Rimbaud and Verlaine's silly fixations


Rimbaud and Verlaine's silly fixations

The Guardian, Monday 9 March 2009
Arthur Rimbaud
Infernal bridegroom? Arthur Rimbaud. Photograph: Corbis


Amid the various booty that came my way on my 70th birthday is Edmund White's new biography, Rimbaud: the Double Life of a Rebel. It was given by an old friend, why I cannot say. He might have guessed I'd be utterly frustrated by White's pedestrian and inaccurate translations of the verse of Rimbaud and Verlaine. What did surprise me, and might surprise him, is that my patience with the deeply banal theme of anal sex is finally exhausted. So what if Rimbaud and Verlaine wrote a bad sonnet about the "trou du cul"? Moi aussi j'ai un trou du cul - and it interests me not at all. This is White's version of part of the octave by Verlaine:

Dark and puckered like a violet carnation
It breathes, humbly lurking amidst the moss,
Still moist from an amorous inclination which follows the gentle dip
Of the white buttocks down to the edge of its scarlet hem.

These days everything is ironic, so describing an anus as a violet carnation must be deliberately over the top, as tasteless as dressing a toilet roll in a crocheted tutu. The actual title of the sonnet, not given by White, is L'Idole. To suggest that anyone would worship an anus is a consciously outrageous contrivance. This is the point at which I lose patience, because a preference for the anus is actually as banal and ridiculous as any other sexual fixation.

White reminds us that the boy Rimbaud was the "infernal bridegroom" and the older Verlaine the "foolish virgin". (White also tells us that, to shock and disgust Daudet, Rimbaud allowed him to believe that he was the passive partner and let the older poet satisfy himself on him as much as he liked; only among the middle classes would you find two drunks trying to scandalise their equally middle-class drinking companions by advertising their sexual preferences.) Since classical antiquity, being on the receiving end has been understood to be inappropriate and degrading for grown men. Rimbaud fascinates White and his readers because he controlled, harassed and terrorised Verlaine "in the bedroom". Drunken, dirty, guilty, feminised, abject Verlaine cannot be a hero, although in my view he is the better poet.

As a variant on the penetration theme, anal intercourse has been used probably more often by heterosexuals than homosexuals. There are few human societies in which it is unknown, though none is prepared to admit that the practice is at all common. In the 1970s, Italian boys used to tell me that American girls insisted on it because they wanted to keep their hymens for their husbands; American men told me the same thing about Italian girls. We shall never know how many farmers' wives bit their pillows as their husbands took their pleasure; what we do know is that, long before contraceptive appliances, birth rates fell in western Europe when people began to want to limit their families, almost certainly because of variations on the penetration theme. Some were intensely pleasurable, but by no means all. Lucky women might get to choose; the rest didn't.

Most people are unaware that the pinnacle of the relationship between Connie and Mellors in Lady Chatterley's Lover is an episode of anal intercourse, which burnt out "the shames, the deepest oldest shames in the most secret places", arriving at "the refinements of passion". "It took some getting at, the core of physical jungle, the last and deepest recess of organic shame. The phallos alone could explore it." Lawrence elaborates the rapists' fantasy, that what women dread they secretly desire. "And how in fear, she had hated it. But how she had really wanted it!" From then, it would be "forever necessary, to burn out false shames and smelt out the heaviest ore of the body into purity". I can think of a shorter name for the "heaviest ore of the body".

In her 1936 biography of Rimbaud, Enid Starkie theorises that he discovered his sexuality after he was raped by soldiers. For Rimbaud, this was "a sudden and blinding revelation of what sex really was". Yet there is no indication in the documentation of Rimbaud's life that this rape happened. What is interesting is that Starkie, looking at anal penetration from a woman's point of view, rather than regarding it as a holy ritual and the highest form of intimacy, could see just how ordinary and unrefined it actually is.

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