Are you familiar with the phrase “Je est un autre”? In English, it translates to “I is another,” and in French it is equally incorrect from a grammatical point of view. French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote it when he was sixteen years of age in the mid 1800’s. His poetry became famous, arguably increasingly famous after his death, but he permanently abandoned poetry by age twenty and left France to pursue a (rather successful) career as a merchant and arms dealer in Africa.
What did the phrase mean? And, why did he abandon poetry, given his gift?
Rimbaud and Yahoo Answers
His poetry, and particularly this enigma “Je est un autre,” has been the subject of a growing body of speculation and commentary. I found this handful of answers on “Yahoo Answers.”
I disagree with the selection of “best answer” (which reeks of psychobabble), and think the better answer is the more succint “I was another… He felt like someone else…” Dissociation makes more sense than “a journey of imagination and an aesthetic evolution of its ingredients” (which sounds like pure, unadultered bullshit). Even “He s referring to himself as the devil. Remember Verlaine dubbed Rimbaud ‘the accursed poet.’” is better. That answer goes on to say “He goes on to say ‘tough luck to the wood that wants to be a violin.’ He s talking about nature and potential, and considering himself damned.” (Many sources translate this to “tough luck to the wood that becomes a violin.” That’s an entirely different meaning, that leads to a rather similar conclusion, still painting the gift as a curse.) This seems closer to the truth, but probably still misses the mark. But the point is a good one: writing poetry but being unable to make a living can make one permanently abandon the gift in favor of the boring but more lucrative life of a merchant.
Rimbaud and the New York Times
Rimbaud’s work is a challenging topic, and Richard Hell’s New York Times piece on Rimbaud does well to note those challenges before wading into the mists where others have wandered. We note these important points:
- “One would have to be a genius oneself to grasp the full significance of Arthur Rimbaud, or at least have the ability to hold many opposed ideas in one’s mind at the same time and still function fully.”
- “Numerous writers have sought to demonstrate their qualifications along these lines by publishing studies of him.”
- “…the anecdotes of his contemporaries showing him as a drunken, filthy, amoral homosexualteenager who becomes a reserved, hard-working, responsible and respectable (if misanthropic and disgust-ridden) adult merchant and explorer.”
- “…his scornful and unhesitating permanent abandonment of poetry at the age of 20.”
(I am taking so much from the New York Times piece that it borders on copyright infringement, but do keep in mind that I am doing so for the permitted purpose of critique and review. I quote this initial passage out of order as I have broken it down for a purpose which should become clear momentarily.)
Rimbaud and Bateson’s Levels of Learning
One theme that recurs in my life is this article on (Gregory) Bateson’s three levels of learning. I strongly suspect that a better answer than the Yahoo Answers is that Rimbaud touched upon Bateson’s “Level III” of learning as described by Paul Tosey. Among other things, Tosey said this about Level III:
At LIII Bateson and Bateson’s (1998) conception of the sacred becomes important. They argued that some levels of patterning are so profoundly ecological that they should not be analysed cognitively; to do so would make them vulnerable to conscious thought.
Said differently, Rimbaud was having a transcendent experience (as hinted at by what I think was the best Yahoo answer: “I was another… He felt like someone else… ”) And, if it is true that (1) Rimbaud touched upon Bateson’s LIII (a “sacred” experience (or at least massively powerful “brainstorm”) which can be perceived as psychosis by others) and (2) that Bateson’s ideas about LIII are indeed correct, then Hell is profoundly correct when he states “One would have to be a genius oneself to grasp the full significance of Arthur Rimbaud, or at least have the ability to hold many opposed ideas in one’s mind at the same time and still function fully.” (Paradox, or “many opposed ideas,” is a central aspect of Bateson’s LIII.)
Then, again, maybe it is “psychosis” or at least “dissociation.” 🙂
Rimbaud, Bandwidth, and Binding Constraints
From a different, but not inconsistent, viewpoint, Rimbaud may have been attempting to identify what some refer to as a “bandwidth problem,” more specifically Shannon’s Law’. Stated differently, Rimbaud’s ideas and thinking and experiences overloaded the capacity of even his elegant poetry to convey what he was seeking to transmit to us.
Whether or not Rimbaud’s experience, or more likely a series of experiences during this early period of his life, were “sacred” is open to speculation. But SOMEthing happened that led to his poetry and this mysterious sentence that has inspired so much commentary. If not a “sacred” experience, then a brainstorm (could it be both?) touched Rimbaud, and he realized that the totality of his experience simply could not be reduced to words.
He had a “bandwidth problem,” and more specifically the words he could write along with his ability to transform experience into those words represented a “binding constraint.” In case you clicked that link and did not follow that explanation, let me give it a try: for any given situation, any “problem” you are trying to solve, if you are “optimal” and cannot do any better, then some particular factor or aspect of the situation must change to obtain an improvement. Most of the time, one particular single factor is the “bottleneck” that must be changed to bring about an improvement in the situation. In the language of mathematical optimization, this bottleneck is called the “binding constraint.”
Rimbaud and Phenomenology
The experiences we have can never be fully reduced to words. Arguably we, and Rimbaud, are in the domain of phenomenology.) Since the domain of phenomenology was developed from the early 20th century forward, and Rimbaud lived in the mid 1800’s when he penned the famous line, Rimbaud simply could not have availed himself of the literature of phenomenology.
One source describes phenomenology thus “Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning….” This sounds suspiciously close to what someone might struggle with when attempting to examine his own thoughts, eventually drawing the conclusion that “I is another.”
In addition to the phenomenologists, an important early group of psychologists (in the late 1800’s, after Rimbaud) called the structuralists also struggled with this profound problem. The problem was so messy that a new group called the “functionalists” emerged in psychology and laid the foundation for behaviorism, the primary driver of most psychological research for at least a century.
A profound disconnect exists here: Rimbaud did not have the benefit of knowing what the phenomenologists and structuralists learned. Maybe if he did, then we would not have the benefit of his poetry. But, he didn’t, so we do.
If Rimbaud had read the writings of the phenomenologists, then he might have never have gifted this mysterious sentence to us which has been fodder for so much commentary, especially by those Hell describes as having “sought to demonstrate their qualifications along these lines by publishing studies of” Rimbaud and his famous sentence.
We have more to say about this, as it touches us on many levels. But, for now, we will stop here. In the future, we want to write about where all of this fits in our life, and why. Part of it addresses why we may abandon, or at least reduce, our efforts at writing and blogging on WordPress to, at least metaphorically, follow in the footsteps of young Rimbaud who, at age 20, abandoned his poetry and (as Hell points out) “contrary to legend, Rimbaud ultimately did quite well as a merchant and weapons salesman, accumulating a small fortune.” (Does this last sentence seem ungrammatical? Is it a disconnect in my writing? Let’s pick that up next time.)
Sigh. Maybe I really do need to get a “day job.” Or, said differently, “tough luck to the wood that becomes a violin.”