Monday, April 25, 2011


Self Portrait as Maldoror

Fifth in my April poets series is Isidore Ducasse, a Frenchman who was born in Montevideo in 1846 and died in Paris in 1870, the author of one book and a singular set of aphorisms. The book, unclassifiable, except under the most general heading of poetry, is entitled Les Chants de Maldoror, and Ducasse wrote it under the pseudonym  Comte de Lautréamont. I have already written about what the book means to me personally. I thought to make a post by excerpting from a long unpublished essay I’ve written about it, but instead I’ll write off the cuff and patch something together.

Les Chants de Maldoror is a poem/novel/rant/treatise in prose, divided into six sections, the Chants or Songs of Maldoror, a fantastic creature, resembling more today’s superheros than anything else, a tormented creature who, like the Joker but years earlier, carved his face into a smile in an attempt to laugh like other men. He is a champion of the natural world, finding the awesome forces of nature and its fearsome creatures noble and worthy of respect, ruled by perfect rationality, unlike the perverse reason of man, who is his enemy. Because he has suffered at the hands of men who follow the dictates of God, Maldoror is the enemy of God as well (this is the God, let it be understood, of a particular, albeit all too common, form of Christianity). Maldoror is a detailed manual for how to think for one’s self, to not allow the discourses of others, or even language in general, dictate how one is to talk, and thus to think. It is a manifesto for the ways in which language abuses the very person who should be its master; thus Lautréamont alternately mocks, teases, shocks and instructs the reader. 

I have read Les Chants de Maldoror in the three English translations available to me (another, by R. J. Dent, is available in the UK and will soon be released in the U.S.). I feel somewhat guilty citing a Frenchman in my top five, having only read him in translation. Something of the original must be coming through, and yet, until I learn enough French, I will never know how much or how accurately. For example, Alexis Lykiard doesn’t have much respect for Guy Wernham’s translation, but the latter’s version of the following passage seems closer to the spirit of the book than the former’s (so does Paul Knight’s, but not as closely as Wernham’s). Here are the two side by side:

Why do you weep, gravedigger? Remember this well: we are aboard this dismasted vessel in order to suffer. It is a credit to man that God has judged him capable of overcoming his deepest sufferings. Speak, if your tongue is made like other men’s, and since, according to your most cherished wishes, there should be no suffering, tell me then what virtue is, that ideal each one of us strives to achieve.

Gravedigger, why do you weep? Remember well: we are aboard this dismasted vessel to suffer. It is a credit to Man that God should have judged him capable of conquering his deepest sufferings. Speak, and since according to your most cherished desires we should not suffer, tell me then of what virtue would consist (that ideal that each one of us strives to achieve) if your tongue is constructed like that of other men.

In Lykiard’s version the tongue constructed like other men’s is merely a clause; in Wernham’s version it takes on a special importance. ‘Speak, if you can’ becomes ‘how can you speak for yourself if you talk like everyone else?’, which is more consistent with the whole intent of the book. Moreover, in Wernham’s version the word “virtue” makes more sense, since it is directly tied to speaking for one’s self (Paul Knight’s version is between these two: he allows a suggestion of both meanings).

Here is the original, beginning with the word speak/parle:

Parle, et, puisque, d’après tes vœux les plus chers, l’on ne souffrirait pas, dis en quoi consisterait alors la virtu, idéal que chacun s’efforce d’atteindre, si ta langue est faite comme celle des autres hommes.

Even I can see that Wernham is closer to the original.

I want to get the unpleasant business of Surrealism out of the way. Any Google search relating to Maldoror will bring up thousands of references to Surrealism, and one line out of Maldoror will be seen over and over. The initiate will be lulled into thinking this is the primary significance of the book, and, far worse, that what Lautréamont had done was Surrealism. But literary Surrealism was, at heart, automatic writing, an (impossible) attempt to valorize the unconscious by dreaming out loud, and this is completely antagonistic to Lautréamont’s purpose. The painter Dali understood it better. I stubbornly persist* in seeing the splints or crutches propping the eyes of sleepers open in some of the paintings from his Surrealist as inspired by Maldoror, who put splints in his eyes so that he would not fall asleep, not fall into a state of unconsciousness. Lautréamont was a champion of lucidity, and in doing so he showed the proper respect for the unconscious, as he did for the natural world, the wild, the other of man. He would have bitterly mocked the Surrealists’ attempts to bring the unconscious into the anemic arena of human light. Drag it into the flimsy trap of a poem?—laughable. Better to fuck it, and ride it wild. The man-boy who inspired the Surrealists was better than they, and the legacy deserves to be reversed: the literary Surrealists should be remembered as having sprung from Maldoror, rather than Maldoror being held up as the precursor to a famous literary movement—a movement that was bound to peter out, based on the faulty premise of automatic writing, a premise that Lautréamont did not share.

And now I’ve made myself sick with this, so let me just share a couple of sketches and a poem. Since Dali understood Lautréamont better than the poets, I was pleased to find, recently, that he imagined Lautréamont in a way similar to me:

Dali's Lautréamont

my imaginary portrait of Lautréamont

We both imagined him as a smooth-faced boy, rather androgynous and almost angelic, but as you can see, Dali took the vision further. And having his eyes closed (in my sketch) was sheer laziness. Lautréamont's eyes should be wide open, and his mouth should be open, as if speaking.

Finally, I first read Maldoror when I was twenty-one, so here is a poem I wrote then which was inspired by the book:

Romantic Shrew

It feels good to leave a shit.                       
To spit. In the mirror,
hands over eyes.
Words have become
figures on a page, ignorant
of sleeplessness, stumbling, half-smiles,
gestures open wide
as day.
Will you come back
flung off the hide of a laugh
dripping womb-mucous,
a re-exit after an impossible reentry?
—strung on a phrase
out of the world
of flesh blood and bone.

Take your hands from your eyes,
like that creature with the carved smile,
satiated voyeur,
who, leaving the house of sin,
treading over shredded skin and clotted blood,
jaws open in mock Glory,
spying the louse on promontory post,
with high crooked smile, My friend,
what do you think of that?
—in reply only
seized right hand with left,
and snapped the pen in two.

*As my friend Bill pointed out to me, Dali describes the special significance the crutch has for him in The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. On pp 89-111 of the Dover paperback edition, he tells a fascinating story from his boyhood on finding an old worn crutch and being drawn to it irresistibly, attaching a fetishistic fascination to it, using it as scepter, pointer, and prod. It becomes the principle instrument in an elaborate sexual fantasy as well as the tool to explore a maggot-ridden hedgehog. Desire and repulsion combine in the crutch until it becomes, for Dali, both the symbol of death as well as resurrection. Bearing in mind that Dali was a careful reader of Maldoror, he cannot have failed to notice the use of splints to facilitate Maldoror's lucidity, and it's not a far stretch to see a similarity with the props on the face of the maker of "hand-painted dream photographs".                     


  1. Of many fascinating things about what you've written here, most fascinating of all to me was to read the earlier post. I wondered, too, how it was you came upon Ducasse, given where you were at the time.

  2. Interesting comments. But I think you misunderstand Surrealism. It was not at heart 'automatism only', even in its earliest years. In fact I could reference Robert Desnos poems and his short novel Liberty and Love, both derived from trance, just as one example. Nor do I think it was at odds with Lautreamont's 'purpose'. Dali, on the other hand, was less aligned in that sense.

  3. John: You have not argued your position, nor have you quoted me properly. This blog will not be a place to argue whether there is such a thing as orthodox Surrealism, and what it might be, if for no other reason than the Surrealists attacked each other constantly. I see nothing controversial in stating that automatism is at the heart of literary Surrealism. I also fail to see the difference between Desnos's writing in a trance state and automatic writing. Whether you call it automatic writing or writing in a trance state, this is not what Lautréamont was doing.

  4. I've not argued my position? I'm not sure what you mean, actually. I stated what I meant clearly. Three is no real debate about surrealism orthodoxy. And no there is nothing wrong with saying automatism is somewhere at the heart of literary surrealism, especially in its early years. I havent quoted you improperly because I havent quoted you at all, but now I will: "But literary Surrealism was, at heart, automatic writing, an (impossible) attempt to valorize the unconscious by dreaming out loud, and this is completely antagonistic to Lautréamont’s purpose. The painter Dali understood it better."

    How 1) is it impossible to valorize the unconscious and 2)completely antagonistic to Lautreamont's purpose? the honest answer is that it is neither of the two. Like Rimbaud, Lautreamont was caught in those moments of sense distraction, Rimbaud with the derangement of the senses, and Lautreamont with preoccupying himself at the piano with notes as phrases came to him more readily, and also collage as well as "plagiarism". These are all things simpatico with Surrealism. How is it that Dali understood his process and intentions more clearly? While his paintings are interesting, they are, in the end, more of the motifs he had been generating over and over for a long time.

  5. No one knows how Lautréamont composed his work. The anecdote about the piano isn't reliable. A guy claims he heard through the door Lautréamont banging on a piano - that's all we know. He did cut and paste. So did Burroughs, but I don't see Brurroughs being labeled a Surrealist because of it. The things that are simpatico with Surrealism are so infinite as to make the adjective "surrealistic" nearly meaningless. It may not hurt to describe 'Maldoror' as, in some ways, surrealistic, but it doesn't help very much to appreciate or understand the book either. More importantly I think it's incorrect to call it a work of Surrealism. It really cheapens the work, just as, in my opinion, the attempt to valorize the unconscious only cheapens it. By the way, I think Tzara had the same kind of respect for the unconscious as I do.

    Lautréamont clearly expresses contempt for losing control. The whole point of the book is to be in control. Lautréamont had much more in common with Sade than with any of the Surrrealists. But 'Maldoror' does resemble Dali's work of the Surrealist period (not the later work) more than it does the work of the Surrealist writers. For example, the two tiny skull/piano paintings from the 30's depict an intensely lucid meditation on the creative process; that is exactly what 'Maldoror' is. Dali's series of Maldoror etchings are also respectful of the book, in my opinion. He doesn't focus on Lautréamont's imagery. That is a remarkable fact. Instead he uses a technique of building his own imagery (call it surrealistic) that is reminiscent of 'Maldoror' to explore his own neuroses. The etchings don't "illustrate" the book, they are a personal response to it. Since above all Lautréamont wanted people to think for themselves, this is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the book.

  6. Perhaps I should add that I'm not on some crusade to attack Surrealism. What I'm getting at here is my position that the association of 'Maldoror' to Surrealism has been exaggerated, and the book has for so long been seen primarily through that one lens that it really hampers an appreciation for its uniqueness and incredible richness.