Isidore Ducasse and Le Comte de Lautréamont in the Poésies - Raoul Vaneigem

Isidore Ducasse Comte de Lautréamont

Written by Raoul Vaneigem for the Belgian academic journal Synthèses in the nineteen-fifties, long before he joined the Situationist International, this text outlines his idea that the work of Isidore Ducasse, Comte de Lautréamont, expresses the anarchist thought of the late nineteenth century.

Lautreamont entered literary history by way of his Songs of Maldoror, and, considering his having had a mastery as great as that of Isidore Ducasse, the author of the Poems, he was almost indebted to include him in it.[1] Of all the critical judgments, how many, by the embarrassment or flippancy with which they discuss the Preface to a future book, have in effect exonerated themselves for that tacit disavowal, that unspoken blame with which they treat the Poems? None, without a doubt -- no disaffection can be allowed to appear in their will to subject to the mechanism of a purely formal logic that delicate process whereby the multiple aspects of a single being are differentiated.

Is it necessary to remember the dilemma around which the majority of the explanations proposed up until the present have gravitated? They all talk about how the Poems followed Maldoror like a "conformism without nuances" follows a "revolt without mercy" (Camus); how the systematic nihilism of the Songs undertakes a new road, under a cynical mystification. In other words, either Lautreamont is renouncing it all (one couldn't better divide, and at the expense of a more complaisant example, Rimbaud's paradox), or he dissimulates. Either way, whatever he's doing, he betrays nothing; such an idealistic way of looking at Lautreamont could only have come from a state of mind quite preoccupied with its own reflections, and, consequently, very little concerned with concrete reality. Nevertheless, the problem of the Poems, complex as it is, in no way justifies the absence of an objective solution.

No one would dream of denying the influence of the biological, sychological, and social "object" on The Songs of Maldoror, no one since the perspicacious study by Leon-Pierre Quint has refused to discern, mixed into the work, three determinations, in strict interdependence, at play in Isidore Ducasse's life: a sexual aggressiveness, an ever more attested-to intervention of rational control, and an ethical-ideological content quite clearly centered on revolt. Of course, none of these characters manifest themselves in their pure states, with particularities defined once and for all, but each of them merge with their opposites, subject to the laws of interdependence, in a movement, a progression in which one only transforms itself by modifying the other. At each instant, control mates with and thus dissociates revolt and sexual aggression, as it does in Kafka, through a similar process, with analysis and syntheses, instinctive anguish and conscious responsibility.

That said, Maldoror ends up in the Poems. We specify: The Preface to a Future Book appears neither as the formal negation of the Songs, nor as their prolongation, but affirms itself, further, to be a surpassing in which Maldoror, albeit denied, offers by conserving in himself a synthesis of the contradictions that become critical in the 6th song and, from this fact, reveals himself to be, by a qualitative leap, the outcome of a transformation that remains, until Maldoror's disappearance, purely quantitative.

Between Maldoror and the Poems, it is the disparity that is felt above all else when reading the two works successively; it is a rupture of habit in the sensations, not -- a priori -- in the judgment, but (curious misunderstanding) as a function of the malaise born from the passage without transition from a whirlwind to a dead calm in which we decide to judge Isidore Ducasse's posthumous oeuvre; it is in the effervescence, the boiling, the Maldororean frenzy that we persist, once the content and the sense of revolt are neglected; it is to prejudge the Preface and its cold determination according to the passionate intensity of the Songs. Even so the astonishment born from this mastery, with which rational control passes to the work's foreground, and from the nimbleness in playing with the garrote around the neck of eroticism or the will of song 6 to change all the splashes of blood into splashes of ink, which the Poems would suffice to efface! The question must be posed: which causes presided over the elimination, in the heart of the last work of Isidore Ducasse, of every spontaneous, instinctive, uncontrolled element?

In point of fact, Ducasse liquidated his sexual problems, the strophe of the pederasts, midway between the avowal and the provocation. Without a doubt he would leave to an active conduct the need to normalize his psychological state, the need to reestablish within himself an equilibrium too long compromised by the taboos of a society he hated because he felt it to be all powerful. Other worries, whatever they might have been, polarized his faculties of analysis, and this, far from excluding it, unites with the preceding hypothesis interdependently. With the fall of Maldoror, the atrocious tete-a-tete between the self and solitude, between an exacerbated sensibility and an ocean of hate and passions, must have been shattered. Beyond the self, Ducasse discovers the world, ideas, and men, from whence comes the quest for a new truth, the Poems of and from the Sircos-Dame group.

The Poems attempt to materialize the triumph of lucidity over the confused forces of the unconscious; they consecrate, to speak like Nietzsche, the victory of the Apollonian over the Dionysian. Maldoror, in himself, carries the stigmata of the struggle. Never were the traces of such a combat more apparent in literary material. Lautreamont's lucidity is entirely reflected in his work; it transforms it to the extent that it progresses; it withdraws from Maldoror in order to reconstruct him. If originally it had narrowed itself to transforming and rationalizing the unconscious impulses at the conscious level, his lucidity rapidly acquires the power to empty them of their content, to arrange them according to the premises of an already defined ideological world: that of evil, that of Maldoror. Nothing better marks the the rhythm of the work than the constant regression of the concrete before the abstract. (An example amongst others: the struggle between Maldoror and the dragon, in the 3rd song, is translated by Evil's opposition to Hope, and announces the ironic commentaries of the 4th song). Awareness ceaselessly strips itself of its spontaneous instinctive elements, so as to raise a discursive autonomy, absolute to the point of having recourse to a concrete experience, with which it was nevertheless in solidarity from the beginning. This is the stage at which Maldoror, the new Rochambeau, commits himself to a fiction novel where "every effective ploy," as Ducasse announces, "will appear in its place."

The interest of the 6th song doesn't mediocrely reside in this double movement, in the simultaneous exposition of a reality perceived on the one hand -- that is, at the time of its incidence in consciousness -- in a symbolic form and as a sign or a concept, to be chosen as the object for useless speculations, when, on the other hand, an ever-more penetrating analysis led Lautreamont beyond the self, towards the exterior world, towards this same reality of which the echo weakens under the work's flourishes, under the free play of fiction. A critical stage not at all foreign to Lautreamont's genius, and that he dominates with his very particular talent for expressing to the point of sarcasm the troubles of a thinking seized, under its own reflections, at the end of a contradictory stroll. In fact -- naturalist descriptions and esoteric propositions aside -- Mervyn's death and the rebus of the 6th song prove this with the same extravagant precision, the same irony in the details; but Lautreamont's ambiguous laughter here stops masking the basic disharmony; it instead accentuates it, distending it to the point of antagonism and holds in place the three points that mark, with the impossibility of ending a verse, the desire to recommence the poem. The Poems respond to this desire. Ducasse surpasses the contradiction between realism and formalism, lifting himself to the level of philosophical systems, no longer on an arbitrary, conventional, unacceptable level, but doing so by means of his will to admit objective structures, and to treat them as a function of critical observation. The facts, freed of the lyricism that had transfigured them, swelled them like sails on the Maldororean sea, would be chosen, in the Poems, for their demonstrative or exemplary value. Touchstone: what bloody narrative, what crime of Maldoror's does not engender, in the torment of the Songs, a sinister evocation of Troppmann (whose name alone, illustrating the refusal of unchecked revolt, figures in an aphorism in this small book)?

There remains a third contradiction, this one on the level of ideas, on the plane of revolt. It is no longer Maldoror, imaginary being, accused man with the marbled lips, but the entire philosophical system that he had served as its illustration and its spokesman. It's about looking again at the problem of evil on the basis of new givens. From Evil, considered as immanent to the world, Lautreamont brought to life, with Maldoror, an acute, paroxysmal form of an unheard-of violence that he sent back against a universal, false good conscience, against a moral dryness which, according to him, was responsible for maintaining the Supreme Good in perpetual transcendence. Indeed, if Maldoror represents a step towards a better world, he would not be any less excluded from it. Was it not his malediction, his expression of the torment of the damned, to ride alongside Mario without confusing himself with him, to devastate, without seeing the "recommencement of everything" erected on the ruins that were so close to Netchaev? Whoever he was, Maldoror, the destroyer of evil, arose to the level of God, creator of this evil; he participates in the incessant regeneration of the world as an active supernatural force. Therefore, to the extent to which the sublime rebel lives, believes, develops himself along the thread of the book, a double failure announces itself and defines itself. Dissociated from the real by the very character of the work in its decline, Maldoror's efficaciousness and, consequently, the value of the principle he represents, get twisted up with vain phrases, and wriggles like a fly caught in a spider's web, before becoming immobilized in a confusion in which floats (helped by literary mastery) pure speculation, the acrobatics of formalism, and a certain kind of substitute for art for art's sake, which, if it satisfies the vanity of men of letters, falsely inscribes itself against the intent of the revolt. In these terms, whether one likes it or not, Ducasse remained a rebel his entire life -- a man for whom the world had to be changed, and who put himself to the task of making it change.

Why did Lautreamont repudiate the puppet Maldoror, rebellion for the hell of it, literary insurgency? This is explained easily. If Ducasse could have hoped for a reader close to his conceptions to give an attentive ear to the words his hero murmured insidiously to the child of the Tuileries ("Wouldn't you like to dominate your peers one day? . . . Virtuous and naive means get you nowhere . . . "), at least he could have judged to do otherwise when he let Maldoror get caught up in the role of nihilist buffoon. The scene with the insane Aghone is revelatory on this point: "What was Maldoror's goal? . . . To acquire a friend at all costs, one who would be naive enough to obey the least of his commands," wrote Ducasse, and he adds: "It was Aghone he needed." Maldoror, reduced to looking for his public amongst the delirious, lets us presume that there is a second reason for his rejection. The immobility of a complete revolt here takes on the vanity of violence unilaterally exercised against evil.

Since Good cannot, in the final analysis, be borne from Evil's self-destruction, the "premises are radically false"; it's only a step from there to the Poems, to the acceptance of good and the recognition of the author's appetite as the premier principle in the future negation of evil. With respect to the mythical aspect, deprived of efficaciousness, it will disappear to the profit of a direct language, of a clear, concise thinking, keeping nothing of the unreal besides the sometimes utopian content of aphorisms and maxims elsewhere resolutely directed towards action.

Ducasse did not choose between revolt and renunciation, but he passes from the thesis-antithesis opposition to a synthesis that forms the revolt of the Poems. If these started him down a road more in conformity with the reality of the world in which he lived, it must above all not be concluded that he was walking on clouds, nor even that he admits -- by what mystery of psychology? -- this state of fact against which he unleashed Maldoror, against which, with an equal fervor, the anarchist Emile Henry would launch, 25 years later, his hatred and his bomb. Certainly, violence lost its attraction, but without diminishing the will to oppose to the forces of evil the desire to attain, and to make humanity attain, a better life. If anyone has the right to speak of opposition, this will appear clearly as soon as they reconsider the Poems in the context of the epoch in which they were born. One forgets too often, beyond the fact that the aphorisms draw their meaning from the context and the system elaborated by Ducasse, that the refusal of war was contemporary with warmonger press campaigns (in 1870), that a great mockery addressed to the "novelists in the judge's seats" was going on at the same time as the indexing and prohibition of books by such writers as Houssay, Augier, Dumas, and others who went through the Troppmann process (see the account in the Marseillaise for 28 December 1869).

This recourse to the historical milieu is not only legitimated by good sense, but indeed the facts themselves demanded it. If internal causes constitute, as we have seen, the bases of changes, the condition of these changes must be researched in exterior causes as well. Once an element's passage from a liquid state to a gaseous state has been analyzed, to study the temperature at which this transformation took place imposes itself as a necessity. In the same way, we must explain the exterior influences that qualitatively differentiate the Poems from Maldoror.

For not having disturbed Ducasse as much as has been claimed, the failure of the Songs of Maldoror plays no less a very important role in its outcome. Not that it would be necessary to imagine, dictated by a desire for glory, some complaisant retraction of demands, but because the refusal of the book by the public and by the censors concretized and practically proved the vanity of an already denounced revolt in the work and in the thought of the author.[2] "Everything has sizzled down. That made me open my eyes," he wrote to Darasse. Why not set down the pen after that, and disappear behind the cloak of the anonymous intellectual? It must have been because, parallel to Maldoror's failure, the success of the ideas developed in the Poems was affirmed at the same time in the spirit of Ducasse and his entourage. When he prepared his volumes for publication, he was no longer alone. His "philosophy of poetry" would encounter, he knew, the adhesion of a literary group, of a movement of youths whose still-uncertain ideas were expressed in the reviews Youth (which would become "The Union of the Youth") and The Literary, Philosophical and Scientific Future. The directors of these reviews were none other than Alfred Sircos and Frederic Dame, both cited in the dedication of the Poems. The goal? An editorial from Youth clarifies it: "Let us work, then, my brothers, to render to humanity its beautiful prerogative: love. I am speaking to you, soldiers of intelligence: writers, poets, publicists, artists. . . . The progress of the moral order can only begin today." Ten degrees more style and we find ourselves on the level of the Poems. Compare the massacre of the "soft great heads of our century" to Dame's advice: "The best way to fight this moral decadence that is invading us is to study the modern press, which has so much contributed to this sad result." The Poems tend to affirm themselves as the manifestations of an innovative movement, as Ducasse appears to be the most lucid and most consequential exponent. Did he not proclaim his kinship with the "moral recovery" team when he wrote -- as if to echo this preamble to one of the reviews: "The future, that is, Evil making room for Good, the Ugly making room for the Beautiful, the Small making room for the Great" -- his famous exergue in the Poems: "I replace melancholy with courage, doubt with certainty, despair with hope, meanness with goodness, laments with duty, skepticism with faith, sophisms with the coldness of calm, and haughtiness with modesty"?

Nothing in the aforementioned should surprise us. Ducasse had, more than once, to face such questions with Alfred Sircos, the only critic who was sufficiently clairvoyant to salute the appearance of the first song of Maldoror and who was able to write (under the pseudonym Epistemon): "This work will not end up confused with the other publications of the day -- its uncommon originality is guaranteed to us." A second witness to the relations that united the two men: the little books were pressed at the Gabrie Bookstore, 25 Verdeau Passage, exactly where The Union of the Youth had its offices. Conscious of the support and the efficacity that his way of thinking found there, Ducasse had no longer any reason to defer a complete elaboration of the new views, which would have unnerved his contemporaries. The Preface to a future book, by joining the timid conceptions of the Sircos-Dame movement (still not organized), surpassed them on the way towards a more original solution to the problem, a solution received by Maldoror's lineage and determined to no longer set aside the concrete, the real struggle, the militant organization whose rules of action would be laid out in a latter development of the Poems. That's why every study must from here on out be founded, not only on the Maldoror-Poems dialectic, but also on the historical context which gave birth to them, on the interactions of the time, and the evolution, as much psychological as ideological, of Lautreamont himself. Thus, it must be admitted that the Poems addressed themselves above all to the men of the crumbling Second Empire, as Fourier's Theory of Universal Unity demanded the support in advance of contemporary philanthropists; on this condition, one understands how much the fumbling work of Ducasse reflects the slow awakening of the oppressed; how, alongside Maldoror, a monstrous individualism -- a will to live for himself in spite of the others, in the milieu of a world in which each lived for himself in the fear of others -- was born and developed for all the desire to live, to realize itself in a society in which the general interest anticipates the interests of each. Thus conceived, all analysis ends up by stating: Maldoror and the Poems appeared without appeal as the reflection of the double tendency of the anarchist movement: its perpetual oscillation between pure violence and reformist utopia.[3]

[1] Translator's note: Of course "Comte de Lautreamont" was Isidore Ducasse's pen-name. Les Chants de Maldoror was first published in 1868; the Poems in 1870.

[2] Author's footnote: Dante and Milton, hypothetically describing the infernal wastelands, proved that they were hyena of the first species. This proof is excellent. The result was bad. Their books didn't sell.

[3] Translator's note: In 1960, Vaneigem forwarded this text to Henri Lefebvre, who in turn forwarded it to Guy Debord. The next year, Vaneigem joined the Situationist International.

(Written by Raoul Vaneigem in 1956. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! October 2006.)