Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Rimbaud's Ruin of French Verse: Verse Spatiality and the Paris Commune Ruins

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Rimbaud's Ruin of French Verse: Verse Spatiality and the Paris Commune Ruins

Article excerpt

   ... comme l'architecture d'une ville inhabitee ou soufflee, reduite
   a son squelette par quelque catastrophe de la nature ou de l'art.
   Ville non plus habitee ni simplement delaissee mais hantee plutot
   par le sens et la culture.

   --Jacques Derrida (1)

   Triste nouvelle! Le feu a pris lundi dernier au Moniteur. La
   bibliotheque tout entiere a ete la proie aux flammes.... J'ai
   desire, parfois, que le meme malheur atteignat a tous les monuments
   de Paris, pour que le lendemain, sur les cendres encore fumantes de
   l'edifice ecroule, une nouvelle generation vint jeter les bases d'un
   art nouveau et faire le poeme de pierre du xixe siecle. La redaction
   m'a defendu de mettre le feu.

   --Jules Valles, following an 1857 fire that consumed the library
   manuscripts of the Second Empire's official journal, Le Moniteur (2)

The open or empty ruin is a familiar ruinist trope, owing to a certain perceptual ambivalence it affords the gaze: I simultaneously perceive the inside and the outside of the architectural object in ruin. My perception breaks through the object, through corridors conjugated in perspective or onto the sky. In its ambivalence, in this throughness that gives onto the open sky, the ruin disturbs the normal order of perspective and engenders a vista that had not been intended. By its physical form as by its symbolic associations, the open ruin links up with the azure sky, the desert, the abyss--so many anti-sites--because it tends toward the indistinct, undifferentiated, informe. If the ruin is an architectural object that disrupts the confines of architecture per se, if it undermines architecture's attempt to divide and give measure to space, then the open ruin is one of its most synthetic models.

Not surprisingly, the open ruin emerged as one of the primary visual and verbal tropes in the representation of Paris Commune ruins. The open ruin supported a variety of historical interpretations for the capital as it reflected on its own state of desolation. (3) Photographs, woodcuts, and paintings of the capital in ruins after the Bloody Week foreground the spatial or perceptual ambivalence of many edifices destroyed during the Commune, including the Palais des Tuileries, Hotel de Ville, Cour des Comptes (or Palais d'Orsay), and Ministere des Finances. The ruin's visual characteristics offer up a figurative association for Commune Paris in the same way that the very structure of edifices corresponds to the moral or historical circumstances of a story: with some resonance, artists exploited dae ambivalent ruin as a spatial figure for the political implosion of the Empire, the humiliating military invasion by Prussia, and the internal disruption of civil conflict, whereby in each case the spatial relations of social entities violently collapse and are left without legitimate form.

For Rimbaud, the open ruin mediates his relation to poetic activity while allowing him to proxy his participation in the Commune. What follows is a brief reading of his 1871 poem "Qu'est-ce pour nous mon coeur" and its recent critical reception, which traces reflections on Commune aesthetics and Rimbaud's politics to one logical convergence: that the ruins of the Paris Commune served as an imaginary genius loci for this poem's creation. If ruins mediate the status of the capital, then the Commune open ruin also generates a suggestive model for revoluionary aesthetic activity; it became an impetus for poetic destruction in this poem that gutted the classical edifice of the French Alexandrine verse. Jacques Roubaud, keenly aware of its historical context, imagines "Qu-est-ce pour nous mon coeur" as a "catastrophe" in the history of the Alexandrine for precisely this reason (19). More specifically, it might very well be that the Commune ruin is a way for Rimbaud to think the spatiality of the 1870-71 crisis and to conceive an aesthetic catastrophe that undoes the support structure of a longstanding literary establishment while foregrounding the spatial conditions of existence inherent in former metrical forms (it indicates a historical shift away from metrical toward "typographical" verse, the spatiality of which is virtual in all verse poetry). …

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