The Philosopher

“I know dusk / And dawn, rising like a multitude of doves. / What men have only thought they’d seen, I’ve seen,” [1, p. 89] writes the late-1800s French poet Arthur Rimbaud, in a quote elevated by his latest translators, Jeremy Harding and John Sturrock, to their edition’s back cover.

It is telling that Harding and Sturrock choose this quote. These scholars characterize Rimbaud’s style as one infused by “a disordering of all the senses” (Rimbaud’s words) “often with the aid of alcohol and drugs” (their words). Rimbaud was only 15 when he abandoned his native Charleville for Paris, where he was arrested for not paying his train fare. By 17, he had been taken in more stably by Paul Verlaine, a young leader of Paris’ so-called Parnassian school of poets, whose wife and in-laws Rimbaud then taunted by demanding the removal of a picture from one of their walls and by “vandalizing an ivory Christ” [1, p. xxv], and, later, through the developing homosexuality of his relationship with Verlaine. Under the protection of another poet, Théodore de Banville, Rimbaud allegedly “slept in his boots, smashed the china and sold the furniture” [1, p. xxvi], and also stripped in front of an open window and threw his clothes onto the roof. Rimbaud later joined the avant-garde Zutistes’ circle, who “convened for regular drinking sessions in a hotel overlooking the Boulevard St Michel” [1, pp. xxvi-xxvii]. By 21, famously, Rimbaud had abandoned poetry forever, travelling around Europe and eventually settling as a colonial trader in Africa. He died at 37.

Rimbaud’s “disordering”, Harding and Sturrock write, was most of all one of the self itself, which in his poetry “is wilfully distended and distressed, offering the maximum surface area to which unusual information… can adhere” [1, p. xxiv].

rimbaud_ad

This “meme” used to be visible in the library’s basement floor outside the darkened, locked door of a graduate student carrell.

Just how Rimbaud’s poetry achieves its striking character is perhaps too subtle to write down. Surprising insight, though, might be gained through the eliminative materialist ideas of the modern philosopher Paul Churchland.

Churchland, a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, has advanced a position called eliminative materialism, a philosophy whereby the popular conception of our mental activity must be radically overturned. This popular view, which Churchland calls folk psychology, posits that mental life consists of a stream of successive conscious states involving beliefs, desires, fears, and perceptions. Folk psychology does permit us to make fairly accurate predictions about the other people’s behaviors. On the other hand, Churchland argues, it is a flawed account of these people’s mental states, and indeed of our own. Churchland believes that a more thorough understanding of neuroscience will not just reduce notions like “belief” and “desire” to more fundamental patterns of neural activity, but rather eliminate them entirely, revealing that they never corresponded with meaningful patterns of brain activity to begin with. In short, Churchland contends, beliefs and desires don’t exist. (Rumor has it that the Churchlands, at dinner, refuse to speak using folk-psychological terms.)

My first reaction — and one related to the philosophical positions of John Searle — was to respond that words like “belief” and “desire” refer, by definition, to subjective mental states, and to claim that these don’t exist is as crazy as telling me that I don’t feel the things I that I think I feel.

Churchland insists on exactly this prospect. To assume that “beliefs” and “desires” are irreducible subjective mental states is to put the cart before the horse, for what’s at issue here is exactly whether these sorts of entities exist. Churchland rejects our putative infallible insight into the brain’s subjective states, calling it in in his book The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul “a hangover from an earlier and more ignorant time” [2, p. 205] (Churchland is probably referring to the so-called Cartesian theater). “We can have a false or superficial conception of [our inner states’] essential character to begin with,” [2, p. 206] Churchland writes.

The proper understanding of our own states, Churchland predicts, will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before. In an early (1981) essay on the topic, Eliminative Materialism and Propositional Attitudes, Churchland speculates that any given instantaneous conscious state might wind up best expressed as “a set or configuration of complex states, which are specified within the theory as figurative ‘solids’ within a four- or five-dimensional phase space” [3]. The striking prescience of this prediction is revealed later (1995) when, after the advent of computers, Churchland, now with ample evidence, identifies as the central mechanism of the brain recurrent neural networks, whose activation states are represented by vectors in high-dimensional spaces [2].

In short, the world, and our minds, hold unimaginable possibilities, or at least will, once we finally learn to recognize our conceptions of our own mental states as the inaccurate and misled heuristics that they are.

This view had an early, if unwitting, proponent in Arthur Rimbaud. We’ll watch this notion grow chronologically through Rimbaud’s work.

Poems, 1869-71

Rimbaud’s early poetry, collected in Poems, 1869-71, gives us glimpses into Churchland’s reimagined world.

Harding and Sturrock write that “the Rimbaudian self is a harsh experiment in disfiguring” [1, p. xiv]. In a series of letters, the 16-year-old Rimbaud makes his methodology clear: “I want to be a poet and I’m working to make myself a seer,” he writes. “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense, and reasoned disordering of all the senses.” To this effect, Rimbaud notes, “I’m encrapulating myself to the hilt.” [1, pp. 236-239]

In another often-quoted remark, Rimbaud states that “I is someone else” [1, p. 236]. This proclamation, interpreted by Harding and Sturrock as a pre-Fruedian insight that the conscious “Cartesian Ego” occupies but a small part of the mind [1, p. xxxix], also evokes Churchland’s argument that consciousness is but an acquired function of the brain’s neural networks — as well as the work of Douglas Hofstadter, who reportedly wished to call one of his books “I Is a Strange Loop”.

This dissolution of folk psychology is visible, for example, in Rimbaud’s early poem Sensation, which seems to describe its namesake by refusing to name it in conventional ways:

On blue summer evenings I’ll take to the paths.
Prickled by the corn, I’ll tread the young grass,
I’ll dream of its coolness under my feet.
My bare head will bask in the wind.

I shan’t speak; I shan’t even think,
But a love without limits will fill up my soul.
I’ll go far, very far, a vagrant in the countryside
— Happy, like a man with a woman. [1, pp. 11-13]

This poem, written when Rimbaud was 15, seems to play with the idea of eschewing thought as we know it. (Most of Rimbaud’s poems, including this one, feature meter, given by the alexandrine, as well as rhyme, both of which are abandoned in these translations. The Penguin edition [1] is bilingual.)

In First Attempt, another sort of distortion is visible when Rimbaud writes:

I kissed her pretty ankles.
She gave a sudden laugh, pealing
And sweet, in bright trills.
A laugh like faceted glass. [1, p. 11]

This girl’s laugh, which transpires over time, seems to grind to a halt here as it is described, and ultimately frozen, in an image of glass. Churchland, notably, describes how time perception as we experience it “simply falls out of the structure and dynamics of a recurrent network” [2, p. 217]. Rimbaud is perhaps prescient in calling it into question.

As Rimbaud’s early poetry progresses, it takes on the character of a collection of sensory experiences, freed from time and from the conventional psychological categories they’re typically placed into. I quote briefly from the excellent My Bohemia (Fantasy), put to music and images in a video here:

I lit off with my hands in my torn pockets,
My overcoat worn down to a notion;
Walking beneath the sky, Muse! I was all yours.
And — oh my! — what fabulous loves I dreamed of!

My only trousers had a major hole.
A dreamy Tom Thumb, I scattered verses in my path
Like seed. I lodged under the Great Bear,
My stars rustled gently in the sky. [1, p. 49]

Last Poems and A Season in Hell

In his essay Eliminative Materialism and Propositional Attitudes, Churchland defends the eliminativist program against the charge that folk psychology describes, and even constitutes, rational behavior. “[Folk psychology], some will say, is a characterization of an ideal, or at least praiseworthy mode of internal activity,” Churchland summarizes. Paraphrasing arguments of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, he continues: “It outlines not only what it is to have and process beliefs and desires, but also (and inevitably) what it is to be rational in their administration… [Folk psychology], therefore, is here to stay.” [3]

Churchland goes on to deflate these arguments [3]. The prospect arises, nonetheless, that a world without folk psychology could be a scary one. In Rimbaud’s more mature volumes Last Poems and A Season in Hell — written when he was 17 and 18 — the disorienting nature of a world without folk psychology begins to emerge.

Indeed, Rimbaud’s imagery steadily becomes more bizarre. From Comedy of Thirst:

_We are your grandparents,
_______Elders!
_Bathed in the cold sweats
_Of the moon and green pasture.
_Our dry wines had guts!
_Beneath the ingenuous sun what must man do? Drink.

Me – Die in barbarous rivers. [1, p. 117]

One senses that Rimbaud’s mental categories are completely dissolving.

Perhaps there’s an Evening in store
When I’ll drink quietly
In some old City
And die the happier –
Patient as I am! [1, p. 121]

Rimbaud, indeed, has moved beyond merely describing sensory experiences — even ones divorced from time and from conventional categories. His style of this period mixes sensory data with wild thoughts themselves, so that the resulting poems depict something deeper altogether. From Good Thought for the Morning:

Four in the morning, summertime
And love still dozing.
Dawn in the arbours lifts away
____The smell of last night’s revels.

But down in the immense construction yards
Towards the Hesperidean sun,
The carpenters in shirt-sleeves
____Are already at their work.

At ease in their desert of moss,
They trim the priceless panels
Where the wealth of the city
____Will laugh under artificial skies. [1, p. 123]

Illuminations

In his final volume of poetry, Illuminations, written when he was 19 and 20, Rimbaud abandons verse altogether, composing so-called prose poems which are massive and often difficult to decipher. They occasionally appear to border on incoherence.

The images, when they come through, are often sad and dreamlike. In Workers, the narrator walks on a “warm February morning” with a mysterious “Henrika”, who “wore a cotton skirt, brown and white check, no doubt from the previous century”. “We were strolling on the outskirts of the town,” Rimbaud writes. “It was overcast and that wind from the South whipped up the foul smells from the ravaged gardens and withered fields.” [1, p. 203] Rimbaud’s The Bridges begins with “Grey crystal skies. A strange disposition of bridges, some straight, some convex, others slanting down, obliquely angled to the first, these patterns repeated in other, lamp-lit stretches of the canal…” [1, p. 203].

Some poems just seem incomprehensible. In Lives, for example, Rimbaud writes:

Presently a member of the landed gentry, in harsh countryside under sober skies, I should like to wax emotional about the memory of my pauper childhood, of an apprenticeship and turning up in clogs, of controversy, of five or six widowings and several wild sessions when a strong head kept me back from the fullness of pitch attained by my fellow drinkers. I don’t regret my erstwhile share of divine high spirits: the sober air of this harsh landscape feeds my atrocious scepticism all too well. But since that scepticism no longer serves any purpose, I suspect my madness will be very ugly. [1, p. 197]

Conclusions

Rimbaud seems to have practiced what Churchland preaches. At an early age — and due in part to his wilfull “disordering” — Rimbaud attained what we might take to be a level of insight into our true mental activity unparalleled in those bound by folk psychology. This insight is transmitted through his poetry, which seems to offer us visions into a new unknown.

It appears, though, that this disordering came at a cost. Rimbaud’s remaining years, spent in Africa, were trying and miserable. He never again wrote poetry, and even — when once questioned about it — dismissed his earlier life as “absurd, ridiculous, disgusting” [4]. This progressive deterioration, moreover, seems visible in his poetry.

Indeed, if — as Churchland claims [2] — what we take to be our conscious stream is the result of the extensive training of a neural network, then, while Churchland is correct in suspecting it misleading and arbitrary, perhaps Dennett is also correct in cautioning that this training serves us well. Rejecting it could be dangerous.

Thus, the story of Rimbaud represents a tempting, but also a cautionary, tale. Do you dare disorder your senses?

We could play it safe and just read Rimbaud. But there would be no fun in that.

References

  1. Rimbaud, A., Sturrock, J., & Harding, J. (2004). Selected poems and letters. London: Penguin Books.
  2. Churchland, P. M. (1995). The engine of reason, the seat of the soul: a philosophical journey into the brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  3. Churchland, P. (1981). Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes. The Journal of Philosophy, 78(2), 67-90
  4. The New Yorker. Rebel Rebel, by Daniel Mendelsohn
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