I first heard the name of French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) while communicating with the Hungarian painter Gyula Szabó (featured in September 2016) for whom the latter is an influence. Rimbaud, known for his contribution to modern literature and other arts, is supposedly an “enduring icon of creativity, authenticity, and rebellion” – according to the book description on Rimbaud Complete, first published by Modern Library in 2003.
The prodigious Rimbaud never completed school, produced the bulk of his output before the age of 21, travelled across three continents and died in Marseille at the age of 37 from cancer.
While going through the Rimbaud Complete, I encountered a poem called “Movement” that beautifully, first, lays bare the very adventurous and inquisitive process of imperialism – then describes its uneasy aftermath. It ends in a heavy question that is raised in the media again and again.
Read it for yourself:
The wagging movement along the banks of the river’s falls,
The gulf at stern,
The slope’s speed,
The current’s pull
Flows through unimaginable lights
And new elements
Travelers enveloped in a valley of watersprouts
And strom. [“strom” is Swedish and Danish word for “current”]
These are the world’s conquerors
Seeking their own elemental fortunes;
Sport and comfort travel with them;
They bring knowledge
Of race, classes, animals.
Aboard this Vessel.
Rest and restlessness
Under a flood of light
During terrible evenings of study.
Because from the banter around the instruments – blood, flowers, fire, jewels —
From the uneasy accountings aboard this fugitive craft,
We see, rolling like seawalls past a motorized hydraulic road:
Their monstrous store of studies, illuminated endlessly —
They are driven into harmonic ecstasy,
And heroics of discovery.
Beneath astonishing atmospheric accidents
A young couple remains alone on the ark
— Can ancient savageries be absolved? —
And sings, standing watch.
— Can ancient savageries be absolved? — Can those who were conquered and looted be compensated? If so, how? It is a thorny issue. The matter was taken up by Indian politician and former diplomat Shashi Tharoor at the Oxford Union in 2015 in a passionate speech called “Britain Does Owe Reparations.” This speech has led to an entire book: An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India (2016, Aleph Book Company).
I am not well-informed to comment on the issue (at the moment at least). Those of you who are interested may check this video out in which Tharoor further elaborates his argument with several examples: