Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Laughing Matter(s): Politics and Poetics of the (Utopian) Body in Rimbaud's Les Effares

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Laughing Matter(s): Politics and Poetics of the (Utopian) Body in Rimbaud's Les Effares

Article excerpt

Mon corps, cette forme pensive ...

Valery

Le fait du corps ...

"C'est epatant comme ca a du chien," writes Rimbaud on 25 August 1870, just as Prussian forces were approaching Charlesville-Mezieres and a few short days before the poet would set out--somewhat illicitly--for Paris. "Les notaires, les vitriers [...] et tous les ventres qui, chassepot au coeur, font du patrouillotisme [...]; ma patrie se leve, moi j'aime mieux la voir assise. Ne remuez pas les bottes ! C'est mon principe" (Poesies completes 63).

Resistance to the ideological machinery of nationalism, the kind capable of mobilizing bodies and eventually getting them killed, takes a number of forms and articulations in Rimbaud's letter: comically distorted reductions of figures of power to so many overcharged limbs and instruments, a rhetoric of biting sarcasm, and a proclamation of principled laziness, if not an ethical maxim, in the form of a refusal to faire corps with the body politic: "Ne remuez pas les bottesYet just as startling as the thinly veiled, slightly sadistic wish to see his native city ("superieurement idiote entre les petites villes de province") besieged ("moi, j'aime mieux la voir ... assise"), or indeed the contrast the poet draws between his idle feet and those of the "epiciers retraites qui revetent l'uniforme," is the hilariously surreal metonym reducing the Carolopolitan bourgeoisie to a gaggle of grotesque "ventres" marching about town in a mix of trigger-happy, nationalistic elan and absurd horror. Rimbaud--mutatis mutandis, every bit the equal of Daumier in the visual domain in this respect--manages to capture the preening self-regard of these psychotic Messrs. Prudhomme with devastatingly ironic neologism, itself a form of violence marking the body of the signifier: "[Ils] font du patrouillotisme" (Poesies completes 63). (2)

Though this letter to Georges Izambard has not enjoyed anything like the literary posterity of Rimbaud's lettre(s) du voyant, one detects in these lines a complex articulation of poetry and the body, of text and history, together with a strategic use of laughter to deterritorialize, to render strange in unexpected ways, certain received, or authoritative, models of reading and writing poetry in the late Second Empire. Following Michel Foucault's suggestive insight into the centrality of the human body to the utopian imagination--that is, that the fundamental matrix of utopia may just be the human body, with its "architecture fantastique et ruinee"--I propose, first and foremost, that there is a kind of utopian body that remains to be mapped out in Rimbaud's early verse production. Second, and starting from this heuristic postulate, in the following pages I attempt to interrogate, explore, and reevaluate the stakes of a particular iteration of this utopian body. For in the poem "Fes Effares," the reader is asked to contemplate what we might call the fait du corps--that is, the material vulnerability of bodies that become the surface of inscription for a critical diagnosis of the given social, political, and poetic formations of the late Second Empire; and upon which, in the laughter that bursts the seams of a quite self-consciously miserabiliste tableau, a radical desire for difference, for a different distribution of the coordinates of the social and the esthetic, is expressed. (3)

It will perhaps come as no earth-shattering revelation to anyone who has read Steve Murphy's meticulous and groundbreaking exegeses of Rimbaud over the past twenty years (4) that the poet borrows this trope, through which the members of the dominant class are designated by the girth of their stomachs, from fields that are both esthetic and political--that is, from the visual field and rhetoric of caricature, if not indeed from an established discursive tradition tracing back to the First Republic (a moment that might be said to coincide with the emergence of modern caricature [Kadison 24]). …

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