Study Guide

A Season in Hell Section 8: The Impossible

By Arthur Rimbaud

Section 8: The Impossible

Lines 243-247

Ah, that life of my childhood, the highway in all weathers, supernaturally sober, more disinterested than the finest of beggars, proud of having neither country nor friends, how foolish it was. – And only now do I realise!
– I was right to despise those fellows who never lose the chance for a caress, parasites on the cleanliness and health of our women, now they are in such slight accord with us.
I was wholly right in my disdain: since I am fleeing!
I'm fleeing!
I'll explain.

  • The speaker realizes that his childhood was foolish—he was too serious and spent too much time alone.
  • But, he was correct in hating those guys who liked to womanize—whatever that means.
  • He's fleeing from it all.
  • Why, you wonder?
  • Well, he's gonna break it down for us. Let's find out..

Line 248

Yesterday, I was still sighing: 'Heaven! There are enough of us damned down here! I've already spent too long, myself, amongst this crew! I know them all. We'll always recognise each other; we find each other disgusting. Charity's unknown to us. But we're polite; our relations with people are perfectly correct.' Is it surprising! People! Merchants, fools! – We're not dishonoured – But the elect, how would they receive us? For there are pugnacious and joyous folk: a false elect since we need neither audacity nor humility to approach them. They are the sole elect. They never bless others!

  • This guy seems to like conversing with himself. He does it a whole lot to work out his feelings (and to express them to us).
  • He realizes that there are lots of the damned down in Hell, and he knows all their types. They find each other disgusting, presumably because they are so alike and they know how they, themselves, are disgusting.
  • Low self-esteem, much?
  • No one shows them charity. And he doesn't mean the "Here, I'll give you some money because you're down on your luck" kind of charity. He means more in the sense of compassion and caring for one's fellow man.
  • Even though the damned are perfectly lovely people (they're polite—so they observe the social niceties), the "elect" wouldn't accept them. The "elect" are chosen people, usually in the sense of "chosen by God for salvation."
  • So, they get to go to the good place when they die (and not the Hell where the speaker's currently spending a season).
  • He associates the elect with the middle class ("merchants"), but they're a "false elect" because they are uncharitable to others.

Lines 249-250

Having found two sous of sense again – it's quickly spent! – I see my ills come of not realising soon enough that we are in the West. The western swamps! Not that I believe the light altered, the form extenuated, the movement astray…Well, then! Here my mind wants to burden itself absolutely with all the cruel developments the mind has suffered since the end of the East…it bears a grudge my mind!
…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. 

  • He's found two cents' worth of sense again (a "sous" was a small unit of money in France at the time), but he quickly spends it.
  • This metaphor ties in to the whole disdain for merchants and the middle class thing he's got going there. He, himself, can't escape the pull of the bourgeoisie.
  • And he realizes that that's part of his problem. His problems all come from being part of the West (so, supposedly "enlightened" Western Europe).
  • It's pretty much "the swamps" to him. Why "swamps"? Well, think about it. All sorts of slimy, slithery, lowdown creatures live in a swamp.
  • His passion and reason are once again at war here. His irrational self wants to be of the East, while his mind wants to remain Westernized.
  • For him to escape from this, his rationality would have to be destroyed.

Lines 251-252

I consigned to the devil the martyrs' palm-leaves, the light of art, the pride of inventors, the ardour of looters; I returned to the East and primal eternal wisdom – It seems that's a dream of gross idleness!
Yet I hardly dreamt of the pleasure of escaping from modern suffering. I'd not the bastard wisdom of the Koran in mind – But is there not true torture in the fact that, ever since that declaration of knowledge Christianity, man has cheated himself, proved the obvious, swollen with pleasure at repeating the proof, and lived only like that! Subtle torture, foolish; the source of my spiritual divagations. Nature could be bored, perhaps! Monsieur Prudhomme was born with Christ.

  • Similar to how he expressed a desire to be part of a more primitive land (Africa), here he aligns the East with the same sort of passionate, primal mindset.
  • In his mind, the East is equated with idleness. Still, that's not such a bad thing, as it allows his to escape his current civilized state.
  • He's not looking to replace Western religion for an Eastern version, either. To our speaker, all religion is equally lame and ridiculous. He sees Christian teaching as "obvious" and unnecessary. That's why he's gone off wandering the way he has (on his "divagations," or meandering travels).
  • Christianity and human nature are also boring. He notes, finally, that a French middle-class character, Monsieur Prudhomme, was "born with Christ." In other words, religion is something for the conservative, middle-class to hang on to.

Lines 253-255

Is it not because we nurture mists! We eat fever with our watery greens. And the drunkenness! And tobacco! And ignorance! And devotions! – Isn't all that far from the thought, the wisdom of the East, the primeval land? Why a modern world, if they invent such poisons!
Men of the Church say: 'Understood. But you really mean Eden. Not for you, the history of eastern peoples. – It's true: it was Eden I dreamt of! What has that purity of ancient races to do with my dream!
The philosophers: The world has no age. Humanity simply moves about. You are in the West, but free to inhabit your East, as old as you wish it – and live there well. Don't be one of the defeated. Philosophers, you belong to your West.

  • What's so gosh-darn amazing about the West, anyway? That's the continued theme here for the speaker. What's the West given us, except drunkenness, religion, and other poisons?
  • The speaker anticipates a couple of counter-arguments next.
  • The Church will tell him that he's really after Eden, the Biblical place where everything was cool before the snake came along and Eve at that apple. But the speaker's not really thinking about a particular group of people or race here. He's talking about a way of life.
  • The philosophers are down with that, he says, but they don't know what they're talking about either (according to him). They're just as much a part of the West as the Church-folk.

Lines 256-261

My mind, be on your guard. No violent decisions on salvation. Stir yourself! – Ah, science is not swift enough for us!
– But I see my mind is asleep.
If it were always awake from now on, we would soon arrive at truth, which perhaps surrounds us with its angels weeping! ... – If it had been awake till now, I would never have yielded to pernicious instincts, in an immemorial age! ... If it had always been awake, I should be voyaging full of wisdom! ...
O Purity! Purity!
It's this very moment that has granted me a vision of purity! – By mind one goes to God!
Heart-rending misfortune!

  • The speaker wants to give his mind a wake-up call, but it keeps hitting the snooze button.
  • If everyone was woke (in every sense of the word), then we wouldn't have ignorance, nor we would have God or religion. We'd have wisdom instead.
  • All of this is just really too bad, in the speaker's view. If he'd had Twitter back in the day, the frowny-face emoticon would be all over this poem.

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