Rimbaud and depth psychology
by Cliff Bostock
From "A Season in Hell: Delirium II, Alchemy of the Word"
"…Poetic quaintness played a large part in my alchemy of the word.
"I became an adept at simple hallucination: in place of a factory
I really saw a mosque, a school of drummers led by angels, carriages on
the highways of the sky, a drawing-room at the bottom of a lake; monsters,
mysteries; the title of a melodrama would raise horrors before me.
"Then I would explain my magic sophisms with the hallucination of
"Finally I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind. I was
idle, full of a sluggish fever: I envied the felicity of beasts, caterpillars
that represent the innocence of limbo, moles, the sleep of virginity!
"My temper soured. In kinds of ballads I said farewell to the world:
"Song of the Highest Tower
"O may it come, the time of love,
The time we'd be enamoured of.
I've been patient too long,
My memory is dead,
All fears and all wrongs
To the heavens have fled.
While all my veins burst
With a sickly thirst.
O may it come, the time of love,
The time we'd be enamoured of.
Like the meadow that is dreaming
Forgetful of cares, Flourishing and flowering
With incense and tares,
Where fierce buzzings rise
Of filthy flies.
O may it come, the time of love,
The time we'd be enamoured of….
I loved the desert, dried orchards, faded shops and tepid drinks. I dragged
myself through stinking alleys and, eyes closed, I offered myself to the
sun, the God of fire….(Rimbaud, pp.55-57)"
Jean-Nicholas-Arthur Rimbaud wrote Une Saison
en Enfer (A Season in Hell), a collection of prose poems with
verse fragments, in 1873 when he was only 19. It is an exploration of
the depths of his own psyche, following three tumultuous years as the
protégé and lover of poet Paul Verlaine (Tranter).
Written three years after he wrote his first poem at 16,
it was the last thing he wrote before departing for Africa and the Middle
East as an adventurer and trader. Along with the earlier Illumina
tions and The Drunken Boat, Une Saison prefigured the
Symbolist and Surrealist Movements, changing the way we would come to
understand poetry in the 20th Century.
I selected lines from Une Saison for this
paper partly on the basis of personal reasons. Like many people who came
of age during the 1960s, my exposure to Rimbaud was initially through
the music of Jim Morrison of The Doors. During the next decade, my affection
for his poetry was nurtured by punk "rock and roll nigger" Patti Smith
(whose volume of collected poetry, Patti Smith Complete, was published
on Rimbaud's birthday, Oct. 20, this year). More recently, Rimbaud's life
- more than his work - was the subject of a 1995 film, Total Eclipse,
with (the inestimably repulsive) Leonardo DiCaprio miscast as the poet.
At the simplest level, Rimbaud, I believe, speaks to the members of every
generation at that time when the path of youth brings us to the choice
of how to conduct ourselves in adulthood: as followers of convention or
as individualists. This choice is, of course, especially difficult for
the artistically gifted. The muse, arguably, makes an inherent demand
that the poet oppose convention both psychologically and in the way he
But Rimbaud's words quoted here - and his biography, to which I also
refer freely here because it is essential to understanding his meaning
- reveal a struggle between two drives that haunts all of us in our psychic
depths throughout our lifetimes: Freud's eros and thanatos. Georges Bataille
(1988) might express Rimbaud's situation as an unmediated conflict between
the desire for personal autonomy and the wish to connect to something
larger than the self. And Jung might call it the struggle to individuate
in the face of archetypal influences, including those animating the shadow.
Rmbaud in fact was Freud's contemporary
and it is fascinating to realize, reading Une Saison, that the
two men penetrated the depths of the psyche with equal insight. It is
worth questioning, I think, why Rimbaud and Freud arose at the same time.
Both, I believe, responded to what occurred in the industrialization of
Europe, specifically the marginalization of art and the repression of
the erotic. They both gave clear voice to what Jung would more metaphysically
describe as an injury to soul.
Though it is tempting to say that Freud's penetration of the depths was
scientific and objective, one can't ignore James Hillman's (1983) notation
that Freud regarded himself foremost a writer and well understood that
his psychology was more understood by artists than scientists. Artists,
he realized, recognized the metaphorical and mythic qualities of his case
histories, the preoccupation with patients' images that would later cause
Jung to declare psyche a repository, not of drives, but of images.
The associations to depth psychology even in this brief excerpt from
Une Saison are rich. Of course, there is the subtitle of this section
of the collection: "Alchemy of the Word." Rimbaud was a student of the
occult and was fascinated with alchemy. In an earlier section of "Alchemy,"
he writes that he has assigned vowels alchemical colors: black, white,
red, blue and green, with the thought of "inventing a poetic language
accessible some day to all the senses." The end of his experiment with
this language causes him to write: "As I wept I saw gold - I could not
drink." (Rimbaud, pp. 51-53)
Although Freud himself had little interest in alchemy, it is interesting
to see that Rimbaud sought his own sort of "talking cure," an alchemical
transformation of his psyche's contents to gold through language. (This
idea is reiterated in the quoted material: "Then I would explain my magic
sophisms with the hallucination of words!") Jung many years later explicitly
adopted alchemy as a metaphor of psychological transformation and that
is continued to this day by the post-Jungians like Hillman.
Freud, of course, established the necessity of exploring the psyche's
images, in dreams and free association, as part of his cure. Jung continued
this tradition, expanding it to a consciously undertaken process of active
imagination. Rimbaud anticipates them both in his process of willful "Delirium,"
the main title of this section of Une Saison. It is by a willful
derangement of the senses, that the psyche's images - the pandemonium
of images - is released. Rimbaud calls himself an "adept at simple hallucination,"
seeing a factory become all manner of things. The pandemonium of images
becomes "sacred" to him.
this, he anticipates the metaphorical and symbolic meanings accorded ordinary
objects in the dreams and fantasies of analysands, as well as the polytheism
of Hillman and the archetypal psychologists. It is important to understand,
though, that Rimbaud departs from, for example, the Platonic notion of
ideal forms, the romantic sensibility. He understands that these are personalistic,
perceptions of his individual consciousness interacting with the world.
He is interested in the personal, the dark, whereas other poets in Paris
at the time wrote didactic or sentimental poems. When Rimbaud calls his
visions "sophisms," he meant it in the same way that depth psychologists
might call them symptoms. They at once reveal and conceal the psyche's
Certainly, Rimbaud's penetration of the psyche's contents was intentional
and natural, the gift of his muse. The extremely personal quality of his
poetry was its main departure from earlier forms. But we also know that
Rimbaud used absinthe (Conrad, pp. 9-24), the drink of artists and poets,
to stimulate his "simple hallucinations." He was introduced to the substance
by Verlaine, who was thoroughly addicted to it and eventually died from
In using absinthe, of course, Rimbaud was close to those of us in the
Sixties who were intentionally "deranging our senses" on behalf of art
with hallucinogens. It certainly bears mentioning that Freud experimented
with cocaine. Jung, in his famous correspondence with the founder of Alcoholics
Anonymous, understood how close the use of mind-altering substances was
to the wish for the ecstatic, the experience of union. But what is more
important, both Freud and Jung fully understood the danger (like Jung's
breakdown) and potential healing (individuation or re-repression) in undertaking
a descent to "hell." (They, like Rimbaud, use spatial metaphors to indicate
the path of intrapsychic exploration, although Rimabaud understood at
the outset that one views heaven most clearly after a descent to hell.)
By sacralizing the disorder of his mind, Rimbaud writes that he constellates
a wish: "I envied the felicity of beasts, caterpillars that represent
the innocence of limbo, moles, the sleep of virginity!" In other words,
he wishes to be relieved of his own consciousness. In other translations
of the work, the caterpillar doesn't represent "limbo" but "the innocence
of a second childhood," akin to the mole's virginity. One is reminded
of Sleeping Beauty or Rip van Winkle: the desire to be unconscious again.
In this, I believe Rimbaud is stating something of the process that Freud
(1961) observes in his essay on daydreaming and creative writing. But
I think several interpretations are available. The most obvious validation
of Freud is the explicit presence of a wish, which he believes underlies
all fantasy and writing. The yearning for innocence and limbo, virginity,
could be, as Freud argues, the working out of a frustrated erotic wish
or a complex. As for the literal implications of that: We know (Tranter)
with relative certainty that Rimbaud initially ran away from home as an
idealist to join the Commune, but was gang-raped and returned home traumatized.
His adventures months later with Verlaine, heroically decadent and self-destructive
for their time, included being shot by the jealous older poet (who later
became an evangelical Christian, attempting to convert Rimbaud - to bring
him back to a kind of innocence he rejected). So, we could interpret the
lines - written at his mother's home -- as a wish to return to the state
before his rape and sexual escapades,
a second chance.
Another related way at looking at the yearning for sleep and virginity
is as a kind of death wish. By self-sacralizing, the poet implicitly expresses
a narcissistic wish to be completely autonomous, even if sleeping like
a mole (which lives, "buried," in the ground). That is both his gift to
modern poetry, to render the shadow of individual consciousness so important,
and his personal curse: he could not form affective relationships throughout
most of his life.
But what specific wish, erotic or otherwise, is he defending against?
One wants to argue, with Freud, that the wish must by definition be unconscious
in order to fuel the writing. But I believe Une Saison is a genius'
work of self-analysis, similar to Freud's own, and thus the unconscious
becomes explicit here. In the short lines quoted, Rimbaud descends into
the disorder of his mind, apprehends the images as sophistries, as symptoms,
and then grieves for the loss of his innocence. And then, bidding farewell
to the world he has known, waking from his sleep in a way, he meets his
"O may it come, the time of love,
The time we'd be enamoured of."
Rimbaud seeks love, connection with the greater other - what he could
not utter to anyone in his life, what in fact he demeaned to people whenever
he could. But now memory is extinguished and "All fears and all wrongs?To
the heavens have fled."
Importantly, Rimbaud's yearning for love, is not for the state of innocence
he spoke of a few lines earlier. This yearning for a time of love does
not discount the path he has traveled in his exploration of thanatos:
He wants a season of love even "While all my veins burst/With a sickly
thirst." He glimpses love as a meadow at once filled with incense, flowers,
tares (weeds) and filthy flies. This is a psyche in which the shadow has
become intergrated. In fact, he reiterates the entire idea in the next
few lines but grasping clearly that his psyche's telos, its quest, has
been to travel blindly toward the sun, the god of fire - an almost precise
duplication of Jung's own travel toward the sun god.
It seems to me that these few lines from Une Saison capture the
essence of the nekyia, the journey to the underworld that Rimbaud comprehended
at 19 -- years before Freud. Other poets were long themselves in appreciating
his genius. After he finished Une Saison, Rimbaud convinced his
mother to publish the book at her own expense and went to Paris to see
how people reacted. He intended the book partly as an apology to the poets
he had mercilessly tormented, a statement of the maturing of his vision.
Of course, it was summarily rejected as obscene and vulgar by all but
Verlaine, who remained his advocate and, in fact, saved the small body
of his work from an effort by Rimbaud's family to destroy it. Humiliated
and vowing never to write again, Rimbaud himself fled Europe for life
as an adventurer - a poet of a different sort. Ultimately he settled in
Abyssinia, where he took up life, with a mistress, as a trader of goods
and, some say, of slaves. At 36, he developed a leg ailment that caused
him to travel to Marseilles for treatment. Doctors there amputated one
of his legs.
He recuperated from the surgery at his mother's home in rural France
and then, bored, insisted on returning to Africa. Making his way as far
as Marseilles, in the company of his sister, he was again hospitalized.
He died there - in 1891, 18 years after penning Une Saison and
nine years before Freud published the Interpretation of Dreams.
The cause of death is mysterious but most attribute it to syphilis, that
then fatal wound of love.
Batailles, Georges (1988). Inner Experience. Albany: State University
of New York Press.
Conrad, Barnaby (1988). Absinthe: History in a Bottle. San Francisco:
Freud, S. (1961). Creative Writers and Day-dreaming. In J. Strachey (Ed.
and Trans.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works
of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 9, pp.143-153). London: Hogarth Press.
Hillman, James (1983). Healing Fictions. Dallas: Spring Publications.
Nicholl, Charles (1997). Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa.
London: Jonathan Cape.
Rimbaud, Arthur (1961). A Season in Hell. Louise Varese, translator.
New York: New Directions.
Tranter, John (1998). Rimbaud in Africa. In http://www.jacket.zip.com.au/jacket03/rimbaud03.html
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