Monday, June 7, 2010

How astonished he was to see Maldoror, changed into an octopus - the startling Comte de Lautréamont

I received life like a wound, and I have forbidden suicide to heal the scar.  I want the Creator – every hour of his eternity – to contemplate its gaping crevasse.  This is the punishment I inflict on him. (90)

I’m continuing last week’s Satanic theme, where the reader encountered the devil in person in James Hogg’s slippery novel, and heard rumors of the devil in Arthur Machen’s silly story.  I do not believe that the devil gets more than a nod in Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) by Le Comte de Lautréamont, but the novel or prose poem is genuinely Satanic, a sustained, brilliant, insane attack on God.  Not God as a concept, which is taken for granted, but God as an existing being, or perhaps a character.

I am pretty sure that the intellectual content of Maldoror is standard reverse theodicy, or whatever the right term is.  Rather than justify the existence of evil in the face of God’s omnipotence, Lautréamont and his stand-in Maldoror blame God for all evil, and thereby embrace evil as the proper means of worshipping God.  Or of attacking God, which, by Satanic logic, might be the same thing.  By the time he was writing, this was a long French literary tradition.

So the malodorous Maldoror spends his time, just as example, mocking the victims of shipwrecks as they try to reach shore, a form of evil stolen directly from Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).  Since mocking is insufficiently evil, Maldoror begins shooting the swimmers.  “From this murder I did not receive as much pleasure as one might think” (75), so something more is necessary.  And thus, Maldoror leaps into the sea in order to copulate with a giant female shark:

A pair of sinewy thighs clung to the monster’s viscous skin, close as leeches; and arms and fins entwined about the loved one’s body, surrounded it with love, while throats and breasts soon fused into a glaucous mass reeking of sea-wrack.  In the midst of the tempest that continued raging.  By lightning’s light…  At last I had found someone who resembled me! (77-8)

The book is governed by images of sea creatures (and birds) which culminates in Maldoror transforming into a giant octopus and attempting to consume God himself:

How astonished he was to see Maldoror, changed into an octopus, clamp eight monstrous tentacles about his body: any one of these strong thongs could easily have spanned the circumference of a planet.  Caught off guard, he struggled for several moments against this viscous embrace which was contracting more and more… (82, ellipses in original)

Almost halfway through Les Chants de Maldoror, I should have been prepared, but I, too, was astonished and caught off guard.  Every five or ten pages, I was caught off guard, like the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella, which is, of course, why I was reading the book in the first place.

Richard of Caravanas de Recuerdos suggested that I spent a month on Lautréamont, but in fear for my soul, health, and sanity, I doubt I’ll write about him for even a week.  I could, though.  Holding a head whose skull I gnawed, I could.


  1. Dear Blogkeeper--

    Yes Maldoror is rather much. I remember the umbrella and shortly thereafter something even more unspeakable than what you have blogged here. And at the time, I considered it in the light of Andre Breton's (much later) Surrealist Manifesto--which Maldoror exemplifies. For Breton, the ultimate surrealist act would be to fire a gun into one's audience at random. It is the violent intrusion of the unexpected into the ordinary that defines the work. Certainly something one could say for Maldoror.



  2. Wow. Sort of awesome. Or something. Would not have expected such a close prefiguration of "tentacle sex" in French lit.

    I'm also having some serious déjà vu. Am I just thinking about when you sort of wrote about The Toilers of the Sea, or was there something else? I really don't think it was on another blog...

  3. You all got to the surrealists before me! Darn. Well, anyway of course they loved Lautreamont. As don't we all, naturally.

  4. I was JUST rereading Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" when I found this:

    "Inbreeding?" Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. "Great God, what simpletons! Shew them Arthur Machen's Great God Pan and they'll think it a common Dunwich scandal!"

  5. Actually, the only really unspeakable chunk, about which I will speak tomorrow, occurs a ways before the Surrealist-approved umbrella / sewing machine / dissecting table line.

    This is a good example of a book that has been captured by later writers. The Surrealists raised their pennant, boarded Ducasse, and dragged him ashore. It would be good to read him against Breton, actually, to free him from captivity.

    Nicole - you've got it. Ducasse is rewriting Hugo, taking the side of the octopus. The Toilers of the Sea is 1866; Maldoror is 1869. The connection is direct and would have been obvious to every reader, of which there were, by the way, none at all.

    E.L. - that's pretty funny. Long, long time - twenty-five years? -since I read that story.

  6. Only one unspeakable chunk, Amateur Reader?!? Laughed my ass off throughout this fine, fine post of yours, both because of all the great Lautréamont quotes and because of your equally inspired reactions (I tip my imaginary hat to that closing line of yours). This is one of my favorite books ever, but I could only recommend it to a select few friends due to its, uh, particularly unrestrained nature!

  7. So I just wrote something about my candidate for Sole Unspeakable Scene. Other nominees welcome. The visionary rape of the universe in Canto 5 was a possibility, but is too short.

  8. The Surrealists did that -- climbed aboard people and dragged them off to captivity. Lautreamont might not have minded, but Lewis Carroll certainly would have. (Louis Aragon wrote a pretty good translation of The Hunting of the Snark. It sounds maybe even better in French.)

  9. The Surrealists did that -- climbed aboard people and dragged them off to captivity.

    Part of how books stay alive, isn't it? So I'm not complaining.

    I'll look at Aragon's Carroll some time. I did not know about that.