A Season in Hell (or Longer)

Et le printemps m’a apporté l’affreux rire de l’idiot.
And the spring brought me the terrible laughter of the idiot. [1]

Rimbaud’s crisis is that of oppositions. Materialism v the imaginary/poetic. The so-called moral and civilised v the (again, so-called) immoral and barbarous. The industrious v the poetically languid. Oppositions which ultimately tear apart in the poet’s experience of his world along the fault line between a scientific/capitalist/imperialist West and an East which constitutes both an imaginary ‘elsewhere’ and a very real place suffering the ravages of European imperialism.

As the spring approaches, we find ourselves faced with a world set on a similar (and potentially disastrous) course for rupture along increasingly volatile fault lines. Divisions, again, largely between an overbearing, imperialist West and a much broader geographical and ideological ‘elsewhere’. As we try to make some sense of the unfolding situation, a few parallels between Rimbaud’s crisis and our own.

Le monde marche! Pourquoi ne tournerait-il pas?
The world marches [forward]! Why might it not turn?

The European/Western mindset is still largely defined by what might be termed an obsessive teleology. Perhaps the result of a haphazard marrying of Aristotle’s idea of ‘the good’ as ‘that to which everyhing aims’, and a Christian sort of ‘kingdom come’ eschatology. In any case, the West is still clearly driven by the sense that this mess is all leading somewhere. And that they are still the agents that should be leading us there.

Of course, as is all too tragically clear, this warped and obsessive sense of self has only succeeded in leading the West (and the rest of the world unwillingly with it) into chaos. From the horrors of European imperialism to the ongoing disasters of a seemingly unflagging US exceptionalism.

Rimbaud’s typically ironic pronouncement reveals something of the disastrous continuity of this obsessive mindset. It points also to a possible alternative. A world that ‘turn[s]‘ rather than ‘march[ing]‘ endlessly towards some absolutist end. For Rimbaud, it was perhaps a reference to an ‘Eastern’ cyclical conception of things, as opposed to the doggedly linear/teleological orientation of the West. For us, this alternative might well be the conception of a more ‘multipolar’ world being proposed today by newer emerging powers. A new perspective, however, that is meeting increasingly violent opposition from the current hegemonic order. An opposition that lies behind the major tensions currently threatening to rupture along the world’s geopolitical fault lines, form Ukraine and the Middle East to the Americas.

Les blancs débarquent. Le canon!
The whitemen disembark. Cannon-fire!

Sadly, little has changed here. And, with increasing signs of the US and NATO getting into belligerent mode, there appears to be little hope for change in the near future. Leaving us in the short term with the prospect of an even more war-torn world.

Rimbaud, out of an apparently instinctive disgust for this sort of civilisational, militarist arrogance, chose to set himself in oppositon to it, largely through associating himself with the oppressed and maligned ‘other’ that was the victim of European imperialism. For him this was to a certain extent an imaginary/poeticised ‘East’ that he had inherited from his predecessor, Charles Baudelaire. An East which, again, like Baudelaire, he infused with the imaginary languor of an anti-industrious dandyism. Which in itself constituted a stand, if somewhat self-indulgent, against the industriousness of the modern capitalist/industrialised West.

It was also a stand, however, that he made through deconstructing the essentially racist ideology of imperialism and turning it against the imperialists themselves, revealing them to be the truly ‘barbarous’ and ‘uncivilised’.

Depressingly, the old imperialist, civilisational (and ultimately racist) rhetoric is making an ugly come back in the West, revealing, yet again, that Empire has changed little since the ravages of its ninteenth century power. Nor, clearly, have the motivations of those driving it.

Et je redoute l’hiver parce que c’est la saison du comfort!
And I dread the winter because it’s the season of comfort!

Today’s Western imperialism, like capitalism in its current neo-liberal form, rests fundamentally on its ability to maintain a false sense of consumerist comfort back home. Whatever misery this imaginary comfort is founded on is to be concealed at all costs, whether that suffering is being inflicted abroad or closer to home. To this end, the powers that be have cynically learnt that an absolute control of the media, by one means or another, is paramount. An end they have largely succeeded in reaching.

Rimbaud’s statement is again full of his characteristic irony. At the same time acerbic and oxymoronic, it conveys something of that ‘terrible laughter’ with which we started. A laughter, and a deeply critical voice, that cut through the hypocrisy of a nineteenth century bourgeois society founded on the horrors of imperialism. As it cuts through the same hypocrisy of our own.

Adam Warren is a journalist living in Paris.

[1] All quotes are taken from Arthur Rimbaud’s Une saison en enfer. Translations are my own.

Adam Warren is an artist and writer.