(This introduction to a too-little-known French author is the Litkicks debut of Eamon Loingsigh, whose novella An Affair of Concoctions can be sampled here).
I didn’t come across Comte de Lautréamont right away. I found him only after a long search for the most furious literature I could find, and I suspect others don’t find him quickly either, if they find him at all.
As a disgruntled teen, mainstream writers like Stephen King and dusty fuddies like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stephens could not slake my brooding brain. Poe turned my head and Coleridge was my favorite Romantic in school, both with drug addictions and personality disorders that were sent desperately to the pen in order to relieve their burdens, financial or emotional. But when I found Bukowski and Kerouac and those who influenced them, I eventually bumped into Comte de Lautréamont, who quickly became even more interesting to me when I heard that translations abound in many languages, except English.
Lautreamont was born as Isidore Lucien Ducasse in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1846, and left it during a time of great turbulence. His mother died soon after giving birth to him, in the midst of the Argentinian-Uruguayan War, and he was raised by his father, a Uruguayan public official of French ancestry. He was sent to school in Paris, France at the age of thirteen. By seventeen he was known at his Lycée as a quick student, yet morbid and sardonic in humor. Memorizing the Romantic writers as well as Dante, Milton, Baudelaire and Racine, he soon decided to become a writer in order “to portray the pleasures of cruelty!”
Holing up in various hotels and lodgings on the Right Bank and sustained from afar by his father’s finances, Ducasse began what would become his most renowned, or infamous work, Les Chants de Maldoror.
Out of necessity, Ducasse created a nom de plume, and a strange one at that. Knowing full well that libel laws could send a writer to prison, and that his work would hardly be celebrated next to the likes of the day’s famous Parisian giant Victor Hugo, the pen name Comte de Lautréamont would protect the author from the reaction to his work’s considerable blasphemy, black humor and caustic sex and violence.
But the name Comte de Lautréamont procures wonder from literary historians and may offer an insight into the symbolism and detail of his writing. Changing his name to the very noble “Comte,” or “count” provides a window to his curious, sarcastic wit. Though much of his short life remains a mystery, it can be said confidently that the use of Comte was not just a sneering nod toward nobility, but also a jab at the French philosopher Auguste Comte who bestowed the need for French “positivism” during a time of great unrest and poverty in the Paris of Lautréamont’s day. Such allusions to reigning positivist philosophies were not new to French literature; Voltaire’s Candide over one hundred years earlier has obvious satirical similarities. As far as his new surname, "Lautréamont" was lifted from a deviant character in a popular Gothic novel by Eugene Sue, though the spelling was slightly altered. In the French, “l’autre” literally means “the other,” while Amon was a dog-toothed, raven headed governor of forty legions of Hell in the 16th Century work of occultist Johann Weyer. This evil Amon was known as a storyteller and a reconciler of feuds, among other dastardly things.
Historians have asked, is it enough simply to move a letter around in a name (Lautréamont – Latréaumont) to avoid plagiarism? Can a pen name be a form of plagiarism? These flaying jokes, ambiguities and word games on the literary establishment are where Lautréamont is most playful and mischievous, displaying his daring way of inviting reality into his work.
Les Chants de Maldoror proved difficult to publish. The opening of the book throws a warning at the reader and offers a way out in order for the reader to avoid the “rigorous logic” in the coming “somber, poison-filled pages.” Not the type of hook most publishers are looking for. Lautreamont then proceeds to show his protagonist’s background by describing how Maldoror once hoped to become like those “narrow-shouldered men” who feign happiness while accumulating wealth. In a childish attempt to conform to the saccharine grins of the Paris bourgeoisie, he cuts open the sides of his own mouth with a penknife in the shape of a smile.
In possibly the most famous scene of the book, Maldoror blindfolds a child, cuts the boy’s chest open with his fingernails and drinks his blood while enjoying the cries of the wounded youth. At the end of the scene Maldoror states that regardless of how he is to be judged for his evil acts, “I exist still!”
In my favorite scene, Maldoror watches a warship pass as a squall appears on the horizon. Sensing doom, the ship dumps its anchors to avoid being smashed against the rocky coast, then fires off its alarm guns. Soon the ship is sinking from the whipping waves and wind while desperate souls swim to the shoreline only to be ripped to shreds by sharks. Maldoror is strangely angered and soon begins shooting the drowning sailors before the sharks can pull them under the “crimson cream.” He then dives in the water and stabs some of the sharks only to be confronted by the school’s ferocious leader, an imperious female shark, who squares off against him. Finally finding someone who has “the same ideas as I,” Maldoror and the shark make love together during the storm. lit by “lightning’s light.”
Unable to find a publisher, Lautréamont insolently decided to self-publish the work at his father’s expense. He traveled back to Uruguay to convince his father, then quickly returned to Paris. He then turned his attention to his next project, Poésies. Registered in the French Ministry in 1870, just two months before France declared war on Prussia, Poésies was barely read by anyone other than the author's old classmates.
France under Napolean III was defeated by September, and the siege of Paris began. Food shortages led to a chaotic famine intensified by numerous epidemics which sent the city’s patrons into panic. Thievery and desperation took over the Parisians besieged by the shelling of the Prussian Army.
On November 24, 1870, during a severe winter, Lautréamont’s death certificate was signed by a hotel employee at 7 Faubourg-Montmartre. Dying before seeing his work properly published, certainly he must have thought his life undone. The death certificate described him only as “a man of letters”, and he was hastily buried in a temporary grave in order to quarantine the body while disease spread throughout the beleaguered city.
In 1873, Lautréamont’s father arrived in Paris to collect his son’s humble belongings and pay off the debt owed to the publisher. The book first became available to buy sometime the next year, though only in Brussels, Belgium.
In the years to come, Lautréamont’s work was largely ignored, though it was read by a small group of Belgians. Not until some fifty years later when André Breton, Aragon, Soupault and friends unearthed Lautréamont from a small Paris bookstore did his work begin to enter literary circles. In the early 1920s, Lautréamont became the Surrealist movement’s hero, or anti-hero and the now famous quotation from Maldoror “as beautiful as the random encounter between an umbrella and a sewing-machine upon a dissecting-table,” became the phrase that represented the Surrealist movement’s doctrine.
Still, Lautréamont’s name does not enjoy the same level of celebrity (especially in English-speaking countries) as some of his contemporaries. His name often buried in French Literature courses, if mentioned at all, he still holds a place dear to the French as an outsider even to their maudit, or “accursed” standards. Though he hasn’t made it onto most readers’ bookshelves, Lautréamont has succeeded in influencing some of the 20th Century’s most important writers, artists, philosophers, musicians and the theater and film industries. They in-turn influenced the world. Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Andre Breton and the Surrealist Manifestos owed much to Lautréamont and so too did Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. Jean-Luc Godard’s famous 1967 film Week End has a scene where a character reads Lautréamont. The poet John Ashbery named his 1992 book “Lautréamont Hotel.” Others influenced include Henry Miller and Jim Morrison. Lautréamont’s fingerprints can certainly be found on the Beat Generation (especially William S. Burroughs) as well as vicariously through the Surrealists.
The slogans behind the May 1968 student revolts in France were heavily influenced by the Situationist philosophers Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, who both reference Lautréamont in their works. Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle undertook the unpopular stance that plagiarism, for which Lautréamont was known to have purposely committed, is not as bad an act as academia would have us believe. Debord contended that plagiarism is certainly much more common than we would like to admit, though thinly veiled and at least Lautréamont had the temerity to openly admit his influences while flaunting the stuffy establishment’s rule at the same time.
What fascinates me is that it is yet to be proven that Arthur Rimbaud could have ever read Lautréamont regardless of their works’ likeness and their crossing paths. How could it be that Rimbaud, who shared the same anti-social tendencies during the same era, in the same city and in the same field could not have read Lautréamont? I decided to consult an expert, Alexis Lykiard, the English poet, writer and one of the only English translators of Lautréamont’s work, 1994’s Maldoror and the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont (a new edition with an excellent afterword came out in 2011).
“I think it is highly unlikely that Rimbaud ever knew of Lautréamont,” Lykiard told me. “Maldoror wasn’t published in France until many years after Lautréamont’s death.”
Still, it seems hard to believe that Rimbaud could not ever have heard of Lautréamont, especially when one considers the second city they both had in common: Brussels. Consider this, Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine met up in Brussels where Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist in their now-famous lover’s quarrel. The same city that Lautréamont’s work first became available to buy. Verlaine spent the next two years in prison an hour away from Brussels in Mons, and never once heard of Lautréamont? A fellow Parisian writer in Belgium? But alas, the possibilities diminish when you consider that the Verlaine/Rimbaud shooting occurred in July of 1873, while Lautréamont’s work did not become available until sometime in 1874. Even as Verlaine, who by then Rimbaud utterly ignored, languished behind bars just miles away from booksellers, Lautréamont’s work was virtually unheard of at that time. Certainly the possibility exists that Rimbaud could have read Lautréamont, but no facts exist as of yet.
In the end, I’m certain Lautréamont would be delighted by the debate his work has procured and the influence it has had, even as it’s been wholly ignored or admonished by the mainstream. The writing style, which Octavio Paz called a “psychic explosion,” has a great sense of the mystical which only enhances the protagonist’s tortured soul as he brazenly spites God’s will, searching and hoping He will appear to tell Maldoror something, anything.
Lautréamont may not have been read by many, if any of the Symbolist writers of the 1890s, but his work underscores the fertile ground that was French Literature of the 19th Century. Lautréamont’s influence on the novel did come later though. As the traditional novel generally “explains” a reality, Lautréamont’s work makes the reader “experience” a reality, a very Surrealist approach. Literature as spectacle, instead of literature about spectacle.
In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord found in Lautréamont a face for his thesis on how modern life is no longer experienced; instead it is shown through spectacles provided by mass media. Today we call it "reality TV", and we note the rise of memoires, documentaries and the sampling of others’ music by DJs and articulated well in David Shields’ Reality Hunger.
Lautréamont took literature to a completely “personal” level, and although some have found him insolent, feckless and childishly devious, it should be noted that he was intentionally incendiary. Maldoror was written in order to bring reality to the reader, to make the cruelties of life breathe in his work; a stark contrast to the traditional separation of cruelty portrayed by a bad guy or the enemy of the protagonist. By taking controversial stances on issues and examining horrifically absurd scenarios, Lautréamont does succeed in forcing the reader to understand that, while the author may be considered politically incorrect or simply wrong, still ... wrong exists.