Posted on:Wednesday 25th November, 2020
If you’re reading this, I’ll wager that you have made a trip to at least one place – perhaps many places – associated with a favourite writer. Maybe you’ve been to Shakespeare’s Birthplace, or one of the Maisons Victor Hugo in Paris or Guernsey, or the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. You might have visited a house with a blue plaque outside, or a statue or other monument commemorating a literary figure. Maybe you’ve even put on your best Regency glad rags for the Jane Austen festival in Bath.
What are we doing, when we engage in these various different types of literary tourism, and what do we hope to gain from visiting places associated with writers and their works? I don’t have any quick answers, but my suspicion is that there’s a peculiar kind of intimacy that stands to be gained from this type of experience. By standing in a writer’s childhood bedroom, seeing his or her working desk, looking at the objects that cluttered his or her domestic life – or even just walking through the same landscapes, seeing them more or less how the author would have experienced them – we establish a kind of connection to the individual writer: we render him or her real, tangible, almost within our reach.
This sense of intimacy or shared connection is also why a Rimbaud fan will pay €435,000 for the revolver that Verlaine used to shoot the poet: as Thomas Venning recently wrote on this blog, such collectors are engaged in ‘a vain attempt to pin down Rimbaud the man, to find some means of proximity to him as a personality’. I haven’t asked her, but I imagine Patti Smith bought her house on the Rimbaud family farm at Roche, near Charleville-Mézières, for similar reasons: the connection with the poet matters, as does the possibility of somehow partaking in his lived experience by sharing his space.
Beyond this sense of intimacy or proximity, what interests me about sites of literary commemoration, or more generally places that are associated with writers and their works, is how they engage their audiences. How might a writer’s house or literary museum appeal to the visitor who hasn’t ever read a word of the author’s works? How do they engage us with literature, without turning the visitor experience into a dreary, text-heavy, pedagogical chore? How do they ensure that the writer’s work lives on in the present, and avoid the kind of ‘musealisation’ of literature that would seek simply to preserve it behind glass panels?
The Musée Rimbaud
The Musée Rimbaud in Charleville-Mézieres provides a case-study in creating an open and engaging literary museum that brings the work of a writer into the present and insists on its vitality – its status as a living object that triggers new creative dialogues with readers, and with artists and writers. (This has also, not coincidentally, been the aim of the Rimbaud & Verlaine Foundation’s own ‘poetry house’.)
The Musée Rimbaud owns a number of documents and artefacts relating directly to Arthur Rimbaud and his life, including four manuscripts and a number of photographs, as well as the few belongings he brought back with him from his African travels. (Having raised €120,000 in a crowdfunding campaign to buy the aforementioned revolver, it unfortunately lost out at auction to an unknown private bidder.) With or without the revolver, however, this material is not substantial enough to allow the museum to be built primarily around the kind of relics mentioned above, whose affective charge has to do with the way they bear (or are imagined to bear) traces of the poet’s hand. The museum’s focus therefore necessarily shifts beyond these, to Rimbaud’s poetic legacy and to the variety of responses generated by his work, from the nineteenth century to the present, across different media.
The visitor’s journey through the museum starts up in the roofspace, with a ‘sound shower’, which exposes us to Rimbaud’s poetry in a variety of languages, situating his work very much in a global framework.
From the next room, where the theme is Rimbaud’s childhood and adolescence, there is a deliberate attempt to integrate contemporary responses and reimaginings, such as Thierry Girard’s series of photographs, Mémoire blanche (1993), which evoke the Ardennes landscape and the farm at Roche. The following rooms continue this approach: ‘Révolutions’ places key quotations from Rimbaud’s writing in relation to works by Sonia Delaunay, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Paul Chambas and others. The ‘Voyages’ room, on my last visit, included a series of photographs of contemporary Harar by Eric Guglielmi (2005), offering a pointed correction to the nineteenth-century orientalist gaze in evidence in some of the 1880s images of Choa on display.
Poetry beyond the museum
This opening out of Rimbaud’s poetry is also continued beyond the four walls of the museum. A striking example of this is the Québécois sculptor Michel Goulet’s 2011 Alchimie des ailleurs, a series of ‘chair-poems’ permanently installed alongside the Meuse, connecting the Musée Rimbaud to the Maison des ailleurs (of which more shortly). Goulet’s project began with a public event, ‘Dessine-moi une chaise’, in which local residents and visitors proposed designs; the artist combined these with eighteen fragments of poetry written by international writers in response to Rimbaud. The verses are juxtaposed on the seats of the chairs. The result is a work of art that once again places Rimbaud in relation to multiple contemporary elsewheres. It also, crucially, combines movement and stasis, allowing the spectator to chart their own trajectory through the installation, but also to sit still, to read and contemplate.
The desire to make poetry part of the urban landscape – rather than to cloister it away in the closed space of a museum – is also seen in Charleville-Mézières’s ongoing ‘Fresques’ project, which translates Rimbaud’s poems into street art. This is a meeting between poetry and popular culture that Rimbaud – admirer of ‘les peintures idiotes, dessus de portes, décors, toiles de saltimbanques, enseignes, enluminures populaires’1 (idiotic paintings, pictures above doors, stage sets, carnival backgrounds, inn signs, popular prints) – would surely have appreciated.
A visit to the Musée Rimbaud also takes in another site, the Maison des ailleurs, situated just across the street from the old mill where the museum is based. The Rimbaud family lived here, in an apartment on the first floor, from 1869 to 1875. The poet would certainly have written some of his best-known poems while living here.
A different museum might have attempted to reconstruct this space as it was during those years – but here, this type of artificial reconstruction has been studiously avoided. Instead, the Maison des ailleurs adopts an approach that conserves some traces of the past (in the form of fragments of old wallpaper, for instance), but otherwise seeks once again to bring Rimbaud’s work into the present, within a relatively bare, stripped-back space devoid of domestic paraphernalia.
Each room of the house is dedicated to a place associated with the poet’s life: Charleville, Paris, London, Brussels, but also Aden and Harar, and a ‘non-lieu’ that simulates a train compartment or another place of transit. The rooms are given over to contemporary artworks – primarily sound or multimedia installations – evoking one of these places. Some of these works respond directly to Rimbaud, as in Emmanuel Adely’s sound installation for the ‘Paris’ room, which combines overlapping fragments of texts by Rimbaud and Verlaine, or Frédéric Dumond’s mixture of Rimbaud’s prose with his own poetic material. Others, such as Christian Barani’s video journey through contemporary Harar, depart more strongly from Rimbaud’s work as source-text. Even in the ‘Charleville’ room of the Maison des ailleurs, there is a strong sense of the world beyond. Yann Beauvais’s installation here projects fragments of Rimbaud’s texts, translated into multiple languages, onto the walls, and reflects these in a mirror so that the spectator is immersed in a multilingual poetic experience.
Crucially, in acknowledging Rimbaud’s status as a cosmopolitan poet – a poet who, after all, left Charleville at the first opportunity, and who occasionally poured scorn on small-town provincial life in poems such as ‘À la musique’ – the Maison des ailleurs nods towards the thorny question of where, if anywhere, he really ‘belongs’. Debate around this issue was recently revived by a petition to move Rimbaud and Verlaine’s remains to the Panthéon, in Paris. Now, the controversy surrounding this proposal may have been primarily to do with the literary spaces to which the two poets were seen to belong (or not): as Denis Saint-Amand argued in Libération, the desire to diversify the ‘grands hommes’ interred at the Panthéon by including two LGBTQ+ poets was certainly well-intentioned, but what the proposal failed to understand is that both Rimbaud and Verlaine were themselves resistant to state honours and official canons. What is also interesting about this debate, however, is the way in which literary and geographical ‘places’ coincide and overlap. Rimbaud’s ‘place’ is not only outside the literary canon; it is outside the distinctly Parisian literary milieux associated with that canon. To transport Rimbaud’s remains from the cemetery at Charleville-Mézières to Paris would not only inflict damage on the local Ardennais cultural economy, but would also do violence to Rimbaud’s identity as a poet of Charleville and of elsewhere. By the latter, I mean that Rimbaud is a poet of other geographical places, but also that he belongs to a literary elsewhere: a fringe or counter-cultural space alien to Parisian cultural institutions like the Panthéon.
The Musée Rimbaud and Maison des ailleurs both capture this identity perfectly. Like the light installation in the stairwell of the museum (On ne part pas by Claude Lévêque), consisting of a huge rotating circle of lights that always comes back to its point of departure, these spaces simultaneously allow the poet to wander, and root him in the place where he became a poet, and to which he ultimately returned.
Associate Professor in French and Francophone Studies at the University of Nottingham
1 ‘Alchimie du verbe’, in Poésies. Une saison en enfer. Illuminations, ed. by Louis Forestier (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), p. 139.