Wednesday, December 14, 2011

THE ILLUMINATIONS, by Arthur Rimbaud (translated by Donald Revell)


There are certain writers whose fame owes more to their myth than to their writing. I'd put Arthur Rimbaud in that group, though I know that doing so is inviting attacks (Rimbaud enjoys cult-hero status amongst those with bohemian inclinations). Perhaps the classic example of the enfant terrible, Rimbaud scandalized the Parisian literary scene with his decadence. As a teenager he embroiled himself in a homosexual affair with an older (and married) man, and indulged in raucous behavior and uninhibited drug use.

His body of work is relatively small, composed almost entirely during his teenage years (by 21 he'd given up on writing all together). Amongst his most lauded works is THE ILLUMINATIONS, which is also some of the last writing he produced (other than letters to acquaintances, which have also been collected and published). It reads more as a series of prose-sketches than a cohesive work. I wonder whether Rimbaud ever considered it a book, or whether its creation and publication resulted primarily from other people raiding his notebooks.

Despite the legions of admirers, THE ILLUMINATIONS did little to inspire me. Here and there a sentence stood out, but the only piece that interested/satisfied me through all of its sentences was "City", and my interest/satisfaction came more from amusement at Rimbaud's humorous scorn (he was talking about London) than from any deep-passions. Anyway, here it is (as translated by Donald Revell):


I am a temporary and not unhappy citizen of a metropolis generally deemed modern because, in all of its furnishings and facades, and even in its overall city-plan, good taste has been scrupulously avoided. Here you will not find the slightest trace of any monument to superstition. In brief, language and morality have been reduced to their minims! These millions of people, all strangers to one another, pursue their educations and occupations and decripitude so uniformly that their life spans seem many times shorter than those statistically ordained for ordinary Europeans. From my window, I can see new specters rolling through thick, everlasting fumes--our forest shade, our summer night!--my cottage is my homeland and my whole heart because it is just like all the others, and out front, a whole new breed of Furies is arising,--Death without tears (our priceless housemaid), hopeless Love and pretty Crime puling in the gutter.

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