Parle, et, puisque, d’après tes vœux les plus chers, l’on ne souffrirait pas, dis en quoi consisterait alors la vertu, idéal que chacun s’efforce d’atteindre, si ta langue est faite comme celle des autres hommes.
—Lautréamont, Les Chants de Maldoror
Maldoror, drawing by Mark Kerstetter
Lautréamont warns at the outset not to tread lightly into the six “poison-soaked” cantos of Maldoror. The reader would do well to heed his advice. Even though the book cannot be taken in at one glance, that first look is decisive. It is impossible to be indifferent to Lautréamont. Having peeked into Maldoror, the reader will either reject or engage with the text in some way. Many among the latter will claim it for their own. He’s their Lautréamont, their Maldoror, whether he be a romantic, blasphemer, sadist, schizoid poet, post-modern novelist, nihilist, elitist, boy, man, lover, hater, madman, rationalist, dreamer, surrealist, collagist, iconoclast, black humorist, teacher or pariah.
Can one author be all of these things? Depending on the reader, any combination of the characteristics listed above will come to the fore, while others fall to the shadows. But it’s there, in the shadows, that Lautréamont waits for the negligent reader, for whom he reserves a special scorn. Throughout the cantos of Maldoror he is interested in showing us not merely how to read, but how a free, healthy individual should approach language.
Maldoror will appeal primarily to the orphaned, rejected, abused and forgotten of society. Those who have enjoyed the warmth of a loving and supportive family or who have not fallen under the hand of fundamentalist tyrants or other ideologues are less likely to appreciate the violence of this book. They are likely to turn away in puzzlement or even disgust. But the Sadeian violence and blasphemy of Maldoror has misled fans and detractors alike. If one is to take in a wider glance of this book one must follow the example of its author and become schizoid. That means knowing how to separate the emotional life from rational thought. If one cannot do this one will not understand the lessons Maldoror has to teach. If one can, a potentially life-changing window will open: with the power of poetry, one may enter language as a playground and become a maker.
Utilizing a unique brand of sarcasm, Lautréamont demonstrates how to escape the yoke of oppressive ideologies. Through a series of verbal gymnastics he stretches a wire between rhetorical posturing and poetic outbursts, then runs back and forth with asides to the reader, daring him to follow. There is a high degree of cockiness here, but Lautréamont isn’t interested in merely showing off. If we make an effort to follow him we are taken inside the creative process, from which we have the vantage of the poet. With him we can see that language is a unique kind of instrument that can be used to play an original melody, but equally the unwitting individual can be swept into the linguistic forms and melodies of other singers. The essential question is, who is in charge here?
For Lautréamont reading was a serious enterprise, and he made it his business to tense his will between flights of poetic imagination and the hard rationality of critical discourse. It’s an approach to poetics that Francis Ponge would transform into a profoundly elegant and sophisticated art form and Borges into a new genre of fiction, but one that is rarely chosen today, despite all the lip service paid to literary mashups and hybrid texts. If Maldoror is anything, it is a hybrid text. Critico-analytical discourse on the depravity of man shifts unexpectedly into poetic outbursts (so loved by the Surrealists fifty years later). Demonstrations follow descriptions, a method explored to great effect by William Carlos Williams in Spring and All. Lautréamont develops an argument only to sport a poetic flower as its conclusion, placing clichés and banalities alongside surprising verbal expressions, or, conversely, he surprises the reader with a clear kernel of meaning in the midst of a nonsensical passage, thus upsetting expectations in a way that would become John Ashbery’s stock in trade a hundred years later. He is by turns a prankster and a teacher—a showoff, yes, but with something important to reveal to those with the eyes to see.
Thus begins the fourth canto: “A man a stone or a tree is about to begin the fourth canto.” In the previous cantos Lautréamont had been content to go through a litany of names easy enough to associate with humanoid figures; now plants and minerals will do. Indeed, by then it makes no difference, as Beckett would make clear in his novels. This is the point when loss of the self is a real possibility, by either suicide or madness, both of which are alluded to. The reader remembers that even if Maldoror is lost, there is still Lautréamont and after him Isidore Ducasse to go through. But which one of them is speaking at any given time? Which one is saying, “I…. I still exist, like basalt…. yet it is ages since I resembled myself!” Who is speaking when I speak? Who is this I at the core of my self? This question is at the heart of the great modernist innovators already mentioned, with the addition of Nietzsche, Whitman, Pessoa, Artaud, Genet and others.
The power but also the vulnerability of Maldoror the shape-shifter is on display in the opening of the fourth canto. As an entity he is a precursor of the comic book superheroes of the 20th and 21st centuries. Like Superman or Batman he has extraordinary powers, yet he is still a man, still mortal. He worries that he will be able to maintain enough strength to keep up his attack on God and man. His doubt stems from the very fact that he is a man and as such is implicitly connected to that which he attacks.
The idea that I have voluntarily fallen as low as my fellow men and that I have less right than another to utter complaints concerning our lot, which remains chained to the hardened crust of a planet, and concerning our perverse soul, transfixes me like a horseshoe nail.
He rallies for the struggle and announces that his weapons will not be spun from the earth. Instead, “the powerful and seraphic sonority of the harp will become beneath my fingers a formidable talisman.” Poetry will be his weapon—but more, hyperconsciousness of that fact and what it means, if he is not to become identical to that which he despises. A man a stone a tree or the shape-shifter Maldoror— Lautréamont the poet—commands the fourth canto. His primary concern is language, about the ways in which we inhabit the discourses we use or, conversely, how discourses use us to perpetuate themselves, like that virus William Burroughs would later write about. The lesson has to do with the ways in which language is used and abused, with forms and structures, with the ways one becomes an unwitting worker bee inside the linguistic machines made by others. It’s clear that the stakes involve clarity and self-determination, to the extent that such a thing is possible in our world. One thing is certain: a person will have no control over his life who has no control over the words he speaks.
In order to demonstrate the uses and abuses of discursive forms it is necessary to utilize images or themes that, in Jasper Johns’ words, “the mind already knows”—that is, clichés or common objects. Some examples: Johns’ use of the American flag, Magritte’s use of common objects in his paintings, Wittgenstein’s use of chess or Kafka’s celluloid balls in Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor. In addition to quotidian objects, one will use outrageous or absurd objects in contrast to familiar linguistic figures. Lautréamont used everything from grammatical banalities to absurdities, the Judeo-Christian discourse on God and man, the colors and shades of Gothic Romances, cut-and-paste from natural history texts, straight-ahead narrative, parodies, nonsense and poetic flowers. Overarching all of them we find the essence of Maldoror: the maker’s awareness of his function, the key to all post-modern art.
Let us now trace a partial outline of the verbal gymnastics alluded to at the beginning of canto four. While it is too complex for the purposes of a brief essay, the portion I wish to discuss takes place within two uses of the word “throne”. Lautréamont cites at the beginning the Judeo-Christian idea that “Providence has bestowed” upon man “the throne of this earth”. By the end of the third section he informs us that human beings have abandoned the “empire of reason” and left in the place of this “dethroned queen nothing but ferocious vengeance”. Lautréamont suggests here and in many other parts of the book that wild animals are more rational than man and yet, being a man, does he not indict himself, especially considering his own ferocious attacks on God and mankind? Earlier we had seen Maldoror attempting to copulate with a shark. But in canto four we see a less purely fantastic, language-based approach to the problem.
Shortly into the canto, after describing the hideous scene of a man hanging from a gibbet and whipped by two repulsive hags, Lautréamont bogs the narrative down with scholastic criteria of establishing certitude, then proclaims:
It is understood, or if not do not read me, that the actor on my stage is merely the timid personality of my own opinion: far be it from me, however, to think of relinquishing rights that are incontestable!
By contrasting the forms of subjective and objective truth only to uphold the rhetorical figure of the representation itself, Lautréamont reveals that his “truth” is simply the force of his language, his poetry. Here is the general shape of that figure: he makes a statement about truth only to denounce it as an act of flippancy, distracting from a seriously sadistic scene, then enters into a series of parenthetical remarks which are themselves flippant. From there he swaggers between further parenthetical remarks and ostensible attempts to get back into the story and ends by recognizing reason’s throne, yet crowning it with the hard rationality of a wild wolf.
Having established the authority of his voice, Lautréamont simply states his opinion: wolves are more reasonable than men because, in silence, they reject the monstrosity of mankind. Having done this, Lautréamont stands on the side of subjective truth: ideas, beliefs, opinions, truth are rooted in the authority of one’s subjective will. What has happened to his self-indictment? He has used Sadeian logic, he has shown that a Christian-based view of human reason is in fact evil itself. By attempting to be more evil than God, Maldoror is simply trying to beat God at His own game. But all the while he, Lautréamont, creator of Maldoror, is very careful to establish awareness of the linguistic arena in which he fights. Terms are inverted—back and forth—for the purposes of establishing the authority of the individual subjective voice.
Critics of this position maintain that those who profess it contradict themselves when they are reasonable, and the subjectivists answer by saying that their critics are in denial, constantly stating opinions while insisting on calling them facts while not recognizing that reason is but one tool in the thinker/writer’s toolbox. If Lautréamont were alive today, I wonder how he would respond to the field studies that show chimpanzees making war on their own kind. Does his glorification of animals mask a denial of his own? Let us recall his ambivalent feelings toward the ocean:
I cannot love you, I detest you…. Ancient Ocean, crystal-waved…. My eyes fill with copious tears and I have not the strength to proceed, for I feel that the moment is come to return among men with their brutal aspect. But, courage! Let us make a great effort, and accomplish dutifully our destiny on this earth. I salute you, Ancient Ocean!
He cannot escape his own skin as a man. He must remain strong, disciplined, vigilant and above all, self-aware. And so we go from the ancient ocean to the corner of the Rue Colbert and the Rue Vivienna. Throughout canto six Lautréamont draws lines between the fiction he is constructing and the physical world, as when he says, “Go and see for yourself if you don’t believe me” or, “This is so true that only a few moments ago I expressed the ardent wish that you might be imprisoned in the sweat-glands of my skin in order to verify by your own knowledge the truth of what I affirm.” If one believes that ideas stem from the subjective will, then, without trust, it will be necessary not so much to walk in another’s shoes as to inhabit their skin itself. Since this is impossible such a passage might seem to offer little more than a weirdly colored rhetoric. That is, until one considers trying on Lautréamont’s methods.
By the end of Maldoror Lautréamont envisions a future when a “less abstract power will be communicated” to the three entities writer, creator and man. He is not interested in an impossible yearning for the infinite, nor, in walking the rough ground, does he allow himself to be crushed by the finite. Because poetry does not have the power to magically transport the individual into another world, Lautréamont does not, like a schoolboy, reject poetry. He has more modest claims:
Hitherto poetry has followed the wrong road. Raising itself up to heaven or groveling upon the ground, it has misunderstood the principles of its existence, and has been, not without reason, constantly flouted by honest folks. It has not been modest…. As for me, I would exhibit my qualities; but I am not hypocrite enough to conceal my vices! Laughter, evil, pride, folly, will appear each in its turn between sensibility and love of justice and will serve as examples for the stupefaction of mankind…. Thus hypocrisy will straightway be chased out of my dwelling.
The discursive field opened up by Lautréamont remains wide open. We’re living in a time of info-entertainment. The sequined surface of social media, ever changing, ever the same, holds sway as the dominating social discourse. There are too many flavorless sausages churned out by creative writing programs. Instead of a literature that serves the project of coming to terms with one’s subjective truths we have one corrupted by identity politics in which it is not enough to state who you are, but you are at once confined to this statement and compelled to insist that others, ostensibly of your kind, do the same. The innovations of modernism are cast aside as too abstract, too artificial, too academic or too artsy-fartsy. And yet the lessons of Maldoror are as timely as ever. It still has the power to uphold the ancient powers of language, to show by example how to escape the marauding clutches of discourses—whether they originate from churches, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, the news, political think tanks, the State Capitals of the world or from mom and dad—that hijack our very thoughts. It still shows us that the discourses we use make a real-world difference in our lives, that what a person says, a person is, even (sometimes especially) if he lies, that a person betrays himself through both the form and the content of his speech. We live in a world spun by our dreams, but once lucid to that fact we can dream a better dream. Lautréamont says to those with the ears to hear, watch what you say, for the discourse you choose may well end up being your master, rather than the reverse.
All quotes from Guy Wernham’s translation of Maldoror, published by New Directions