16. Arthur Rimbaud – Collected Poems (1898)

Burroughs’ French phase coincided with his time at the Los Alamos Ranch School. It was a military-style academy that aimed to drill some sense into the decadent children of the WASP elite. The boys were locked out of doors each morning and told to find their own fun until nightfall.

Young Billy refused the call of the wild, instead embedding himself in the world of French symbolism: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Guy de Maupassant, Verlaine, Remy de Gourmant.

Having read all of these but Rimbaud and de Gourmant, I figured I’d start with the most obvious influence.

Rimbaud is considered the most uncompromising of the French decadents. This is no doubt thanks to his erratic biography. After running away from home and wowing the Parisian salons at 16, he took up sadomasochistic homosexuality with fellow-poet Verlaine (a passing phase, as he never appeared to love another man, only women), before renouncing poetry in his early twenties and disappearing into the heart of Africa.

Burroughs was as inspired by the biography as anything in the poetry. Some academics cite Rimbaud’s African escape as inspiration behind Burroughs’ move to Tangier (although this is also attributed to Bowles, Vidal, Gide…).

The image of Rimbaud as proto-wild boy also caught Burroughs’ interest no doubt.

Rimbaud’s poetry (much of it prose poetry) is a celebration of sex, death, wild living, visions, and a surprising amount of Catholicism. Like Genet, Rimbaud aspires to transcendence through immaculate sinning.

“When I was still a little child, I used to admire the hardened criminal on whom the prison gates must always close; I frequented the inns and rented rooms which his presence might have consecrated; it was through his eyes I saw the blue sky and the flower-covered work of the countryside.”

The poetic moment too, is sacred to him:

                There is a God, who laughs at patterned

                Altar-cloths, incense, great gold chalices,

                Who’s lulled to sleep by Hosannas,

                And Who wakes when mothers, huddled

                In the black of grief, tie a small coin

                In their handkerchief, and give it Him.

More than anything, he pleasures in the aesthetic. In his poem “Hanged Men Dance” we find a lengthy, flowery description of men dying at the scaffold. Perhaps an early prompt for Burroughs’ auto-erotic strangulation fixation?

“The Idol: Arsehole Sonnet” is another splendidly vulgar little ditty, personifying the anus. A model for the “talking asshole” routine, perhaps? Or, in its description as “the enchanted flute”, maybe inspiration for rectal flautists in Ah Pook and Cities?

Of all Rimbaud’s lines, Burroughs cites the following in 1981’s The Adding Machine as the one that most stuck with him:

“The same bourgeois magic wherever the packet-boat happens to put us ashore! The most elementary physicist can feel that it is possible no longer to submit to this private atmosphere, this fog of physical remorse.”

It’s a salient line. No matter where the Frenchman goes, he takes France with him, morals and all. The same could be said of any Western pragmatist.

Burroughs, having travelled the world in search of something else, something different, found only new forms of disgust. The patrician values of his Midwestern upbringing never quite release their hold on him. The “fog of physical remorse” pursues him everywhere.

“Bourgeois magic”: puritan curses. Burroughs, of course, being a true believer in all things magical, would no doubt take Rimbaud’s line literally.

Yet it’s towards the end of Rimbaud’s final prose-poem work, Illuminations, where I’ve found the most obvious lift.

The pre-penultimate section, “Devotions”, is a series of dedications offered by Rimbaud to figures in his life who have ascended to the realm of symbol. Demons, spirits, and demigods:

                “To my sister Louise Vanaen de Voringhem – her blue coif turned towards the North Sea. – For the shipwrecked.

                To my sister Leonie Auboid d’Ashby. Baou – the buzz and stench of summer grass. – For the fevers of mothers and children.

                To Lulu – a demon – who has preserved her taste for the oratories”

Here, in both form and content, is the model of Burroughs’ dedication to the Cities trilogy:

“This book is dedicated to the Ancient Ones, to the Lord of Abominations, Humwawa, whose face is a mass of entrails, whose breath is the stench of dung and the perfume of death, Dark Angel of all that is excreted and sours, Lord of Decay, Lord of the Future, who rides on a whispering south wind, to Pazuzu, Lord of Fevers and Plagues, Dark Angel of the Four Winds with rotting genitals from which he howls through sharpened teeth over stricken cities, to Kutulu, the Sleeping Serpent who cannot be summoned…”

Both begin with a dedicative – “to X” – followed by a descriptor – “her blue coif turned towards the North Sea” / “whose face is a mass of entrails” – and ending with a connected image, throwing a new element into the mix: “for the fevers of mothers and children” / “who rides on a whispering south wind”.

The same rhythmical structure is used, and the same formal repetition of the dedication “to”.

I’ve read critics who approach this passage by analysing the many deities listed within (some historical, some from other writers’ stories, others pure invention), but I’ve not yet come across a critic who has drawn this direct parallel.

The influence is so direct as to be bordering on plagiarism. It probably would be, in fact, if it were any other writer. Burroughs, of course, admits to stealing, cutting up, and “borrowing” his material, and so arguably gets a pass.

What the direct and indirect influence of Rimbaud means is a subject for further debate, however. Clearly the young French decadent provided a glimpse into another, sinful, evil even, shadow world for the adolescent Burroughs. His return to Rimbaud suggests an increased identification though. More than a vague and passing interest (as, for example, Baudelaire was to me at age 17).

Rimbaud was wrestling with the problem of evil. Being young, he could do this only through surfaces, and, as a result, found beauty in evil, and a fleeting transcendence.

Such an outlook – pure aestheticism – was unsustainable for Rimbaud. He no doubt came to recognise it as the trap it is, and so fled to the frontier, where men might still be men; free and adventurous.

Burroughs too moves between extremes of urban decadence and pioneer liberty. His mystical outlook is far more nuanced, and far more arcane. Yet the crux is still there, shared by both men; an enraptured, horrified, fascinated and disgusted response to the evils of the world.

Los Alamos, it turns out, was an apposite place for Burroughs to be drawn into the dark world of French sacred evil. Just over a decade later, the school was home to the Manhattan Project. The nuclear bomb was invented there.

Burroughs believed that America was fundamentally evil. That something more ancient than both pilgrims and Indians had poisoned the soil. The evil was there already; waiting. Well, it was here, on nuclear ground zero, where Burroughs first discovered the flowers of evil. It was a discovery he would continue making, over and over, for the rest of this days.