October 23, 2017
On this day in 1885 Arthur Rimbaud wrote to his mother that he had decided to become a gun-runner in Ethiopia, so beginning the last phase of his wild, infamous and short life. By the age of twenty-one, Rimbaud had renounced Paul Verlaine and poetry for a vagabond tour of Europe -- tutor, beggar, docker, factory worker, soldier, thief, and more. By the age of twenty-five, he had renounced Europe for Africa, becoming at first a coffee trader and then turning to gun-running (and possibly slave-trading) as a get-rich scheme, he tells his mother:
I have left my job in Aden after a violent altercation with those pathetic peasants who want to stupefy me for good.... They did all they could to hold on to me, but I sent them to hell, with all their offers and their deals, and their horrible office, and their filthy town.... Several thousand rifles are on their way to me from Europe. I am going to set up a caravan, and carry this merchandise to Menelik, the king of Shoa [Abyssinia]....
His partners died and there was a year of delay and baksheesh, but Rimbaud and his hundred rifle-laden camels finally set off on the four-month trek through the Afar Triangle in the Great Rift Valley. This is the area where the 3.2 million year-old "Lucy" was found in 1974; as described by Charles Nicholl in his biography-travelogue-detective story, Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, it was poetic ground zero:
These ridged, scorched, volcanic badlands across which Rimbaud struggled in 1886-7 are ... the 'cradle of mankind.' And if Rimbaud's years in Africa seem like a flight from what he was -- from Europe, from poetry, from himself -- then it is surely here, on this desolate desert trek, that he reaches the furthest point of that arrow-flight, arriving at this utter privation, at this landscape of nothingness, which is also -- in a quite scientific sense of which he would surely approve -- the very beginning of humanity.
Nicholl retraced Rimbaud's path in Africa, and his book (Hawthornden Prize-winner in 1997) brings the facts and the mysterious legend alive in fascinating detail. Interspersed are lines from Rimbaud, such as these prescient ones from A Season in Hell:
I loved the desert, burnt orchards, tired old shops, warm drinks. I dragged myself through stinking alleys, and with my eyes closed I offered myself to the sun, the god of fire.
"General, if on your ruined ramparts one cannon still remains, shell us with clods of dried-up earth. Shatter the mirrors of expensive shops! And the drawing rooms ! Make the city swallow its dust. Turn gargoyles to rust. Stuff boudoirs with rubies' fiery powder..."