Published: July 10, 2000 By

Could the commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use-value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange-values. Now listen how these commodities speak through the mouth of the economist. “Value”–(i.e., exchange-value) “is a property of things, riches”–(i.e., use-value) “of man. Value, in this sense, necessarily implies exchanges, riches do not.”

– Karl Marx, Capital


[1]   In the contamination of poetic idealism with the violence of commodification, in the simultaneous deconstruction of poetic language and commercial speech, Arthur Rimbaud’s “Solde” inaugurates a cultural politics more sophisticated than critics have recognized. The prose poem challenges the reading of Rimbaud’s œuvre as a narrative culminating in failure. “Solde,” like other poems in the Illuminations, refuses the closure that a diagnosis of failure provides and enacts that refusal through poetic form. Its dizzying paradoxes also reveal the limitations of the poet’s previous erotic apotheoses, by suggesting the perfect consonance of unrestrained libidinal flow and the smooth functioning of the marketplace. It is not that Rimbaud inscribes homosexuality as failure in “Solde,” but rather that subversive sexual desire alone proves quite amenable to commodification. Only by incorporating the logic of the marketplace, and by pushing that logic past its capacity to make sense, can Rimbaud’s poetry effectively pervert the erotics of cultural reification.

[2]   To analyze how “Solde” intervenes in commodity relations requires recourse to contemporary Marxism, which has already theorized the commercial cooptation of modernism, often citing Rimbaud as the paradigmatic illustration of defeat. I intend to demonstrate, however, not only that Marxist critics have underestimated the poet; but also that he extends a provocation to theoretical certitude. This would position Rimbaud as a potential contributor to Marxist discourse, rather than one of its more or less negative examples. Before I attend to the close reading of “Solde,” I need first to canvass Marxist reassessments of modernism; and second, to consider the history of the Marxist reception of Rimbaud. These contexts open the poem’s very peculiar disruptions to critical scrutiny.

[3]   The common denominator of contemporary Marxist readings of artistic modernism is failure. Whether this negative postulate generates a somewhat optimistic argument in favor of the works of the recent past, as with Jürgen Habermas’ “Modernity–An Incomplete Project”; or leads to more dismissive conclusions, as, for instance, in Raymond Williams’ “When Was Modernism?,” Marxist critics concur that capitalism, particularly in its current commodity manifestation, has achieved decisive cultural hegemony over the various counterdiscourses of modern art and literature. To appropriate a term from Pierre Bourdieu and John Guillory for purposes ultimately different than theirs, these political writers contend that capital, with its basic equivalence form of money, has reified modernist cultural interventions into objects of “cultural capital.” Thus paintings, poems, novels, sculptures, musical compositions, and even manifestos have become mere counters for circulation in the global marketplace. Karl Marx’s hypothetical polemic that begins, “[c]ould the commodities themselves speak,” receives its most eloquent confirmation in artistic works whose terminal statement invariably declares, “exchange-value” (83).

[4]   For Habermas, however, it is precisely the aesthetic that can help us overcome reification: “everyday praxis can only be cured by creating unconstrained interaction of the cognitive with the moral-practical and the aesthetic-expressive elements” (11-12). If capitalism created these divided spheres, including the autonomous sphere of the artwork, the modernist or avant-garde commitment to reintegrating them still holds promise. Modernism is thus defined as a critical response to the conditions of modernity. Habermas, diagnosing what he considers the bad eminence of anti-modernism and anti-rationality on the contemporary critical scene, argues that “instead of giving up modernity and its projects as a lost cause” (12), we should understand that the vital “project of modernity has not yet been fulfilled” (13). After reviewing the recent historical decline of modernism, he asks, “what is the meaning of this failure? Does it signal a farewell to modernity?” (6). He answers by negating the negation, by arguing that it beckons us to resume the project of “a differentiated relinking of modern culture with an everyday praxis that still depends on vital heritages, but would be impoverished through mere traditionalism” (13). Habermas dialectically reaffirms the modernist revolt “against what might be called a false normativity of history” (5)–in other words, against convention and administered society–while advocating an adversarial critical culture.

[5]   Habermas also acknowledges that characteristic modernism “simply makes an abstract opposition between tradition and the present” and that, since the advent of modernism, “the distinguishing mark of works which count as modern is ‘the new’ which will be overcome and made obsolete through the novelty of the next style” (4). In this fetishization of the new, however, other Marxist critics find an extremelysuccessful enlargement of modernist ideology, from the specifically aesthetic to the general culture, that also, paradoxically, instrumentalizes its total dissolution. In the words of Raymond Williams,

What has quite rapidly happened is that Modernism quickly lost its anti-bourgeois stance, and achieved comfortable integration into the new international capitalism. Its attempt at a universal market, transfrontier and transclass, turned out to be spurious. Its forms lent themselves to cultural competition and the commercial interplay of obsolescence, with its shifts of schools, styles and fashion so essential to the market. The painfully acquired techniques of significant disconnection are relocated, with the help of the special insensitivity of the trained and assured technicists, as the merely technical modes of advertising and the commercial cinema. The isolated, estranged images of alienation and loss, the narrative discontinuities, have become the easy iconography of the commercials, and the lonely, bitter, sardonic and skeptical hero takes his ready-made place as star of the thriller. (35)

Not only does novelty now serve capitalist ends, but the formal innovations of modernism “have become the new but fixed forms of our present moment” (35). “Modernism,” it should be noted, appears as a unitary phenomena in this passage. By using the term, “ready-made,” the name of Marcel Duchamp’s important avant-garde innovation, in “his ready-made place as star of the thriller,” Williams adds derision to his polemic. Finding no continuing merit in the artistic projects of modernity, Williams, with this foundational cultural studies gesture, would turn our attention to more communal and popular forms of art.

[6]   The faintly pastoral alternative he envisions, which we might call ‘premodernist’ in Habermas’ terms, does not find much support among other prominent Marxists who share his sense of modernism’s cooptation. Williams neglects the possibility that the modernists had very good reasons to abandon permanently the established conventions of artistic production. Even were we to grant that modernism, in its disparate entirety, has utterly flopped, we still need to question whether a return to the forms of so-called popular culture provides a viable political substitute. I say, “so-called,” with the strong suspicion that commodity capitalism has more completely and irrevocably co-opted popular Western genres and traditions than those of modernism. I also take issue with the idea that modernist art works are fundamentally elitist, because of their inherent difficultly. The easy equation of difficulty with elitism elides difficulty’s diverse forms and rationales. Moreover, as Guillory argues, the truly elitist problem that we must acknowledge and address is “access to literacy” (15): “everyone has a right of access to cultural works, to the means of both their production and their consumption” (54).

[7]   In “Capitalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism,” Terry Eagleton claims that modernism resisted one form of commodification, only to be captured by another: “[m]odernism is among other things a strategy whereby the work of art resists commodification, holds out by the skin of its teeth against those social forces which would degrade it to an exchangeable object.” In order “[t]o fend off such reduction to commodity status, the modernist work brackets off the referent or real historical world, thickens its textures and deranges its forms to forestall instant consumability, and draws its own language protectively around it to become a mysteriously autotelic object.” The term, “autotelic,” along with the closely following “irony,” parodies the discourse of the New Criticism, the preeminent modernist Anglo-American critical practice. For Eagleton, the “devastating irony” is that, as modernism

avoids the humiliation of of becoming an abstract, serialized, instantly exchangeable thing, it does so only by virtue of reproducing that other side of the commodity which is its fetishism. The autonomous, self-regarding impenetrable modernist artefact, in all its isolated splendour, is the commodity as fetish resisting the commodity as exchange, its solution to reification part of the problem. (140)

This argumentative turn depends upon absolutizing the modernist artwork’s break from reference and context–an attempted total divorce certainly evident in some modernist works, but not in all. There is a way of reading the break mimetically, as I will elaborate in reference to Rimbaud. Dissatisfied with modernism, though, Eagleton looks with hope for more openly political postmodernist artistic practices that would stress “the state of contradiction we still inhabit” (146), and thus reconstruct the complex forms of modernism and the avant-garde, while learning from their mistakes. He does not consider the extent to which certain modernisms anticipate his critique.

[8]   Eagleton basically agrees with Andreas Huyssen, who writes in “The Hidden Dialectic: Avantgarde – Technology – Culture” that, even though culture industry “conformism has all but obliterated the original iconoclastic and subversive thrust of the historical avantgarde” (3), which “has lost its cultural and political explosiveness and has itself become a tool of legitimation” (6),

Both politically and aesthetically, today it is important to retain that image of the now lost unity of the political and artistic avantgarde, which may help us forge a new unity of politics and culture adequate to our own times. Since it has become more difficult to share the historical avantgarde’s belief that art can be crucial to a transformation of society, the point is not simply to revive the avantgarde. . . . The point is rather to take up the historical avantgarde’s insistence on the cultural transformation of everyday life and from there develop strategies for today’s cultural and political context. (6-7)

Any workable cultural politics would have to be historically well-informed and, as Huyssen stipulates in “Adorno in Reverse: From Hollywood to Richard Wagner,” would need to create “a contemporary art precisely out of the tensions between modernism and mass culture” (43).

[9]   In Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Logic of Late Capitalism, a similar, if infinitely more guarded, affirmation of the potentials of the postmodern accompanies the dismissal of modernist praxis. Fundamentally, he argues,

What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation. (4-5)

Jameson also catalogues how, in his view, vital aesthetic features of modernism no longer function in the situation of Late Capitalism, where surface flattens discredited depth; space distends time; flow washes away interpretation; “fragmentation” decomposes “the alienation of the subject” (14); pastiche emptily mimes the gestures of parody; clashing representations supersede defamiliarization, that outmoded “Utopia of a renewal of perception” (122); fully-administered, prepackaged consumption leaves no place for the experience of art as “nonalienated labor” (146); and, most profoundly, history is “forgotten” (ix), erased from (now disabled) consciousness. Accelerating the anti-historical trends of the modern era, postmodernism voids art of its old political aspirations, along with its sense of temporality. In this situation, Jameson rules out the possibility of resurrecting modernist praxis. Instead, he asserts, in standard Marxist fashion, that “a truly new culture could only emerge through the collective struggle to create a new social system” (xii). Such a struggle, however, would be impossible without historical understanding. Jameson therefore suggests preliminary ways of producing it in properly postmodern art and criticism.

Modernity at Zero

[10]   A central literary figure who often supplies the criterion of all things modern, the proper name that indicates precisely what did not work, is Arthur Rimbaud. Although Jameson employs Rimbaud as a touchstone, as do numerous non-Marxist commentators, he disregards reading any of the poet’s works closely. Rather, he simply cites “Rimbaud’s magical flowers ‘that look back at you'” (10), as a passing illustration of the deep affect postmodernism will neither recognize nor reproduce. Implicitly, what the poet demanded of his readers is no longer exactly relevant to today’s world. That Jameson, like other contemporary Marxists, grants Rimbaud an at least nominal place in modernist history, reflects the influence of the great modern Marxist, Theodor Adorno. Although Adorno’s successors devote much more critical space to refuting or updating his arguments than those of his aesthetic exemplars, reconsidering certain crucial aspects of Adorno’s late opus, Aesthetic Theory, along with Rimbaud, problematizes the thoroughly tragic role to which some postmodern-era Marxists assign modernism. Indeed, Rimbaud may prove to have even more to offer than Adorno conceived.

[11]   The purpose here is certainly not to disprove the commodification thesis. What follows neither proclaims the triumph of modernism in general, nor of Rimbaud in particular. According to Jameson, “[h]istory progresses by failure rather than by success, as Benjamin never tired of insisting”; in other words, “all the radical positions of the past are flawed, precisely because they failed” (209). In this ultimate sense, Rimbaud has failed, too. Regardless of his spectacular poetic innovations, and in spite of the new forms of love he conjured, Rimbaud did not succeed in the revolution of social relationality he championed. But that is not the end of (the) history. I should like to apply a passage from Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” to the study of the poet:

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at the moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and it receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. (VI. 255)

Rather than rehearse the insipid and dubious platitudes about the impossible poetic ambition that led to a disillusioned life in imperialist commerce, the pat biographical narrative that even Adorno endorses, the intent of this essay is to read a certain Rimbaldian poetic text in such a way as to illuminate how it participates both in the struggle Benjamin stresses and in the critique of commodification Adorno and his successors articulate. That would situate Rimbaud doubly as a participant in contemporary theoretical debate and as one of its compelling historical objects. It is not the historical actor–more inaccessible than most moderns, in any case–but poetry in its “moment of danger” that may offer what Benjamin terms “the spark of hope in the past” (VI. 255). Focusing on the work, rather than the person, also displaces Benjamin’s androcentrically universalized “man.” The “historical materialism” of this endeavor, if indeed it can be called that, consists in attending to the crisis of modernity where it still matters, at the very instant it sears into our postmodern situation.

[12]   There is an unfortunate limitation to how Adorno theorizes Rimbaud, which leaves his insights incomplete, though those insights certainly provide the pivotal juncture with which to commence. Rimbaud might have played a larger, more productive role in Aesthetic Theory, had Adorno scrutinized the later prose poems, collected as the Illuminations, as closely as he did the early letters and the decisive dictum, “[i]l faut être absolument moderne” (241) [“One must be absolutely modern” (Varèse 89)], from Une Saison en enfer[All Rimbaud translations are Louise Varèse’s, unless otherwise indicated; all critical translations are mine]. The Rimbaud of whom Adorno speaks appears to be primarily the writer of the famous “lettres « du voyant »” (342) [“Letters of the Visionary” (v)], written to Georges Izambard and Paul Demeny. If, as Adorno claims, “artworks became artworks only by negating their origin” (3), if “only by virtue of the absolute negativity of collapse does art enunciate the unspeakable: utopia” (32), perhaps no artistic testimony more completely embodies the sweeping gesture of repudiation than the rash words of this poet. In his letter to Izambard, Rimbaud proclaims,

        Maintenant, je m’encrapule le plus possible. Pourquoi? Je veux être poète, et je travaille à me rendre voyant : vous ne comprendrez pas du tout, et je ne saurais presque vous expliquer. Il s’agit d’arriver à l’inconnu par le dérèglement de tous les sens. Les souffrances sont énormes, mais il faut être fort, être né poète, et je me suis reconnu poète. Ce n’est pas du tout ma faute. C’est faux de dire : Je pense : on devrait dire : On me pense. –Pardon du jeu de mots.–
Je est un autre. Tant pis pour le bois qui se trouve violon, et Nargue aux inconscients, qui ergotent sur ce qu’ils ignorent tout à fait! (345-46)

[Now I am going in for debauch. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself avisionary: you won’t possibly understand, and I don’t know how to explain it to you. To arrive at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses, that’s the point. The sufferings will be tremendous, but one must be strong, be born a poet: it is in no way my fault. It is wrong to say: I think. One should say: I am thought. Pardon the pun.
I is some one else. So much the worse for the wood that discovers it’s a violin, and to hell with the heedless who cavil about something they know nothing about! (xxvii)]

There is no preconceived content to the “unknown” Rimbaud would summon, outside of newness and its attendant thrill. To reach the beyond requires jettisoning not only the “poésie subjective” (345) [“subjective poetry” (xxvi)] Izambard taught him, but also the subjective self. The goal is emphatically transcendent, as the word, “voyant,” implies. Intention gives way to, is sacrificed to, the materials of art, which transform the poet, instead of vise-versa; and for Adorno, “[t]he element of self-alienness that occurs under the constraint of of the material is indeed the seal of what was meant by ‘genius'” (170). Although Rimbaud’s formulations may in some sense anticipate the postmodern fragmentation of the subject, his faith in defamiliarization as a program for vision or genius marks this passage as profoundly modernist.

[13]   Adorno writes, “[t]he new is a blind spot, as empty as the purely indexical gesture ‘look here'”:

The new is necessarily abstract: It is no more known than the most terrible secret of Poe’s pit. Yet something decisive, with regard to its content, is encapsulated in the abstractness of the new. Toward the end of his life Victor Hugo touched on it in his comment that Rimbaud bestowed a frisson nouveau [new shudder] on poetry. (20)

In his letter to Demeny, the importance of novelty for the poet becomes immediately evident. Rimbaud opens, “[j]’ai résolu de vous donner une heure de littérature nouvelle” (346) [“I have decided to give you an hour of new literature” (xxviii)]. Although the awkward, parodic, and rather conventional early poems inserted in the letter hardly fulfill this promise, the prose goes much farther (which is ironic, considering the specific charge Rimbaud levels below). Rimbaud rebukes the course of literary history in asserting the absolute value of the new:

Toute poésie antique aboutit à la poésie grecque; Vie harmonieuse. – De la Grèce au movement romantique, – moyen-âge, – il y a des lettrés, des versificateurs. D’Ennius à Théroldus, de Théroldus à Casimir Delavigne, tout est prose rimée, un jeu, avachissement et gloire d’innombrables générations idiotes : Racine est le pur, le fort, le grand. – On eût soufflé sur ses rimes, brouillé ses hémistiches, que le Divin Sot serait aujourd’hui aussi ignoré que le premier venu auteur d’Origines. – Après Racine, le jeu moisit. Il a duré deux mille ans! (347)

[All ancient poetry culminated in Greek poetry, harmonious Life. From Greece to the Romantic movement–Middle Ages–there are men of letters, versifiers. From Ennius to Theroldus, from Theroldus to Casimir Delavigne, nothing but rhymed prose, a game, fatty degeneration and glory of countless idiotic generations: Racine is the pure, the strong, the great man. Had his rhymes been effaced, his hemistiches got mixed up, today the Divine Imbecile would be as unknown as any old author of Origins. After Racine the game gets moldy. It lasted for two thousand years! (xxix)]

The formal structures of poetry have ceased to complement the contours of existence. Reality no longer informs poetry. Rimbaud follows his singular valorization of the Greeks, a typical Romantic gesture, with an execration of the Romantic poets, from whom he wishes to distance himself:

Si les vieux imbéciles n’avaient pas trouvé du Moi que la signification fausse, nous n’aurions pas à balayer ces millions de squelettes qui, depuis un temps infini, ! ont accumulé les produits de leur intelligence borgnesse, en s’en clamant les auteurs!
En Grèce, ai-je dit, vers et lyres rhythment l’Action. Après, musique et rimes sont jeux, délassements. (347-48)

[If the old fools had not hit upon the false significance of the Ego only, we should not now have to sweep away these millions of skeletons who, since time immemorial, have been accumulating the products of the cockeyed intellects claiming themselves to be authors.
In Greece, I have said, verses and lyres, rhythms: Action. After that, music and rhymes are games, pasttimes. (xxix)]

Imagining a utopian Greece without boundaries between art and life, Rimbaud projects an alternative present–an historically simplistic version of the modernist dream of an integrated everyday praxis that Habermas endorses. Rimbaud’s is a profoundly political conception of poetry, however naive its first enunciation appears to the contemporary reader.

[14]   The program for social change Rimbaud outlines in his letter to Demeny betrays the ideology of Nineteenth-Century French social reformism, one of the socialisms Marx critiques as inadequate in The Communist Manifesto. The actions of the poet, for Rimbaud, have the power to transform the world:

Il arrive à l’inconnu, et quand, affolé, il finirait par perdre l’intelligence de ses visions, il les a vues! Qu’il crève dans son bondissement par les choses inouïes et innombrables : viendront d’autre horribles travailleurs; ils commenceront par les horizons où l’autre s’est affaissé! (348)

[He arrives at the unknown: and even if, half crazed, in the end, he loses the understanding of his visions, he has seen them! Let him be destroyed in his leap by those unnamable, unutterable and innumerable things: there will come other horrible workers: they will begin at the horizons where he has succumbed. (xxxi)]

In high Romantic fashion, the poet-Prometheus suffers to deliver the truth to others, who are positioned so as to receive and learn from his discoveries. The tropology of horizons and advance is prototypically avant-garde. That the poet leaps into something defined as indescribable implies a surface-depth dichotomy in operation, a bipolar oppositionality that Jameson claims postmodernism invalidates (“Overhastily, we can say that that besides the hermeneutic model of inside and outside which Munch’s painting [‘The Scream’] develops, at least four other fundamental depth models have generally been repudiated by in contemporary theory,” one of which is “the dialectical one of essence and appearance” (12).). The progress that Rimbaud heralds is more than the advancement of the art of poetry, as the word “travailleurs” [“workers”] indicates. But it is idealistic, in Marx’s sense:

       Donc le poète est vraiment voleur de feu.
Il est chargé de l’humanité, des animauxmême; il devra faire sentir, palper, écouter ses inventions; si ce qu’il il rapporte de là-bas a forme, il donne forme : si c’est informe, il donne de l’informe. Trouver une langue;
– Du reste, toute parole étant idée, le temps d’un langage universal viendra! (349)

[So then, the poet is truly a thief of fire.
Humanity is his responsibility, even the animals; he must see to it that his inventions can be smelled, felt, heard. If what he brings back from beyond has form, he gives it form, if it is formless, he gives it formlessness. A language must be found; as a matter of fact, all speech being an idea, the time of a universal language will come! (xxxi-xxxii)]

The overt, if reversed, Platonism of the passage’s final formulations underlines the traditional register of its aspirations. Rimbaud envisions the genesis of a shared, common language that would dismantle the alienations of modern significatory practice. The poet would lead the way: bettering the Greeks, he would bring on social revolution: “[l]a Poésie ne rhythma plus l’action; elle sera en avant (350) [“Poetry will no longer accompany action but will lead it” (xxxii)].

[15]   Were we to leave Rimbaud with these outpourings of wildly unreasonable expectation, and their corresponding caustic disillusionment in Une Saison en enfer, Adorno’s discourse on modernism and commodification would be completely apropos. Connecting aesthetic output to the modes of production in industrial society, Adorno stipulates that the “abstractness of the new is bound up with the commodity character of art” (21). Art responds to real social conditions:

Nouveauté [newness] is aesthetically the result of historical development, the trademark of consumer goods appropriated by art by means of which artworks distinguish themselves from the ever-same inventory in obedience to the need for the exploitation of capital, which, if it does not expand, if it does not–in its own language–offer something new, is eclipsed. The new is the aesthetic seal of expanded reproduction, with its promise of undiminished plenitude. . . . Only by immersing its autonomy in society’s imagerie [imagery or symbolism] can art surmount the heteronomous market. Art is modern art through mimesis of the hardened and alienated; only thereby, and not by the refusal of mute reality, does art become eloquent; this is why art no longer tolerates the innocuous. (21)

By this reasoning, the purported ugliness of some of Rimbaud’s poetry, as well as the impatience of his letters, evidences a critical response to the commodity marketplace. His difficult formal inventions resist consumption. If, in defiance of “the ignominy of the ever-same,” Adorno writes, “the new becomes a fetish, this is to be criticized in the work itself, not externally simply because it became a fetish” (22). Thus, while Adorno anticipates Eagleton’s argument about how resistance to mass production can turn into a particular sort of commodity fetishism, he leaves room for the artwork to provide oppositional commentary on this process. Adorno avoids condemning artistic production for taking part in the ubiquitous exchange system: “[t]hat artworks are offered for sale at the market–just as pots and statuettes once were–is not their misuse but rather the simple consequence of their participation in the relations of production” (236). Only by such participation can the artwork represent the “historical injustice” (172) the commodity system entails and, by objectifying, by critiquing, and even, if only within the work itself, by negating that system, offer the glimpse of a less degraded social reality.

[16]   It is therefore crucial to distinguish ‘the new,’ as Rimbaud advocates it in the letters, from the role of novelty in the capitalist economy. Whereas Rimbaud would employ the new as a force to shatter the rigidities and complacencies of the ego, the commodity system, from advertising and mass media entertainment to goods consumption, aggrandizes it. Adorno asserts that the culture industry’s products offer the consumer “a standardized echo of himself,” a locus of “identification” that, rather than challenging the limits of the self, consolidates the ego’s petty securities and its sense that the world is as it should be, as it has to be (17). Proffering an assortment of stereotypes and canned plotlines, the culture industry sends the consumer back her or his own glossy self-image, reified and packaged for sale. Although, like Rimbaud, the culture industry glamorizes the unattainable, it programs the consumer to pursue what she or he cannot have or be, simply by buying more products. Jameson argues that “the force of desire alleged to undermine the rigidities of late capitalism is, in fact, very precisely what keeps the consumer system going” (202). Yet Jameson does not distinguish the incitement to desire from its very different possible mobilizations. For Adorno, modernism counters “the culinary consumption of art” (92) with formal devices that keep the artwork at a distance from its audience; thus modern art figures ‘the new’ not as an object which satiates some immediate hunger in its audience, but as the sometimes painful promise of what the world and the self could become.

The Limits of Perversion

[17]   In his essay, “L’ambiguïté de Solde” [“The Ambiguity of ‘Sale,'”], Yoshikazu Nakaji remarks that Rimbaud’s “Solde” is “une poème relativement peu commenté” [“a poem that has received relatively little commentary”]. In Rimbaud: Visions and Habitations, Edward J. Ahearn argues that the ambiguity of “the provocative commercial mode” of the poem “has led to opposing interpretations” (122-23): “Solde,” when it does receive attention, is comprehended either as the derisive rebuttal of the whole visionary project, a sort of addendum to Saison en enfer, or as a piece of ironic optimism. Perhaps it is precisely the “commercial mode” of the prose poem that explains the paucity of exegesis; for commerce and poetry to collaborate in such an emphatically erotic, yet equivocal, manner, and thereby challenge the coherence of a fundamental modernist bipolar opposition, may prompt avoidance.

[18]   Suzanne Bernard and André Guyaux, in the notes accompanying their definitive edition, Œuvres de Rimbaud, appear to concur with the pessimistic reading: “Le titre de cette pièce semble bien indiquer une volonté de liquidation du passé, un passé qui est celui du voyant : « Après les vaste espoirs, après les ambitions surhumaines, il ne reste plus qu’à solder », écrit A. Adam” (522) [“The title of this piece seems very much to indicate a will to liquidate the past, a past which is that of the visionary: ‘After the vast hopes, after the superhuman ambitions, all that is left is to sell,’ writes A. Adam.”]. The diagnosis of failure is a constant in Rimbaldian interpretation; indeed, ever since Paul Verlaine introduced him to the reading public with Les poètes maudits, orThe Accursed Poets, in 1883, the significance of Rimbaud’s purported failure and consequent silence has been of paramount critical concern.

[19]   Verlaine accentuates ontological, rather than corporeal, disorder, inferring a hidden causality behind Rimbaud’s final “abandon de la poésie” [“abandon of poetry”] that must be “logique, honnête et necessaire” [“logical, honest, and necessary”] (15). Much of the critical tradition, however, from Remy de Gourmont and Benjamin Fondane to Yves Bonnefoy and Paul Schmidt, renarrates Rimbaud’s final poetic silence as repentance from homosexual transgression against nature, God, or reality. Such judgments, formulated in a variety of different critical vocabularies over the last hundred years, more or less explicitly homophobic, usually entail a dismissal of Rimbaud’s liberatory sexual politics. Still other readers, following Paul Valéry, and more interested in poetics than biography or homophobic truism, valorize the profound accord of Rimbaud’s failure with the dissonant reality of modern life; failure thus becomes a standard of mimetic realism.

[20]   To fashion a satisfying narrative, it is necessary either to force the poems to follow a causal, biographical schedule, wherein juvenile bravado is shamed into self-castigation; or to abstract a governing thematic, whereby the poems submit to allegorical mapping. Such interpretations risk violating the anti-narrativity everywhere evident in the Illuminations, as Guyaux shows in his philological study, Poétique du fragment: Essai sur lesIlluminations de Rimbaud [Poetic of the Fragment: Essay on theIlluminations of Rimbaud]. Targeting biographical fallacy, this important intervention unfortunately excludes questions of sexuality and politics. Guyaux’s analysis of the “forme de métonymie du fragment littéraire” [“metonymic form of the literary fragment”] (8), which follows from Valéry’s study of “incohérence harmonique” [“harmonic incoherence“] (Valéry, 282), elaborates a methodology for interpreting the anti-narratival Rimbaud. Through what Guyaux terms “[l]es glissements du mot” [“slidings of the word“] (162), Rimbaud makes changes in cliché phrases by substituting startling homonyms in key places, undermines closure with subtle and corrosive repetition, escapes autotelic containment through twist endings, effaces syntactic logic by privileging the nominal phrase, and jams the discursive chain with exclamations and superlatives. Although Guyaux remarks on “la perversion du sens par le glissement des mots” [the perversion of sense by the sliding of words”] (184), he declines to address what such perversion could mean beyond linguistic play. Yet the derangement of the vernacular is only the beginning.

[21]   In an anaphoric compendium that extends for six of its eight paragraphs, and recommences in its last, the prose-poem, “Solde,” appears to throw everything on the market. With derisory frenzy, the poet-merchant hawks a bizarre–even, conflicting–assortment of objects, careful to render them more enticing, and thus to arouse the interest of the clientele (Nakaji 239-40). In the first paragraph, Rimbaud’s speaker appropriates the commonclichés of commercial discourse:

A vendre ce que les Juifs n’ont pas vendu, ce que noblesse ni crime n’ont goûté, ce qu’ignorent l’amour maudit et la probité infernale des masses : ce que le temps ni la science n’ont pas à reconnaître : (293)

[For sale what the Jews have not sold, what neither nobility nor crime have tasted, what is unknown to monstrous love and to the infernal probity of the masses! what neither time nor science need recognize: (147)]

To reproach the poet for lapsing into Anti-Semitism would be to miss his irony, whereby the hyped phrases of Nineteenth-Century advertising are strung together, without concern for logical consistency. Nakaji points out that the Jews bring to mind the merchants who must be acquainted with many articles, the most precious among others (240). Yet there is also the unsavory suggestion of illicit wealth, which chimes in with contemporaneous sentiments about decadent aristocracy, excitingly transgressive criminality, and naughtily taboo homosexuality (“amour maudit”). Although snob-appeal makes these rarefied states preferable to undifferentiated membership in the moralistic “masses,” Rimbaud’s hyperboles evoke something even more exquisite, more select, more provocative.

[22]   Ahearn argues that, in these formulations, “the negation of the ethical-social codes (‘infernale’ reverses ethical values [i.e., ‘probité’]), and of related experiential-conceptual categories and methods (time, science) is augmented by a critique of forms of rebellion” (123). What such a critique seems to imply, though Ahearn argues otherwise, is that supposedly dangerous forms of social subversion have tremendous potential for the marketplace. They sell. Rimbaud proceeds in the second and third paragraphs of “Solde”–note that the sentence above flows past the end of the paragraph–to bring his own former political project, as outlined in the “Letters of the Visionary,” under corrosive scrutiny:

       Les Voix reconstituées; l’éveil fraternal de toutes les énergies chorales et orchestrales et leurs applications instantanées; l’occasion, unique, de dégager nos sens!
A vendre les Corps sans prix, hors de toute race, de tout monde, de tout sexe, de toute descendance! Les riches jaillissant à chaque démarche! Solde de diamants sans contrôle! (293)

[The Voices restored; fraternal awakening of all choral and orchestral energies and their instantaneous application; the opportunity, the only one, for the release of our senses!
For sale Bodies without price, outside any race, any world, any sex, any lineage! Riches gushing at every step! Uncontrolled sale of diamonds! (147)]

The objectives of poetic vision become bargain items, as the speaker packages the dream of new societal harmony and new language as sexy consumer experiences. These packaged products find their syntactic counterpart in the poem’s overcharge of nominal phrases lacking predicates. The release of the senses turns into hedonism. Nakaji notes that, alongside the exhaustive hyperbole, the series of phrases including the word, “any,” “Solde” executes a spiraling depreciation of its subject material that begins with the transition from “[l]es Voix” [“Voices”] to “les Corps” [“Bodies”], and continues to unfold across the poem (Nakaji 240).

[23]   Adorno claims that art contests “the dichotomy of rationality and sensuousness that society perpetrates and ideologically enjoins” (98), and certainly an integral component of that division is the mind-body duality. Rimbaud’s letters call for its dissolution, and such prose poems from the Illuminations as “Being Beauteous” (titled in English) and “Génie” [“Genie”] arguably effect it. In “Solde,” however, the speaker ironically reinforces convention at the same time that he lures us closer, to examine his extremely unconventional wares. The pandering becomes explicit when exotically described bodies go up for sale, even though they are paradoxically “sans prix” [“without price”]. The ambiguity concerns whether we should read these bodies as prostituted objects; or, following the implications of “sans prix,” comprehend them as the promise of a utopian physicality, which we will enjoy when we finally bury the “arbre du bien et du mal” (“Matinée d’ivresse” 269) [“tree of good and evil” (“Morning of Drunkenness” 41)] of antiquated moral distinctions.

[24]   Yet the sale of diamonds is “sans contrôle” [“uncontrolled”], just as the bodies are “sans prix.” This repetition erodes any special subjective status presumably granted to the human; it reduces voices and bodies to forms of commodity equivalence. And the phrases, “[l]es riches jaillissant à chaque démarche! Solde de diamants sans contrôle!,” taken together, indicate another possibility that Varèse’s translation–”[r]iches gushing at every step! Uncontrolled sale of diamonds!” –somewhat obscures. The French verb, “jaillir,” has stronger erotic connotations that the English verb, “to gush”: it also means “to spurt out,” and thus suggests the masculine orgasm. In this context, “diamants sans contrôle!” has significance undetectable in the translation. That the poem’s economics are also libidinal, however, does not rule out the commercial reading. Rather, it may indicate, with all sexual proclivities and preferences reduced to slave-market slogans, a confluence of the most unruly erotic flush and the rising tide of commodity traffic.

[25]   The veritable delirium of equivalence continues. What the speaker peddles comes to resemble less the inventory of a street vendor (or pimp), than an impossible compendium of human desire, from the petty to the profound, and in no certain order. According to Ahearn, the range includes not only “what Rimbaud was pursuing throughout [his] earlier texts” (124), but also “paltry versions of the search for integral existence provided in the modern world” (125). Nakaji writes,

Après les « Voix » et les « Corps », il ne reste plus que des articles divers. Le déroulement des paragraphs 4 à 7 marque une multiple dégradation. Il n’y a plus de marchandise-vedette qui domine, à elle seule, un paragraph entier. Parallèlement à cette affaiblissement de l’impact des articles apparaît la division de la clientèle en trois catégories (241).

[After the “Voices” and the “Bodies,” there are no more than various items. The unfolding of paragraphs 4 to 7 marks a multiple degradation. No longer does a leading product alone dominate an entire paragraph. Parallel to that weakening of the impact of the items, the division of the clientele into three categories appears.]

If the distinction of individual items fades, however, their paradoxical relations proliferate; however diminished they may be, they continue to draw rhetorical force from the various promotional discourses Rimbaud preempts. It is not entirely the case here that flow washes away interpretation, though the play of surfaces is crucial. The incongruity of the selection, the mismatch of languages, becomes more fascinating than the goods themselves.



      A vendre l’anarchie pour les masses; la satisfaction irrépressible pour les amateurs supérieurs; la mort atroce pour les fidèles et les amants!
A vendre les habitations et les migrations, sports, féeries et conforts parfaits, et le bruit, le mouvement et l’avenir qu’ils font!
A vendre les applications de calcul et les sauts d’harmonie inouïs. Les trouvailles et les terms non soupçonnés, possession immédiate,
Élan insensé et infini aux splendeurs invisibles, aux délices insensibles, – et ses secrets affolants pour chaque vice – et sa gaîté effrayante pour la foule – (293)

[For sale anarchy for the masses; irrepressible satisfaction for rare connoisseurs; agonizing death for the faithful and for lovers!
For sale colonizations and migrations, sports, fairylands and incomparable comforts, and the noise and the movement and the future they make!
For sale the application of calculations and the incredible leaps of harmony. Discoveries and terms never dreamed of,–immediate possession.
Wild and infinite flights toward invisible splendours, toward intangible delights–and its maddening secrets for every vice–and its terrifying gaiety for the mob. (148-49)]

A purchasing which satisfies both the political radicalism of the underclasses and the specialized wishes of the well-to-do, which both offers and undercuts the possibility of economic justice, can only come across as a scam. When applied mathematics and new music appear to combine seamlessly to provide instantaneous satisfaction, such satisfaction seems as improbable as its production is difficult to envision.

[26]   Nakaji observes that,

Les articles divers ne possèdent plus de consistance objective : ce ne sont plus des objets concrets mais des états (« anarchie », « satisfaction ») ou des actions (« mort », « habitations », «migrations », etc.). À cette abstraction de contenu vient s’ajouter la désignation générale : au lieu de nommer ses articles un à un, le marchand finit par les désigner sous un nom générique : « Les trouvailles et les termes non soupçonnés ». (241)

[The various items no longer possess objective consistency: they are no longer concrete objects but states (“anarchy,” “satisfaction”), or actions (“death,” “colonizations,” “migrations,” etc.). To this abstraction of content is added generalized designation: instead of naming his items one by one, the merchant finishes by designating them under a generic name: “Discoveries and terms never dreamed of.”]

Viewed in the context of Rimbaud’s previous political convictions, “Solde” sounds like their dismissal, as though the poet has ‘sold out.’ It may be more useful, however, to read the contradictory euphorias the poem extends as a stunningly accurate depiction of what capitalism has to offer, particularly in its current commodity manifestation. We have only to transcode ‘Disneyland’ or ‘supermall’ for “fairyland,” ‘niche markets’ for “connoisseurs,” and so forth, to recognize this. Such transcoding both extends Rimbaud’s poetic of unexpected word substitution, as elaborated by Guyaux, and advances Jameson’s project. Not only would this make Rimbaud into a ‘visionary’ in the predictive sense of the term, but it would also show him anticipating the postmodern appropriation of modernism. For just as “Solde” displaces the often revolutionary discourse of Rimbaud’s other writings, so capitalism has taken over the ideas and techniques of literary modernism for commercial purposes. The question remains as to whether “Solde” presents a progressive political vision, one more applicable, and perhaps more realistic, than that of the letters.

[27]   In the final verse paragraph of “Solde,” according to Suzanne Bernard and André Guyaux, some commentators find hope:

Certains font . . . remarquer l’optimisme de la conclusion . . . Étiemble et Y. Gauclère considèrent ce texte comme un commentaire direct de la lettre du « voyant », Rimbaud exposant aux hommes « ce qu’il rapporte de là-bas ». (522, n. 1)

[Certain critics . . . remark on the optimism of the conclusion . . . Étiemble and Y. Gauclère considered this text as a direct commentary on the letter of the “visionary,” Rimbaud exposing to men “what he brings back from beyond.”

For Bernard and Guyaux, this interpretation is inadequate because it fails to register the continuing irony of the poem. Similarly, Nakaji concludes that “Solde” is “un poème d’échec” [“a poem about failure”] (246). But a certain optimism may resonate through the finale of the poem, an optimism unlike that of the letters:

       – A vendre les Corps, les voix, l’immense opulence inquestionable, ce qu’on ne vendra jamais. Les vendeurs ne sont pas à bout de solde! Les voyageurs n’ont pas à rendre leur commission de si tôt! (293)

[For sale, the bodies, the voices, the enormous and unquestionable wealth, that which will never be sold. Salesmen are not at the end of their stock! It will be some time before travelers have to turn in their accounts. (149)]

Ahearn argues that the speaker, by reversing the availability of the promised goods, informs us indirectly that “so long as we continue to exist in the mode of experience and discourse that seems natural to us and the poem subverts,” we will never achieve the “revitalized mode of being” Rimbaud elsewhere affirms (126). Thus he reads “Solde” as urging us to return to Rimbaud’s modernist project, and perhaps to cleanse ourselves of the commercial expectations that the poem raises only in order to disappoint.

[28]   If the poem announces the insufficiency of modernist high purity, as I have argued, then recourse to the old redemptive poetic politics runs counter to its intent. While Ahearn is correct to assert that “Solde” undermines “the techniques and vocabulary of the socioproductive order” (126), he neglects to note the corresponding subversion of poetic language. Because the commercial so thoroughly pervades and dominates the lifeworld of the modern subject, that lifeworld’s total exclusion from poetic practice can only register as literary escapism. A self-consumed poetry closed in on itself, obsessed with its inviolable integrity to the point of severing external reference, does not accord with the poet who states, “[j]e est un autre” [“I is some one else”]. Instead of reaffirming the limited prerogatives of exclusive identity, Rimbaud trespasses every boundary, propriety, and preconceived restriction of experience. Even the homoerotic flamboyance of prose-poems like “Conte” [“Tale”], “Parade” [“Side Show”], and “Vagabonds” [“Vagabonds”]–not to mention the complete explicitness of the “Sonnet du Trou du Cul” [“Asshole Sonnet,” my translation], which Rimbaud composed with Verlaine–proves insufficiently unsettling, a frontier, that, once crossed, loses its strangeness. To the threat of habituation, to all that has been seen, had, or known, Rimbaud responds with a fresh departure. The refusal of poetic purity in “Solde” is not only the escape from another suspect safe harbor, but also a turn in a different political direction.

[29]   In “Rimbaud and Patti Smith: Style as Social Deviance,” Carrie Jaurès Noland writes that “‘Solde’ testifies to Rimbaud’s awareness that all ideas, all cultural strategies may be appropriated and commodified” (607). Furthermore, “[w]hat the music industry would discover in the sixties and seventies–that resistance to commodification conforms brilliantly to commodification, that social deviance sells–is the implicit message of ‘Solde'” (608). Noland traces the important role of Rimbaud in the development of punk rock, a history of the influence of avant-garde poetry on radical, not-so-popular music that raises serious doubts about Jameson’s claim of Rimbaud’s obsolescence. The aggressive dialogue that “Solde” initiates with commercial culture may not only give the contemporary reader the “ability to imagine the transgression of reality” (608) and some of the formal tools with which to enact it, but also warn of the pitfalls of performing subversions too easily replayed on the hegemonic stage. Sexual deviance in isolation may not suffice; rather than clinging to the redemptive possibilities of the sexed body, and thereby avoiding the economic underwriting of social relations, the more thorough-going perversion confronts commodification intimately.

[30]   The ambiguity of the final paragraph of “Solde” concerns the paradox, “[à] vendre . . . ce qu’on ne vendra jamais” [“For sale . . . that which will never be sold”]. Does this mean that there are some things which simply cannot be sold, as Ahearn implies? Or might we interpret it as capitalism’s final twist of the knife, that it will market even what eludes it, what seems to confound its operative logic? In “General Economics and Postmodern Capitalism,” Jean-Joseph Goux argues that “the capitalist economy is founded on a metaphysical uncertainty regarding the object of human desire. It must create this desire through the invention of the new, the production of the unpredictable” (212). Yet whatever uncertainties capitalism cultivates, it has to direct the consumer toward a purchase; the various stories it tells all have the same ending. An apparent cornucopia of colorful options camouflages the lackluster reification of desire. The object of desire that it cannot standardize, package, and mass produce, it sentences to failure, thus forestalling significant change (or revolution). More than empty novelties, capitalism would fashion the human subject as ever-willing to be duped by its cycles of planned obsolescence, ever-interested in the next sequel to its fantasy narrative.

[31]   For sale, that which will never be sold–I do not find this either-or choice, pricelessness or the pricing of absolutely everything, decidable, in part because the poem’s concluding exclamations–”Les vendeurs ne sont pas à bout de solde! Les voyageurs n’ont pas à rendre leur commission de si tôt!” [“Salesmen are not at the end of their stock! It will be some time before travelers have to turn in their accounts”]–indicate that the transaction, whatever it is, certainly has not been concluded. What the commodities say has lost all coherence. Rimbaud leaves it to his readers to make a choice where choices appear impossible, to purchase something where it is neither clear what purchasing means, nor even what the goods are. This demystifies the commodity narrative. As the believability and attractiveness of these objects diminish, the exposed syntax of their elaboration invites inspection. I would argue, moreover, that the choice of whether “Solde” itself is a success or a failure also remains indeterminable, regardless of how sharply the poem belittles Rimbaud’s earlier idealism. The allure of the prose poem as a genre resides in the delicate balance of presumably incompatible modes of language usage; “Solde” expresses that generic constituent in its careful paradoxes. This thematization of form is resolutely political.

[32]   The optimism of “Solde,” then, is its consequential open-endedness. The poem’s concurrent deconstruction of commercial and poetic discourses may help to extricate us from unhelpful forms of closure. As Hugh Grady remarks in “Further Notes on Marxism(s) and the Lyric,” poetry’s capacity for “ideological distantiation” may be one of its crucial functions in the postmodern world (187). This would be a most promising provision for ‘the new,’ defamiliarization no longer limited to perception, but expanding to cognition and, ultimately, to practice–as Rimbaud desired from the beginning. The failure of Rimbaud to revolutionize his world does not have to translate into his futility for ours, so long as we are able to recognize it. “For,” as Benjamin warns, “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably” (255). Open-ended interpretation is a matter of historical justice.

[33]   If Guillory is correct to conclude that the role of literature on the contemporary scene is its function as cultural capital in academic institutions, perhaps the very strange capital that Rimbaud offers deserves a lot more pedagogical attention than it currently receives–at least in the American institution. Rimbaud may, however, challenge the cultural capital model. As Noland asserts,

Students too easily accept the division between the classroom and the street, and the text and the arenas of political change. Perhaps this division needs to be revealed for what it is: a tenacious institutional construction that–like the text itself–paradoxically invites us to imagine its owndébordement [overflowing]” (610).

No poetry better tutors such critical imagination than Rimbaud’s; no poetry better maps débordement. Rimbaud also demonstrates that such imagination requires new forms: the received idioms of cultural reification will not serve this purpose, except through their rigorous disarticulation.

[34]   Commodity culture teaches the subject to eroticize her or his own impoverishment. The unlearning experience that Rimbaud provides may have particular relevance not only to students, but also to queer activists. For if Rimbaud recognized more than one hundred years ago the susceptibility of homoerotic celebration to commercial cooptation, the same circumstance is painfully apparent to the contemporary purveyor of gay pride parades, where sex and gender subversion receives corporate sponsorship and a full array of product-identified accessories. The avoidance of social issues irreducible to sexual preference also registers as acquiescence to the prefabricated departmentalization of human misery. Combatting the commodification of the “queer” necessitates the very sort of disarticulation that the word itself instances. I would argue that attempting to maintain a non-commercial purity in queer communities is not a viable strategy; the task at hand is to pervert the order of exchange, rather than allow the invisible hand of the marketplace to regulate the homoerotic. In the worst years of the American A.I.D.S. crisis, the artistic production of ACT-UP and others revealed the efficacy of such confrontation; through the subversive appropriation of commercial messages and images, as well as by redefining the purposes of art, A.I.D.S. activists upset the political status-quo and brought needed attention to the pandemic. Rimbaud introduces us to the specifically erotic power of such art. This eroticism counters the passive consumption of reified, privatized sexuality, for it situates the subject as a potential agent of social change.

[35]   The critique of modernist novelty begins with Rimbaud. In the sacrifice of his own dearly held poetic ideology, he shows us that past arrangements, old solutions, and outmoded visions must give way to the more stringent demands of the present. The contemporary deconstruction of myths of presence need not entail the dismissal of diachronous experience on the razor’s edge of the now. Nothing necessitates capitulation to the postmodern ever-same. What remains of the past, as Benjamin advises, is what we use. In “Solde,” Rimbaud encourages us to disrupt the false continuum of history, to seize the day, however overwhelming, as the beginning it always also is.

I would like to thank Leroy Searle, Ranjana Khanna, and Nancy Rubino for their assistance with this essay.

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