Maldoror and Poems [Les Chants de Maldoror] (Penguin, 1978)par le Comte de Lautréamont (translated from the French by Paul Knight)
"The great universal family of men is a utopia worthy of the most mediocre logic." (Maldoror, 43)
When I first read Maldoror back in my early twenties, I thought that it might be (no, it must be!) the most fucked-up book of all time. I wasn't alone either: how many other authors can you think of that have inspired critical reactions with such awe-inspiring titles as J-P Soulier's Lautréamont, génie ou maladie mentale? (Lautréamont: Genius or Mental Illness?)? Rereading Lautréamont's novel-as-excursus-on-evil this past week, an older and now infinitely more jaded version of that earlier self was immediately reminded of why this very messed up text was also once my favorite book of them all. Let's see if I can explain. A series of six chants or cantos in prose at least partially dedicated to the proposition of depicting "the delights of cruelty" (31), Maldoror takes its name from the mysterious protagonist who flits in and out of the narrative (fantastical scenes involving gravediggers, various animal metamorphoses, and Maldoror's own underwater copulation with a shark) at war with God and mankind. Numerous extremely sadistic vignettes flesh out just how "inhuman" the character is, spelling out the death of innocence in an all too literal way--the joke, such as it is, lying in the fact that while mankind is born evil and a cannibalistic God spends his time passed out drunk or in brothels within the the novel's unceasingly blasphemous "strophes," Maldoror alone is willing to cop to and embrace this facet of his essential nature. Although this bloodthirsty, shape-shifting incarnation of evil is naturally the primary focus of attention here, one of the more subversive literary aspects of the work is the way in which the subjectivity of the author and his putative hero so often merge into one: "Stupid, idiotic race!" Lautréamont rants early on in the second chant. "You will regret having acted thus! My poetry will consist exclusively of attacks on man, that wild beast, and the Creator, who ought never to have bred such vermin. Volume after volume will accumulate, till the end of my life; yet this single idea only will be found, ever present in my mind!" (73-74) While the geniality of such a vision will be lost on most people, accustomed as they are to the tame fare peddled by chain bookstores and the lame fare recommended by their reality TV-watching friends, those willing and able to put up with Maldoror's squirm factor may grow fond of Lautréamont's aesthetics of excess. For in amplifying his theme with such uncompromising and bombastic craftsmanship, the author reveals himself to be quite the stylist: both enamored with and at war with language. Like a modernist, only interesting! How else to explain the profusion of strangely poetic images ("And I held out to her the hand with which the fratricide slits his sister's throat" ) and similes ("The beetle, lovely as the alcoholic's trembling hand" ) unleashed in the course of the work? Or the arch humor, literally embedded in a parenthesis in this case ("I would be showing little knowledge of my profession as a sensational writer if I did not, at least, bring in the restrictive limitations which are immediately followed by the sentence I am about to complete" ) in the novel within a novel that closes the sixth and final song? Or the running "dialogue" between the author and reader that constantly exposes the essential fictionality of fiction ("Why should I, at random, reopen, at a given page, with blasphemous eagerness, the folio of human miseries? There is nothing more fruitfully instructive. Even if I had no true event to recount to you, I would invent imaginary tales and decant them into your brain" )? Or the hymns to the ocean and mathematics? Etc., etc. A vile, misanthropic opus that remains one of the funniest candidates for a readalong I've ever come across! (http://www.penguinclassics.com/)
Le Comte de Lautréamont was the pen name of Isidore Ducasse (1846-1870), a Frenchman born in Montevideo, Uruguay, who died in Paris, France, almost a complete unknown to the men of letters of his day and age. Although I've chosen to save my comments on his Poésies for a later post, here are a few "style samples" from Maldoror which should give you an idea of the mocking humor that permeates the work.
Chant I, 1 (Lautréamont vs. the captatio benevolentiae): "May it please heaven that the reader, emboldened and having for the time being become as fierce as what he is reading, should, without being led astray, find his rugged and treacherous way across the desolate swamps of these sombre and poison-filled pages; for, unless he brings to his reading a rigorous logic and a tautness of mind equal at least to his wariness, the deadly emanations of this book will dissolve his soul as water does sugar. It is not right that everyone should read the pages which follow; only a few will be able to savour this bitter fruit with impunity. Consequently, shrinking soul, turn on your heels and go back before penetrating further into such uncharted, perilous wastelands. Listen well to what I say: turn on your heels and go back, not forward, like the eyes of a son respectfully averted from the august contemplation of his mother's face; or rather like a formation of very meditative cranes, stretching out of sight, whose sensitive bodies flee the chill of winter, when, their wings fully extended, they fly powerfully through silence to a precise point on the horizon, from which suddenly a strange strong wind blows, precursor of the storm..." (29)
Chant I, 8 (one full sentence): "And just as elephants, in the desert, before they die, look up one last time at the sky, despairingly raising their trunks, not moving their eyes, so too these dogs' ears do not move, but, raising their heads, they swell out their dreadful necks and start barking in turns, like a hungry child yelling for food, or a cat who has ripped its guts open on a roof, like a woman about to give birth, or a plague-ridden patient dying in hospital, or a young girl singing a sublime air; at the stars in the north, at the stars in the east, at the stars in the south, at the stars in the west; at the moon; at the mountains which in the distance seem like giant rocks in the darkness; at the tops of their voices they bark at the cold air they are breathing, the cold air which makes the insides of their nostrils red and burning; at the silences of the night; at the screech-owls who brush against their muzzles in their oblique line of flight, as they carry off in their beaks a rat or a frog, living nourishment, sweet to the little ones; at the rabbits who scurry out of sight in the winking of an eye; at the thief, fleeing on his galloping horse after committing a crime; at the snakes stirring in the heath, who make their flesh creep, their teeth chatter; at their own barks, which frighten them; at the toads whom they crush with a quick, sharp movement of their jaws (why have they strayed so far from the swamps?); at the trees, whose gently-rustling leaves are as many mysteries that they cannot understand, which they want to fathom with their attentive, intelligent eyes; at the spiders hanging beneath their long legs, who climb up trees to escape; at the ravens who, during the day, have found nothing to eat and are returning with tired wings to their nests; at the craggy cliffs along the sea-shore; at the fires burning on the masts of invisible ships; at the muffled sound of the waves beating agains the huge fish who, as they swim, reveal their black backs and then plunge down again into the fathomless depths; and against man, who makes slaves of them." (38-39)
Chant VI, I (Lautréamont vs. the reader): "I howl with laughter to think that you will reproach me for spreading bitter accusations against mankind of which I am a member (this remark alone would prove me right!), and against Providence. I shall not retract one of my words; but, telling what I have seen, it will not be difficult for me, with no other object than truth, to justify them. Today I am going to fabricate a little novel of thirty pages; the estimated length will, in the event, remain unchanged. Hoping to see the establishment of my theories quickly accepted one day by some literary form or another, I believe I have, after some groping attempts, at last found my definitive formula. It is the best: since it is the novel! This hybrid preface has been set out in a fashion which will not perhaps appear natural enough, in the sense that it takes, so to speak, the reader by surprise, and he cannot well see quite what the author is trying to do with him; but this feeling of remarkable astonishment, from which one must generally endeavour to preserve those who spend their time reading books and pamphlets, is precisely what I have made every effort to produce. In fact, I could do no less, in spite of my good intentions: and only later, when a few of my novels have appeared, will you be better able to understand the preface of the fuliginous renegade." (213)