The Rebel as Poet


Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8223-1445-2

Chapter One

My Journal
on the
Two Rebel

During the eighties and through June 1991, I gave in several places a talk,in various versions, on Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. This began when Iwas invited by a few fraternities at Duke University (where I teach threecourses on Dante, Rimbaud, and Proust) to speak to them about myinterest in Jim Morrison and about his reading of Rimbaud. Then collegesand universities invited me to rehearse my story and answer questionsabout it. Finally a few high schools asked me to come and "do my thing."These were my best audiences, the most eager to hear a college teacherspeak about the Doors. At one high school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina,three hundred students crowded into a large classroom.

    That morning I began my talk by saying: "You probably know thesongs of Morrison better than I do. Please correct any mistakes I make. Irealize that you and college students are keeping Jim's story alive. I haveoften wondered why you still listen to the Doors, who have not performedas the Doors, with Jim Morrison, since his death in 1971. Iimagine you like the music, the poems of the songs, Jim's voice, and hisrebelliousness. Perhaps also you are puzzled by the mysteriousness of hisdeath in Paris."

    As soon as I said that, a youngster in the last row jumped to his feet,pointed his hand at me, and yelled out: "He's not dead. He's in Africa." Hisschoolmates looked at me then with some suspicion. I knew I had to holdmy own, and said, "If that is true, it will help my talk, because Rimbaudwent to Africa." (I had already explained that my interest in Jim Morrisoncame from his reading of Rimbaud.) I continued to speak directly to thisfellow and pointed out that there was a death certificate, signed by a Parisdoctor. The boy's answer came immediately and as strong as ever: "Nodoctor has been found who corresponds to that signature." This was newto me, and I asked the student, "Where did you learn that?" "In the lastissue of Rolling Stone." I checked that issue the next day, and he was right.

    In giving these talks I have learned more about my subject. Fans ofJim Morrison are everywhere, and I hope there will be more readers ofRimbaud as the result of these talks and possibly of this journal, which Iwas anxious to write before the year 1991 was over. It was an anniversaryyear: the twentieth anniversary of the death of Jim Morrison (1943-1971),and the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Arthur Rimbaud(1854-1891). In that year the French minister of culture, JackLang, organized a chaîne poétique, a network of poems of Rimbaud. Hesent the poem "L'Eternité" to the prime minister, Michel Rocard, with therequest that Rocard send another poem to a friend, and so on until all 134poems were distributed throughout the country.

    The French are great preservers of their culture. This year the poetwill be honored in many ways. From Charleville in the north, whereRimbaud was born, to Marseille, where he died, activities are takingplace. Many of Rimbaud's "heirs"—Claudel, Mallarmé, André Breton,and René Char—have written about him. Once he was considered aséducteur of the French youth by way of his rebellious ideas, but today heis considered a modern hero, indeed the founder of modernism. Accordingto an opinion poll published by the Globe, a new French monthly, oneout of five high school students identifies with Rimbaud.

    The two anniversaries of 1991 brought together the names of Rimbaudand Jim Morrison, who are the subject of this journal and of thestudy that follows. Rimbaud died in the Hospital of the ImmaculateConception in Marseille at the age of thirty-seven. Jim Morrison died inParis on July 3, 1971, in an apartment on the rue Beautreillis, at the age oftwenty-seven.

    It is said in 1991 the grave of Jim Morrison in the Cemetery of Père-Lachaisewas the fourth most visited site in the Paris area—after Versailles,the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower. On Wednesday, July 3, the dateof his death, a crowd of about one thousand French students and fans ofMorrison gathered outside Père-Lachaise. The police, fearing a disturbance,had closed the cemetery. The fans pelted the police with beerbottles and set a car on fire after smashing it through the main gate.Twenty-one people were arrested and two police officers and one cemeteryemployee were slightly injured in the confrontation, which endedearly Thursday, July 4.

    On many occasions I prefaced my talk by saying to the audience thatit may seem strange, even impertinent, for a French teacher to propose atopic that involves the American rock singer Jim Morrison. I ended myapology by saying that the real subject of this discussion is the relationshipbetween the French symbolist poet Rimbaud and Jim Morrison,founder and lead singer of the Doors, the rock and roll band that gaveconcerts in this country and Europe from 1966 to 1970.

    Rimbaud was a rebel turning against those forces that usually prepareus for life. He turned against his family (one member of his family, inhis case), against his teachers in the Collège de Charleville, against hispriests in the parish church of Notre Dame, against the society of Charlevillewhen he was able to observe it, and finally, when he began writingpoetry at the age of fourteen or fifteen, against the way French poetry wasbeing written in the nineteenth century.

    He was a rebel whom Jim Morrison admired, whom Morrison readand studied and on whom to some extent he modeled himself. Rimbaudin his teens had the same ambition to be a poet that Morrison had in histwenties. Several times during the last two years of his life, Jim Morrisonsaid to close friends he hoped to be remembered as a poet rather than as arock singer.

    On March 1, 1991, the film The Doors was released. I was able to seeit on that opening night in Durham, North Carolina, thanks to two of mystudents who had been looking forward to it with the same expectations Ihad felt. Jim Tinnemeyer and Tim Hohman were as silent as I wasthroughout the film. Afterwards, we stopped at Pyewacket restaurant fora snack and then began to discuss the film. I felt it might not be a success,and they agreed halfheartedly.

    In the talks I gave after March 1, I included remarks about the film.In one of the opening scenes, Val Kilmer plays Jim the dreamer and poeton the sands of a desert, first, and then on the sands of a beach, wherespace and sky and air seem infinite. There he meets Ray Manzarek andsings to him a few bars of one of his songs. The plan to work together in aband is hinted at in this beach scene. Then, as the career of this charismaticrebel unfolds, we see Jim more and more in closed-in places: in theWhiskey Go-Go bar, in recording studios, in theaters where lines ofpolicemen watch him. Almost from the beginning, he foresaw and willedthe loneliness of his death in a Paris bathtub.

    From this film, it is hard to imagine when Jim Morrison would havehad time to read Nietzsche, Rimbaud, and Joseph Campbell, or when hewould have composed his poems. The name of Rimbaud is never mentioned,and yet three or four lines of Rimbaud are quoted at importantmoments in the action of the film. One in particular was a favorite of thesurrealists and of Jim: "The poet makes himself into a visionary by a longderangement of all the senses." Un long dérèglement de tous les sensdescribes and explains Jim's activity in many of the scenes.

    Oliver Stone, the director of the film, also identifies himself withJim. Stone, a director, screenwriter, and chronicler and historian of thesixties—that very turbulent decade—has received three Oscars for MidnightExpress, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July. For him, the decadebegan in 1963 with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Stone dealt withthat event in his next film, JFK.

    In a few interviews given a month or two before March 1991, he saidthat he heard the Doors for the first time in Vietnam. The first song inthe film was "Break on Through to the Other Side." These words wouldseem to have more than one meaning. "The other side" could meandeath, or possibly a life more fully experienced. In Jim's life story, it couldmean the cutting of the umbilical cord and thus the separation from thefamily. For Stone, that song was an anthem, like the Marseillaise. "InVietnam," Stone said, "we were on the edge of life and death. Jim in thatsong spoke to us directly about the earth, life, death, and fear." Stone feltat that time that the Indian spirit was part of Jim. Ray Manzarek, thekeyboardist of the Doors, has reported that on stage during a concertfrom time to time Jim would rip out a yell which Ray called a possessedIndian yell.

    In a brief scene near the beginning of the film, we see Jim as a youngboy, four or five years old, intrigued and perhaps frightened by an Indianon the side of the road, probably killed in a car accident. Jim believed thespirit of that Indian had entered his body. At critical moments in the film,the face of the Indian appears before Jim. Jim often referred to himself as ashaman when he felt himself metamorphosed into an Indian priest whouses magic to cure the sick—magic here meaning drugs (peyote, in thiscase) and tribal dancing. In performances both drugs and dancing wereused by Jim when he believed he had the power to heal the depressed, thedespondent, the discouraged members of his audience who came to becured by his songs and his presence on the stage.

    In using the word "shaman," Oliver Stone expressed his belief thatJim, like every good poet, speaks to our subconscious. Jim was in touchwith a higher world and always reaching for more.

    Two legal parties that formed after Jim's death, the three survivingmembers of the Doors and the parents of Jim and of Pamela Courson, hisgirlfriend, fought for some time over the idea of a Jim Morrison film.When Stone was at last granted permission to make a film, many restrictionswere imposed upon him. Pamela Courson was with Jim in Paris atthe time of his death. She inherited the writings and poems which Jimhad been working on there. After Pam's death in 1974, her parentsinherited the so-called "lost writings." They refused to allow Stone to usethe poems. When he began shooting the film, he said: "If my film is afailure, it would have been saved had I the right to use the poems." Jim'sfather asked that no film be made about his son.

    Characters and events in real life have been altered or combined inthe film. No novel, no poem, no film can be totally accurate in abiographical sense. In preparing the scenario, Stone has said that heworked largely from transcripts of interviews. He spoke with approximatelytwenty people who had known Jim, He talked at length withManzarek, Krieger, and Densmore. He spent many hours listening to thealbums of the Doors.

    For him, The Doors is the story of a young man who wants to breakall the limits of life. When he has done that, he does not know what to donext. He strove always to become someone else. This trait is one associatedwith Rimbaud, who went to Africa in order to cease being a poet andto become someone else: a trader, an engineer, perhaps. At the end of hislife, Jim went to Paris in order to become exclusively a poet. Stone went toVietnam to become a soldier in the infantry.

    At the end of the anniversary year, in November or December 1991,the Doors planned to publish a big book, to be called The Doors Complete.In late spring Danny Sugerman, manager of the Doors and authorof two important studies on Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Aliveand Wonderland Avenue, sent me a preview of the future book, whichcontains the music and lyrics of the fifty-nine songs forming the permanentrepertory of the Doors. Many of the lyrics are by Morrison, some areby Robby Krieger, but all of the songs, music and lyrics both, representwork done by all four musicians in close collaboration.

    When Mr. Sugerman sent me the preview edition of The DoorsComplete and his own book Wonderland Avenue, he telephoned me fromLos Angeles at my home in Chapel Hill to speak of his interest in mystudies and translation of Rimbaud and in the lectures he knew I hadbeen giving. At that time he explained that the definitive edition of TheDoors Complete would have the fifty-nine songs, followed by a largenumber of photographs of Jim Morrison. At the end of the telephoneconversation he asked me if I would be willing to write the preface to thebook. My first reaction to this unexpected request was: "There are manycritics who can write more intelligently than I can about the music ofthose songs." He replied, "We know that, but we think you know whatthe poems come from, and we would like you to stress that in thepreface."

    I spent a large part of the summer preparing to write the preface byrereading Rimbaud, Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, and Joseph Campbell'sHero with a Thousand Faces—books that Morrison had studied carefully.At the end of the summer I sent Danny Sugerman a thirty-page essay,which I called "Jim's Place in the History of Poetry and Mythology." I wasapprehensive about the essay's reception in Los Angeles. Two weeks wentby before Danny called to say: "I have now read your essay. The Doorshave read it and four lawyers. We want to publish it and promise not tochange a word. We think that Jim would have liked it. We plan to useyour full title at Duke University in order to add a little dignity to rockand roll."

    Danny then added one final word. "We prefer that you do not speakabout the contents of the preface until the book comes out. We mean, inany of the public talks you may be giving. But it is all right for you tomention the general thesis of the preface." By "general thesis" I believeDanny referred to my efforts to trace the tradition of the poet who singshis own songs to large, enthusiastic audiences. This tradition goes back toantiquity, to the Greek poets who in their dithyrambic songs celebratedthe death and rebirth of the god Dionysus. Dionysus, the god of wine andorgiastic behavior, has been associated with Jim Morrison in our day andthe adjective "dionysian" used by many critics in their comments on Jim'sperformances. The dithyramb has a strong beat both in the line of thepoem and in the music.

    In the twelfth century in southern France, the Provençal poets, calledtroubadours, wrote their love poems, set them to music, and sang themin the aristocratic courts of Provence. In Dante's time, in the late thirteenthand early fourteenth centuries, the Italian poets imitated Provençalpoets and performed in several courts of northern Italy, again beforearistocratic audiences. In our time, Bob Dylan was one of the first rocksingers who composed his own poems and sang them to ever-increasingpopular audiences. The Doors in the late sixties performed largely beforeuniversity audiences throughout our country and before youthful audiencesin Mexico. A European tour included concerts in Frankfurt,London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Stockholm.

    Twenty years ago, on July 3, 1971, Jim Morrison died mysteriouslyin Paris. On July 8 he was buried in the cemetery of Père-Lachaise, whichhe had visited a few days earlier in order to see the graves of people headmired: Chopin, Balzac, Proust, Modigliani, Edith Piaf, Sarah Bernhardt,and Oscar Wilde. I visited Jim's grave twice, in 1980 and 1982.Both times I asked the gatekeeper if he could estimate the number ofvisitors who came to his grave each year. Each time the gatekeeperreplied, "We estimate that each year approximately seventeen thousandyoung people from several countries visit Morrison's grave. It is by far themost visited grave in Père-Lachaise, and therefore the most visited gravein Europe."

    To these statistics concerning Jim Morrison, I would like to add astory about statistics concerning Rimbaud. One of the oldest publishinghouses in Paris, Le Mercure de France, in 1912 brought out the firstedition of his poems, called L'Oeuvre complète. It was far from complete,but it was a handsome book, with good printing on excellent paper, andit contained a preface, destined to become famous and controversial, byPaul Claudel. For several years this edition was kept in print, alwaysinexpensively priced. When the cost of books went up considerably, thisfirst edition retained its original price. I used it when I first beganteaching Rimbaud in Vermont, and my students at Bennington Collegewere appreciative of the appearance of the book and its price.

    A few years ago I had to call at the office of Le Mercure de France on avery minor business matter. Unexpectedly, I found myself in the office ofthe director, a M. Hartmann. I apologized for troubling him, but since Iwas there, and since he appeared cordial, I told him how curious I hadbeen about his edition of Rimbaud and asked him how he had kept theprice so low for so many years. I remember that he smiled then and said:"Since you have come from quite a distance, I'll let you in on a housesecret. We lived on the book for several years." I was puzzled by thatstatement, and probably appeared so to the director.

    "Let me put it in figures," he said. "For twenty years we sold anaverage of thirty-two copies a day of the Rimbaud volume. This included,of course, sales throughout the world, in South America, for example,where French books have a good market." From this the director drew aconclusion. He believed that a few young people every day somewhere inthe world are discovering the poems of Rimbaud and are eager to owntheir own copy of the book.

    I agreed with him, and with further recent statistics I have been ableto collect (the Pléiade edition in Paris and a few bilingual editions like myown), I believe it is safe to claim that Rimbaud is the most widely soldmodern poet. The rock music world paid considerable attention toRimbaud in the sixties and seventies.

    It is almost impossible to approach Rimbaud with impartiality. Eitherhis work appears too difficult on first reading and is dropped by thelazy reader, or the attraction to this young rebel is so strong that readers ofevery age, young and old, tend to praise him and explain him in hyperbolicterms. In the heyday of surrealism, André Breton called him "thegod of adolescence." A few years later, in wartime, Albert Camus calledhim "our greatest poet of revolt."

    During his relatively brief life, Arthur Rimbaud moved about considerablyin a geographical sense. At a time in French history (about 1870-1890)when the French people on the whole did little traveling, Rimbaud'sjourneys were at first vagabond flights that did not go far beyondhis home in Charleville. He went to Paris, to Brussels, to London. In thespace of four years, between the ages of sixteen and twenty, he producedthe whole of his literary work.

    After he stopped writing poetry, before he was twenty, his life becamean epic, and he literally lived the voyages he had written about as voyagesof his mind and his imagination. His brilliant precociousness was followedby a sudden renunciation of literature. This act has been the sourceof many conjectures and legends which every student of Rimbaud hastried to solve.

    During the last ten years of his life, 1880-1890, Rimbaud lived andworked under bad conditions for various business firms in Africa andAsia. The last year of his life, 1891, was a period of intense physicalsuffering due to a tumor on his right knee. He made an agonizing returnto France, to Marseille, where, in the Hospital of the Immaculate Conception,his leg was amputated. He died in the hospital in November, agethirty-seven, and was buried in Charleville, where today his grave isvisited by many of his readers from every country. Their numbers do notat all equal those of the pilgrims who visit Jim Morrison's grave in Paris.But the pilgrimage to Charleville may last longer than the pilgrimage toParis.

    Rimbaud's early poems, written when he was fifteen and sixteen, areabout his first escapes or flights from home. On the second escape, hetook off for Belgium, directly north. Much of this trip was made on foot.Several poems were written about it. One of them he calls "Ma Bohème."He has found a way of speaking about himself that is half ironic and halfpathetic. This style he will continue to develop in the later poems.

    The gesture at the beginning of "Ma Bohème," "My fists in my tornpockets" (mes poings dans mes poches crevées) is an attitude of defiance,almost of hostility. "My inn at the Big Dipper" (mon auberge à la GrandeOurse) is his way of saying that he slept under the stars. The ending of thesonnet is a poetic-mythological touch. The lacings of his shoes he looksupon as his lyre. He is Orpheus in the Ardennes, when, seated on the sideof the road on those fine September evenings, he rhymed and pluckedlike strings the lacings of his wounded shoes, one foot near his heart.(The posture might well be that of a hippie guitarist.)

    In other poems, such as "Au Cabaret-Vert," he celebrates a real innwhich for Rimbaud in his wanderings becomes a symbol of happinessand freedom. The beer mug (la choppe) occupies an important place inthese poems. The drinking of beer from a generously sized mug wouldseem also to symbolize the new freedom the poet is looking for, ahappiness Rimbaud never did find.

    This introduction is part journal, part memoir. During these past fewyears my memoir has become a narrative whose plot is a renewed study ofRimbaud and the curious relationship between Rimbaud and Jim Morrison.The name Jim gave his band, the Doors, comes from a line ofWilliam Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything thenwould appear to man as it truly is, infinite." Aldous Huxley used the linefor the title of his novel The Doors of Perception, and later Jim Morrisonnamed his band The Doors: Open and Closed. Eventually the words"open and closed" were dropped.

    Blake's line could easily be a line of Rimbaud. It has helped me,encouraged me, to unite these two figures, because it seems to mean thatif our senses, our powers of perception were sharpened, we would realizethat we live in two worlds simultaneously: a world of matter—thephysical universe—and a world of the spirit—a spiritual universe that iseternal.

    I had been teaching Rimbaud for some time and had always foundhis language and his style sympathetic and exciting. I admired theaccelerations in the movement of his lines, in the energy of the poems, inthe tensions coming from the language and the experience which thelanguage expressed. So, when the University of Chicago Press suggested Iattempt the translation of a complete Rimbaud, I accepted, with all theinevitable worries that accompany any such project. Rimbaud's French iscomplex and exacting. By that time in my career, I had done enoughtranslating to know that any translation is a self-incrimination. But I wasbeginning to believe—this was the early sixties—that Rimbaud, in hiswork and in his life, was more universal than I had once thought.

    I knew in advance there would be difficulties in Rimbaud's vocabulary-wordsfrom the dialect of the Ardennes region in northern France,words often based on German words. But especially I knew of the manystartlingly beautiful but mysterious lines in Les Illuminations. This part ofRimbaud's work had already been translated by an excellent translator,Louise Varèse, the American wife of the French composer Edgar Varèse.They lived on Sullivan Street, in the Village in New York. I wrote to Mrs.Varèse about my undertaking and asked if I might consult her aboutwords and phrases (approximately twenty in all) that were giving metrouble. She graciously set a date for my visit. When I showed her my list,she turned to a notebook and showed me the same list of words that hadpuzzled her.

    I then said to Mrs. Varèse, "You have a French husband, who was afriend of Apollinaire. Couldn't he help you with those words?"

    "No, he doesn't understand them."

    She and I talked about the words and guessed possible meaningsfrom their contexts. It was a delightful, if discouraging, visit I stillremember vividly.

    At that time, Etiemble, because of his gigantic thesis "Mythe deRimbaud," was the leading authority on Rimbaud. I had met him once inChicago and twice in Paris and felt I could write to him for help with mylist of words. I explained in my letter what I was doing and asked if Imight send him a list of words and phrases whose meaning eluded me.His answer came immediately: "No, I cannot help you. I am rereadingRimbaud and have decided that I don't understand a single sentence hewrote." This, of course, was gross exaggeration. He wanted no morediscussions about Rimbaud.

    Despite these serious warnings, I began to translate. Two years later Iwas finishing the work in Nice, during the winter of 1965-66. I hadjoined the faculty at Duke in 1964, with the understanding that I wouldhave a semester free in 1966 to complete my translation. I was preparingmy typescript for the printer—and was still uncertain of my translationof about eight phrases. I knew that a book dealer and collector ofmanuscripts, letters, and especially pictures of Rimbaud lived in Nice.Henri Matarasso had in fact in 1962 published a biography, Vie d'ArthurRimbaud, a well-documented book for that time. I wrote to him from theHôtel Atlantic where I was working and asked permission to meet himand discuss certain words of the poet I was translating before sending themanuscript to the publisher. Two days later I received a card from him:"Heureux de vous aider. Venez mercredi à deux heures."

    On opening his door that Wednesday at two, Matarasso said, beforeshaking hands and saying hello, "I wish you had come yesterday, whenPicasso was here for lunch." To myself I said, I would have come onTuesday had you invited me then.

    Matarasso explained, as he pulled me inside the house, "On Picasso'sarrival yesterday, I asked him if he would do a sketch of Rimbaud for mycollection." (It seemed that Picasso was the only major painter of the daywho had not done a portrait of Rimbaud.) Picasso had answered, "Yes, ofcourse, give me a photograph." Matarasso gave him a small photograph ofRimbaud at sixteen. Picasso held the photograph in his left hand and withhis right tacked a piece of white paper on the wall. In two minutes,according to Matarasso, after sharpening his pencil on the right side ofthe sheet of paper, Picasso drew a sketch. He followed the photographbut made changes in the face. Picasso's Rimbaud is a more vigorous-lookingyouth, and his hair was changed into the punk style of today

    With great pride, Matarasso placed the drawing on a large table. Ilooked at it eagerly and listened to all that Matarasso said about thepicture. Greed grew in me then, and I heard myself asking: "Do you thinkit would be possible for me to use this sketch on the cover of my book oftranslations?"

    With no hesitation, Henri Matarasso replied, "Yes. Picasso was goodto me. He signed the picture and gave it to me. I will have a lithographmade for you and send it to you at Duke University with permission tohave it reproduced on the cover of your book."

    Soon after my return to Durham, I received what I thought was alithograph copy of Picasso's Rimbaud. The University of Chicago Presswas delighted to use it for the cover of my book. This was the firstcommercial use of the drawing. Later, it was reproduced on T-shirts:Picasso's portrait covering the chest of the wearer, and at the top of theshirt the words GO, RIMBAUD. Some years later, when I moved into aretirement center in Chapel Hill, a gentleman from the North CarolinaMuseum of Art asked to come to my rooms to see my pictures. He keptreturning to the portrait of Rimbaud and finally said to me: "That is nolithograph. It is the original sketch." I was puzzled and wrote to Matarassoin Nice to ask which he had sent, the original or a copy His answer:"The original—I thought you would recognize it."

    The story is important for the narrative I am writing. The book cameout in 1966. Its cover bore the Picasso Rimbaud and reminded me of mylabors in Nice and the generosity of Henri Matarasso. During the followingthree years, 1967-69, I received a few letters—not more than five orsix—from people I did not know. They were principally remarks aboutthe translations. One of those letters, a brief one, was signed "Jim Morrison."I am ashamed to say that in 1968, when I received that note, I didnot recognize the name.

    In class the next morning, while waiting for the last few students totake their seats, I casually asked: "Do you recognize the name JimMorrison?" My students were shocked by my ignorance. "Don't youknow the Doors? He's the lead singer." My stock dropped low thatmorning in my classroom. I had lost favor. To recuperate and to steadymy nerves, I held up the letter and said: "Give me a chance! Let me readthis letter to you."

    Dear Wallace Fowlie,

Just wanted to say thanks for doing the Rimbaud translation. I needed it because I don't read French that easily.... I am a rock singer and your book travels around with me.

The class was quietly attentive by this time, and I said to them, "There isone more sentence, a post-scriptum at the bottom of the page:"

    That Picasso drawing of Rimbaud on the cover is great.