Michel Leiris | Jean-Arthur Rimbaud’s Adventurous Life

Raymond Moretti | RIMBAUD ILLUMINATIONS, 1981


I cannot imagine what poetry might be, if not a manifestation of a person’s essential revolt against the absurd laws of this universe he finds himself thrust into despite himself. Some people will exhaust themselves in jeremiads over the sadness of life, but this is not true revolt: the melancholy that gnaws at them does not bring with it any desire for destruction. Others will make a systematic attempt to destroy every notion in their minds that might push them to act: since any action, they believe, presupposes a minimum of optimism, a certain pragmatism by which a thing is judged according to its results, one must rebel against this as well as against the rest, for to reconcile oneself to taking this path would be to accept. These people will remain eternally motionless, sad stylites fed upon by mosquitoes and all the other insects of compromising with one’s conscience, defeated in advance by all of life’s “hopeless battles,” because they did not understand that one must choose this minimal defeat (if one can even call it defeat), that which involves the least shame because it is capable of engendering the most destruction, if one is not to be subjected to many other, even more severe, defeats.

A man may believe for a certain time that poetry is the most real way he has to show his revolt. He is separating himself from the physical world, he thinks, remaining in communication with it only through the vague magic link of words, upsetting relations by agitating these same words, sometimes building a new world in his own image… He thinks he das broken all his chains, spurned all forms of acceptance. Yet he is forgetting that his system is still subject to the convention of language (one of the most crushing) and that the physical world is still there, in the multiple splendor of its garbage.

But this blindness doesn’t usually lost long. The poet’s quarrels with ideas, sentences, and words soon show him what hard compromises he was accepting and how derisory and unreal was the hold he claimed to have over the world through the intermediary of words. Poetry will no longer be enough to assuage his revolt, and he will turn to the world and look for a way to breach its detested laws.

If the time or the country he lives in allows him still to believe in the power of magic, he will become a sorcerer or a necromancer, will conclude a pact with the forces of hell so that he can dominate the earthly world. If, on the other hand, the “lights” of his time prevent him from relying seriously on these resources, he will draw up a rational plan of his prison, then try to find out to what extent he can control it.

He will first discover that the laws of physics can’t be changed. Hallucination at one time might have given him the illusion that they were metamorphosing, but he knows well that when he wakes up the weight is still there, along with the beating of his heart and the flux of his blood. He will then fall back on the second series of laws he is slave to: the laws of society. An enormous drive will raise him against the idiotic laws that men have invented to constrain one another; he will become a lycanthrope, an anarchist, a rebel against all social relations imposed on his person. He will think he can shake off this yoke and smash it—another utopian fantasy, for he is the one who will be fatally smashed by the laws, without his having been able to make a breach in their severity.

Giving up individual revolt when he realizes that it can only lead him to destroy himself without changing, that is, destroying, anything in the world, this man will turn to social revolution, the only way to carry out his revolt, the one method of transmuting values. He will understand in what way he can help create an upheaval in the world, in his sphere at least, by allying himself with the oppressed majority in its implacable struggle against the oppressive minority. Whether this upheaval is great or not, in absolute terms, it is in any case the greatest a man can produce, and this is certainly enough for the feeling of revolt to find a concrete manifestation in it and change from being vague and abstract to being precise, tangible, and for this very reason capable of transforming at least a wrinkle in the face of the universe.

Only Revolution can deliver us from the ignoble dead weight of holdovers. A total renewal of relations between man and man will arise from it. It will cause the whole rotten armature of contemporary thinking to crumble. More than sufficient reasons, I think, for any true poet to devote himself to it body and soul.

Perhaps all this hasn’t much to do with Jean-Marie Carré’s book on the life of Rimbaud.

Arthur Rimbaud, “French poet and traveler,” say the Larousse Dictionary. Let me add: and revolutionary…

All true poetry is inseparable from Revolution.


// This review of Jean-Marie Carré’s Vie aventureuse de Jean-Arthur Rimbaud first appeared in Clarté 5, no. 2 (1926) //



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