THE ENIGMATIC ISIDORE DUCASSE AND THE SURREALISTS

Saturday, April 18, 2009 1:16:50 PM

Isidore Lucien Ducasse, who later took the pseudonym Comte de Lautreamont was hailed by the surrealists as one of the "founding fathers of Surrealism." He wrote the Les Chants de Maldoror published in 1869. The romantic epic of the anti-hero Maldoror consists of six 'songs' or chapters (the songs are divided into stanzas). A line from his Les Chants de Maldoror, "Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table," became a slogan for the Surrealists. Dali did illustrations of Les Chants de Maldoror in 1932 and Magritte did illustrations in 1945.


Magritte Illustration for Les Chants de Maldoror - 1945


Magritte Illustration for Les Chants de Maldoror - 1945

The following is a translation of two stanzas fron the first Canto of Les Chants de Maldoror:

Selected Poems from MALDOROR by Lautréamont (1868)
Translated by Sonja Elen Kisa (1998) Illustrated by François Aubéron

FIRST CANTO
Stanza 1: The Reader Forewarned

"God grant that the reader, emboldened and having become at present as fierce as what he is reading, find, without loss of bearings, his way, his wild and treacherous passage through the desolate swamps of these sombre, poison-soaked pages; for, unless he should bring to his reading a rigorous logic and a sustained mental effort at least as strong as his distrust, the lethal fumes of this book shall dissolve his soul as water does sugar. It is not right that everyone read the pages that follow: a sole few will savour this bitter fruit without danger. As a result, wavering soul, before penetrating further into such uncharted barrens, draw back, step no deeper.

Mark my words: draw back, step no deeper, like the eyes of a son respectfully flinching away from his mother's august contemplation, or rather, like an acute angle formation of cold-sensitive cranes stretching beyond the eye can reach, soaring through the winter silence in deep meditation, under tight sail towards a focal point on the horizon, from where there suddenly rises a peculiar gust of wind, omen of a storm. The oldest crane, alone at the forefront, on seeing this, shakes his head like a rational person and consequently his beak too, which he clicks, as he is uneasy (and so would I be, in his shoes); whilst his old, feather-stripped neck, contemporary of three generations of cranes, sways in irritated undulations that foreshadow the oncoming thunderstorm. After looking with composure several times in every direction with eyes that bespeak experience, the first crane (for he is the privileged one to show his tail feathers to the other, intellectually inferior cranes) vigilantly cries out like a melancholy sentinel driving back the common enemy, and then carefully steers the nose of the geometric figure (it would be a triangle, but the third side, formed in space by these curious avian wayfarers, is invisible), be it to port, or to starboard, like a skilful captain; and, manoeuvring with wings that seem no larger than those of a sparrow, he thus adopts, since he is no dumb creature, a different and safer philosophical course.

Stanza 6: The Nails (The Reader as an Accomplice)

One should let one's nails grow for a fortnight. Oh! How sweet it is to brutally snatch from his bed a child with no hair yet on his upper lip, and, with eyes wide open, to pretend to suavely stroke his forehead, brushing back his beautiful locks! Then, suddenly, at the moment when he least expects it, to sink one's long nails into his tender breast, being careful, though, not to kill him; for if he died, there would be no later viewing of his misery.

Then, one drinks the blood, licking the wounds; and, during the entire procedure, which ought to last no shorter than an aeon, the boy cries. Nothing could be better than his blood, warm and just freshly squeezed out as I have described, if it weren't for his tears, bitter as salt. Mortal one, haven't you ever tasted your blood, when by chance you cut your finger? Tasty, isn't it? For it has no taste. Besides, can you not recall one day, absorbed in your dismal thoughts, having lifted your deeply cupped palm to your sickly face, drenched by the downpour from your eyes; the said hand then making its fatal way to your mouth, which, from this vessel chattering like the teeth of the schoolboy who glances sidelong at the one born to oppress him, sucked the tears in long draughts? Tasty, aren't they? For they taste of vinegar.

A taste reminiscent of the tears of your true love, except a child's tears are so much more pleasing to the palate. He is incapable of deceit, for he does not yet know evil: but the most loving of women is bound to betray sooner or later... This I deduce by analogy, despite my ignorance of what friendship means, what love means (I doubt I will ever accept either of these, at least not from the human race). So, since your blood and tears do not disgust you, go ahead, feed confidently on the adolescent's tears and blood. Blindfold him, while you tear open his quivering flesh; and, after listening to his resplendent squeals for a good few hours, similar to those hoarse shrieks of death one hears from the throats of the mortally wounded on battlefields, you then, running out faster than an avalanche, fly back in from the room next door, pretending to rush to his rescue. You untie his hands, with their swollen nerves and veins, you restore sight to his distraught eyes, as you resume licking his tears and blood.

Oh, what a genuine and noble change of heart! That divine spark within us, which so rarely appears, is revealed; too late! How the heart longs to console the innocent one we have harmed. "O child, who has just undergone such cruel torture, who could have ever committed such an unspeakable crime upon you! You poor soul! The agony you must be going through! And if your mother were to know of this, she would be no closer to death, so feared by evildoers, than I am now. Alas! What, then, are good and evil? Might they be one and the same thing, by which in our furious rage we attest our impotence and our passionate thirst to attain the infinite by even the maddest means? Or might they be two separate things? Yes... they'd better be one and the same... for, if not, what shall become of me on the Day of Judgment? Forgive me, child. Here before your noble and sacred eyes stands the man who crushed your bones and tore off the strips of flesh dangling from various parts of your body. Was it a frenzied inspiration of my delirious mind, was it a deep inner instinct independent of my reason, such as that of the eagle tearing at its prey, that drove me to commit this crime? And yet, as much as my victim, I suffered! Forgive me, child.

Once we are freed from this transient life, I want us to be entwined for evermore, becoming but one being, my mouth fused to your mouth. But even so, my punishment will not be complete. So you will tear at me, without ever stopping, with your teeth and nails at the same time. I will adorn and embalm my body with perfumes and garlands for this expiatory holocaust; and together we shall suffer, I from being torn, you from tearing me... my mouth fused to yours. O blond-haired child, with your eyes so gentle, will you now do what I advise you? Despite yourself, I wish you to do it, and you will set my conscience at rest." And in saying this, you will have wronged a human being and be loved by that same being: therein lies the greatest conceivable happiness. Later, you could take him to the hospital, for the crippled boy will be in no condition to earn a living. They will proclaim you a hero, and centuries from now, laurel crowns and gold medals will cover your bare feet on your ancient iconic tomb. O you, whose name I will not inscribe upon this page consecrated to the sanctity of crime, I know your forgiveness was as boundless as the universe. But look, I'm still here!


Biography: Isidore Lucien Ducasse
Born April 4, 1846 in Montevideo, Uruguay Ethnicity French Residences Paris, Tarbes, Pau, France, Montevideo, Uruguay,
Died November 4, 1870 in Paris, France Nationality French Language French
Other occupations: Student

Little is known about Isidore Lucien Ducasse, who later took the pseudonym Comte de Lautreamont. He was born in Montevideo, Uruguay on April 4, 1846 to a French Consular Officer and his wife. His mother died when he was 18 months old, a suspected suicide. His youth in Uruguay remains a mystery, though we know that during this Ducasseís youth civil wars and outbreaks of cholera beset the region. When Isidore was 10, his father returned to France briefly and left young Ducasse with relatives in Tarbes to finish school. Isidore attended a couple of lycÈes in Tarbes and Pau where he was remembered as sullen introvert with a sharp voice and a distant, haughty demeanor. At school, Lucien displayed a dislike for Latin and Mathematics, but showed interest in literature. He dismayed his teachers with 'excesses of thought and style', which, oddly, would later earn him a permanent place in French literature. After leaving school at 19, it is speculated that Ducasse traveled, perhaps to visit his father in Uruguay or in the Bordeaux region in France where he may have made literary contacts.

Lucien received an allowance from his father that ensured him a comfortable living situation during his travels. In 1867 or 1868, Lucien moved to Paris to study at the Polytechnic or School of Mines, though no enrollment records exist. While in Paris, most scholars assume he began composing Maldoror, (a name that has received various interpretations, from 'dawn of evil' to 'evil from the beginning.'). Lucien took his own pseudonym, Lautreamont, presumably from Eugene Sue's novel Lautreamont, which features an arrogant and blasphemous hero similar to Lucien's Maldoror character. His publisher said that Lautreamont 'only wrote at night seated at his piano. He would declaim his sentences as he forged them, punctuating his harangues with chords on the piano.' In 1868, Lautreamont traveled to Uruguay to show his father the first part of Maldoror and get him to finance its publication. The first canto was published anonymously in 1868.

Lautreamont arranged to have the entire work published a few months later by a Belgium printer who was partners with Lautreamont's French publisher, Albert Lacroix, who had worked as an editor for Emile Zola, Victor Hugo, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The book was printed in the summer of 1869, but Lacroix and company feared prosecution because of the blasphemous and obscene nature of the work and never put the book on sale. Lautreamont pressed his publishers to release the book to no avail. A year later, Lautreamont wrote them about his new collection of poems, a seeming negation of Maldoror that spoke of 'hope, faith, calm, happiness and duty.' Lautreamont did not complete this work, nor did he see his Maldoror available to the public during his lifetime. Lautreamont died November 24, 1870 in a Paris hotel room at the age of 24. In 1874, after the publishing house changed hands, Lautreamont's works were finally made available to the public, but this initial publication met with little commercial success. It was not until a Belgian literary journal published Lautreamont's work in 1885 that his work began to emerge from obscurity and find an audience among the literary avant-garde. It was the 1927 publication of Lautreamont at Any Cost by the Surrealists Philippe Soupault and Andre Breton that assured Lautreamont a permanent place in French literature and the status of patron saint to the Surrealist movement.

The enigmatic Isidore Ducasse and the Surrealists
by Chris Will, curator of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam

The Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum owns a number of works of art that are closely linked with the name and work of the French writer Isidore Ducasse. The makers of these works (two illustrated books, a set of prints and an object) - Salvador Dali, René Magritte and Man Ray - were all representatives of the surrealist movement. Who was this unknown nineteenth-century author, and why did the Surrealists regard him as a cult figure?Les Chants de Maldoror

Lice of remarkable beauty that crawl like aspiring philosophers from cherished eggs; pubic hairs conversing in a brothel; sharks preparing duck-liver paté and cold soup from victims of drowning; a human-faced toad, as sad as the universe and as beautiful as suicide; covetous fingers prodding the lobes of innocent brains in order to smilingly prepare an effective unguent for the eyes; how Man. applauded by the crablouse and the adder, shits on the Creator's uplifted face for three days; devouring your mother's arms with gusto while she is still alive by tearing them off and cutting them into snippets...!

A random selection from a hallucinatory tissue of words, and there are plenty more in one of the most bizarre books of all time. Entitled Les Chants de Maldoror, it was published in 1869 by the Comte de Lautréamont, the`noble' pseudonym adopted by the Uruguayan-born Frenchman Isidore Lucien Ducasse (1846 - 1870). Ducasse died in 1870, aged 24, in the chaos of the siege of Paris during the Franca-Prussian war. His provocative ideas are presented in two books, Les Chants de Madoror (1869) and Poésies (1870), from which the author emerges as a man apparently deranged, possessing instinctive cruelty, nihilistic humour and extraordinary sexual prowess. The romantic epic of the anti-hero Maldoror consists of six `songs'. It is difficult to fathom. Rife with bombastic clichés, crazy Homeric epithets, absurd comparisons, unexpected banalities and pseudo-profundities, the work has a style entirely its own which is mystifying to the reader. One gets the feeling that absolutely everything is undermined, and that every passage is therefore questionable. Maldoror's overriding preoccupation is to combat God and humanity. The book is a swinging onslaught on and total invalidation of Western society, the social system, institutions and ideologies. Often resorting to extreme parody, grotesquery and burlesque. cynicism and black humour, Ducasse brazenly takes up arms against the church, state and morals. In a letter to his Belgian publisher Verboeckhoven, Ducasse wrote: 'I have sung the praise of evil.' And indeed, his literary hero's name derives from evil: 'Mal d'Aurore' means the Dawn of Evil.

Embraced by the Surrealists

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the goal of the Dadaists and Surrealists was absolute freedom. They could identify with Ducasse's world of ideas, for imagination runs riot in Les Chants. Like Ducasse, these artists flouted convention, ridiculed values and standards, and launched their weapons of provocation and untrammelled imagination against the dictatorship of reason. The writer Louis Aragon came across Les Chants by chance in 1917. In 1918 he told the writer and physician André Breton, who was to pioneer the surrealist movement, about the book. Les Chants proved to be a mine of inspiration, and Isidore Ducasse became the Surrealists' hero. To the Surrealists his nihilistic 'poetry in prose' was pure écriture automatique. An example is the now famous comparison of a sixteen-year-old youth's beauty with 'the retraction of the claws of birds of prey, or the uncertainty of muscular spasms caused by wounds in the soft parts of the back of the throat... and above all the chance encounter of a sewing-machine and an umbrella on a dissecting-table.' André Breton regarded the last phrase in particular as a classic example of surrealist thought. The statement might be called a metaphor for one of the most important principles of the surrealist aesthetic: the enforced juxtaposition of two totally alien realities.

Series of Dali prints

In 1999 the museum acquired an unusual edition of Les Chants de Maldoror. Illustrated by Salvador Dal! (1904 - 1989), it was published in 1934 in Paris by Albert Skira, who was also the publisher of the surrealist magazine Minotaure (1933 - 1939). The new edition of Les Chants was a substantial volume of 207 pages, with 42 etchings by Dali: 30 full-page and 12 vignettes. The book is accompanied by a so-called 'suite': a looseleaf set of the same 42 etchings, many of whose lower margins show scribbled motifs that are missing in the book. Skira had planned 120 'suites' but due to financial problems only 40 were printed, on Vélin d'Arches paper. The book was not printed in the originally planned edition of 80 either, only 60 copies being produced. It was Pablo Picasso who proposed that Lautréamont's inspiring 'cult' book should be illustrated by his compatriot Dali, who has been introduced to it by the writer René Crevel. Dalì embarked on the task in 1932, drawing preliminary studies for some of the illustrations. He was approximately 28 years old when he made the series, about the same age as the 19th-century author of the bizarre texts who died so young. Dali deployed the entire arsenal of his characteristic imagery in his illustrations to Les Chants. The etcher's tool transformed the poet's satanic deluge of words into a paradigm of the artist's own 'criticalparanoid' method. In the like-minded artist, Les Chants evoked associations, hallucinations and deliriums which are linked with his 'personal myths'. For example, Dali quoted Jean-Francois Millet's popular painting The Angelus here for the first time. The well-known figures of the farmer and his wife sunk in prayer, standing in a potato field, appear in four etchings with items from Dal!'s typical vocabulary, such as flaccid parts of the body supported by crutches and distorted bones.

The museum's collection boasts another edition of Les Chants de Maldoror. In 1945 René Magritte (1898 - 1967) drew a remarkably humorous series of 13 fullpage illustrations and vignettes in a caricatural style for a Brussels edition of the book (1948). An object by the Surrealist Man Ray (1890 - 1976) shows quite a different approach. His works are often based on puns, and such is the case with L'Enigme d'Isidore Ducasse. Man Ray designed The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse in 1920, an unidentifiable object wrapped in a horse-blanket and secured with a piece of rope. The vague form of the object concealed by the blanket suggests a sewingmachine. Man Ray made the object for the express purpose of photographing it. The photograph appeared in Breton's introduction to the first number of the magazine La Révolution Surréaliste, which appeared in December 1924. The original object has been lost. In 1971 Man Ray made a reconstruction, which was issued as a multiple in an edition of ten by the Galleria Schwarz in Milan. In 1972, however, the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum purchased the object directly from the artist. The title and the object refer to Ducasse's comparison, quoted above, of beauty with the 'chance encounter of a sewingmachine and an umbrella on a dissectingtable'. Man Ray's object is a kind of portrait of this metaphor. He approaches the writer's work in an ironic but realistic fashion, while Ducasse's literature both attacks and denies reality. Man Ray brilliantly juggles with the words in the title and the form and content of his 'simple' object.

Grapheion: European review of modern prints, books and paper art 1st issue 2000

Copyright 2006 MattesonArt.com

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