Shark-Shagger

Harry Mathews

  • ‘Maldoror’ and the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont translated by Alexis Lykiard
    Exact Change, 352 pp, £11.99, January 1995, ISBN 1 878972 12 X

The literary career of Isidore Ducasse, successor to Sade, Byron and Baudelaire and a model for Rimbaud, Jarry and the Surrealists, has been virtually a posthumous one. It has been chronically complicated furthermore by obsessions with the lacunae of his biography, as well as with the interpretation of the two names, Lautréamont and Maldoror, the first of which is a mystery and the second an enigma.

Ducasse was born on 4 April 1846, in Montevideo. Both his parents came from Bigorre, the region around Tarbes in South-West France. His father was well-to-do, a secretary and later chancellor at the French Consulate in Montevideo. Little is known about his mother, who died a year and a half after her son’s birth, a possible suicide. In 1859, Ducasse was sent to France, to attend the lycée at Tarbes and after that the one at Pau, where he completed his studies and passed the Final baccalauréat. In 1867, he returned briefly to Montevideo, then settled in Paris for his few remaining years. Supported by remittances from his father, he lived in furnished flats, changing his address frequently but never leaving the neighbourhood of the Grands Boulevards and the Bourse. In 1868, a first version of the opening canto of Les Chants de Maldoror was published anonymously and, like all of Ducasse’s work, at the author’s expense. The following year the complete Maldoror was printed and bound in Belgium, the author being identified as the ‘Comte de Lautréamont’; fearing trouble with the imperial censorship, the publisher declined to distribute the book in France. In 1870, both parts of the Poésies were published, with his own name on the title page. Isidore Ducasse died during the siege of Paris on 24 November of the same year.

It is easy to understand the fascination that Ducasse’s life has exercised. His origins both cosmopolitan and provincial, his mother’s early and unexplained death, the precocity of his output, his own early death, provide promising materials for a legend. There is no point, moreover, where the facts are beyond dispute, in trying to exclude his life from a consideration of his work. His biographer François Caradec observes, for example, that Ducasse ‘spoke with a Gascon accent’ and that many of his misspellings and turns of phrase reflect the speech of Bigorre. But the lure that has sidetracked so many critics arises from underdocumented events in his life. The problem, as Caradec points out, is not that we know so little about him but that we know too much; and the personal tone of his writing prompts us to eke out deductions from it in order to fill in the tantalising gaps. The procedure is notoriously unreliable.

All the same, the lure remains, and I have often been tempted by it myself. Simple curiosity makes me want to know what sort of a relationship he had with his father; how his mother’s death affected him (according to one recollection, when confronted with a cow’s rotting carcass, he asked, ‘Do humans stink like that when they die? ... And Mama too?’); how he spent his time during the Paris years; whether he was homosexual; what sexual experiences he had. Other anecdotes are more directly pertinent to the work. A report that at the beach Ducasse ‘swam like a fish’ seems relevant to Maldoror’s aquatic coupling with the shark. Another account claims that ‘he wrote only at night, seated at his piano. He worked out his sentences by declaiming them, punctuating his recitation with chords.’ This method, ‘the despair of the other tenants’, suggests a ‘body language’ that would have delighted Roland Barthes. If Ducasse was indeed nicknamed ‘The Vampire’ at school, can this shed light on the recurrent figure of the vampire in Maldoror? When he died, books by Poe and Eugène Sue were supposedly found on his bedside table. Might this indicate that Poe was as great an influence on him as Sue?

These are not facts: they are either recollections noted long after the event or second and third-hand reports, likely to remain unsubstantiated. A particularly irritating item is why the author’s name on the first complete edition of Maldoror should be given as ‘le Comte de Lautréamont’. It seems likely, but only likely, that the name was derived from the Latréaumont who is the protagonist of a novel by Sue (poor proofreading has turned him into ‘Lautréaumont’ on page 7 of Lykiard’s Introduction). Did Ducasse choose the pseudonym? He had certainly read Sue, and Caradec emphasises the appeal of Latréaumont the character (‘a kind of cruel clown, a moral and physical monstrosity’) to the creator of the ‘diabolical’ Maldoror. Or was the name proposed by Lacroix, Sue’s publisher as well as Ducasse’s, simply as a way of protecting the author from probable prosecution? Lykiard, who reviews the matter perceptively and succinctly, raises an intriguing point when he asks: ‘Does this self-conferred nobility, Comte de Lautréamont, purposely link the writer with the Marquis de Sade and Lord Byron in an aristocratic élite of the intellect?’ We shall probably never know. If I find the question irritating, it is because Ducasse has come to be universally referred to by a name that appears only once in his work, that he never refers to in his letters, and that may have been no more than a temporary legal expedient. No doubt there is little point in defying a usage so entrenched; on the other hand, did Lautréamont write the Poésies, signed ‘Isidore Ducasse’?

Besides ‘Lautréamont’, another name has provoked speculation: that of Maldoror, the character who dominates Ducasse’s first work. Other characters appear, but all, including God, are subordinate to him. A first-person narrator is also present; but Maldoror often assumes the narrator’s role himself, and while one can often distinguish the two voices, they are frequently confounded. (For instance, in the brothel scene in Canto III we do not know before the final sentence which ‘I’ we have been listening to.)

What may the name ‘Maldoror’ signify? Since the character claims to be devoted to evil, the mal apparently presents no problem. The word as a whole has a Spanish ring to it, which suggests mal d(e) horror, the ‘evil of horror’, as a possible, not inappropriate interpretation. A great many other readings have been derived from French or Spanish features of the name. Perhaps none of them are ‘wrong’. After all, the author has at no point felt obliged to explain a word so suggestive as to be almost a provocation to decipherment. Suggestiveness, allowing implications to vary from scene to scene and keeping a sonorous enigma hovering over the entire text, undoubtedly served his ends better than clarification. Ducasse has in fact introduced in the title of his book a first example of the uncertainty, ambiguity and unease that colours its every aspect.

Like other readers, I, too, have a preference for one particular interpretation of Maldoror, which is mal d’aurore. This is no discovery of mine; however, it is usually taken to mean ‘dawn’s evil’, whereas I understand mal as it figures in the expression être en mal de quelque chose, ‘to miss or long for or be deprived of something’. Maldoror would then be someone ‘longing for dawn’ or ‘deprived of dawn’. An obvious vindication of this reading is that Maldoror has renounced sleep and spends his nights arduously fighting it off; each dawn represents a liberation from his daily struggle. But I have a more general reason for my preference.

If Maldoror is a unique personage in literature, he nevertheless has his forerunners: Byron’s Manfred and Milton’s Satan, to mention only familiar English prototypes. In spite of his self-proclaimed baseness, he frequently wins our sympathy, for instance in his role as an irreverent latter-day Prometheus. Speaking to the abject Creator, he warns him:

I shall hit your hollow carcass – so hard that I guarantee to rout out the remaining scraps of intelligence which you did not want me to give to man, because you would have been jealous had you made him your equal, and which you had brazenly hidden in your bowels, wily villain, as though you did not know I would have eventually espied them with my ever-open eye, filched them from you, and shared them with my fellow men.

Mostly, however, he compels our attention as an eloquent villain who, like Richard III, surpasses our expectations in the extravagance of his misdeeds and has the wit to mock himself as he does so. Maldoror claims to be as bad as bad can be. He equates himself with the female shark which, after a shipwreck whose possible survivors he has killed when they approach shore, massacres her own kind as it feasts on the drowning and drowned. Maldoror plunges into the water to join her:

They fell upon each other ... in a hug as tender as a brother’s or sister’s. Carnal desires soon followed this demonstration of affection ... The foamy wave their nuptial couch ... they rolled over and over towards the unknown depths of the briny abyss – and came together in a long, chaste, hideous coupling! ... At last I had found someone who resembled me! ... From now on I was no longer alone in life! ... She had the same ideas as I! ... I was facing my first love!

‘A long, chaste, and hideous coupling’: is it possible to react single-mindedly to this phrase, any more than to the entire scene, at once appalling, magnificent and preposterous? The preposterousness sets the speaker’s declared passion beyond credence; but as in other horrific forms of science fiction, we are entranced by some other passion that precedes our disbelief. ‘A long, hideous coupling’ would not have surprised us: it is ‘chaste’ that is unexpected. It reinforces the element of incest in the scene and reveals at a most unlikely moment one of Maldoror’s basic obsessions: his exaltation of purity.

As in Sade, the crimes Maldoror commits or witnesses – murder, rape and torture – are performed on innocents. Some, like the shipwreck victims, are merely undeserving of their fate; most are innocent in the sense of being guileless – an unsuspecting little girl, a sweetly hopeful schoolboy, an angelic youth. Maldoror, unlike Sade’s tormentors, both worships and despises purity. He worships it for its humanity and despises it for us blindness to humanity’s fate. The one being he absolutely admires and loves is the hermaphrodite of Canto II, whose saintly abstinence stems from knowledge, not ignorance, of depravity. The evil of which Maldoror constantly speaks lies less in the crimes he boasts of than in the illusion that purity is the jewel of human nature. His vindictive rage is directed to destroying that illusion. The youth abused by God in the brothel epitomises innocence and its just deserts:

He was literally flayed alive from head to foot; along the flagstones of that room he dragged his hide – turned inside out. He kept saying to himself that his disposition was full of goodness, that he liked to believe his fellow men good too; for this reason he had acquiesced in the wish of the distinguished stranger who had called him to approach, but never, never, had he expected to be tortured by an executioner ... Without abandoning his skin, which might still be of use to him, if only as a cloak, he tried to leave this cutthroat’s den ...

Ignorance of corruptibility is unforgivable. Innocence calls out for punishment as a revenge for the delusion it creates. This lesson must be taught because cruelty is not a matter of choice but inherent in the human condition. Maldoror apostrophises humanity: ‘Fear naught, my children, I do not wish to curse you. The evil you have done me, the wrong I have done you, is too great, too great to be spontaneous (volontaire).’ The ‘sacrilegious’ abuses of the image of the mother confirm Maldoror’s belief that human savagery is innate, that it is his destiny to wreak, as it were, this knowledge on the world, in spite of his veneration of purity and his bitter love of humankind. He is the incantation of the Baudelairean post-romantic. No new dawn of hope is possible, although he might wish otherwise: he is condemned to remain perpetually en mal d’aurore.

Such is Maldoror’s view of the world. Its consequences are related in six cantos, each of which consists of a varying number of ‘stanzas’. Every stanza has its own internal unity; but although their succession undeniably creates a dramatic continuity, it does not produce a story or even a chronology. The one exception comes in the final canto, where Maldoror’s encounter with Mervyn takes the form of an extended parable, which the author calls a ‘novel’. This gives the work an ironically conventional conclusion, and an aesthetically satisfying one in which the reassuring ordinariness of the narrative method leaves the by now familiar extravagances of cruelty and obsession intact.

The voice we hear throughout Maldoror is clear, consistent, authoritative, emphatic and recognisable on every page; yet, as a succession of recent scholars have shown, it exploits sources of remarkable diversity. It assumes many tones; that of the Homeric bard (1830 version), the scientist, the schoolmaster, the Gothic novelist, the introspective Romantic poet, the blasé memorialist; and there is no foreseeing when one tone will yield to another. The originality of the voice lies in their seamless (if unsettling) fusion: ‘It is time to curb my imagination and to pause a while along the way, as when one looks at a woman’s vagina. It is good to inspect the course already run, and then, limbs rested, to dart forward with an impetuous bound.’ Nor is appropriation limited to styles: actual texts are repeatedly plagiarised and parodied: not only literary works from the Bible to Baudelaire but encyclopedias, scientific publications and current newspapers. Their identification makes fascinating reading, but seems ultimately irrelevant to what Ducassc makes of them. In any case one quickly senses that other texts are everywhere looming beyond the immediate words. (The opening, ‘May it please heaven ...’ is the contemporary equivalent of the classical invocation of the Muse.)

Ducasse was not the first successful plagiarist. (It seems fitting that a frequent object of his pillage is Maturin, who in Melmoth incorporated the entire narrative of Diderot’s La Religieuse.) But no one before him put plagiarism and imitation to such nimble and sustained use in creating a poetic identity – an achievement that distinguishes Maldoror as the primordial excmplar of such later collages as The Waste Land, The Cantos, Finnegans Wake and Life: A User’s Manual. This role of precursor differs radically from the one assigned to Ducasse by the Surrealists, who saw in Maldoror above all a triumph of inspired automatic writing: co-ordinating a multitude of texts and styles plainly demands a most conscious exercise of intelligence.

When one style is crossed with another, surprises are sure to come, as when Homeric simile, a frequent ornament of Maldoror, exploits elements from two technical treatises:

The Virginian eagle-owl, lovely as a thesis on the curve described by a dog running after its master, swooped down into the crevices of a ruined convent. The lamb-eating vulture, lovely as the law of arrest of development in the chests of adults whose propensity for growth is not consonant with the quantity of molecules assimilated by their organism, was lost in the upper strata of the atmosphere.

The first comparison is bewildering but somehow accessible; the second verges on the hilarious. Humour in fact plays a recurrent and wily role in discomfiting the assumptions we keep making as we read Maldoror. It is strenuously deadpan, however, never declaring itself as such: as in the case of Kafka and of Queneau, it is the inevitable product of a rigorous ‘logic’ applied to material that does not quite fit (the logic issuing, perhaps, from the axiom that all the components of our culture are equal and omnipresent). Maldoror himself claims to be incapable of laughter:

I often happen to state, solemnly, the most clownish propositions ... I do not find that that provides a peremptorily sufficient reason for expanding the mouth! ‘I cannot help laughing.’ you will answer me; I accept the absurd explanation, but let it be a melancholy laugh, then. Laugh, but weep at the same time. If you cannot weep with your eyes, weep with your mouth. If this is still impossible, urinate. But I warn you, some son of liquid is needed here to attenuate the aridity which laughter, with her rear-split features, carries in her womb.

This passage raises a question that can be asked again and again reading Maldoror: what is the speaker actually saying? The words clearly cannot be taken at face value – what exactly is their face value? If they are meant ironically, how far do they diverge from their intended sense? What is the relation of the author to his creature? These questions have no simple answers. Maldoror’s words (and his uttering of them) are not unclear. They have the eloquent reality of a theatrical event, one which carries us forcefully on to whatever comes next. This suggests that the work’s ‘sense’ should be looked for in its continuity rather than in any privileged moments that might reveal some central, unifying point. Since there is no centre, the scene we are reading becomes central. Funny moments are funny, gruesome ones gruesome; and through the rejection of all reasonableness, the whole becomes not only a preposterous fantasy but a nightmarish one:

Not finding what I sought I raised my dismayed gaze higher, still higher, until I caught sight of a throne fashioned of human excrement and gold upon which, with idiotic pride, body swathed in a shroud made of unwashed hospital sheets, sat he who calls himself the Creator! He held in his hand a corpse’s decaying torso and bore it in turn from eyes to nose, from nose to mouth: once in his mouth one can guess what he did with it.

The grim visions are perfectly consistent with the rest of the world that the work describes: a world in which language, and with it thought and feeling, has been sundered from the absolutes that had underpinned its use for centuries; a world remarkably like our own where, for those who resist falling asleep, there is no way out.

How written language is unmoored from an ordered reality is demonstrated in a very different way in Poésies I and II, Ducasse’s is next, last, pithy and equally provocative work. Because most of the material it draws on comes from French literature, notably from Pascal and Vauvenargues, it is harder going for foreign readers (Lykiard’s copious annotations help greatly, even if, curiously, he has left the sources in the original). But the Poésies are no less original than Maldoror. They signally lack their predecessor’s drama; in fact, they are cast in a laconic, didactic style that seems a negation of Maldoror’s exuberance.

The Poésies consist mainly of aphorisms and short dogmatic assertions. What we customarily ask of an aphorism is that it ring true, that it clinch a sometimes new but necessarily self-evident point with succinct elegance. Ducassc’s aphorisms do not satisfy such expectations: reading ‘Goodness, thy name is man’ or ‘No reasoner believes contrary to his reason,’ we must assume either that the author has turned into Candide or a hypocritical liar or that he is pulling our leg. Other specimens leave us bewildered: ‘I can accept Euripides and Sophocles, but I do not accept Aeschylus’; ‘I shall leave no Memoirs.’ Points are evidently being made, but we cannot tell what or why. Aphorisms and doctrinaire proclamations are being put to some new use.

That use is making explicit a proposition latent in Maldoror: never believe what you read, because written language can be made to say anything. The Poésies in their entirety are a serious and sustained experiment in duplicity. Statement upon statement is made, each one more or less askew, and their succession cumulates in the giddy impression that making statements is madness clothed in reasonableness.

The work starts undermining itself in its title: except for a few Maldororian asides (subversions in their own right), the Poésies are as unpoetic as writing can get. The process continues in the text, which is presented as a defence of goodness, a claim made ridiculous by such declarations as: ‘A fifth-form teacher...[who] tells himself “I should not wish to have written novels like those of Balzac and Alexandre Dumas,” for that alone is more intelligent than Alexandre Dumas and Balzac’; or ‘the masterpieces of the French language are school prize-giving speeches and academic writings’; or ‘judgment is infallible’. The potentially subversive procedure of translating statements of illustrious predecessors into their opposites (‘correcting sophisms’) is itself subverted by instances where the statements are left intact, barely modified or tamely paraphrased. At one point, after allowing himself (and us) the pleasure of a full page’s worth of supposed abominations, Ducasse claims that he ‘blushes to name them’. It would be tedious to detail his many ways of turning his supposedly optimistic harangue into a mockery of itself. Not that a pessimistic harangue would be any ‘truer’: the ultimate effect is that one cannot write definitive conclusions about experience. Furthermore, once our necessary scepticism about the affirmations in the Poésies is established, we can begin interpreting them as the objects of speculative ambiguity they are intended to be. ‘Nothing is incomprehensible’ no longer need simply mean ‘no thing is incomprehensible’ but suggests that the concept ‘nothing’ (and by analogy all similar concepts) is beyond definition. ‘I know no obstacle that surpasses the strength of the human mind, except truth’ is transformed from a bow to piety into an insinuation that, if truth lies beyond our capacities, what is being said here cannot be true, that the truth can never be said. The following paragraph is particularly stimulating. The first two sentences leave Pascal’s words unchanged; the last two contradict him: ‘A number of certainties are contradicted. A number of falsehoods are uncontradicted Contradiction is the sign of falsity. Non-contradiction is the sign of certitude’.

This puzzle can serve as a synopsis of the Poésies.

Out of respect for my own illustrious predecessors, I should mention that many of them have accepted Ducassc’s claims – in letters to publishers and his father’s remittance man as well as in the Poésies themselves – that his second book represented a change of heart and that, having sung the glories of evil in Maldoror, he was now determined to praise the good. Such unquestioning acceptance of Ducasse’s claims fails to explain the text and its ‘inconsistencies’, I feel happier in the company of those such as Lykiard when he writes: ‘All opinions, Ducasse is saying in the Poésies, can be attacked and reversed, just as all words can be rearranged. Nothing is fixed or static. Stasis is death.’

Fascinating as the Poésies may be, without Maldoror many readers would not devote so much attention to them or be so concerned with ‘justifying’ them. These thirty pages are nevertheless packed with their own odd brilliance and power. They confirm, incidentally, that the author of Maldoror possessed a deliberate, witty and stubborn mind, and that Maldoror is the product of that mind and not, in the words of one distinguished and not untypical enthusiast, a ‘volcanic phenomenon ... an outpouring of lava from incandescent inner magma’. Maldoror and the Poésies are complementary. The first is a long melodrama written in mock-epic style, the second a short homiletic compilation written in mock-aphoristic style. Both are, except locally, non-sequential. Both are permeated by the awareness that the written word functions not as a neutral transmitter of pre-existing ideas, facts, perceptions or feelings but as an agent of ambiguity and uncertainty. Indeed, Ducasse had already demonstrated in Maldoror the didactic method he would use throughout the Poésies.

We might say that Maldoror is a duplicitous defence of the unreasonable and the Poésies a duplicitous defence of the reasonable. In a recently published booklet, Lautréamont Nomad, Mark Polizzotti recommends reading the two works together ‘in the perspective of an infinite movement of evasion and disappearance’, and comments that the Poésies ‘protect Maldoror (and the entire opus) from being re-appropriated by the distributors of meaning’. Similarly, the English painter Trevor Winkfield told me once that what he most admired in Ducasse was that no definitive reading of his work was possible. I can add that, starting with my first simple-minded encounter with the Poéies, no two readings of my own have been alike. This is a predictable consequence of Ducasse’s mastery. In a sense he was too clever for his own good: like Kafka, he invalidated himself (except at the price of earnest misreadings) as a future Eminent Classic, an author who could in venerated monumentally represent a period, a tradition, a movement, a philosophical or political position. He relentlessly evaded the finalities that even minor monuments require.

The truth, the Poésies tell us, surpasses the strength of the mind: it is not something that can be straightforwardly written down. Reality cannot be identified as this or that: it’s more something like ‘not this’ and ‘not that’ in a state of perpetual flux, the direction of the flux being nowhere in particular. Nothing is stable but change; nothing is certain but ambiguity. Nor should these statements themselves be trusted. Meaning cannot be classified, except provisionally: it exists only as the movement through which conclusive events are shown not to exist. So we are left with the unpredictable experience of reading and the consciousness of that experience. Perhaps, while we read, that is what matters, and we have not given up anything of importance. A passage in Maldoror suggests that we do not have to spend a lifetime finding the right answers. The narrator is addressing the reader:

I do not wish to put your well-known passion for riddles to a severe test. Suffice you to know the mildest punishment which i can inflict upon you is still to make you realise that this mystery will not be revealed to you (it will he revealed to you) until later, at the close of your life, when you and your death-throes open philosophical discussions by your bedside – and perhaps at the end of this stanza.

But here as elsewhere, it may be foolish to draw any sort of conclusion from what we read. The passage may not mean anything at all.

Yet everything that happened was real, that summer evening.