Friday, June 09, 2006

The Rimbaud Code

The most famous poem of the French Symbolist Arthur Rimbaud is the Sonnet of the Vowels, probably written in 1871-72. He begins by positing a series of correspondences between vowels and colors-—A, black; E, white; I, red; U, green; and O, blue. It is commonly assumed that Rimbaud invented this procedure (with a little help from Charles Baudelaire). However, the parallels are part of a larger phenomenon called synaesthesia, the assumption that inputs in one sense correspond to specific ones in another sense.

The most common comparisons are between sounds and colors, hence color hearing or audition colorée. Ordinary language offers some support for this belief. Thus it seems reasonable to speak of the “scarlet sound of the trumpet” and the “silvery peal of the harp. Beyond such obvious connections it does not seem possible to go-—though it has been claimed that a few individuals have this capacity in a heightened and definitive form.

At any rate, as the Rimbaud scholar René Etiemble has shown the nineteenth century produced a number of texts comparing vowels to colors. The only problem is that there is no consistency in the identifications. Thus, an English text of 1821, which claims to derive its conclusions from the Roman poet Vergil, equates the latter A with white, just the opposite of Rimbaud's claim. The writer goes on to match E with blue, I with yellow, O with red, and U with black.

In fact Rimbaud admitted that he had chosen the colors according to his personal whim, or poetic license, if you will. This confession has not prevented scholars from seeking to detect a “Rimbaud code” in the painting.

In 1961 Robert Faurisson, a high-school teacher, created a great stir by claiming that the key to the sonnet is the anatomy of the female body during a sex encounter. In order to do this several of the letters need to be rotated. Thus is A is turned upside down, an image of the dark female pudenda appears. The letter E (which Rimbaud had written in the Greek manner, approximately like this: έ) must represent the milky white female breasts. If turned on its side, the letter I represents the red lips. And so forth. (The ingenious M. Faurisson later became a prominent Holocaust denier-—another, much more consequential triumph of interpretation over common sense.)

One contributor to the discussion, J.-P. Lepetre opined that Faurisson had got it all wrong. At the time of writing, through his celebrated liaison with Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud was acquainted with the male anatomy, not the female. Lepetre offered a gay reading, which goes as follows. The A represents a bold, brawny Legionnaire, standing with legs wide apart. The curvilinear E must stand for his buttocks. The I (no need for rotation now) is his virile member. The U stands for the clasp around the characteristic cap of the Legionaires. Finally, the O mimics the wide-open mouth of the soldier in full battle cry.

To this I might add some observations on the letter U, which the French pronounce like the German ü. Claude Courouve has shown that during the eighteenth century, the French u sound stood for same-sex love (the reason being that it is the vowel in cul, buttocks). Some readers might also detect the initial of the word uraniste, but this did not appear in French until 1893. The culiste reading would be reinforced by Rimbaud’s possible knowledge that galbinus, a Latin word for pale green, was associated with homosexulaty. (He was an accomplished Latinist).

I conclude by noting some other erotic letters. The late sex researcher C. A. Tripp used to refer to homosexuality as H. When I pointed out to him that this letter stands for heterosexual as well he was unfazed. There is an Internet site called “Planet-Q.”

In the case of the current TV show, we have no trouble decoding the L-word is. The G-spot in the female anatomy takes its name from a German-American gynecologist, Ernst Gräfenberg.

(By the way, in the spell-check culiste appeared as “coolest.” Yes, indeed.)


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