Book reviews 2018 - #24 "Illuminations"

#24 – “Illuminations”, Arthur Rimbaud (1886) (trans. John Ashbery 2011)

And from one genius to two others.  Rimbaud, nineteenth century French lunatic, writer of what is widely acknowledged as some of the most powerful poetry of all time; and Ashbery, foremost American poet of the twentieth century.  Where to start?


Sometimes when reading ‘Illuminations’ one encounters a sentence like “O most violent Paradise of the enraged grimace!” or “The cruel procedures of discarded finery!” and I find myself thinking: What?  I have no idea what you’re on about.

And it makes me think of Noam Chomsky’s point about the way in which language works, so that you can compile sentences that are grammatically correct but have no meaning: his example (from 1957) is:-

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously

And it makes me think, too, of William Burroughs doing ‘cut up’ (which he apparently began in 1959) whereby he cuts up bits of his own or other people’s texts and then re-arranges them into new sequences so as to reveal new meanings.

And it even makes me think of those AIs that generate text, or random-but-meaningful jargon generators like the one I posted a while ago.

The point being: there are lots of ways of arranging words; we humans are intent on finding meaning in things; so we’re capable of reading a sentence of utter gibberish and thinking “Gosh, how profound”.  Most of what Burroughs produced with cut-up was utter gibberish, and there's now a fairly sizeable chunk of the internet devoted to demonstrating that Chomsky's sentence was not gibberish.

What if Rimbaud is just… gibberish?  What if he was just a young stoned bloke who wrote reams of nonsense and in our desperate need for meaning we’ve elevated his emetic verbiage to an exalted but utterly spurious status?


But then I remember what I said about Kertesz, and Sebald and Beckett and Iain Sinclair and M John Harrison.  These are people capable of writing sentences, indeed entire paragraphs, that leave you gasping for air.  You may have no idea at all what they meant – but something courses within you, something ineffable, a sensation, a disorientation or a feeling of light or an imbalance or a diffuse joy or…  Is this not what art is actually for?

So read Rimbaud again.  And again.  And again.  Allow whatever it is to be whatever it needs.  Breathe.  Feel dizzy.  Fret.  Breathe some more.  Gaze, for a moment, at something like:

Very robust rascals.  Several of them have exploited your worlds.   With no pressing needs, and in no hurry to bring into play their brilliant faculties and their experience of your consciences.”

DO NOT ATTEMPT TO WORK OUT WHAT THIS MEANS.  Rimbaud is not about ‘meaning’.  What it means – if anything – is not what it is for. 


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