Comte de Lautréamont
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Beautiful as the fortuitous encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table" [...] --Les Chants de Maldoror
Comte de Lautréamont was the pen name of Isidore Lucien Ducasse (April 4 1846 – November 24 1870), a French poet whose only works, Les Chants de Maldoror and Poésies, had a major influence on modern literature, on writers such as Maurice Blanchot (Lautréamont and Sade) and in particular on the Surrealist and Situationist movements.
Ducasse was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, to François Ducasse, a French consular officer and his wife, Jacquette-Célestine Davezac. Very little is known about Isidore's childhood, except that he was baptized on 16 November, 1847, in the cathedral of Montevideo and that his mother died shortly afterwards, probably due to an epidemic. In 1851, as a five-year-old, he experienced the end of the eight-year siege of Montevideo in the Argentine-Uruguayan war. Ducasse was brought up to speak three languages: French, Spanish and English.
In October 1859, at the age of thirteen, Isidore was sent to high school in France by his father. He was trained in French education and technology at the Imperial Lycée in Tarbes. In 1863 he enrolled in the Lycée Louis Barthou in Pau, where he attended classes in rhetoric and philosophy (under and uppergreat). He excelled at arithmetic and drawing and already showed extravagance in his thinking and style. Isidore was a reader of Edgar Allan Poe, and particularly devoured Shelley and Byron, as well as Adam Mickiewicz, Milton, Robert Southey, Alfred de Musset, and Baudelaire. In school he was fascinated by Racine and Corneille, and by the scene of the blinding in Sophocles' Oedipus the King. According to his schoolmate, Paul Lespès, he showed obvious folly "by self-indulgent use of adjectives and an accumulation of terrible death images" in an essay. For that he was given detention by his teacher Gustave Hinstin, which depressed the young Isidore. After graduation he lived in Tarbes, where he started a close friendship with Georges Dazet, the son of his guardian, and decided to become a writer.
Years in Paris
After a short stay with his father in Montevideo, Ducasse settled in Paris at the end of 1867. He began studies at the École Polytechnique, only to give them up one year later. Continuous allowances from his father made it possible for Ducasse to dedicate himself completely to his writing. He lived in the "Intellectual Quarter", in a hotel in the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, where he worked intensely on the first canto of Les Chants de Maldoror. It is possible that he started this work before his passage to Montevideo, and also continued the work during his ocean journey.
Ducasse was a frequent visitor to nearby libraries, where he read Romantic literature, as well as scientific works and encyclopaedias. The publisher Léon Genonceaux described him as a "large, dark, young man, beardless, mercurial, neat and industrious" and reported that Ducasse wrote "only at night, sitting at his piano, declaiming wildly while striking the keys, and hammering out ever new verses to the sounds".
Anonymously, and at his own expense, in autumn 1868 Ducasse published the first canto of Les Chants de Maldoror (Chant premiere, par ***), a booklet of thirty-two pages which is considered by many a bold, taboo-breaking poem on pain and cruelty. It is considered by many of its fans a radical work full of amazing phenomena of evil, yet at the same time a text of unparalleled beauty, greatness and elevation.
On November 10, 1868, Isidore sent a letter to the poet Victor Hugo, in which he included two copies of the first canto, and asked for a recommendation for further publication. A new edition of the first canto appeared at the end of January, 1869, in the anthology Parfums de l'Ame in Bordeaux. Here Ducasse used his pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont for the first time. His chosen name was based on the character of Latréaumont from a popular 1837 French gothic novel by Eugène Sue, which featured a haughty and blasphemous anti-hero similar in some ways to Isidore's Maldoror. The title was probably paraphrased as l'autre Amon (the other Amon). Following other interpretations it stands for l'autre Amont (the other side of the river).
A total of six cantos were to be published in late 1869, by Albert Lacroix in Brussels, who had also published Eugène Sue. The book was already printed when Lacroix refused to distribute it to the booksellers as he feared prosecution for blasphemy or obscenity. Ducasse considered that this was because "life in it is painted in too harsh colors" (letter to the banker Darasse from March 12th, 1870).
Ducasse urgently asked Auguste Poulet Malassis, who had published Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) in 1857, to send copies of his book to the critics. They alone could judge "the commence of a publication which will see its end only later, and after I will have seen mine." He tried to explain his position, and even offered to change some "too strong" points in coming editions:
- "I have written of evil as Mickiewickz, Byron, Milton, Southey, A. de Musset, Baudelaire and others have all done. Naturally I drew register a little exaggerated, in order to create something new in the sense of a sublime literature that sings of despair only in order to oppress the reader, and make him desire the good as the remedy. Thus it is always, after all, the good which is the subject, only the method is more philosophical and less naive than that of the old school. (...) Is that the evil? No, certainly not."
Poulet Malassis announced the forthcoming publication of the book the same month in his literary magazine Quarterly Review of Publications Banned in France and Printed Abroad. Otherwise few people took heed of the book. Only the Bulletin du Bibliophile et du Bibliothécaire noticed it in May, 1870; "the book will probably find a place under the bibliographic curiosities".
In spring 1869, Ducasse frequently changed his address, from Rue du Faubourg Montmartre 32 to Rue Vivienne 15, then back to Rue Faubourg Montmartre, where he lodged in a hotel at number 7. While still awaiting the distribution of his book, Ducasse worked on a new text, a follow-up to his "phenomenological description of evil", in which he wanted to sing of good. The two works should form a whole, a dichotomy of good and evil. The work, however, remained a fragment.
In April and June, 1870, Ducasse published the first two instalments of what was clearly meant to be the preface to the planned "chants of the good" in two small brochures, Poésies I and II. This time he published under his real name, discarding his pseudonym. He differentiated the two parts of his work with the terms philosophy and poetry, announced that the starting point of a fight against evil was the reversal of his other work:
- "I replace melancholy by courage, doubt by certainty, despair by hope, malice by good, complaints by duty, scepticism by faith, sophisms by cool equanimity and pride by modesty."
At the same time Ducasse took texts by famous authors and cleverly inverted, corrected and openly plagiarized for Poésies:
- "Plagiarism is necessary. It is implied in the idea of progress. It clasps the author's sentence tight, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, replaces it with the right idea."
Among the works plagiarized were Blaise Pascal's Pensées and La Rochefoucauld's Maximes, as well as the work of Jean de La Bruyère, Marquis de Vauvenargues, Dante, Kant and La Fontaine. It even included an improvement of his own Les Chant de Maldoror. The brochures of aphoristic prose did not have a price; each customer could decide which sum they wanted to pay for it.
On 19 July 1870, Napoleon III declared war on Prussia, and after his capture, Paris was besieged on September 17th, a situation with which Ducasse was already familiar, from his early childhood in Montevideo. The living conditions worsened rapidly during the siege, and according to the owner of the hotel he lodged at, Ducasse became sick with a "bad fever".
Lautréamont died at the age of twenty-four on November 24th, 1870, at 8:00 am in his hotel. On his death certificate "no further information" was given. Since many were afraid of epidemics while Paris was besieged, Ducasse was buried the next day after a service in Notre Dame de Lorette in a provisional grave at the Cemetière du Nord. In January 1871, his body was put to rest in another grave elsewhere.
In his Poésies Lautréamont announced: "I will leave no memoirs", and so the life of the creator of the "Les Chant du Maldoror" remains for the most part mysterious and impenetrable. Invoking an obscure clause in the French civil code, New York performance artist Shishaldin petitioned the French government for permission to posthumously marry the author.
Les Chants de Maldoror
Les Chants de Maldoror is based around a character called Maldoror, a figure of unrelenting evil who has forsaken God and mankind. The book combines an obscene and violent narrative with vivid and often surrealistic imagery.
The critic Alex De Jonge wrote:
- "Lautreamont forces his readers to stop taking their world for granted. He shatters the complacent acceptance of the reality proposed by their cultural traditions and make them see that reality for what it is: an unreal nightmare all the more hair-raising because the sleeper believes he is awake."
- "Lautréamont’s writing is full of bizarre scenes, vivid imagery and drastic shifts in tone and style. There are heavy measures of black humor"
The six cantos are subdivided in 60 verses of different length (I/14, II/16, III/5, IV/8, V/7, VI/10), which were originally not numbered, but rather separated by lines. The final eight verses of the last canto form a small novel, and were marked with Roman numerals. Each canto closes with a line to indicate its end.
At the beginning and end of the cantos the text often refers to the work itself; Lautréamont also references himself in the capacity of the author of the work; Isidore is recognized as the "Montevidean". In order to enable the reader to realise that he is embarking on a "dangerous philosophical journey", Lautréamont uses stylistic means of identification with the reader, a procedure which Baudelaire already used in his introduction of Les Fleurs du Mal. He also comments on the work, providing instructions for reading. The first sentence contains a "warning" to the reader:
- God grant that the reader, emboldened and having become at present as fierce as what he is reading, find, without loss of bearings, his way, his wild and treacherous passage through the desolate swamps of these sombre, poison-soaked pages; for, unless he should bring to his reading a rigorous logic and a sustained mental effort at least as strong as his distrust, the lethal fumes of this book shall dissolve his soul as water does sugar.
- « Arithmétique ! Algèbre ! Géometrie ! Trinité grandiose ! Triangle lumineux ! Celui qui ne vous a pas connues est un insensé ! »
- Translation: "Arithmetic! Algebra! Geometry! Grandiose trinity! Luminous triangle! Whoever has not known you is without sense!"
- « La poésie doit être faite par tous, non par un. »
- Translation: "Poetry must be made by all and not by one."
In 1917, French writer Philippe Soupault discovered a copy of "Les Chants de Maldoror" in the mathematics section of a small Parisian bookshop, near the military hospital to which he had been admitted. In his memoirs Soupault wrote:
- To the light of a candle which was permitted to me, I began the reading. It was like an enlightenment. In the morning I read the "Chants" again, convinced that I had dreamed... The day after André Breton came to visit me. I gave him the book and asked him to read it. The following day he brought it back, equally enthusiastic as I had been.
Due to this find, Lautréamont was discovered by the Surrealist group. Soon they called him their prophet. As one of the poètes maudit (accursed poets), he was elevated to the Surrealist Panthéon beside Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and acknowledged as a direct precursor to surrealism. André Gide regarded him as the most significant figure, meriting Aragon, Breton and Soupault, "to have recognized and announced the literary and ultra-literary importance of the amazing Lautréamont". Gide regarded Lautréamont - even more than Rimbaud - as the "gate-master of tomorrow's literature".
Louis Aragon and André Breton discovered the only copies of the "Poésies" in the National Library of France and published the text in April and May 1919 in two sequential editions of their magazine "Literature". In 1925 a special edition of the Surrealist magazine "Le Disque Vert" was dedicated to Lautréamont, under the title "Le cas Lautréamont" (The Lautréamont case). It was the 1927 publication by Soupault and Breton that assured Lautréamont a permanent place in French literature and the status of patron saint in the Surrealist movement. Numerous Surrealist writers subsequently paid homage to Lautréamont. In 1940 André Breton incorporated him into his "Anthology of Black Humour".
The title of an object by American artist Man Ray, called L'énigme d'Isidore Ducasse (The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse) created in 1920, contains a reference to a famous line in the 6th canto. Lautréamont describes a young boy as "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!". Similarly, Breton often used this line as an example of Surrealist dislocation.
"Maldoror" inspired many artists: Frans De Geetere, Salvador Dalí, Jacques Houplain, Jindřich Štyrský and Rene Magritte and Georg Baselitz. Individual works have been produced by Max Ernst, Victor Brauner, Oscar Dominguez, Espinoza, André Masson, Joan Miró, Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, Kurt Seligmann and Yves Tanguy. The artist Amedeo Modigliani always carried a copy of the book with him and used to walk around Montparnasse quoting from Maldoror.
In direct reference to Lautréamont's "chance meeting on a dissection table" Max Ernst defined the structure of the surrealist painting: „Accouplement de deux réalités en apparence inaccouplables sur un plan qui en apparence ne leur convient pas.”
Guy Debord developed a section from Poésies II as thesis 207 in Society of the Spectacle. The thesis covers plagiarism as a necessity and how it is implied by progress. It explains that plagiarism embraces an author's phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea.
Works by Lautréamont
- Les Chants de Maldoror - Chant premier, par ***, Imprimerie Balitout, Questroy et Cie, Paris, August 1868 (1st canto, published anonymously)
- Les Chants de Maldoror - Chant premier, par Comte de Lautréamont, in: „Parfums de l'Ame“ (Anthology, edited by Evariste Carrance), Bordeaux 1869 (1st canto, published under the pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont)
- Les Chants de Maldoror, A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven et Cie, Brussels 1869 (first complete edition, not delivered to the booksellers)
- Poésies I, Librairie Gabrie, Balitout, Questroy et Cie, Paris 1870
- Poésies II, Librairie Gabrie, Balitout, Questroy et Cie, Paris 1870
- Les Chants de Maldoror, Typ. De E. Wittmann, Paris and Brussels 1874 (1869's complete edition, with new cover)
- Les Chants de Maldoror, preface by Léon Genonceaux, with a letter by Lautréamont, Ed. Léon Genonceaux, 1890 (new edition)
- Les Chants de Maldoror. with 65 illustrations by Frans De Geetere, Ed. Henri Blanchetièr, Paris 1927
- Les Chants de Maldoror. with 42 illustrations by Salvador Dalí; Albert Skira Editeur, Paris 1934
- Œuvres Complètes. with a preface by André Breton und illustrations by Victor Brauner, Oscar Dominguez, Max Ernst, Espinoza, René Magritte, André Masson, Joan Miró, Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, Man Ray, Kurt Seligmann and Yves Tanguy, G.L.M. (Guy Levis Mano), Paris 1938
- Maldoror, with 27 illustrations by Jacques Houplain, Societe de Francs-Bibliophiles, Paris 1947
- Les Chants de Maldoror. with 77 illustrations by Rene Magritte; Editions De „La Boetie“, Brussels 1948
- Œuvres complètes. Fac-similés des éditions originales. La Table Ronde, Paris 1970 (facsimiles of the original editions)
- Œuvres complètes, based on the edition of 1938, with all historical prefaces by Léon Genonceaux (Édition Genouceaux, Paris 1890), Rémy de Gourmont (Édition de la Sirène, Paris 1921), Edmond Jaloux (Edition Librairie José Corti, Paris, April 1938), Philippe Soupault (Edition Charlot, Paris, 1946) Julien Gracq (La Jeune Parque, Paris 1947), Roger Caillois (Edition Librairie José Corti 1947), Maurice Blanchot (Édition du Club Français du Livre, Paris 1949), Edition Librairie José Corti, Paris 1984
- Maldoror. Translated by Guy Wernham ; New Directions Publishing Corporation ; 1943 ; 0-8112-0082-5
- Lautreamont's Maldoror ; Translated by Lykiard (Alexis) ; London ; Allison & Busby ; 1983 ; VI, 218 p.
- Maldoror (and the Complete works of the Comte de Lautréamont); Exact Change; Cambridge, MA ; 1994 ; Translation into English by Alexis Lykiard with updated notes and bibliography by Lykiard, as well ; ISBN 1-878972-12-X
- Maldoror (Les Chants de Maldoror) ; Thomas Y. Crowell Company ; New York ; 1970 ; English translation by Alexis Lykiard
- Maldoror ; Allison and Busby ; London ; 1983 ; Translation by Alexis Lykiard ; ISBN 0-85031-084-9
- Maldoror ; Penguin Books ; "Penguin Classics" series ; Great Britain ; 1977 ; Fourth English translation (after Rodker, Wernham and Lykiard, respectively) by Paul Knight. Also contains "Poesies" and several "lettres". Extensive introduction by translator
- Maldoror and Poems ; Penguin Books ; New York ; 1988 ; Translated by Paul Knight ; Introduction by Paul Knight. Cover illustration is a color reproduction of Antoine Wiertz' "Buried Alive" (detail) ; 288 p. ; 0-14-044342-8
There is a wealth of Lautréamont criticism, interpretation and analysis in French, including an esteemed biography by Jean-Jacques Lefrère, but little in English.
- Le Cas Lautréamont, special edition of „Le Disque Vert“, with an introduction by André Gide, and texts by Philippe Soupault, René Crevel, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Herbert Read, Albert Thibaudet, André Breton, Marcel Arland, Maurice Maeterlinck, Paul Valery, Paul Eluard, Henri Michaux, Jean Cocteau, Léon Bloy, Remy de Gourmont, André Malraux a.o., and a portrait by Odilon-Jean Périer; René van den Berg, Paris/Brussels 1925
- The Lay of Maldoror ; The Casanova Society ; London ; 1924 ; First English translation is by John Rodker ; Illustrated with 3 plates by Odilon Redon
- Jeremy Reed: Isidore: A Novel about the Comte de Lautreamont, Peter Owen Limited 1991 (fictional biography)
- Alex de Jonge. Nightmare Culture: Lautréamont and Les Chants de Maldoror, Secker and Warburg, 1973: Creation Books 2007 1840681268
- Maurice Blanchot: Lautréamont and Sade. Meridian, Stanford University Press
- Peter W. Nesselroth: "Lautréamont's Imagery: a stylistic approach" Geneva:Droz, 1969
- L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse, 1920, Man Ray