The Body Never Lies
Self-Hatred and Unfulfilled Love (Arthur Rimbaud)
Arthur Rimbaud was born in 1854 and died of cancer in 1891, a few months after his right leg had been amputated. In other words, he only lived to be 37 years old. Yves Bonnefoy tells us that his mother was harsh and brutal, a fact on which all the available sources are unanimous.
Bonnefoy describes her as ambitious, proud, stubbornly self-opinionated, arid, and full of covert hatred. He calls her the classic case of someone fired by the pure energy derived from bigoted religiosity. The astonishing letters she wrote around 1900 reveal that she was enamored of death and destruction. She was fascinated by graveyards, and at the age of 75 she had gravediggers lower her into the grave she was later to share with her dead children Vitali and Arthur, so that she could have a foretaste of the eternal night that was to come. (Bonnefoy 2004, p. 18)
What must it have been like for an intelligent and sensitive child to grow up in the care of a woman like this? We find the answer in Rimbaud’s poetry. Bonnefoy tells us that his mother did everything in her power to curb and thwart his development as a poet, albeit to no avail. Failing that, she nipped in the bud every desire for independence on his part, every premonition of liberty. The boy took to regarding himself as an orphan, and his relationship to his mother split up into hatred, on the one hand, and obsequious dependency on the other. From the fact that he received no token of affection Rimbaud concluded that he must be in some way guilty: “With all the strength of his innocence, he rebelled fiercely against the judgment passed on him by his mother.” (ibid.)
Rimbaud’s mother maintained total control over her children and called this control motherly love. Her acutely perceptive son saw through this lie. He realized that her constant concern for outward appearances had nothing to do with love. But he was unable to admit to this observation without reserve, because as a child he needed love, or at least the illusion of it. He could not hate his mother, particularly as she was so obviously concerned for him. So he hated himself instead, unconsciously convinced that in some obscure way he must have deserved such mendacity and coldness. Plagued by an ill-defined sense of disgust, he projected it onto the provincial town where he lived, onto the hypocrisy of the system of morality he grew up in (much like Nietzsche in this respect), and onto himself. All his life he strove to escape these feelings, resorting in the process to alcohol, hashish, absinth, opium, and extensive travels to faraway places. In his youth he made two attempts to run away from home but was caught and restored to his mother’s “care” on both occasions.
His poetry reflects not only his self-hatred but also his quest for the love so completely denied him in the early stages of his life. Later, at school, he was fortunate enough to encounter a kindly teacher who gave him the companionship and support he so desperately needed in the decisive years of puberty. His teacher’s affection and confidence enabled him to write and to develop his philosophical ideas. But his childhood retained its stifling grip on him. He attempted to combat his despair at the absence of love in his life by transforming it into philosophical observations on the nature of true love. But these ideas were no more than abstractions because despite his intellectual rejection of conventional morality, his emotional allegiance to the code of conduct it prescribed was unswerving. Self-disgust was legitimate, but detestation for his mother was unthinkable. He could not pay heed to the painful messages of his childhood memories without destroying the hopes that had helped him to survive as a child. Time and again, Rimbaud tells us that he had no one to rely on except himself. This was surely the fruit of his experience with a mother who had nothing to offer him but her own derangement and hypocrisy, rather than true love. His entire life was a magnificent but vain attempt to save himself from destruction at the hands of his mother, with all the means at his disposal.
Young people who have gone through much the same kind of childhood as Rimbaud are probably fascinated by his poetry because they can vaguely sense the presence of a kindred spirit in it. Rimbaud’s friendship with Paul Verlaine is a well-known fact of literary history. His longing for love and genuine communication initially appeared to find gratification in this friendship. But the mistrust rooted in his childhood gradually poisoned their intimacy, and this, coupled with Verlaine’s own difficult past, prevented the love between them from achieving any permanence. Ultimately, their recourse to drugs made it impossible for them to live the life of total honesty that they were in search of. Their relationship was crippled by the psychological injuries they inflicted on one another. In the last resort, Verlaine acted in just as destructive a way as Rimbaud’s mother, and the final crisis came when Rimbaud was shot twice by the drunken Verlaine, who was sentenced to two years in prison for his crime.
To salvage the genuine love he was deprived of in childhood, Rimbaud turned to the idea of love embodied in Christian charity, in understanding and compassion for others. He set out to give others what he himself had never received. He tried to understand his friend and to help him understand himself, but the repressed emotions from his childhood repeatedly interfered with this attempt. He sought redemption in Christian charity, but his implacably perspicacious11 intelligence would allow him no self-deception. Thus he spent his whole life searching for his own truth, but it remained hidden to him because he had learned at a very early age to hate himself for what his mother had done to him. He experienced himself as a monster, his homosexuality as a vice, his despair as a sin. But not once did he allow himself to direct his endless, justified rage at the true culprit, the woman who had kept him locked up in her prison for as long as she could. All his life he attempted to free himself of that prison, with the help of drugs, travel, illusions, and above all poetry. But in all these desperate efforts to open the doors that would have led to liberation, one of them remained obstinately shut, the most important one: the door to the emotional reality of his childhood, to the feelings of the little child that was forced to grow up with a severely disturbed, malevolent woman, with no father to protect him from her.
Rimbaud’s biography is a telling instance of how the body cannot but seek desperately for the early nourishment it has been denied. Rimbaud was driven to assuage a deficiency, a hunger that could never be stilled. His drug addiction, his compulsive travels, his friendship with Verlaine can be interpreted not merely as an attempt to flee from his mother, but also as a quest for the nourishment she had withheld from him. As his internal reality inevitably remained unconscious, Rimbaud’s life was marked by compulsive repetition. After every abortive escape attempt, he returned to his mother, both after the separation from Verlaine and at the end of his life, when he had finally sacrificed his creative gifts by giving up his writing to become a business man, thus indirectly fulfilling his mother’s expectations of him. Though Rimbaud spent the last days of his life in a hospital in Marseille, he had gone back to Roche immediately before, to be looked after by his mother and sister. The quest for his mother’s love ended in the prison of childhood.