It was in 1927, in the sunken basement of a dingy house in Brooklyn that I first heard Rimbaud's name mentioned. I was then 36 years old and in the depths of my own protracted Season in Hell. An absorbing book about Rimbaud was lying about the house but I never glanced at it. The reason was that I loathed the woman who owned it and who was then living with us. In looks, temperament and behavior she was, as I later discovered, as near to resembling Rimbaud as it is possible to imagine.
As I say, though Rimbaud was all the engrossing topic of conversation between Thelma and my wife, I made no effort to know him. In fact, I fought like the very devil to put him out of my mind; it seemed to me then that he was the evil genius who had unwittingly inspired all my trouble and misery. I saw that Thelma, whom I despised, had identified herself with him, was imitating him as best she could, not only in her behavior but in the kind of verse she wrote. Everything conspired to make me repudiate his name, his influence, his very existence. I was then at the very lowest point of my whole career, my morale was completely shattered. I remember sitting in the cold dank basement trying to write by the light of a flickering candle with a pencil. I was trying to write a play depicting my own tragedy. I never succeeded in getting beyond the first act.
In that state of despair and sterility I was naturally highly sceptical [sic] of the genius of a seventeen-year-old poet. All that heard about him sounded like an invention of crazy Thelma's. I was then capable of believing that she could conjure up subtle torments with which to plague me, since she hated me as much as I did her. The life which the three of us were leading, and which I tell about at great length in The Rosy Crucifixion, was like an episode in one of Dostoievsky's tales. It seems unreal and incredible to me now.
The point is, however, that Rimbaud's name stuck. Thought I was not even to glance at his work until six or seven years later, at the home of Anais Nin in Louveciennes, his presence was always with me. It was a disturbing presence, too. "Some day you will have to come to grips with me." That's what his voice kept repeating in my ears. The day I read the first line of Rimbaud I suddenly remembered that is was of Le Bateau Ivre that Thelma had raved so much. The Drunken Boat! How expressive that title now seems in light of all the subsequently experienced! Thelma meanwhile died in an insane asylum. And if I had not gone to Paris, begun to work there in earnest, I think my fate would have been the same. In that basement on Brooklyn Heights my own ship had foundered. When finally the keel burst asunder and drifted out to the open sea, I realized that I was free, that the death I had gone through liberated me.
If that period in Brooklyn represented my Season in Hell, then the Paris period, especially from 1932 to 1934, was the period of my Illuminations.
Coming upon Rimbaud's work at this time, when I had never been so fecund, so jubilant, so exalted, I had to push him aside, my own creations were more important to me. A mere glance at his writings and I knew what lay in store for me. He was pure dynamite, but I had first to fling my own stick. At this time I did not know anything about his life, except from the snatches Thelma had let drop years ago. I had yet to read a line of biography. It was in 1943, while living at Beverly Glen with John Dudley, the painter, that I first read about Rimbaud. I read Jean-Marie Carre's A Season in Hell and then Enid Starkie's work. I was overwhelmed, tongue-tied. It seemed to me that I had never read of a more accursed existence than Rimbaud's. I forgot completely about my own sufferings, which far outweighed his. I forgot about the frustrations and humiliations I had endured, the depths of despair and impotence to which I had sunk time and time again. Like Thelma in the old days, I too could talk of nothing but Rimbaud. Everybody who came to the house had to listen to the song of Rimbaud.
It is only now, eight years after I first heard the name, that I am able to see him clearly, to read him like a clairvoyant. Now I know how great his contribution, how terrible his tribulations. Now I understand the significance of his life and work - as much, that is, as once can say he understands the life and work of another. But what I see most clearly is how I miraculously escaped suffering the same vile fate.
Rimbaud experienced his great crisis when he was eighteen, at which moment in his life he had reached the edge of madness; from this point on his life is an unending desert. I reached mine at the age of thirty-six to thirty-seven, which is the age at which Rimbaud dies. From this point on, my life begins to blossom. Rimbaud turned from literature to life; I did the reverse. Rimbaud fled from the chimeras he had created; I embraced them. Sobered by the folly and waste of mere experience of life, I halted and converted my energies to creation. I plunged into writing with the same fervor and zest that I had plunged into life. Instead of losing life, I gained life; miracle after miracle occurred, every misfortune being transformed into a good account. Rimbaud, though plunging into a realm of incredible climates and landscapes, into a world of phantasy [sic] as strange and marvelous as his poems, became more and more bitter, taciturn, empty and sorrowful.
Rimbaud restored literature to life; I have endeavored to restore life to literature. In both of us the confessional quality is strong, the moral and spiritual preoccupation uppermost. The flair for language, for music rather than literature, is another trait in common. With him I have felt an underlying primitive nature which manifests itself in strange ways. Claudel styled Rimbaud "a mystic in the wild state." Nothing could describe him better. He did not "belong" - not anywhere. I have always had the same feeling about myself. The parallels are endless. I shall go into them in some detail, because in reading the biographies and the letters I saw these correspondences so clearly that I could not resist making note of them. I do not think I am unique in this respect; I think there are many Rimbauds in this world and that their number will increase in time. I think the Rimbaud type will displace, in the world to come, the Hamlet type and the Faustian type. The trend toward a deeper split. Until the old world dies out utterly, the "abnormal" individual will tend more and more to become the norm. The new man will find himself only when the warfare between the collectivity and the individual ceases. Then we shall see the human type in its fullness and splendor.
H. Miller on A. Rimbaud