On August 15, 1876, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud disappeared between Semarang and Salatiga in Central Java.
In Tuntang, to be precise. The story of how the brief connection between this small town in Indonesia and the writer of Une Saison en enfer (published in 1873) brought a new history in French poetry has thus far gone virtually unknown.
But indeed, Rimbaud left virtually no traces during his incessantly mobile life. From his rebellious youth in the town of his birth Charleville-Mézières, he ran as a ‘wild beast’ poet to Paris and London, and as far as Aden in Yemen—as a coffee trader among other things. He wrote no more poetry until the age of 21, having been acclaimed at a tender age as France’s most fascinating poet.
On June 10, 1876, he left for Batavia from Den Helder harbor on the ship Prins van Oranje. He had enlisted as a paid soldier of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to be sent to the ‘Indies’. He stayed in Batavia for 10 days before leaving for Semarang with the other soldiers. From there, on the north coast of Central Java, he went by train to Tuntang, 20 kilometers to the south. He trained there to join the march to Salatiga, where his battalion was based.
But Rimbaud disappeared.
I took this story from the synopsis of Jeremy Miller’s film Abdo Rimbo (2015). I do not know to what extent this information about Rimbaud is half imagined. But that is not important: the figure who came and disappeared in Tuntang should not be seen as the Rimbaud known to the world. The subtitle of Abdo Rimbo is the poet’s famous phrase: Je est un autre.
In French grammar, the word ‘je’ is here not a pronoun, not ‘I’ referring to the self. ‘Je’ is here an object. The verb following it is ‘est’ not ‘suis’.
Rimbaud seems to want to indicate that ‘I’ is a word that actually always refers to something ‘other than I’—at least in the creative process. That is my interpretation from the letter he wrote in 1871, his thoughts typically flying: to him, the poet was outside of the process when creating works:
“I is another. If the brass wakes the trumpet, it’s not its fault. That’s obvious to me: I witness the unfolding of my own thought: I watch it, I hear it: I make a stroke with the bow: the symphony begins in the depths, or springs with a bound onto the stage.”
To this poet and author of Illuminations, a creation is not produced from transparent consciousness; it is like a symphony that appears as an event in the ‘depths’ of the soul. As in surrealist works (and Rimbaud can be called the pioneer of surrealism before the word was known), he stresses that his poetry is not the product of a rational and planned subject; poetry is the explosion of the sub-conscious. The poet merely ‘witnesses’ words finding their own connections.
Rimbaud rejected rationalism that believed the world was built by ‘I-who-thinks’. In the 19th century, authors were still often thought of as the ‘I’, as the authority that determined the direction of their works. But in the same century, readers were increasingly present as interpreters, and interpreters are not followers. In due course, the meaning of a work was shaped by its readers.
Or it had its own life.
Particularly in the digital age. Works reach out to interpreters far and wide. Increasingly, readers and the author do not know each other. What is enjoyed (or not) is not the work-as-such—works like that are no longer valid—but how it is produced by time and the world.
Pramoedya was right when he compared his novels to his ‘spiritual children’, and not to produced, fixed products. And like a distant father, he is not in the determining position. Like Rimbaud in Tuntang, the author disappears. Along with readers, works of literature seem to have their own initiative: intentio operis, to use Umberto Eco’s words. The novels Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) and Perburuan (Fugitive), growing and no longer operating under the novelist’s direction, have been made into films that can no longer be judged according to the criteria ‘that is what Pramoedya wanted’.
But this era is paradoxical. On the one hand, the authority of the author has faded. On the other hand, in the increasingly frenetic traffic of text—both printed and digital, in audio recording or graphics—it is more and more not the work that represents the author, but the other way around. The author is just a brand.
And that is what really happens in literary festivals: to simplify things, people see brands. The author is present, but not his or her works. The crowds flock to poet X or novelist Y, take selfies with those brands, get their autographs (or want to know the latest gossip about them), without feeling the need to read their works.
In other words, the writer is no longer the creator: he or she is a celebrity. Je est un autre. I is another. I am not I; I am a creature of social media and its noise. I compete, I am jealous, I compete for fame…
Rimbaud chose a strange path, but a right one: stop being a poet, become a coffee trader, be a soldier.
But his poems are wonderful. The poetry goes on.