Rimbaud mentality

Although Arthur Rimbaud died in 1891, his influence is greater than ever: the subject of a new film, a cult icon, a name to drop. Even footballers quote him. By Roger Clarke
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The Independent Culture
How does a 19th-century symbolist poet like Arthur Rimbaud, an almost exact contemporary of Van Gogh, manage to exert such a spell on contemporary culture and contemporary popular culture in particular? A recent Pocket Penguin edition of the poet's last poem has sold 60,000 copies. He's up there with Burroughs, Bukowski and William Blake as one of the exalted four of the Internet generation - one of those visionaries who happened to push back the envelope of perception and who adapt so well to the era of pop and cyberspace.

Last month, the Richard Alston Dance Company toured with Visions, a Rimbaudian inspired dance and, on her comeback tour last year, Patti Smith interrupted her show in London to read from the Rimbaud uvre. And had she switched on the TV, she would have seen Eric Cantona finding "room to breathe" on the Eurostar while ostentatiously reading a book of Rimbaud's poems (as does the Terence Stamp character reading on the lawn in Teorema - Pasolini was of course another Rimbaud fan). Cantona puzzled many tabloid hacks at a famous press conference in a now celebrated monologue involving "seagulls" and "trawlers". Little did the sports journalists realise that their idol was giving them a masterclass in Rimbaudian imagery.

In Total Eclipse, this month's much delayed British release of Agnieszcka Holland's disappointing film about the volatile relationship between Rimbaud and fellow poet, Paul Verlaine, the appropriately pretty Leonardo DiCaprio plays the poet as a capricious brat; it was a role originally intended for River Phoenix. Christopher Hampton, who wrote the original stage play back in 1967, himself grabs some cameo roles in the film: significantly, as the photographer attacked by Rimbaud with a swordstick, and again as the Belgian judge who sentences Verlaine to imprisonment for immorality. It was the play that launched Hampton's career, for it was in the Sixties that the great rediscovery of Rimbaud took place.

This Sixties fetishisation of the poet is evident in Charles Nicholl's new travel book Someone Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91 (published by Cape in April). Nicholl observes the influence of Rimbaud on Bob Dylan who, as early as 1965, name-checked Rimbaud in an interview. Rimbaud became, for the Sixties generation, the original alienated rebel, vagabond poet, the dropout who practised "systematic derangement of the senses" 100 years before the "Summer of Love". Rimbaud is one of those template icons who is all things to all people: young kids identify with his rebellion, musicians (like Benjamin Britten, in Les Illuminations) with his verbal musicality, dancers and choreographers (like Richard Alston) with his physicality, gay men with his up-front sexual stance, travel writers (like Nicholl or Philip Smedley) with his feverish wanderlust.

Born in the north of France in 1854, the son of a soldier, he had youthful ambitions to be a poet and ran away from home in his early teens, embarking upon what was always to be a nomadic existence. Written-out before the age of 19, he turned his back on the dandified poetry scene in Paris and went abroad to become a coffee-trader and arms-dealer on the north-east coast of Africa.

Bruce Chatwin, with whom I wrote an opera libretto about Rimbaud's "lost" period in Africa, and who named his last book What Am I Doing Here after a Rimbaud quote, always said that the poet had to give up writing or "go mad".

Every writer sometimes entertains the fantasy of "giving up writing for ever", but Rimbaud actually did it - he pushed the artistic self-destruct button. On his deathbed, nursed by a sister unaware that he had even been a poet, the family doctor at Roche casually asked his bedridden patient about his work written 15 years earlier. The great poet merely rasped "poetry is a load of shit" and turned away in disgust.

Oliver Bernard, younger brother of lowlifer Jeffrey, is a Rimbaud enthusiast who has translated Rimbaud's poems for the Penguin edition and who regularly gives readings of Rimbaud's final poem A Season in Hell. Like Nicholl and a recent leaden Swiss docudrama, he tries to downplay Rimbaud's errant sexuality. "He was no more or less gay than any 15-year-old," Bernard claims mysteriously, deploring Hampton's filmscript and play as "making too much of his homosexuality" - apparently unaware that sexual appropriation can go both ways.

Gay Italian wildman and best-selling novelist Aldo Busi has no such queasiness about Rimbaud's preferences ("Arthur turns out to have been sexually indifferent") and, in his own customary otiose style, in the recently published English edition of Uses and Abuses, launches a spirited defence of Rimbaud's much- maligned over-strict mother Vitalie Cuif - yet another example of classic Rimbaudian projection (Busi's own beloved mother, in her eighties, cooks him lunch every day).

Many of Rimbaud's horrible sufferings during his final illness, when he came back from Ethiopia while still in his thirties to die in France, were shared by Bruce Chatwin, who even suffered similar physical symptoms to those ascribed to the "invalids" in A Season in Hell - Rimbaud's remarkably prescient and visionary account of the rest of his own life. Busi was not to know this when he wrote about Rimbaud, but it is fascinating that he throws out, almost casually, the possibility that Rimbaud himself may have had Aids ("l even came across the word 'sarcoma'," Busi notes in relation to Rimbaud's illness) and thus constituted the "first Aids death of modern times". Could the virus have been active in Africa even at that date?

Busi is another child of the Sixties, and of all Rimbaud's modern admirers, the most like him. It was the Beat poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, who in the Sixties filtered Rimbaud into the then emerging pop culture; after all, had he not been to Africa a century before Burroughs and the rest fled to Tangier? Was he not the original "on the road" writer? Certainly Dylan learnt much from Ginsberg, and Patti Smith from Burroughs.

Many have felt a passionate identification with Rimbaud; Serge Gainsbourg once said on camera that he would "meet Rimbaud in Abyssinia" after his death, while the inhabitants of Roche found a wreathe from Gainsbourg's family laid outside the Rimbaud farmhouse just after the singer's death. Henry Miller wrote a whole book about his obsession, The Time of Assassins. Before Chatwin's demise his identification with the poet was so profound, he insisted he should play a role in the opera we were writing for composer Kevin Volans.

Others like just to namecheck the poet for street cred reasons, like the 17-year-old Hollywood screenwriter wunderbrat Jessica Kaplan in a recent issue of Details magazine. Others are interested more in the Rimbaud cult, like the director Todd Haynes, now in London to film his glamrock movie Velvet Underground with Ewan McGregor. His unseen graduation film was about "all those books about Rimbaud".

It's hard to say what the poet would have made of all the adoration paid to him; one can't help thinking the boy poet might well have attacked many of his disciples with a swordstick, or thrown lice at them, or tripped up the dancers. Perhaps in the late 20th century his nomadic spirit would have been content with a recording contract and a PC with an Internet link.

Rimbaud's famous dictum "we must be absolutely modern" has never seemed more threatening than it does now, in our culturally censorious and fearful environment.

'Total Eclipse' opens on Fri 11 April