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Rimbaud and Verlaine in the Panthéon? ‘A completely sentimental and macabre idea’

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A petition supported by the Minister of Culture calls for the remains of the poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud to be jointly transferred to the Panthéon. Based on a fragile and specious argument, it has caused a stir among admirers of the two poets. Marianne interviewed two specialists in the history of literature, both steadfast Rimbaldians.

What is true of revolutionary theorists is also true of irreverent poets. During their lifetime, ‘the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander [...] After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent’. How can one resist drawing the parallel and exhuming these words from Lenin’s State and Revolution when the petitioners want to confine two ‘wild’ poets – supporters of the Commune into the bargain – to the temperate ether of the Panthéon?

Since the launch of the petition, Verlainians and still more Rimbaldians – known for their toughness – have kept up the pressure. Marianne has interviewed two of them: Kristin Ross, professor emeritus of literature at New York University, author of The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, and Denis Saint-Amand, FNRS researcher at the University of Namur and co-director of the Rimbaldian studies journal 'Parade sauvage'.

How did Rimbaldians such as you react when you learned of the launch of this petition?

K.R.: It’s a ridiculous idea. The problem is, first and foremost, that entry into the Panthéon is seen as a consecration – artistic or otherwise. But beyond that fundamental problem, there is the irony of wanting to confine, in an institution dedicated to the preservation of the national narrative, the body of someone who spent his life fleeing France and who wrote, to take just one of the many quotations I could cite: ‘If I had any antecedents in the history of France! But no, nothing.’

D. S.-A.: I think the petition may be based on good intentions, at least in part, but it is a bad idea. Rimbaud and Verlaine are very great poets; they each left a singular and fascinating work, but they have no place in the Panthéon: both were writers committed against the norms of their time, against decency, against all forms of academism – that’s why Rimbaud was banished from the Parisian literary scene during his lifetime. Denying these two poets’ anomie so as to force their entry into an official building that combines patriotism and state clericalism would betray their memory. On a personal note, I find it very unpleasant that this proposal should emerge at a time when the Minister of the Interior is repeating to anyone who will listen that we must ‘stop the wilding of a certain part of our society’. Rimbaud and Verlaine, in many respects, were ‘wild’; there is no reason for the state to begin a symbolic recovery operation at their expense.

The petition starts off by stressing the ‘homosexuality’ of the two poets, announcing that they ‘had to endure the implacable “homophobia” of their time’. Isn’t that an anachronistic interpretation, given that the term is today invested with a whole imaginary and activist connotations that were foreign to Verlaine, Rimbaud and their time?

D. S-A.: Here again, I’m not sure that the ‘Panthéonizing’ of two poets can help deal with the issue of sexual and gender violence, which is often excluded from political debate; it is rather an opportunity for the state to put on a good face in this area. I believe, however, that the argument about homosexuality in the text of the petition is sincere; its authors are right to point out that, during the famous 1873 trial, Verlaine paid more for his homosexual relations and his commitment to the Commune than for having wounded Rimbaud with a gunshot. Having said that, the question is complex.  When they took part in Zutisme, an ephemeral grouping that mocked the Parnassians, the two poets composed together a parodic and provocative piece entitled ‘Sonnet to the Arsehole’, which can be read both as a mockery of Albert Mérat and his collection L’idole and as a praise of sodomy. In other pages of the Album zutique they make fun of Ernest Cabaner, both for his bisexuality and for his interest in young men. Learning of Rimbaud’s death, Verlaine composed in his honour one of his most beautiful poems (‘Laeti et errabundi’, included in Parallelism); on the other hand, when an evocation of Verlaine is suggested in Rimbaud’s work, the tone is less of an encomium (see ‘Vagabonds’ in Illuminations or the monologue of the ‘Mad Virgin’ in Une saison en enfer). Rimbaud, by his audacity, his total freedom and his questioning of all codes, is an interesting queer figure; Verlaine less so. He was an excellent poet, but often cowardly and brutal. In this perspective, perhaps, as Laurent Sagalovitsch suggests, Marcel Proust, whose ethos and disposition correspond better to the Panthéon, would be a more judicious candidate – but I am not in favour of shifting dead bodies around.

K.R.: I don’t think the question of anachronism is the central problem here. Rather, we should question the very principle of the Panthéon, its raison d’être, and the question of who is ‘Panthéonizable’ at a given moment. Having said that, the idea of consecrating them together, united for all eternity as a kind of homosexual couple, is fundamentally sentimental and macabre. Equally unbearable is the comparison with Oscar Wilde. What is the basis for this analogy? It is reductive and insulting to all involved, both as writers and as regards their sexuality. It is not true that Verlaine and Rimbaud suffered at the hands of the state for their sexuality to the same degree as Oscar Wilde. And although their homosexuality undoubtedly played an important role in their sexual experience, neither of them had an exclusively homosexual sex life. In a certain sense, the petition essentializes them and in this way produces a kind of combination of the worst of two worlds: the nationalist conservatism of the Third Republic, represented by this desire to ‘Panthéonize’ them, and contemporary identitarianism, by presenting them as exclusively homosexual.

But the worst of all, in my opinion, is the fact that Verlaine’s works such as Hombres (1891) and Femmes (1890) are never mentioned in this petition. In these we find poems in which he expresses a radical sexual poetics, far more interesting than anything Wilde – or even Rimbaud – could have produced in this vein. It is an achievement for which many people – and not only French people – are or should be grateful. To express this gratitude, rather than transferring his ashes, it would be more interesting to devote a careful critical analysis to show how he managed such a singular achievement. Or better still: since the only real answer to a poem is another poem, let them do that – let them write a poem, not a petition, addressed to ‘Monsieur Président’.

What caused the strongest reaction from several Rimbaldians was ‘the striking fragility and disconcerting ignorance of the petition’s argument’, we were told by a celebrated figure who wished to remain anonymous. How do you judge the ‘four main reasons’ (literary, political, moral and judicial) invoked by the signatories?

D. S-A.: In reality, the text of the petition is far removed from the work of the two poets and above all relays a certain number of general representations about them. This is rather a general problem with Rimbaud: everyone remembers the photograph of him by Carjat, which can be found on all sorts of objects (from postcards via beer brands to T-shirts), and we frequently come across titles of his poems: there are dozens of bars called ‘Le Bateau ivre’. Jacques Chirac popularized the adjective ‘abracadabrantesque’, for example, and journalists often speak of the ‘season in hell’ experienced by a particular athlete or football team. Rimbaud is also the eternal poet of youth and revolt. But on the whole his texts are not at all widely known: to imagine the author of the ‘Venus Anadyomene’ (‘Hideously beautiful with an ulcer on the anus’), of the ‘Parisian War Song’, of ‘A Good Morning Thought’, of ‘The Crows’, of ‘Bottom’, of ‘The Parisian Orgy, or Paris Repopulates Itself’ at the Panthéon it is rather absurd. The fact that the petition is partly based on a political argument is quite paradoxical: not only, at least as far as Verlaine is concerned, does the text evacuate the political commitment of his work, mentioning only the use of the first two verses of ‘Autumn Song’ by Radio London in 1944, but above all, despite recalling the two poets’ support for the Commune, it loses sight of what such a position implies in terms of a break with traditional political power, its workings and norms – among which are ceremonies and official recognition.

At the same time, the signatories consider it impossible to speak in the place of Verlaine and Rimbaud and say that they would have opposed their entry into the Panthéon. Can a text such as Verlaine’s ‘Panthéonades’ refute this argument?

D. S-A.: The argument seems a little weak to me. Take the case of Victor Hugo. He did everything he could to establish himself, successfully, as the major writer of his time. He was an author of extraordinary power, but he was also a fine strategist, who always knew how to position himself skilfully (even during his period of exile, when he knew that he embodied a figure of resistance to a Napoleon III whose illegitimacy was patent). Hugo occupied such a position that his death came as a relief for some of his colleagues (‘Finally, he cleared the horizon,’ Leconte de Lisle would say); his transfer to the Panthéon was, after all, logical. Verlaine evokes him in a small text from his Memoirs of a Widower entitled ‘Panthéonades’, making fun of the fate of ‘the exquisite author of such pretty things’ that are ‘stuffed into a cellar where there is no wine’, and indicating that in these places ‘one laughs at so much solemn stupidity’. It would be difficult to make it more explicit. In Rimbaud’s case, one only has to reread ‘To Music’, a satire aimed at the bourgeoisie of the provinces, to measure all the weariness of the poet with regard to mediocre manifestations of opulence and other social ceremonies with their disheartening orchestration. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that Rimbaud decided to abandon literature at the age of twenty (conscious of no longer having the necessary support for the development of a literary career, and tired of the logics of this milieu) and subsequently always refused to acknowledge writings he considered as youthful errors. If they had been informed of this project of ‘Panthéonization’, Rimbaud and Verlaine would undoubtedly have laughed a lot, with the sometimes poetic and sometimes sarcastic laughter they addressed to those they defied.

Verlaine and Rimbaud are among the few authors – poets and others – who were ‘pro-Communard’ (Verlaine personally participated in the Commune, Rimbaud sympathized). How do you imagine two ‘pro-Communards’ in the Panthéon?

K.R.: Yes, you need only read Paul Lidsky’s Les écrivains contre la Commune to remember the bravery, creativity and resilience it took for figures like Rimbaud and Verlaine to be among the rare artists and writers who showed solidarity with the Commune. Thus, from the point of view of the state, it becomes all the more necessary that such exceptional individuals, along with other Communards, should be reintegrated into the republican narrative. ‘Panthéonization’ is one of the best tools for this programme. In 2013, misguided feminists called for the transfer of Louise Michel’s ashes to the Panthéon. The failure of this initiative may have been due to people pointing out that Louise Michel, as a long-time anarchist, has no place in a hierarchical institution devoted to sorting great men from little men (and great women from little women).

More recently, a point that Noêl Barbe has raised, some have seen Emmanuel Macron’s trip last year to Ornans, where he gave a speech in honour of the bicentenary of the birth of Courbet – whom he referred to ‘Gaston’ – as an attempt to pave the way for the painter to enter the Panthéon. Provided, of course, that his role in the Commune is sanitized to the point of appearing as nothing more than an unconscious participation in the spirit of the time, fuelled by misguided exuberance. This seemed to be the aim of Macron’s discourse. But the local gilets jaunes, who had covered Courbet’s grave in advance with yellow flowers, unmasked the masquerade, demonstrating with signs saying ‘Who does Courbet belong to?’ and ‘Thiers or Macron – Courbet hates the Versaillaises’.

Although it is not the declared aim of the petition, the idea of ‘Panthéonizing’ Rimbaud and Verlaine has the same effect. It helps undermine the way in which the Commune – as an event and as part of political culture – has always resisted any easy integration into the national narrative. It will also be interesting to observe the acceleration of attempts to ‘Panthéonize’ the Communards in the run-up to next year's 150th anniversary commemoration.

The petition accepts the logic of the Panthéon by adhering to the narrow and plutocratic conception of republicanism against which the Commune fought. The flag of the Commune, after all, was not the tricolour but that of the Universal Republic. The role played by the Panthéon building in the geography of the Commune should also not be forgotten. Maxime Vuillaume, a Communard and eyewitness to Bloody Week, described victorious Versailles soldiers taking a break on the steps of the Panthéon after their tiring work of executing dozens of Communards nearby: ‘A glance at the square in front of the Panthéon... Turning the corner, I see right in front of me half a dozen corpses, one of which, crumpled up on itself, shows a bloody head gaping horribly open.’ Rimbaud himself, a few weeks later, testified to the traces left on the building by the massacres.

Interview for Marianne by Nidal Taibi

Translated by David Fernbach