Monday, August 5, 2013

Announcement

The Bricoleur blog is no longer active. Some of the articles continue to receive traffic and even an occasional follower so for now I will leave them online. Other posts have been or will be deleted. I am currently blogging at The Mockingbird Sings. If you like the things you've read and seen here please follow me at The Mockingbird Sings

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Riptides

My poem Riptide can be read at Poetry24. It's a response to recent events at Pass-a-Grille beach, where I go all summer long, as well as a reflection on dangers that overtake a person unawares. 

And here is an excerpt from my unpublished short story, also entitled Riptide. It concerns a young woman, unnamed, who falls into dangerous reveries on her childhood when new neighbors move in and engage in screaming matches. 


Riptide (excerpt)

Home from work she lies in bed and gazes up at the ceiling. Spreads her arms and legs and becomes hypnotized by the revolving ceiling fan blades. For this is part of childhood too: dazing, letting the mind go numb. Her bedroom window opens onto the neighbors’ window, just a few feet away.

So close they were almost twins, or so it seemed to those outside the family. To her they could not have been less alike: she a blonde, her sister brunette, just the first most visible difference. They had different temperaments. Her sister fiery, impulsive, disobedient, argumentative. She a conciliator, cautious, well behaved. Yet she could take on some of her sister’s characteristics when she had her back to the wall, just as her sister could, at times, be not so much calm and behaved as strangely placid and disengaged. Her sister ran away periodically, sometimes staying away for days, sometimes brought home by police. These were disturbing times, for no one in the family was close enough to her to learn about her adventures. She would come back with an odd appearance in her eyes—staring, silent. Later she learned to recognize the look of being stoned. Sometimes she ran off with boys, some of whom were frightening, like the one with facial scars and false teeth from a motorcycle accident who was always smoking a cigar. Some thought that her sister deliberately sought out shocking partners, but in truth she was simply accepting love and friendship wherever it was offered. She never outgrew a childlike willingness to give herself totally to anyone who would accept her. A dangerous defect of character, or a sign of fragility? Was it her sister’s fault if everyone but the freaks were scared away?

She is tired. But when she tries to sleep her eyes open themselves, as if there is something she has to see. What is it? Or that she has to be open to something, receptive, ready. For what? What are you doing? the voice shrieks. What the fuck are you doing? Get the fuck out of my purse. Don’t you slam that! I’ll slam it! the other voice thunders, as the sound of a door being repeatedly slammed resounds between the two houses, echoing off a dozen surfaces. She moans and rolls out of bed. Her inactive body is sore, as if from an intense workout. She grabs the iPod from her nightstand and puts the headphones over her ears. She begins listening but after a second hits the “stop” command and pulls the headset away from her ears. The slamming has stopped but the arguing continues. She shuts her eyes tight, as if that is the best way to block out noise. But she is really just wincing, forcing herself to hear the sounds. The technique is similar to that of warding off stuck-tune-syndrome. As the tune asserts itself, begins to take hold and spin itself into the gears of consciousness, one fights back by singing the tune with vigor, by improvising on it like a jazz musician and finally distorting it and breaking it up beyond recognition. She tries to imagine thunder, a storm that will pass, that their fury will pass and they will go back to making a fuss over the dog, then run out to buy dinner. Since they slip in and out of these modes, since it is the normal pattern of their lives, can she not adapt, roll with the waves?

But these people are experts. She cannot even tell if today is particularly different or just like any other day of her life. She would like to know, would like to apply her thoughts to the question as if to a problem of mathematics. But there is no way to gain access to an outside view. She is too much in herself—that much she knows. This knowledge creates a fragment of distance, a niche of resistance. But she has fallen into a hole. She uses these exact words. A moment comes when she says to herself, “I’m in a hole. I’m in a hole and I can’t get out through my own efforts. If someone, or some word, or some thing, were thrown my way...” The best thing, it seems, is to wait. Eventually the niche will give way to the crook of a finger, and this will broaden into a handhold, or perhaps she will suddenly find herself out of the hole, with no knowledge of how the escape took place.

That morning she had looked through a magazine and read a little review of a book. The book urged people to live in the present, that the present is eternal, whereas to contemplate the past or to hope for the future leads only to anguish. The present now swims before her, all around her. It is an ocean, a cosmos of swirling molecules. She, in her hole, has become a sealed capsule, floating. Without the aid of the past, or a hope for the future, how can she penetrate the seal, make contact with the present? I know every inch of what belongs to me! If I see so much as one scratch, if one hair is disturbed on my puppies I’ll call the police! You don’t think I’m serious do you? Well you just try me motherfucker. You wanna play I’ll play. I’ll call the police on you motherfucker! 

She opens her eyes, gazes about her room. A fresh cotton shirt is draped over the chair. A shaft of light projects the path of motes around around and down, down to the hard terrazzo floor. On her nightstand the iPod filled with the music that makes her feel good, right by the phone and a glass containing a small portion of water. “I should drink some water,” she thinks. “I should call the police.” She does not move. Nothing would be easier than to reach for the life-giving glass, yet she lies still. All goes black and the swirling present becomes a dizzy void, as if a trap door in the cellar of her self has tripped open. You can only fall so far into yourself, apparently, before you fall through and then, who are you? You are that which can still call out, can search for something, some bit of flotsam....



This is best played LOUD. Lou Reed's Riptide is far better than either of mine, and this is one of his finest performances on guitar. He mentions Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows, but when I hear the song another painting comes to mind:

 Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Blanchot's 'The Experience of Lautréamont'


My slumbers—if I slumber—are not sleep,
But a continuance, of enduring thought….
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.
—Lord Byron, Manfred


Maurice Blanchot’s book Lautréamont and Sade (Sade’s Reason followed by the much longer essay, The Experience of Lautréamont), first published in 1949, begins with a short preface entitled, What is the Purpose of Criticism? Here he defines criticism as that which

represent[s] and follow[s] outside what, internally, like a shredded affirmation, like infinite anxiousness, like conflict, does not cease to be present as a living reservoir of emptiness, of space, of error, or, better yet, as literature’s unique power to develop itself while remaining perpetually in default. [pp 4-5]

I have emphasized the word “outside” in following Foucault’s phrase about Blanchot: “thought of the outside.” It is outside simply because it is outside the work of literature it takes as its subject, yet it is an unusual kind of outside, since Blanchot insists that criticism is “nothing” in the sense that it disappears when it establishes its purpose, that it “drifts into transparency” in the face of the literary object, while at the same time maintaining that criticism enters the creative space of the object, mirroring the experience of its manifestation, how it became just as it is and not some other poem or novel.

Blanchot’s definition of criticism continues in the essay on Lautréamont, by becoming not only a critique of criticism (as commonly practiced at the time), but also by necessarily critiquing himself in producing an “outside” of the creative experience of Maldoror, a text that perpetually critiques itself. In doing so Blanchot has produced a phantom which is nevertheless real, a kind of ghost companion to Maldoror, reproducing the shapes and patterns of its maneuvers in numerous descriptions of Lautréamont’s language as intricate and beautiful, in their own way, as their subject. Here is one:

At this moment language also succumbs to a new anxiety, and the labyrinth that it seeks to be, the solemn and endless progression of words, images that, at the very moment when the syntax, continuously slower, seems to be lost in lassitude, follow, on the contrary, an ever more rapid rate, so that we no longer have the time to experience them completely and we leave them unfinished, acknowledging them less for what they signify than for their movement, the continual passing of one into another, a passage even more violent than the contrast of these images, though always linked together by the strong coherence of the discourse and by a secret connivance: such disorder, such order, such an effort to use logic to distract and in order to push speech a little outside of its meaning, implies the imminence of a transformation, after which language will itself have stepped into another existence…. And Maldoror, the poetry of Maldoror, takes itself as its object. While language seems to want to develop outside of clear consciousness, a consciousness extended further around the work recomposes itself. It is the work that contemplates itself…. [p 113]

Here and throughout the essay, in describing what Blanchot calls “the experience of Lautréamont”, his descriptions echo that experience. Lautréamont would seem to have provided the model itself for the type of criticism Blanchot would like to write: it is a vigilance that, with its eye ever on its subject (it does not give in to the temptation to say more than the subject says, to focus exclusively on one of its possibilities or to paste an exterior judgment on it from the outside), never loses sight of its own movement through its travels across the text. The experience of reading does something to the reader. He is not an impassive observer imparting a definitive statement after the fact. Certainly Maldoror “means” many things, but its ultimate meaning is this experience.

Blanchot describes the experience of Maldoror in many ways: as improvisation, as a particular kind of movement, as thought that creates itself as it goes, as an endeavor of the writer to sever himself from the thought of others and to surprise himself, and above all as lucidity, but a complete and double lucidity which is tied to the movement of the text (all elements that an attentive reader will see in the text of Maldoror). The essential movement of the text is Lautréamont’s spinning in and out of himself:

a tendency to return to the center—in other words, to be concentrated around the point where the passage from the most sweeping movement to a state of rest is about to take place—and a projective tendency, a result of the displacement from the center by the same forces that seek, that desire this center, and yet, almost at the limit, reject it ad infinitum…. a figure of cyclic obsession…. a general principle of explication, that of convergence-divergence…. where purely poetic lucidity is unified with purely rational lucidity. It is in fact at this moment that one feels bound to link reason and madness, clarity and opacity, within him. [p 90]



“Within him” Blanchot writes, and yet, in tracing the fierce lucidity of Lautréamont, pure as a flame, Blanchot too reaches points of opacity. At least I lose sight of him; he disappears. How is it that extreme lucidity becomes extreme opacity and then unbearable burden? Perhaps it’s because the mind can never be free, that the freedom of the mind “is itself only a prison” [p 115], that language by its very nature is connected to the speech of others (“If I utter a word, I bring into play the thought of other people.” —Georges Bataille, Guilty), and that at its most independent language becomes “a blade so sharp that, by whatever side one grasps it, it cuts, it cleaves” [p 85], and that, in the end, the adventurer, so far out, can only cry: Free me from the too long speech.*


*Maurice Blanchot, Le pas au-delà

drawing by Mark Kerstetter


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Borges: False Flaws, Holes & Falls


Say that 10 times fast.

In my article on Borges’ The Congress at Escape into Life, I may seem to have argued that the story is perfect. In fact this most representative of his stories contains a rather glaring flaw. One will notice that the brief passage on Ferri’s involvement with the English woman Beatrice feels out of place. It is the only false note in an otherwise perfect work, and it occurs in one sentence: “Oh nights, oh shared warm darkness, oh love that flows in shadow like a secret river, oh....” [translation Andrew Hurley] The sudden rhapsodic series of “oh’s” interrupts the style of the narrative—but for only one sentence. Is it a flaw? Most certainly. My observation is not keen. The flaw is too ostentatious, and Borges too skilled a craftsman for it to be unintentional. An explanation might go:

‘One must remember that the narrator of The Congress admits to never having attempted narrative prose. Moreover the time that he was recounting was one of immaturity. The future author of A Brief Examination of the Analytical Language of John Wilkins had, at the time, just become acquainted with the verse of Swinburne and thus with the eye-opening knowledge that there were writers in the world better than his best friend. Borges constructed this little flaw to illustrate Ferri’s inadequacies, or at least to make the tender time of his immaturity apparent.’



But a shift in style isn’t necessary to demonstrate Ferri’s immaturity, and it is implausible to suppose that Ferri, in his maturity, slips into the linguistic skin of his immaturity simply by recounting an episode from his youth—unless he is quoting himself. But why should Borges find it important to illustrate his narrator’s shortcoming in this area? Why should he want to mark off, in an unmistakable way, the Ferri of youthful abandon from the Ferri of seventy-plus years—the Ferri who tells us “years do not change our essence”?

In 1948, twenty-seven years before The Congress appeared, Borges had published an essay touching upon another Beatrice. The subject of The False Problem of Ugolino concerns a “deliberate false note” in the Commedia of Dante. Borges concluded that “uncertainty is part of Dante’s design”:  

“Ugolino devours and does not devour the beloved corpses, and this undulating imprecision, this uncertainty, is the strange matter of which he is made. Thus...did Dante dream him, and thus will the generations dream him.”


How are we to dream Ferri? Perhaps Borges’ precise intentions can never be known. Everything in The Congress but this one sentence is exactly what it seems. Before the congress is even described Borges is content to reveal what it is and what its ultimate conclusions are. There is nothing particularly profound about Ferri’s initial comment, “I alone know...” Such considerations do not mark off The Congress from any other amusing tale. But the effect of this irresolvable question is not just to ponder an uncertain quality in Ferri which we are certain Borges wrote into him. We also question the author himself. And why shouldn’t we, since he likes to implicate himself in his designs? We’ve seen him do this before, and its effect is like that of a worm-hole between dimensions: the space of the words on the page, the time of the man who wrote them, the time of the reader who contemplates them. Borges did not invent this paradigm. Indeed it is one of his curious contradictions that he did not care for the types of modern artists who, along with him, developed this genre. But The Congress is one of the most perfectly executed, concise and beautiful examples of it.

If one of the things that makes a work great is the existence of a flaw, a hole, a window, some place granted by the artist through which the viewer/reader can enter and exit the work at will, with his own thoughts and feelings—and if in some instance we cannot determine the precise intentions of the artist—this only means that a work containing such a device will be pondered that much longer by the living.

I have read that Borges disowned some of his early essays* and I have been puzzled by this. After all, apart from being excellent, they express ideas that he returned to time and again. I began to realize that the form of some of the early essays was too univocal for the man that he became. As time went on his mind grew. He seems to have wanted not so much to contain diversity as to construct an aleph of words: a single pair of eyes channeling that famously wide vision onto a sober page of classically ordered words, to be taken up and placed before the eyes of the reader. The importance of the classical style to Borges’ vision cannot be overestimated. It is tempting to see Borges as a philosopher, but this is not the case. Borges does not offer a set of ideas or a system of thought. He offers a type of vision, a way of seeing. Not a set of ideas with which to order reality and structure one’s life. But a challenge to see as much as possible, to let in as much as possible, to put this thing up against that thing, to let them play, to watch the sparks and view the wonders, calm and sober—and all with a concise little device of words.



* This and the quotations from his Dante essay can be found in the Selected Non-Fictions.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Go While You Can: The Replacements

Go while You Can by MK on Grooveshark


How to write about The Replacements without coming off like a rock critic, a star-struck fan or even without writing a personal essay (‘I am the fifth Replacement because….’)? And I don’t know how to do it without jamming all of these things together somehow. This is, after all, a band that smashed it all together: punk, country, blues, Dylan and the Beatles—into a drunken rambling rock ‘n roll sideshow. I want to avoid saying something that might annoy Paul Westerberg (singer, songwriter and guitarist of the band). Fat chance he’d ever hear it, but still he’s one of my favorite writers and I don’t want to pile on the superlatives. He is someone who, by all appearances, has worked hard his whole life not only to find and reveal his art, but also to aggressively avoid and sometimes kick down common notions of artistic greatness and rock stardom. So you’re an artist? he would seem to say, So what? Think you’re better than a truck driver? Think again. Oh shit, did I just put words in his mouth? Well, fuck me.

The Replacements are my favorite rock ‘n roll band, I can’t help that. They’re my folk  music. Some people, when they think of folk music, may have visions of Joan Baez and This Land is Your Land, and that’s fine. But for me it’s Highway 61 Revisited, it’s The Replacements. Folk music, for me, is down home music. It’s not that which expresses ideals and aspirations or that which evokes a higher plane of consciousness. It does not induce a meditative state that can transport the listener’s spirit to a better place, or even drive the body to swing in harmony to the cosmos. Folk music is down home where you live. It’s about what’s really going on, not what you may want or wish but what is. It’s not the $100 stone crab special occasion dinner, it’s the plate of sardines and spaghetti you had after a suck-ass day at work. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try…. Take the anthem Goddamn Job. No song could express more clearly the feeling: you go from one no-future minimum wage job to another, can’t last longer than six months or so in one of them before you’re ready to tear the place apart or put a gun to your mouth. The freedom of I quit! On the street, jobless, hands in empty pockets, free! But it can only last a couple of weeks. And you’ve got to get another one. And you’ll eat every drop off that plate.

Every year around July 4th I think about Stuck in the Middle. This is American Independence Day and whatever else it means it’s a couple hundred million backyard barbeques. It’s burgers and potato salad and sparklers and beer and rock ‘n roll. Somebody gets too drunk, a baby’s crying from the noise, another worries that the boys are being reckless with the fireworks and nobody thinks about midnight rides, shoeless soldiers and freedom. Nobody thinks about American independence but everyone’s together. In that moment everyone knows implicitly that this is as good as it gets.

Like other listeners, I’ve always felt like Westerberg was singing about my life. I even identify with the name of the band, not ambiguous or ambivalent, but outright schizoid: Here we are, standing in for those blowhards you’ve come to expect. Who are we? Just the warm bodies here, where we are. The sarcasm, the rage, the selfish hurt, the insecurity and self-mockery, but also the empathy for the unknown and the unsung—these are the primary emotions at play on the eight disks made by The Replacements. As long as I’ve been writing poetry I’ve realized that my personality is a weird and disturbing mix of Ego and self-effacement. That’s why The Replacements are my band.

They’re the most famous unknown band in the world. I forget who said that. When Musician Magazine named them in 1989 the “last best band of the 80’s” (they formed in 1980 and split up in 1990) Jon Bon Jovi wrote the editor to say, “How can they be the best band of the 80’s when I’ve never heard of them?”* Six months after Don’t Tell a Soul was released it went to the cutout bins.

The demands made upon you are hard to live up to
It’s futile to try and deny
And the things you hold dearly are scoffed at and yearly
Judged once and then left aside

’Cause they’re blind
They hold you too close to the light
And I see what they only might if they’d learn
But they’re letting you burn ’cause they’re blind

To the brown-eyed beholder, see the chip on your shoulder
That fools everyone to believe
That you’re so hard to talk to and so easy to read through
Yet nobody looks past your sleeve, yeah

’Cause they’re blind
They hold you too close to the light
And I see what they only might if they’d learn
But they’re letting you burn ’cause they’re blind

They’re Blind, Paul Westerberg

Supposedly there are financiers waving wads of cash in front of Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars (who’s a visual artist now) and Paul Westerberg, trying to entice them to get back together. I hope they never do, but either way my copy of Don’t Tell a Soul will always have a little notch cut out of the corner of it. Is that too precious? Yeah, I guess it is. As precious as the guitar solo at the end of Sixteen Blue, nothing but a held note and a la-di-da. The aura of The Replacements, or their mystique, if you will, lives in the hearts of their fans, but also, and more importantly, in the songs of Paul Westerberg. When Glen Campbell chose a Westerberg song to head up his final album and tour, the Mats persona of the left-behind became something new, poignant and frankly beautiful, and with the kind of polished sound only Campbell could bring: darlin’one, your time has come.



*The Replacements All over but the shouting: an oral history by Jim Walsh

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Lautréamont and the Misuse of Form

Isidore Ducasse, who wrote as Comte de Lautréamont 

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 (Kindle Edition Locations 505-507)

Lautréamont warns at the outset not to tread lightly into the six “poison-soaked” cantos of Maldoror, and I offer an apology for the name-dropping in this article, something I normally avoid. I think it’s necessary in this case because after nearly 150 years Maldoror still has not been historically situated beyond the cartoonish outlines of a “precursor of Surrealism”. I have no stake in academic orthodoxies; it’s just that I don’t like to see the careless treatment Lautréamont has received throughout the decades, not only by scholars but by his fans as well. He deserves better.

The reader would do well to heed Lautréamont’s 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. And those who love it want to 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 there, in the shadows, Lautréamont waits for the negligent reader, for whom he reserves a special scorn.

And so, since diligence is a special concern of this poet, I have chosen to write about Lautréamont the teacher, how throughout Maldoror he is interested in showing us not merely how to read, but how a free, healthy individual should approach language. Other aspects of this incredibly rich and multi-layered book have been explored by others, particularly its rebellious and blasphemous aspects and the question of evil. It must be said that 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 are much less likely to appreciate the violence of this book. Please bear this in mind as you read what I have to say, whether you are someone who does not know what to make of the book’s violence, or someone who is thinking of troubling me with accusations of coldly intellectualizing an emotional book.

Utilizing a unique brand of sarcasm, Lautréamont the teacher demonstrates how to escape the yoke of oppressive ideologies. He does this through a series of verbal gymnastics in which he stretches a wire between rhetorical posturing and poetic outbursts, then runs back and forth with asides to the reader, daring him to follow. To be sure 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 talk about the literary mashup, the term popularly used to designate a hybrid text. 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 around the same time the Surrealists were doing their thing. 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 quite clear in his trilogy. 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 I have already mentioned, with the addition of Nietzsche, Whitman, Pessoa, Artaud, Genet and others.

René Magritte, illustration from Maldoror

I have said that Lautréamont is teaching us something to do with language, how we inhabit the discourses we use or, conversely, how discourses use us to perpetuate themselves, like that virus Burroughs wrote about. This 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 as a contrasting device. 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 texts on Natural History, straight-ahead narrative, parodies and nonsense. To these must be added an essential aspect of Maldoror: the writer’s awareness of his function, which is the key to all Post-Modern art.


Let us now see if we can follow Lautréamont through one of his verbal gymnastics. Shortly into the fourth canto, after describing the hideous scene of a man hanging from a gibbet and whipped by two repulsive hags, Lautréamont hesitates only to bog the narrative down in scholastic criterions of establishing certitude, then proclaims: “It is understood (if not then do not read me) that in saying this I am merely introducing the timid personality of my own opinion: yet far be from me the thought of renouncing indisputable rights!"* Is he mocking such language? Is he mocking the notion of objective truth?


Lautréamont is interested in contrasting the linguistic forms of subjective and objective truth, and while doing it having a laugh. In the end that which is upheld is the rhetorical figure of the representation itself, meaning Lautréamont’s “truth” is simply the force of his language, his poetry. Let us trace the 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. He ends by placing reason on a throne, yet crowns it with the hard rationality of a wild wolf:

The wolf no longer passes beneath the gibbet which the joined hands of a mother and a wife erected one spring day, as when he used to take in his bewitched imagination the path to an illusory meal. When he sees on the horizon that head of black hair, cradled by the wind, he does not encourage his power of inertia but takes flight with incomparable swiftness. Must we see in this psychological phenomenon an intelligence superior to the ordinary instinct of mammals? Without vouching for anything and without even conjecturing, it seems to me that this animal understood what crime is. How could he fail to understand it when human beings themselves have rejected to this indescribable point the empire of reason in order to allow to subsist in place of this dethroned queen nothing but ferocious vengeance!


Or, to be exact, he does not place the wolf on a throne, for it is a human construction, and this is precisely what the wolf is reasonable enough to reject. Having established the authority of his voice (if you do not think so, you will not read him), Lautréamont simply states his opinion: wolves are more reasonable than men because, in silence, they reject the laborious, impotent reasoning of men. 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. 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. I wonder how distressed Lautréamont would have been to learn of the recent field studies that show chimpanzees making war on their own kind? Or does his glorification of animals mask a denial of his own?

I cannot love you, I detest you. Why do I return to you, for the thousandth time, to your friendly arms which part to caress my burning brow…. Tell me this Ocean…. (me alone, for fear of distressing those who have yet known nothing but illusion) whether the breath of Satan creates the tempests that fling your salty waters up to the clouds…. 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!

From the 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 ideas stem from the subjective will, then, without trust, it will be necessary not to walk in another’s shoes so much as to inhabit their skin itself. Impossible. And for some readers such passages represent nothing other than colorful rhetoric. But others will apply Lautréamont’s methods to their own life.


By the end of Maldoror Lautréamont envisions a future when a “less abstract power will be communicated” to the three entities: the writer, the 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 has yet to be fully explored. Unfortunately, we’re living in a time when writers have largely turned their backs on the possibility of a less abstract power realized, through poetry and fiction, in the body of man in this world. Entertainments and distractions on the one hand, and bland literary sausages churned out by creative writing programs on the other, largely hold sway, at the expense of coming to terms with one’s subjective truths. The innovations of modernism have largely been rejected as (ironically) too abstract, as too much work, as too artificial or artsy-fartsy, and yet we need the lessons of writers like Lautréamont now more than ever. We need writers who can teach us the ancient powers of rhetoric and sophistry, whose examples can show us how to escape the marauding clutches of discourses—whether they originate from churches, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, the news or the think tanks of the State Capitals of the world—that hijack our very thoughts. We need poets who demonstrate 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. Therefore, 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 translations of Maldoror by Guy Wernham, published by New Directions, except as indicated by *, translated by Paul Knight, published by Penguin.