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Henry Miller : Rimbaud and Van Gogh

Extract from:

Henry Miller

The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Arthur Rimbaud (1946)

"When I think of those other great spirits who were contemporaneous with Rimbaud - men like Nietzsche, Strindberg, Dostoievsky - when I think of the anguish they suffered, an ordeal beyond anything our men of genius have had to endure, I begin to think that the latter half of the nineteenth century was one of the most accursed periods in history.

Of that band of martyrs, all of them filled with premonitions of the future, the one whose tragedy most closely approaches Rimbaud's is Van Gogh. Born a year ahead of Rimbaud he dies by his own hand at almost the same age. Like Rimbaud, he too had an adamant will, an almost superhuman courage, an extraordinary energy and perseverance, all of which enabled him to fight against insuperable odds. But as with Rimbaud, the struggle exhausts him in the prime of life; he is laid low at the height of his powers.

The wanderings, the changes of occupation, the vicissitudes, the frustrations and humiliations, the cloud of unknowingness which surrounded them, all these factors common to both their lives, make them stand out like ill-fated twins. Their lives are among the very saddest we have record of in modern times. No man can read Van Gogh's letters without breaking down time and again. The great difference between them, however, is in the fact that Van Gogh's life inspires. Shortly after Van Gogh's death Dr. Gachet, who understood his patient profoundly, wrote to Vincent's brother, Theo:

"The word love of art is not exact, one must call it faith, a faith to which Vincent fell a martyr."

This is the element which seems to be entirely missing in Rimbaud-faith, whether in God, man or art. It is the absence of this which makes his life seem gray and at times pure black. Nevertheless, the similarities of temperament between the two men are most numerous and striking. The greatest bond between them is the purity of their art. The measure of this purity is given in terms of suffering. With the turn of the century this sort of anguish seems no longer possible. We enter a new climate, not a better one necessarily, but one ill which the artist becomes more callous, more indifferent. Whoever now experiences anything approaching that sort of agony, and registers it, is branded as "an incurable romantic." One is not expected to feel that way any longer.

In July 1880, Van Gogh wrote to his brother one of those letters which goes to the heart of things, a letter that draws blood. In reading it one is reminded of Rimbaud. Often in their letters there is an identity of utterance which is striking. Never are they more united than when they are defending themselves against unjust accusations. In this particular letter Van Gogh is defending himself against the aspersion of idleness. He describes in detail two kinds of idleness, the evil sort and the profitable sort. It is a veritable sermon on the subject, and worth returning to again and again. In one part of this letter we hear the echo of Rimbaud's very words ...

"So you must not think that I disavow things," he writes. "I am rather faithful in my unfaith fulness, and though changed, I am the same, and my only anxiety is : how can I be of use in the world, cannot I serve some purpose and be of any good, how can I learn more and study profoundly certain subjects ? You see, that is what preoccupies me constantly, and then I feel myself imprisoned by poverty, excluded from participating in certain work, and certain necessary things are beyond my reach. That is one reason for not being without melancholy, and then one feels an emptiness where there might be friendship and strong and serious affections, and one feels a terrible discouragement gnawing atone's very moral energy, and fate seems to put a barrier to the instincts of affection, and a flood of disgust rises to choke one. And one exclaims: 'How long, my God !'"

Then he goes on to differentiate between the man who is idle from laziness, from lack of char acter, from the baseness of his nature, and the other sort of idle man who is idle in spite of himself, who is inwardly consumed by a great longing for action, who does nothing because it is impossible for him to do anything, and so on. He draws a picture of the bird in the gilded cage. And then he adds - pathetic, heart-rending, fateful words - :

"And men are often prevented by circumstances from doing things, a prisoner in I do not know what horrible, horrible, most horrible cage. There is also, I know it, the deliverance, the tardy deliverance. A just or unjustly ruined reputation, poverty, fatal circumstances, adversity, that is what it is that keeps us shut in, confines us, seems to bury us, but, however, one feels certain barriers, certain gates, certain walls. Is all this imagination, fantasy ? I do not think so. And then one asks : "My God! is it for long, is it for ever, is it for eternity ?' Do you know what frees one from this captivity ? It is every deep, serious affection. Being friends, being brothers, love, that is what opens the prison by supreme power, by some magic force. But without this one remains in prison. There where sympathy is renewed, life is restored."

What a parallel there is between Rimbaud's exiled existence among the natives of Abyssinia and Van Gogh's voluntary retirement amidst the inmates of a lunatic asylum! Yet it was in these bizarre settings that both men found a relative measure of peace and satisfaction. For eight years, says Enid Starkie,

"Rimbaud's sole friend and comforter seems to have been Djami, the Harari boy of fourteen or fifteen, his body servant, his constant companion ... Djami was one of the few people in his life whom he remembered and talked of with affection, the only friend of whom he spoke on his deathbed, when the thoughts of other men usually turn to those whom they have known in their early youth."

As for Van Gogh, it is the postman Roulin who stands by him in the darkest hours. His great longing to find some one with whom he could live and work never materialized in the outside world. The experience with Gauguin was not only disastrous but fatal. When at last he found the good Dr. Gachet at Auvers it was too late, his moral fiber had been sapped.

"To suffer without complaint is the only lesson we have to learn in this life."

That was the conclusion Van Gogh drew from his bitter experience. It is on this note of supreme resignation that his life comes to an end. Van Gogh passed away in July 1890. A year later Rimbaud writes to his relatives :

"Adieu mariage, adieu famille, adieu avenir ! Ma vie est passée, je ne suis plus qu'un tronçon immobile."

No two men more ardently desired liberty and freedom than these two imprisoned spirits. Both seemed to deliberately choose the most difficult path for themselves. For both the cup of bitterness was filled to overflowing. In both men there lived a wound which never healed. Some eight years before his death. Van Gogh reveals in one of his letters what the second great disappointment in love had done to him.

"A single word made me feel that nothing is changed in me about it, that it is and remains a wound, which I carry with me, but it lies deep and wiIl never heal, it will remain in after years just what it was the first day."

Something of the sort happened to Rimbaud, also; though we know almost nothing about this unhappy affair, it is hard not to believe that the effect was equally devastating.

There is one quality which they had in common which aIso deserves to be noticed - the utter simplicity of their daily requirements. They were ascetic as only saints can be. It is thought that Rimbaud lived poorly because he was miserly. But when he had amassed a considerable sum he showed himself willing to part with it at the first call. Writing to his mother from Harar in 1881, he says:

"Si vous avez besoin, prenez ce qui est à moi: c'est à vous. Pour moi, je n'ai personne à qui songer, sauf ma propre personne, qui ne demande rien."

When one thinks that these men, whose work has been an unending source of inspiration to succeeding generations, were forced to live like slaves, that they had difficulty in securing their sustenance, which was hardly more than a coolie demands, what are we to think of the society from which they sprang ? Is it not evident that such a society is preparing its own rapid downfall ? In one of his letters from Harar, Rimbaud contrasts the natives of Abyssinia with the civilized whites :

"Les gens du Harar ne sont ni plus bêtes, ni plus canailles, que les nègres blancs des pays dit civilisés; ce n'est pas du même ordre, voila tout. Ils sont même mains méchants, et peuvent, dans certain cas, manifester de la reconnaissance et de la fidélité. II s'agit d'être humain avec eux."

Like Van Gogh, he was more at home with the despised and the downtrodden than with men of his own milieu. Rimbaud took a native woman to satisfy his affection, while Van Gogh acted as a husband (and father of her children) to an unfortunate woman inferior to him in every way, a woman who made his life unbearable. Even in the matter of carnal love they were denied the privileges of the ordinary man. The less they demanded of life the less they received.

They lived like scarecrows, amidst the abundant riches of our cultural world. Yet no two men of their time could be said to have refined their senses in anticipation of a feast more than they. In the space of a few years they had not only eaten up, but eaten through, the accumulated heritage of several thousand years. They were faced with starvation in the midst of seeming plenty. It was high time to give up the ghost. Europe was already actively preparing to destroy the mould which had grown to fit like a coffin. The years which had intervened since their death belong to that dark side of life in whose shadow they had struggled to breathe. All that is barbarous, false, unlived out, is coming to the surface with the force of an eruption. We are beginning at last to realize how very unmodern is this boasted "modern" age. The truly modern spirits we have done our best to kill off. Their yearning does indeed seem romantic now; they spoke the language of the soul. We are now talking a dead language, each a different one. Communication is finished; we have only to deliver the corpse."

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