Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Children drive the crone off with volleys of stones as if she were a crow

Le Comte de Lautréamont’s literary Satanism was old hat by 1868, when the first canto of Les Chants de Maldoror was published as a pamphlet.  The fifteenth century poet and thief François Villon comes first, followed by a marvelous parade of hedonists and heathens, many of them absolutely central to French literature, like Rabelais and Voltaire, and some, like the Marquis de Sade and Nicholas Restif de la Bretonne writing in the margins.

I mentioned in the comments yesterday that I found only one piece of Maldoror genuinely horrible, the long scene in Canto Three in which a mother tells us about the murder of her eight year old daughter.  The story also involves bestiality and vivisection.  It’s pretty rough.  Warning to those who want to be warned (about the book, no this post, where the worst is behind us).  Sensibilities will vary.

My understanding, which I do not want to confirm firsthand, is that Sade’s books are filled with shocking (or “shocking”) business of this sort, and here I suspect that Lautréamont is indulging in a Sadean scene.  Arthur Machen wanted to vaguely suggest evil.  Lautréamont goes ahead and shows it, convincingly, within the limits of prose fiction.  Meaning, it’s a terrible scene, and not necessarily much of a piece of writing, but it has a function in the book – Maldoror is not simply decadent, but evil – and is, after all, made up.

And even in this scene, Lautréamont builds in a lot of distance.  It begins rather differently:

Here comes the madwoman, dancing, while she dimly remembers something. Children drive the crone off with volleys of stones as if she were a crow. She brandishes a stick and looks like chasing them, then sets off again on her way. She has left a shoe behind and of this she remains unaware. (90-1)

The line about the children is soon repeated, word for word.  She drops a scroll.  An “unknown person” reads it later, locked in his room.  That’s where the murderous story appears, a story within a story in this text made of texts.  The reader, who may be the murderer, or may have dreamed or imagined the crime, burns the scroll.  And then, for the third time, “Children drive the crone off with volleys of stones as if she were a crow” (95).

The refrain is a reminder that Maldoror is in part a prose poem.  I doubt any of this would exist without the example of Charles Baudelaire, whose Paris Spleen had appeared by 1862, more or less.  “Let’s Beat Up the Poor!” Baudelaire cries, clubbing a beggar with a tree branch.  How seriously is one meant to take this? Lautréamont is working the same vein, whatever it is.  And, as I leaf through Paris Spleen, I am reminded that nothing Lautréamont wrote is as disturbing as the Baudelaire “poem” “The Rope.”  Not to me.

Yesterday, I was bibliographically negligent.  All quotations from Maldoror, translated by Alexis Lykiard, Allison & Busby, 1970.  In a footnote, Lykiard tells me that the crow up above should really be a blackbird (merle), “my one and only liberty with the text” (208).


  1. I don't envy the translator for a work like this, getting to know the text so intimately would be, um, maybe too weird, but I'd actually love to compare the two...

  2. Sade is not "shocking" but shocking, at least to me. He is also *extremely* tedious, as these sorts of scenes go on not for pages but for the entire book. Oh, that I had that part of my life back!

  3. Jenny, good point. What I think I actually meant was: shocking and (not or) "shocking." Meaning, Sade has the cheap stuff and the real thing. Or the real fake thing. Or whatever it is.

    The useful thing about Sade, as a comparison, is to remind me that while Ducasse may be working some similar ground, he's aesthetically so much more interesting.

    verbivore - You wonder, don't you? But Alexis Lykiard, the translator I'm using, absolutely loves Ducasse, and love translating him. The only notes in the book are about tricky translation problems!

  4. I'll have to look at it, today's mention of a hair and master coupling has got me dying to see the original. First stop - Gutenberg!

  5. verbivore, why is the hair interesting? Am I missing a reference? Or is this just wonderfully crazy?

  6. I think I'm just curious to look at French sexual euphemisms from the 19th century...but wonderfully crazy is a good enough reason!

    Typing that now just made me check the time period, which I had remembered from first reading this last week, as older, as 18th century. So maybe it isn't quite as tame (falsely, I mean) as I think.