November 2011

Elizabeth Bachner


As Heavy, As Light: Reading Rimbaud in Java

In my dream, the man I love came back for me. There he was, waiting. He had poison oak all over his calves, which were thin. He didn’t look so well, but it was unmistakably him. I lived somewhere not in New York City, somewhere with woods and the smell of old trees and a long, winding dirt road. He didn’t have any explanation for why he’d left or why he’d come back. Even in my dream, I hefted my bag over my shoulder and I was ready to go with him, again, wherever we were going. Once I was awake I was reading Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage by Jamie James, and thinking about the idea of arriving at the unknown through disordering all the senses, and thinking about how maybe I should go somewhere exotic, Yemen, Ethiopia, and thinking about how I’m going to quit writing. Then I wrote a scene where the character in my book (?) dreams of a lover coming back, with his legs covered with a rash, and then I opened Nicholas Royle’s The Uncanny to a random page and there was a chapter headed “Déjà vu,” and the Kafka aphorism, “A belief like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light,” and a quote from Freud: “If I had my life to live over again I should devote myself to psychical research rather than to psychoanalysis.”

“My poor heart drools at the poop. My heart covered with shag tobacco.” Henry Miller, according to Jamie James, got obsessed with Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud who quit writing before he was twenty-one, Miller who was just getting rolling at forty. Miller would hear Rimbaud whisper (or hiss?) in his ears. “Someday you will have to come to grips with me.” I’ve been whining too much and reading too many library self-help books, but I’m not doing so badly. Arthur Rimbaud wasn’t any better at being thirty-seven than I am. He didn’t even survive it.

Maybe I’ll quit writing, and go on a journey. Or maybe I can quit writing, and devote myself to psychical research. The world does seem mystical, odd, off, uncanny (unheimlich)… but then also, more than ever, it seems naked, familiar, canny, homely. The juxtaposition is a bit nauseating. (Levinas, from On Escape: “In nausea -- the impossibility of being what one is -- we are at the same time riveted to ourselves, enclosed in a tight circle that smothers.”)

“There’s nothing one can say about Rimbaud the opposite of which is not also true,” writes Jamie James. I don’t hear Rimbaud whispering in my ear. Writing is impossible, not-writing is impossible.

I’m reading Nicholas Royle on the death drive, and repetition compulsion -- the strange, creepy magic of our ability to somehow play out the same scenario again and again, and to turn the people in our lives into characters in that scenario. “The man whose friendships all end in betrayal by his friend. The lover each of whose love affairs with a woman passes through the same phases and reaches the same conclusion.” It’s like we become writers, frightening writers who are entirely unaware of ourselves or at least out of our own control, writers possessed by demonic power. It took shell shock victims for Freud to decide that dreams weren’t always about wish fulfillment, that sometimes we compulsively reenact -- in our dreams, or when we’re awake -- stories that harm us.

In Royle’s account, Freud is kind of a trainwreck -- a writer, disturbingly coming to grips (or not coming to grips) with writing. Or coming to grips with not-writing. Janet Malcolm describes all of Freud’s work, or all of his writing, as characterized by “startling and beguiling reversals” -- Royle shows how many of Freud’s quirks, muddled thinking, and hypocrisies are less beguiling than just odd. Literature haunts psychoanalysis, which is more about stories than about life. I am trapped by stories -- the ones I mean to repeat, the ones I don’t mean to repeat, the ones my genii show up to write. I’m trapped and freed by stories, gripping onto stories, coming to grips with stories, or with the kind of poisonous, beautiful, deadly language that refuses to shape itself into any stories.

“It has been said of Rimbaud that his life was his greatest work,” says James, “a glib formula that harbors a fundamental truth about his conception of art… The point is to arrive at the unknown, not to express it… to walk away from a talent of the magnitude of Rimbaud’s requires the resolve, even the courage, of a hero of myth.” And of course there are Rimbaud’s infamous Seer Letters (Les lettres du voyant), written to his friends when he was sixteen, when he was just getting started -- that always-quoted Je est un autre letter to George Izambard: “I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself into a seer: you won’t understand this at all, and I hardly know how to explain it to you. The point is to arrive at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one must be strong, to be born a poet, and I have discovered myself to be a poet.”

Arthur Rimbaud’s life was not his greatest work -- all of our lives have just as much genius as his did, as we live through and die in and ignore wars, as we look at the stars, as we swim across the channel, as we tightrope-walk between later-destroyed towers, as we swim illegally to an unsafe new country, as we shop for pesticide-sprayed endives under fluorescent lights, as we hand-roll couscous out in the desert, as we paint our faces, as we cry in front of the TV, as we pray, as we decide against prayer.

No, Rimbaud’s greatest work wasn’t his soldiering or gun-trading or adventuring or scrambling to escape a Catholic boyhood -- it was, of course, those poems. Also -- trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is not insane. Carving your eyes out of your own face because you think each eye is possessed by a wee evil spirit is insane. And also, rejection IS personal. And also, serenity might not be all it’s cracked up to be. And also, why do I keep reading these library self-help books?

I don’t know that there’s anything heroic about giving up writing, or about continuing to write -- it’s poems themselves are that are transformational, dirty, deadly, spectacular, awe-full. The way they disorder the senses, or make new senses. The way they break things and patch things back together and make things ancient or new. Sometimes poems appear, and other times they don’t. Real novels are poems, real essays are poems, any real work (versus fake work) is a poem. If I quit writing I won’t be walking away from “a talent with the magnitude of Rimbaud’s” -- just from my own, unique body of work. I’d rather write that body of work than write some “better” body of work that didn’t come from my own genii, just the way that I would never want to switch out my own (genetic or adopted) child for a stuffed doll, even if my real child was drooling and retarded and pooped and cried and wasn’t universally recognized as adorable. If I had a child, I would not care to collaborate on its little face with a famous doctor with a scalpel, let alone some alley thug with a razor and a kitchen knife. Similarly, I don’t want my work co-authored. Why is that rare? I feel lonely in this. I feel nauseated. Maybe I should’ve gotten more upbeat self-help books? The ones I left on the shelves, the pink ones with the exercises? I’m thinking of strategies. Psychical research, losing myself in the psychical, escaping. I’m reading more of the Levinas, reading Paul Bowles Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-1993, where he talks about the great emptiness of the Sahara, and I have been to the Arabian Desert, which was empty that same way. There were djinns there instead of just genii -- what would Freud or Rimbaud have made of it?

Just the thought of the Rub Al-Khali, its endlessness, and the reasons I feel encircled, the reasons I feel smothered burn away. The “everyone” of my Freudian phantasies, the bland production teams wanting to do violence to my writings, to hack up their little hands and bellies and make them look and sound and smell like everyone else’s writings, turns into some mirage, a thing that seemed real because I made it real. And I’m not in the Rub Al-Khali, I’m in New York, New York that I love even though sometimes it starts feeling as tiny as Charleville, ranting at my innocent friends over brunch about things I don’t understand. I’ve done this before, thought about quitting, I mean, thought about escaping (“in escape the I flees itself”), thought about voyaging. Repetition compulsion all over again.

Nicholas Royle says that for Freud, a departure in a dream was always a death, but he doesn’t say what kind of uncanny, un-homely thing an arrival would be. Maybe my dream is a fantasy about poetry, some Orpheus returning from the dead and singing even with his head cut off, maybe the man in my dream is my poems -- rash-covered and sick -- returned to me, with no explanation. I wonder what we would all believe if Freud had stuck to his first work, studying eels.

Rimbaud at 21, after he quit poetry, wrote his mother asking for twenty-seven books, according to Jamie James: treatises on metallurgy, hydraulics, deep-sea diving, telegraphy, steamships, and candle-making -- “literature had disappeared from his reading completely.” I can’t actually believe that he really quit, I never believe that anything lost won’t come back, but then I’m always reversing, always believing everything untrue just as deeply, just as heavily, just as lightly, as everything true. All these different translations from the Seer Letters, I don’t know which of those is quite right -- “by turning himself into the great sick man, the great criminal, the great accursed, the poet reaches the unknown; and if, maddened, he should end by losing understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them.” “I have recognized myself to be a poet, it is not my fault.” “Let him die as he leaps through unheard of and unnamable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where the other collapsed!”

Henry Miller wrote: “Claudel styled Rimbaud ‘a mystic in the wild state’… he did not ‘belong’ -- not anywhere. I have always had the same feeling about myself. The parallels are endless -- I do not think I am unique in this respect; I think there are many Rimbauds in the world, and that their number will increase in time.” I’m looking around and I can’t see even one Rimbaud anywhere, not even in my dreams. I can’t see anything for miles.