It is too bad for the wood which finds itself a violin

This entry is essentially a continuation of “je est un autre” and I thank the handful of you who read it at least enough to give me “likes.” (“Handful” is right; myself as the “thumb” and four others. I suppose I really am “all thumbs.”)

Some of you will not click the link and read the previous writing. Others did, but may be scratching their heads and wondering “what was his point?” Let me summarize: (1) many have tried to critique Rimbaud but his work is so abstract yet poignant that we are left with many differing opinions; (2) like others, I think Rimbaud had many brilliant moments or “brainstorms” and was having one when he opined “je est un autre” (“I is another”); but (3) I differ from others in that I think Rimbaud was actually complaining about might be called a “capacity issue.”

His profound ideas and experiences vastly exceeded the capacity of words to convey to another (us) his experience. Since the days of Rimbaud (mid 1800’s) some philosophers (notably “phenomenologists”) have addressed this problem extensively as have early psychologists (“structuralists”) in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  The problem may be even deeper, as the renowned anthropologist Gregory Bateson (mid to late 20th century) has argued that this kind of consciousness should not be made available to conscious examination.  Since Rimbaud could not have known of the later work, we are left with the elegance of his poetry resulting from his struggles with the problem.

That is the article in a nutshell, but if you want more depth then you must read the original.  And, one more thing: if you are “brilliant” or have fleeting moments of “genius,” then you suffer from precisely the same challenge.

In this article, we build upon a less cryptic, but still debated, comment of Rimbaud: “It is too bad for the wood which finds itself a violin.” Opinions vary, but one popular one is this: what many consider to be a “gift” can be a curse to the one who has the gift. In Rimbaud’s case this would be his writing in general but his poetry in particular. He honored this expression of his feelings and insight when he permanently turned his back on poetry at age twenty never to revisit it again. Instead, he became a successful merchant (in particular as an arms dealer in Africa selling weapons to people who desired to kill each other).

In this article I will not explore the other abstract and a bit weird interpretations of “it is too bad for the wood which finds itself a violin”, like the one by some philosophers that claim Rimbaud was making a distinction between the material of an object and the form of an object. This might possibly be true, but it is like making a distinction between the DNA in one’s cells and how one’s life has developed. At one level it sounds rather profound, and is profound, but at another level one has to ask “so what?” I think, too, that they missed the point that the statement is a metaphor about “giftedness.”

I am no Rimbaud, but I resonate with this statement of his. Over the course of two years, I have built a small family of blogs that has a respectable level of traffic. (Nine years, actually, but the more serious work in the last two.) But since advertising typically pays $10 for 10,000 “impressions,” and I have 30,000 to 50,000 page views per year, I cannot “make a living” out of my blogs and my writings. ($50 a year is not enough to sustain me.) I am not asking for a “go fund me” page or anything like that, but if I do not find a solution to the problem of monetizing my work, soon I will give up (as Rimbaud did) for something more lucrative that likely will be even less memorable than being an “arms dealer in Africa.”

Something tells me, a hunch if you will, that I am not the only one in this position. Please do understand, at this moment, I am not speaking of a teenager or twenty something who believes they have something to say and makes one or two blog posts that sound suspiciously similar to 10,000 other similar posts. (And, I know that the young can have profound things to say; Rimbaud himself is the “poster child” for such things.) I am talking, though, of those dedicated individuals at any age or background who persist in writing entry after entry, poem after poem, but cannot sustain themselves on what little money, if any, that they receive from the blogosphere. I think I am not alone; I think many others face this same problem.

And, I face Rimbaud’s other problem (as I see it) as well: “je est un autre.” Who I am at my core, and what I have to say, only makes it out of my head and through my fingertips into the internet in the thinnest of slivers. It is these tiniest of slivers of which I speak in my piece “And When I die”   Sadly, the remainder will perish when my physical body does, unspoken, unwritten, and lost forever.

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Je est un autre

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:

  1. “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.”
  2. “Numerous writers have sought to demonstrate their qualifications along these lines by publishing studies of him.”
  3. “…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.”
  4. “…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.

What Else?

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.”