fairly familiar with the relationship between culture and the historical body; yet the way in which an individual consciousness can also in some sense be informed and determined, structurally constructed and influenced, by something so seemingly abstract as a far-flung geographical and international system—this is perhaps still a paradoxical or enigmatic notion.
I might begin its elaboration by suggesting that my own approach is more unified than Sartre’s, in that both of the impulses I have mentioned—the subjective and the objective, the body and the world system—are essentially spatial and are thus distinct poles in the historical configuration and transformation of social space itself.
Insofar as global or planetary space is concerned, however, a more effective approach to that might well involve attention to the intelligibility of social units, such as the village, the city, and the like. This is the moment to complicate our presentation—but the complication is really essentially yet another point of differentiation from the Sartrean model—with an aesthetic and a formal accompaniment, namely a theory of the stages of form production and cultural languages which sees middle-class art as passing through the three moments of realism, modernism, and postmodernism. These moments roughly correspond to the three stages of capitalism itself—the market stage, the monopoly stage or stage of imperialism, and finally our own moment, the multinational stage or so-called late capitalism and globalization, whose peculiar adventure we cannot even touch on here.
The larger theoretical interest of the moment of Rimbaud, however, will now be hopefully clarified: its analysis can be expected to tell us something significant about the key transitional moment in which modernism proper emerges, and some of the features of my explanation are indebted to Lukács’s pioneering views on that emergence, from which, however, I hope a certain dogmatic moralizing has been removed.
My own particular Lukács, however, is, as I have said elsewhere, the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness, that is, the theorist of “totality”; I believe indeed that it is possible to read the familiar aesthetic works, the essays on realism, in terms of the earlier theory, and it is in this way that I want to approach our immediate spatial and geographical problem here. The idea is that the unification of form, in art, is closely interdependent on the immanent intelligibility of social life, that is, on the persistence of certain local social totalities. The possibility of realism will thus be closely related to the persistence of a certain kind of community existence, in which the experience of the individual is not yet completely sundered from the mechanisms of the socio-economic: a kind of society then that one might still overhastily describe in terms of the rhetoric of transparency. Intelligibility here means that the experience of a given individual is still able to convey the structure of social life proper: so that the “realistic” narrative of the destiny of individual characters retains an epistemological value and is still able, according to narrative laws and logic, to convey something of the inner truth of social life itself.
It is this possibility which becomes problematical when the newly unified and post-revolutionary nation states of Europe enter their monopoly and imperialist stage, in other words, when the life of the metropolis comes to be increasingly and structurally dependent on a network of domination and a colonial base (raw materials, markets, intensified and brutal surplus extraction) outside its own national borders and in the field of the cultural Other, which we have come to term the Third World: a process which sets in with an irreversible intensity from the period of Rimbaud’s production onwards, and essentially extends all the way up to World War Two and to the great moment of decolonization and neocolonialism which marks the passage to the third or multinational stage.
The crisis in realism can therefore be theorized or modelled in the following way: as a gap between individual and phenomenological experience and structural intelligibility. Or to put it more simply, if, in the newly decentered situation of the imperialist network, you live something strongly and concretely, it is unintelligible, since its ultimate determinants lie outside your own field of experience. If on the other hand you are able to understand a phenomenon abstractly or scientifically, if your abstract mind is able to assemble all the appropriate determinants, present and absent as well, then this knowledge fails to add up to a concrete experience, remains abstract and sealed away in the compartment of the mind reserved for pure knowledge and intellection.
Two immediate comments about this description: first, the notion of the compartmentalization of the mind into experience and knowledge is only part of an immense psychic fragmentation, of a specialization or division of labor of various mental functions according to the separate senses, sexuality, rationality, numeration, and so forth—and that very fragmentation (sometimes, following Lukács, I call it reification) is itself a historically original part of the process I am trying to describe here, and is evidently the mental analogue to the taylorization of the labor process during this same period.
The second observation is this: that the various aesthetic and philosophical movements which aim at a return to wholeness, or, as with Bergson or the phenomenologists, posit some original wholeness which the fallen human beings of daily life misrecognize—all of these are surely also to be understood as so many desperate, second-degree attempts to deal with the crisis of fragmentation itself. Among them, one would surely want to accord some supremely privileged place to modernism itself, an artistic language which both registers and replicates the reification. Elsewhere I’ve discussed such strategies in terms of the body and the senses or the sensorium, with a view towards showing how the fragmentation of the various physical senses from one another also provided the modernist artist with so many sealed compartments (the pure eye, the pure ear, even some “pure” linguistic apparatus) in which to restore unity in a purely symbolic fashion. But I must not omit to remind us here that the most influential of these strategies is a far more pernicious and ideological gesture, in which it is subjectivity as a whole which is sealed off from a now dead and inert objectivity: generating a whole new field in which a whole new literature of inwardness and introspection can flourish.
The peculiar greatness and originality of Rimbaud—due at least in part to his prophetic or annunciatory situation—is that in his work none of these “strategies” has had time to freeze over into what Gadamer would have called a “method” or Barthes “an established, canonical, institutional system of signs.” Returning to the matter of the geographical, of the abstract idea of the map as opposed to the bodily experience of a marginalized and in itself unintelligible here-and-now, I have in mind shortly to try to show the role played in Rimbaud’s poetic production by the evocation of exotic parts of the world—Africa, the Far East, a delirious tropics, a phantasmagorical Germany—not to speak of the very real personal shock of contact with London itself, supreme metropolis of capitalism and also the very center of the shipping networks which will increasingly unite a world drawn together by colonization.
Central among these references is of course the great section “Mauvais sang” (Tainted Blood), in A Season in Hell: this extraordinary chapter—which describes the attempt to daydream the self back through history, the imagination fighting desperately against the dead weight of Christianity that it finds there everywhere—attempts a series of identifications with the underclasses, from mercenaries, lepers, convicts, all the way to the lengthy acting out of the tribal African on whose shores slavers, Christian colonizers and the colonial soldiers of Europe disembark—a scene that it might have been interesting to compare with Whitman’s slave market sequence. Unfortunately we have no further time to consider A Season in Hell here. But I’m anxious that this geographical Unconscious of colonialism be understood in a more generalized sense: I will refer to my discussion of the role of abstract geographical and exotic fantasy in the form production of Wallace Stevens (see essay 9 above). A rather different light is then cast on this by Terry Eagleton’s insight, in Exiles and Emigrés, that virtually all the great modern ‘British’ writers have either been foreigners, women or internal emigrés—as though the establishment culture of English imperialism was unable to achieve a vision of its own Other or Outside sufficient to confer form on its own subjective experiences. Nor should it be supposed that those Others, and Third World culture generally, do not suffer an analogous yet inverted version of this same situation: as Susan Willis has shown in her discussion of the role of maps and floating airplane’s-eye-view totalization in some of the greatest Caribbean poets. Finally, of course, another dimension of all this has been spelled out by Edward Said in his now classic Orientalism.
But we’re beginning to run ahead of ourselves, and must now return to the other pole of Rimbaud’s spatial text, namely the body, whose unique historical disposition and sensorium serves as something like a registering machine or libidinal apparatus for capturing the peculiar resonances of the colonial world system. For purposes of exposition, I’m going to begin a schematic discussion of the body in Rimbaud with a fairly traditional “influence” approach, namely a rather preposterous suggestion by Enid Starkie in her classic biography that when Rimbaud said “alchemy” he meant exactly that, and that his images and figures are explicitly informed by a conscious conception of the traditional vision of the “grand oeuvre” or the transmutation of baser metals into gold:

There are seven stages, or processes, in the production of the gold: calcination, putrefaction, solution, distillation, sublimation, conjunction and finally fixation. They produce, during the processes, and in their correct progression, the various colours which are proof that the experiment is proceeding satisfactorily: There are three main colours. First the black—the indication of dissolution and putrefaction—and when it appears it is a sign that the experiment is going well, that the calcination has had its proper effect of breaking down the various substances. Next comes the white, the colour of purification; and the third is the red, the colour of complete success. There are intermediary colours as well, passing through all the shades of the rainbow. Grey is the passage from black to white; yellow from white to red. Sometimes the gold is not produced even when the red appears, then, says Philalèthe, it moves on to green, remains there for a time and turns blue. Care must be taken at this point that it does not return to black, for then the process would have to be begun all over again. If success comes then the gold should appear after the blue, grains of philosopher’s gold. Sometimes the gold is in grains, but sometimes in liquid form, aurum potabile it is called, the elixir of long life. The whole process is sometimes described as the four ages, or the four seasons.1

I’ve found this description useful, not because I believe it to be the key to Rimbaud which Starkie thinks it is, but rather because the alchemical process offers a convenient shorthand impressionistic and figurative account of a physiological experience I take to be more basic in Rimbaud: namely a certain sense of the perseverance of identity through metamorphosis, a certain feeling for the way a single object or element, like Monet’s haystacks, is transfigured by alterations in its lighting, exterior weather, metereological context, and so forth.
To put it that way, however, is still to give a rather static and external, contemplative picture of this process, which is on the contrary lived, I will argue, as an experience of fermentation. Nothing is indeed quite so striking in Rimbaud as a certain dominant rising and falling movement, whose element is liquid and which may even be primarily conveyed as a surging and ebbing movement of liquid within liquid. My examples must necessarily be abbreviated and few; I will take my master text, here from “Les Chercheuses de poux,” translated by Paul Schmidt as “The Ladies who look for lice,” which reads as follows:

Les Chercheuses de Poux

Quand le front de l’enfant, plein de rouges tourmentes,
Implore l’essaim blanc des rêves indistincts,
Il vient près de son lit deux grandes soeurs charmantes
Avec de frêles doigts aux ongles argentins.
Elles assoient l’enfant devant une croisée
Grande ouverte où l’air bleu baigne un fouillis de fleurs,
Et dans ses lourds cheveux où tombe la rosée
Promènent leurs doigts fins, terribles et charmeurs.
Il écoute chanter leurs haleines craintives
Qui fleurent de longs miels végétaux et rosés,
Et qu’interrompt parfois un sifflement, salives
Reprises sur la lèvre ou désirs de baisers.
Il entend leurs cils noirs battant sous les silences
Parfumés; et leurs doigts électriques et doux
Font crépiter parmi ses grises indolences
Sous leurs ongles royaux la mort des petits poux.
Voilà que monte en lui le vin de la paresse,
Soupir d’harmonica qui pourrait délirer;
L’enfant se sent, selon la lenteur des caresses,
Sourdre et mourir sans cesse un désir de pleurer.2


The Ladies Who Look for Lice

When the child’s forehead, red and full of pain,
Dreams of ease in the streaming of white veils,
To the side of his bed two lovely sisters come
With delicate fingers and long silvery nails.
They take the child with them to an immense
Window, where blue air bathes a flowery grove,
And through his heavy hair, as the dew descends,
Their terrible, enchanting fingers probe.
He listens to their fearful slow breath vibrate,
Flowering with honey and the hue of roses,
Broken now and then with whispers, saliva
Licked back on their lips, a longing for kisses.
He hears their lashes beat the still, sweet air;
Their soft electric fingers never tire—
Through his gray swoon, a crackling in his hair—
Beneath their royal nails the little lice expire.
Within him then surges the wine of Idleness,
„Like the sweet deluding harmonica’s sigh;
And the child can feel, beneath their slow caresses,
Rising, falling, an endless desire to cry.3

I want to linger on a somewhat more detailed reading of this poem, which is a rather central piece in my argument. It has as I see it three basic moments: the first one in which the body is still fantasized as a closed unity, a kind of self-sufficient element or vessel, whose outer limit, edge, rind, promontory, gives onto nothing but is sensitized or problematized by torment of bug bites. Sleep—or better still “indolences,” to use Rimbaud’s own word—will, the child thinks, still restore that unity: “l’essaim blanc des rêves” will fold into the raging itchy spots and annul them. Yet now something approaches from the real outside, the unsuspected real exterior world beyond that closed body. I don’t want to get into vulgar psychoanalysis, but the two sisters are clearly figures of the Horrible Mother, the Ogress who haunted and maimed Rimbaud’s biographical life, and whose nails have something predatory and decoratively terrifying about them.
Now the second moment begins, in which we attend, through as yet unexercised senses, to that whole outer world. The primary unity is still given for another moment in the unity of the blue air and the tangle of “fleurs” (this replicates dreams/itchy bites) and then in the dew falling in the child’s hair. But now something new: touch—a strange metallic contact, not the caress of skin or fingertips, but the exploration of fingernails, as of some delicate machine. And at that point then also, sound: the liquid noises of lips and breathing, the electrical clicking of eyelids and then of the cracking of lice between long sharp nails. All this, and the emanation of perfume or fragrance, takes place on the outside, wanders over the surface, yet includes the menace of a kind of penetration, even more frightening for its delicacy, an approach to the violation of the sealed adolescent body.
I want to note two features of this section: first, the buccal sounds, “salives reprises,” the drawing back in of saliva and breath—this is the first sketch of that rising and falling movement we will underscore in a moment. Then the inorganic clicking sound itself: minute, electrical, deadly, blood-spilling in its very delicacy—I feel myself that it may not be too exaggerated to read here an anticipation and a foreshadowing of that new thing, the modern firearm, the machine gun, first deployed in the Franco-Prussian war and then the object of Rimbaud’s later colonial commerce in an Africa under full colonization. It is the bodily modification of this new military technology, the production, by industrial capital, of a whole new and threatening sensorium of the body menaced over distance to the accompaniment of strange and inoffensive whistling, as of bees around your head (Zola’s image in La Débâcle), which is here in emergence.
So now finally to the last moment, the great shift in level, the great release of a new Stimmung which we should not be tempted to trivialize and banalize too rapidly under the known quantity of a concept of adolescent sexual desire. Here we have then finally the full of what I have called fermentation—the ebbing and falling as of a tide of the “desire to weep,” surging and dying away and yet never overflowing its boundaries, reconfirming the sealed body, a perpetual inner displacement of liquid volumes, which is identified as wine, as the delirium of music, and at length, the final word for this corporeal monad in full transformation and yet at full rest—paresse, indolence, idleness as some ultimate full, troubled yet self-sufficient state of being.
Let me now reinforce this peculiar inner movement with two stanzas which I must hack awkwardly from “Le bateau ivre”:

Et dès lors, je me suis baigné dans le Poème
De la Mer, infusé d’astres, et lactescent.
Dévorant les azurs verts; où, flottaison blême
Et ravie, un noyé pensif parfois descend,
Ou, teignant tout à coup les bleuités, délires
Et rhythmes lents sous les rutilements du jour,
Plus fortes que l’alcool, plus vastes que nos lyres,
Fermentent les rousseurs amères de l’amour!

Now I drift through the Poem of the Sea;
This gruel of stars mirrors the milky sky,
Devours green azures; ecstatic flotsam,
Drowned men, pale and thoughtful, sometimes drift by.
Staining the sudden blueness, the slow sounds,
Deliriums that streak the glowing sky,
Stronger than drink and the songs we sing,
It is boiling, bitter, red; it is love!4

These various versions, of which there are many more for which we have no time, would have served, for an older phenomenological criticism, to designate, at the heart of this poetry, a nameless yet precise physiological experience—what I’ve termed fermentation, following Rimbaud himself (the word is omitted by Schmidt)—and which it is the task of the poet, as he tells us in A Season in Hell, to register: “Ce fut d’abord une étude. J’écrivais des silences, des nuits, Je notais l’inexprimable. Je fixais des vertiges.”5 A whole new grammar corresponds to this vocation, a whole new practice of plural substantives and of multiplied apostrophes, as well as a curious and innovative production of self-modifying verbs (“les fleurs de rêve tintent, éclatent, éclairent”6), which seems to me to be linked to a whole new conception of rhyme itself, as in “Veillées I”:7

Veillées I

C’est le repos éclairé, ni fièvre ni langueur, sur le lit ou sur le pré.
C’est l’ami ni ardent ni faible. L’ami.
C’est l’aimée ni tourmentante ni tourmentée. L’aimée.
L’air et le monde point cherchés. La vie.
—Etait-ce donc ceci?
—Et le rêve fraîchit.


Vigils I

This is a place of rest and light,
No fever, no longing,
In a bed or a field.
This is a friend, neither ardent nor weak. A friend.
This is my beloved, untormenting, untormented. My beloved.
Air, and a world all unlooked for. Life.
… Was it really this?
For the dream grows cold.8

I think we must resist the temptation to confer an immutable and metaphysical signification to rhyme in general; on the other hand, that a peculiar rhyming structure (coming out of the refrain structure of the earliest verse) has a fairly precise private meaning in Rimbaud’s practice seems to me incontrovertible; and it is a meaning I would want to describe in terms of the persistence of a certain identity through metamorphosis, the way in which a substance (as in the alchemical process) retains a troubled and bewildered continuity of being across a range of organic transformations in its flesh, its colors and its very texture (“nudité qu’ombrent, traversent et habillent les arcs-en-ciel, la flore, la mer”9): now we can better grasp the phenomenology of Monet’s haystacks and cathedrals.
I will want shortly to suggest that such fermentation is to be understood as the effects of the mutability of a range of contextual frameworks around a single substance; and you will have understood that those absent, fantasized, yet perpetually shifting “frameworks” are at one with the whole new global geographical system I mentioned earlier. For the moment, however, and on the level of the individual body, this fermentation can be identified as that of adolescence, and its aesthetic registration can thus be taken as the virtual “production” of the adolescent body itself.
Fermentation, however, is only one privileged or symbolic bodily phenomenon in a constellation of others which form something like the semiotic system of Rimbaud’s body or sensorium. Here I must however proceed even more schematically, with the briefest of examples. The other three terms of such a system seem to me to be those of rage, of the insipid, and of what in Rimbaud’s private language is called “le bonheur” (happiness). Rage, storm, the moment in which the body seems on the point of exploding:

Qu’est-ce pour nous, mon coeur, que les nappes de sang
Et de braise, et mille meurtres, et les longs cris
De rage, sanglots de tout enfer renversant
Tout ordre; et l’Aquilon encor sur les débris;

What do we care, my heart, for streams of blood
And fire, a thousand murders, endless screams
Of anger, sobs of hell, order destroyed in a flood
Of fire, as over all the North Wind streams10

This is, I believe, the political or revolutionary pole in Rimbaud, the moment of revolt—both social and physical—which for all intents and purposes disappears from his world with the bloody repression of the Paris Commune.
The insipid (the more expressive French word is “fade”) is, one would think, something like the opposite term to this one: a kind of inner stagnation or stasis, in which an inner tonality or perceptual flavor is given, without its being perceptually identifiable, since the movement of fermentation has been momentarily arrested, and in the absence of metamorphoses into something else there is no way to fix or to demarcate, to identify or to name, the perception or the taste in question:

Que pouvais-je boire dans cette jeune Oise,
Ormeaux sans voix, gazon sans fleurs, ciel couvert.
Que tirais-je à la gourde de colocase?
Quelque liqueur d’or, fade et qui fait suer.

What could I drink from this young Oise,
Tongueless trees, flowerless grass, dark skies …
What could I draw from the round gourd that grew there?
Some tasteless golden draught to make me sweat.11

The mystery of “le fade,” the insipid, along with the accompanying sealing of the body over upon itself, is in Rimbaud generally accompanied by sweat on the outer surface. I will very rapidly suggest, without being able to defend this peculiar hypothesis any further, the intimate signifying relationship between this datum and the privileged theme of work and workers in Rimbaud,12 as well as the relationship of dawn to noon, the emergence into the social world of the city at work and of the sun at its zenith.
Finally, most enigmatic, “le bonheur,” which seems to me to mark the relief of a windless absence of inner bodily feeling, a kind of extraordinary calm more negative than positive, in which the various other perceptual tides have momentarily been stilled or suspended. “Veillées I” can again exemplify this moment, which is sometimes, as in “Being Beauteous” or “Génie,” projected outwards into a mirage of the ideal double, supreme, new, and perfect, to use some of the most characteristic markers for what we must however take to be an illusion: this state is not the prophetic annunciation of the radically new, but rather merely a moment of radical exhaustion and privation, an emptiness rather than a plenitude on the point of emergence.
This system can then be formalized, if we articulate its various terms and elements into the twin oppositions of stasis versus change on the one hand, and closure/plenitude versus emptiness on the other (see figure):


You will note that in the neutral term, “bonheur,” I have introduced an exemplification not mentioned until now, namely the ice and snow of the arctic pole—images from Poe’s “Gordon Pym” or from Verne which begin obsessively to invade Illuminations and which may thus serve as a way of modulating towards our other theme here, namely the global, geographical colonial world-system as it inscribes itself in these poems and develops a resonant interaction with the sensory or bodily system of the individual subject outlined above.
The movement from the verse to the prose poems can largely, but not exclusively, be understood as the displacement of a movement of bodily fermentation or metamorphosis towards that of a metamorphosis of cultural and geographical systems. As with the more purely physical experience, this movement, this rotation of a semiotic system, desperately seeks to transcend itself, to issue into the radically new, into genuine transformation and the Novum, and to constitute something more than a mere permutation in a closed combinational field. It is therefore as though the question posed by such prose poems could be formulated as follows: not, How to find or invent a radically new body? but rather, How will the world end? (it being understood that with the defeat of the Commune in May, 1871, no further visions of social and revolutionary transformation are concretely available to the political unconscious): only destruction and Apocalypse, then, the end of the world, remains as an imaginative possibility and as a formal principle for the closure of these poems:

Non! Le moment de l’étuve, des mers enlevées, des embrasements souterrains, de la planète emportée, et des exterminations conséquentes, certitudes si peu malignement indiquées dans la Bible et par les Nornes et qu’il sera donné à l’être sérieux de surveiller.—Cependant ce ne sera point un effet de légende!

No! This is the time of the sweat bath,
of oceans boiling over,
Of underground explosions, of the planet whirled away,
Of exterminations sure to follow;
Certainties only vaguely indicated in the Bible,
—Or by the Norns—
Which the serious man will be asked to observe.
Though the entire effect will be scarcely one of legend!13

I want to argue, however, that this new vision of the end of the world (curiously inverted in the greatest of all the prose poems, “Après le déluge,” which begins with the end of the world and works drearily backwards into civilization and the misery of the adolescent) involves a displacement of terms from the position of what we have called “rage” to that other, far less dynamic term which marks the moment of stillness or suspension. This is, however, something best demonstrated in the analysis of a single fundamental text, “Métropolitain”:


Du détroit d’indigo aux mers d’Ossian, sur le sable rose et orange qu’a lavé le ciel vineux viennent de monter et de se croiser des boulevards de cristal habités incontinent par de jeunes families pauvres qui s’alimentent chez les fruitiers. Rien de riche.—La ville!
Du désert de bitume fuient droit en déroute avec les nappes de brumes échelonnées en bandes affreuses au ciel qui se recourbe, se recule et descend formé de la plus sinistre fumée noire que puisse faire l’Océan en deuil, les casques, les roues, les barques, les croupes.—La bataille!“
Lève la tête: ce pont de bois, arqué; les derniers potagers de Samarie; ces masques enluminés sous la lanterne fouettée par la nuit froide; l’ondine niaise à la robe bruyante, au bas de la rivière; ces crânes lumineux dans les plants de pois,—et les autres fantasmagories,—la campagne.
Des routes bordées de grilles et de murs, contenant à peine leurs bosquets, et les atroces fleurs qu’on appellerait coeurs et soeurs, Damas damnant de langueur,—possessions de féeriques aristocraties ultra-Rhénanes, Japonaises, Guaranies, propres encore à recevoir la musique des anciens—et il y a des auberges qui pour toujours n’ouvrent déjà plus—il y a des princesses, et si tu n’es pas trop accablé, l’étude des astres—le ciel.
Le matin où avec Elle, vous vous débattîtes parmi les éclats de neige, les lèvres vertes, les glaces, les drapeaux noirs et les rayons bleus, et les parfums pourpres du soleil des pôles,—ta force.



From the indigo straits to the oceans of Ossian,
Across orange and rosy sands washed in the wine-dark sky
Boulevards of crystal rise, crisscross—
They swarm instantly with the young families of the poor,
Fed from the fruit-sellers’ stands—Nothing too rich.
This is the city!

Fleeing out of the bituminous waste
In rout through sheets of mist rising in terrible bands
To the hovering sky, high, then low, full of the blackest,
Most sinister smoke of a mourning Ocean,
Roll helmets, wheels, wagons, and horses’ flanks—
This is battle!

Lift up your head: this high-arched wooden bridge,
The straggling kitchen gardens of Samaria;
Painted masks beneath a lantern beaten by cold nights,
A stupid water nymph in shrieking garments
Deep in the riverbed.
Gleaming skulls in the garden vines,
And other phantasmagorias—
This is the country.

Highways edged with iron grilles and walls,
Barely holding back their groves,
The terrible flowers called sisters, called hearts—
Damascus damned and endless—
The holdings of enchanted aristocracies
(High Rhenish, Japanese, Guaranian)
Still fit to resound with the music of the ancients.
—There are inns that will never ever open again;
There are princesses, and (if you are not yet overwhelmed)
The stars to gaze at—
This is the sky.

The morning when, with Her, you struggled
In the glaring snow; green lips, ice, black banners,
Blue rays of light,
And the dark red perfumes of the polar sun—
This is your strength.14

As is clear, the final strophe of this poem stages that whole landscape of ice to which we referred; and it equally clearly does so in order to bring resolution to the sequence of geographical and cultural motifs. Our initial question must therefore be: resolution of what? How are the constitutive tensions or contradictions in this sequence to be articulated?
City, battle, countryside, heavens: such are the formal rubrics of the four-strophe movement which precedes the ultimate neutralizing world of ice and snow. This movement is subtended, I will argue, by a whole phantasmal history of the world, by an unconscious yet well-nigh collective meditation on history and its contradictions, which now decisively absorbs the more seemingly individual thematics of the earlier poems. Let me, however, qualify this: I’m certainly not trying to say that some earlier subjective or personal thematics has here been somehow replaced by an objective one. Rather, along with Deleuze and others, I must feel that the separation between the subjective and the objective, the psychoanalytic and the social, between desire and politics, is an artificial one, and that desire and its fantasies are always social and political, while the political vision, wherever it exists intensely, must always be seen as a form, perhaps the strong form, of desire. The explicitation, therefore, in this poem, of its historical and political elements is not a turn to something else, but rather simply an enlargement of Rimbaud’s earlier poetic obsessions.
Here, I think, at a moment in which France is passing belatedly into the industrial world, in which for the first time in French history a genuinely bourgeois regime is in the process of installing itself definitively, we can detect in Rimbaud’s prose poem a meditation on the gap between the two great modes of production which, overlapping for a time, are in the process of displacing one another. The first strophe designates the City, the industrial and commercial metropolis which in Rimbaud’s historical experience is embodied, not by Paris—a space of politics and revolution—but rather by London itself, the very center of the colonial world network, and an unimaginable and futuristic urban phenomenon which leaves its mark all over the later prose poems.
The second strophe then conjures up the phantasmagorical Other of the city, of urban civilization—namely the barbarian horde, what Deleuze calls the nomadic, the faceless swarm of the enemies of the city who mass beyond its outer walls and fortifications, but are set in flight by nascent civilization.
With the third and fourth strophes, however, we are clearly in a very different historical and social world, namely that of the great feudalisms, of peasant culture and samurai aristocracies, of fields and feudal warlords. The two strophes are differentiated in terms one would be tempted to characterize as those of social class, but also as those of base and superstructure. The third strophe, indeed, develops a vision of precapitalist agriculture and peasant holdings, along with the cultural dominants of that kind of society, magical and fairytale elements which in our society have been reduced to the materials of children’s books.
The fourth then discovers the whole space of a feudal ruling class, a space which is however detectable only in its sealed absence, by the walls and fences which shut off the ruling-class enclave from the outside world. Even more striking, however, is the sense of the passage of time, of historical disappearance in this passage, in which one of Rimbaud’s great motifs suddenly reappears, like a fateful and telltale symptom: “there are inns that will never ever open again.” As against this world on the wane, then, we return to the opening strophes as the signs of a new world struggling to be born (and struggling to be conceptualized).
The landscape of ice and snow of the final strophe then blots all this out in peremptory fashion: overtones of a return to childhood games and loves—Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud!”—organize a new and powerful neutral element—the arctic pole—capable of obliterating the new space of capital along with the archaic space of feudalism in a single all-engulfing movement.
In the larger context of the Illuminations generally, the two initial sets of paired strophes seem to me to correspond to one of the more haunting obsessions in Rimbaud’s late poetry, most strongly expressed in the regressive movement of “Après le déluge”: “Oh! les pierres précieuses qui se cachaient,—les fleurs qui regardaient déjà” (Oh, the precious stones returning into the earth,—the flowers again beginning to look at us).15 Mineral versus vegetal, industrial capital versus the agricultural world of a precapitalist era: these are the terms in which Rimbaud’s vision of the city—crystal, futuristic, with its great causeways à la Wells or Jules Verne, its Piranesi-like skylines, dizzying in their geometrical entanglement—are linked to the masses of the poor—decent, working poor—who are its human subjects.
It is useful to insist a ittle—not by way of critique but for purposes of historical specification—on everything which is partial, distorted, ideological, phantasmagoric, in this vision of imperial capitalism. Rimbaud as a marginal and a foreigner is excluded from any possibility of grasping that new social formation in any realistic or “scientific” way: he must therefore fantasize it from the outside in terms of the visions offered him by Jules Verne. Yet it is very precisely this failure of the imagination, this dissociation of sensibility, which then finds dialectical compensation in the even wilder visions of a barbarian horde, which appear as though in answer to the question: How will this, how will the city of the future, end?
But it is as if the poem undertook an implicit critique of precisely this vision of history—following the theme of barbarism and the barbarian back into the other related vision of a precapitalist feudalism—something which really did exist, but which can surely no longer be the agency of the end of capital, since it was this last that brought an historical end to the older society, leaving the “inns” empty.“
The final apocalypse of snow oddly reintegrates one of the motifs of the first stanza, namely the whole vision of a crystal world proper: the very unnaturality, minerality, inhumanity of the metropolis—its affinity with the materials of glass, metal and crystal—now generates their ultimate strong form in the emergence of an ice age.
But to leave Rimbaud at that point would be to lose everything which is the most deeply energetic and poetic in this visionary writer: for—ultimate paradox—this glacial annulment of the world is in the climax of the poem suddenly transformed into the most stubborn of all Rimbaud’s obsessions—the transformation of the body, the emergence of the New, the Utopian impulse itself, saluted here in a final moment with the symbolically charged words, “ta force.” To understand how a vision of the blockage of history could be thus invested, against all hope, with a relentless drive towards the transfiguration of the world would be to stand at the very center of the unique complex which bears the name Arthur Rimbaud.


1 Enid Starkie, Rimbaud (New York, 1961), pp. 162–3.
2 All quotations from Rimbaud’s French are from the Pléiade edition of Rimbaud: Oeuvres complètes, ed. Antoine Adam (Paris, 1972). For the present quotation, see pp. 65–6.
3 See Paul Schmidt, Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works (New York, 1976), pp. 76–7.
4 Rimbaud, p. 67; Schmidt, p. 120.
5 Rimbaud, p. 106.
6 Rimbaud, p. 122.
7 But see also ‘Départ’ and ‘A une raison’.
8 Rimbaud, p. 138–9; Schmidt, p. 161. English can scarcely render the effect of Rimbaud’s off-rhymes here.
9 Rimbaud, p. 122.
10 Rimbaud, p. 71; Schmidt, p. 85.
11 Rimbaud, p. 72; Schmidt, p. 139.
12 See, in particular, “Bonne pensée du matin.”
13 Rimbaud, p. 150; Schmidt p. 169.
14 Rimbaud, pp. 143–4; Schmidt, p. 233–4.
15 Rimbaud, p. 121; Schmidt p. 219.

Fredric Jameson; The Modernist Papers

Verso 2016

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