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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 I was invited by a few fraternities at Duke University (where I teach three courses on Dante, Rimbaud, and Proust) to speak to them about my interest in Jim Morrison and about his reading of Rimbaud. Then colleges and universities invited me to rehearse my story and answer questions about 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 teacher speak 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 the songs of Morrison better than I do. Please correct any mistakes I make. I realize that you and college students are keeping Jim's story alive. I have often wondered why you still listen to the Doors, who have not performed as the Doors, with Jim Morrison, since his death in 1971. I imagine you like the music, the poems of the songs, Jim's voice, and his rebelliousness. Perhaps also you are puzzled by the mysteriousness of his death 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." His schoolmates looked at me then with some suspicion. I knew I had to hold my own, and said, "If that is true, itwill help my talk, because Rimbaud went to Africa." (I had already explained that my interest in Jim Morrison came from his reading of Rimbaud.) I continued to speak directly to this fellow and pointed out that there was a death certificate, signed by a Paris doctor. The boy's answer came immediately and as strong as ever: "No doctor has been found who corresponds to that signature." This was new to me, and I asked the student, "Where did you learn that?" "In the last issue 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 of Jim Morrison are everywhere, and I hope there will be more readers of Rimbaud as the result of these talks and possibly of this journal, which I was anxious to write before the year 1991 was over. It was an anniversary year: 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, Jack Lang, organized a chaîne poétique, a network of poems of Rimbaud. He sent the poem "L'Eternité" to the prime minister, Michel Rocard, with the request that Rocard send another poem to a friend, and so on until all 134 poems were distributed throughout the country.
The French are great preservers of their culture. This year the poet will be honored in many ways. From Charleville in the north, where Rimbaud was born, to Marseille, where he died, activities are taking place. Many of Rimbaud's "heirs"Claudel, Mallarmé, André Breton, and René Charhave written about him. Once he was considered a séducteur of the French youth by way of his rebellious ideas, but today he is considered a modern hero, indeed the founder of modernism. According to an opinion poll published by the Globe, a new French monthly, one out of five high school students identifies with Rimbaud.
The two anniversaries of 1991 brought together the names of Rimbaud and Jim Morrison, who are the subject of this journal and of the study that follows. Rimbaud died in the Hospital of the Immaculate Conception in Marseille at the age of thirty-seven. Jim Morrison died in Paris on July 3, 1971, in an apartment on the rue Beautreillis, at the age of twenty-seven.
It is said in 1991 the grave of Jim Morrison in the Cemetery of Père-Lachaise was the fourth most visited site in the Paris areaafter Versailles, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower. On Wednesday, July 3, the date of his death, a crowd of about one thousand French students and fans of Morrison gathered outside Père-Lachaise. The police, fearing a disturbance, had closed the cemetery. The fans pelted the police with beer bottles and set a car on fire after smashing it through the main gate. Twenty-one people were arrested and two police officers and one cemetery employee were slightly injured in the confrontation, which ended early Thursday, July 4.
On many occasions I prefaced my talk by saying to the audience that it may seem strange, even impertinent, for a French teacher to propose a topic that involves the American rock singer Jim Morrison. I ended my apology by saying that the real subject of this discussion is the relationship between the French symbolist poet Rimbaud and Jim Morrison, founder and lead singer of the Doors, the rock and roll band that gave concerts in this country and Europe from 1966 to 1970.
Rimbaud was a rebel turning against those forces that usually prepare us for life. He turned against his family (one member of his family, in his case), against his teachers in the Collège de Charleville, against his priests in the parish church of Notre Dame, against the society of Charleville when he was able to observe it, and finally, when he began writing poetry at the age of fourteen or fifteen, against the way French poetry was being written in the nineteenth century.
He was a rebel whom Jim Morrison admired, whom Morrison read and studied and on whom to some extent he modeled himself. Rimbaud in his teens had the same ambition to be a poet that Morrison had in his twenties. Several times during the last two years of his life, Jim Morrison said to close friends he hoped to be remembered as a poet rather than as a rock singer.
On March 1, 1991, the film The Doors was released. I was able to see it on that opening night in Durham, North Carolina, thanks to two of my students who had been looking forward to it with the same expectations I had felt. Jim Tinnemeyer and Tim Hohman were as silent as I was throughout the film. Afterwards, we stopped at Pyewacket restaurant for a 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 poet on the sands of a desert, first, and then on the sands of a beach, where space and sky and air seem infinite. There he meets Ray Manzarek and sings to him a few bars of one of his songs. The plan to work together in a band is hinted at in this beach scene. Then, as the career of this charismatic rebel unfolds, we see Jim more and more in closed-in places: in the Whiskey Go-Go bar, in recording studios, in theaters where lines of policemen watch him. Almost from the beginning, he foresaw and willed the loneliness of his death in a Paris bathtub.
From this film, it is hard to imagine when Jim Morrison would have had time to read Nietzsche, Rimbaud, and Joseph Campbell, or when he would have composed his poems. The name of Rimbaud is never mentioned, and yet three or four lines of Rimbaud are quoted at important moments in the action of the film. One in particular was a favorite of the surrealists and of Jim: "The poet makes himself into a visionary by a long derangement of all the senses." Un long dérèglement de tous les sens describes and explains Jim's activity in many of the scenes.
Oliver Stone, the director of the film, also identifies himself with Jim. Stone, a director, screenwriter, and chronicler and historian of the sixtiesthat very turbulent decadehas received three Oscars for Midnight Express, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July. For him, the decade began in 1963 with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Stone dealt with that event in his next film, JFK.
In a few interviews given a month or two before March 1991, he said that he heard the Doors for the first time in Vietnam. The first song in the film was "Break on Through to the Other Side." These words would seem to have more than one meaning. "The other side" could mean death, or possibly a life more fully experienced. In Jim's life story, it could mean the cutting of the umbilical cord and thus the separation from the family. For Stone, that song was an anthem, like the Marseillaise. "In Vietnam," Stone said, "we were on the edge of life and death. Jim in that song spoke to us directly about the earth, life, death, and fear." Stone felt at that time that the Indian spirit was part of Jim. Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist of the Doors, has reported that on stage during a concert from time to time Jim would rip out a yell which Ray called a possessed Indian yell.
In a brief scene near the beginning of the film, we see Jim as a young boy, four or five years old, intrigued and perhaps frightened by an Indian on the side of the road, probably killed in a car accident. Jim believed the spirit 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 a shaman when he felt himself metamorphosed into an Indian priest who uses magic to cure the sickmagic here meaning drugs (peyote, in this case) and tribal dancing. In performances both drugs and dancing were used by Jim when he believed he had the power to heal the depressed, the despondent, the discouraged members of his audience who came to be cured by his songs and his presence on the stage.
In using the word "shaman," Oliver Stone expressed his belief that Jim, like every good poet, speaks to our subconscious. Jim was in touch with a higher world and always reaching for more.
Two legal parties that formed after Jim's death, the three surviving members of the Doors and the parents of Jim and of Pamela Courson, his girlfriend, fought for some time over the idea of a Jim Morrison film. When Stone was at last granted permission to make a film, many restrictions were imposed upon him. Pamela Courson was with Jim in Paris at the time of his death. She inherited the writings and poems which Jim had been working on there. After Pam's death in 1974, her parents inherited the so-called "lost writings." They refused to allow Stone to use the poems. When he began shooting the film, he said: "If my film is a failure, it would have been saved had I the right to use the poems." Jim's father asked that no film be made about his son.
Characters and events in real life have been altered or combined in the film. No novel, no poem, no film can be totally accurate in a biographical sense. In preparing the scenario, Stone has said that he worked largely from transcripts of interviews. He spoke with approximately twenty people who had known Jim, He talked at length with Manzarek, Krieger, and Densmore. He spent many hours listening to the albums of the Doors.
For him, The Doors is the story of a young man who wants to break all the limits of life. When he has done that, he does not know what to do next. He strove always to become someone else. This trait is one associated with Rimbaud, who went to Africa in order to cease being a poet and to become someone else: a trader, an engineer, perhaps. At the end of his life, Jim went to Paris in order to become exclusively a poet. Stone went to Vietnam 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 author of two important studies on Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive and Wonderland Avenue, sent me a preview of the future book, which contains the music and lyrics of the fifty-nine songs forming the permanent repertory of the Doors. Many of the lyrics are by Morrison, some are by Robby Krieger, but all of the songs, music and lyrics both, represent work done by all four musicians in close collaboration.
When Mr. Sugerman sent me the preview edition of The Doors Complete and his own book Wonderland Avenue, he telephoned me from Los Angeles at my home in Chapel Hill to speak of his interest in my studies and translation of Rimbaud and in the lectures he knew I had been giving. At that time he explained that the definitive edition of The Doors Complete would have the fifty-nine songs, followed by a large number of photographs of Jim Morrison. At the end of the telephone conversation he asked me if I would be willing to write the preface to the book. My first reaction to this unexpected request was: "There are many critics who can write more intelligently than I can about the music of those songs." He replied, "We know that, but we think you know what the poems come from, and we would like you to stress that in the preface."
I spent a large part of the summer preparing to write the preface by rereading Rimbaud, Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, and Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Facesbooks 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 was apprehensive about the essay's reception in Los Angeles. Two weeks went by before Danny called to say: "I have now read your essay. The Doors have read it and four lawyers. We want to publish it and promise not to change a word. We think that Jim would have liked it. We plan to use your full title at Duke University in order to add a little dignity to rock and roll."
Danny then added one final word. "We prefer that you do not speak about the contents of the preface until the book comes out. We mean, in any of the public talks you may be giving. But it is all right for you to mention the general thesis of the preface." By "general thesis" I believe Danny referred to my efforts to trace the tradition of the poet who sings his own songs to large, enthusiastic audiences. This tradition goes back to antiquity, to the Greek poets who in their dithyrambic songs celebrated the death and rebirth of the god Dionysus. Dionysus, the god of wine and orgiastic behavior, has been associated with Jim Morrison in our day and the adjective "dionysian" used by many critics in their comments on Jim's performances. The dithyramb has a strong beat both in the line of the poem and in the music.
In the twelfth century in southern France, the Provençal poets, called troubadours, wrote their love poems, set them to music, and sang them in the aristocratic courts of Provence. In Dante's time, in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the Italian poets imitated Provençal poets and performed in several courts of northern Italy, again before aristocratic audiences. In our time, Bob Dylan was one of the first rock singers who composed his own poems and sang them to ever-increasing popular audiences. The Doors in the late sixties performed largely before university audiences throughout our country and before youthful audiences in Mexico. A European tour included concerts in Frankfurt, London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Stockholm.
Twenty years ago, on July 3, 1971, Jim Morrison died mysteriously in Paris. On July 8 he was buried in the cemetery of Père-Lachaise, which he had visited a few days earlier in order to see the graves of people he admired: 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 of visitors who came to his grave each year. Each time the gatekeeper replied, "We estimate that each year approximately seventeen thousand young people from several countries visit Morrison's grave. It is by far the most visited grave in Père-Lachaise, and therefore the most visited grave in Europe."
To these statistics concerning Jim Morrison, I would like to add a story about statistics concerning Rimbaud. One of the oldest publishing houses in Paris, Le Mercure de France, in 1912 brought out the first edition of his poems, called L'Oeuvre complète. It was far from complete, but it was a handsome book, with good printing on excellent paper, and it contained a preface, destined to become famous and controversial, by Paul Claudel. For several years this edition was kept in print, always inexpensively priced. When the cost of books went up considerably, this first edition retained its original price. I used it when I first began teaching Rimbaud in Vermont, and my students at Bennington College were 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 a very minor business matter. Unexpectedly, I found myself in the office of the director, a M. Hartmann. I apologized for troubling him, but since I was there, and since he appeared cordial, I told him how curious I had been about his edition of Rimbaud and asked him how he had kept the price 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 house secret. We lived on the book for several years." I was puzzled by that statement, and probably appeared so to the director.
"Let me put it in figures," he said. "For twenty years we sold an average 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 a conclusion. He believed that a few young people every day somewhere in the world are discovering the poems of Rimbaud and are eager to own their own copy of the book.
I agreed with him, and with further recent statistics I have been able to collect (the Pléiade edition in Paris and a few bilingual editions like my own), I believe it is safe to claim that Rimbaud is the most widely sold modern poet. The rock music world paid considerable attention to Rimbaud in the sixties and seventies.
It is almost impossible to approach Rimbaud with impartiality. Either his work appears too difficult on first reading and is dropped by the lazy reader, or the attraction to this young rebel is so strong that readers of every age, young and old, tend to praise him and explain him in hyperbolic terms. In the heyday of surrealism, André Breton called him "the god of adolescence." A few years later, in wartime, Albert Camus called him "our greatest poet of revolt."
During his relatively brief life, Arthur Rimbaud moved about considerably in a geographical sense. At a time in French history (about 1870-1890) when the French people on the whole did little traveling, Rimbaud's journeys were at first vagabond flights that did not go far beyond his home in Charleville. He went to Paris, to Brussels, to London. In the space of four years, between the ages of sixteen and twenty, he produced the whole of his literary work.
After he stopped writing poetry, before he was twenty, his life became an epic, and he literally lived the voyages he had written about as voyages of his mind and his imagination. His brilliant precociousness was followed by a sudden renunciation of literature. This act has been the source of many conjectures and legends which every student of Rimbaud has tried to solve.
During the last ten years of his life, 1880-1890, Rimbaud lived and worked under bad conditions for various business firms in Africa and Asia. The last year of his life, 1891, was a period of intense physical suffering due to a tumor on his right knee. He made an agonizing return to France, to Marseille, where, in the Hospital of the Immaculate Conception, his leg was amputated. He died in the hospital in November, age thirty-seven, and was buried in Charleville, where today his grave is visited by many of his readers from every country. Their numbers do not at 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 to Paris.
Rimbaud's early poems, written when he was fifteen and sixteen, are about his first escapes or flights from home. On the second escape, he took 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 half pathetic. This style he will continue to develop in the later poems.
The gesture at the beginning of "Ma Bohème," "My fists in my torn pockets" (mes poings dans mes poches crevées) is an attitude of defiance, almost of hostility. "My inn at the Big Dipper" (mon auberge à la Grande Ourse) is his way of saying that he slept under the stars. The ending of the sonnet is a poetic-mythological touch. The lacings of his shoes he looks upon as his lyre. He is Orpheus in the Ardennes, when, seated on the side of the road on those fine September evenings, he rhymed and plucked like 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 inn which for Rimbaud in his wanderings becomes a symbol of happiness and freedom. The beer mug (la choppe) occupies an important place in these poems. The drinking of beer from a generously sized mug would seem also to symbolize the new freedom the poet is looking for, a happiness Rimbaud never did find.
This introduction is part journal, part memoir. During these past few years my memoir has become a narrative whose plot is a renewed study of Rimbaud and the curious relationship between Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. The name Jim gave his band, the Doors, comes from a line of William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything then would appear to man as it truly is, infinite." Aldous Huxley used the line for the title of his novel The Doors of Perception, and later Jim Morrison named 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 that if our senses, our powers of perception were sharpened, we would realize that we live in two worlds simultaneously: a world of matterthe physical universeand a world of the spirita spiritual universe that is eternal.
I had been teaching Rimbaud for some time and had always found his language and his style sympathetic and exciting. I admired the accelerations in the movement of his lines, in the energy of the poems, in the tensions coming from the language and the experience which the language expressed. So, when the University of Chicago Press suggested I attempt the translation of a complete Rimbaud, I accepted, with all the inevitable worries that accompany any such project. Rimbaud's French is complex and exacting. By that time in my career, I had done enough translating to know that any translation is a self-incrimination. But I was beginning to believethis was the early sixtiesthat Rimbaud, in his work and in his life, was more universal than I had once thought.
I knew in advance there would be difficulties in Rimbaud's vocabulary-words from the dialect of the Ardennes region in northern France, words often based on German words. But especially I knew of the many startlingly beautiful but mysterious lines in Les Illuminations. This part of Rimbaud'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 about words and phrases (approximately twenty in all) that were giving me trouble. 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 had puzzled her.
I then said to Mrs. Varèse, "You have a French husband, who was a friend 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 meanings from their contexts. It was a delightful, if discouraging, visit I still remember vividly.
At that time, Etiemble, because of his gigantic thesis "Mythe de Rimbaud," was the leading authority on Rimbaud. I had met him once in Chicago and twice in Paris and felt I could write to him for help with my list of words. I explained in my letter what I was doing and asked if I might send him a list of words and phrases whose meaning eluded me. His answer came immediately: "No, I cannot help you. I am rereading Rimbaud and have decided that I don't understand a single sentence he wrote." This, of course, was gross exaggeration. He wanted no more discussions about Rimbaud.
Despite these serious warnings, I began to translate. Two years later I was finishing the work in Nice, during the winter of 1965-66. I had joined the faculty at Duke in 1964, with the understanding that I would have a semester free in 1966 to complete my translation. I was preparing my typescript for the printerand was still uncertain of my translation of about eight phrases. I knew that a book dealer and collector of manuscripts, letters, and especially pictures of Rimbaud lived in Nice. Henri Matarasso had in fact in 1962 published a biography, Vie d'Arthur Rimbaud, a well-documented book for that time. I wrote to him from the Hôtel Atlantic where I was working and asked permission to meet him and discuss certain words of the poet I was translating before sending the manuscript 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, before shaking hands and saying hello, "I wish you had come yesterday, when Picasso was here for lunch." To myself I said, I would have come on Tuesday had you invited me then.
Matarasso explained, as he pulled me inside the house, "On Picasso's arrival yesterday, I asked him if he would do a sketch of Rimbaud for my collection." (It seemed that Picasso was the only major painter of the day who had not done a portrait of Rimbaud.) Picasso had answered, "Yes, of course, give me a photograph." Matarasso gave him a small photograph of Rimbaud at sixteen. Picasso held the photograph in his left hand and with his right tacked a piece of white paper on the wall. In two minutes, according to Matarasso, after sharpening his pencil on the right side of the sheet of paper, Picasso drew a sketch. He followed the photograph but made changes in the face. Picasso's Rimbaud is a more vigorous-looking youth, and his hair was changed into the punk style of today
With great pride, Matarasso placed the drawing on a large table. I looked at it eagerly and listened to all that Matarasso said about the picture. Greed grew in me then, and I heard myself asking: "Do you think it would be possible for me to use this sketch on the cover of my book of translations?"
With no hesitation, Henri Matarasso replied, "Yes. Picasso was good to me. He signed the picture and gave it to me. I will have a lithograph made for you and send it to you at Duke University with permission to have it reproduced on the cover of your book."
Soon after my return to Durham, I received what I thought was a lithograph copy of Picasso's Rimbaud. The University of Chicago Press was delighted to use it for the cover of my book. This was the first commercial 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 the shirt the words GO, RIMBAUD. Some years later, when I moved into a retirement center in Chapel Hill, a gentleman from the North Carolina Museum of Art asked to come to my rooms to see my pictures. He kept returning to the portrait of Rimbaud and finally said to me: "That is no lithograph. It is the original sketch." I was puzzled and wrote to Matarasso in Nice to ask which he had sent, the original or a copy His answer: "The originalI thought you would recognize it."
The story is important for the narrative I am writing. The book came out in 1966. Its cover bore the Picasso Rimbaud and reminded me of my labors in Nice and the generosity of Henri Matarasso. During the following three years, 1967-69, I received a few lettersnot more than five or sixfrom people I did not know. They were principally remarks about the 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 did not recognize the name.
In class the next morning, while waiting for the last few students to take their seats, I casually asked: "Do you recognize the name Jim Morrison?" My students were shocked by my ignorance. "Don't you know the Doors? He's the lead singer." My stock dropped low that morning in my classroom. I had lost favor. To recuperate and to steady my nerves, I held up the letter and said: "Give me a chance! Let me read this 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 is one more sentence, a post-scriptum at the bottom of the page:"
That Picasso drawing of Rimbaud on the cover is great.
BEYOND THE WHITENESS OF WHITENESS
Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons
By Jane Lazarre
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. All rights reserved.
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