One of my favourite things about bookishness is the unexpected joy of random discoveries. Most of this used to take place when I would be rummaging through a second hand bookshop, or exploring a well-curated indie store. However, nowadays it’s Twitter and blogs which often send me off exploring unknown books and authors, and today I’m posting about a work which I discovered from a mention in my Twitter timeline. I can’t recall who it was who mentioned it, but my interest was piqued because the author had been mentioned by another Tweeter! That author is Victor Segalen, and the work is an essay called “The Double Rimbaud”, translated here by Blandine Longre and Paul Stubbs.

Segalen’s name had originally come to my notice when Damian Kelleher shared a picture of one of his books on Twitter; I’d not come across him previously, and he was a man of many talents – according to Wikipedia, a “naval doctor, ethnographer, archeologist, writer, poet, explorer, art-theorist, linguist and literary critic”. I’ve already acquired two of his books which are sitting on Mount TBR, but this essay intrigued; Rimbaud is a poet I’ve read and loved during the pre-blog years, and so I was interested in Segalen’s take on him, particularly as his essay apparently explores the contractictions of Rimbaud’s life. Basically, after a youth spent in writing his seminal poetry, living rioutously and almost being killed by a shot from his lover, Verlaine, he then renounced his art and spent the rest of his life travelling and working in a variety of trades. The disjuncture between the two halves of his life is startling and it’s this rupture which Segalen explores.

Let us not try to understand. In art, more often than not, understanding is a peurile and a naive game, the admission of a slackened sensitivity, the intellectual revenge of a beholder afflicted by artistic anaesthesia. The one who does not understand and who obstinately tries to understand, is, a priori, the one who cannot feel.

Going from being the scandal of the Parisian literary world to a businessman is a bit of a dramatic transformation, and one it’s hard to understand looking back from here. Segalen is also puzzled and his essay seems to be wanting to decide which was the true Rimbaud – poet or man of affairs? I sense that Segalen is trying not to judge Rimbaud but regretting that he abandoned his craft; and as a poet himself, Segalen seems to wish that Rimbaud had not repudiated his work and had continued to write. Segalen was able to talk to people who’d known Rimbaud in Djibouti and who had heard nothing about his poetry; and he seems to find a fellow spirit in the poet whilst ruing Rimbaud’s change of course.

Segalen can’t help wondering, in the end, whether if Rimbaud had returned to Paris, his writing muse would have returned and the poems would have once more flowed forth; or indeed, if Rimbaud was simply suppressing his verse, and external forces might have resulted in his poetry returning. That was not to be, however, and Rimbaud died in Marseille, at the age of 37, after a period of illness.

“The Double Rimbaud” makes fascinating reading, not only because of Segalen’s meditations on the two Rimbauds, but also for his insights into the poet’s work (he opens the essay by discussing various parts of it). Segalen does seem pretty obsessed with Rimbaud (and he wouldn’t be the first or last !); but perhaps is not able to accept that a person *can* change dramatically; they *can* repudiate their youth; and they can travel a different road from the one originally envisaged. That was what Rimbaud chose to do in the end, but at least he left behind a wonderful body of work.

So Segalen turned out to be an interesting writer to explore (his own prose is quite beautiful), and I’m glad I have those other books of his lurking. Kudos must go to Black Herald Press for publishing a translation of this essay into English for the first time; and their back catalogue looks intriguing too! 😀