Les Chants de Maldoror
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
Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror) is a poetic novel (or a long prose poem) consisting of six cantos. It was written between 1868 and 1869 by the Comte de Lautréamont, the pseudonym of Isidore Lucien Ducasse. Many of the surrealists (Salvador Dalí, André Breton, Antonin Artaud, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, etc.) during the early 1900s cited the novel as a major inspiration to their own works and Les Chants de Maldoror, and its protagonist Maldoror, have continued to fascinate people since its publication.
Theme and composition
Les Chants de Maldoror is a poem of six cantos which are subdivided into 60 verses of different length (I/14, II/16, III/5, IV/8, V/7, VI/10). The verses 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.
It is impossible to summarize the work because it does not have specific plot in the traditional sense, and the narrative style is non-linear and often surrealistic. The work concerns the misanthropic character of Maldoror, a figure of absolute evil who is opposed to God and humanity, and has renounced conventional morality and decency. The iconoclastic imagery and tone is typically violent and macabre, and ostensibly nihilistic. Much of the imagery was borrowed from the popular gothic literature of the period, in particular Lord Byron's Manfred, Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer and Goethe's Faust. Of these figures, the latter two are particularly significant in their description of a negative and Satanic anti-hero who is in hostile opposition to God. The last eight stanzas of the final canto are in a way a small novel dealing with the seduction and murder of a youth. It has been shown that parts of the work have been appropriated from Jean-Charles Chenu's Encyclopédie d'histoire naturelle, a work of natural history first published during 1861.
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 author 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."
Les Chants de Maldoror is considered to have been a major influence upon French Symbolism, Dada, and Surrealism. Several editions of the book have included lithographs by the French symbolist painter Odilon Redon. Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí also illustrated one edition of the book. The Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani used to carry a copy around in Montparnasse and quote from it. The outsider artist Unica Zürn was also influenced by it in writing her The Man of Jasmine. William T. Vollmann mentioned it as the most influenced book for his writing life.
References in other works
Musician Steven Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees released a solo CD, Maldoror, in 1999 consisting of reworkings of tracks he had written for a Brazilian theatrical adaptation of the book six years earlier.
Avant-garde cellist Erik Friedlander released an improvisational album entitled Maldoror in 2003 based on his impressions of the novel.
Portuguese alternative-rock music band Mão Morta, together with some portuguese collaborators, conceived a show mixing music, theatre, video, and declamation, based on the novel. It premiered in Braga on May 11, 2007.
British band Bauhaus references Maldoror in the song "The Three Shadows" from their 1982 LP The Sky's Gone Out with the lyrics: "i hold the fresh pink baby with a smile. i slice off those rosy cheeks because i feel so thirsty."
Original French text
- Lykiard, Alexis (translator). Maldoror and the Complete Works. (1994) ISBN 1-878972-12-X
- Wernham, Guy (translator). Maldoror. (1943) ISBN 0-8112-0082-5
- Knight, Paul (translator). Maldoror and Poems. (1988) ISBN 0-14-044342-8
- Rodker, John (translator). The Lay of Maldoror. (1924)