Saturday, October 1, 2016
The essay is followed by my translation and by the French text of “Villes.”
Fragmentation and elliptical expression are implicated in all literary usage. Figures of speech, for instance, always require the reader’s imaginative leap though this action is so natural to the human mind, always so sensitive to structure and pattern and abstract form, that we are not ordinarily conscious of it. These characteristics are particularly evident in modern literature and, like other characteristics of the modern, in the poems of Arthur Rimbaud.
Texts like the prose poems of his Illuminations may be considered as literary examples of what in cinema would be called montage. This most revolutionary technique of cinema is identified with Sergei Eisenstein, though he credits Griffith as his own source.  Those who feel at sea in the middle of one of these poems might do well to simply watch the mental movie scripted by the poet’s images without concern for unity or consistency until the end. As when watching one of the breathtaking sequences in Ivan the Terrible, one might relish the formal structure and melodic appeal of Rimbaud’s words which, like Eisenstein’s masterful images, carry the reader or viewer effortlessly aloft.
To filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein the visual sequence of montages of image is the most potent and distinctively cinematic of the techniques he developed in his own films and in his teaching and critical writing. He calls montage “the most powerful compositional means of telling a story” and “a syntax for the correct construction of each particle of a film fragment.”  Through montage he pursued a “unity of a higher order.”  An admirer of James Joyce during Stalinism when such enthusiasm could have the most serious consequences, he praised Joyce’s skill at presenting apparent “disintegration in stylistic unity” and declared himself very nearly a disciple, saying, “from Joyce the next leap is to film.” 
Eisenstein differed with his colleague Pudovkin’s view of montage as “linkage,” building an accumulated case as though with mounting evidence, and championed instead the idea of montage as “collision,” forcefully juxtaposing elements with no immediate connection, thus obliging the viewer to make one, consciously or, perhaps better yet, unconsciously.  His own montages seek to be at once “monistic” in the final effect and “dialectic” in working toward that end. 
The filmmaker was quite clear about the literary parallels to his visual techniques, citing Flaubert and others as influences. Such gaps have long been exploited as a source of literary beauty. Long after Lautréamont described a boy’s fairness as "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella"  his simile became a Surrealist slogan. More modern manifestations of related theories include Rothenburg and Robert Kelly ‘s concept of “deep images  or Bly’s of “leaping” poetry. 
Some have found Rimbaud’s prose poems to include an almost indigestible density of signification. (The same complaint is sometimes made of John Ashbery, perhaps Rimbaud’s finest translator. ) If the consumer experiences the images as a series, allowing them to register “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,”  they will not only register as powerful impressions, but they will shortly form highly ordered groupings that might, in the end, be called unified or even “monistic.” By listing the images over each section of the poem, I mean to suggest how they might appear as raw experience. I follow with a rapid, stream-of-consciousness interpretation, always provisional. I present this explication as a document of one reader’s response. In the end I believe the poem seems almost classical in its regard for form.
The very title launches a sort of bipolar dialectic that functions throughout the poem. A short time before Rimbaud, Baudelaire’s Parisian flâneur was at once engaged and alienated, while looking forward a bit, Eliot is astonished at the sight of the “unreal city.”  In spite of the title much of the piece employs natural images: palms, gorges, and high peaks. The writer occupies cities, and that fact suggests his alienation from his own original nature, a tense estrangement which is in fact the central theme. The idea is unannounced. The reader must await its unfolding in time, like a film.
Alleghenys and Lebanon -- chalets on tracks -- craters and colossi -- bells in gorges
“Oh, cities! Here is a people for whom fantasies of the Alleghenys and the Lebanon were composed! Chalets of crystal and of wood which move on invisible tracks by means of unseen pulleys. Old craters surrounded by colossi where copper palms roar music through the flames. One overhears the love-feasts on the canals behind the chalets. The bells’ hunt cries through the gorges.”
After announcing the title with an emotive exclamation point, he proceeds to characterize urbanites as people to suit whose taste such exotic realms as “the Alleghenys and the Lebanon” were specifically designed. He suggests their elaborate (virtually “steampunk” despite its date) artificiality by speaking of invisible tracks and pulleys.
Then the images begin to flash by with dizzying speed. Rimbaud sketches a weird end-of-the-world scene like Coleridge’s Xanadu: a crater, a void, the emptiness of the modern soul seems in the center, surrounded by colossi more mysterious than those of Easter Island. Surely they are a response to the crater, an attempt through myth to restore balance. But this dialectic no sooner emerges than it is replaced by another natural/unnatural monster: copper palm trees which, in spite of their surprising material, are aflame, turning to a nightmare the tropical dream they first elicited. Further, in the midst of conflagration they, like the poet and, by implication, all the rest of us, are singing.
Whatever can be the source of song? Perhaps the “love-feasts,” audible from a distance, the first introduction of the dynamo of eros that powers the creation and offers the potential for the persona’s escaping his distress and gaining a sense of belonging and fulfilment and joy. One next sees bells ringing wildly, their peal echoing through the gorges, those liminal areas where low turns to high, the tocsin ringing like the Buddha’s advice in the Lotus Sutra: “Your house is on fire! Act!” 
titanic choruses -- trumpeting Rolands -- masts on gangways -- seraphic centauresses
“Choral societies with gigantic singers and striking robes and banners striking as a high peak dash on the scene. On platforms in the middle of the abyss, Rolands trumpet their courage. On gangways over the void and on the roofs of hostels heaven’s heat decks out the masts. The collapse of apotheoses has caught the higher fields where seraphic centauresses play among the avalanches.”
Suddenly the colossi seem to have come alive and formed themselves into choruses. In the face of the dizzying onslaught we humans, poor doomed Rolands, crow and strut bravely as doom approaches. On the jerry-built justifications that get us through life and over our very accommodations the unforgiving absolute sun displays its mad love of pattern on the cosmic masts. The death of god has proceeded to the point where semi-divine women play heedless amid collapse and disaster.
a stormy sea -- sorrowful flowers -- gowned floating faeries -- theophany of Diana
“Above the elevation of the highest peaks, a sea perturbed by the constant birth of Venus and filled with fleets of men’s choruses and with the thrum of valued conches and pearls. The sea grows dim with lethal blasts. On the slopes harvests of flowers, huge like our weapons and our winecups, bawl. Parades of Mabs in red and opalescent gowns climb the gullies. Way up there, feet in the blackberries and rushing water, Diana suckles the deer.”
At the highest pinnacle of knowledge one finds only the great primal sea waving to reflect the sempiternal birth of Venus. The great sea of chaos is shaken by mortality to thicken the plot. The very flowers, inscribed with weapons and wine-cups, weep. Ascending faeries (the third mention of divinized female figures) rise from the gorges, seeking always the upward path and, as their goal, Diana sits at high altitude rooted in the water and the animals and the plants of perfected nature. She resembles those archaic goddesses of whom Gimbutas wrote. 
bacchantes under burning moon -- Venus going visiting -- bone-built houses -- elk on Main Street
“Suburban bacchantes weep while the moon burns and cries. Venus visits the caves of ironworkers and ascetics. Groupings of belfries sing what’s on people’s minds. From manors built of bones comes an unknown tune. All myths alter and the elk rush through towns.”
The bacchantes are the wise ones, but they weep under the burning moon of experience. Still some favored ones (here hermits and blacksmiths) can enjoy communion with Venus and in that way to become enlightened. Again song carries the human consciousness abroad as the bells sing out the truth. More music emerges from the grand structures people have built of their own knowledge of mortality, but it is not wholly intelligible. The myths must be updated as Diana’s animals troop trough Main Street in an undeniable rush of energy.
paroxysms of storm -- tribal dancing -- the dilemma of the Baghdad street -- conclusion
“A paradise of thunderstorms collapses. Tribal people dance without pause to celebrate the night. And, one time, I went down in the crowds of a Baghdad street where troops were singing the joy of new work, with a brisk breeze blowing, circling, unable to escape the unreal phantoms of the hills where they must have gathered.
What good arms, what fine hour will recover for me the place from which my sleep and my smallest movements come?”
The sky, chaotic like the sea, is torn by huge storms, while below tribal people, the only possessors of the cosmic secrets, dance to embrace the night so alarming to the city-dweller. In the exotic yet urban medina of Baghdad he hears people singing their daily round, singing again to counteract the dark, but he feels always the cold reminding breeze of the metaphysical dilemmas of the mountains. Carrying this burden about with him, he cannot join the crowds. He wonders how he might regain that place of his own unconscious, his sleep, and also of his deepest nature, the origin of his “smallest movements.” In Zen terms he is looking for his original face, before his parents’ birth.
We have then a poem on cities in which the few mentions of cities are emphatically exotic. Here an urban setting serves simply as an emblem of estrangement. Yet the poet realizes that he cannot return to a prelapsarian nature. The only routes toward mitigation of the unfitness we humans feel as a neurotic byproduct of self-consciousness are love and art, Venus and song. Wild as it is, the poem is optimistic in contrast to Rimbaud’s silence that was to come, his escape to Africa, when even these most powerful consolations came to be insufficient. Already in the nineteenth century, the pillars of certainty had fallen for the young poet, and he could find his way only by anticipating the techniques and themes of the age to come.
1. For homage to Griffith see p. 204-5 and 234-5 The Film Form and The Film Sense (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1957).
2. The Film Form, p. 111.
3. The Film Form, p. 254.
4. From Emily Tall, “Eisenstein on Joyce: Sergei Eisenstein's Lecture on James Joyce at the State Institute of Cinematography, November 1, 1934,” James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Winter, 1987), pp. 133-142.
5. Robert Bly, Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations.
6. The Film Form, Flaubert p. 12 For montage as collision, see p. 36.
7. Canto VI, Les Chants de Maldoror. Lautréamont became a hero of the Surrealists after Phillippe Soupault came upon a copy of Maldoror (while a mental patient) and showed to Breton.
8. Trobar 2.
9. The Film Form, p. 235.
10. Though I was immensely impressed with his 2011 translation of Illuminations, I avoided consulting it when doing my own version of “Villes.”
11. The phrase is from Keats’ letter, of course, on “negative capability.”
12. Line 60 of “The Wasteland.” In Baudelaire’s “Paysage” he sees a city in terms as artificial as Rimbaud’s, occupied with “crystal palaces.”
13. In Ch. 3.
14. See The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe and other books.
Oh, cities! Here is a people for whom fantasies of the Alleghenys and the Lebanon were composed! Chalets of crystal and of wood which move on invisible tracks by means of unseen pulleys. Old craters surrounded by colossi where copper palms roar music through the flames. One overhears the love-feasts on the canals behind the chalets. The bells’ hunt cries through the gorges. Choral societies with gigantic singers and striking robes and banners striking as a high peak dash on the scene. On platforms in the middle of the abyss, Rolands trumpet their courage. On gangways over the void and on the roofs of hostels heaven’s heat decks out the masts. The collapse of apotheoses has caught the higher fields where seraphic centauresses play among the avalanches. Above the elevation of the highest peaks, a sea perturbed by the constant birth of Venus and filled with fleets of men’s choruses and with the thrum of valued conches and pearls. The sea grows dim with lethal blasts. On the slopes harvests of flowers, huge like our weapons and our winecups, bawl. Parades of Mabs in red and opalescent gowns climb the gullies. Way up there, feet in the blackberries and rushing water, Diana suckles the deer. Suburban bacchantes weep while the moon burns and cries. Venus visits the caves of ironworkers and ascetics. Groupings of belfries sing what’s on people’s minds. From manors built of bones comes an unknown tune. All myths alter and the elk rush through towns. A paradise of thunderstorms collapses. Tribal people dance without pause to celebrate the night. And, one time, I went down in the crowds of a Baghdad street where troops were singing the joy of new work, with a brisk breeze blowing, circling, unable to escape the unreal phantoms of the hills where they must have gathered.
What good arms, what fine hour will recover for me the place from which my sleep and my smallest movements come?
Ce sont des villes ! C'est un peuple pour qui se sont montés ces Alleghanys et ces Libans de rêve ! Des chalets de cristal et de bois qui se meuvent sur des rails et des poulies invisibles. Les vieux cratères ceints de colosses et de palmiers de cuivre rugissent mélodieusement dans les feux. Des fêtes amoureuses sonnent sur les canaux pendus derrière les chalets. La chasse des carillons crie dans les gorges. Des corporations de chanteurs géants accourent dans des vêtements et des oriflammes éclatants comme la lumière des cimes. Sur les plates-formes au milieu des gouffres les Rolands sonnent leur bravoure. Sur les passerelles de l'abîme et les toits des auberges l'ardeur du ciel pavoise les mâts. L'écroulement des apothéoses rejoint les champs des hauteurs où les centauresses séraphiques évoluent parmi les avalanches. Au-dessus du niveau des plus hautes crêtes une mer troublée par la naissance éternelle de Vénus, chargée de flottes orphéoniques et de la rumeur des perles et des conques précieuses, - la mer s'assombrit parfois avec des éclats mortels. Sur les versants des moissons de fleurs grandes comme nos armes et nos coupes, mugissent. Des cortèges de Mabs en robes rousses, opalines, montent des ravines. Là-haut, les pieds dans la cascade et les ronces, les cerfs tettent Diane. Les Bacchantes des banlieues sanglotent et la lune brûle et hurle. Vénus entre dans les cavernes des forgerons et des ermites. Des groupes de beffrois chantent les idées des peuples. Des châteaux bâtis en os sort la musique inconnue. Toutes les légendes évoluent et les élans se ruent dans les bourgs. Le paradis des orages s'effondre. Les sauvages dansent sans cesse la fête de la nuit. Et une heure je suis descendu dans le mouvement d'un boulevard de Bagdad où des compagnies ont chanté la joie du travail nouveau, sous une brise épaisse, circulant sans pouvoir éluder les fabuleux fantômes des monts où l'on a dû se retrouver.
Quels bons bras, quelle belle heure me rendront cette région d'où viennent mes sommeils et mes moindres mouvements ?
Anthills of the Savannah (Achebe)
Chinua Achebe’s last novel, published twenty-one years after A Man of the People, again engages the theme of sub-Saharan African “democratic” politics, portraying a land utterly lost to avarice, tyranny, and corruption. My own experience is limited, but he seems right on the money. Since independence the continent has suffered decline due to neo-colonialism, domestic profiteers, HIV, and helplessness in the face of world capitalism, and it is proper that the most eloquent protests should come from Africans. Achebe’s readers know how skilled he is at writing a readable and informative novel. Not for nothing is Things Fall Apart a school and university favorite. If the characters here seem mere types (the tyrant, a collaborator, a radical, a more detached female love interest), it is because they are in service to their theme. I, for one, was taken by surprise by the dramatic events that constitute the final portion of the story, including the sudden deaths of two leading figures, and a concluding ceremony for an infant that seems to point suddenly toward cheerier possibilities which I am afraid for me seemed altogether unmotivated.
I enjoyed particularly the passages in pidgin and the oratory of the Abazon elder, but this may be peculiar to my own experiences in Nigeria decades ago.
The Country of the Pointed Firs (Jewett)
Jewett’s near too-fond vignettes of the coast of southern Maine and its people will always have a significant place in accounts of American regionalism, but those interested in camp and kitsch may see in it embryos of the ironic aesthetics so popular in the Modern era. The author was in fact a native of South Berwick, though her family was among the town’s most affluent, and she strayed regularly to greater cultural centers. In this she differs from writers like Mark Twain who, despite his immense success and sharp satiric bite essentially never left his rural Missouri upbringing or George Washington Harris whose Sut Lovingood is wholly a figure of fun. Jewett depicts her characters with warm condescending affection as “dear old things” among whom the narrator is a (presumably urban) intruder set apart by education, taste, and manners yet sufficiently sociably adept to appreciate the people of the boondocks and to ingratiate herself with them. My strongest impression from this reading was a powerful sense of the harshness of the environment, both for those who sought a living at sea and on land, and a hardihood in response that seems a throwback to the Old English. If Jewett seldom writes a memorable descriptive passage or even an attention-getting figure of speech, she is never guilty of verbal missteps, and her prose is clear and refreshing. She may not evoke tragic sensations, but she plays at sentimental and pathetic with a light and restrained hand.
I was in Ogunquit shortly after Labor Day and my first thought, upon turning into town and seeing holidaymakers thronging the sidewalks, was, “I might almost be in Puerto Vallarta.” Yet I ate my lobster and was glad.
Cruel Tales Villiers de l’Isle-Adam
Those who fancy Oscar Wilde and Huysmans will likely know Edmund Wilson’s excellent Axel’s Castle with its title reference to Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s prose poem Axel, in which the hero notoriously says, “Vivre? les serviteurs feront cela pour nous" (“Living? Our servants can do that for us.”) Axel itself is far less well-known and the author’s other efforts, notably short stories, but also journalistic pieces, plays, and poetry have even fewer readers. Yet anyone with a taste for the decadent and perverse will enjoy these brief tales, though a few seek to prove their point at too great a length, most are well-turned, with a refined sense of irony and a relish for a sort of modulated horror. Some border on horror or science fiction, while others devote themselves to provocation. The modern reader can agree with Verlaine (if not with his capitalization) who placed Villiers de l’Isle-Adam in his pantheon of Les Poètes Maudits, calling the author “VERY GLORIOUS. “
On a City Bus in Portland, Maine
Boarding the Congress Street line in Portland, Maine, I saw a number of faces that might have been long-term occupants of park benches or front stoops with peeling paint. A new passenger using a walker climbed laboriously on, but her intent face brightened when she noticed a familiar old friend.
"Hey, hello there, Jerry, I haven't seen you for ever so long! It must be thirty-seven years! But you look about the same. I hope you're doing better than I am. Someone swiped my pain medicine, and I really need it. The doctor said you're allowed one emergency refill a year so he gave it to me. That's never happened to me before, so it worked out all right. Now my friend Annie says if they're going to steal from you, they don't belong in your house. I do need this stuff."
(She pulled out a pill bottle and swallowed one without a drink.)
“You know, it's been thirty-seven years since I seen you, and you haven't changed. No, I wasn't quite twenty last time, so it was thirty-nine years ago. Now me, I've got older. Yeah, I’ve got older. You know, they used to say back then when my sister and I walked down the street, there wasn't a man that didn't turn his head to look. But that was then.”
(She pulled out the pill bottle again and took another one.)
“I do need my medicine and that's a fact.”