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, particularly on the Surrealists and the Situationists. Les Chants de Maldoror is often described as the first surrealist book.
De Lautreamont is usually counted as a poète maudit (French: Accursed poet), a poet living a life outside or against society. Abuse of drugs and alcohol, insanity, crime, violence, and in general any societal sin, often resulting in an early death are typical elements of the biography of a poète maudit.
The first poète maudit, and its prototype, was François Villon (1431-c. 1474) but the phrase wasn't coined until the beginning of the nineteenth century by Alfred de Vigny in his 1832 drama, Stello, in which he calls the poet, “la race toujours maudite par les puissants de la terre (the race always accursed by the powerful of the world).” Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud are also considered typical examples.
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 November 16, 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 showed extravagance in his thinking and style. Isidore was a reader of Edgar Allan Poe, and particularly devoured English Romantic poets, Shelley and Lord Byron, as well as Adam Mickiewicz, John Milton, Robert Southey, Alfred de Musset, and Charles Baudelaire. In school, he was fascinated by neoclassical French dramatists, 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. After graduation he lived in Tarbes, where he started a homosexual relationship with Georges Dazet, the son of his guardian, and decided to become a writer.
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 12, 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. (letter from October 23, 1869).
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 would 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 installments 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, skepticism 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, Immanuel Kant, and Jean de 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 July 19, 1870, Napoleon III declared war on Prussia, and after his capture, Paris was besieged on September 17, 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 24 on November 24, 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, performance artist Shishaldin petitioned the French government for permission to posthumously marry the author.
Les Chants de Maldoror is based around a character called Maldoror, a figure of unrelenting evil who has forsaken God and humankind. 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 (De Jonge, p. 1).
Lautréamont’s writing is full of bizarre scenes, vivid imagery and drastic shifts in tone and style. There are heavy measures of black humor (De Jonge, p. 55).
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 realize that he is embarking on a "dangerous philosophical journey," Lautréamont uses stylistic means of identification with the reader, a procedure which Charles 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 (1,1).
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 Charles Baudelaire and Arthur 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 Humor.
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.
De Lautreamont's "Maldoror" inspired many artists: Fray 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.”
Félix Vallotton and Salvador Dalí made "imaginary" portraits of Lautréamont, since no photo was available.
A portion of the work is recited toward the end of Jean-Luc Godard's Week End (1967).
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.
There is a wealth of Lautréamont criticism, interpretation and analysis in French, including an esteemed biography by Jean-Jacques Lefrère, but little in English.
All links retrieved March 17, 2017.
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