The Passion for Escape—Rimbaud
I can’t give you an address to reply to this, for I don’t know personally where I may find myself dragged next, or by what routes, on the way to where, or why, or how!
—Arthur Rimbaud, Letter from Aden, 5 May 1884
Arthur Rimbaud at fifteen: a frail boy with eyes of a striking and distant blue. At dawn, on the mornings of his escapes, he rose without a sound in the dark house, and closed the front door quietly behind him. And with beating heart watched the small pale roads calmly emerging from shadow. ‘Let’s go!’ On foot. Every time on foot, and measuring with his ‘unrivalled legs’ the breadth of the earth.
How many times, from Charleville to Charleroi? How many times with Delahaye, in the months of war when the college was closed, to buy tobacco in Belgium? How many times returning from Paris without anything of value, belly gnawed with hunger? How many times later on the southern routes: Marseille or Italy? How many times finally along the desert roads, from Zeilah to Harar, and the 1885 expedition?
Always on foot, every time. ‘I’m a pedestrian, nothing more.’ Nothing more. To walk, to make progress, anger is needed. With him there is always that parting cry, that furious joy.
Let’s go, hat, greatcoat, both fists in pockets, and step outside. Forward, route! Let’s go!
And he walked. Anger is needed to leave, to walk. That doesn’t come from outside. In the hollow of the belly the pain of being here, the impossibility of remaining where you are, of being buried alive, of simply staying. The weather is bad where you are, he wrote from the mountains of Harar. Where you are, the winters are too long and the rain too cold. But here, where we are, in Abyssinia, the misery and boredom are just as impossible, the immobility palls: nothing to read, no one to talk to, nothing to gain.
Here, it’s impossible. Impossible here, for a single day more. Here, it’s ‘atrocious’. Time to go; ‘Forward, route!’ Every route is good to follow, every road towards the sun, towards more light. Doubtless it’s no better elsewhere, but at least it’s away from here. The route is needed, to get there. ‘Fists in my ripped pockets.’ In reality it is only en route, on paths, on roads, that there isn’t a here.
‘Adieu to here, no matter where.’
Walking as an expression of anger, of empty decision. Taking to the road always means departing: leaving behind. In departures on foot there is always something final which is lacking from other forms of transport that make it possible to turn back, where nothing is irreversible. And when you leave, you always feel this mixture of anxiety and light-heartedness. Anxious because you are abandoning something (coming back is a failure; it is impossible to come back on foot, except from a simple short stroll; but when you walk for a long time, several days, it’s impossible; walking means going forward; the road is long, coming back would mean wasted hours; time is serious and weighty). But light-hearted due to all you are leaving behind; the others stay, remain on the spot, stuck. While our lightness of heart is carrying us somewhere else, trembling.
The Paris escapades, the London walks, the excursions to Belgium, the crossings of the Alps, the treks through the desert. And finally Harar, with that hideously swelling knee. ‘I’m going badly at present,’ he wrote on 20 January 1891. His leg hurt so much that he was unable to sleep. Inured—as he was—to suffering, he continued to work and busy himself. He struggled on. But when the leg became completely rigid he decided to leave, selling up at a loss. On 7 April he left Harar forever, at six in the morning, on a litter. He engaged six men to carry him, taking turns. Eleven days of unrelieved suffering, including one period of sixteen hours under lashing rain: ‘That did me a lot of harm.’ More than 300 kilometres in eleven days, carried, shaken about, he who knew so well how to cover the ground! After a short stop to settle his affairs, another eleven days on a ship (the Amazone) to reach Marseille.
He was taken to the Conception hospital. ‘I’m bad, very bad.’ Urgent amputation was deemed necessary. They cut well above the knee. ‘The doctor says I’ll still be getting it for a month, and even then I will only be able to start walking again very gradually.’ The cut healed correctly. ‘I’ve ordered a wooden leg, it only weighs two kilos, it’ll be ready in eight days. I’ll try to walk very slowly with that.’ Immobility infuriated Rimbaud. His mother came to see him at one point, then returned home. ‘I would like to be doing this and that, going here and there, seeing, living, going away.’ He couldn’t bear the hospital any longer, and decided to return to his family in Roche, by train. Back to the starting point after twenty years. His sister Isabelle cared for him with immense devotion, ignoring his irascibility. His condition worsened nevertheless: he hardly ate, he could no longer sleep, his whole body hurt. He drank infusions of the poppy all day long.
Mere skin and bone, insubstantial as an autumn leaf, he still decided to set off again. Even summer had become too cold for him in the North. He would board a ship from Marseille and disembark at Algiers, or Aden. He was close to the end, but he wanted to leave, and he left. ‘Lord, when cold is the prairie . . .’ Towards the sun.
On 23 August, accompanied by his sister, he took a train. Every transfer, from the house to the cart, from the cart to the train, from station to station, was a new calvary. The journey broke him completely, and he was hospitalized on arrival at Marseille.
The doctors who received him knew he was dying: they gave him a few weeks, months at most. This would be his last stop, but no one told him so. On 3 September he managed to note in a firm, unshaky hand: ‘I am awaiting the artificial leg. Send it to me at once when it arrives, I am in a hurry to get away from here.’
To walk again. Every day he talked about his new leg, he longed for it so that he might ‘try to stand up, to walk’. He was in constantly increasing pain, he wept on seeing through the window a vivid blue sky, calling him to go out. As if in bitter reproach, he told his sister: ‘I’ll be going into the ground and you’ll still be walking in the sun!’ His whole body was gradually stiffening, going rigid. ‘I’m just an immobile log.’ He was taking morphine almost continuously, to suppress the unbearable agony. Early in November he fell into delirium. It was his final week.
Isabelle’s memoirs include an account of the dying Rimbaud’s last-minute conversion, but if I had to state a preference it would strongly favour the description of his final delirium. He was confined to bed, his upper body increasingly paralysed. Soon the heart would be affected. He was hallucinating: he saw himself walking, departing once again. He was in Harar, and had to leave for Aden.
‘Let’s go!’ How many times had he said that? The caravan had to be organized, camels found and hired. He dreamed that his prosthetic leg was a success, that he ‘walked very easily’. He was running, desperate to be on his way. ‘Quick, quick, fasten the valises and let’s leave.’ His last words: ‘Quick, they’re expecting us.’ He complained that he shouldn’t be allowed to sleep so much, for it was late. It was too late.
‘Lord, when cold is the prairie.’ To travel far, to flee once more the family and the mother (‘la daromphe’, a Rimbaud distortion of ‘daronne’ meaning ‘old lady, mother’), to escape the cold of the Ardennes, the freezing wind howling in the dark forests; to flee from sadness and boredom, overcast skies, dark days, black crows too in a dark grey sky, to flee the atrocious misery of winter. To flee the sordid idiocies of the seated ones. ‘Leave behind the warblers of May.’
Walking. I find in Rimbaud that sense of walking as flight. That deep joy one always feels when walking, to be leaving behind. There’s no question of going back when you are walking. That’s it: you’ve gone, departed. And the immense complementary joys of fatigue, extenuation, forgetfulness of the self and the world. All your former narratives, and those tiring murmurs, drowned by the beat of your tread on the road. Exhaustion that drowns everything. You always know why you are walking: to advance, to leave, to reach, to leave again.
‘Let’s go, route! I’m a pedestrian, nothing more.’ Rimbaud died on 10 November 1891. He was just thirty-seven. In the deaths register of the Conception hospital, he is identified thus: ‘Born in Charleville, passing through Marseille.’
Passing through. He had only gone there to leave again.
Ought one really to walk alone? Nietzsche, Thoreau and Rousseau are not alone in thinking so. Being in company forces one to jostle, hamper, walk at the wrong speed for others. When walking it’s essential to find your own basic rhythm, and maintain it. The right basic rhythm is the one that suits you, so well that you don’t tire and can keep it up for ten hours. But it is highly specific and exact. So that when you are forced to adjust to someone else’s pace, to walk faster or slower than usual, the body follows badly.
However, complete solitude is not absolutely essential. You can be with up to three or four . . . with no more than that, you can still walk without talking. Everyone walks at their own speed, slight gaps build up, and the leader can turn around from time to time, pause for a moment, call ‘Everything all right?’ in a detached, automatic, almost indifferent way. The reply might be a wave of the hand. Hands on hips, the others may await the slowest; then they will start again, and the order changes. The rhythms come and go, crossing one another. Going at your own pace doesn’t mean walking in an absolutely uniform, regular manner; the body is not a machine. It allows itself slight relaxations or moments of affirmative joy. So with up to three or four people, walking allows these moments of shared solitude. For solitude too can be shared, like bread and daylight.
With more than four companions, the party becomes a colony, an army on the march. Shouts, whistles, people go from one to another, wait for each other, form groups which soon become clans. Everyone boasts about their equipment. When it’s time to eat, they want you to ‘taste this’, they produce culinary treats, outbid each other . . . It’s hell. No longer simple or austere: a piece of society transplanted to the mountains. People start making comparisons. With five or more, it’s impossible to share solitude.
So it’s best to walk alone, except that one is never entirely alone. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: ‘I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.’ To be buried in Nature is perpetually distracting. Everything talks to you, greets you, demands your attention: trees, flowers, the colour of the roads. The sigh of the wind, the buzzing of insects, the babble of streams, the impact of your feet on the ground: a whole rustling murmur that responds to your presence. Rain, too. A light and gentle rain is a steady accompaniment, a murmur you listen to, with its intonations, outbursts, pauses: the distinct plopping of drops splashing on stone, the long melodious weave of sheets of rain falling steadily.
It’s impossible to be alone when walking, with so many things under our gaze which are given to us through the inalienable grasp of contemplation. The intoxication of the promontory when, after a struggle, we have reached the rocky point and sat down, and when the prospect, the landscape is given to us at last. All those fields, houses, forests, paths, all ours, for us. We have mastered all that by our ascent, and it only remains to rejoice in that mastery.
Who could feel alone when he possesses the world? Seeing, dominating, looking mean possessing. But without the inconveniences of ownership: one benefits from the world’s spectacle almost as a thief. But not a thief altogether: for to climb one has to work. All that I see, that is open to the gaze, is mine. As far as I can see, I possess it. Not alone: the world is mine, for me, with me.
They tell this story about a wise pilgrim: he was following a long road, under a dark stormy sky, down a valley in whose dip was a small field of ripe wheat. The well-defined field, among rough scrub and under that black sky, was a perfect square of brightness rippling gently in the wind. The pilgrim enjoyed the beautiful sight as he walked slowly along. Soon he met a peasant returning home with downcast eyes after a hard day’s work, accosted him and pressed his arm, murmuring in a heartfelt tone: ‘Thank you.’ The peasant recoiled slightly: ‘I have nothing to give you, poor man.’ The pilgrim replied in a gentle voice: ‘I’m not thanking you to make you give me something, but because you have already given me everything. You have cared for that square of wheat, and through your labour it has acquired the beauty it has today. Now you are only interested in the price of each grain. I’ve been walking, and all the way I have been nourished by its goldenness,’ the old pilgrim ended with a kindly smile. The peasant turned away and walked off, shaking his head and muttering about mad people.
In that sense you aren’t alone, because when walking you earn the sympathy of all the living things that surround us: trees and flowers. That is why you go walking sometimes, just to pay a visit—to green glades, groves of trees, violet-shaded valleys. You think after a few days, months or years: it’s really been too long since I went there last. It’s expecting me, I should go there on foot. And slowly the road, the feel of the ground underfoot, the shape of the hills, the height of the trees, all come back to you: they are acquaintances.
Lastly, you are not alone because when you walk you soon become two. Especially after walking for a long time. What I mean is that even when I am alone, there is always this dialogue between the body and the soul. When the walking is steady and continuous, I encourage, praise, congratulate: good legs, carrying me along . . . almost patting my thigh, as one pats the withers of a horse. During those long moments of effort, when the body strains, I am there to support it: come on, keep it up, of course you can. When I walk, I soon become two. My body and me: a couple, an old story. Truly the soul is the body’s witness. An active, vigilant witness. It must follow the other’s rhythm, accompany its effort: when you press on the leg during steep ascents, when you feel its weight at the knee. You push on, and the mind punctuates each step: ‘good, good, good’ . . . The soul is the body’s pride. When I am walking I accompany myself, I am two. And that endlessly relaunched conversation can last all day without boredom. We can’t walk without this split, which is how we feel ourselves making progress. When I am walking I always observe myself, egg myself on.
It sometimes happens, of course, when for example you are too deep into the rocks, overlooked by crags, no trace of vegetation – too high, too hard, tracks of pebbles and scree—that you despair a little, feel very isolated . . . excluded, so to speak. It only takes the threat of a lowering black sky to render that feeling unbearable very quickly, insurmountable almost. Your throat tightens and you rush down the hard paths with anxious haste. It’s impossible to walk alone for too long like that, in the crushing silence of immense blocks of stone: your own tread echoes with incredible violence. Here your breathing, moving body is a scandal, a spot of life in a cold, haughty, definitive, eternal minerality that rejects it. It happens too on days of rain or fog, when you can’t see anything, and are just a body, perished with cold and advancing in the middle of nowhere.
This piece is excerpted from A Philosophy of Walking, published in english by Verso, 2014.