Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The whole grind and saponification of ordinary metaphors.

I wish I knew what that means.  “Saponification” is related to the process of making soap.  Please see page 185 of Alexis Lykiard’s translation of the Maldoror of Isidore Ducasse for the full context.  No, I’ll tell you.

The commodore is reading a travel book to Mervyn, a student.  He, the commodore, wants his children to “learn to perfect the pattern of your style and to be alive to an author’s least intentions.”  But Mervyn is beyond learning, “finding it no longer possible to follow the reasoned development of sentences going through the whole grind and saponification of obligatory metaphors.”

What were this author’s least intentions?  So far this week, I have been calling the author the Comte de Lautréamont, but that was a pseudonym, apparently a character from a Eugéne Sue novel.  Isidore Ducasse was not a count but a punk kid, twenty-two or twenty-three while writing the self-published Les Chants de Maldoror.  He wrote one more pamphlet, Poésies (1870), also self-published, which I’ll to say something about tomorrow.  Then, poor fellow, he died during the Siege of Paris, of some combination, presumably, of malnutrition and disease.  Careful record-keeping was not the highest priority during the Siege.  His works were mentioned exactly once in a newspaper and then vanishd before their freakish rediscovery by a Surrealist.

So I don’t know what he intended.  Canto 3 contains an extended section in which the narrator, visiting a brothel, peeks into a room to see a giant ambulatory hair.  The hair tells its story.  Ducasse uses a refrain again, making the “poem” in the prose poem explicit:

And I wondered who his master might be! And I glued my eye to the grating still more eagerly!

The hair is disgusted by his owner.  He describes (tamely, for this book) his master’s coupling with a prostitute, all pain and degradation and membranes and armpits.  His master takes flight “with the wings which he had hitherto hidden under his emerald robe” (105).  I, the reader, had already expected something like this, so I was not too surprised when God himself returns to recover his lost hair.

This scene is about eleven pages long, so substantial, and varied, and plenty crazy.  I was eager enough, early on, to dismiss Ducasse as crazy, but the scene – most of Maldoror – is simply too written, too packed with unsaponified, non-obligatory metaphor.  There was a writer at work here.  What he would have given us without Baudelaire’s hard-fought innovations, I cannot guess, but Ducasse was truly receptive and conceptually pure, ready to move forward, whether or not he had a single reader.  Forward to – where?  I know, I know.  Meaning, I don’t know.

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