The Paris Commune: Antonio Negri

An interview with Antonio Negri by Niccolò Cuppini, as part of the Planetary Commune project. (The interview is also available in spanish and french).

However much we may hesitate before Negri’s Marxism – his almost exclusive attention to Marxist theorisations of the Paris Commune, his use of the singular concept of the “working class” to capture the agencies of the event, and his ascription of a “communal ontology” to contemporary capitalism -, the interview that we share below remains valuable. And we share his Spinozist metaphor of the Paris Commune as the substance from which all of the lines of the “Left” flow.

The Commune as a historical event

Let us begin with the Paris Commune as a historical event. What is your thought about what it meant at that historical moment, as an event of that time, how Marx reads the Commune and what kind of transformations it produces in political thought, but also in the labor movement?

It is an event, on the one hand so extraordinary, and so complex on the other, that it is always difficult to define. There are two extreme points from which to talk about it: on the one hand, the old book by Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray (The History of the Commune of 1871), which is the most important, the most objective thing ever written about the Commune, with the freshness of a combatant and the truth of a fugitive from the Commune itself; on the other hand, the new book by Kristin Ross “Communal Luxury”, which is the most recent.

Ross’s book stems from an academic thesis on the poet Arthur Rimbaud, based on that remarkable poem (Parisian orgy or the Repopulation of Paris) written during the bloody week, the week in which the Commune is massacred by the victorious Versaillists. There is a beautiful stanza, which I remember now:

O Paris! When your feet danced with indignation!

When you were knifed how many times?

And when you fell, your clear eyes still retained

A vision of ruddy spring, 

What a powerful memory of that communist revolt! They are verses to which I am truly bound. I once placed them as an epigraph in Il dominio e il sabotaggio. At that moment, Paris is revolutionary madness, Paris the mad, Paris the martyr – under the Versaillists’ knives – of a mad and savage renewal. Fauve is all of this.

The Commune is the event par excellence, in every sense. On the one hand, because around the insurrection gathers the maximum of the forces that had been organised during the preceding fifty years; from the 1830s, those described in Les Miserables of Víctor Hugo, and those that arise after the emergence of “subversive liberalism” against the Restoration. On the other hand, the Commune is the product of the assertion and consolidation of the corporations of workers in struggle – those same workers who in June of 1848 had made their first organised appearance in revolutionary and armed struggle.

We have the construction of barricades, a new experiment in urban architecture –which is precisely included, among other things, in Les Miserables. The Parisian proletariat then takes up positions on the barricades, which terrifies the bosses. Recently, I reread Les Miserables, I don’t really know why, I didn’t really want to study and I started to reread those thousands of pages and I read them all, even the most boring parts, among which are those about the construction of the barricades, which are not the simplest things to put up.

We have in the Commune the expansion of the socialism of the labor movement in democratic-radical terms. And along with this, another line, which is the condensation of intellectual and proletarian energies in struggle: a foundation for communism for the centuries to come. With the consequences that we know, because of the importance that this experience will assume in its most revolutionary form when it is recovered in the reflection that, from Marx onwards, will be made of this communal experience.

An experience that is organised around the two elements always present and already classic in the action of communists: on the one hand, the demand for progressive democracy, which goes beyond representation, and which is defined as democracy of the councils, direct democracy, democracy of immediate participation. This is the first item. As a consequence of this radicalism: the revocability of mandates, the payment of a salary for the function performed, simply an average salary; it will be said of socially necessary work. Then the representative becomes simply an agent, controlled in the time of her/his function and equal to her/his constituents. Here is direct democracy. And on the other hand, the issue of wages, the issue of production and reproduction, where political participation must reveal its abstract presupposition, which is productive cooperation, and restore it specifically through a redistribution of profit, although in the legislative dynamics of the Commune it is seen in a quite simplified way (because in reality it is simply the reduction of the bakers’ working hours: first they worked all night, then a reduced schedule is applied. However, this reform indicates the attention that there is throughout the the time of the Commune – so brief – to work conditions, salary and income).

These two elements – direct democracy and income for all – will combine in the history of the Commune in unique ways, which Kristin Ross has well illuminated. They were not born simply from the confluence in the proletarian Commune, in its management, of an intellectual sector, the most democratic one, but rather they run through the resonances that the Commune operates in daily life: here we recognize today its biopolitical character. This seems to me to be fundamental. There, working citizens asked, in very progressive terms: how do you it do to live together? How do you live as if in a festivity? Being together means having the possibility of being together, freely and equally, and also in an exuberant way, with the same possibilities, and thus to form our common passions under the sign of happiness. Its here, in this, its seems to me, where the historically exceptional and unique form of the Commune lies.

Let us then return to what the Commune properly was in its time. The Parisian 1871 is also a time of resistance. Let us never forget that the Prussian army surrounded the city, that the Prussians had made their peace with the Versaillists, who were at the walls of the city … but behind them, to the side, everywhere, was the Prussian army. It was not only necessary to fight for the Commune, but also against the Prussians. It was not a coincidence that in 1871 the Garibaldians also went to fight against the Prussians. Around Belfort, on the borderlands between Switzerland and France, in the lower Rhineland, Garibaldian groups are the only ones that hold the Germans at bay, also carrying the voice of the Commune there. Against the Versaillists and the Prussians, for the Commune, there is a bit of everything, from the Garibaldians to the anarchists – who then easily adopted the model – to the Marxists. I believe, however, that the labor movement such as it came to constitute itself through the theoretical action of Marx, that it was necessary for the Commune to stand out with the splendor that it had. But, did the latter really take the event in a way that was completely different from the anarchists? Or maybe not? Or perhaps the Commune functions as a matrix of all lineages, all races, all genders? The Commune, I say Spinozistically, is like the substance from which all forms of being a communist flourish. It is this for me.

The Commune in time

Let us move forward through history. How did the event of the Commune reverberate within the labor movement? There is an anecdote of Lenin who dances in a snow filled square when the revolution exceeds in duration the days of the Commune, but let us also think about the political imaginary of the French 68 and the writings of Lefebvre, or I also want to ask you about your experience of the Italian 77, if there were references, ties, to the Commune, and more generally, how the Commune functioned as political theory and as an imaginary that the Commune sedimented.

Lenin was still in Petrograd, he had yet to conquer all of Russia, when he celebrates having passed the days of the Commune in number. And there is undoubtedly the recovery by Lenin of what Marx had built: the Commune as an example of the extinction of the State – and here lies the universality of that rallying cry -. Lenin (but perhaps Marx already) establishes a continuity with anarchism, assumes the “taking of the State” as a tactical moment with respect to the strategy of the communists, which is always that of the extinction of the State. For the anarchists, the tactical moment is a passage that does not count; after the taking of the State, there does not follow a moment of transition: the State is destroyed and that is enough. For Lenin (and also for Marx), there is by contrast a period of transition, where there are obviously enormous problems, all the better perceived today after everything that happened in the Soviet Union, when the so-called period of extinction of the State became a terrible Stalinist mechanism of re-centering the State itself. It has evidently created numerous problems for the Marxist theory of the State, precisely in relation to the latter’s extinction, after everything that happened! However, I am interested in, and I say it in a radical way, the common theme of the extinction of the State. I do not think it is possible to call oneself a communist if this concept is abandoned.

Certainly, it is necessary to assume this proposal as a theoretical and practical task. Therefore – let us say it in a Weberian way – without any devaluation of institutional realities and of the functions of centralisation, typical of the complexity of the network between the State and capitalism, but not of processes of equalisation, in the great transformations of social, economic and civic life, where social cooperation has become more extensive and intense. As is happening today.

But at the very moment in which these needs, these urgencies, are taken into account, the effort to destroy any idea of a “monopoly” of legitimate violence on the part of the State is also manifest as a duty for a radical ethics. Let us state it clearly: to destroy the very concept of the legitimacy of power, and to introduce the idea of the possibility of a plural apparatus of powers, of councils, of articulations that put into action the dissolution of capitalist complexity and of taking command over this dissolution. This is the challenge to which all communist themes must bend to, and with which to play. All the more so today, when the discourse of the class struggle and of the State is ever more expressly concentrated on a hypothesis and a theory of counter-power (in action); a counterpower capable of producing the extinction of the central moment of power, that power congealed in the State.

The problem remains of what a transition should be: from A to … what? It will probably be the very formula of the transition that will constitute the social form of the communist organisation, that is, the form of that activity of construction of a lattice work of powers with which, through which, the maximum of freedom and equality can be affirmed. And naturally the maximum of productivity, but in its adaptation to the general conditions (physical and ecological) of survival of the human community.

That said, returning to the Commune, the two dynamics that I spoke of above, the theme of the councils and the theme of equal salaries, live entirely within the whole of the communist experience. They live in Lenin. First of all, I like to dig into what Lenin said, and it seems clear to me that when he says “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”, he means exactly this: Soviet power as the destruction of the State and the substitution of its functions by the council regime. And on the other hand, electricity, which in that phase, is the way to produce the conditions of the salaried worker, the way to produce wealth, the way to give life to those who must participate in power, and to the survival of all. In life in common, life always precedes power, always, in all cases. For this idea, the Commune is central.

About Lefebvre … he is too important an actor, although if in order to assess him, in my view, it is necessary to enter a little more into the great polemics of the postwar period – in those on Marxist humanism in particular – in which he was trapped from the beginning in the PCF and removed by Althusser. So, we need to go into them a bit, because for me recovering – probably with Lefebvre – a certain vision of communist humanism, is something central. Kristin Ross’s book, with all of its postmodern elegance, actually expels from obtuse and old polemics precisely this Lefebvrian element, the humanism of the Commune as well as the humanism of the first Marx, which must be rescued. So one has to be a little attentive, because when Lefebvre dealt with the first Marx, he did so with no small connivance (admittedly!) with what was a reactionary fashion of the beginning of the postwar period after WWII. In this picture, the humanism of Marx’s 1844 writings was raised polemically against the Marx of Capital. In Italy, it is Norberto Bobbio who becomes the hero of the ’44 Marx, flirting with Roderigo di Castiglia (Togliatti’s pseudonym in Rinascita). In Germany, there is Iring Feschter, who is a monumental revisionist and well supported by the reactionary spirit of the entire Frankfurt School. Lefebvre remains stuck in this game, and since the French Communist Party was not as kind as the Italian Communist Party, instead of being treated with gloves – as happened to Bobbio – he was isolated and expelled from the Party, in an infamous way. By contrast, Althusser interprets the “pure Marx” against the youthful Marx, the logician against the humanist, and makes room for the caesura by which Marx will become a materialist Marxist only after ’48. As we know well, neither one nor the other is real. But politics is above the truth! Lefebvre was half right. He allowed himself to be involved in a bigger game and paid, because he was isolated from the environment that most interested him, despite the fact that he was undoubtedly the most intelligent of the PCF, despite the fact that he opened the way to a biopolitical humanism, to the analysis of ways of life and the invention of a new materialistic phenomenology of living in common, giving us above all one of the most important contributions to the whole of our experience and capacity for communist analysis.

And what about the Commune and the Italian 77? 77, if you want, is within the tradition of the Commune. But 77 was very ignorant, its sources were comics. In any case, it is beyond doubt that 77 in its playful and political expressions and in the organisation of its spaces – another very recent theme, the spatiality of movements -, is within this tradition. The space of the Commune was also that of the square, the barricade, etc., the space to which Haussmann will respond with his urban reform, to cut this space and make it horizontal, like the firing of machine guns, and to thereby render it impracticable for the proletariat.

Furthermore, the space of the Commune is also and is still the space of workers’ corporations, of shopkeepers, a pre-constituted space. Given that it seems to me that research and controversy among thinkers of the urban have recently focused on the pre-constituted and newly constituted, neo-constituted space, I fully agree that the issue of neo-constituted space is fundamental in thinking about struggles and movements, but I have difficulty finding it in an older past; it probably only came to the surface in 77. As for communal spaces in Milan, in my experience, there was only the Ticinese neighborhood which could have a little of this qualification. Probably also to some extent Quarto Oggiaro or il Giambellino, and in Rome this level was rarely reached (I am thinking of Trastevere, in the attacks on the Nixon parade for example). But it didn’t go any further. While later things became different, it began to be thought of in Seattle in 99 and to appear very obviously with the great struggles of the 2011 cycle, with the Arab revolts and in Spain, with Puerta del Sol. This idea of the spatiality of movements poses important organisational problems. I tried to study them together with Michael Hardt in Assembly, but I don’t think that we have managed to give a full idea of what it means, to get to the heart of it. We assume this leitmotif, this refrain of “Go …”, of the “Call and respond”, which was the refrain of the song of black slaves when they went to work. One asked a question, and another gave the answer: well, here was something that could somehow fix within the movement a mechanism for organising discourse. But even this does not correspond to the experience of the squares that I came to know in 2011. I participated a little in the Spanish movements, I studied the Brazilian movement of 2013 well (which was a movement of great importance). I still have doubts about how to define politically the new spatiality of movements. But surely, since then, spatiality has become central. Black Live Matter, the Gilets Jaunes, and today the feminist movements in Belarus – these are three very strong examples. It is probably then worth keeping the metaphor, and saying that we want to repeat the Commune, in order to establish a relationship between council and movement.

These difficulties in no way detract from the imaginary of the Commune, although in returning to the social struggles, to the spaces they occupy, and to Rimbaud, to the poetry I read earlier, even giving all honors to Kristin Ross, it is necessary to remember very well that the class struggle is also a thing of struggles, of ruptures, of losses, of death. I don’t know if you’ve been to Père-Lachaise, in the cemetery of the Commune, where the wall of the executed and the mass graves are located. You want to cry when you go there, and yet it is also necessary to remember this: the class struggle is beautiful, but it is also a matter of life and death, and for the Commune it was also that – Lissagaray narrates it well.

The Planetary Commune

Let’s try to frame the Commune as a political form, thinking of other geographies and times in which the Commune was evoked – I am thinking in particular of the Shanghai Commune or the Oaxaca Commune. Even while remaining within the Paris Commune, recent studies tend to trace a genealogy of it that is not attributable only to the Parisian perimeter [e.g., the Algerian Commune], but also widens it to that constitutively transnational dimension within which political phenomena take place, and then looks at the Parisian event within an also colonial/decolonial dimension of struggles, which broaden beyond the specific moment. But precisely, the Commune also becomes a political dimension that is not simply reproduced, but is proposed as a political form. What does this restatement of yours tell us, including in its obvious contextual differences?

The Commune had an enormous significance in political thought insofar as it was, in effect, treated as a political form. Every real political experience in which we inhabit is remembered as an event, and frequently as a defeated event. Then, we have on one hand, the political model of the Commune, as a council model, as direct democracy. And on the other, we have the experience of a real political form, of a real political event, which is an event of defeat, of crude repression.

I remember when I was a child and I used to talk about the Commune with the old Communist Party cadres – obviously I did it with enthusiasm like any neophyte – they (kicking me in the ass), reminded me that the Commune had been defeated, but that its defeat had been largely rescued by the triumph of the Russian revolution and the Red Army in the defense of Stalingrad and the conquest of Berlin, and then China, etc., which was otherwise laughable. A third of the world was included in this rescue. This triumphalist teleology quickly turned out to be false in my eyes. We must always return to “principles” and attend to new experiences of struggle. And here the problem is to combine the ideal of the Paris Commune with that of Shanghai or Oaxaca with the global reality of the history of proletarian revolutions. I think that this would have been one of Marx’s great problems, and in a way it was, as can be seen in the publications of his later research, especially anthropological – better said, beyond Capital. It is when he begins to study anthropology and he seeks a continuity of forms of community organisation between the past and the future. I have never been passionate about this type of intellectual adventure, because I think it is impossible to connect a form of utopia, and more, a concrete utopia, to a historical path. I have this old materialistic skepticism. But Marx was also a materialist and yet he tried to find in the Russian obshchina, as revealed in the letter to Vera Zasulic, the possibility of determining a historical continuity of the communist model. As for Mao: he was against the Shanghai Commune, but he built the communes in the mountains of Henan, a living but real dual power, and armed, with its factories and also its schools, in which the Communist cadres were produced, transforming illiterate peasants into future leaders of the Chinese socialist state, moreover through the use of arms. This is an extraordinary experience, one of the few, that occurred in an exceptional state – understanding it not as a constitutional exception, but as the exceptional history of two Maoist wars, the civil war and the anti-imperialist war against Japan, which are linked to each other. And here, in the midst of this, there is a first realisation of a counterpower.

Now, these great dimensions are those in which, I believe, the theoretical model of the Commune is re-proposed and adapted to reality. Otherwise, I am very afraid of utopias, of all utopias. When I look around, I see formidable experiences from the ethical and political point of view, the various ZADs for example, and other spatialised experiences of class conflict. I do not believe however that with what one is on the ground at the moment, that it is at the level of the current needs of a revolutionary thought. Who can understanding what it means to determine a dual power that does not dissolve complexity but rather manages to take advantage of it, that manages to overcome it and use it, and at the same time destroy it; that does not fit within the complexity of power, but instead becomes a virus, a virus which attacks the fundamental ganglia.

With this question, the problem is then posed of how the Commune can represent a political model, and how this can be valid, for example, in decolonial experiences, in the great struggles against colonialism. When you read for example the Indian authors of subaltern studies, Renajit Guha in particular, formidable experiences of class struggle in the liberation wars against English colonialism in India are described. Entire states, with millions and millions of people in struggle, rise up in ways that resemble those of the Commune.

But let us be attentive. We have fortunately today entered upon a post-colonial age. And we will not repeat the mistake that with this a unified and smooth world is generated – an illusion to which I came very close in Empire – the mistake that globalisation has made the world homogeneous (the first, the second, the third). There are huge differences here and there, they are here to stay, and at the same time the global, imperial-global unified sphere is there. If then these differences exist, they are understood on a single plane. Now, within this interior, it is not a matter of discovering or rediscovering old experiences that may be worthwhile. Only a constituent imagination is important, not small utopias. The problem of power is raised in its entirety.

Let us then ask ourselves: how is a counterpower constituted, or better, a practice of rupture that cuts through and destroys the complexity of capitalist power? It is never just about taking over the State; there is a sovereignty to destroy, capitalist sovereignty. Unfortunately there are this pair of problems. And this passage is a damned difficult thing, even just from the point of view of imagining it. But it is the ground upon which we must thoroughly test our capacity to analyse and to test our experiences. With the certainty that after every time you break upon this point, this node, it is a chain that breaks; that every time you break that passage, it is almost automatic that all the rest collapses, as always happens when something tense is broken. That said, it is clear that all of the singular problems joined together in power (the ecological problem is undeniably central today), that they are all linked in destruction and transformation within a prospective chain, within a single apparatus. The Commune teaches this.

I always say this to my dearest companions: today we must imagine a kind of Pinocchio, and so build him that he gradually makes sense of his own complexity. A little like 16th and 17th century fables, a flower is placed in front of Pinocchio to imagine how the smell could give life to the other senses. Today it is not about experiencing the senses, but about passions, the passions for the commons. We must invent the cyborg of the commons. It is about combining the post-modern (that is, the economy, technology, social and cultural relations and everything that goes with it) with the humanistic passion of the Commune, of being together, of building together, in freedom and equality.

The Commune today

Some final questions. What can it mean to think about the political present and the future through the Commune? In two senses: in the first place, what can the Commune mean today in political-organisational terms as secession, as rupture … Before, you recalled the ZADs as examples of micro-dynamics not up to par, as bits of territory in secession. But can we think of this dynamic of separation, of rupture, on a metropolitan scale, as a counter-construction of other powers? And secondly, how can the semantic space of ??the concatenation between the Commune, the commons, communism, community, communes be considered, also in the face of experiences such as those of 2011, 2013, or the most recent ones in Chile and the United States, or looking at the Yellow Vests, with their spatiality made of an expanded and diffuse territoriality, the roundabouts that become molecular encampments within French territory, and which are later concentrated in the intensity of Saturdays, in the assaults on the metropolis?

Three things have struck me a great deal these lastyears. One is Black Lives Matter (BLM), the second is the Yellow Vests, and the third, in a formidable way (also because I have been fortunate to build direct contact), are the women of Belarus. What is happening there is incredible: they are women, only women, who demonstrate every Sunday filling the squares by hundreds of thousands. Women who have produced an irresistible political movement – in opposition, the police in power are only men. This women’s movement appears in a country that is not miserable, which has managed to maintain a remarkable level of heavy and light industry, linked to Russia but sufficiently autonomous to be, for example – and this also explains many of the anxieties of the West- , contracted in the Chinese manner, as a subordinate workforce, to large western conglomerates. These women demonstrate to demand a transformation of the political order in a democratic sense, within a society with a traditionally good level of social services, and obviously placing within the struggle the defense and development of all their desires as women. It is an extraordibary thing: it is the first time that there has been a political movement entirely made up of women. I do not want to fight with my colleagues, who will observe precisely that every women’s movement is political (in particular those that we have seen develop lately in Latin America), but here it is a political movement that looks directly at the commons and the State, and to their radical transformation.

As for the American movements, there is nothing to say that has not already been said. While it is beyond any doubt that the Yellow Vests movement, with all of the ambiguities that it has slowly revealed (and today unfortunately with an inability to resurface), has demonstrated, through its proposals, a very high level of understanding of the commons, and not simply as a souvenir of the Commune (which is always present in France, in any subversive movement that occurs). With this movement, we have had a perception and a proposal of the commons, in a strange moment, when it seemed that struggles were completely blocked, and the Macronian Republic had, as it were, cut off its plausibility. And yet the the Yellow Vests were there, inventing a space of mobilisation on Saturdays, the day in which people rest; a mobilisation on the day of rest. The first time I saw them, I thought: “What are they doing, going to mass?” They gave a bit of this impression. In short, the movement revealed something that decidedly surpassed any possibility of reducing it to a liturgical fact, it became a permanent invention, because this coming together revealed itself to be a true forge of potentiality, a moment of formidable expression. By placing themselves collectively in a society in which everyone said that the political was over, that the political was dead … dead, my eye! An exceptional politicisation from below was revealed within the movement. It was a matter of gathering and marching on Saturday afternoons, and what emerged was a roadmap by means of which the complexity of capitalist rule has been, one petal after another, like with a daisy, made petalless. This is the first element of the commons. The Analytical Commune.

The second communal element consisted, for the Yellow Vests, in determining (as a partial and open engine of subversion) the convergence of all the other forces of the movement, including the trade unions (and that is saying a lot, as they are always jealous of their own corporate order, although today they are less jealous, very frequently in defense of their survival, precisely because that corporate aspect has reduced them to being an expression or a sub-expression of State power). The Yellow Vests have awakened corporate labour union forces, they have invited them to moments of convergence of struggle, but above all they have produced a new discovery in the terrain of struggle, the struggle over the commons. What are in fact the proposals of the Yellow Vests? They are: first, the referendum –which is not the Five Star movement; it is, “we want to influence the legislative process directly” -; and second: we want to decide on public spending, on the fiscal-salary relationship, on income redistribution. The latter, the economic-salary, is an essential element and coincides with the other, the democratic – there is not one without the other. You cannot demand absolute, direct democracy if you don’t demand equal pay, income for all. The Commune again?

The last problem: we live in a society in which the productive mechanism demands a profound cooperation of living labor, and proposes a common ontology of labor. It is a matter of making this ontology speak. The political model that the Paris Commune produced came before the emergence of the commons as a productive power; we are, on the contrary, in a situation in which that productive power of the commons precedes us, has been consolidated, is our environment. This should represent an anthropological privilege. But capital has appropriated it. And yet the commons as an anthropological privilege is already implanted in our nature and can become explosive: it is clear that, if we manage to express it, everything blows up in the air. And there, you need to be very attentive, because you need to always remember what Lissagaray said about the class struggle … even before a single, singular rupture, capital responds with all of its forces. Capital is a scoundrel, and I am not saying this lightly. It knows that it needs to destroy one in order to prevent the many, the too many, from destroying it. And therefore, long live the commons and may it guide us well!

Parisian Orgy or the Repopulation of Paris

Arthur Rimbaud 

Cowards, behold! Spill from the stations!
The sun’s hot breath blew streets dry
That teemed with Barbarians¹ only nights before.
Behold the Holy City, the Western throne! 

Come! We’ll snuff smoldering fires!
See the quays, the boulevards,
Houses in relief against radiating blue
That nights before was starred red with bombs! 

Board up the dead palaces!
Bask in the terror of dying daylight.
Behold these droves of redheads shaking their asses:
Be as crazy as you like: go wild! 

Bitches in heat eat poultices in packs,
Who can resist golden houses’ calls: so rob!
Eat! Behold the joyous night descends in spasms,
Deep into the street. O desolate drinkers, 

Drink! When blinding light shines
Streams of luxury across your sides,
Will you drool into your glasses,
Immobile and mute, eyes lost in the distance? 

Knock one back for the Queen and her fat ass!
Listen to belches tear through flesh!
Listen to idiots and old codgers, groaning
Puppets and lackeys leaping into the burning night. 

O filthy hearts and wretched mouths,
Belting shouts from reeking mouths!
Wine for everyone! We drink to this empty sloth…
O conquerors, your bellies dissolve with shame! 

Open your nostrils to this incomparable nausea!
Drown your gullets in potent poison!
Laying his crossed hands onto your necks
The Poet says: “Cowards, show me your fury!” 

Because you grope around in Woman’s guts,
You fear another shrieking contraction
That would smother the nest you’ve made
In her breast beneath an unbearableweight. 

Syphilitics, madmen, kings, puppets, ventriloquists,
Why would Paris—that old whore—care
About your bodies and souls, your poisons and rags?
She’s well rid of you, you rabble. 

And when you’re doubled over, gripping your guts,
Sides numb, demanding money, bewildered,
The red whore, breasts fat from battle,
Will shake raised fists far from your pain! 

O Paris! When your feet danced with indignation!
When you were knifed how many times?
And when you fell, your clear eyes still retained
A vision of ruddy spring, 

O sorrowful city! O half dead city,
Face and breasts thrust boldly towards the Future
Opening a million doors onto your pallor,
A city only the dark Past could bless: 

Your body galvanized against suffering,
Again you drink from wretched life! Again you feel
The flux of worms writhing in your veins,
And icy fingers groping your grip on pure love! 

But: that’s not so bad. Worms, pale worms
Can no more halt the breath of Progress
Than the Styx could put out eyes of Caryatids
Whose astral tears fell golden from the blue above. 

While unbearable to see you overrun again;
While no city has been so befouled in all history—
A fetid ulcer on Nature’s greenery—
The poet nonetheless proclaims, “Your Beauty is magnificent!” 

By storm, you have been consecrated Supreme Poetry.
The vast stirring of strength succors you;
O Chosen City! Your works boil, death moans!
Gather soundings in your deaf horn. 

The poet will collect the tears of the Wrong,
The hate of Convicts, the clamor of the Damned;
And his rays of love will whip our Women.
His stanzas will shout: Thieves, behold! 

—Society is restored: Orgies weep
Their ancient sob in ancient whoreries:
Gaslights blaze deliriously on reddened walls,
Sinister flares against a paling blue! 

May 1871

POEMS 1871/72

Portrait of Rimbaud, Patti Smith, 1973

(from Blackout tumblr)

This entry was posted in Commentary, Interview and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.