Arriving from always, you’ll go away everywhere.
We are modern. We are so because Rimbaud commanded us to be.
It is one of those curious accidents (but are they really accidents?) that I have resumed my de Kooning studies at the exact same time I decided to buy Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, a book that had been on my wishlist for eight years.
I have never made a conscious connection between the painter and the poet. In fact I’ve been a student of de Kooning’s work for many years whereas for the same amount of time my knowledge of Rimbaud has been a ragged tissue of cultural cliches. As a teenager I read translations of Rimbaud’s poetry that were already dated and none of the poems took hold on my imagination. Essentially Rimbaud has been little more to me than a name one sees dropped over and over, registering absolute zero, like a distant bell that keeps ringing and one no longer hears.
Ashbery’s translations have changed that for me. Though one can still place most of the poems in 19th century Europe, the language is fresh, often startling, and the brilliance of the poems comes through. More to the point of my theme today, I couldn’t help but contrast and compare what I was reading there with my meditations on de Kooning. Because it seems to me that one sense of the modern as Rimbaud commanded it reached full flower in de Kooning. And yet another sense of the modern that comes out of Rimbaud was antagonistic to de Kooning’s attitude toward art. For there are two senses of the modern, two divergent streams that both have their source in Rimbaud. They are not always easy to disentangle (a bit of one always remains in the other) but each one taken as an individual track leads to a very different place than the other.
The first form of the modern is the dive into simultaneity: rushing into the world with open arms in the here and now and doing so as an artist who blends the personal with the social and cultural in a distinctive, unique style. Rimbaud created that brand. De Kooning became its crown prince.
The second form of the modern embraced speed and change for its own sake, rushed headlong into capitalism run amok and even fascism. It fed one avant-garde movement after another, each one eating its predecessor and still running away hungry. Perhaps in the blinding light of his genius Rimbaud already sensed where this would go, and he burned too hot. After Illuminations where could he go as a poet? He achieved too much too fast. So he walked away.
It took the world a while to catch up with Rimbaud. And, as Ashbery has shown, he can still speak to us. How do you like your Rimbaud? Poems like Clearance and Democracy might, from our point of view, work as ironic or sarcastic commentary. And we are free to enjoy them as such. But I strongly doubt that Rimbaud intended them that way. For he had no sooner written them than he lived them. This vision of modernity as excess, perpetual change and unending growth would come to be seen by subsequent generations as dangerous, if not downright evil. One thinks of the Futurists calling for speed and more speed into the new. Democracy could be placed whole into Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. The Futurists’ violent hatred of the past would appeal to Mussolini. Time of the assassins indeed.
In my twenties I read a lot of books by Henry Miller. And because I happened to have his The Time of the Assassins, published in 1947, in my library—the only book on Rimbaud I own—I decided to reread it. Miller is capable of powerful statements, such as
The discovery of atomic energy is synchronous with the discovery that we can never trust one another again. [p 36]
He is also capable of utter bullshit. In one section Rimbaud is a grand creature with wings who is chained to the earth. Every attempt to fly has him smearing his wings in the mud. Then later he is a creature who has in fact soared but with wings that have never been released from the chrysalis, within which they rot. This murk is actually a good snapshot of the essay as a whole. Miller is like a man in a fever alternately mumbling and spewing chunks of malformed ideas occasionally broken by a powerfully lucid passage. He doesn’t write, he starts fires. You either put them out—and sometimes it takes a mere puff of mist—or you get out of the way. But since my project today is a meditation on the connection in modernity between Rimbaud and de Kooning, I want to highlight the way Miller writes about Rimbaud’s mother.
It seems to me that one must be determined to ignore that the subversive qualities in Rimbaud aren’t all benign—that is, confined to the aesthetic sphere. It takes a similar kind of willful blindness to subsume the monstrosities of de Kooning’s Woman I into an ivory tower of aesthetic interpretation. Miller does not shy away from the baleful fumes of Rimbaud’s biography, but throughout his essay we see him constantly looping back (like the famous hook in de Kooning’s gesture) to sweep them back into his vision of Rimbaud the Saint. But he does not convince and I don’t think it can be done. Rimbaud remains an enigma. And after all I’ve read about de Kooning, his relationship to women remains mysterious.
Every time Miller mentions Rimbaud’s mother it is with repugnance, associated with the word, “monster”. She is “that old goat”, a “lodestone” around Rimbaud’s neck, she is “the very incarnation of stupidity, bigotry, pride and stubbornness”, she is a “witch”, a “harridan”. If Rimbaud’s soul was monstrous one reason is because of his connection to the monster that his mother was. This interpretation seems to draw Rimbaud close to Sade and his mother-in-law. But Miller doesn’t go there. Neither does he seem to wonder very much why, so many miles—worlds even—away, Rimbaud chose to keep writing home to mom. Only that there was a bond he could not escape. That much we know. We don’t know why.
Perhaps there is a similarity here with de Kooning’s relationship with his mother. And perhaps that relationship affected his relationships with other women. Elaine de Kooning would joke that her husband got all that monstrosity from his mother, not from her. Her husband would quip that he did not begin painting women that way until he met her. We do know that de Kooning struggled with Woman I for an entire year of his life. And the honest viewer cannot deny what is staring him in the face. She is an ugly bitch, and it’s an ugly painting, and no discussion of technique and the blurring of image into painterly gesture and abstraction can explain it away. Remember too that de Kooning insisted on painting the human figure at a time when most other avant-garde painters were doing pure abstraction.
This does not mean one can say that Rimbaud would have sided with fascists, or that because of Woman I de Kooning was misogynist. But the ramifications of Rimbaud’s vision of modernity go beyond poetry, and in this painting de Kooning showed us a woman who is repulsive and frightening.
To my eyes and sensibility a painting like Woman I and a poem like Morning of Drunkenness exert a fascination that in a sense freezes them in time. The painting provokes a question or a series of questions that go unresolved. It is one of the weirdest paintings in the history of art and for these reasons continues to demand attention. For me Morning of Drunkenness contains in an indissoluble form what later became two roads of modernism. It is impossible, in this poem, to separate the private from the public Rimbaud, the poet and the world traveler, always leaving and never finding home.
How deeply fortunate we are to have Ashbery as the translator of Illuminations, for there are few people—de Kooning is one—who so fully embody the beautiful and positive sense of the modern as well as the sometimes perturbing subjective side of it that we trace back to Rimbaud. Like de Kooning, Ashbery learned early on to reject the speed into novelty for its own sake that crippled other avant-garde figures. Like de Kooning, Ashbery learned early on to embrace the history of art and to incorporate that love and understanding of history into his version of modern art. At the same time, so deeply involved in their subjective versions of modernism, both de Kooning and Ashbery were capable of producing art so free of social conditioning that it was at times famously difficult to penetrate.
Let us look at Ashbery’s preface to his translations of the Illuminations. Indeed he alludes to a kind of double-sided sense of the modern in his comments on Genie which in uncharacteristic praise he calls, “one of the greatest poems ever written”:
The genie will usher in an age of sadder but wiser happiness, of a higher awareness than A Season in Hell foresaw, perhaps due precisely to that work’s injunction to be “absolutely modern.”…. We tend to forget that “modern poetry” is a venerable institution…. absolute modernity was for him the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all of life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second. The self is obsolete. In Rimbaud’s famous formulation, “‘I’ is someone else.”
It is just like Ashbery to produce in so succinct a fashion such a deeply ambiguous statement. One of the greatest contemporary artists of the simultaneous, the composer/musician John Zorn, once said that total subjectivity becomes total objectivity. The process also works in reverse. Complete simultaneity (“‘I’ is someone else”) also becomes complete subjectivity because it becomes an art so diffuse that only its creator can feel at home there. This is what happens in some of Ashbery’s late poems (unless the poet’s mind was so expansive that we have yet to learn to open ours up that far). This is also what happens in some of de Kooning’s paintings of the 1970s, so free, so loose, so fluid that they practically spill out of the canvas. Paint in the context of a painting can only approach the condition of water so far.
I feel the same way about Coltrane’s late work. Some have tried to argue that he went cosmic, far beyond what most mortals can withstand. I don’t think this is the case. Free music is my favorite genre of music, and this is not good free music. It sounds painful because it is painful, not because we do not have the ears to hear. Coltrane was clearly at his best with the classic quartet, when there was more structure in the music, when his longing to burst free was most potent.
We can see where both roads of modernism lead: to hunger that cannot be satiated. Fortunately with the second form of modernism, that championed by de Kooning and Ashbery, a powerful corrective force is at play that helps keep the extreme condition from happening. It can be glimpsed in that peculiarly Ashberian comment, “We tend to forget that “modern poetry” is a venerable institution”. Who but Ashbery or de Kooning, among advanced artists, would come up with such a comment? The idea that one can be avant-garde and conservative at the same time only really makes sense when one considers artists like them. Alas, this is what separates them from Rimbaud. “Absolute” modernity will not admit a category such as “venerable institution”. Rimbaud may have learned, eventually. He may have come around. But he didn’t live long enough. He remains, forever, the youth of poetry.