Offcourse Literary Journal
ISBN 1556-4975


Arthur Rimbaud and Yves Bonnefoy.
Two Poetics of the Imagination
, by Ricardo Nirenberg.


(This is roughly speaking a translation, from the original French, of a talk given at Peyresq, in the Alpes de Haute Provence, France, in July 2005, to the Société d'Etudes Benjamin Fondane. The translations of Rimbaud's and Bonnefoy's poems are mine.)

To start speaking of what Rimbaud has meant for the poet Yves Bonnefoy —and a start is all we can hope for in this short time— let us try to go directly toward what is essential: let us re-read one of the texts in the Illuminations, the one titled, simply, "Conte":


A Prince was annoyed at never having applied himself to anything other than to perfecting ordinary generosities. He foresaw amazing revolutions in love, and suspected his women of being capable of something better than a consent spiced with heaven and luxury. He wanted to see Truth, the moment of essential desire and of essential satisfaction. Whether or not this was a pious aberration of his, he wanted. He possesed, at least, a good measure of human power.
All the women he had known were slaughtered. What havoc in the garden of beauty! Beneath the saber, they blessed him. He did not order new ones provided. —The women reappeared.
He killed all his followers, after the hunt or the carouse.—Still, all followed him.
He amused himself in cutting the throat of his pet animals. He had his palaces burnt down. Hurling himself on the people, he hewed them down to pieces.—The people, the golden roofs, the beautiful animals kept on existing.
Thus can man achieve ecstasy in destruction and become younger by cruelty. The people did not complain. Nobody offered an opinion.
One evening he was galloping proudly. A Genie appeared, of a beauty ineffable, even unavowable. His face and his demeanor held the promise of a multiple and complex love. Of a happiness unutterable, even unbearable. The Prince and the Genie annihilated each other, probably in their essential health. How could they not have died as a result? Together, therefore, they died.
But this Prince passed away, in his palace, at a normal age. The Prince was the Genie. The Genie was the Prince.
The music of reconciliation eludes our desire.


There are numerous interpretations of this "Story," and they go from the experiences of poetic genius to those of gay love, but I wish to propose the elements of a reading, as evident to me as I deem the others deficient, which makes this text of Rimbaud into a fable about the powers of the image and of imagination, a fable ending in defeat, lack and desperation. A defeat, a lack and a desperation which later on will open up the promise of salvation at the heart of Bonnefoy's poetic practice.

To mention violent images and a violent imagination in connection with Rimbaud is nothing new. Hugo Friedrich wrote that "The Illuminations are the first great building of the modern imagination," (Hugo Friedrich, Structure de la poésie moderne, trad. Par M.-F. Demet, Le Livre de poche, 1999, p. 117 ; appeared in German in 1956). But it is rather surprising that the Freiburg professor remained blind to the allegorical contents of Rimbaud's "Story," probably because he was focusing too exclusively on structure at the expense of the matter at hand (loc. cit., page 117). The more surprising because the powers of imagination constituted a great theme for 18th- and 19th-century poets.

Up to the 18th century, imagination was, for the most part, as in Locke or Leibniz, just a contrary of reality—fantasy, dream, lie. Now it becomes a great power: the power of making present that which is absent. We find that definition first in Joseph Addison ("Pleasures Of Imagination," Spectator, no. 411, June 21, 1712), and perhaps there is some poetic justice in that it was a proto-journalist who came upon it. We find the same definition later in Wilhelm von Humboldt (Über Göthes Herrmann und Dorothea, 1798, III.): in those eight or nine decades, though, the sense of that phrase—to make present that which is absent—underwent a profound change. For Addison, the imagination is a source of pleasures stronger and purer than those of the body and the senses: "For by this faculty (the imagination) a man in a dungeon is capable of entertaining himself with scenes and landscapes more beautiful than any that can be found in the whole compass of nature." Humboldt, on the other hand, defines Art in terms of the imagination: "Daher ist die Kunst die Fertigkeit, die Einbildungskraft nach Gesetzen productiv zu machen" (Art is the faculty of making imagination productive according to rules.)

The Romantic poets carried this much farther: not only was the imagination the only source of the arts, but it is now the divine part of our human spirit; our shekhina, if you wish. Thus, long before Baudelaire called it "Queen of Faculties," Coleridge privileged imagination above all else (Biographia Literaria, 1817, Chapter XIII), and even more eloquently, Wordsworth sang the imagination in that poem, The Prelude, that is his autobiography or his Bildungsroman—in any case, the recreation of his childhood by means of his imagination :

… that glorious faculty
That higher minds bear with them as their own.
This is the very spirit in which they deal
With the whole compass of the universe:
They from their native selves can send abroad
Kindred mutations; for themselves create
A like existence; and, whene'er it dawns
Created for them, catch it, or are caught
By its inevitable mastery,
Like angels stopped upon the wing by sound
Of harmony from Heaven's remotest spheres.

(The Prelude, 1805, Book XIV.)

In Wordsworth, imagination makes us (at least those of us who have a "higher mind") into angels, and the harmony of the celestial spheres, the music of reconciliation, Rimbaud's "musique savante", does not elude our desire. Imagination is the necessary secret for a universal love, what Rimbaud calls "le Génie." Similarly Wordsworth writes farther on in The Prelude:

This spiritual Love acts not nor can exist
Without Imagination, which, in truth,
Is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And Reason in her most exalted mood.

And Rimbaud in his "Génie", the final poem of the Illuminations, uses similar words:
"He is love, perfect measure reinvented, marvelous, surprising reason, and eternity…"
(" Il est l'amour, mesure parfaite et réinventée, raison merveilleuse et imprévue, et l'éternité…")

This supreme exaltation, this apotheosis of the imagination carried out by the Romantics could not last long; the Angel and the Prince fell from heaven: how could they have avoided it? Together, therefore, they died. Imagination, which, being human, is finite and fallible, pretended to be divine, immortal and all-powerful. Just like Caligula, who believed himself to be above Jove, imagination became unbridledly violent and cruel, something that Wordsworth and the earlier Romantics had not foreseen. But this development was already clear for Rimbaud and his generation: they had seen, besides the terror of revolutionary violence, the triumph of the bourgeoisie and of positive thought, the ridiculing of metaphysics, and the stupid satisfaction with which scientists, recently specialized, declared that any vision of the All was now impossible, no matter how capacious the mind. And this at the very time when photography enabled the imaging of the world and eternized the fleeting moment.

The Prince of Rimbaud's "Story," that magus of the imagination, is therefore cruel and violent: he slaughters, rapes, burns, destroys. But again like Caligula who had his enemy the sea punished by the whip, his acts do not have any effect on reality. Those violences, those cruelties, take place only in the Prince's mind, that is, in his imagination. Paradox, or rather contradiction: the poetic imagination, made into a divinity, is at once omnipotent and totally powerless, since real power resides now in utilitarian and scientific activities. Rimbaud ended up refusing to live with such a contradiction.

But in general Rimbaud's French heirs and successors were not overly bothered by the contradiction; on the contrary, they lapped it up. Breton declared that the true poetic act is to shoot into a crowd, but he would have despised as a complete fool whoever would have taken him seriously. All the avant-gardes of the 20th century, not only Surrealism, have readily accepted the violence and cruelty which characterize the modern imagination. The philosophic culmination was the two books written by J.-P. Sartre right before the catastrophic French defeat: L'Imagination, Alcan, Paris, 1936, and L'Imaginaire, Gallimard, Paris, 1940. In them we find a philosophical justification of the violent character of the image: imagination, writes Sartre after Husserl, is always directed toward some object, but the image is an act directed toward a non-existent object or an absent one, taken in its bodily aspect. While perception presents to us the object as present and existing, the image carries with it a negation: it presents the object as absent, as not existing. Images, according to Sartre, are essentially contradictory, since they posit themselves in the same act by which they annihilate themselves. In short, imagination is "the great unrealizing function of consciousness" ("la grande fonction irréalisante de la conscience"): to exercise the imagination our consciousness must be able to exit this world by way of negation, and that is the way of destruction, viz. of violence. It is a good way, however, for it is only through it, to follow Sartre, that we may be truly free (since this world is the realm of necessity); only in that way may we have access to another world where anything becomes possible.

Not much later Maurice Blanchot took Sartre's notion of imagination to an even more demential extreme. According to Blanchot human language (la parole humaine), intimately linked to the imagination, implies —or rather presupposes—an immense hecatombe, an annihilation of the universe (Maurice Blanchot, "Littérature et le droit à la mort", in La Part du Feu, Gallimard, 1949). By 1950, then, the habitudo ad nihil of the imagination, the image as the nihilist's bomb of choice, was strong and well established in the Parisian intellectual world: it was to this world that Yves Bonnefoy, born in 1923, arrived as a young poet, and there he published his first book, Du mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve, in 1952, after briefly joining and quitting (in 1947) the Surrealist club.

It is worth remarking, briefly and parenthetically, that the situation at the time was different with the poets in the English language. A telling contrast is offered by Wallace Stevens' book of essays, The Necessary Angel (Knopf, 1951). Stevens' "angel" is an allegory both of the imagination and of reality; in his 1942 essay, "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," (loc. cit., page 27) the poet gives "an incomplete definition of poetry": "It is an interdependence of the imagination and reality as equals." Stevens is as alert to modern violence—real as well as imaginary—as he is to what is going on in French letters; at the end of the essay I just quoted from, he has this to say about the imagination: "It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us live our lives." While for the French avant-gardes imagination had to force reality into total defeat, and make anything possible, Stevens hoped for an equilibrium of forces. Now, equilibrium is always less easily apprehensible to the mass markets, or rather it is not as convincing as a clear-cut triumph or defeat; as a consequence, imagination has triumphed over reality and European artists tend to consider art as something of the past. When the painter Anselm Kiefer was asked by a journalist (Le Monde, Jeudi 4 Août 2005, page 20) if art still exists, he replied, "Now anything is possible, but in truth art resides in the real fact that very little is possible."

The modern violence of the imagination, whether in the extreme versions or in the more balanced ones, originated in Rimbaud's Illuminations, and "Story" can be considered as the epitome. Concerning the "Génie" or Jinn who appears at the high point of the story, culmination of beauty and violence, and of whom the poet says that he was the Prince and that the Prince was he, one must take the poet strictly at his word: the Genie was the Prince's self-image. More precisely, the Genie was the book full of wonders —narratives, images, mysterious signs, presages, perplexities and rages, promises to oneself— which was the Prince's childhood; which is (or which used to be) the childhood of a poet, constituting his poetic identity. It is the kind of book which Wordsworth offers us with The Prelude, and he was able to conclude it by saying:

… what we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how;
Instruct them how the mind of man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above the frame of things

In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of quality and fabric more divine.

There is a continuity of sense between the above lines and the poetry of previous times. When Dante encounters Brunetto Latini, who taught him as a child (Inferno, Canto 15), he says:

La cara e buona imagine paterna
di voi quando nel mondo ad ora ad ora
m'insegnavate come l'uom s'etterna.

And for centuries childhood was the time when the poet learned "come l'uom s'etterna", how one becomes immortal through the exercise of the highest parts of the soul, so that later he may teach this art to others. In Spinoza's formulation (Ethica, V, prop. 31, schol.), "Mens aeterna est, quatenus res sub aeternitatis specie concipit": the mind is eternal inasmuch as it considers things from the standpoint of eternity. This still holds true for Wordsworth. It has held true for as long as there was some belief in eternity. In a book by Henry Corbin (En Islam Iranien, tome II) there is the following stanza, the final one, from an old hymn: "I come to meet my image —and my image comes to meet me —She speaks to me lovingly, and kisses me —As I return from captivity…" But in Rimbaud's "Story" we see the opening chasm, and the jump into the void. Rimbaud, who often speaks of himself as "l'enfant", "the child," but who here calls himself "le Prince", faces the "Génie" who is another name for his own image, his childhood transfigured by the imagination: he finds it beautiful, full of mysterious intimations of love and of happiness, yet irremediably unreal, radically false. In that "essential health" consisting in lucidity and the refusal of all illusion when it comes to the knowing of oneself, the Prince destroys the Genie, the poet rejects the ideal images of his own childhood; but at that very moment the poet dies as a poet. From then on, he will be merely a man who will pass away in his palace at a normal age. Such was, needless to say, Rimbaud's choice and refusal in actual life.

Of those two roads—the promise of immortality through the labor of signs, or the violent rejection of all illusion or Lebenslüge, of all images, and the sticking to rough, solid reality—which shall the poet choose? It was a cruel crossing, or rather four blind alleys, in which Rimbaud had left French poetry, even though his many continuators tried to avoid it by inventing ramshackle Rimbauds of convenience—a Catholic, a proletarian, a visionary Rimbaud, or even a hoodlum, according to their diverging ideologies. Bonnefoy, though, refuses to avoid the cruel crossing and squarely faces the blind alleys; he invites us into a third road, which is to say a salvation. Against his predecessors of the previous generation, who after the death of immortality had welcomed the violence of the imaginary, Bonnefoy rejects the one as well as the other: immortality as well as violence.

Listen to his poem "The Branch," from the book Ce qui fut sans lumière (Mercure de France, 1987). You may find the themes and timbres quite reminiscent of Wordsworth's—as far as I know it was Joseph Frank, biographer of Dostoevsky and friend of Bonnefoy, who first insisted in the connection between the two poets, in World Literature Today, University of Oklahoma, Summer 1979, pages 399-405—yet together with this similarity there is, of course, a great difference, which resides in the consciousness of the long span in between, occupied by that which Rimbaud brought into French poetry. Note this too, that the third road, beginning with the words, "No: I want you…," is between parentheses all the way to the end, as if all of that, "the music of reconciliation," "la musique savante", should be played sotto voce or con sordino. Remark, finally, that the allegorical contents of "childhood completed," "l'enfance qui s'achève", is muted, held in reserve, up to the last line.

The Branch

Branch that I gather at the skirt of the woods
only to leave you at the end of the world,
hidden among stones, at the shelter
where the other trail begins, invisible.

(For every earthly moment is a crossing
where, at summer's end, our shadow goes
toward its other land in the same trees,
and seldom is one back another year
to fetch again the branch with which one swayed,
absent-mindedly, the grass for a whole summer),

Branch, I think of you now as it snows,
I see you shrunk into the lack of meaning
of a few woody knots, right where the bark
peels off, where your dark forces swell,

And I return, a shadow on the white ground,
toward your sleep haunting my memory,
I lift you from your dream which is scattered away,
being but water interfused with light.
Then I go to where I know the earth yawns,
abruptly, among the trees,
and I hurl you as far as I can,
I hear you rebound from stone to stone.

(No: I want you
yet a moment. I go and take
the third path, which I had seen
disappear in the grass, not knowing
why I did not step into its thickets
dark indeed, and with no birdsong in the foliage.
I go, and soon I am inside a house
where I have lived long ago but whose approach
had been lost as, unaware, as life moves on,
we say a word for the eternally last time.
In one of the rooms always deserted a fire burns,
I hear it searching for the bough of the light
in the mirror of embers,
like the god who trusts he is about to create
spirit and life, in the night whose knots
are tight, infinite, labyrinthic.

Then I lay you down, quietly, on the bed of flames,
I watch you catch fire in your sleep,
leaning down, long I hold
your hand, which is childhood completed.)


Follow the links for the original French texts of Arthur Rimbaud's Conte and Yves Bonnefoy's La Branche.


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