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They Leaned On Each Other In Ecstasy & The Devil Rode A Bicycle

From The Transmetropolitan Review

Only available IRL in Seattle for the past few years, we’re pleased to now make them available for reproduction and distribution, especially with the recent interest in zines and non-digital mediums.

Click here for print version of They Leaned On Each Other In Ecstasy

Click here for print version of The Devil Rode A Bicycle

Both zines are the history of several French anarchists who were young when the Paris Commune was crushed and spent the next decades reviving the lost rebellion of their elders. We’ve included one essay from They Leaned On Each Other In Ecstasy to convey the impact of these strange, artistic, funny, clever, and clearly diabolical anarchists. When these texts were first released in 2016 and 2017, they were intended to remind the reader that anarchists have always been creative, even if they might engage in destructive acts, and the scope of our movement has always reached far beyond the mainstream stereotypes. Hundreds of copies were printed under an IWW label and distributed across the region during a time of constant anti-fascist organizing. While our enemies were revealing their racism and stupidity, we distributed texts about a group of anarchist who invented the pixel, infiltrated the War Department, and revived the lost dreams of the Paris Commune. Enjoy!

Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890
Paul Signac, 1890

From They Leaned On Each Other In Ecstasy

In the last decades of the 19th century, an anarchist named Felix Feneon published the works of both Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarme, two of the most famous poets in France. At the time, Rimbaud was unknown and Stephane Mallarme was busy trying to refine the type of prose poem and free verse pioneered by the young poet in his collection of poems Illuminations. These poems were passed from hand to hand among a small milieu of writers and artists until they were published by Feneon in a journal called La Vogue. After this first popular issue of the poems, Feneon released a full version and wrote a review to promote its sale. This full publication of Illuminations was what truly launched Rimbaud into the public consciousness. Feneon was very partial to these type of prose poems, and over the next decade he published various others by Stephane Mallarme (most of these poems were later compiled into the book Divigations).

Between the composition of Illuminations in 1873 and the publication of Divigations in 1897, the words and poems of Rimbaud and Mallarme explored the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 and the apparent triumph of bourgeois capitalism. Within this they also explore the roles of art, language, dance, entertainment, cities, intoxication, theater, new mediums, derangement, beauty, revolution, women, and the unknown. Their style of free verse and prose poems were consciously promoted by Felix Feneon, a committed anarchist and defender of the Commune’s memory. The imagery, content, and style of Rimbaud and Mallarme were able to reflect something of the unknown, a concept that fascinated both of them. It was precisely the unknown that the Paris Commune ventured into during the spring of 1871. It was this great unknown that Rimbaud, Mallarme, and Feneon wished to keep alive.

Before he began to write the poems that would become the Illuminations, Rimbaud was torn between the metropolis of Paris and his provincial home of Charleville. He had been in Paris just six days before the outbreak of the Commune and returned at its peak in April, 1871. In a letter written to his former teacher George Izambard in May, 1871, Rimbaud explains his feelings towards poetry and the Paris Commune he had just returned from. Rimbaud first repudiates the style of poetry favored by his teacher by writing “not to mention that your subjective poetry will always be horribly insipid. Some day I hope—many others hope so too—I’ll see objective poetry in your principle. I shall see it more sincerely than you will do it! I’ll be a worker: that is the idea that holds me back when mad rage drives me toward the battle of Paris where so many workers are still dying while I write to you! As for my working now, never, never; I’m on strike.”

A barricade of the Paris Commune

Prior to writing this letter, Rimbaud had joined two battalions of irregular Commune soldiers with the names Enfatns Perdus (Lost Children) and Pupilles de la Commune (Students of the Commune). Rimbaud decided to leave Paris when the troops from Versailles began to shell Paris at random in the middle of April, 1871. By the time he returned to his native town of Charleville, Rimbaud had already formulated his new theory of poetry. In the same letter to George Izambard, Rimbaud explains that he wishes “to arrive at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses, that’s the point. The sufferings will be tremendous, but one must be strong, be born a poet: it is in no way my fault. It is wrong to say: I think. One should say: I am thought.”

In another letter written two days later to his publisher friend Paul Demeny, Rimbaud elaborates his new theory even further. After attaching a copy of his Chants de Guerre Parisien (Paris War Song), he formulates a principle of the detachment and destruction of the ego with the words “I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it isn’t to blame. To me this is evident: I witness the birth of my thought: I look at it, I listen to it: I give a stroke of the bow; the symphony begins to stir in the depths or comes bursting onto the stage. If the old fools had not hit upon the false significance of the Ego only, we should not now have to sweep away these millions of skeletons who, since time immemorial, have been accumulating the products of those cockeyed intellects claiming themselves to be the authors.” Rimbaud then returns to the concept of the unknown when he writes “the poet makes himself a visionary through a long, a prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, keeping only their quintessences. Ineffable torture in which he will need all his faith and super-human strength, the great criminal, the great sick-man. The accursed,–and the supreme Savant! For he arrives at the unknown!”

Paris burning, 1871

Rimbaud states that “even if, half crazed, in the end, he loses the understanding of his visions, he has seen them!” and that “there will come other horrible workers: they will begin at the horizons where he has succumbed.” In this letter he also states “poetry will no longer accompany action but will lead to it” and that “inventions of the unknown demand new forms.” But perhaps more importantly, he explains the role of women in this new poetic future by exclaiming “these poets are going to exist! When the infinite servitude of woman shall have ended, when she will be able to live by and for herself; then, man—hitherto abominable—having given her her freedom, she too will be a poet. Woman will discover the unknown. Will her world be different from ours? She will discover strange, unfathomable things, repulsive, delicious. We shall take them, we shall understand them.”

Film still from La Commune, Paris, 1871 (2000)

Rimbaud spent the next two years shifting away from the metered verse that dominated contemporary French poetics. His “inventions of the unknown” yielded the new poetic forms revealed in the Illuminations. In the poem “After the Deluge,” Rimbaud presents a dream like description of a world recovering from a flood. “As soon as the idea of the Deluge had subsided, a hare stopped in the clover and swaying flowerbells, and said a prayer to the rainbow, through the spider’s web. Oh! The precious stones that began to hide,–and the flowers that already looked around.” After opening the poem with the imagery of plants and animals, Rimbaud evokes a “dirty main street” and describes how “blood flowed” in places like “slaughterhouses” and “circuses.” The urban imagery of the “village square,” the “steeples everywhere,” and the “Hotel Splendid” evoke a rebuilding of the world “after the deluge.” But the poem ends by returning to the natural world with the command, “Gush, pond,–Foam, roll on the bridge and over the woods;–black palls and organs, lightening and thunder, rise and roll;–waters and sorrows rise and launch the Floods again. For since they have been dissipated—oh! The precious stones being buried and the opened flowers!–it’s unbearable! and the Queen, the Witch who lights her fire in the earthen pot will never tell us what she knows, and what we do not know.” In no uncertain terms, this “deluge” is the Commune and the rebuilding of the world described in the poem is the triumph of bourgeois capitalism in the metropolis of Paris. The “precious stones that began to hide” are the sparks of light extinguished by the Bloody Week of May, 1871 when the Commune was destroyed. These “precious stones being buried” are people like him, the ones who survived the Parisian holocaust where “blood flowed” from the bodies of the 30,000 men, women, and children who were executed as if they were in “slaughterhouses.” There is no mention of the Commune in this poem and for this reason it is better able to convey the impressions of what happened to Paris. But at the end of poem, Rimbaud intimates that the deluge was set in motion by “the Witch who lights her fire in the earthen pot” who “will never tell us what she knows, and what we do not know.” This occult feminine force recurs throughout the poems of the Illuminations.

In the poem “Childhood,” Rimbaud provides an image of someone inhabiting a nameless city. The unnamed protagonist says, “Let them rent me this whitewashed tomb, at last, with cement lines in relief,–far down under ground. I lean my elbows on the table, the lamp shines brightly on these newspapers I am fool enough to read again, these stupid books. At an enormous distance above my subterranean parlor, houses take root, fogs gather. The mud is red or black. Monstrous city, night without end!” This poem was composed between the fall of the Commune and 1874. It may have been written in Paris itself (although it may have been written in England or Belgium or provincial France). In any case, it is known that Rimbaud spent the winter of 1871-1872 in Paris and was able to see the way the city reconstructed itself. All of the Illuminations were composed after Rimbaud had observed this sad spectacle of Paris once it had been cleansed of its “precious stones.” In the poem “Cities,” Rimbaud describes how “the official acropolis outdoes the most colossal conceptions of modern barbarity: impossible to describe the opaque light produced by the immutably gray sky, the imperial brightness of the buildings and the eternal snow on the ground.”

Many of the cities described in the Illuminations are depicted as hallucinatory dreamscapes filled with a variety of illusions and magical creatures. In a different poem also titled “Cities,” Rimbaud describes a place where “Bacchantes of the suburbs sob and the moon burns and bays. Venus enters the caverns of ironsmiths and hermits. Groups of belfries ring out the ideas of the people. Out of the castles built of bone comes mysterious music. All the legends advance and elks surge through towns. The paradise of storms collapses.” In another city depicted in the poem “Historic Evening,” Rimbaud depicts “a ballet of familiar seas and nights, worthless chemistry and impossible melodies. The bourgeois magic wherever the mail-train sets you down. Even the most elementary physicist feels that it is no longer possible to submit to this personal atmosphere, fog of physical remorse, which to acknowledge is already an affliction.” This is Paris in the winter of 1871-1872, a time when “bourgeois magic” was being used to restart the economy of the devastated metropolis. Rimbaud did not think very highly of these bourgeois magicians and in the poem “Democracy” he describes their philosophy as being “ignorant as to science, rabid for comfort; and let the rest of the world croak.”

Damage from the siege of the Commune, 1872

It is quite clear that Rimbaud views these people as his enemies. Not once does he name anyone specific, nor does he cite any specific events in this collection of poems. Nevertheless, each poem transmits a series of images and impressions that are objective in their effects. For example, a clear feeling of bitterness and revenge permeates the poem “Morning of Drunkenness.” Rimbaud explains that “this poison will remain in all our veins even when, the fanfare turning, we shall be given back to the old disharmony. O now may we, so worthy of these tortures!, fervently take up that superhuman promise made to our created body and soul: that promise, that madness! Elegance, science, violence! They promised to bury in darkness the tree of good and evil, to deport tyrannic respectability so that we might bring hither our very pure love. It began with a certain disgust—and it ends,–unable instantly to grasp this eternity—it ends in a riot of perfumes.” In just one line (“a riot of perfumes”), Rimbaud evokes the street of Paris after the fall of the Commune. He ends this poem with the commanding lines, “we have faith in the poison. We know how to give our whole life every day. Now is the time of the Assassins.”

Original copy of Rimbaud’s “Morning of Drunkeness”

In the poem “Phrases,” Rimbaud mentions his “comrade, beggar girl, monster child! O it’s all one to you these unhappy women, these wiles and my discomfiture. Bind yourself to us with your impossible voice, your voice! Sole soother of this vile despair.” And then he provides a haunting, surreal image of how “the upland pond smokes continuously. What witch will rise against the white west sky? What violet frondescence fall?” In the beautiful ending of this poem, Rimbaud writes, “I lower the jets of the chandelier, I throw myself on the bed, and turning my face toward the darkness, I see you, my daughters! My queens!” This secret group of women are the ones truly in command of the Commune and the mysterious magic that allowed it all to happen.

Rimbaud never attempted to publish any of these poems (unlike his Une Saison en Enfer) and merely handed them over to his friend Paul Verlaine in 1875 as a bundle of papers. These circulated among post-Commune literary and artistic circles until it was located by Felix Feneon and published in the June, 1886 issue of La Vogue. Because numerous people had already read through these loose poems, Feneon had no “qualms about arranging” as he pleased “such a chance pack of cards.” After the print run of that issue of La Vogue had been sold, Feneon published a bound version that no one bought until he wrote a popular review where he describes the poems as “beyond—and probably superior to—all literature.” Feneon describes the climax of Illuminations as “abrupt, then awakening full of hate, sudden jolts, a call for social upheaval yelped in an alcoholics voice, an insult shouted at this military and utilitarian Democracy.” Feneon did not become obsessed with Arthur Rimbaud as many others did, he simply considered him one of the many bright lights that still inhabited the artistic and literary landscape. La Vogue also reprinted Une Saison en Enfer but Feneon did not wish to help with its publication. He said, “as a simple lover of letters—therefore without obligation to them—I did not find it necessary to spoil for their austere benefit my pleasure in the Illuminations.” Although Rimbaud was still alive when Feneon’s edition of Illuminations was released, his friend Paul Verlaine believed him to be dead (he would eventually die in 1891) and the author was publicly identified as the “late” Arthur Rimbaud. Nevertheless, these publications by Feneon started the rise of Arthur Rimbaud into public exposure and mass-acclaim.

Arthur Rimbaud, 1871 vs. Arthur Rimbaud, 1880

The year before he published Illuminations, Feneon provided a definition of the new poetry he saw emerging from Rimbaud and those who read him. In 1885, he wrote that someone must “carry out our dreams of self-contained form, and concise, distilled poetry.” This new poetry was similar to his definition of the neo-impressionist painters to whom “objective reality is simply a theme for the creation of a higher, sublimated reality, suffused with their own personality.” The same year he published Illuminations, Feneon began to publish the poems of Stephane Mallarme in the pages of La Vogue. It is easy to see their dreamlike similarity to the work of Arthur Rimbaud. In a poem called “The White Waterlilly,” Mallarme commands the reader to “give a last good look at the absence enclosed in this solitude, and, as one plucks, in memory of a site, one of those magical closed water lilies that spring up all of a sudden, enveloping with their hollow whiteness a taste, made of intact dreams, of the happiness that didn’t take place and that your held breath feared would be destroyed by an apparition, and depart with it: silently, rowing gently but rapidly home, trying not to leave any splashes or waves at the feet of the unknown suggesting the theft of the ideal flower.” Mallarme would mourn the fate of the Commune in his own manner, such as in the poem “The Demon of Analogy.” Mallarme writes, “harassed, I resolved to let the sad words just wander on my lips, and I walked on, murmuring comfortingly, as if offering condolences, ‘The Penultimate is dead, she is dead, really dead, the poor desperate Penultimate.” The first person narrator ends the poem by calling himself a “strange person, probably condemned forever to wear mourning for the inexplicable Penultimate.”

Mallarme was fully conscious of his place in the Paris after the Commune and in a poem titled “An Interrupted Performance” he writes that “I, to make you free, am still garbed in the nebulous atmosphere of caves where I’ll reconfine, during the night of these humble eras, my latent force.” In the same poem, he states that “rather than lacing charity, explain to me what’s good about this world of splendor, dust, and voices, in which you have had me live.” In a poem called “The Phenomenon of the Future,” Mallarme takes the reader through the new Paris of the future. He describes how in this place “many a lampost waits for dusk and revives the faces of an unhappy crowd, crushed by immortal sickness and the sin of centuries, the men next to their puny companions, pregnant with the miserable fruits with which the earth will perish.” At the end of this poem, Mallarme describes the fate of contemporary poets by describing how their “extinguished eyes reignite, will make their way towards their lamps, their brains spinning with a vague glory, haunted by Rhythm and in utter forgetfulness of living in a time that has outlived beauty.”

In 1885, the same year that Felix Feneon published Illuminations, Mallarme wrote a letter to Rimbaud’s old friend Paul Verlaine where he explains that he considers “the contemporary era to be a kind of interregnum for the poet, who has nothing to do with it: it is too fallen or too full of preparatory effervescence for him to do anything but keep working, with mystery, so that later, or never, and from time to time sending the living his calling card—some stanza or sonnet—so as not to be stoned by them, if they knew he suspected that they didn’t exist.” This crisis is expounded on further in an article titled “Villiers de l’Isle-Adam” where Mallarme writes that “the old French metrical system (I don’t call it French poetry) is undergoing, as I write, a marvelous crisis, unknown in any epoch or to any nation, in which, among the most zealous reworkings of all genres, it is forbidden to tamper with prosody.” Mallarme believed that Arthur Rimbaud was in large part responsible for initiating this crisis and wrote how “he burst on the poetic scene like a meteor, ignited by no motive other than its presence, streaking alone in the sky, and extinguished alone. Everything would have remained the same since then without this considerable passage.” Along with Feneon and several others, Mallarme championed the works of Arthur Rimbaud as the beginning of a new type of poetics that would break the standard of metered verse and allow for new thought to enter the world. What Rimbaud had described as “new forms” had finally been created with the help of many others.

Stephane Mallarme

In a long prose poem titled “Conflict,” Mallarme uses this new poetics to describe the act of occupying an empty house near a construction site. This prose poem was first published by Feneon in his journal La Revue Blanche and describes a scene on the outskirts of a bourgeois metropolis. Mallarme describes the thoughts of a narrator whose “taste for an abandoned house, which would seem favorable to such a disposition, makes me change my mind: every year the identical contentment, the outside stairway growing greener and greener, a winter shutter opened against the wall as if there had been no interruption, the eye wandering over a spectacle that had been immobilized in the past.” After seeing this empty house for so long, the narrator exclaims, “the hell with it, too bad! I’ll go defend the property as mine.” After he has been living in this house for some time, the narrator sees a work crew invade the land to level ground and lay tracks because “the bourgeois…want a railway line.” In the midst of this, the narrator expounds on “property, with all its proper and express usages, is closed, as the People would say, to the dreamer, from the deep shade of forests to the spacious retreat it offers: I must have avoided it, obstinately, for years—to say nothing of having the means of acquisition—in order to satisfy some instinct of owning nothing and simply passing through; at the risk of having the residence, as now, open to any adventure, which is not quite a chance occurrence, for it brings me closer, depending on my attitude, to the proletariat.”

Just like Rimbaud, Mallarme makes his position clear in this poem. At the end, his narrator describes how “keeping watch over these artisans of elementary tasks, I have occasion, beside a limpid, continuous river, to meditate on these symbols of the People—some robust intelligence bends their spines every day in order to extract, without the intermediary of wheat, the miracle of life which grounds presence.” The poem concludes with the narrator stating that “in fact their births fall into anonymity, and their mothers into the deep sleep that prostrates them, while the weight of centuries pressed down on them, eternity reduced to social proportions.”

Felix Feneon’s mugshot, Paris, 1894

After Fenon was arrested for planting a bomb at the Cafe Foyot, Mallarme stated to the public that “all I can tell you is that I consider Felix Feneon very talented, a young man with rare intelligence, who writes with refinement…M. Feneon is one of our most distinguished young writers and a remarkable art critic, extremely sharp in his judgment…you say they are talking of detonators. Certainly, for Feneon, there was no better detonators than his articles.” On April 4, 1894, Feneon had “fabricated a small lethal bomb from a mixture of dinitrobenzene and ammonium nitrate and packed it with bullets. The container was—not a cooking pot—a flowerpot, tightly sealed, with an opening for a fuse to hide inside a stalk of hyancinth.” When the bomb went off, only one person was injured, a poet and anarchist sympathizer named Laurent Tailhade. As Mallarme would later explain, “the injury reduced to an accident from a sinister flower pot—no one can contain your majestic stalk, imagination, was about the sense of the crude news item—our friend would come out marked, obligatorily for those myopic people who couldn’t see him any other way.”

Both Mallarme and Tailhade wholeheartedly defended Feneon after the bombing, for they all belonged to same milieu that championed Rimbaud and the memory of the Paris Commune. Certain members of this milieu were fond of a stained glass window in the Cafe Foyot and after the explosion, Tailhade is said to have exclaimed “so long as nothing happened to the stained-glass window up there!” Although he lost an eye from the explosion, Tailhade only increased his support for the anarchist movement, so strong was the commitment of this milieu to the ideals of the Commune. As Mallarme would later write, “nothing happened, despite the intrusion of political accident on glasswork, I know the one you meant Tailhade, and it was not hurt; protected by a fragility where pieces of glass are already encased in lead throughout its colored surface, not a single shining piece, colored by passion, gemstones, overcoats, smiles, or lilies, is lacking in your splendid Rose Window, which already itself simulates a stilled explosion, by which is radiated, but to which remains immune, the mind of a Poet.” It was in this manner that these poets “leaned on each other in ecstasy. They were indeed sovereigns for a whole morning, while all the houses were adorned with crimson hangings, and for an entire afternoon, while they made their way toward the palm gardens.”