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Rimbaud's Impressionist Poetics: Vision and Visuality

Rimbaud's Impressionist Poetics: Vision and Visuality

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Rimbaud's Impressionist Poetics: Vision and Visuality

278 pages
4 heures
Oct 15, 2012


In the mid-nineteenth century, Arthur Rimbaud, the volatile genius of French poetry, invented a language that captured the energy and visual complexity of the modern world. This book explores some of the technical aspects of this language in relation to the new techniques brought forth by the Impressionist painters such as Monet, Morisot, and Pissarro.
Oct 15, 2012

À propos de l'auteur

Dr Aimee Israel-Pelletier is Associate Professor and Head of French at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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Rimbaud's Impressionist Poetics - Aimée Israel-Pelletier



Rimbaud’s poetry is intensely visual. It is other things as well. It has movement and momentum; it carries meaning, expresses a range of emotion. In mood and attitude it is often flamboyant and just as often remarkably quiet and subtle. Yet, whatever we might say about it, a poem’s visual qualities always command attention. Vision is the structuring trope that most insistently communicates the poet’s sensibility and his approach to the world. Rimbaud exhibits a sensibility so tuned in to the visual that all but a few poems privilege images at the expense of words. What I mean is that Rimbaud generally calls attention to language’s ability to convey striking images over and above its discursive function. I draw the artificial distinction between words and images to facilitate the discussion of this privileging and not because I believe that Rimbaud has managed to tease word and image apart. A verbal image is an exploration of the figurative function of language and not an icon. Words and images have been interacting for a long time. Their ongoing dialogue is inescapable and it is desirable.¹

In this book I consider most specifically the way vision and visuality play out in Rimbaud’s work and argue for aligning Rimbaud with the aesthetic practice of the Impressionists. I see Rimbaud’s work and Impressionism as modes of cultural expression that emerge at a particularly turbulent time in France’s history. I use the terms vision and visuality to refer to ways of apprehending the world. I understand vision as the sense of sight, the physical operations of looking. I conceive visuality as a culturally and historically determined discourse that takes into consideration the sense of sight as well as all the other senses. I maintain that in terms of aesthetics and ideology Rimbaud’s work constitutes a literary counterpart to the Impressionist avant-garde’s attempt to make the work of art responsive to modern life and that he does so by creating a new style whose grammar has been exemplified in art criticism’s discussions of Impressionist painting both in Rimbaud’s time and ours. Rimbaud wrote at a time when Impressionism in art and discussions around it were popular and widely shared in Parisian newspapers as well as in literary and artistic circles. He also wrote at a time when the act of looking was a central preoccupation of modernity and when vision was being deployed in new ways to organize knowledge and consciousness. The diorama, kaleidoscope, stereoscope, camera and other ocular devices fuelled popular imagination in the nineteenth century and capitalized on the modern fascination with acts of looking. This fascination radically altered the way writers and painters were to represent reality. It changed the way they handled point of view and how they understood notions like subjectivity and objectivity.

W. J. T. Mitchell and Thomas Gunning have argued that when we deal with visuality in a work of literature or of art we are privileging more than sight. Vision and visuality are the ‘matrix of experience’ that includes all five senses interwoven. When we speak about vision and visuality we are, therefore, treating the ‘whole manifold of means of reception’.² And I shall do so throughout this study of Rimbaud. The way we see things, finally, depends on learned assumptions and what we believe. The visual is coded and always culturally mediated. In addition, although we tease out vision and visuality, as we do images and words, they too are not distinct. Again, we separate form from content for the sake of facilitating the discussion about how vision and visuality are structurally allied to sensations. Hal Foster alerts us to the fact that the visual and visuality are imbricated: ‘Although vision suggests sight as a physical operation, and visuality sight as a social fact, the two are not opposed as nature to culture: vision is social and historical too, and visuality involves the body and the psyche.’³ In short, to see involves a great deal more than mere observation. When we see, we are always attaching affect of one kind or another. I shall be arguing that vision and visuality are constitutive of Rimbaud’s desire to embrace and apprehend social reality, nature and sensations. These all comprise the real that he seeks to represent in his poetry.

Rimbaud’s work, like that of the Impressionists, reflects a changing social reality, new cultural conditions and a new kind of observer. Rimbaud writes at a time of massive social and political upheaval, of revolutions, class mobility, a time of colonial expansion and a never before seen explosion of emerging technologies and consumer-driven products. He is fully engaged in his time and charged up by modern life. T. J. Clark’s seminal work, The Painting of Modern Life, takes into account this new reality in his discussion of the new art.⁴ To understate the social and historical dimensions of Impressionism is to miss a great deal about Impressionism. Impressionism grew out of both an aesthetics and an ideology. It committed itself to a liberal and democratic approach and enacted this commitment by radically changing the look of its representations. The attention given to the ‘look’ of the ‘new painting’ is brilliantly studied by Michael Fried in Manet’s Modernism.⁵ In this work, which has informed my approach to Rimbaud, Fried has focused attention on the discourse on art from the early 1860s to the mid-1870s, a period during which that discourse conspicuously shaped Impressionist practice. He thus establishes a grammar of Impressionism and provides a distinctive framework in which to look at Impressionist works and, along with that, to think and talk about them. Impressionism is a technique with a recognizable set of features. It is also most insistently about the huge cultural shift that took place in France at mid-century. In short, Impressionism is constituted by the various responses rallying to represent the fact of modernity. As Meyer Shapiro argues, the form of the new art is inseparable from its content.⁶ Impressionism is a concerted response and it constitutes itself as a specific historical moment in French art and culture at large. It represents laissez-faire economic principles translated into literary and artistic form. We must keep in mind that the innovations of Impressionism and the social meaning now attached to them have been so thoroughly integrated into our aesthetic consciousness that it is hard to reconstruct just how revolutionary Impressionism was at the time. It came into being as a radical experiment. Its aim was to free artistic expression from traditional techniques of representation (brushstroke, modelling etc.) and from the institutions that dictated and fostered them (the Academy, the Salon). Having the freedom to create and to market their work was an integral part of what it meant to be an Impressionist. The deployment of this freedom took the form of a radical dismantling of conventional styles. Impressionists ushered in a new look for representing novel political, social and technological realities. As artists they stood apart by the value they placed on the freedom to create the terms of modernity unhampered by old rules and conventions. More than a record of a societal and aesthetic shift, Impressionism helped put together an image of what it was like to live in a period of dramatic and rapid change. As Robert L. Herbert points out, Impressionism is that form of knowledge that has allowed us to apprehend modernity: ‘Impressionism has replaced Renaissance painting as the art most widely admired and most sought after, because it built the foundations for the experience of modern life as it is comprehended and given structure in visual form’ (italics added).⁷

I approach Rimbaud’s work in this context. His poetry and the challenges he faced in the roughly four years from 1870 to 1874 parallel the political, social and aesthetic challenges faced at that time by painters during the early years of Impressionism. One of the reasons I seek to draw such a parallel is that it helps to account for what I take to be Rimbaud’s attachment to reality as the subject of his art. This attachment to the real is of consequence for understanding the way he conceived of poetry and the way he wrote. It is also a key factor in his decision to abandon poetry for a career in commerce. I draw the parallel also in order to stake a position for Rimbaud in the ‘prehistory’ of modernist poetry, to use a Friedian term, among the experimental avant-garde instead of with the Symbolists, Decadents, or full-fledged Modernists. Jacques Rancière writes about Rimbaud: ‘Pour lui, les choses et le langage du commerce ne se laissent pas séparer des choses et du langage de la poésie’; he adds: ‘Il se tient dans l’intervalle entre la vieille histoire . . . et la nouvelle, celle des avant-gardes poétiques et politiques’.⁸ Rimbaud is often linked to these later currents. He is also often singled out as a case apart from all, as an exception in the history of literature. I think we are in a better position now to appreciate just how radical Rimbaud’s avant-garde experiments in poetry are when we set them against the backdrop of similarly disruptive experiments in Impressionism. I take issue with Jesse Matz’s excellent work on literary Impressionism precisely because I believe that Impressionism is essentially an experimental project and, therefore, varied in its outcomes.⁹ The concern I have is that Matz limits his definition of literary Impressionism to a specific and later manifestation of Impressionism. He focuses his attention on Proust, Woolf, James, Pater and Conrad in order to argue that literary Impressionism, rather than ‘clinging to pure appearances’, as he maintains Impressionist art does, asks language to ‘name something else’ (p. 4). Because appearances relate to the visual and pictorial, Matz argues, they are not sufficient for the Impressionist literary sensibility whose quest is to seize the sense of the whole. He claims that, for Proust, ‘The impression is an experience freed from external imperfection, attached to its true counterpart in another time and place’ (p. 5). For Matz, Impressionist writers sought to render the impression in ways that evoked the ‘totality’ of an experience: ‘To get in the impression not just sense perception but sense that is thought, appearances that are real, suspicions that are true and parts that are whole – this was the total aspiration of the Impressionist writer’ (p. 1). Matz asserts that literary Impressionism is not like Impressionist art. It does not ‘keep to the sketch, the fragment, the moment, the surface’ (p. 1). He is categorical in maintaining that literary Impressionism ‘does not choose surfaces and fragments over depths and wholes but makes surfaces show depths, make [sic] fragments suggest wholes, and devotes itself to the undoing of such distinctions’ (p. 1). As I will be arguing throughout this book, Impressionism asserts the possibility and the desirability of functioning outside such neat distinctions. And it provides the groundwork and formal licence to achieve this. It is, therefore, not clear to me why Matz focuses on these dichotomies and posits them as a defining feature and problematic of literary Impressionism. I consider Impressionist practices to be varied – and so I accept some of Matz’s examples as well taken. But what Impressionists have in common, in both literature and art, is the confidence that dichotomies are artificial and unhelpful constructs.

I try to show in my work that Rimbaud did not arrive at Impressionism as if in one stroke, as a revelation, but that he came to it by testing different styles. I track these shifts from the Poésies to the Illuminations and argue that they are all informed one way or another by Rimbaud’s view of language as a medium for evoking reality and sensations. I propose that at the core of Rimbaud’s poetry is a fascination with reality. This sentiment is constant except in the Derniers vers, and I discuss this peculiar interruption in chapter 1. Impressionism is a representational practice driven by a fascination with modern life. I argue that the Illuminations is an Impressionist work and in detailing this argument I ally myself with art critics like Linda Nochlin and Meyer Shapiro, among many others, who are sympathetic to the notion that Impressionism is a form of realism. When realism evokes the new, as by definition it must, it cannot rely on the past for formulas to take it through moments of difficult negotiations with the real. The struggle lies most specifically in the necessity of forging a brand new way, a brand new style, to convey the new. Realism is always involved in some kind of struggle: realism is itself a metaphor for struggle. It is a struggle to participate in modernity. Realism is not defined by its various efforts to translate the world into likenesses. Verisimilitude in literature is a fuzzy concept. Nineteenth-century realism was the literary style of democracy whether or not its practitioners were politically indifferent to democracy. Realism was the literary analogue of freedom in a society that strove to embody democratic ideals such as those of equality and self-determination. For both writers and artists, the struggle to create the modern was not an easy task. Nochlin asserts this in the case of the artist and I would consider it as equally valid for the writer. She writes:

The artist had a hard struggle to rid himself of preconceptions and time-honoured formulae, to liberate both his vision and notations from outward idealism and established poncif to create a new, more honest equivalent for his hard-won fresh experience.¹⁰

As a derivative form of realism, Impressionism is committed to the representation of reality and upholds the real as the cultural domain of common people.

Theorizing on the act of looking in literature, Jacques Rancière has argued that images are not copies but operations that engage different aspects of experience, the ‘visible’, the ‘dicible’ and the ‘pensable’. He writes:

Dans le régime nouveau, le régime esthétique des arts, qui se constitue au XIXe siècle, l’image n’est plus l’expression codifiée d’une pensée ou d’un sentiment. Elle n’est plus un double ou une traduction, mais une manière dont les choses memes parlent et se taisent.¹¹

There is no such thing as a ‘pure image’. W. J. T. Mitchell writes in Iconology. Image, Text, Ideology that ‘contrary to common belief, images proper are not stable, static, or permanent in any metaphysical sense’; they ‘are not perceived in the same way by viewers’ and they ‘involve multisensory apprehension and interpretation’ (pp. 13–14). An image represents a moment of attention, as such it is at once and by necessity removed from its referent in the world. Joan Ramon Resina puts it well: ‘images depend on a reflexive doubling of perception; they depend, that is, on an awareness of the ontological gap between perception and representation’.¹² The act of looking is a source of knowledge, a form of understanding and a way of organizing the world experientially. It takes into account not only the world as seen, felt, apprehended and imagined but also, by taking into account the viewing subject and his relationship to things seen, felt and imagined. The viewing subject’s position in Rimbaud and in Impressionism in general is problematized, as I discuss in chapters 3 and 4, and this problematic relationship is reflected in the poems.

Realism is a visual practice that ‘invites us above all to look at the world’.¹³ The realist text fixes on the presentness of things at the same time that it processes its surroundings. This attentive looking legitimates objects, people and places as if the seeing guaranteed truth. But this looking is not simple and straightforward. We think we see when in fact we are likely to see only what we have been accustomed to see – what we have been trained to see. New ways of seeing imply cultural and epistemological shifts. They are responses to a pressing need to account for new realities. Jonathan Crary has argued that in the early nineteenth century we see the erosion of the perspectival scopic regime. A geometrical optics figuring a static, hierarchical, rationalized three-dimensional vision gives way to a model of vision based on the body as producer of a non-verifiable vision relatively indifferent to the external world of objective truth or reference.¹⁴ This shift is of huge consequence in the way modernity is addressed in the works of Rimbaud and the Impressionist painters.

For Rimbaud and the painters, modernity did not appear with ready-made formulas to use in the representation of modern life. Modern life was a work in progress in the late 1860s and early 1870s when Rimbaud was writing and painters like Manet and Monet were exploring and defining the parameters of the new art. Artists and writers were constantly restructuring representations of the real to bring them up to date. Rimbaud is a transitional writer. From the early poems through to the Illuminations, his poetry reflects attempts to account for the vigorous political and cultural shifts taking place around him. How to describe modernity? How to position himself relative to the rapidly changing landscape? And how in the midst of so much uncertainty to continue to write? These are a few of the questions I will address in the following pages.

In chapter 1, I consider the works written before the Illuminations and argue that the Poésies can be read as an experiment in writing a realist poetry where the visual plays a prominent role in expressing the poet’s engagement with the world and with the poetry of the past. I also argue that the Derniers vers pushes further the experiment with language in an altogether different direction than in the Poésies. In Derniers vers, the poet takes his eye off the real to focus instead on the intangible and ineffable sentiment of being. Rimbaud’s tour de force in Derniers vers is to have explored the acoustical possibilities of poetry. I conclude that this shift from the visual to the aural leads Rimbaud to the crisis expressed in Une saison en enfer. Ultimately, he rejects the work of the Derniers vers and returns in the Illuminations to a realism informed by Impressionist aesthetics. In chapter 2, I go over the major contemporary reactions to realism as an artistic and literary movement. I focus on Zola to show that Impressionism emerged as an aesthetics derivative of realism. I use Zola to enlighten us on Rimbaud’s possibly similar point of view on the changes taking place at that time. I argue that the shift from realism to Impressionism was a response to the increasing acceptance and belief that objective reality, that knowledge of reality, was inconceivable without taking into account the body of the perceiver, his sensations and his point of view. In chapter 3, I apply the grammar and terms used by Michael Fried to illustrate ways of talking about Impressionism in Rimbaud. I argue that the Illuminations is an Impressionist work and that it is the culmination of Rimbaud’s search for a form to render reality in its striking, dynamic and fractured presence. In chapter 4, I follow up upon my previous discussion of Impressionism but with a focus on ways of seeing. I argue that Impressionism is informed by a new regime of visuality. I trace in the Illuminations the phenomenon of the afterimage, passage and binocular vision. I define these three phenomena and analyse how Rimbaud incorporates them in his work as visual effects in language. They mobilize and expand the text by decentring point of view and fostering uncertainty. I suggest that they are tropes to be added to the discourse on literary Impressionism. In chapter 5, I conclude by suggesting that Impressionism can help explain Rimbaud’s decision to leave poetry for a life of commerce and travel. Laissez-faire economics and Impressionism interact with one another in important ways in Rimbaud’s time. The pursuit of money, as Georg Simmel argues, is not very different from other more or less aesthetic pursuits.¹⁵ Rimbaud’s eventual interest in photography, ethnography, geography and languages at the expense of poetry, should not surprise us. We can say the same of his ambition to make money, ‘faire de bonnes affaires’, and do something useful, ‘quelque chose d’utile’. Rimbaud was a man of his time and these interests were the hallmarks of modern life in the second half of the nineteenth century. My purpose in this book is to read Rimbaud in the context of that time, with a sense of its political and artistic climate. I believe that so doing a great deal of light is shed on the varied and striking features of both his art and his life.

Language and Visual Realism in the Poésies

The primary difference between, on the one hand, the Illuminations and, on the other, the earlier works comprising the Poésies, the Derniers vers and Une saison en enfer is that the latter rely on the assumption that the poet occupies a stable, coherent and mostly fixed position even when, as I will argue, the poet explores effects of dislocation. Another notable difference is that the visual is undermined and replaced by less pictorial modes of discourse in the Derniers vers and Une saison. I distinguish these two works in particular because they are not for the most part concerned with the depiction of external reality. However, as I argue in this chapter, the visual does enjoy a privileged status in the Poésies just as it does in the Illuminations. Both of these works rely on realism and are decidedly visual. Of course, the differences between them are also significant and dramatic. First and foremost I will demonstrate in the following chapters that the position occupied by the poet in the Illuminations is multiple and shifting. In addition, the experiences he depicts exhibit a cosmopolitanism and a breadth of visual sophistication not even suspected in the Poésies. This inclusivity results in uncertainties and ambiguities. It sets the stage for the radical re-examination of language we find in the Illuminations, an examination that the Poésies only anticipates.

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