Rimbaud: Vagabond Blues Redux

Henri Fantin-Latour’s By the Table. 1872. Paris, Musée d’Orsay.

 A couple of recent movies got me to think again about Rimbaud and his effects. Movies have a funny way of doing that to me. They often make me think about writers, artists, and musicians, even if the movie isn’t really about them. Oblique references stimulate a new ordering, a new attempt to find links, connections, similarities. Hopefully new connections. New patterns. New orderings of anxiety and influence. Sometimes, they don’t even mention this or that artist, but they send me there anyway.

The two movies:

Todd Haynes’  I’m Not There, which has already been mentioned on these pages, and Poison Friends, Emmanuel Bourdieu’s 2006 film about student passions and betrayals.

In the first, one of the pseudo-Dylans calls himself Rimbaud. All of the characters have a certain enfant-terrible aspect to them. A version of youthful misery, audacity, fire, passion and defensiveness we all felt at one time in our lives. A wonderful mix of supreme confidence and bravura bordering on the irrational, with a woe-is-me quality of eternal persecution by the Furies to spice things up.

Supremely self-assured at times, filled with wonder and awe at our own genius and avant-gardedness, we certainly were a wondrous mess. But the arc of joy that results from that mess can sometimes lead to cults and worshippers, to glorious derangement of all senses, and . . . of course, illumination.

Blake’s “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

In the case of Rimbaud and the Pseudo-Dylans, that road took them on a journey as varied as hobo trains across America, ships to Indonesia, Cyprus and Africa, and planes across the globe.

In the second film, the Rimbaudian character is a reversal in a sense. A flip-side. He’s a year older than his new friends, their mentor, their defender. Unlike Rimbaud’s dynamic with the older poet, Verlaine, the character of Morney plays the trailblazer for his younger friends, tells them what to read, to never, ever write, who to date and where to go. He’s a Rimbaud who stays in France, pretending that he journeys across the sea to America, pretending that he’s still the enfant-terrible, the king of the Sorbonne, the beloved of his teachers and the world of literature as a whole. Beloved for his passionate commitment against literature and all writing, as he attempts his literary thesis to gain access to America and its perceived riches.

“Poison Friends”

A fighter against the status quo, against convention, Morney is trapped in the conundrum of refusal. If he follows the logic of his own fight, he disappears and his revolution ends. Perhaps that is why the lies appear. And the betrayals. And the eventual humiliation.

Rimbaud, of course, did leave France. In a big way. No half-measures for the author of Une Saison en Enfer. He fought his perception of convention and his former self by giving up poetry for gun running and the coffee trade. His own refusal, his rebellion is the stuff of legend, his demise at the age of thirty-seven a tragedy. For Rimbaud, his family, and Art. In Marseille, he almost made it home again.

Vagabonds draw us in. Perhaps it’s because they take the kinds of risks we only dream about taking. The kinds of risks we feel certain we have the courage to take in the light of day. Oftentimes, knowing we could do this or that is enough. For some, for Rimbaud and the pseudo-Dylans, challenging the self to the extremes of endurance is a necessity. For Morney, talking about the journey as if he made it — albeit with charisma and passion — almost gets him there.


Rimbaud: Vagabond Blues Redux
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