The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Lay of Maldoror (1868-1869)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Lay of Maldoror (original: Les Chants de Maldoror) was written by “the Comte du Lautréamont.” The “Comte du Lautréamont” was the pseudonym of Isidore Lucien Ducasse (1846-1870), a French writer. Ducasse died young, of consumption and the cold in his garret, copies of The Lay of Maldoror stacked around him. It was only years later that Andre Breton and a few others discovered Maldoror and grabbed the still-available copies of the novel. Breton and then Philippe Soupault issued new editions of the book, and Ducasse and Maldoror became enormously influential on the Surrealists. Ducasse is seen by critics as the primary nineteenth century precursor of the Surrealists and Dadaists.
Maldoror is an avant-garde novel made up of prose poems. Maldoror is non-linear and contains not so much a plot as a series of non-sequential episodes and philosophical harangues. The titular character is a brilliant, disfigured, malcontent outcast who hates humanity and God and loves evil. Maldoror is a nihilistic übermensch, a Manfred-like homme fatale and the Gothic Hero-Villain as imagined by a starving, angry poet suffering a slow death. Maldoror fantasizes about sadism, violence, and blasphemy, and imagines himself at war with society and God. Maldoror sees humanity as animals and all pretenses to civilization as hypocrisy. Rare displays of compassion–positive feelings and actions almost never occur in Maldoror’s world–only anger him further, since they go unrewarded and contrast all the more the degraded state of men. In Maldoror’s world God is cruel, taking hypocritical pleasure from suffering, so that Maldoror’s cruelty to others is a type of rebellion against God. Maldoror’s ultimate dream is to depose God and reign in his place. When Maldoror sees an angel, he wrestles with it and kisses its cheek with his poisoned tongue, so that the angel becomes a single, vast, gangrenous wound.
For all its scabrous intensity Maldoror is not a bad or uninteresting read. Ducasse writes energetically. His imagery, even when morally or aesthetically revolting, is startlingly vivid. He modifies the speed of his prose to match the theme of what he describes. The text is almost feverishly intense, and although much of it revolts it also fascinates. The mind that could create a character which laughs at sailors being eaten by a shark and then swims out to have sex with that shark is not a healthy mind, but also not an unintelligent one. Maldoror is hallucinogenic and surreal in its juxtaposition of images, the transitions between Maldoror’s first person narration and third person description of Maldoror, and the nonlinearity of the narration.
Ducasse took his pseudonym, “Lautréamont,” from Eugène Sue’s Lautreamont (1837), which features an arrogant, blasphemous hero similar to Maldoror.
Maldoror himself is a philosopher, of a sort. He thinks deeply about existence and the roles of the Creator and humanity in it. But his conclusion is that God is hateful, that humanity is contemptible, and that existence is disgusting. But he differs from characters like E.A.F. Klingemann’s Kreuzgang (see: “The Night Witches of Bonaventura") in that Maldoror glorifies cruelty, writing rhapsodically about torturing boys and sucking their blood and tears. Maldoror is a more energetic nihilist than Kreuzgang; and Maldoror embraces hate–of man, of society, of God–while Kreuzgang is simply disgusted with everything.
Print: Lautreaumont, Maldoror and Poems, transl. Paul Knight. New York: Penguin Classics, 1988.
Online: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12005 (in French; there is no English language translation available online).