“All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:”
Satan in Paradise Lost Book 1, 106-8
These are the songs of Maldoror: prose poems in the style of Baudelaire’s Le Spleen De Paris, organized into six cantos of between 5 to 16 stanzas each, first published in 1868, to almost universal neglect and uninterest.
Who is Maldoror? The text tells us that he was born evil; that he never cuts his fingernails so that he can pierce the breast of a child more easily therewith to drink its blood; that his breath exhales poison; that his forehead is furrowed green; that his face is like the face of some hideous deep-sea fish; that he lives alone in a cave, shunned by and shunning humanity; that he prowls the city at night wrapped in black; that he hasn’t slept for thirty years; that he was born deaf but that he developed the ability to hear; that he likes to have sex with prepubescent boys; that he is permanently tumescent; that he changes his clothes twice a week so as to save mankind from dying of their stench; that he is a shape-changer wanted by an army of spies and agents throughout Europe; that he loves the cold purity of mathematics; that he has assisted at the revolutions of the globe and been a silent witness to cataclysms and disasters; that he only has one eye in the centre of his forehead; and finally, in the last canto, there is the suggestion that Maldoror is Lucifer himself, the devil with a myriad names, this particular one conjured up by Lautreamont himself, and compounded of (echoes of) the French words for sickness or evil (mal), gold (or), and horror (horreur). We let these words, then, as defined by Littre’s Dictionary (first edition published 1863-72, coterminous with the publication of Maldoror) stand as symbols of various aspects of the text, and our responses to it.
1.) MAL: that which is contrary to virtue, probity and honour, that which wounds, which hurts. A symbol of transgression and pain.
Maldoror’s text transgresses not least in the shocking power of its images, to which we will return later, but in the general violation and blurring of traditional literary boundaries such as genre and structure, such as the relationships between author and protagonist, and between reader and text.
Genre and Structure
As prose poems, the writing violates the traditional distinctions between poetry and prose. To be sure, Lautreamont is taking Baudelaire as his model here, but he does so in a quite self-conscious way, in which the discourse is aware of its own ambiguous status as song, chant, lay, and text, and in which it proclaims a synesthesia between speaking and writing, reading and hearing: I propose to proclaim in a loud voice and without emotion the cold and grave chant that you are about to hear. 1.8 We are reading prose, but the spirit of poetry saturates language and protagonist: the fundamental accents of poetry preserve none the less their intrinsic sway over my intelligence. 5.1.
Although Maldoror present his texts to us as songs, he also highlights the process of writing: I find it stupid that it should be necessary…. to place before me an open ink stand and several sheets of uncrumpled paper. 6.2
In an ironic dig at the late 19th century doctrine of art for art’s sake, he proclaims the ‘usefulness’ of his ‘poems’, calling them Dramatic Episodes of implacable utility! 6.2 blurring the distinction between the lower reading for pleasure (titivation) or the loftier reading for improvement (cultivation). If Maldoror is the devil, from his point of view, the utility of the verses must lie in their poisonous, damning effect upon the reader.
Baudelaire’s prose poems were written as sketches and published randomly in various journals over a period of time. Maldoror’s prose poems have the same appearance of being occasional pieces, but they are in fact carefully structured into a whole, as Maldoror himself tells us: Now the synthetic section of my work is complete and sufficiently paraphrased…Today I am about to invent a little novel of thirty pages 6.1
The first three cantos have a different character from cantos 4 and 5, and use various repeated lines or sentences within each stanza as a quasi poetic device, one used frequently in chants. Cantos 4 and 5 exchange this device for another one: a parody of French Academic prose, which –both parody and target- is often impenetrable. Maldoror here employs embedding, double negatives, parentheses and other rhetorical devices; he starts sentences that get longer and longer, and then he simply abandons them:
By that very fact, depriving myself of the light and skeptical mannerisms of ordinary conversations, and sufficiently prudent not to ask… I no longer recall what I was intending to say, for I do not remember the beginning of the sentence. 6.2
Canto 6 contains a story spread out over several stanzas – up till now, each stanza has been totally self contained with no reference to others around it. This ‘novel’ is supposed to embody the themes and images in the preceding part of the work. The work thus has certain similarities in structure with another contemporary work, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, which also foregrounds ‘metaphysical’ matter by placing it in front of a narrative. In its form, then, and by appearing to be something which it is not, the text transgresses notions of literary probity.
Relationship between author and protagonist
Throughout the text there is the disconcerting suggestion that Maldoror is a portrait of the author himself, but of course, one must always guard against such readerly naivete. The danger of identifying protagonist with author is not mitigated by the fact that almost nothing is known about the author. Lautreamont is a pseudonym which covers the real name of Isadore Lucien Ducasse, an indigent writer who was kicking around Paris in the late 1860s but who doesn’t seem to have made many friends, or made much of a mark on his times. His death certificate dated 24 November 1870 states that he was found dead in his lodgings, was a bachelor, and then contains these highly suggestive, emblematic words, so suitable for a writer who left virtually no other trace of his existence on earth except for this one vile, sublime masterpiece: no further information.
Matters are not helped by a deliberate inconsistency in the use of pronouns and point of view. In some stanzas, Maldoror is being observed/described by another party (pronoun ‘he’; mocking title ‘Our Hero’); in others he is presenting himself or events from his viewpoint (pronoun ‘I’). This blurring of boundaries between viewpoint and selves of protagonist and author can take place in the middle of a stanza, in the middle of a sentence, even, with no warning or explanation, and the reader has to be alert. Madmen, savants and children often refer to themselves in the third person. So the question stands: is Maldoror referring to himself in the third person, or is Lautreamont referring to his creation? It’s this slippage of pronouns and resulting ambiguity that does much to create the transgressive mood of the work on a rhetorical, structural level.
Relationship between reader and text
For a text to break frame and address the reader directly is of course not new in 19th century literature, but Maldoror/Lautreamont’s handling of this device is quite original. Surely no reader in 19th century fiction has been so abused or treated with such contempt, bile and venomous rancour by an author; and surely no reader has been so well understood by his author. This attitude can be seen in its most concentrated and brilliant form in stanza 5.1, a long meditation on the nature of the reader and our interaction with the work. Maldoror anticipates the disgust and confusion of the reader in our encounter with his text: since the instinctive repulsion that manifested itself during my first pages has noticeably diminished in depth in inverse ratio to your application to the reading,…we must hope that your recovery will soon have reached it final stages. And he suggests a remedy for those readers whose sensibility does not allow them to enjoy these rancid visions. This remedy involves first ripping off your mothers arms and eating them. After he has effectively called the reader’s sister a whore, he provides a recipe of a potion the reader must drink in order to fully enjoy the work:
A basin full of lumpy blennorrhagic pus in which was first dissolved a hairy ovarian cyst, a follicular chancre, an inflamed prepuce skinned back from the glans by paraphimosis, and three red slugs. 5.1
Once you have drunk this evil brew, he crows, you will appreciate my poetry!
Maldoror’s ideal reader is one who knows how to unite enthusiasm with an internal coldness, [an] observer with a concentrated disposition (an accurate and sensitive description of any careful reader, it seems to me), and Maldoror tells us that he finds us perfect, even though – or perhaps because- the reader refuses to understand him. Paradoxically, and as a supreme transgression of the normal relationship between reader and text, the text simply does not wish to be understood; it refuses this kind of assimilation.
But it’s really in the second meaning of our emblematic word mal that the work really transgresses, for Maldoror sings of his utter hatred for God and Man. My poetry will consist only in the attack by all means in my power upon Man, that wild beast, and the Creator, who should never have created such vermin. 2.4 Maldoror, we learn, has suffered pain, a wound from both God and Man, and he sings about his resulting anger, humiliation and despair. Not since Milton’s Satan has wickedness and lust for revenge sung itself so powerfully. In one sense, the work is a long dark paean to revenge, the revenge of a soul outraged that consciousness has been thrust upon him; that he has to endure life on such unequal terms in a body marred by atrocious ugliness; revenge for being outcast.
Maldoror begins his text by warning the reader that he will be negatively effected by the work to come: the deadly emanations from this book will imbibe his soul as sugar absorbs water 1.1, and this is no empty rhetorical boast. The sickening power of Maldoror’s images and the virulent hatred for everything under the sun (with some notable exceptions as we shall see) does indeed cast a spell on the reader, altering forever the way he sees the world. The reader is literally sickened, as we have seen in the extract quoted above. By singing his pain and hatred so lucidly, Maldoror transfers it to his reader. Maldoror, his Creator (Lautreamont) and Man (the reader) are locked into an inescapable and terrible trinity.
2.) HORREUR: a physical sensation which causes goose bumps on the skin and the hair to rise, something which causes a sense of dread mixed with admiration and respect A symbol of physical revulsion produced by a text for which one has admiration.
The text is full of images of horror straight out of Bosch or the images of war photographers. To be sure, Lautreamont is using conventions well established by the Gothic literature of Maturin and Radcliffe, but he lifts them to a whole new level of gratuitous cruelty.
In one canto a young man is hung from a tree by his hair while two women – his mother and his wife- tar him and whip him; in another we are treated to an image of God sitting on a throne made of human excrement and gold holding the corpse of a man which he is eating, his feet bathed in a pool of boiling blood in which other living men are swimming or drowning; the text abounds with lice, spiders, tapeworms, grubs, all eating each other or eating man or being eaten by him; there are countless cruel murders and swollen corpses, rapes of prepubescent boys and virgin girls, acts of bestiality; disembowelment, torture, and death by a thousand different inventive means. The text is a catalogue of cruelty, a handbook of techniques for the depraved. Metaphors and similes all involve acts of violent cruelty: [the Creator] would show much wisdom if, during the time strictly necessary to smash a woman’s head with hammer blows, he would forget his sidereal majesty… 2.3 Maldoror’s horreur is intensely physical: the text abounds with descriptions of body parts and fluids. There is a stench arising from the pages. (Ironically, when composing this piece my automatic spell checker kept ‘correcting’ Maldoror to ‘malodor’.) You who are now gazing upon me, stand back, for my breath exhales poison.1.8
Maldoror strips away the conventional pieties of culture and civilization and reveals the true basis of life: horror and cruelty, nature red in tooth and claw. (It’s this aspect of the work which had such a profound effect on Artaud’s thinking.) Perhaps the only other writer to approach this level of depravity is De Sade, but Lautreamont goes further than De Sade because the Marquis always stays firmly in the realm of the real: De Sade’s perversions are limited to the physical reality of the body and what it is capable of enduring or doing. Maldoror’s cruelties transcend human capabilities, however, and enter the realm of the surreal: his anus is colonized by a crab, his testicles have been emptied, dried and turned into a dwelling for two cute little hedgehogs; Maldoror fucks a talking shark, the only being, he says, that can match his own evil; God comes to visit earth and falls into a drunken sleep by the side of the road whereupon a passerby shits on his face for three days…Throughout, Maldoror accuses the Creator of having created this cruel world: Maldoror’s own evil is no match for the Creator’s (although, god knows, he tries hard enough).
Ironically, this is a profoundly religious work because it is not atheist. Maldoror/Lautreamont knows for sure that God exists, and his belief is sustained not by love of God but by an absolute implacable hatred of God.
3.) OR: metal of brilliant yellow and great weight, which one makes the currency of the highest value. A symbol of imperishable beauty and weighty value.
The work is not all depravity and disgust, however, for such a work would be indeed be unreadable. Buried in the middle of the syllables that make up the name of Maldoror, like gold in the pile of excrement of God’s throne, is the syllable for gold. Among Maldoror’s chants of unremitting hatred and cruelty are three that celebrate something positive, something good that Maldoror loves. The first of these is the stanza in which Maldoror sings of the sea, which he loves because its brine has the same taste as gall, because men have not been able to plumb its profundities, and because, deep though it is, it is still not as deep as the human heart. I salute you, ancient ocean. 1.8
The second is the stanza in which he celebrates friendship. Friendship, and the betrayal of it, is a recurring theme throughout the work. Maldoror has been betrayed by a friend - the Creator- and he retaliates by describing incidents where he befriends a being and then betrays it in the most savagely cruel way, in incidents of transgression. This is the main action of the ‘novel’ in the last canto, for example. But in stanza 3.1 he describes a friendship that is not betrayed, that is not perverted. He and his friend Mario are riding along the beach on two horses, inseparable, united. They light a fire and share a cloak, they become the angel of the land and the angel of the sea. The text has this to say about them: What do two hearts that love say to each other? Nothing…. Each takes as much interest in the life of the other as in his own life. 3.1
The third stanza where Maldoror sings the good, is his astonishing hymn to the abstract power and beauty of mathematics, the luminous triangle of Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry 2.10. Math for Maldoror is something extremely cold, prudent and logical; it disperses the smoke in his mind and makes him more intelligent; it is unchanging, impersonal and eternal. The words he uses to describe math are the words used by other beings to describe God, but Maldoror cannot talk about God in this way because he is tied forever to God by the strength of his hatred for him. Math is Maldoror’s religion, cruelty and hatred his mode of being. It is with math that he was finally able to dethrone his Creator and unmask the evil that is the Creator’s true nature. Interestingly, in this stanza he mentions Descartes in passing, which seems to suggest that perhaps Maldoror’s Cruel Creator is Descartes’s demon, le dieu trompeur.
For the reader, then, what gives the text its beauty, its weight and value? First, is the power of Lautreamont’s language. Maldoror describes his depravities and cruelties in the most exquisite, limpid, purely nuanced French. The text is widely regarded as one of the great glories of the language, rendered impeccably into English by Guy Wernham in the NDP translation. Second, is the depiction of a kind of sensibility that is entirely modern, it seems to me, a psychology in which consciousness is foregrounded and which describes the dualism of mind and body as intrinsically problematic: I feel that my soul is padlocked in my body and cannot free itself to flee far from coasts beaten by the human sea 3.1. We can call this an ‘underground sensibility’, after Dostoevsky’s underground man, the character in 19th century literature who bears the closest psychological resemblance to Maldoror. Lautreamont gives us strings of beautifully crafted epigrams and insights into the kind of sensibility that experiences life as a wound:
How long it has been since I ceased to resemble myself. 3.1 If I exist, I am not someone else. I will not admit any equivocal plurality within myself. I wish to dwell alone within my intimate reason. Autonomy! 5.3 I received life like a wound, and I have forbidden suicide to heal the gash. 3.1
Finally, the value of the work lies in its utter uniqueness. To be sure, Lautreamont has spawned a host of imitators, from Huysmans to Genet, from Burroughs to Bukowski, from the Decadents to the Surrealists; and his metaphysics opens the way for the existentialism of Kafka and Camus; but really, none of these can approach Lautreamont for sheer intensity of writing, technical brilliance and bravura originality of conception and performance. The only contemporary writer who comes close to Lautreamont in mood and matter is Dostoevsky. Some of the things Dostoevsky’s more jaundiced characters say would be well understood by Lautreamont’s Maldoror: When Ipolit Terentyev in The Idiot remarks: Isn’t it possible to simply eat me without demanding that I praise that which has eaten me? we hear also the mocking vengeful singing of Maldoror.
He who is singing now does not claim that his songs are new. On the contrary, he is proud in the knowledge that all the lofty and wicked thoughts of his hero reside within all men.
Oh if only instead of being a hell, the universe had been an immense anus! 5.5