Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Translation of "Jean-Arthur Rimbaud" by Thomas Bernhard

Jean-Arthur Rimbaud
In Honor of the Centenary of His Birth [1]

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is said that we honor poets only when they are dead, when the lid of the tomb or the wet heap of earth has effected the definitive separation of him from us, when the creator of lyrical poems has been asphyxiated by misery and penury, when, in the beautiful and distressing phraseology of memorial addresses penned by inferior minds, he has given up the ghost.  Thereafter, God willing, some governmental department turns up and begins leafing through his address book, and the work of posterity takes its course.  There are wreaths and “wreathlets,” and an amusing commercial collaboration between his neighborhood wine bar and the ministry develops, until at length the poet’s achievement vanishes back into oblivion, or someone decides to publish a complete edition of his works.  There are festivals and pageants, the dead man’s thematic agenda is discovered, brought to light—the poet is “showcased”—mostly for the sake of staving off the showcasers’ own boredom, the boredom for which they are ultimately paid.  And is it not true that on such occasions (like this one!) it is not the poet who is being honored but rather the gentleman from the cultural office who delivers the welcoming address, the worthy administrator of poetry, the actor, the reciter?  How many Hölderlins and Georg Trakls would turn in their graves over so much simulated culture, over so much art-market chit-chat from which nothing emerges but shamelessness!
We are gathered here to reflect on Jean-Arthur Rimbaud.  Thank God he was a Frenchman!  We therefore believe in the power and the majesty of the poetic word, we believe in the perduring life of spirit, in the indestructibility of such images (of images of the dead and of visions), as surface between the pages written by a pair of great men of the elements, as are begotten only once or twice in a century.  Let us be under no illusions[:] that which is powerful, provocative, disruptive, and consoling, that which endures, does not grow like sorrel and summer fields!  Thus a significant line of verse, one that vouchsafes mankind a glimpse into the depths, does not come into being every day, or every year.  Invariably several thousand books must be printed out, before the machine makes even one such elemental jolt, and preserves it for us, before it delivers even a single significant work of world literature.  These thousands of books that always cling so tightly to the big bell and whose clang reverberates as far as the besotted beer-halls, these newspaper-poets and export articles of literature, which sometimes even garner Nobel prizes, are generally nothing but tarted-up tittle-tattle and fashionable prefabrications.  In literature originality, nay, elementality, devolves only upon people like Jean Arthur Rimbaud.
This French poet was an element in the truest sense, his verses were made out of flesh and blood.  A hundred years are nothing for this master of the word, for this untranslatable Rimbaud.  He tears into life itself, unconventionally, at the root, while at the same time he crams it full of reverence and the thirst for death.  His poetry is sealed off, at the age of twenty-two, he slammed shut his book, his Drunken Boat, his Illuminations, his Season in Hell.  He no longer touches a pen for the purpose of writing poetry, in the presence of literature he is seized by fits of nausea.  But he was finished, enough was enough.  “Absurd!  Ridiculous!  Disgusting!”—with such exclamations did Rimbaud ward off those who spoke of his verses with wonderment and tried to win him back into the fold of French literature.  Rimbaud was born on October 20, 1854 in Charleville.  His father was an army officer, his mother a woman like every other woman, mindful of the boy’s well-being, but mistrustful and reserved, when at the age of nine he brings home his first verses from school, his first “Essays,” his visions, his first poems, which number among the finest ever produced in France.  In July 1870 he receives first prize in a competition for the masterly Latin poem in which he had recast “Sancho Panza’s Address to His Ass.”  While still in school he writes for an Ardennes newspaper and impugns Napoleon III and Bismarck with equal vehemence.  In order to see and suffer human poverty, he travels on foot to Paris, plunges into dread of humanity and a human wilderness, and he throws himself into the arms of the distressed and destitute among the solitary boulevards.  During this period his hair reputedly grew to be as long as a horse’s mane, a passerby tendered him four sous to pass on to the barber, the “Bard of Charleville” spends the money on tobacco.  Then he witnesses the revolution in the barracks of the Rue Babylon, in the dense mélange of races and classes, and he fervidly cries out, “I will be a worker!  A warrior!”  After an eight-day struggle, the governmental troops storm the capital, the captured revolutionaries, his friends and comrades, bleed to death.  He himself, who now has the first great convulsion of his life behind him, miraculously escapes.  But in Charleville he no longer felt at home.
Rimbaud was a martyr and “socialist,” but never a politician.  He had nothing to do or in common with politics, with [its] distaste for art.  He was nothing less than a human being, and as a human being he was incited by the violation of spirit.  In Charleville he sat down and wrote the fervid poem The Drunken Boat even though he had never been at sea—wrote, “Paris is repopulating itself,” the orgy, the indictment of the tumor of hatred, the poem of Parisian vice, everything within him was indignation, and when he walked along the river, “he required hours to pacify himself thoroughly.”  He was seventeen years old when he committed to paper that marvelous creation in verse, “The Poor People in the Church,” “with pounding heart, right next to the dirty children who gaze unwaveringly at the wooden angels and suppose that behind them stands God…” Rimbaud was a communist, yes, but not one of those communists who wanted to set fire to the palace on the Champs-Elysées, but rather a communist of the spirit, a communist of his own lyricism and his eidetic prose.
When he sent his verses to Verlaine, the only living French poet he admired, the latter replied with the now-legendary sentence: “Venez, chère grande âme!”  And with what astonishment does the “Bard of Paris,” who enters and exits the smoke-filled salons like a god, discover, in place of an “estimable” gentleman, the seventeen-year-old ragamuffin Jean standing on his doorstep.  This ragamuffin already had his “Sensation,” that mighty incendiary poem, behind him.  Ah, those were the days!
With his meeting of Verlaine a new epoch began for Rimbaud, it was an epoch both imbued with friendship and deeply human, and the two men set off together to England, in order to acquaint themselves with London, with the noisome air of the largest port city in the world, with the English midlands and their black factories, they arrived in Brussels only—for a time!—to part company.  Verlaine had to go “home,” to his family, whom he had “ruthlessly,” as they say, abandoned one fine morning.  How different from each other were the two vagabonds, who were obliged to wander through Europe without passports, without a single possession, the volatile, ever-fulminant Rimbaud, goaded onwards by the monumental new reality that “awaited digestion in prose,” and the pliant, and (in Rimbaud’s eyes) degenerate Verlaine, who was now making a beeline for Catholicism, to salvation, who had Rimbaud to thank for those profound poems, those sanctified lays of quiescent humanity, that the defeated man committed to paper in prison, after shooting and seriously wounding his Charlevillian little brother in the heat of a quarrel.  Verlaine was in Rimbaud’s eyes the great[est of] poets, but also [excessively] pliant and needy.  Rimbaud on the other hand had become for Verlaine “the sole locus of value in my life other than Jesus Christ.”  One must not misconstrue [this designation]: Verlaine’s enamorment with his “brother’s” poetic power, and with Arthur’s miraculously fair features, was now a thing of the past.
A poet’s life does not deserve to be dragged on parade through the streets, but Rimbaud’s life is so prodigious, so huge, so precipitous and yet so religious, like the life of a saint.  He stands before us like his poetry: abominable, truthful, beautiful, and divine!
In Germany he was a private tutor in the house of Doctor Wagner, a citizen of Stuttgart, he wandered through Belgium and from there to Holland.  He enlisted in the Dutch colonial army and after a seven week-long voyage arrived in Java.  But he took military service not a jot more seriously than he had earlier taken the idea of “becoming a missionary in order to see the world!”  When he disembarked in the Dutch East Indies, it seemed as though he had attained his goal: to be beyond the reach of the abomination that was civilization!  He took to his heels, went to Batavia, lived on pocket change, slogged his way through the new landscape, fraternized with animals and semi-idiots, in 1876 he boarded a British ship with the intention of heading home.  As they were sailing past the island of St. Helena, he asked if they could stop there.  As his request was not granted, he simply jumped into the sea with the intention of swimming to the island.  Only with great difficulty was this man who wanted so desperately to see the lair of Napoleon dragged back on board.  Not a day before or after December 31st he was back in Charleville.  All his life he was an adventurer, and half his existence was spent in transit.  He had long since strayed away from literature, and he no longer wrote the likes of:

For eight days I had been tearing my boots to shreds
On highway pavements.  Into Charleroi I strolled;
At the Green Cabaret, I ordered some sliced bread
Layered with butter and ham that were almost cold

Blissfully, I stretched my legs out under the green
Table: I contemplated the artless patterns
On the upholstery.  And it was a charming scene
When the girl with huge tits, a keen-eyed slattern

--a kiss alone wouldn’t purify her state!—
Laughing, brought me a parti-colored plate
Piled high with bread and butter and lukewarm swine--

Pink and white-marbled ham instinct with the perfume
Of garlic--and filled my towering mug with her spume
To which a straggling sunbeam imparted its gilt shine.[2]

He lived with all the more gusto.  Once again he is in Marseille and selling key-rings, he comes to Egypt, returns to France and finally ships out to Arabia as a coffee-and-perfume salesman.  In November he leaves Arabia and reaches Zeila.  In the first half of December, after a twenty-day ride through the Somali desert, he arrives in Harrar, an English colony.  Here he became a general commercial agent of an English trading company and earned “a salary of 330 francs, plus board, travel expenses, and a 2% commission.”  But before leaving Aden, he had written to his mother about certain books on natural science.  Art was thrown overboard, he strove for achievement in other equally important intellectual domains, and hereafter he studies metallurgy, the art of navigation, hydraulics, mineralogy, bricklaying, carpentry, agricultural machinery, timber mills, the craft of metal casting in Bergmann glasses and pots, artesian wells—he wants to make everything his own, he is hungrier than ever, even as a general commercial agent!  The Harrar branch of the company flourishes under the leadership of Rimbaud the poet.  In his letters he writes of money and gold that must be sought out.  Again he grows impatient and forms schemes of moving to Tonking, to India, and to the Panama Canal.  And from then on out he engages in nothing but business activities, perhaps solely in the hope of anaesthetizing himself, he deals in coffee and guns, which he dispatches to the Red Sea, with cotton and fruit—he had already dispatched to France the finest juvenilia in verse that it would ever see.  And in a state of the utmost dejection, he writes: “I am terribly bored, I have never met anybody as bored as I am.”
In 1890, just as he was beginning to feel a hankering to get married, he sensed the sudden onset of a kind of gout, of a form of corporeal pain, something this storm-tossed individual had never experienced.  Far from France, among slaves and negroes, in the noisome desert.  The end was approaching with colossal rapidity.  He himself wrote of his illness: “The climate of Harrar is cold, and I generally wear next to nothing, a simple pair of [cotton] trousers and a wool shirt, and thus dressed, every day I senselessly go riding for 15 to 40 kilometers at a stretch through the rugged, hilly terrain of the region.  It seems that on my knee there has developed some sort of malignant complaint brought on by fatigue, heat, and cold.  In actual fact it began with a sort of throbbing hammering sensation under my kneecap: a slight throbbing that I suddenly began noticing every single minute.  I continued riding around and working with my wonted diligence, because I thought I was simply coming down with an ordinary cold…”  His examination by the English doctor at the hospital in Aden yielded a diagnosis of a dangerously advanced inflammation of the joint.  Rimbaud decided to have himself carried on to a Mediterranean-bound steamer.
In Marseille his leg is amputated.  Old Madame Rimbaud is by his side.  “I am a cripple,” he writes in despair, “of what use to the world is a cripple?  Death is preferable to this, after all I have put up with so far…”  He wrote this after months of excruciating pains that had left him bedridden.  He is suffering from cancer.  On July 23, according to his sister, he had himself brought to Roche, where his nearest relations had settled.  There he hoped to find peace and sleep at last.  The year was 1891.  He arrived to find the local grain harvest blighted by frost, and at the sight of the room that had been prepared for him, he exclaimed, “This room is a Versailles in itself!”  The following month was the most harrowing of his life.  In October the first signs of death become perceptible.  Once again he is of a mind to take off, with one leg, for India, or, failing that, for Harrar and its negroes.  He is even bundled into a carriage and dragged on to a train, but he has to be dragged right back out again at the first station stop.  He had reached the utmost depths of human despair.  He checks into the “Hôpital de la Conception” under the name Jean Rimbaud.  From that point onwards, everything was a struggle between life, which he craved, and death.  He has miraculous visions, his “Illuminations,” his enlightenments, come back to him.  In his death agony the poet returns, suddenly he is back where he left off at the age of twenty-three, when he was spat upon from every corner and quarter as the “literary barbarian,” the “intellectual epicene.”  He is once again a poet—even if he no longer writes anything down.  He is once again present—but he was never absent, rather in Harrar, in Egypt, in England, in Java.  It was only a detour, he now clearly beheld the poetic corpus from Charleville and saw it for what it was: a creation of genius!  It descended upon him as a wonderful consolation.  “On November 10, at 2 p.m., he died,” his sister Isabelle noted.  The parish priest, convulsed by a plethora of piety, gave him the benediction.  “Never before have I seen such a strong attestation of faith,” he said.  Thanks to Isabelle’s assistance Rimbaud was conveyed to Charleville and interred with great ceremony in the town cemetery.  To this day he lies there beside his sister Vitalie, under a simple monument of marble.
Rimbaud’s work was always opposed by those with little respect for truth, nevertheless his corpus begins with the salutary, revolutionary, thoroughly literary new year’s school composition “The Sun Was Still Warm…,” which his teacher and friend Izambard held in safekeeping.  His work ranks among the most prodigious of all poetic corpora and it is the most original that has ever been composed in the French language, more original than that of any of the French giants, Racine, Verlaine, Valéry, Gide, and more recently Claudel.  His poetry is not exclusively French, but more broadly European, it is poetry for a global readership, full of epigrams and prophecies, emotions and deliria of uncanny sorcery.
One mustn’t talk Rimbaud to death, one must read him, one must let him take effect in his entirety like a dream of the entire earth, one must enter his world as he entered it, with dirty shoes and an empty stomach, one must be on the road to Mézières one minute, and the next minute in Paris, steeped in ineluctability.  One must, like Rimbaud himself, look into his church, one must not merely contemplate his work but rather fraternize and empathize with it, simply regard it as a young girl regards any object that happens to flutter into her path.

“As four a.m. in summer takes its leave / The sleep of love itself restates / Beneath the shrubs the dawn evaporates / The fêted smell of eve…”  Something comparable to this is only seldom said at all and is never said in verse.  It is pure, discomposing, solitary, cosmopolitan Rimbaud.  Or take “Ophelia,” the two poems that encapsulate the whole world and God along with it.  In them may be found all that is lacking in poems written today: beauty and awe in the truest sense of those words, and therein also resides bereavement and within it the eternal and single God, the great father, however strongly bereavement desires to banish him from Rimbaud’s verses.  In order to be religious, one need not swallow communion wafers, one need not go to confession twice a year every year.  It is enough if one gazes at the countenance of the world, if one gazes deep into its heart—like Rimbaud.  One ought never to make fun of the Church, but one is licensed to describe its corrupt priests as corrupt and its depraved nuns as depraved.  But one must also glorify God in all his wholeness and goodness, as Rimbaud did from beginning to end, with elemental authority.  For what makes his work so great is its unbroken uniformity.  Rimbaud was simply the first person who wrote like Rimbaud.  He knew as nobody else of his time knew that “no thing exists, but HE exists, and HE eternally exists.”
He is “l’enfant Shakespeare”—and not just because Victor Hugo said so.  His “Bateau ivre,” that fantastic dream, is imperishable.  To what spot did he commend his aesthetic legacy?  Why, to the internally self- devouring rubbish heap of literature, which broadcasts its perfumic stench to every period of history: nothing could be less like him than the surrealities, the vitreosities of, for example, the late Rilke.  He was virginal and bestial at the same time, and from him spring the most beautiful, the most emotionally heartfelt reflections.  He did not write on hand-molded paper, but rather on malodorous cheese-wrappers—and yet, for all that, his writings were the quintessence of poetry.  The “Season in Hell” was the only work that he published himself during his lifetime.  After Rimbaud’s death, Verlaine supervised the publication of a complete edition.  Stefan Zweig later said of him that poetry had been for him “nothing more than an attempt to escape,” a “safety valve for the management of high-pressure surplus vitality.”  But into such channels no one can discharge mere raw vitality, and certainly not Rimbaud, for whom poetry was no refuge but rather his own private homeland.  “Religion never brought him to his knees,” writes the aforesaid Zweig (who deeply admired Rimbaud!).  And yet the literature he lived was a unique, frankly cosmopolitan, historically frank, unbound, unrefined religion, triumphant in its filthy, shredded boots.  And this religion truly brought about his downfall, it really did bring him to his knees!— his entire life was at the mercy of his “Season in Hell,” his very heartbeat  at the mercy of his “Illuminations”—the valuables in Harrar were utterly useless, all the money was utterly useless, everything, everything was utterly useless, he sinks to the ground, in the end to all outward appearances he dwindles into quite a tiny thing, he falls to his knees in a delirium and takes orbit around the final illumination: around the eternal father!
Only he who orbits the eternal father has any prospect of enduring, can get away with saying, as Rimbaud said: I am for the ages!      



[1] Editors’ note.  The typescript in the Thomas Bernhard Archive in Gmunden bears the title Thomas Bernhard: Jean-Arthur RimbaudIn Honor of the Sesquicentenary (sic [DR]) of His Birth.  This is the text of a lecture that Bernhard delivered at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, 9 November 1954 at the Hotel Pitter in Salzburg, at a meeting of the “Mountain Circle” commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Rimbaud (10 October 1854-10 November 1891).  The “Mountain Circle,” organized by Renée Bergen and Hildegard Brenner, provided a public forum (exclusively at the Hotel Pitter) for artists and literati in the mid-1950s.  Posthumously published in Die Zeit on 14 May 2009.        

[2] Unlike the quotations from Rimbaud’s letters, this poem and the excerpt from “Bonne pensée du matin” below I have translated from Rimbaud’s French originals, not from the German translations used (or composed [the editors do not specify which]) by Bernhard.  

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2013 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Der Wahrheit auf der Spur.  Reden, Leserbriefe, Interviews, Feuilletons.  Herausgegeben von  Wolfram Bayer, Raimund Fellingerund und Martin Huber [Stalking the Truth.  Speeches, Open Letters, Interviews, Newspaper Articles.  Edited by Wolfram Bayer et al.](Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2011).