Gender Studies

Gracious son of Pan! Around your forehead crowned with flowerets and with laurel, restlessly roll those precious balls, your eyes. Spotted with brown lees, your cheeks are hollow. Your fangs gleam. Your breast is like a lyre, tinklings circulate through your pale arms. Your heart beats in that belly where sleeps the double sex. Walk through the night, gently moving that thigh, that second thigh, and that left leg.

            – Rimbaud, Les Illuminations, 1873-5

Portrait d’Arthur Rimbaud Lithographie de Pablo Picasso, 13/12/1960

Antique, by Arthur Rimbaud, the French “boy-poet” and progenitor of many modern gay/ liberated poetics, exhibits the influence of societal pressures on the expression of gender identity and sexuality. Foucault’s Histoire de la sexualite, and particularly the book’s chapter on the “hypothese repressive”, argues against the notion that since the 18th century, talk about sexuality was repressed, and as a result sex became unmentionable and unthinkable outside the marital nucleus. Romanticism and Latin styles of writing are evident in this text, which uses metaphor and codes to express queer desires in a homophobic atmosphere. Similar to the writing of Irigaray and Cixous, Rimbaud challenges a repressive and determining symbolic order to construct a positive representation of feminine, or in this case, a transsexual identity.

Rimbaud is famous for his compacted symbolism, in Antique he uses words such as ‘balls’, ‘breasts’, and phrases such as ‘belly where sleeps the double sex’, establishing clear sexual tones. It is believed that Rimbaud had sexual relationships with men and women, including Paul Verlaine, an older Symbolist Poet. Rimbaud’s writing in Antique maintains this ambiguity in sexual and gender identity. The French language has allowed Rimbaud to take advantage of grammatical gender and render ‘il’ or ‘le’ into neuter gender in English. His poems can be translated into masculine or feminine.

The words ‘double sex’ suggest hermaphrodite…. and the description of the male is a feminine self-representation. When read with the original translation, Rimbaud has cleverly constructed the form to follow a dual rhythm and stanza. ‘Double sex’ could further be interpreted as the female’s sexual identity, following Freudian contention that women are forced to choose at puberty between clitoral and vaginal orgasm. Antique emphasizes the senses of touching, foregrounding Irigaray’s multiplicity, fluidity, and erotic intimacy (‘lift that leg thigh’) as metaphorically representing the feminine identity behind “the screen of [masculine] representation” (Writing as a Woman, 129).

Rimbaud’s queer metaphor in Antique shatters an 18th century semblance of authority and socio-sexual normality, which surrounded literal language and normative sexuality. While queer sexuality is evident in Rimbaud’s poetry, articulated to those susceptible, the metaphors also shielded him from the larger group of readers of the hetero-normative. His writing continues to influence artists today for his lyricism, social liberation and creativity of quality.

Chapter 5 : Writing As A Woman : Helene Cixios, Luce Irigaray and Ecriture Feminine in Morris, Pam, Literature and feminism, Oxford: Blackwell, pp.113-135

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