When you’re in love with a beautiful French woman—a literary agent at a big New York City agency with a master’s (or whatever they call it in France) in literature from the famed Sorbonne university—and she suggests you read a book, you listen. And I did. The book was the phantasmagoric “novel” Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror) by Isidore Ducasse, who wrote under the pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont. First published in its entirety in Belgium in 1869, it didn’t make its way to Paris, the home of its author, until 1874.
Ducasse would die, unknown and anonymous, at the age of 24. His writing defies categorization and is virtually without precedent. It falls somewhere between prose and poetry, and literature hadn’t seen a book of such profound revolt against social mores since Marquis de Sade’s Justine (or the Misfortunes of Virtue) in 1791.
Les Chants de Maldoror loosely follows the sordid adventures and excrescent musings of Maldoror, one of the most memorable antiheroes ever penned, who might be characterized as a mutant hybrid of Hannibal Lecter and Prince Valiant. He drags us through a compendium of scenarios filled with desperate humans and a gamut of creatures, both spectral and real, from land, sea and air, with special attention paid to the ocean. It reads like a kind of seditious Moby Dick, if Melville had been taking opium with Baudelaire while he wrote it.
The book infiltrated 19th-century Paris unnoticed, like an alien spore riding piggyback on cosmic rays, and it lay dormant in bookstores (the few that deigned to carry it at all) for decades after the author self-published it at his own expense. The last copies were likely headed for the cemetery of literary oblivion, but in 1917, 50 years after the book's publication, one of the most serendipitous discoveries in literary history occurred—a founding member of the Surrealists stumbled onto Les Chants de Maldoror in the mathematics section of a nondescript Paris bookstore. He was so blown away by what he read that he rushed out to share it with his good friend and literary compatriot André Breton, founder of the then-nascent Surrealists. Breton and his crew embraced the book as a harbinger of a tectonic shift away from the stodgy realism then shackling French literature. To them it was a creative roadmap, a war cry and assertion that an unimpeded imagination was the key to great literature.
[Lautréamont] drags us through a compendium of scenarios filled with desperate humans and a gamut of creatures, both spectral and real, from land, sea and air, with special attention paid to the ocean. It reads like a kind of seditious Moby Dick, if Melville had been taking opium with Baudelaire while he wrote it.
And thus Lautréamont was resurrected.
For Lautréamont, imagination was the main weapon against the stifling restraints that morality placed on literature, and impetuous narrator Maldoror his warrior in the fight against those bonds. In one scene Maldoror excoriates the “Creator” who represents the sanctimony of social mores: “Yet let not your Providence consider me, I beg you ... I would rather feed greedily on seaweed from wild and unknown islands, which in these waters tropical waves sweep along upon their foamy laps, than be aware that you are watching me and digging your sneering scalpel into my conscience.” Even today, crack this book to any page, and its originality and disdain for the restraints of conservative morality, for the “sneering scalpel,” strike with as much force as the best contemporary transgressive writers from Jean Genet to William S. Burroughs.
In the first pages of Maldoror, Lautréamont makes his agenda clear: “There are some who write seeking the commendation of their fellows by means of noble sentiments which their imaginations invent or they possibly may possess. But I set my genius to portray the pleasures of cruelty! These are no fickle, artificial delights, they began with man and with him they will die. Cannot genius be cruelty’s ally in the secret resolutions of Providence?” Cruelty becomes the literary weapon in Lautréamont’s effort to pull back the veil on hypocritical morals, the counterpoint to all that’s falsely virtuous, and is dramatized through Maldoror’s twisted odyssey. But the depravity is so dramatically exaggerated as to become humorous, though humor of the darkest order. At times the narrative becomes so baroque it feels madcap, with metaphors leaping off the bizarro-chart.
Take, for instance: “When, with her propitious obscurity, night fell, they leapt from porphyry-crested craters of submarine currents, and left very far behind them the rocky chamber pot where strains the constipated anus of the human cockatoos—until they could no longer discern the suspended silhouette of the filthy planet.” It’s hard to believe that the same year Maldoror went to print, an epic of realism in the form of Tolstoy’s War and Peace hit the shelves, and Lautréamont’s compatriot Flaubert had just sent to press his highly influential novel Sentimental Education, which seems like mechanical writing next to Lautréamont’s trailblazing prose.
In one passage Maldoror suggests the reader try a tonic after dipping into so much mind-bending text. For an “astringent and tonic diet,” he counsels, “first tear off your mother’s arms (if she still lives), cut them up into little pieces, and eat them in a single day, without your face betraying a trace of emotion.” Of course, if your mom’s too old, choose a younger specimen, a sister perhaps. Following that, you’ll need a laxative. “The most lenitive potion I prescribe for you is a basinful of lumpy blennorrhagic pus into which were previously dissolved a pilose ovarian cyst, a follicular chancre, an inflamed prepuce skinned back from the glans by a paraphimosis, and three red slugs. If you follow my prescriptions my poetry will welcome you with open arms, as when a crab-louse with its kisses resects the root of a hair.”
Maldoror drags the reader through the darkest sewers as he circles the globe, encountering madwomen, the gruesome Creator, strange beings and labyrinthine challenges all told through wave upon wave of surreal and often stomach-turning scenes. But Lautréamont’s trick is that at the darkest moment, all is unveiled as illusion.
Maldoror drags the reader through the darkest sewers as he circles the globe, encountering madwomen, the gruesome Creator, strange beings and labyrinthine challenges all told through wave upon wave of surreal and often stomach-turning scenes. But Lautréamont’s trick is that at the darkest moment, all is unveiled as illusion. His ultimate goal—to reveal the shallow fears and hypocritical hubris of moral righteousness—is achieved with a revelatory finality that is as relevant and unsettling today as ever.