Originally published in Abraxas, 19, 2003.
If you want to reach a higher state of consciousness there are basically two ways you can go. On the one hand, you can try the ‘external’ way of changing your life, so that the experiences you have affect your consciousness; alternatively, you can try the ‘internal’ way of changing yourself, and working directly on your consciousness.
Rimbaud has been called an ‘existential saint’, and this is completely accurate, since, as much as any Christian or Sufi mystic, his life was dominated by an effort to break through to a higher state of consciousness. From the age of 15, he had only one desire, even if this might not always have been fully conscious: to transcend the ‘sleep’ of ordinary consciousness and wake up to a more intense reality. Like Richard Jefferies or D.H. Lawrence, he sensed that ‘ordinary’ reality is only part of the story, and that the world is full of vast, unknown regions of thought and awareness which, as he wrote, ‘our pale reason’ hides us from.
During the first part of his life Rimbaud chose the second of the above options. Even here there are two different paths we can follow. You can transform your consciousness gradually, by following a ‘spiritual’ path: by meditating regularly, attempting to be ‘mindful’ of your surroundings and experiences, and trying not to be materialistic and hedonistic, or to be attached to external sources of happiness. The cumulative effect of these practices is to intensify the lifeforce – or spirit – inside us, which means that there’s more vitality available for us to use perceptually, and we experience ‘awake’ vision of the world. As well as this, with so much vitality retained inside us, we develop a sense of inner well-being, and a sense of being connected to our ‘real self’.
The other possibility is to intensify your consciousness much more dramatically, by a process of what we could call ‘disrupting the equilibrium.’ Our bodies strive to maintain a state of homeostasis, where we have the right balance of chemicals inside us, the right temperature, the right amount of fluid, and so on. They do this automatically by breathing, sweating and digesting food (amongst other things), and we do our conscious bit to help by eating when we’re hungry, drinking when we’re thirsty, sleeping, staying away from pain and discomfort, or from harmful or disruptive chemicals. But the strange thing is that when we go against nature, and intentionally disrupt this homeostasis, we’re liable to experience intenser states of consciousness. Human beings have always exploited this fact, and practised methods of ‘disrupting the equilibrium’ for spiritual purposes, including fasting, sleep deprivation, frenzied dancing, self-inflicted pain and altered breathing patterns. This is why the ascetics wore hair shirts and belts of nails, why native Americans went without sleep for days before ceremonies, and why the members of the Greek and Roman mystery cults fasted and beat themselves. It’s also one of the reasons why human beings have always used drugs. Although some drugs have the effect of numbing rather than awakening us to reality, many of them – especially psychedelics – disrupt homeostasis so directly and dramatically that they give us instant access to the highest states of consciousness.
Rimbaud knew this instinctively, and was determined to use this method to become a ‘voyeur’ or visionary. At the age of 16 he wrote his famous Lettre du Voyant to his schoolteacher Izambard, where he describes his method of ‘awakening’ the mind. ‘The poet becomes a visionary,’ he writes, ‘by a long, immense and reasoned disordering of all the senses,’ as a result of which he becomes ‘The Supreme Sage…for he arrives at the unknown.’ According to him, this ‘disordering of the senses’ means disrupting the workings of the mind with sleep deprivation, alcohol, drugs, sickness, solitude, and sex, and at the end of the process the poet will emerge as the prototype of a new human being, with a new language which is ‘of the soul, for the soul, encompassing everything.’
To this end, he did everything he could to ‘disrupt the equilibrium’ of his own being. He tried to keep his mind awake by living like an ascetic, ignoring his physical needs and subjecting himself to pain and discomfort. He smoked hashish, drank absinthe, and attempted to practice magic and alchemy. He also began to see his poetry as a way of disabling the ordinary conscious mind, and breaking through to higher realms of reality.
This way of transforming consciousness is fraught with danger though. Too much pain or suffering, or too many drugs, can disable your body as well as your normal consciousness. Drugs can permanently damage the structures of your psyche as well, as many ‘chemical visionaries’ of the 60s found to their cost. These methods are always ultimately futile too, because the more intense states of consciousness they bring can only ever be temporary. The effects of drugs always wear off, dancing has to stop, at some point you have to eat and sleep again (at least if you want to say alive). The equilibrium always re-establishes itself; you always have to return to our normal consciousness. It’s a little like cheating – when we take drugs or fast we don’t actually change our fundamental being, we just escape it for a while. And another problem is, of course, that now that you’ve experienced the exhilaration and beauty of these higher states, the ordinary world seems even more dreary and unbearable, and your sense of ennui increases.
After his four years of trying to ‘derange his senses’ Rimbaud realised this, and decided he could go no further. At the age of 19, full of self-disgust and a sense of futility, he abandoned his attempts to become a visionary. And since for him poetry was closely linked to his attempts to disrupt the equilibrium – both as a method and as a creative result – one of the world’s shortest and strangest literary careers came to end too.
Rimbaud didn’t abandon his attempts to ‘wake up’ though. For the next 18 years he continued to struggle to keep his consciousness at the most intense possible pitch. The only difference is that he no longer did this consciously. Now he switched to the first of the options I mentioned, and attempted to transform his consciousness more indirectly, by living an incredibly restless and adventurous life.
The key to the amazing restlessness of the second half of Rimbaud’s life is the fact that familiar environments and experiences have a deadening effect. The first time – or the first few times – that we’re exposed to a new environment or experience it’s intensely real to us. But after a while we begin to de-sensitise to it, to switch off to its reality, and all that’s left is a kind of shadow. A good example of this is going abroad. Ten years ago I went to live in Germany, for example, and for the first three or four months it was an exhilarating experience. It was exciting just to walk down the street, or to get on a tram, with my consciousness being bombarded with new impressions and information. I felt intensely alive, as if I was ‘awake’ in a way that would have been possible in my home country. But slowly I found myself switching off to the reality of my surroundings, and after a year or so it was all gone. The town seemed just as dreary and oppressive as any English town, and I was back in the same state of boredom and frustration.
In other words, unfamiliarity wakes us up, generates a higher state of consciousness – but after a certain amount of time a mechanism in our minds switches our attention off to it, and we fall asleep again.
However, one way of getting around this is to always expose yourself to unfamiliarity, to never stay in one place or in one life-situation long enough to let this ‘familiarity mechanism’ (as we could call it) edit out reality. And this is exactly what Rimbaud tried to do. At a time when most people never went more than a few kilometres beyond the villages they were born in, and when transport systems were scarcely developed, he travelled the world like a man on the run, with ‘wind in the soles of his shoes’ as his friend and lover Verlaine wrote. He had done some travelling before, of course – he’d made several attempts to run away from his dreary home town, Charleville, and had even reached London, where he and Verlaine worked as French teachers. But at the age of 19 he finally escaped for good. He went back to London for a while, then headed for Stuttgart, where he studied German. From there he walked to Italy, where he worked as a dock labourer. Then he returned to Paris and enlisted for the Dutch army, and sailed with them to the Sunda islands. But as soon as the ship set to port he deserted and fled to Sumatra and Java. From there he worked his way back to Cyprus, where he worked as quarry hand, then went to Africa, where he remained for the next few years. He became a trader and gun runner, and a close friend of the King of Shoa. He was the first European to enter certain parts of Ethiopia and achieved some fame as an explorer. However, when the French Geographical Society contacted him to ask for details of his journeys, he didn’t bother replying. He showed the same indifference when he learned that his poems had been published back home and he’d become famous as a ‘lost poet’.
Rimbaud probably did manage to sustain an intense or higher state of consciousness by living this kind of life. Although he died at the age of 37, we can probably also say that, in a way, there was much more time in his life than for most people who live a full life span. Our sense of how time passes seems to be closely to be the amount of ‘perceptual information’ which we absorb. This is why there always seems to be more time in a week on holiday than a week at home – because on holiday we’re surrounded by unfamiliarity, and process much more information from our surroundings. It’s also why time passes quickly in states of absorption – because when our attention is completely immersed in a TV programme, a computer game or a book we take in very little perceptual information. And so because, unlike most of us, Rimbaud never let the ‘familiarity mechanism’ reduce the perceptual information he received from his surroundings to a trickle, those last 18 years of his life were probably stretched to the length of several decades – if not more – of an ordinary, settled person’s life.
There are still massive problems attached to this way to attempting to keep the mind awake though, which Rimbaud himself encountered. One problem is that, again, you aren’t actually changing your consciousness, you’re just trying to keep its effects at bay. In a way Rimbaud was on the run – from his normal state of mind, with its reality-filtering mechanisms. Since these mechanisms would always start to function after a certain amount of time, he had no option but to keep moving. And again, this soon gives rise to a sense of futility, of being helplessly propelled from place to place with no real reason to be anywhere. You start to ask yourself, as Rimbaud did, ‘What am I doing here?’.
Another problem is that a life of constant wandering doesn’t allow you to satisfy basic human needs, like the need for a constant group of friends, for a partner and a family, and for security and territory. It’s like jumping straight to the top of the hierarchy of needs, to decide that you want self-actualisation and nothing else. As a result there’s no foundation to your life; you’re always unstable and liable to fall to pieces.
And this is what happened to Rimbaud. Eventually, when he began to tire of his restless life, more fundamental human needs did start to manifest themselves. He decided to go back to France, planning to find a ‘nice peasant girl’ to marry and to settle down and start a farm. But by this time his health was beginning to fail, and soon after his return he became seriously ill: he had to have a leg amputated and became paralysed down one side of his body. And he realised that he’d made a mistake anyway, and felt as oppressed by the familiarity of France as he had 20 years before. He jumped to the top of the hierarchy of needs again: after a few months he decided to go back to Africa, even though he was so ill that he could hardly walk or feed himself. He got as far as Marseilles, where he died in hospital.
Nobody – except perhaps for the great mystics and ascetics – ever sacrificed so much and was so fearless in his attempts to transcend our ordinary ‘sleep’ consciousness as Rimbaud. This is why he is such a hero figure, the existentialist equivalent of Hercules or Odysseus. But no matter how heroic his struggle was, and no matter how intensely he lived, we can’t avoid the conclusion that, ultimately, Rimbaud failed. He lived and died dissatisfied, and never did manage to ‘wake up’ permanently. The problem, we can see now, is that he chose the wrong ways of doing this. In the end what he teaches us is that the two approaches he took were dead ends, and that the only satisfactory way of ‘waking up’ is to try to change your consciousness from the inside – not with drugs and other homeostasis-disrupting methods, but with spiritual and psychological practices which cause a slow but permanent transformation.