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by Bamber Gascoigne

Comte de Lautréamont - pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse (1846-1870)


Uruguayan-born French writer, called the grandfather of surrealist poetry. Isidore Ducasse's fame rests on his notorious masterpiece, Les Chants de Maldoror (1869, Maldoror), a series of dreamlike and bizarre prose fragments, which he published under the pseudonym of Comte de Lautréamont. Ducasse died at the age of twenty-four, during the Siege of Partis in November 1870.

"I will state in a few lines that Maldoror was good during the first years of his life, when he lived happily. That is that. Then he noticed that he had been born evil: an extraordinary fatality!" (in Maldoror and Poems, by Comte de Lautréamont, translated by Paul Knight, 1978, p. 3)

Comte de Lautréamont was born Isidore-Lucien Ducasse in Montevideo, Uruguay. His father, François Ducasse, worked Deputy Secretary at the French Consulate. Jacquette-Celestine Davezac, Isidore's mother, was seven months pregnant on her wedding day. She died in December 1847.

Little is known of Ducasse's early childhood, or his life. Apart from certain allusion in Maldoror and Poésies (1870), the only biographial material consists of a birth certificate, half a dozen letters, his death certificate, and a studio photo of a long-legged young man in a frock coat, leaning against a pillar. At the age of thirteen, Ducasse was sent to France to acquire French education and training in engineering. He entered in 1859 the Imperial Lycée at Tarbes in the Hautes-Pyrenées, probably spending his school holidays with his relatives in Bazet, his father's birthplace. Three years later he left the school, and in 1863 he entered the Lycée at Pau (now the Lycée Louis-Barthou).

At school Ducasse distinguished himself in arithmetic and drawing, but he was also noted for his extravagances of thought and style. One of his schoolfellows recalls that Ducasse's "own brand of madness revealed itself definitively in a French essay in which with a dreadful profusion of adjectives he'd seized the opportunity of accumulating the most horrible images of death." (Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, translated by Alexis Lykiard, 1994, p. 271; originally published 1970) Gustave Hinstin, Ducasse's teacher, put him on detention for this essay.

After spending some years probably at Tardes, Ducasse visited Montevideo. According to Albert Lacroix, Ducasse's first publisher, he settled in Paris in 1867 intending to study at the Polytechnic or the College of Mining. He lived first in a hotel on Rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. Financially he was still supported by his father. With the help of his generous allowance, Ducasse was able shut himself off from bourgeois society and devote himself entirely to writing. "He was a tall young man, dark-complexioned, clean-shaven, nervous, but orderly (rangé) and hard-working," said Léon Genonceaux, who published Les Chants de Maldoror in 1890. "He wrote only at night, seated at his piano. Hew would declaim his sentences as he forged them, punctuating his harangues (prosopopées) with chords on the piano." ('A Note  on Lautréamont' by J. Laughlin, in Maldoror (Les Chants de Maldoror) by Lautréamont, translated by Guy Wernham, together with a translation of Lautréamont's Poésies, 1966, p. viii; originally published in 1943)

Ducasse's career lasted only two years. During this period he invented himself as an author and created his own aesthetic universe, by becoming in the beginning a published writer and self-confident breaker of taboos, and then a literary theorist and philosopher.

The first canto of Les Chants de Maldoror was published anonymously in Paris in 1868. It contained several references to Georges Dazet, Ducasse's friend at the lycée in Tarbet in 1861-62. In the second version of the canto, reprinted at Bordeaux in Evariste Carrance's anthology, Parfums de l'Ame (1869), his friend is simply "D..."

When the complete work was printed in 1869, Ducasse used the pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont, borrowed from the hero of Eugène Sue's Latréaumont (1837), set in the days of Louis XIV. In this final version the "D..." had completely disappeared, and was replaced by different creatures from octopus to vampire bat.

From the very first lines Maldoror makes it clear that it was not written for the readers of Sue's popular novels: "May it please Heaven that the reader, emboldened and become of a sudden momentarily ferocious like what he is  reading, may trace in safety his pathway through the desolate morass of these gloomy and poisonous pages." (Maldoror (Les Chants de Maldoror), p. 1) Maldoror, the title character and a alter ego of the narrator, is a Luciferian rebel, a shapeshifter, who has chosen evil over good, but who at the same time suffers from cruelty and occasionally feels pity. In canto III Maldoror rapes a young girl, sets his bulldog on her, and then cuts open her vagina with an American penknife. "From this enlarged trough he removed the internal organs, one after the other: the intestines, lungs, liver, and finally the heart itself were ripped from their roots and pulled out through the frightful aperture into the light of day." (Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, p. 115)

Fearing prosecution, Ducasse's Belgian publisher refused to distribute the work to booksellers. Maldoror went nearly unnoticed by the public. Ducasse himself said in a letter, that "the whole thing went down the drain." (Lautréamont and Sade by Maurice Blanchot, 2004, p. 156) Auguste Poulet-Malassis, who had published Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, mentioned the author in his Bulletin trimestriel des Publications défendues en France, imprimées à l'Estranger (October 1869): "The author of this book belongs to s species no less rare. Like Baudelaire, like Flaubert, he believes that the aesthetic expression of evil implies the keenest appetite for the good, the highest possible morale." (Literature and the Gods by Roberto Calasso, 2010, p. 87) And in the Bulletin du Bibliophile et du Bibliothécaire in May 1870 the reviewer wrote that the book will find a place among the bibliographical curiosities.

"For Ducasse, the imagination is no longer that abstract little sister, who skips rope in a square; you have seated her on your knees and you have read your perdition in her eyes. Listen to her." (André Breton, in The History of Surrealism by Maurice Nadeau, 1978, p, 81)

In 1869 Ducasse moved to 32 Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre and next year to 15 Rue Vivienne, and then to a hotel on Faubourg-Montmartre, as if he were trying to hide from something or someone. Between April and June 1870, he published two booklets of aphoristic prose pieces, Poésies, both printed by Balitout, Questroy et Cie. With Poésis Ducasse wanted to produce a counterpoint to the provocative and romantic theme of evil in Maldoror. "I have now completely changed my method," Ducasse wrote in a letter in February 1870, "from now on I will sing only of HOPE, FAITH, CALM, HAPPINESS, and DUTY." (Maldoror (Les Chants de Maldoror), p. ix)

Ducasse died during the siege of Paris, on November 24, 1870. His death certificate was witnessed by Jules-François Dupuis. Raoul Vaneigem published his history of surrealism, Histoire Désinvolte du Surréalisme (1977) under this name. "I shall leave behind no Memoirs," Ducasse stated in Poésies, terrified of being pinned down. (Maldoror (Les Chants de Maldoror), p. 305) His body was buried in a temporary grave in the Cemetière du Nord. In 1871 his remnants were moved to another place in the cemetery. Maldoror was republished in 1890 but it received little notice until André Breton rescued his work from obscurity. Breton copied by hand the only remaining copy of the Poems from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and republished it in the Dadaist review Littérature in 1919.  

Ducasse's often quoted simile in Les Chants de Maldoror become a slogan of Surrealist movement: "He is as handsome . . . as the chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella  on a dissecting table!" (Maldoror and Poems, p. 217) Another translation: "He is as handsome . . . as the fortuitous encounter upon a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!" (Maldoror (Les Chants de Maldoror), p. 262) Breton and Philippe Soupault collaborated on the play Vous M'Oublierez (1920), that featured Breton as an umbrella and Paul Eluard as a sewing machine; Soupault was a dressing gown. A group of surrealists caused havoc in the Bar Maldoror in Montparnasse. Breton declared, "We are the guests of Count Lautréamont!" (Revolution of the Mind: the Life of André Breton by Mark Polizzotti, 1995, p. 336)

When Baudelaire, Poe, Rimbaud, all in their turns, lost their appeal in the Surrealist circles, Ducasse stayed a star without dimming. His work has also inspired a number of artists, including Salvador Dali's etchings from 1934 and Man Ray's 'Enigma of Isidore Ducasse'  (1920) and 'L’Image d’Isidore Ducasse' (1933). Ray was introduced to Maldoror around 1914 by his first wife, the Belgian poetess Adon Lacroix. Jeremy  Reed's fictionalized biography, Isidore (1992), was based on the author's life. The performance artist Shishaldin told in 2004 that she was attempting to marry the Comte de Lautréamont by invoking an obscure clause in French law, which allows for the marriage between a living citizen and a dead fiancée. Much to her surprise, she learned that Lautréamont was already married to a Surrealist artist following the centenary of his death in 1970.

After Maldoror was canonized as a work of genius, its shocking scenes have been regarded as the essential part of its construction and philosophy, like in the works of Marquis de Sade. Moreover, in Lautréamont Nomad (1994) Mark Polizzotti argued that the average child is capable of imagining worse. Maurice Blanchot has emphasized that Maldodor's sadism is far from Sade. "In Lautréamont, there is a natural rebellion against injustice, a natural tendency toward goodness, a powerful elation that is, from the start, characterized by neither perversion nor evil." (Lautréamont and Sade, p. 63)

Ducasse mentions in a letter as his sources of inspiration the poetry of Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Byron and Baudelaire. Les Chants de Maldoror was comprised of six cantos, in which the pseudo-aristocratic voice of the narrator expresses his deadpan disdain for the the mankind. "Stupid and idiotic species! You will regret your conduct, I tell you! You will regret it, yes, regret it! My poetry shall consist of attacks, by every means, upon that wild beast, Man, and the Creator, who should never have begotten such vermin!" (Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, pp. 66-67) Full of contradiction, Maldoror mixes moralizing with macabre humor, warns of its corruptive power on its readers, but ends in catharsis, pretends to praise death, darkness, and cultural destruction, but basically re-established what it condemns. His heart longs for God, but he do not find what he is seeking; "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 unwashable hospital sheets, sat he who calls himself the creator!" (Ibid., p. 76) Many critics have discussed the autobiographical references given in the text and its homosexual elements. In 'canto IV' Maldoror confesses, the he has always taken fancy to the youngsters in schools and the mill-children. However, the sparse self-references in Maldoror add little to what we know of the life of the author.

For further reading: La réception de Lautréamont by Kevin Saliou 2021); The Last Songs of Autumn: The Shadowy Story of the Mysterious Count of Lautreamont by Ruy Camara (2009); Lautréamont and Sade by Maurice Blanchot (2004); Poetics of the Pretext: Reading Lautréamont by Roland-Francois Lack (1998); Isidore Ducasse: Auteur des Chants de Maldoror, par le comte de Lautréamont by Jean-Jacques Lefrère (1998); Lautréamont Nomad by Mark Polizzotti (1994); 'Introduction' by Alexis Lykiard, in Maldoror & The Complete works of the Comte de Lautréamont (1994); Lautreamont-Ducasse: Image, Theme and Self-Identity by Robert Pickering (1990); 'Lautréamont in Uruguay' by Oren E. Moffett, in The French Review 48 (1975); Lautréamont du lieu commun à la parodie by Claude Bouché (1974); Nightmare Culture: Lautréamont and 'Les Chants de Maldoror' by Alex De Jonge (1973); Lautréamont by Wallace Fowlie (1973);  Lautréamont à Montevideo by Alvaro Guillot-Muñoz (1972); Images de Lautréamont by Frans De Haes (1970); Lautréamont's Imagery, A Stylistic Approach by Peter W. Nesselroth (1969); Lautréamont et Sade by Maurice Blanchot (1949)

Selected works:

  • Les Chants de Maldoror, 1869
    - The Lay of Maldoror, 1924 (translated by John Rodker, 1924); Maldoror (Les Chants de Maldoror), 1943 (translated by Guy Wernham, 1943); Lautréamont’s Maldoror (translated by Alexis Lykiard, 1970); Maldoror and Poems, 1978 (translated by Paul Knight)   
    - Maldororin laulut (suom. Marko Pasanen, 2000)
  • Poésies, 1870
  • Poesies, etc, 1920
  • Les Chants de Maldoror, 1890
  • Preface a un livre futur, 1922  
  • Œuvres complètes, 1924 (edited by Philippe Soupault)
  • Oeuvres Complètes. Les chants de maldoror, correspondance. Presentation étude de notes, commentaires, 1946 (edited by Philippe Soupault) 
  • Les chants de Lautreamont et oeuvres complètes, 1947
  • Poésies, 1960 (edited by Georges Goldfayn and Gerard Legrand)
  • Les Chants de Maldoror, 1963 (preface by Jean Cocteau)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1969 (introduction by Marguerite Bonnet)
  • Maldoror & The Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, 1970 (translated by Alexis Lykiard)
  • Oeuvres Complète, 1970 (edited by Pierre-Olivier Walzer)
  • Oeuvres Complètes, 1970 (edited by Philippe Sellier)
  • Oeuvres Complètes, 1971 (edited by Marcel Jean and Arpad Mezei)
  • Oeuvres Complètes, 1973 (edited by Hubert Juin, preface by M.G. Le Clézio)
  • Poesies and Complete Miscellanea, 1978  (with English and French texts edited and translated by Alexis Lykiard) 
  • Maldoror and Poems, 1978 (translated by Paul Knight)
  • Les Chants de Maldoror; Poésies I et II; Correspondance, 1990 (edited by Jean-Luc Steinmetz)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1997
  • Œuvres complètes, 2009 (edited by Jean-Luc Steinmetz)
  • Les chants de Maldoror, 2016 (Alger: ENAG éditions)

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