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The Promised Land of the Sinthome is not Always Reached. The Case of Rimbaud

Rimbaud’s correspondence allows us to consider the intimate details of a life tormented by suffering, which never knew peace, and which culminates in an atrocious death, the corollary of an existence destroyed by madness. As is usual with most creative geniuses, the initial proofs of his superb talent were accompanied by signs that posterity would cover over with a romantic and literary patina, but which, in themselves, undoubtedly reveal the pain of a soul broken by unreason.

Pushed to flee from a terrifying mother, whom in his letters he ironically refers to as “The mother” [English in the original], he runs away for the first time at the age of sixteen, provoked by the boredom generated by the provincial mediocrity in which he lived. From then on, his life will become an endless succession of escapades, in the painful search for an endless beyond, in which poetry and writing will be, for him, the only threads of suture with which to try to stop the subjective haemorrhage of his miserable existence.

A Season in Hell, one of his greatest works, reflects very well the claustrophobic horror produced by his family environment, which highlights the fact of being abandoned by his father and the relentless hardness of a mother, whose psychological profile can be reconstructed through letters he sends to his daughter Isabelle, the poet’s sister, which are included in the appendix of his published correspondence.

The tremendous coherence of Rimbaud’s life decreed that his stay in hell was not limited to a season. Hell was the only country in which he permanently resided, the only point of perpetual identity through that interminable wandering through colonial Africa, pursuing absurd business and impossible enterprises that kept him paradoxically immobile, bound to a suffering that was, in the end, the death of him.

If reading this correspondence makes anything clear, it is that Rimbaud did not die of a carcinoma (although that was the official and biological diagnosis of its misfortune), but of the impossibility of continuing to bear his terrible pain of living. Writing, which brought him into existence and gave him a posthumous name, was not enough to save him from his awful melancholy, his itinerant madness, his delusional and agonizing determination for ruinous business ventures, enduring endless trials which only death could bring to a close. Rimbaud’s writing did not achieve the symptomatic function it had for Joyce. Rimbaud flees obsessively from the cold of the Ardennes, his native region. His fear of the cold at times acquires a delusional bias, since at the same time he is exiled in regions where the scorching heat is relentless, a reproduction of the infernal experience that consumes him. However, the mere idea of ​​returning to France arouses fear, and that dread is associated with the cold, a cold that certainly is not limited to the inclemency of the weather, but is clearly an evocation of the experience of death linked to the proximity of his mother, and whose sinister shadow he has sought to escape forever. The letters are the testimony that madness gave sustenance to the poet’s literary genius, but that his creation did not serve to repair the failed knotting of R., S. and I.

What do we find in these letters, whose recipients are some of the friends and teachers of his youth, and afterwards his mother and a good number of people involved in his pilgrimage to African lands? From first to last, they are the expression of a request for something [un pedido]. It is not a plea, or a timid demand, since his orders are never formulated from a position of humility, but from a demand that seems superb, yet in which a secret despair palpitates. Rimbaud asks for things all the time: books, money, rare objects that are supposed to be indispensable to his strange commercial affairs, long lists of things that he lists meticulously, providing facts and details, prices and addresses, in an effort to ensure that his requests are fulfilled. Except for a few first letters in which he gives free rein to his conception of poetic art, and some final chronicles about his knowledge of African regions, most are the excuse to formulate an order, a request whose tone denotes the imperious urgency of an inner need that tortures him, beyond the object he is apparently asking for. At the same time, his demand reveals the way in which the poet conceives of his recipient, the Other of his correspondence, over and above the real person to whom it is addressed. For Rimbaud, the Other is someone who by definition cannot refuse. It is an Other literally forced to satisfy the demand, by all manner of means. Rimbaud shows himself tirelessly as a being to whom something is owed and in front of whom the Other stands as a debtor forced to ceaselessly respond.

His sister Isabelle, who was with him when he was on his death bed, is the one who best deciphers the profound meaning of this infinite demand, when in her letter of October 4, 1891, a month before Arthur’s death, she writes to Mother: “When he wakes, he looks through the window at the sun that shines continually in a cloudless sky, and he begins to weep, saying that never again will he see the sun out of doors”. And so it always is, a hopelessness without a name, an eternal complaint.”

The open wound of his amputated leg is the living image of that inner wound he always wanted to escape, the one that causes him to write, which drives him to ask in vain for something that never comes (note his insistence on enumerating unreceived shipments), that did not arrive, that will never come to mitigate the pain of madness.


(Translation: Philip Dravers)