Study Guide

A Season in Hell Foreignness and 'the Other'

By Arthur Rimbaud

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Foreignness and 'the Other'

I've the whitish blue eye of my Gallic ancestors, the narrow skull, and the awkwardness in combat. I find my clothing as barbarous as theirs. But I don't butter my hair. The Gauls were the most inept flayers of cattle and burners of grass of their age. From them I get: idolatry and love of sacrilege: – oh, all the vices, anger, lust – magnificent, the lust – above all lying and sloth! (12-14)

The first "others" the speaker focuses on are his ancestors: the ancient Gauls. Even though he starts off closer to home, he still holds some pretty essentialist views about them and their vices. How does he know that they were all lazy liars, anyway?

Here I am on the Breton shore. How the towns glow in the evening. My day is done: I'm quitting Europe. Sea air will scorch my lungs: lost climates will tan me. To swim, trample the grass, hunt, above all smoke: drink hard liquors like boiling metals – as those dear ancestors did round the fire. I'll return with iron limbs; dark skin, a furious look: from my mask I'll be judged as of mighty race. I'll have gold: I'll be idle and brutal. (29-30)

So the speaker's got a little vacay planned here. He's going to quit Europe transform himself into some unspecified other. Though he's not naming any people or countries here, the fact that he's imagining "dark skin" and "idle and brutal" behavior is just a tad problematic. Why does he have to leave Europe to find brutality and laziness?

Yes, I've shut my eyes to your light. I'm a beast, a black. But I can be saved. You are really blacks, you maniacs; wild beasts, misers. Merchant, you're a black: magistrate, you're a black: general, you're a black: emperor, you old sore, you're a black: you've drunk an untaxed liquor, Satan's make. – This race is inspired by fever and cancer. Old folks and invalids are so respectable they ask to be boiled. – The cleverest thing is to quit this continent, where madness prowls to find hostages for these wretches. I'm off to the true kingdom of the sons of Ham. (46)

These lines are pretty straightforward, and pretty unfortunate. Biblically speaking, the "sons of Ham" are understood as black people, and the speaker has some pretty racist and offensive views of them. He claims that the whole race is inspired by "fever and cancer." Come again? Even though he says he'd like to join them, he's painting them with an awful brush here.

I possess every talent! – There is no one here, yet there is someone: I don't wish to spill my treasure – Shall it be n**** chants, the dance of houris? Shall I vanish, dive deep in search of the ring? Shall I? I will make gold, cures. (80)

The speaker is waxing fantastical here, imagining mystical dances by angels called "houris" and discussing his power to magic up gold and cures. Oh, and he's equating all this with "n**** chants," as if they too were magical beings of the spiritual realm. While this isn't dismissive or critical, it is complete nonsense and it refuses to see black people as just that: people.

"I'm of a distant race: my forefathers were Scandinavian: they slashed their sides, drank their own blood. – I'll make cuts all over; I'll tattoo myself, I long to be hideous as a Mongol: you'll see, I'll scream in the streets. I want to be mad with rage. Never show me gems, I'd crawl on the carpet and writhe. My treasure, I'd like to be stained all over with blood. I'll never work..." (98)

In these lines the speaker's former "companion" is putting words in his mouth, only he's not. Remember that Rimbaud's speaker himself is the one telling us all this, so he's got the ultimate editorial authority here. In any case, the words themselves aren't really that awesome. The speaker, in trying to reject Western society, decides he wants to be just as savage as his Scandinavian ancestors—or someone from Mongolia. He sees them as tattooed rage-aholics, unburdened by things like money. Hmm. We wonder how real Mongolians or ancient Scandinavians might have felt about these descriptions.

...My two sous of sense are spent! – Mind has authority: it wants me to be in the West. It would have to be silenced for me to end as I wish. (249)

Though the speaker himself wants to book it out of the West and "go native" in some imagined, pre-civilized place, his mind just can't bring himself to do that—bummer. More of a bummer, though, is that the speaker seems to equate rationality with the West here, suggesting that Europe is where all the thinkers are. The disturbing implication here is that the "other" places are either magical or otherwise irrational.

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