A Review of Edmund White's new bio of Arthur Rimbaud:
I Is Another
The Double Life of a Rebel
By Edmund White
192 pp. Atlas & Company. $24
More aspects of Rimbaud are known than can be assimilated: his vastly various, influential and innovative poetry itself; his expressive letters; his scornful and unhesitating permanent abandonment of poetry at the age of 20; the anecdotes of his contemporaries showing him as a drunken, filthy, amoral homosexualteenager who becomes a reserved, hard-working, responsible and respectable (if misanthropic and disgust-ridden) adult merchant and explorer. One would have to be a genius oneself to grasp the full significance of Arthur Rimbaud, or at least have the ability to hold many opposed ideas in one’s mind at the same time and still function fully. Numerous writers have sought to demonstrate their qualifications along these lines by publishing studies of him.
This biography by Edmund White is the digest version. If you’re casually curious about the fuss made over Rimbaud and want the lowdown from someone literate, it will satisfy you, without badly misleading. This approach seems to be the plan behind the series of short lives, each written by a distinguished author (often a novelist or scholar, not usually a professional biographer) and edited by James Atlas, first for Penguin, now for Atlas & Company, of which “Rimbaud” is the latest entry. Seems like a worthy idea; there are a lot of famous artists and thinkers one wouldn’t mind getting a convenient little handle on.
Still, this book irritates a bit with some of its complacent assertions, such as that Rimbaud’s famous declaration (in a letter written at age 16), “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”), “meant that in the act of introspection we objectify the self, we experience our self as if it belongs to another person,” which takes banality to the point of distortion. It’s self-evident that examining oneself predicates a pair. But “I is another” is exhilarating, a revelation, which, at the very least, acknowledges one’s undifferentiated human substance or collectivity, as for a child . . .
On a blue summer evening I shall go
down the path
And, brushed by wheat, walk on the
Dreaming along, I’ll feel the coolness
under my feet
And bathe my bare head in the poetic
I won’t speak, I will not even think,
But infinite love will geyser up in my
And I’ll go far, far away, like a Gypsy
Into the wilds — as happy as if I were
with a woman.
. . . who is present at his own invention as an actor in life (in more ways than two: the above is Rimbaud’s second known post-schoolwork poem, written at the age of 15, and it foresees his life — if in an innocent, far more lush and joyous light than it would actually be played out), like “the wood that becomes a violin” and “tough luck” to it for that fate (a letter at 16), or as when “the brass awakes as horn” (ditto) and, as Rimbaud adds, “I am present at the explosion of my thought. I watch and I listen to it. I wave the baton; the symphony murmurs from its depths or comes leaping onto the stage” (ditto as well). One witnesses one’s invention by life, while one plays oneself like a symphonic conductor, in the meantime dreaming a million dreams. . . . The statement of it is thrilling, is uncanny, and it’s words. This is what Rimbaud gives us. There is no limit to his reach, and it doesn’t exceed his grasp.
The best full-scale English-language biography of Rimbaud is Graham Robb’s (published in 2000), as White agrees in his book, incorporating such Robb insights and researches as the tally of time the vagabond rebel-boy spent at home with his mother (actually almost five of the approximately nine years between his first escape from her farm at 15 and his eventual departure from Europe in 1880), and that, contrary to legend, Rimbaud ultimately did quite well as a merchant and weapons salesman, accumulating a small fortune (the equivalent of well over $100,000, according to Robb) in the course of his approximately 11 years in Africa.
White uses his own translations to demonstrate Rimbaud’s poetry. They will do in context, but, for the interested, I’d recommend Wyatt Mason’s two-volume Modern Library edition of Rimbaud’s complete writings (works and letters). Any translation requires special focus from a reader. Of the large-scale Rimbaud efforts, the Mason is the most alive.
Because that’s what distinguishes Rimbaud: of all poets, his writing is the most alive, even now and here, in another language more than a hundred years later. He learned very much from Baudelaire, and in many ways Baudelaire remains his master, but Baudelaire was a poet of ennui (and dreams), while Rimbaud reels with the most robust — if often contemptuous — vitality (and dreams). This is a function of his peasant, punkish ultra-confidence in the value of his pure (unegotistic) honesty, as an adolescent seeing through the adult hypocrisy and convention veiling the sensual, unsane world; a boy to whom language was understood as inextricable (to the seer) from reality, and who knew how to wield those words, existence itself. He didn’t have to try to translate his perceptions into language; he understood that he must see in language, and he saw with the supreme, paradoxically unformed, fluid ego of an adolescent. His honesty and insight never waned — he just grew up and lost interest in the unrewarding expression of the visions.