Comte de Lautréamont (French pronunciation: [lotʁeaˈmɔ̃]) was the pseudonym of Isidore Lucien Ducasse (4 April 1846 – 24 November 1870), an Uruguayan-born French poet.
His only works, Les Chants de Maldoror and Poésies, had a major influence on modern literature, particularly on the Surrealists and the Situationists. He died at age 24.
Ducasse was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, to François Ducasse, a French consular officer and his wife, Jacquette-Célestine Davezac. Very little is known about Isidore's childhood, except that he was baptized on 16 November 1847, in the cathedral of Montevideo and that his mother died soon afterwards, probably due to an epidemic. In 1851, as a five-year-old, he experienced the end of the eight-year siege of Montevideo in the Argentine-Uruguayan war. Ducasse was brought up to speak three languages: French, Spanish and English.
In October 1859, at the age of thirteen, Isidore was sent to high school in France by his father. He was trained in French education and technology at the Imperial Lycée in Tarbes. In 1863 he enrolled in the Lycée Louis Barthou in Pau, where he attended classes in rhetoric and philosophy (under and uppergreat). He excelled at arithmetic and drawing and showed extravagance in his thinking and style. Isidore was a reader of Edgar Allan Poe and particularly favored Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron, as well as Adam Mickiewicz, Milton, Robert Southey, Alfred de Musset, and Baudelaire. During school he was fascinated by Racine and Corneille, and by the scene of the blinding in Sophocles' Oedipus the King. According to his schoolmate, Paul Lespès, he displayed obvious folly "by self-indulgent use of adjectives and an accumulation of terrible death images" in an essay. After graduation he lived in Tarbes, where he started a friendship with Georges Dazet, the son of his guardian, and decided to become a writer.
Years in Paris
After a brief stay with his father in Montevideo, Ducasse settled in Paris at the end of 1867. He began studies at the École Polytechnique, only to abandon them one year later. Continuous allowances from his father made it possible for Ducasse to dedicate himself completely to his writing. He lived in the "Intellectual Quarter", in a hotel in the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, where he worked intensely on the first canto of Les Chants de Maldoror. It is possible that he started this work before his passage to Montevideo, and also continued the work during his ocean journey.
Ducasse was a frequent visitor to nearby libraries, where he read Romantic literature, as well as scientific works and encyclopaedias. The publisher Léon Genonceaux described him as a "large, dark, young man, beardless, mercurial, neat and industrious" and reported that Ducasse wrote "only at night, sitting at his piano, declaiming wildly while striking the keys, and hammering out ever new verses to the sounds".
In late 1868 Ducasse published—anonymously and at his own expense—the first canto of Les Chants de Maldoror (Chant premier, par ***), a booklet of thirty-two pages which is considered by many to be a bold, taboo-defying poem concerning pain and cruelty.
On 10 November 1868, Isidore sent a letter to writer Victor Hugo, in which he included two copies of the first canto, and asked for a recommendation for further publication. A new edition of the first canto appeared at the end of January, 1869, in the anthology Parfums de l'Ame in Bordeaux. Here Ducasse used his pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont for the first time. His chosen name was based on the character of Latréaumont from a popular 1837 French gothic novel by Eugène Sue, which featured a haughty and blasphemous anti-hero similar in some ways to Isidore's Maldoror. The title was probably paraphrased as l'autre Amon (the other Amon), although it can also be interpreted as representing "l'autre Amont" (the other side of the river).
A total of six cantos were to be published during late 1869, by Albert Lacroix in Brussels, who had also published Eugène Sue. The book was already printed when Lacroix refused to distribute it to the booksellers as he feared prosecution for blasphemy or obscenity. Ducasse considered that this was because "life in it is painted in too harsh colors" (letter to the banker Darasse from 12 March 1870).
Ducasse urgently asked Auguste Poulet Malassis, who had published Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) in 1857, to send copies of his book to the critics. They alone could judge "the commence of a publication which will see its end only later, and after I will have seen mine." He tried to explain his position, and even offered to change some "too strong" points for coming editions:
I have written of evil as Mickiewicz, Byron, Milton, Southey, A. de Musset, Baudelaire and others have all done. Naturally I drew register a little exaggerated, in order to create something new in the sense of a sublime literature that sings of despair only in order to oppress the reader, and make him desire the good as the remedy. Thus it is always, after all, the good which is the subject, only the method is more philosophical and less naive than that of the old school. (...) Is that the evil? No, certainly not.
—letter from 23 October 1869.
Poulet Malassis announced the forthcoming publication of the book the same month in his literary magazine Quarterly Review of Publications Banned in France and Printed Abroad. Otherwise few people took heed of the book. Only the Bulletin du Bibliophile et du Bibliothécaire noticed it in May, 1870; "the book will probably find a place under the bibliographic curiosities".
During spring 1869, Ducasse frequently changed his address, from Rue du Faubourg Montmartre 32 to Rue Vivienne 15, then back to Rue Faubourg Montmartre, where he lodged in a hotel at number 7. While still awaiting the distribution of his book, Ducasse worked on a new text, a follow-up to his "phenomenological description of evil", in which he wanted to sing of good. The two works would form a whole, a dichotomy of good and evil. The work, however, remained a fragment.
In April and June, 1870, Ducasse published the first two installments of what was obviously meant to be the preface to the planned "chants of the good" in two small brochures, Poésies I and II. This time he published by his real name, discarding his pseudonym. He differentiated the two parts of his work with the terms philosophy and poetry, announced that the beginning of a struggle against evil was the reversal of his other work:
I replace melancholy by courage, doubt by certainty, despair by hope, malice by good, complaints by duty, scepticism by faith, sophisms by cool equanimity and pride by modesty.
At the same time Ducasse took texts by famous authors and cleverly inverted, corrected and openly plagiarized for Poésies:
Plagiarism is necessary. It is implied in the idea of progress. It clasps the author's sentence tight, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, replaces it with the right idea.
Among the works plagiarized were Blaise Pascal's Pensées and La Rochefoucauld's Maximes, as well as the work of Jean de La Bruyère, Marquis de Vauvenargues, Dante, Kant and La Fontaine. It even included an improvement of his own Les Chants de Maldoror. The brochures of aphoristic prose did not have a price; each customer could decide which sum they wanted to pay for it.
On 19 July 1870, Napoleon III declared war on Prussia, and after his capture, Paris was besieged on 17 September a situation with which Ducasse was already familiar, from his early childhood in Montevideo. The living conditions worsened rapidly during the siege, and according to the owner of the hotel he lodged at, Ducasse became sick with a "bad fever".
Lautréamont died at the age of 24, on 24 November 1870, at 8:00 am in his hotel. On his death certificate "no further information" was given. Since many were afraid of epidemics while Paris was besieged, Ducasse was buried the next day after a service in Notre Dame de Lorette in a provisional grave at the Cimetière du Nord. In January 1871, his body was put into another grave elsewhere.
In his Poésies Lautréamont announced: "I will leave no memoirs", and as such, the life of the creator of the "Les Chants de Maldoror" remains for the most part unknown.
Les Chants de Maldoror
Les Chants de Maldoror is based on a character called Maldoror, a figure of unrelenting evil who has forsaken God and mankind. The book combines a violent narrative with vivid and often surrealistic imagery.
The critic Alex De Jonge writes, '"Lautreamont forces his readers to stop taking their world for granted. He shatters the complacent acceptance of the reality proposed by their cultural traditions and make them see that reality for what it is: an unreal nightmare all the more hair-raising because the sleeper believes he is awake."' (De Jonge, p. 1)
There is a wealth of Lautréamont criticism, interpretation and analysis in French (including an esteemed biography by Jean-Jacques Lefrère), but little in English.
Lautréamont's writing has many bizarre scenes, vivid imagery and drastic shifts in tone and style. There is much "black humor"; De Jonge argues that Maldoror reads like "a sustained sick joke." (De Jonge, p. 55)
In 1917, French writer Philippe Soupault discovered a copy of Les Chants de Maldoror in the mathematics section of a small Parisian bookshop, near the military hospital to which he had been admitted. In his memoirs Soupault wrote:
To the light of a candle which was permitted to me, I began the reading. It was like an enlightenment. In the morning I read the Chants again, convinced that I had dreamed... The day after André Breton came to visit me. I gave him the book and asked him to read it. The following day he brought it back, equally enthusiastic as I had been.
Due to this find, Lautréamont was introduced to the Surrealists. Soon they called him their prophet. As one of the poètes maudits (accursed poets), he was elevated to the Surrealist Panthéon beside Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and acknowledged as a direct precursor to Surrealism. André Gide regarded him—even more than Rimbaud—as the most significant figure, as the "gate-master of tomorrow's literature," meriting Breton and Soupault "to have recognized and announced the literary and ultra-literary importance of the amazing Lautréamont."
Louis Aragon and Breton discovered the only copies of the Poésies in the National Library of France and published the text in April and May 1919 in two sequential editions of their magazine Literature. In 1925 a special edition of the Surrealist magazine Le Disque Vert was dedicated to Lautréamont, under the title "Le cas Lautréamont" (The Lautréamont case). It was the 1927 publication by Soupault and Breton that assured him a permanent place in French literature and the status of patron saint in the Surrealist movement. In 1940 Breton incorporated him into his Anthology of Black Humour.
The title of an object by American artist Man Ray, called L'énigme d'Isidore Ducasse (The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse) created in 1920, contains a reference to a famous line in the 6th canto. Lautréamont describes a young boy as "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!". Similarly, Breton often used this line as an example of Surrealist dislocation.
Maldoror inspired many artists: Fray De Geetere, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray, Jacques Houplain, Jindřich Štyrský, René Magritte, and Georg Baselitz. Individual works have been produced by Max Ernst, Victor Brauner, Óscar Domínguez, Espinoza, André Masson, Joan Miró, Aimé Césaire, Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, Kurt Seligmann, and Yves Tanguy. The artist Amedeo Modigliani always carried a copy of the book with him and used to walk around Montparnasse quoting from it.
In direct reference to Lautréamont's "chance meeting on a dissection table," Ernst defined the structure of the surrealist painting: "Accouplement de deux réalités en apparence inaccouplables sur un plan qui en apparence ne leur convient pas."
Félix Vallotton and Dalí made "imaginary" portraits of Lautréamont, since no photograph was available.
Influence on others
A portion of Maldoror is recited toward the end of Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film Week End.
Situationist founder, film-maker, and author Guy Debord developed a section from Poésies II as thesis 207 in The Society of the Spectacle. The thesis covers plagiarism as a necessity and how it is implied by progress. It explains that plagiarism embraces an author's phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea. His fellow Situationist Raoul Vaneigem placed considerable importance on the insights of Latréaumont, stating in the Introduction to The Revolution of Everyday Life that “For as long as there have been men — and men who read Lautréamont — everything has been said and few people have gained anything from it. ”
The writers Jean Paulhan and Henri Michaux have both counted Lautréamont as an influence on their work.
Kenneth Anger claimed to have made a film based on Maldoror, under the same title.
In recent years, invoking an obscure clause in the French civil code, modern performance artist Shishaldin petitioned the government for permission to marry the author posthumously.
John Ashbery, the American poet most influenced by Surrealism, entitled his collection of 1992 Hotel Lautréamont, and the English edition remarks that Lautréamont is "one of the forgotten presences alive" in the book.
Works by Lautréamont
- Les Chants de Maldoror - Chant premier, par ***, Imprimerie Balitout, Questroy et Cie, Paris, August 1868 (1st canto, published anonymously)
- Les Chants de Maldoror - Chant premier, par Comte de Lautréamont, in: "Parfums de l'Ame" (Anthology, edited by Evariste Carrance), Bordeaux 1869 (1st canto, published under the pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont)
- Les Chants de Maldoror, A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven et Cie, Brussels 1869 (first complete edition, not delivered to the booksellers)
- Poésies I, Librairie Gabrie, Balitout, Questroy et Cie, Paris 1870
- Poésies II, Librairie Gabrie, Balitout, Questroy et Cie, Paris 1870
- Les Chants de Maldoror, Typ. de E. Wittmann, Paris and Brussels 1874 (1869's complete edition, with new cover)
- Les Chants de Maldoror, preface by Léon Genonceaux, with a letter by Lautréamont, Éditions Léon Genonceaux, 1890 (new edition)
- Les Chants de Maldoror. with 65 illustrations by Frans De Geetere, Éditions Henri Blanchetière, Paris 1927
- Les Chants de Maldoror. with 42 illustrations by Salvador Dalí; Albert Skira Éditeur, Paris 1934
- Œuvres Complètes. with a preface by André Breton und illustrations by Victor Brauner, Óscar Domínguez, Max Ernst, Espinoza, René Magritte, André Masson, Joan Miró, Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, Man Ray, Kurt Seligmann and Yves Tanguy, G.L.M. (Guy Levis Mano), Paris 1938
- Maldoror, with 27 illustrations by Jacques Houplain, Société de francs-bibliophiles, Paris 1947
- Les Chants de Maldoror. with 77 illustrations by René Magritte; Éditions de "La Boetie", Brussels 1948
- Œuvres complètes. Fac-similés des éditions originales. La Table Ronde, Paris 1970 (facsimiles of the original editions)
- Œuvres complètes, based on the edition of 1938, with all historical prefaces by Léon Genonceaux (Édition Genouceaux, Paris 1890), Rémy de Gourmont (Édition de la Sirène, Paris 1921), Edmond Jaloux (Éditions Librairie José Corti, Paris, April 1938), Philippe Soupault (Éditions Charlot, Paris, 1946) Julien Gracq (La Jeune Parque, Paris 1947), Roger Caillois (Éditions Librairie José Corti 1947), Maurice Blanchot (Éditions du Club français du livre, Paris 1949), Éditions Librairie José Corti, Paris 1984
- Maldoror. Translated by Guy Wernham ; New Directions Publishing Corporation ; 1943 ; 0-8112-0082-5
- Lautreamont's Maldoror ; Translated by Lykiard (Alexis) ; London ; Allison & Busby ; 1983 ; VI, 218 p.
- Maldoror (and the Complete works of the Comte de Lautréamont); Exact Change; Cambridge, MA ; 1994 ; Translation into English by Alexis Lykiard with updated notes and bibliography by Lykiard, as well ; ISBN 1-878972-12-X
- Maldoror (Les Chants de Maldoror) ; Thomas Y. Crowell Company ; New York ; 1970 ; English translation by Alexis Lykiard
- Maldoror ; Allison and Busby ; London ; 1983 ; Translation by Alexis Lykiard ; ISBN 0-85031-084-9
- Maldoror ; Penguin Books ; "Penguin Classics" series ; Great Britain ; 1977 ; Fourth English translation (after Rodker, Wernham and Lykiard, respectively) by Paul Knight. Also contains "Poesies" and several "lettres". Extensive introduction by translator
- Maldoror and Poems ; Penguin Books ; New York ; 1988 ; Translated by Paul Knight ; Introduction by Paul Knight. Cover illustration is a color reproduction of Antoine Wiertz' "Buried Alive" (detail) ; 288 p. ; 0-14-044342-8
There is a wealth of Lautréamont criticism, interpretation and analysis in French, including an esteemed biography by Jean-Jacques Lefrère, but little in English.
- Le Cas Lautréamont, special edition of "Le Disque Vert", with an introduction by André Gide, and texts by Philippe Soupault, René Crevel, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Herbert Read, Albert Thibaudet, André Breton, Marcel Arland, Maurice Maeterlinck, Paul Valéry, Paul Éluard, Henri Michaux, Jean Cocteau, Léon Bloy, Rémy de Gourmont, André Malraux a.o., and a portrait by Odilon-Jean Périer; René van den Berg, Paris/Brussels 1925
- The Lay of Maldoror ; The Casanova Society ; London ; 1924 ; First English translation is by John Rodker ; Illustrated with 3 plates by Odilon Redon
- Paul Zweig, Lautréamont: The Violent Narcissus, Kennikat, 1972
- Gaston Bachelard, Lautréamont, Dallas Institute, 1986
- Jeremy Reed: Isidore: A Novel about the Comte de Lautreamont, Peter Owen Limited 1991 (fictional biography)
- Alex de Jonge. Nightmare Culture: Lautréamont and Les Chants de Maldoror, Secker and Warburg, 1973: Creation Books 2007 1840681268
- Maurice Blanchot: Lautreamont and Sade. Meridian, Stanford University Press
- Peter W. Nesselroth: "Lautréamont's Imagery: a stylistic approach" Geneva: Droz, 1969
- Daniel Eisenberg, "Lautréamont", Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, New York: Garland, 1990, pp. 681–682, http://users.ipfw.edu/jehle/deisenbe/encyclopedia/Lautreamont.pdf.