The theory of the drunken poet

It never ceases to amaze me when I find cross-discipline parallels in my classes. That’s obviously the point of a liberal arts education, to span subjects, broaden minds, and urge students to find links where there previously were none. French works of art appear in art history and the restructuring of Paris emerges in art history. Something that linked three things I’ve focused on in my studies (writing, French, and art history) here at Colby appeared in my Surrealism class.

Arthur Rimbaud, a French poet from the 1800s, touted the idea that one must warp their own perspective to create good art. As a writer myself, this caught my attention recently during class discussions. Rimbaud’s insistence that one must manipulate reality in order to really produce art is a logic that is not unheard of. Hemingway’s famous quote “Write Drunk, Edit Sober” appears on mugs and tote bags for literary lovers. When reading Rimbaud’s letters, I was struck by his passion and true belief that one must warp real perspectives in order to make art effective.

I’m not sure whether I believe this or not. There are pieces that I’ve written in certain situations and in certain parts of my life where I believe the prose is better, like in moments of intense emotion such as after a death or heartbreak, but I find that for me, art is also a matter of attention and creativity. What unleashes creativity? For some, it’s drugs and alcohol, and I see that to a certain extent, but I find other people help me the most. Obviously, it depends on my relationship to them and whether they’re actually creatively minded or not, but I find that my best writing comes from discussion. So I’m not sure if I totally agree with Rimbaud.

However, I’m intrigued by the theory of the tortured artist: that someone has to be really hurting and flawed and self medicating in order to create good art. I’m interested in it but would add this caveat. It’s fine to be tortured if that works for you, but one doesn’t need to be inherently tortured to create good art. Good art comes from many different places, and while it’s romantic to imagine a young artist drinking absinthe in a chambre de bain in Paris, in reality, they were probably freezing and had a WC on the bottom floor of the building. I know because I had a similar experience when I was in Paris.

My dad has a tiny room in the sixth arrondissement, around the corner from the Seine and between Notre Dame and the Musée D’Orsay. He used to lived in the actual apartment next door, and bought the little room when it was available for sale. Except that it’s truly a single room. There’s nothing on the walls, just white plaster, with a tiny porcelain sink and copper pipe as a faucet. No bathroom, except for the one that the Chinese restaurant uses on the ground floor, making for many hazy trips down the stairs in the middle of the night. I drew quotes on the walls in pencil to make it more of my place, and taped yellowing pages of a French adventure novel to one wall. Postcards from my travels found their way on the wall, and I created my home. I bought an air mattress and pump on Amazon and bought the rest of my supplies at the ever-useful Monoprix. I had a tiny portable kettle, mugs, a dusty rug, and a makeshift bed with colorful sheets and thin blankets.

It was definitely romantic, to say the least. I was alone in a beautiful building in a beautiful part of Paris with a small window to myself, my own private writer’s den. I had a small bottle of Absolut Vodka that I only used when a friend of mine pierced my ear one afternoon with a sewing needle and had a candy edible one night.

I wrote then, pulling up a website that looks like a typewriter, where you can type with no limit but cannot go back and delete or edit what you write. It’s quite beautiful. When I wrote with the typwriter app, the thing that I noticed about my writing was that it was completely illegible. It might have had to do with the fact that I couldn’t delete anything, couldn’t go back to fix spelling errors (made with drug-numbed fingers ) but my thoughts were scattered, incoherent, and rambling. They were sometimes insightful, yes, and sometimes amusing, but mostly just crazy.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s craziness and incoherence that counts as something good. Isn’t that what the surrealists thought? That we have to discard tradition and logic  for the sake of creativity and ingenuity? Maybe, and while it’s compelling to read my rambling thoughts about how the rippling Seine looked like sea monsters writhing underneath the surface of the water, it can be difficult to  distinguish between  artistic ingenuity and the insane spewings of a briefly inhibited mind. Or expanded, as Arthur Rimbaud might say.