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10/25/2014

Raoul Vaneigem

Isidore Ducasse and Comte de Lautreamont in the Poems


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?
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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
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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).
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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
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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.)
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