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)
Published in 1973, Wallace Fowlie’s Lautréamont (Twayne's world authors series 284 France) is a 130 page volume designed to introduce Lautréamont to general readers of English. As such the chapters Les Chants de Maldoror and Poésies, which are also the titles of the only works by Lautréamont (the pen name of Isidore Ducasse) known to us, are little more than descriptions of the contents of those works, with an occasional psychoanalytical interpretation, and some of the latter seem questionable to me. For example, Fowlie sees Lautréamont’s need to write in the second section of the second canto as the need to masturbate, and flowing blood in that passage as sperm. In fact, Lautréamont’s rebellion against God, from whom he “received life like a wound”, involves a refusal to remain silent (and further, an effort to find his own words), a drama that links book, author and reader. The rebellion cannot be separated from the poetry, and the need to write is just that. Fowlie is correct to draw attention to the adolescent dimension of Maldoror but I can find no justification here to see a link to masturbation. Indeed there is every reason to take the passage exactly as Lautréamont presents it. Fowlie notes Lautréamont’s self-awareness, yet not only does he glaze over the surface of this passage, but throughout his reading he is often inattentive to the depth and breadth of Lautréamont’s lucidity. This is a curious characteristic of critics and readers alike: to look for something that isn’t there while ignoring the patently obvious. Lautréamont is especially susceptible to this phenomenon; everyone wants to wrangle him into his or her own theory of life. He is far more difficult than most writers to take on his own terms.
For the brief biographical details known about Lautréamont the best source I have seen is the bilingual edition of Poésies. This leaves Fowlie’s introduction and the two final chapters: Lautréamont and His Critics and Lautréamont and the Movement of Decadence. I find this excellent description of an artist in the introduction:
From childhood on, we learn to obscure desires and to rechannel instincts. Our so-called age of reason is the age when we learn that our real life cannot be lived in society, that precisely an art of camouflage has to be devised so that we may exist on two levels: one in the community of men, and one in the loneliness of the spirit which is also the freedom of the spirit.
Every writer whose work has continued to be meaningful is a scapegoat taking unto himself the guilt of humanity, representing humanity in its truest state, revealing what a man under the conditions of his ordinary life is disinclined or unable to reveal. [p 18]
Most useful to me in the chapter Lautréamont and His Critics is the synopsis of the French poet Aimé Césaire’s reading of Maldoror. According to Fowlie,
Césaire believes that in time Maldoror will be best explained by an historical and sociological interpretation. It is an epic denouncing a precise form of society that existed in Europe…. about 1865…. it will be clear that the omnibus episode, for example, is the allegory of a society where a few privileged people are comfortably seated and refuse to make place for a new arrival. [p 103]
It seems to me we are long overdue for such a reading, and the shadow of that orphan boy still pursues the carriage. I must respectfully disagree with Henry Miller, that “You will learn nothing from analyzing these ingredients and scaffoldings. Someone crucified himself: that’s all that matters.” All we have learned from the bombast of his article is how fully immersed in that society he continued to be when he wrote it—yes, of course, even as an American—and that the unsubstantiated notion of young Ducasse banging away on a piano persists in part because of it. Let us be done with romanticizing Isidore Ducasse. It is clear from the omnibus passage that its author lived in horror at what he perceived as a kind of zombie-world around him, at people who did not move and speak at will but as if from the programmed commands of unknown masters. Lautréamont’s constant teasing and taunting of the reader, which kicks into overdrive beginning with the fourth canto, is designed to provoke: Are you awake? Or are you another of the walking dead? When you speak, do you choose your own words, or do you merely parrot what you’ve heard? Do you even know how to read a book, or do you merely con the pages through the glasses of teachers, priests, and other “experts”? Wake up!
The challenge is as fresh today as when Lautréamont issued it, and reader upon reader continue to channel Maldoror into their pet ideologies—thought structures which in fact hold them on the end of a leash—rather than taking him on his own terms and accepting the challenge to think for yourself. The most insidiously persistent one is Lautréamont the Surrealist.
And so we come to the final chapter of Fowlie’s book, which is by far the most valuable part of it. Here he recognizes the seriousness of Lautréamont’s challenge:
Literature is primarily a movement of self-discovery. In its extreme examples…. almost equivalent to the beginning of madness. To know one’s self is dangerous…. The symbolic presentation of the writing, where it is impossible to fix on one meaning alone, where several interpretations occur to the reader, is a way of disguising the danger. The immediate literal interpretation is the shock of melodrama that holds the attention of the reader only momentarily. Then the plethora of possible meanings forms a kind of net in which the reader is caught. He flounders about trying to widen one of the meshes that will permit him to escape. [p 110]
Flowlie reads this plethora of meanings as the subconscious. I would point out in addition that Lautréamont’s “disguising” is a poetic artifice designed to mimic the situation we are always (already) in with regard to language. There is always another path to take. Fear of getting lost can be a tremendous motivator. In the section Images of the Labyrinth Fowlie recognizes that Lautréamont poetically constructs his labyrinth, and in doing so establishes the possibility of the reader seeing clearly into his own depths. I think Flowlie comes closest to the terrible truth of Maldoror when he writes, on page 113:
Society, which is nature provided with means to annihilate whatever is exceptional, cannot allow the extreme—beauty or genius—to exist for long. And then, the more mature and more mysterious beauty of Maldoror—like that of Milton’s Lucifer—is the disguise which permits him to carry out the destruction…. In the chaos of destruction there is always the chance for a new birth.
Let us remember that Lautréamont carried out his great work of literary rebellion at the end of a rotting civilization, and that he was followed by decades of intense war and upheaval. As Fowlie writes: “Ducasse appear[ed] as the setting sun of an aged civilization”, yet he heralded the violence that was to come.
And here too we see why Maldoror will always appeal to the youth of any generation who feel oppressed by their elders, and why the status quo will always feel threatened by it. Just remember, before you open that bottle, are you ready to drink? Read the first page of Maldoror, take it at face value, and know this is the most important work a person can undertake: to look inside and see who you really are. And, most importantly, what will you do with that information? The kind of destruction advocated by Lautréamont, which will always be in fashion, is the work we do on ourselves, to rout out the rotten discourses that infect our speech, and to discover the taste for our own tongues.