Reading Boris Groys (1) : with Patti Smith and Arthur Rimbaud.

[ This is the first of three texts written in 2018 during the preparation of KS, based on the concept of immortality in Boris Groys’ philosophy, on the relationship between ghost, vampire, seduction and artwork, and on evocatory practices in the artistic sacralization of Ready-Made.  P.P. ]

1. In 1980 two Patti Smith’s poems collections, Witt (1973) and The Night (1976), were published, translated into Italian and collected together in one volume. [1] On the cover, under the title “Poesie Rock”, some promotional words laid down the key points of that poetry identifying them with delusion and erotism: “hallucinatory trips and erotic dreams within a young and violent poetry as a rock ‘n’ roll beat.” Actually, blurb aside, the disarranged and feverish syntax – in the line of William Burroughs, to whom Witt is dedicated, together with Allen Lanier and Arthur Rimbaud, owing undoubtedly something to Henry Miller and perhaps to Sylvia Plath, and to other visions such as Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s cinematography – is not induced by hallucinogenic drugs; and the desire of love, more than being confined in a subjective dreamlike space, transcends into a mystical vision, that is aimed at giving shape to a world of angels and insects, animals, birds, creatures of various kinds and objects, metaphorically rendered; real and alive people, dead people’s ghosts, mostly artists. One poem is dedicated to Georgia O’Keefe, the only one still living, though already mythologized into a ghost that inhabits a desert mistaken for a still life. Another poem is for Pablo Picasso on the day he died. Other names recur in synthetic visions: Raymond Chandler, Albert Camus / Meursault, Voltaire, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Judy Garland, Carole Lombard, Charles Baudelaire, Constantin Brancusi, Mark Rothko, Edith Piaf, all gone. Among the ghosts the most revenant of them all is Rimbaud [2]:


Oh jesus I desire him, filthy son of a bitch. he licks

my hand. I sober. leave quickly your mother waits. he

rises. he’s leaving. but not without the glance, from

those cold blue eyes, that shatters. he who hesitates

is mine. we’re on the bed. I have a knife to his smooth

throat. I let it drop. we embrace. I devour his scalp.

lice fat as baby thumbs. lice the skulls caviar.


Oh arthur arthur. we are in Abyssinia Aden. making love

smoking cigarettes. we kiss. but its much more, azure.

blue pool. oil slick lake. sensations telescope, animate.

crystalline gulf. balls of colored glass exploding.

seam of berber tent splitting. openings, open as a cave,

open wider. total surrender.



The dream of love – Dream of Rimbaud is the title of the poem – has as its subject a man who was never met in real life but just seen in some, not very clear, photographs from the previous century, which portray him: as an adolescent in that famous portrait by Étienne Carjat, which would later become the icon of the young poet of infernal beauty; as a child on the day of his first communion; in Africa, almost thirty years old, in some full-sized pictures, in which his facial features are blurred. It is clear that the power of this love does not lie in the attraction towards Arthur Rimbaud’s physical presence, that in the poem is evoked in two different moments of his life: Arthur as a boy in Charleville, and Patti as his mother; Arthur as an adult in Aden, and Patti as his lover. Love, the hunger for skin, desire, the pretence of being together, the creation of roles and actions, the tenderness and the violence, the transfiguration of the poet into a child, fire, infernal temptation, the Absolute, the son of a bitch, the skinflint, the sweet lover…: all this passion is addressed indeed to Rimbaud’s ghost, not to Rimbaud himself. We could say that Rimbaud exists only as a ghost, and that every wish addressed to Rimbaud cannot but be the desire of a ghost. There are two ghosts of Rimbaud, for each of which one must keep two different kinds of love distinct. Love for the immaterial body of a person no longer living and of whom only the picture remains; and thus, love for the picture and, through it, love for the ghost of the historically existed person, who died and has risen again in the imagination of the erotic act (Oh arthur arthur. we are in Abyssinia Aden. making love). Then, love for the poet’s trans-historical corpus, meaning the love for that collection of ‘objects’ which, as a real body, but unrealistically and in a way that is unconceivable, stands in the desiring mind of the reader. This corpus/collection of objects includes the ghost of the historical body (or the little trace we have, the photo of Arthur), but exceeding it in an absolute way, creating a second ghost, without a proper image, constantly open to new and real definitions and appearances, that acts through Rimbaud’s poetry; between life and legend, writings and biographical accounts, sense and genre of poetry, discourse of and about Rimbaud. In other words, this second kind of love is the love for the ghost/work of art, as an erotic experience. A love wholly linguistic and aesthetic, made of unpresentable fetishes (the arousal/attraction for Rimbaud’s verses) and of unthinkable rituals (make love to Rimbaud’s poetry, to his literary trans-historical corpus). A love that, to show itself and to be talked about, can only resort to the metaphorical solution of the love of the first kind: dreaming of making love to Arthur and devouring his head, or watching him take off his prosthetic leg and put it on the side table…When all you want is to make love to all of his poetry, if only he would allow us.



2. Following on from Ernst Kantorowicz’s classic research within the framework of art theory – in medieval political theology the King has two bodies: one is organic and mortal while the other is institutional and immortal – Boris Groys gives the post-Duchampian artist a double body: the organic and mortal body, biographical or, shall we say, entered on the population register; and the institutional body, entered on the museum register, the body belonging to the history of art and working for it. This second body is, according to Groys, a ready-made, that is to say an external object separated from the mortal body of the artist, and part of an economy of language which ratifies and increases its value.

The direct connection between the body of the artist and the body of the artworks was severed (with the ready-made of Duchamp). The artworks were no longer considered to maintain the warmth of the artist’s body, even when the artist’s own corpse became cold. On the contrary, the author (artist) was already proclaimed dead during his or her lifetime, and the “organic” character of the artwork was interpreted as an ideological illusion. As a consequence, while we assume the violent dismemberment of a living, organic body to be a crime, the fragmentation of an artwork that is already a corpse—or, even better, an industrially produced object or machine—does not constitute a crime; rather, it is welcome. [3]

The body of the artist as ready-made is then illustrated by the example of the body-art, namely through the presentation of the body of the artist as a body at work, separated from the personal body (from which it is alienated from the proletarianization of work to language) and placed (the true spirit of every ready-made is in the “collocation”) within the space of the artistic or, at large, linguistic production. In actual fact, even in the artistic and cultural pre-Duchampian history we can find a duplication of personal-biographical historic body and linguistic-poetic trans-historical body as well. This second body is poetic not only in the sense that it combines and it is constituted through the works of art of the author/artist, surviving its historical body; this second body is poetic in that it is opened to continuous production and re-production, in the sense indicated by Umberto Eco: it is a partaken, interpreted, studied, actualized, accepted and refused, reconstructed body, presented in the form of icon and myth, etc. (One of the clearest manifestations of the existence of the second body, as well as the specification of its open nature, is the modern “revaluation” of Caravaggio, among the historical studies of Roberto Longhi, the educated appropriation by Pasolini read by Garboli, the rapprochement between Caravaggio and us, within an almost a-historical, metaphysical theatre space, thanks to the film by Derek Jarman – cinema shapes a renovated ghost … – finally the emphasis on the “cursed” nature and romantic nature of the painter once his art is disseminated through mass culture).

This second body, that brings Rimbaud closer not only to the medieval King but especially to the Saints (whose hagiography consists in the dismembering and re-sewing of the divine garment on a historical body translated into a material and linguistic relic), thereby justifying Patti Smith’s ecstatic and mystic state in the presence of Rimbaud’s ghost, is a body that can be constructed in cultural history provided that there is an attraction, a magnetism, a reference to the work and to the author/artist powerful enough to encourage the imagination of the ghost, and the realization of the ghost itself.



Groys himself, on another occasion, says that the space of art and philosophy is occupied by the dead, that is to say the artists and philosophers from the past; and that therefore for the living to make art and philosophy means to walk into this graveyard and operate in relation to the legacy of the past:

…we act in a symbolic space, where we have to deal not only with the living, but, above all, with the dead as well. All of them, in this space, are represented through their works, their paintings, their theories, their attitudes and their language. We use all these things – they are the gifts from the symbolic economy that we receive from the dead. (…) we act especially in the society of the dead, who are, however, part of the cultural heritage and thus undead. After all, mass culture understands this relation much better than today’s theories of cultural critique: in Hollywood movies, the most educated men are only the vampires, that is to say the undead dead. [4]

Groys chooses the image of the vampire to represent the works and the figures from the past. In this logic, Arthur Rimbaud and Une saison en enfer are vampires which, evidently, suck blood out of our language. So, Patti Smith’s Dream of Rimbaud is the gothic vision of an intercourse with the vampire-Rimbaud, in which there are acts of violence, bleedings, devouring and morbid languor.

Surprisingly, in Politik der Unsterblichkeit (Politics of Immortality), the figure of the vampire, once introduced, is dropped. Drawing conclusions is easy: the vampire will turn the symbolic space of the creation into an erotic one; that is to say the graveyard in which we face with the artists and philosophers from the past and their works, will be a place rich of seduction and copulation. It is in this way that the vampires in the Hollywood films that the philosopher recalls, operate: they are not there just to suck blood by accident; but the sucked-out blood stands for the moment in which falling in love, the passion and the sexual act with the vampire reach their climax. There is a ritual, before the blood comes out and the translation process is done. Through this blood transfusion/translation of language, the vampire (Rimbaud) regenerates himself, and the one who has been made a vampire (Smith) gets the promise of immortality: it is an exchange from which both can benefit.

We use all these things – they are the gifts from the symbolic economy that we receive from the dead. With this comes the need that has been shown to us, this compulsion to represent ourselves, to develop our signs, to create our image – basically, to plan our funeral, our coffin, our corpse. [5]

In sleeping with vampires, we create an image of ourselves and we become ghosts.

The desire for immortality, as presented by Groys, is a condition of the independence of thought and of the art work. Philosophy is independent from the strings of today’s society, despite making itself in it, since the reference space of philosophy is a space made of eternal corpses. There is neither fear of death, in this desire, nor pride of the Ego, nor anxiety of the oblivion to which our current existential condition is destined. The desire for immortality means desiring to interact and communicate with the ghosts of those who represent the active subjects/objects of a cultural and linguistic tradition. It means, therefore, entering the immortal space even today, and in that space meeting Georgia O’Keefe/living ghost and Arthur Rimbaud/dead ghost. To have access to that space, there is only one option: becoming ghosts ourselves, take care of our imago or phantasma, that is to say the apparition of ourselves, to ourselves. This can mean the apparition of a Linguistic/Cultural Ego to a Material/Existential one. Since these two subjects are not easily separable in thought and in self-reflection, that is to say the observation and the objectification of my Linguistic/Cultural Ego (my imago) are not immediate, then we need a blade or a lever in order to open a gap, within the subject, between it and its self-image. This blade or lever is art, music, philosophy, poetry and, above all, theatre: the theatre as a radical mode of assumption, of fiction, of arrangement, of imagination; for this reason, it lends its instruments and its metaphors to all other fields of the language operativity.

Interacting with ghosts, having a dialogue with them, is useful for the subject to split.



3. Back in 1980, post-punk was in full swing. We know that this can mean everything and nothing, just like the very word ‘punk’ does. A nihilist attitude, the cynic negation of an ideological and moral value, the post-modern that enters into pop culture through an inclination to self-destruction and to the slashing (an artistic kind of disfigurement) of modern cultural objects; a sought-after distortion of the musical, iconographic, verbal language; getting high, bleeding, bruising oneself, getting hurt; falling to the ground after having lost balance and experienced some dizziness; more importantly, believing that ‘falling to the ground’ means more than what it literally does; to act with the whole person, body and clothing, the outcast and the aching; objectification (narcissistic alienation) of one’s body carried to extremes; a taste for the Dada-style nonsense and, at the same time, for the Decadent cult of the end, of fulfilment and of death – and therefore a romantic vision of the expression: everything expresses a clear, narrative meaning, everything is disguised; stylization or design of failure; and many other teenage ‘stuff’.

After punk, death is almost taken for granted, and relationships with ghosts are commonplace. It should be underlined that considering death as already happened means first of all considering the whole sense as concluded as well, just like the full stop closes the sentence. Being beyond the sentence opens up the field of what is beyond the meaning. Beyond it there are indeed two elements: the signifier, that is to say the form of the expression, whether material or not; and the sense, the type of meaning, the direction that our interpretation of it will have to take. Post-punk is the period in which the signifier and the sense are handled with meticulous and obsessive care.

We can take as an example the Siouxsie & The Banshees’ cover of Helter Skelter. A cover is always an act of re-opening and reactivation of an object which is already complete and from which more and newer meanings are sought; that is why covers are considered to be the quintessence of postmodernism, which is absorbed in rereading the novel of modernity, despite the fact that we already know how it ends, actually in the attempt to make that ending unnecessary, maybe remaining in that kind of suspension of the form from which the chance of an unknown, miraculous, new meaning is expected. In the case of this extraordinary cover though, the relation between the performed work and the performance itself is particularly important and is played at the level of acting: we enter a scenic space where each element of the original piece – title, rhythm, instruments, score, lyrics, singing, beginning, ending and, ultimately, the Beatles’ performance itself – is thrown into a crisis and redefined. The classic Beatles song is handled as theatre material, as a text that should be played in all its complex explicit, suggestive and potential meanings, not only by performing the music and singing the lyrics, even in a masterful way, as in U2’s worthless and affected execution, but by re-enacting the value itself of an interpretation, and taking the risks of a transfiguration. In the Siouxsie & The Banshees’ version, the instrumental part, expressive and meaningful but never virtuosic, backs up a voice on which the weight of the whole song has been shifted. It is the singing that takes literally and radicalizes the true sense of the whirl which characterizes the Helter Skelter (a big helicoidal slide, the ones you can find at fun fairs), getting to the point of precipitating the me-you tension, already ‘strained’ in Paul McCartney’s song, into a feverish soliloquy, a whirling echolalia, right where the voice itself takes over the instrumental parts as well, mimicking the guitar riff in the original song. In this way the voice deals with the original as an object to assimilate, put in crisis and reshape, not as something to do in a better way.

In the post-punk aesthetics, placing oneself beyond death is not just a matter of lucid dark and gloomy atmospheres (Joy Division), dark-Gothic fascinations (Bauhaus), hyper-dramatic stylization of painful feelings and sensuousness of bloodless corpses (Siouxsie & The Banshees), narcissistic regression of the Ego and self-generation in the form of a ghost (The Cure). Even when one cannot speak of a seduction of gothic and decadence, the awareness of death as the end of the modern, or as the appropriation of the avant-garde and re-use, for a carefully-thought-out critique or just for futility, of everything which is behind you, is quite clear. For the first time in such a widespread way, in pop music bands give themselves names that dialogue with art history or with the political and cultural history of the twentieth century: Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu, Scritti Politti, The Durutti Column, Gang of Four, CCCP are just a few examples [6]. In this trend we can see the pop side of the postmodern: the deconstruction of cultural ghosts and the love, of course, both destructive and vampire-like, for them.



4. Nine months after the publication of Poesie Rock, Newton Compton publishes Babel (1974-1978), which is the most largest and most experimental collection by Patti Smith, with that journal-like coming and going from non-verse and non-prose which finds its raison d’être in the performative and rhythmic outcome, and in which some images appear too, most of them predisposed to become icons, as well as a selection of poems from the previous collections. [7]

Even here there are ghosts to be reckoned with and to dialogue with and to rant to as well in the search of a way of giving shape to one’s own ghost/subject. We find Rimbaud again, both in dream of rimbaud and in rimbaud dead – the poet shown while dying, when a small group of kids bid him farewell by singing:


out in the garden the children are gathering,

it’s not a whim. they are accurate immaculate,

as cruel as him.

they sing:

legs can’t flail

cock can’t ball

teeth can’t bare

baby can’t crawl

rimbaud rimbaud facing the wall

cold as hail dead as a doornail


sudden tears



But in Babel there is another remarkable corpse, the childless father of all the outsider artists, whether damned or blessed by America, Jackson Pollock. This paternity is shown in a verse which importantly binds the ghost of Pollock’s gestural painting to the ghost of the ‘sonic set-up of an electric guitar’ [8]. We still talk about ghosts since Pollock’s gesture is established in an absolute and linguistic, symbolic, sense. The poem Smith dedicates to him, which is actually entitled to robert bresson, is a perfect summary of what having to deal with a cultural ghost, a myth, a spectre constantly asking to be fed (with) meaning, could actually mean. A vampire.

i had to recreate the death of jackson pollock

w / the same radical destiny that spun from the

hallowed designs of his own death.

image: no. 11, 14 and portrait of a dream

image: the woman, lee krasner, shading her eyes

with hands brown and spotted.

here we have no accident no crime but a lateral

translation of a man going out of control

the initiation of a girl

(the intimacy of model and clone)

who would teach

as her teacher

taught her.

axle grease

fil of sorrow

who put this oil here?

i did.



who was your teacher?

robert bresson

Recreating Pollock’s death on the basis of the drawings Pollock himself made about it. Restoring Pollock’s persona starting from what happened to the meaning he wanted to give to his art. Introducing Pollock as a role model and clone him in one’s own experience. In this way, the present is a future already elapsed, and the future is a past to reshape.

Babel opens with a dedication: this book is dedicated to the future. Future is one of post-punk culture’s obsessions. Elektra 1 Festival per i Fantasmi del Futuro (Elektra 1, Festival for the Ghosts of the Future) was the title of a festival held in Bologna in 1981 which featured and presented artists from the so called New Wave. Among bands like Gaznevada or Lounge Lizards, the theatre company also appeared formed by Marion D’Amburgo, Sandro Lombardi and Federico Tiezzi, to whom we owe the most explicit, poetic and violent vis-à-vis with some ghosts of the Twentieth century, like Kerouac, Beckett, Genet. In their plays, sometimes Beuys and Fassbinder may happen to be the names of two of the characters, or Genet himself becomes material for the theatre, as a cultural ghost, complex-subject and ultra-biographical, and not as an author of texts to stage (Genet a Tangeri, 1984). What Sartre philosophically did of/with Genet, the theatre company, the Magazzini Criminali will do in a poetic way, producing in theatre a language and visionary artworks for the ghost of Genet. In Ritratto dell’attore da giovane (1985) (Portrait of the actor as a young man), there is a pool at the center of the stage from which dead bodies emerge: it is the swimming pool of Sunset Boulevard, around which Marion D’Amburgo/Norma Desmond/Gloria Swanson moves, while conjuring a delirious memory of past characters, in the real world or on the screen; all of them, though, ghosts in their own home in an infinitely present here.

(P. P. September 2018)



Pictures taken from: Poesie Rock, pp. 46-47; Babel, p.185 [Iran, New York (Lynn Goldsmith)]; Babel, p.85 [Falconetti, wall (Lyzzy Mercier)]; Babel, p.121 [with Nico, Paris (Lyzzy Mercier)]; Babel, p.301 [goats, Nepal (Judy Linn)]; Babel, p.192; Lombardi-Tiezzi theatre company. Ritratto dell’attore da giovane (Portrait of the actor as a young man). 1985. Published in «Patalogo», n. 8, Ubulibri, Milan 1985 (from; Babel, p.19.

[1] Patti Smith, Poesie Rock, edited by Massimo Buda, Newton Compton 1980.

[2] Dream of Rimbaud, ibid. p. 46.

[3] B. Groys, Marx after Duchamp, or The Artist’s Two Bodies, in Going Public, Sternberg Press 2010, p. 122-123

[4] B. Groys, Politik der Unsterblichkeit, (our translation into English, the Italian version is translated by Elena Florio, Mimesis 2016, p. 36-37).

[5] Ibid.

[6] A longer list, from an exchange of views with Michael Senno and Jay Lesowitz, whom I thank: [political references] Gang of Four (Chinese politicians from the Cultural Revolution, arrested and condemned after Mao’s death), Durutti Column (the column led by Buenaventura Durruti of anarchics during the Spanish Civil War), Section 25 (an article of the Canadian Civil Code on the rights of Aborigines), ub40 (an unemployment form), Joy Division (section of Nazi concentration camps), CCCP; [cultural or literary references] Scritti Politti (Antonio Gramsci), Cabaret Voltaire, The Fall (Albert Camus), Boomtown Rats (Woody Guthrie), Bauhaus, Eyeless in Gaza (Aldous Huxley), Naked Lunch (Burroughs), 23 Skidoo (from Burroughs, but the phrase is in a very common slang in Broadway, in theatre, reminiscent of the Dickensian style), House of Love (Anaïs Nin), Crawling Chaos (H. P. Lovecraft), Heaven 17 (A Clockwork Orange), Clock Dva (A Clockwork Orange), Josef K, French Impressionists, Art of Noise, Momus (Leon Battista Alberti and Puccini’s La Bohème), Birthday Party (Harold Pinter).

[7] Patti Smith, Babel, edited by Paolo Zaccagnini, Newton Compton, 1980.

[8]specific, black and white. the enamel on canvas of pollock. we are all children of jackson pollock. we are all chaotic mutants — an extension of his action. (…) just as we cheated within dance, a discipline of ritual abandon. just as we thrust on our own and became one w/an arm going down on the sonic set-up of an electric guitar. i dream a lot of brancusi when i play guitar.’ (Ibid. p. 190)