Arthur Rimbaud and May '68

On Thursday 8 May 2008 the author of this website, Sebastian Hayes, gave a talk on the French nineteenth century poet, Arthur Rimbaud, at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London. Since there was to be a commemoration of the 1968 Paris ‘Student Revolution’ on the following Saturday at the same venue, the author angled his talk with this in mind.

Sebastian Hayes started by stating in advance that, considering the audience and the moment in time, he was not going to emphasize the specifically literary importance of Rimbaud, or his command of style, though these matters were briefly dealt with in his essay Rimbaud Revisited 1968 — 2006 which appears in his recent book, Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer, A New Translation with Notes (available online from However, he did want briefly to disperse two myths, firstly that there was anything particularly remarkable in Rimbaud destroying his early work, and, secondly, that Rimbaud had a sensational sex life (as one might perhaps imagine from the recent film).

As to the first, Sebastian Hayes pointed out that it is not rare for young authors to destroy part or all of their work, either through genuine distaste, disappointment concerning publication or as a ploy to gain attention. The author himself destroyed all his writings, including Diaries, and all the books he had with him in a bonfire when he was about twenty-eight — a volume of Arthur Rimbaud and the novelette Manon Lescaut were the only books to escape the auto-da-fe. A university friend of the author, Ian Watson, informed us one day that he, likewise, had burned all his poems. What is remarkable in the case of Rimbaud is the quality of the work destroyed (or left forgotten by him) and the subsequent resolve of the writer : Rimbaud never went back to literature after his nineteenth year and even stopped reading poetry and fiction. In a letter to his mother from North Africa, the older Rimbaud confessed that “if I had a son I would want him to become an engineer, not an artist” and when Delahaye, a schoolfriendof Rimbaud’s dared to ask him if he still did any writing, Rimbaud looked at him “as if I had asked him if he still played with a stick and hoop” (Delahaye).

 Far from leading an extravagant sexual life, Rimbaud as an adolescent was shy with girls and is only known to have had one long-standing relation with a woman, Argoba, an Ethiopian girl in Harar. Argoba was not ‘noble savage’ like Gauguin’s Tahitian mistresses : she dressed in European clothes, was a Catholic and liked smoking cigarettes! In Sebastian’s opinion, Rimbaud’s celebrated liaison with the French poet Verlaine was much more of an emotional than a sexual affair, and there is no evidence whatsoever that Rimbaud had any other homosexual relations. Rimbaud can certainly be claimed as a pioneer of the ‘sexual liberation’ of the Sixties but, like Moses, he never entered the Promised Land himself. (One wonders what he would make of the scene today — not much I reckon.)

The author went on to say that Rimbaud’s main preoccupation, not to say obsession, was to find a way of ‘changing the world’ by some sort of total revolution which would not only be social and political but also individual, psychological and cultural. (The English equivalent is Blake.)  Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), Arthur Rimbaud’s most important work, is the record of the total collapse of such  utopian hopes. The rest of Rimbaud’s life was miserable : “It is as if, once he had renounced the idea of being a ‘damned soul’, he became instead a ‘damned man’ “(Rimbaud Revisited, p. 62).

The author then made the connection with May ’68 in France, the West’s longest General Strike and France’s ‘Cultural Revolution’. It was a thoroughly Rimbaudian movement, so much so that when the author (who was living in Paris at the time) came across slogans such as ‘Prenez vos desirs pour des realites’ (‘Consider your desires to be realities’) and ‘La revolution sera une fete ou ne sera pas’ (‘The revolution will be a festival or will not take place at all’), he actually wondered if they were not taken from some recently discovered manuscript of Arthur Rimbaud. But no, they came from the Situationnists, Guy Debord mainly. The May ’68 movement had an absolute quality ‘Ce que nous voulons — tout!’ (‘What do we want ? Everything !’) that the adolescent Rimbaud would have thoroughly approved of, and the Rimbaud of Une Saison en Enfer would have equally thoroughly rejected as megalomania.

The author said, or to be more precise intended to say to his largely Left-wing audience, that it would have only been too easy for him, as a ‘veteran of May ’68’ to say what a great moment in time it had been and “if only we could recover that spirit again”. But, as it happens, the author had very mixed feelings about May ’68 and the social and political movements of the Sixties generally even at the time. Their legacy long-term effect on the West has been largely bad, not to say disastrous. Never perhaps has there been a decade which promised so much and delivered so little. The cultural legacy has been narcissism, irresponsiblity, amorality, superficiality and self-centredness. The Sixties movements were a rebellion without a cause. But if you want to change the world you must have a cause, and you must make some attempt to translate this cause into reality within your own personal life.

Sebastian Hayes concluded by saying that ‘revolutionary’ movements in the West since May ’68 have failed completely for two reasons : 1. the revolutionaries have largely lost contact with the working class (half the time they can’t be bothered to work and live on the dole), and 2. there is a complete lack of any coherent moral or ethical perspective. Those who consider themselves revolutionaries must show people that there is ‘another way to live’, something different from the present materialistic, selfish life-style spreading across the globe. The roots of contemporary irresponsibility and selfishness do not lie in the Thatcher era but should be traced right back to the Sixties themselves and, if not to May ’68 itself (which was idealistic in style and aims) at least to its immediate aftermath.

Sebastian Hayes emphasized, in the subsequent discussion, that during May ’68 he did not personally see a single person smoking hash, tripping with LSD or even drunk, and that he did not know of any sex orgies going on in the Sorbonne — most of the time people were too excited and/or too frightened to be capable of sex. On a previous occasion when Sebastian spoke about May ’68 to a similar gathering, the audience was incredulous and aghast when he said this, as the present one was in part. On the contrary, Sebastian added, during May ’68 and just afterwards, there were always endless earnest discussions going on late into the night about how a ‘revolutionary’ should behave in life, including how he or she should conduct his or her personal relations. Sebastian said that ‘La revolution sera une fete ou ne sera pas ‘ is not sufficient and needs to be coupled with the requirement that the ‘revolution’ — supposing the term has any meaning these days — should introduce a new and better form of morality that people really put into practice on a day to day basis.     Sebastian Hayes


  1. steveash said,

    July 2, 2008 at 1:53 am

    Interesting. Its a shame one event can have such a profound influence. I’ve read something similar happened with Wagner, and look where that led.

    I can’t help feeling the problem in 68 was a clinging to an outdated Marxism though.

  2. Sebastian Hayes said,

    June 29, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Steve Ash asks why Rimbaud became so disillusioned. Politically and socially, he doubtless became disillusioned because of the defeat of the Paris Commune and the backlash. Personally, it would seem that he saw that the possibilities of personal change by one’s own efforts were far more limited than he originally assumed. If you like, he no longer believed it was possible, and maybe not even desirable, to make oneself into a superman.
    I would agree with Steve Ash’s argument that fire-eating revolutionaries like the Situationnists had the ideas but did not live them — they were extremely disappointing to meet as people — whereas the American ‘counterculturalists’ did not have a sharp enough social analysis.
    But I stick to my two basic points that : 1. May ’68 and its aftermath lacked a coherent personal ethical perspective (How should one live one’s life?) and 2. the ‘revolutionaries’ lost contact with ordinary working people whom they tended to patronize or despise. It is, of course, possible for a tiny elite to bring about vast social changes, the Enlightenment did just this, but since May ’68 was supposed to be so inclusive, the self-styled elite got hoisted on its own petard. Sebastian Hayes

  3. keithw said,

    June 1, 2008 at 11:56 am

    I think it’s not unreasonable to characterise Rimbaud’s special – maybe unique (I can’t think of another artist) – quality is that he only produced art an an adolescent (Verlaine shooting him was his coming of age, his wake-up call to adulthood – he wrote nothing after that), and that his art is great art. He’s the great, maybe only, adolescent, artist.

    No wonder he appealed to what was primarily an adolescent rebellion, ie of son against father, that 68 represents to me. It was the middle classes catching up with what their working class coevals had done via Elvis, rock ‘n’ roll, and the Teddy boy ‘violence’ of the 50s – they were just into it earlier because they went out to work, and established their financial independence, at 15, whereas the grammar school kids had to wait until they got grants at university to express their ‘freedom’ (by which time the working class lads were married, with kids, and certainly not up for a revolution).

    The ‘generation gap’ conflict post-war, expressed in film after film, from ‘Rebel without a Cause’ to ‘That’ll be the Day’ is is usually, and I think reasonably, seen as the response of sons to absent fathers – either physically absent at war, or psychologically absent after the war as they worked hard to make good the losses of war. Robert Bly comments on the destruction by musicians of their instruments (the Who, Jimi Hendrix) as the young expressing their contempt for the craftsmanship of their fathers (who actually made the instruments). And one of the characteristics of 68 was the ‘occupation’ (what did the parental generation in France think of that resonant word?), and the destruction of records, the idea of starting from now – for the unique hold of the older generation is their experience of the past. Also the taking up of a bizarre range of older men as substitute fathers (Mao, anyone?). Rimbaud, of course, was fatherless.

    As to sex, I get the impression that Rimbaud wasn’t very interested (hard to think how he could be, with a mother like his), and that he used Verlaine’s incontinence as a means of control. Verlaine was vital to Rimbaud’s life as an artist – after his earlier bravura performance as ‘poete sauvage’ with Verlaine, when he returned to Paris with copies of ‘Saison’, he crept around invisibly, gave away a couple of copies, and melted back into his provincial backwater as if he’d never been.

    Wish I’d been at your talk, Sebastian – your Rimbaud book is both an excellent commentary and a great translation – it would make a first class script for a graphic novel (and that, in case you’re not sure, is high praise indeed!)

    Best wishes

  4. steveash said,

    May 25, 2008 at 3:59 am

    Excuse my spelling and split message, its late and I’m tireder than I thought….

  5. steveash said,

    May 25, 2008 at 3:58 am

    cont. (like some of the Situationists) who thought but didnt live alternatively and the lifestyle counterculturalists who lived alternatively but rarely thought, It was the later that had the big influence through the media I think. How does that match your experience?

  6. steveash said,

    May 25, 2008 at 3:50 am

    This is quite interesting, I’m sorry I missed your talk.

    I’d be interested to know more about why Rambaud became so disillusioned.
    I bought the book by the way and love, it will be a prized possession.

    As for the aftermath of the 60s I tend to blame American counterculture more than the Continentals for the selfish lifestylism. I argue there was schism in 68 between ideological Utopians

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