Arthur Rimbaud as a modern teenager, by Ernest Pignon-Ernest.
I was puzzled to find this quotation from Arthur Rimbaud as part of a long, fascinating discussion of Walter Benjamin and visionary utopias.
“The man of the future will be filled with animals.”
Here’s the full context for the quote, from author and professor Finn Brunton. (These lines, by the way, are what made me recall the citation from Benjamin that I discussed in my last post.)
“We are at every point interpenetrated with the world, in Benjamin’s analysis, and in the future he projected, each technological transformation in our environment will reach the inmost place of our experience and understanding. … For him, in Rimbaud’s words, ‘the man of the future will be filled with animals’; the medicine of the future, Benjamin suggested, in contrast with the Fascist futurism of purity of blood, would be ‘a playground for all microbes.’ What ‘we are accustomed to call “Nature”‘ would reveal its semantic inadequacy, not least because what we are accustomed to call human would have dissolved into it.”
What could that mean, to be “filled with animals”? And where did Rimbaud say it? He said many strange and visionary things — but I’ve read pretty much all of Rimbaud, and even translated him for my own edification and amusement, and I couldn’t remember him saying anything quite like that.
I decided to search on the Internet, and came up with several places where the quote is cited, but none of them mention where Rimbaud originally wrote it. I was starting to grow suspicious. The quote always appears in a postmodern context, such as a discussion of bioengineering and genetics. Here are a few examples: 1, 2, 3, 4.
The earliest citation, the one from which all the others are taken, is apparently to be found in the Paul Rainbow essay “Artificiality and Enlightenment: From Sociobiology to Biosociality,” which appeared in Incorporations, a 1992 book described by its publisher as “a diverse group of reflections and interventions on the fate of the body and of subjectivity within twentieth-century modernity.” Here’s a PDF of the essay as it originally appeared in the book. And this is how Rainbow refers to the Rimbaud quote.
“In the annex to his book on Michel Foucault—entitled ‘On the Death of Man and the Overman’—Gilles Deleuze presents a schema of three ‘force-forms,’ to use his jargon…. [The first two forms are God and man; Rainbow goes on to describe the third one.] Finally, today in the present, a field of the surhomme, or ‘afterman,’ in which finitude, as empiricity, gives way to a play of forces and forms that Deleuze labels fini-illimité. … The best example of this ‘unlimited-finite’ is DNA: an infinity of beings can and has arisen from the four bases out of which DNA is constituted. François Jacob, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist, makes a similar point when he writes: ‘A limited amount of genetic information in the germ line produces an enormous number of protein structures in the soma….’ Whether Deleuze has seized the significance of Jacob’s facts remains an open question. Still, we must be intrigued when something as cryptic as Rimbaud’s formula that ‘the man of the future will be filled (chargé) with animals’ takes on a perfectly material meaning, as we shall see when we turn to the concept of model organisms in the new genetics.”
If this strikes you as gobbledygook, or some form of aborted Newspeak, I can assure you that you aren’t alone. I’m not presenting this as an example of clear and coherent writing, I’m just trying to get to the bottom of where the Rimbaud quote came from. So bear with me as I explain what Rainbow seems to be saying. DNA contains a potentially infinite amount of information, if you consider its possible transformations and mutations, so now that we’re able to map and manipulate the human genome, the “man of the future” may well be “filled with animals” (by grafting animal DNA to our own, I suppose) as Rimbaud apparently claimed. Why drag the old fraud Deleuze into it? Because he’s French — and because he made the original point about the new type of “overman” and his “unlimited-finite” potential.
Unfortunately, Rainbow still hasn’t told us where Rimbaud said what he supposedly said. He’s simply pushed us back one more step, to Deleuze’s book on Foucault. In a footnote, he tells us that Deleuze uses the quote “L’homme de l’avenir est chargé des animaux” on page 141 of his book. So let’s take a look.
(By the way, who is Paul Rainbow? Is he this guy, the acid freak in the High Sierra who saw a double rainbow and became a YouTube sensation? No, he’s this guy, a professor of anthropology and Foucault specialist at UC Berkeley.)
I will quote Deleuze in the original French, followed by the translation used in the English-language edition. Before going any further, though, I want to note that the phrase chargé de, which Rainbow translates as full of, has a range of meanings in English. It makes more sense to me to translate as loaded with, since the French say chargé for trucks where we would say loaded, or for elevators where we would say packed. Surchargé means overloaded. A battery can be chargé which means simply charged. There’s yet another range of meanings: prendre charge de means to take charge of or take responsibility for, and charger de in this sense means to give responsibility for. A chargé d’affaires, as we all know, is someone who has been given responsibility for various matters. This is the sense used in the translation below. Anyway, here’s Deleuze.
“Qu’est-ce que le surhomme? … C’est la forme qui découle d’un nouveau rapport de forces. L’homme tend à libérer en lui la vie, le travail et le langage. Le surhomme, c’est, suivant la formule de Rimbaud, l’homme chargé des animaux même (un code qui peut capturer des fragments d’autres codes, comme dans les nouveaux schémas d’évolution latérale ou rétrograde). C’est l’homme chargé des roches elles-mêmes, ou de l’inorganique…. Comme dirait Foucault, le surhomme est beaucoup moins que la disparition des hommes existants, et beaucoup plus que le changement d’un concept: c’est l’avènement d’une nouvelle forme, ni Dieu ni l’homme, dont on peut espérer qu’elle ne sera pas pire que les deux précédentes.”
“What is the superman? … It is the form that results from a new relation between forces. Man tends to free life, labor, and language within himself. The superman, in accordance with Rimbaud’s formula, is the man who is even in charge of the animals (a code that can capture fragments from other codes, as in the new schemata of lateral or retrograde [evolution]). It is man in charge of the very rocks or inorganic matter…. As Foucault would say, the superman is much less than the disappearance of living men, and much more than a change of concept: it is the advent of a new form that is neither God nor man and which, it is hoped, will not prove worse than its two previous forms.”
Deleuze adds a footnote, which tells us finally where the Rimbaud citation comes from (keep in mind, it’s not a direct quote).
“La lettre de Rimbaud n’invoque pas seulement le langage ou la littérature, mais les deux autres aspects: l’homme de l’avenir est chargé de la langue nouvelle, mais aussi des animaux même, et de l’informe (‘À Paul Demeny’…).”
“Rimbaud’s letter not only invokes language or literature, but the two other aspects: the future man is in charge not only of the new language, but also of animals and whatever is unformed (‘Letter to Paul Demeny’…).”
So now we know that the citation comes from the letter Rimbaud wrote at age 17 to his friend Paul Demeny, known as the “Letter of the Seer” because of its famous claim that “the poet makes himself a seer.” We also know that Rimbaud didn’t say “The man of the future is filled with animals,” but something more like “The superman is even in charge of the animals,” which is a very different thing. Deleuze is saying that a new sort of human exists today who is neither God nor man, but a third thing, responsible (through his amazing technological prowess, I assume) even for nature, which includes animals and inanimate things. He uses Rimbaud to buttress this thought.
But what did Rimbaud actually say? Now that we know the source of the quote, we can finally go directly to it. Here is the quote from the letter to Paul Demeny he wrote on May 15, 1871. The translation is my own, based on one by Wallace Fowlie.
“Donc le poète est vraiment voleur de feu. Il est chargé de l’humanité, des animaux mêmes; il devra faire sentir, palper, écouter ses inventions; si ce qu’il rapporte de là-bas a forme, il donne forme, si c’est informe, il donne de l’informe. Trouver une langue.”
“So the poet is truly the thief of fire. He is responsible for humanity, even for the animals; he must make his inventions felt, touched, heard; if what he brings back from there has form, he gives form, if it is formless, he gives formlessness. A language must be found.”
So we are no longer talking about the “man of the future,” or the “superman” either (no matter what Deleuze wants us to think), but simply the “poet” — Rimbaud himself. Of course, he is describing the poet as seer, which still makes him a “man of the future” in some sense — as he says elsewhere, “One must be absolutely modern.” But the poet he’s talking about isn’t “filled with animals,” nor does he predict the genetic engineering of our day in a utopian vision. Rimbaud is simply saying that the poet, after entering profoundly into the rhythms of nature and charging himself there (as a battery is charged), is responsible for bringing back those impressions and translating them into language, so they can be seen, felt, and heard as he saw, felt, and heard them. For this, “a language must be found” (if none exists) — and that is the mission Rimbaud gives himself.