Monday, August 29, 2011

The bells of St Denis were melted down for cannon

In my studies of the Gothic cathedral under François Bucher at college, when the gift of understanding was implanting itself as the ultimate experience of love, I heard that the medieval bells of the Gothic jewel were forged for cannon in the siege of 1870. It comes back now in a novelist's allusion - this was 1872, Rimbaud's eighteenth year, two years into his siege of the Muse. We've discussed Manet in passing, without mentioning his paintings of the catastrophe. But now in Rimbaud, who ignores the humiliation of France, the starvation of Paris and the butchery of the Commune in the moment he began to write?

What happens when the literal substance of the sound of peace is translated into that of war, we know as our transubstantiation of masculinity, itself. We appreciate how France's slaughter of its egalitarians would register as another radical contradiction in a youth, at least as intransigent as anything he met in Paris literary circles. 

The flag goes to the filthy landscape, and our dialect stifles the drum.
On to city centers where we'll nourish the most cynical prostitution. We'll massacre logical rebellions.
On to peppery and waterlogged countries! at the service of the most monstrous industrial or military exploitation.
Farewell here, anywhere. Well-meaning draftees, we'll adopt a ferocious philosophy; ignorant of science, sly for comfort; let the shambling world drop dead. This is the real march. Heads up, forward!

We read, we vote, we shape our own society, and our politics ordains what youth may learn. But they will know what the bells of St Denis are for, and who it is who calls for cannon. 

We are raising their Rimbaud, and they will need him. For now, the one we have is good enough, for anyone who wishes he would speak.

Bruce Duffy
Disaster was my God
  A novel of the outlaw
  life of Arthur Rimbaud
Doubleday, 2011©

Alistair Horne
The Fall of Paris: 
  The Siege and the Commune
Macmillan, 1965© 

Jean-François-Arthur Rimbaud
Les Illuminations
John Ashbery, translation
op. cit.

Daniel Mendelsohn
Rebel Rebel:
  Arthur Rimbaud's Brief Career
The New Yorker
August 29, 2011©

iii  Mathias Lauridsen


  1. What? Bruce Duffy has a new novel? I must find. Today.

  2. You possibly would have enjoyed his Wittgenstein, then? I would hope, with Mendelsohn's enthusiasm for important parts of it - to say nothing of its momentous notice here - that it will do nicely.

    I did not cite the Graham Robb biography because, how can I say this, I haven't read it yet. I think the world of his "Discovery of France" and enjoyed his creative approach to the history of Paris, "The Parisians," although it took a little bit of a drubbing at The NY Review of B's. (I appreciated the instruction in the drubbing, but Robb's book is still delightful). Besides, he's rather a hottie, and one is not wholly immune.

    Mendelsohn, as prev rptd (cf., "Playing Fair" in the search engine), is a considerable lightning rod of my esteem in many ways, but I note that he is very nice to Edmund White's portrait of Rimbaud, while having raked him almost in the mode of the late Trevor-Roper's invective, for a memoir and for a novel on Crane; I enjoyed elements of the Crane unreservedly, and I blame only myself for having touched the memoir, "City Boy." Moreover, Mendelsohn is much more colloquial in his present note at The New Yorker than he ever is at The NY Review of B's, and possibly a touch slipshod (as in proposing one poet as a "purée" of several others - how I wish you'd been there, to restrain that conjecture). Not to mince words, the learning and enthusiasms in the present review are still very stimulating.

    I don't expect anyone to take that much interest in the derivation of this posting, but it honestly was sparked by the lead photograph, which I've much adjusted from the original. You know, how sometimes a portrait can seem to you, to say something impossibly specific, as in a mental game you're always prepared to play? This one did say, the bells had been melted down; and it did say, "how could you possibly not have mentioned the Commune, in anything you say about Rimbaud?" The picture turned me back, and I'll come back to this.

    Thank you for coming. I hope in the end my references to Duffy will not disappoint you.


  3. Yes, I loved, lived, shared The World As I Found It for decades now.

    I no longer read The New Yorker, so I don't know Mendolsohn's essay. I'll take your words for it. I'm lazy that way.

    I do enjoy your response to the photograph. It's often difficult to understand an image, and more so, to find what might be going on there. We so often find that we have forgotten how to look at something and understand it. The training is gone.

  4. "A beautiful thing never gives so much pain as does failing to hear and see it"

  5. JtB, I'm very pleased to see your comment on the Wittgenstein novel, which I missed and ordered for myself immediately on commencing this one. When Tina Brown took over The New Yorker, a custom of a lifetime was ruptured for me and has only partially been revived under Remnick; but you can read the Mendelsohn article online, and I think you'd like it.

    Obviously I went a bit far in citing the specificity in the photograph's expression, but I do like its service to the text. I appreciate your sense of accepting the challenge of looking at things for understanding them, and I hope not too often to let you down. One gets some on the job training in this play, yes?

    Thanks for bringing forward these ideas.

  6. Lucien, that is so acute. We owe it to ourselves to revisit his sonnets, yes? It's been a long time and I would love to see what one could do with them here. Completely agree with your citation here. Merci.