Unexorcised conscience: the Byronic complex of Maldoror.
More terrible indeed. The jaded posturing of the Byronic hero that so shocked Regency England hardly seems to constitute an act of transgression in the way Les Chants de Maldoror does, even today. And yet, by allowing Maldoror to overshadow his British precursor, as Ducasse clearly expected him to, we may be ignoring a locus of intertextuality that is far from simple. While a number of critics are aware of Byron's influence on the later poet, few have stopped to consider the manner in which this influence is actually manifested in the work of Ducasse. In what is generally considered the definitive study of this relationship, "Lautreamont et l'heritage du byronisme," Michel Pierrsons suggests that where Byron is present in the work of Ducasse, it is in the form of a consciously manipulated and controlled "archi-texte" (78). As profound as Byrons influence on Ducasse clearly was, he concludes, the later poet was ultimately able to "liberate" his writing from the cliches of the Byronic:
Presence centrale mais ambigue, k la mesure meme de la difficulty qu'il y eut pour Ducasse a s'extirper d'un irresistible envoutement dont toute son oeuvre temoigne. Et ce nest quen choisissant la figure la plus exemplaire de ce dont il voulait se defaire, en travaillant dans la matiere de son texte et de son mythe, que Ducasse sest mis de lui-meme en position denoncer les principes desormais fibres dune toute autre litterature: tout a coup s'y renverse et s'y annule l'image devenue inutile d'un Byron depossede de sa fascination. A central, if ambiguous presence, precisely because of the difficulty for Ducasse to extricate himself from an irresistible enchantment which is evident throughout his work. And it is in choosing the most exemplary figure of that from which he wanted to liberate himself, working in the material of his text and his myth, that Ducasse positioned himself to elaborate the principles, henceforth free, of an entirely other literature: suddenly the image, now useless, of a Byron dispossessed of his fascination is overcome and annihilated (85).
The present study will suggest that Ducasse may not in fact have been entirely successful in breaking the spell of the Byronic elements he introduced into his writing.
After re-examining the frequently cited passages that have come to define our understanding of this relationship, in close readings of both poets' work, we actually find an inversion of the roles we would expect. Not only did Byron, the first poete maudit (cursed poet) negotiate his relation to the persona he had created with a subtlety not always attributed to him. We observe that the later poet, in dismissing the Byronic stance for its apparent limitations, can be found repeating the very cliches he claims to transcend--an instance of regression that sabotages the innovative freedom often attributed to this text, perpetuating the poet's "anxiety of influence." (1)
Whatever we may think of Byron and his work--and the critical opinion varies widely, to this day--his influence on modern, occidental culture is undeniable. From the instant of his initial celebrity, unheard of for a literary figure before or since (one book on the phenomenon is titled Byromania, cf. Works Cited), the English poet has been both lauded and condemned; an idol that can be located at the origin of numerous literary "cults," whether for or against. (2) Just as a whole generation of readers and writers throughout Europe and America embraced the Byronic hero, with his dark if privileged destiny, his proud scorn for an inferior humanity, a succeeding generation would quickly condemn such a figure as the production of a narcissistic, adolescent psyche; a passing fad, limited to a particular historical moment in European culture. (3)
If one individual could be said to embody the ambiguous extremes of this phenomenon in modern readership, it is Isidore Ducasse--or as he christened his own anti-heroic persona, Le Comte de Lautreamont. While most who have read the notorious French poet can easily recall the numerous writers he parodies or condemns--particularly in the enigmatic Poesies--we do not tend to recall him praising anyone in particular. And yet, as Jean-Luc Steinmetz has observed, Byron is the one writer who remains a continual source of admiration for the later, exceedingly critical poet (40); an influence which can be observed, as Michel Pierssens has shown, in the defining characteristics of Lautreamont's language itself, from the more obvious formal elements ("la forme du chant et de la strophe d'apparence prosai'que, venus de Byron" 'the prosaic appearance of the chant and its stanzas' form, inherited from Byron L'Envers 121), to the subtler components of his innovative style. (4) If the protagonist of Maldoror, with his abrupt acts of gratuitous violence and bizarre metamorphoses, clearly exceeds the amorality and inhuman "energy" of the earlier figure, he quite simply could not have come into existence without the other. At the same time, we could hardly say that Byron is beyond reproach or mockery in Lautreamont's view. In what is probably the most cited reference to the English poet in the Poesies, he concludes an extended invective of bizarre, hyphenated epithets--worthy of the Surrealists who would later worship him--against a litany of writers: "... Byron, l'Hippopotame-des-Jungles-Infernales" '... Byron, the Hippopotamus of Infernal Jungles' (340, Knight 266).
This ambiguity in Lautreamont's relation to Byron becomes especially interesting when we note how he inserts himself into the earlier poet's historical situation, in a less than subtle, if implicit manner. Earlier in Poesies I, just cited, he reflects on Byron's role in the privileged quest for the absolute that is the poetic tradition--at one point, in a positive, laudatory manner: "... une ame qui n'appartient pas au vulgaire des hommes, et qui se trouvait a son aise dans les consequences dernieres d'un des deux moins obscures problemes qui interessent les coeurs non-solitaires: le bien, le mal. II nest pas donne a quiconque d'aborder les extremes, soit dans un sens, soit dans un autre" a soul which did not belong to the common mass, which was freely able to face the last consequences of one of the two least obscure problems which interest non-solitary hearts: good and evil. It is granted only to a few to approach this problem, either in the one direction, or in the other' (333, Knight 259). Elsewhere in his evaluation however, he insists that the earlier poet's accomplishment is seriously flawed because, paradoxically, it was superior to anything else at the time, capable of reigning, in the view of an unquestioning, idolatrous public, over this "problem" of good and evil. What was necessary, he suggests, was the challenge of another, comparable "genius" (i.e. a Lautreamont), forcing him to transcend his ultimately limited perspective on the issue: "Quoique plus grand que les genies ordinaires, s'il setait trouve de son temps un autre poete, doue, comme lui, a doses semblables, dune intelligence exceptionnelle, et capable de se presenter comme son rival, il aurait avoue, le premier, l'inutilite de ses efforts pour produire des maledictions disparates.... Le fait fut qu'il n'y eut personne pour le combattre avec avantage" 'Though he was more gifted than ordinary geniuses, if there had been at his time another poet, gifted, as he was, with the same measure of exceptional intelligence, and capable of rivaling him, he would have been the first to admit the futility of his efforts to produce incongruous multitudes of maledictions.... The fact is that there was no one who could successfully compete with him' (333, Knight 259).
In order to do justice to the potential complexity in Lautreamont's relationship to Byron, we cannot of course limit ourselves to these self-conscious, over-determined critical statements by the poet himself. Such statements do allow us to frame our reading of the text in which the interaction between the two works actually takes place, however--that is to say, in the Byronic exploits of Maldoror. For it is here that we find the later poet "acting out" his challenge to the earlier poet in ways that do not always appear to fulfill his retrospective prophecy.
Begun during Byron's continental exile, in 1816, Manfred is generally viewed now as the result of two significant events in the poet's life--in the literary and social spheres, respectively. While he initially denied any familiarity with either version of the Faust tale--Marlowe's or Goethe's--he was later forced to admit that he had in fact had most of the latter text translated aloud at some point, due to his ignorance of German, by the writer Matthew Lewis. And indeed, it is virtually impossible to read the opening soliloquy of Manfred and not hear the renowned theologian of Goethe's text who, before making his pact with the devil--now a literary cliche itself--complains of his ennui at having mastered all forms of earthly knowledge:
Philosophy and science, and the springs Of wonder, and the wisdom of the world, I have essayed, and in my mind there is A power to make these subject to itself-- But they avail not... ... I have no dread, And feel the curse to have no natural fear, Nor fluttering throb, that beats with hopes or wishes, Or lurking love of something on the earth. (1.1.13-27)
Unlike his predecessor, however, Manfred does not barter his soul in order to transcend this existence. The narrative of the text is in fact structured around a series of encounters between the troubled protagonist and a variety of malevolent spirits from the beyond, whose offers of aid (at a given price!) he scornfully rejects. So that in the climactic final scene, when, on the point of death, Manfred is confronted by a sort of repo man of the underworld, he can proudly declaim:
... my past power Was purchased by no compact with thy crew, But by superior science--penance--daring-- And length of watching--strength of mind ... ... I stand Upon my strength--I do defy--deny-- Spurn back, and scorn ye!. (3.4.113-21)
While Byron thus obviously relies on elements of the Faust story, by refusing his hero any reliance on a transcendent principle, he eliminated any traces of the deistic thought that remained even in Goethe's version, anticipating a much more modern, sober conception of the modern intellectual (one thinks of Nietzsche and Camus, among others). (5)
The other experience that most likely influenced the creation of Manfred was of a more intimate nature. One would be hard pressed to deny that, in the recurring struggle with remorse at the source of dramatic action in the text, the poet was not "working through" at some level a sense of guilt and shame over alleged relations with his half-sister, Augusta. As noted above, unlike Goethe's Mephistopheles, the demons of Byron's text are not invoked in order to obtain some absolute--what Manfred claims to have achieved on his own. Rather, they are called forth in the hope that they might help him absolve himself of the crime which has deprived him of his elevated existence--his implication in the death of his beloved, Astarte; one who is disturbingly like himself:
She was like me in lineaments--her eyes, Her hair--her features--all, to the very tone Even of her voice, they said were like to mine; But softened all, and tempered into beauty. (2.2.105-8)
By having Manfred undergo the anguish of his own sense of remorse while repeatedly refusing any mediation of this experience through exterior agencies (because he finds each time they would require his subservience), the exiled poet perhaps had some sense of mastering his own demons, alone, while writing Manfred's final speech of repudiation and self-affirmation, cited earlier. (6)
But a closer look at Manfred's guilt, and a certain ambiguity in its formulation, suggests that this text may be dealing with more profound, universal problems, beyond the writer's own, personal "issues." As McGann has suggested, the Byronic hero often reflects a problematization of ethical constructs, in all of their complexity, despite the misleadingly simplistic title of "anti-hero" frequently given him: "To have known the Byronic hero is to have discovered a new and terrifying problematics of morality" (26). Unlike the Gothic villain, of whom he is the direct descendent, Byron's hero is not simply "entertaining" evil in place of good, but truly questioning the stability of moral categories in general--anticipating Nietzsche by nearly a century:
the typical Gothic villain does not set out to promote a radical critique of established moral issues.... Byron's tales and plays achieved their enormous influence, and sometimes bad reputation, because their heroes forced the reader to a more searching inquiry into norms for order and value. We say that they are skeptical, and problematic, for they do not allow things to come out right in the end. We are always left wondering about the events and puzzling over their significance (27).
And as Luke has pointed out, Manfred in particular presents a challenge to conventional conceptions of the Byronic hero, not only because the protagonist does in fact possess a conscience, but because the latter cannot be understood through the relationship between individual and society, as we tend to define it; a new type of hero, who upsets our preconceptions of him by being both engage and in revolt against the "common" good: "Byron did not always burden his marked-man hero with a conscience. But in Manfred the author illustrates that he was familiar with the inner workings of a conscience by creating a hero tormented not within the bounds of social order, but within the disordered bounds of his own mind" (26).
And indeed, as numerous critics have noted, the marked insistence on resemblance in his description of Astarte suggests that Byron may in fact be talking here at some level, not simply about his relationship with his half-sister, and society's condemnation, but about himself ... or rather selves. Loren Glass has suggested that the tragic source of this drama is perhaps neither Manfred's nor Byron's own offense against an exterior other, but the recognition of an originary violence within the individual psyche--a disruptive "event" which can never be entirely recognized, much less ameliorated. When Manfred is pressed to confess the exact nature of his crime, asked if he killed Astarte with his own hand, he replies with an explanation, the precise causality of which is difficult to ascertain:
Not with my hand, but heart--which broke her heart-- It gazed on mine, and withered. I have shed Blood, but not hers--and yet her blood was shed-- I saw--and could not staunch it. (2.2.118-21)
In Glass's reading, this evasive formulation is not simply a narrative device, heightening the reader's sense of mystery. Rather, it reflects the poet's recognition of the conceptual complexity of the phenomenon of incest, and his attempt to use this theme, not for its therapeutic, but its figurative function in the poem--a central element of the text that disrupts the very narrative of subjectivity in which it appears:
To the degree, then, that incest can be seen as a breakdown in narrative ordering, it becomes difficult to determine not only the agency behind key acts, but also the causal links between the consummation of incestuous love and the violent act which destroyed that love. They would appear to be discrete events in Manfred's past which have become entangled in his memory. In fact, they exist at a point just beyond narrative origins, and in that sense are not available to an epistemology in which 'events occur.' Violence and love both occupy the point of rupture in Manfred's subjectivity where meaning and origins collapse (216-17).
Such a re-reading of the Byronic hero will have particular significance when observing Lautreamont's appropriation of him, as we shall see. For it suggests that this supposed "type" cannot be reduced to the limited signification so often granted him--that of a superficial, egocentric individual, isolated from and in rebellion against a society of "others." For Byron, the most significant site in the conflict of values can at least be recognized, if never resolved, in its amorphous, indomitable state within the individual. And more importantly, this level of understanding entails another, perhaps even more difficult recognition for Byron the poet--for one, that is to say, whose conscience is particularly experienced through language: the true tragedy of the modern subject is unspeakable. Manfred's inability to explicitly confess his crime points to the darkest sources of the Self, beyond our capacity for avowal: "Byron offers a challenge to his audience, to read something which is about its own unspeakability, something we know but cannot or should not say" (Glass 224). The poet is thus indeed engaged in a revolutionary poetics, though not in the facile manner for which he has been alternately lauded and scorned: by not simply constructing a highly subjective discourse of defiance, but simultaneously destabilizing the latter at its very foundation, the poet challenges the conventions that restrict him at a more profound, immediate level. And it is only by refusing to have the proverbial last word, in a text that ultimately "will not submit to symbolic meaning" that the poet truly "deploy(s) poetry as a form of transgression and resistance" (Glass 224). (7)
If there is a writer for whom the importance of rebellion against others, outside of the individual ego, cannot be denied, it is Lautreamont. Bachelard, in his seminal study of Maldoror, has identified aggression as the sole raison d'etre and dynamic principal of the poet's work. (8) And indeed, the poet himself declares as much--in the Second Canto, for instance: "Ma poesie ne consistera qua attaquer par tous les moyens, l'homme, cette bete fauve, et le Createur, qui n'aurait pas du engendrer une pareille vermine" 'My poetry will consist exclusively of attacks on man, that wild beast, and the Creator, who ought never to have bred such vermin' (143, Knight 74). In the passage concerning the present study (Chant II, Stanza 15), this attack is directed, not against God Himself, but one of His most effective emissaries in the oppression of humanity; an entity all too familiar to the Byronic hero: la conscience. The combative nature of Lautreamont's relation to this anthropomorphized faculty immediately distinguishes it from Byron's relation to conscience, however--that interior, ambiguous site of conflict that must be recognized as such, unexpressed. A self-made Prometheus, Maldoror boasts: "J'ai enseigne aux hommes les armes avec lesquelles on peut la combattre avec avantage" 'I have taught men what weapons to use to combat it successfully' (186, Knight 117). In his bravado, he goes so far as to suggest that humanity isn't even "familiar" with its own conscience; and, what will prove even more problematic, that conscience itself is as insubstantial and insignificant as "straw:" "Ils ne sont pas encore familiarises avec elle; mais, tu sais que, pour moi, elle est comme la paille qu'emporte le vent. Jen fais autant de cas" 'They have not yet grown accustomed to conscience; but you know that, for me, it is as the wind-blown straw. And I treat it is as such' (186, Knight 117).
This would immediately seem to constitute a flaw in the logic of the text, for, if conscience is in fact so insignificant in the perspective of Maldoror, what need is there to combat it as he then proceeds to do for the remainder of this passage?
Parallels with the history of Manfred provide a useful point of access to Lautreamont's text in this regard. Not only does the later poet rely heavily on Byron's protagonist for the creation of Maldoror, but several critics have noted the possibility that, just as Byron's own issues with incest contributed to the conception of his poem, there may be a very personal experience of confrontation with societal mores at the source of Maldoror. Leo Bersani, for instance, has suggested that, despite the notorious dearth of available biographical information, there are indications Ducasse may have been writing with a crime on his conscience as well (most probably involving a boyhood object of desire); what would explain both the repeated attacks and confessions throughout the text:
... the personal secret--not only of Maldoror, but also of Isidore Ducasse--which the literary text seeks simultaneously to hide, to reenact, and to confess. It would then have the status of a psychic origin in Les Chants de Maldoror; it would provide the fictional and perhaps the biographically real source for the obsession with cruelty in the work" (216). (9)
And, what will prove a crucial distinction between the two poets' work, this "obsession" entails a particular relation between the poet and the writing process, according to Bersani. Where Byron confronted the problem of conscience through language which, at once confessional and opaque, prohibits the writer from ignoring or moving beyond this problem, Ducasse uses his "secrets" to fuel a text that is in continual mutation, allowing the subject to escape any prolonged attention to them: "Only by smashing self-reflections can Maldoror decentralize himself, move away from any explanatory secrets and give himself up entirely to the enterprise of being always somewhere else" (216). Of Maldorors famous "beau comme" (anti-)similes ("triste comme l'univers, belle comme le suicide" 'sad as the universe, beautiful as suicide,' 131, Knight 62), Bersani suggests: "These stylistic leaps and discontinuities are indulged in most freely at the very moment when the narrator would seem to be revealing the weighty secret from which he cannot escape" (217).
The work of Taichi Hara on this issue of "mauvaise conscience" in Maldoror is of particular significance here. In terms that recall Glass's reading of Manfred's confession, cited above, he proposes that it is not in fact necessary to identify a specific, historical event at the source of the text. The nature of the "crime" (if there indeed was one) is not even relevant, insofar as it is has been irrevocably lost, not only for posterity, but for the writer's own conscience. Just as Manfred cannot absolve himself of an event that he can't even identify, any crime at the source of Ducasse's text is "irreparable," because it does not exist as an object of consciousness, a permanent "lacune": "si Ton peut nommer << memoire >> la source de revocation, ce nest qu'une memoire de l'absence, de l'oubli: levocateur se rappelle seulement qu'il a oublie quelque chose d'irreparable. II existe a l'interieur de sa personne une lacune imposante, qu'il ne peut combler" 'if one can call the source of what is evoked a "memory," it is only a memory of absence, of the forgotten: the subject recalls only that he has forgotten something irreparable. In his innermost being there is an imposing lacuna, which he is unable to fill' (179).
Haras reading becomes even more interesting for the present study in its identification of a resulting symptom manifested in the textual process. For, not only is the source of this singular, impulsive writing irrelevant, ultimately, but the language of the text itself becomes increasingly meaningless as a given elan progresses. And furthermore, as a continued reading of Canto 11:15 will confirm, this progressive designification of language is not a voluntary, conscious choice on the writer's part, as it often appears in Maldoror, but an involuntary gesture, in which the physical component of expression overtakes thought. (10) A displacement of conscience in the creative process that exceeds the conception of the Surrealists themselves, Ducasse's self-proclaimed descendents, this is truly "automat(on)ic writing":
Non seulement << irreparablement >> mais tous les mots, dechiquetes et detaches du contexte, perdent plus ou moins leur signification : les mots ne designent plus que le remuement machinal des levres et de la langue. Ce nest qu'un mouvement giratoire incomprehensible. Invocation de levenement fait place a revocation des mots, du mouvement verbal, de la poesie obscure; incapable de s'approcher de ce qui est arrive dans le passe reel, levocateur ne peut plus que se rappeler ce qu'il a deja profere dans un passe strictement discursif. Il s'engloutit dans son discours circulaire. Le tourbillon l'emporte. Au centre est le vide
Not only 'irreparably,' but all words, torn up and detached from any context, lose more or less their signification: words no longer designate anything beyond the mechanical movement of the lips and tongue. It is only an incomprehensible, gyratory movement. The evocation of the event gives way to the evocation of words, of verbal movement, of obscure poetry; incapable of approaching what has happened in the real past, the subject can only recall now that which he has already uttered in a strictly discursive past. He is engulfed in his circular discourse. The whirlwind carries him away. At the center is the void (Hara 179).
The relevance of such observations for the present analysis becomes apparent on returning to Maldoror's confrontation with conscience. After asserting that the latter is less than mere "straw" in his estimation, Maldoror continues, "profiting from the opportunity" presented by his own voice: "Si je voulais profiter de l'occasion, qui se presente, de subtiliser ces discussions poetiques, j'ajouterais que je fais meme plus de cas de la paille que de la conscience; car, la paille est utile pour le boeuf qui la rumine, tandis que la conscience ne sait montrer que ses griffes d'acier" 'If I wanted to profit from the opportunity here to further elaborate such poetic discussions, I would add that a straw has more value to me than conscience; for straw is useful to the cow who ruminates on it, whereas conscience has only its steel claws to show' (186 emphasis mine). What would otherwise appear a passing, ironic comment, further denigrating the function of conscience (in the mouth of an animal that is barely conscious) while pretending to give it value, demands our attention, following Hara's reflections on "the mechanical movement of the lips and tongue." For the term ruminer, at once valued and mocked in the poet's reflection here, has two, very different meanings: most immediately connoting the highest function of consciousness, it of course also designates an activity in which the latter is virtually absent, in the continual chewing of matter. It occupies, that is to say, the intersection of mind and mouth, the divided site of language itself; and more particularly, in the repetition and cycling of particular words and phrases, poetic language--a mode of expression which is both elevated in meaning, and highly motivated by other, less reasoned impulses of the speaking animal.
However unworthy of rumination the poet deems conscience, this activity soon becomes a, indeed the recurring motif for the remainder of the text. After easily pulverizing her claws in his grip, Maldoror methodically removes the head of conscience with his other hand, chasing what remains from his house--not, however, without keeping the head as a "souvenir": "Je chassai ensuite, hors de ma maison, cette femme, a coups de fouet, et je ne la revit plus. J'ai garde sa tete en souvenir de ma victoire" 'Then I hunted that woman out of my house with a whip, and I never saw her again. I have kept her head as a souvenir of my victory' (186, Knight 117). And as in the practices of "savage" cultures, to which this is surely a reference, the head becomes, not just a "souvenir," but a highly fetishized object throughout the remainder of the text, repeatedly returning in a refrain that will punctuate transitions between Maldoror's exploits. Although, unlike its role in such cultures, this head is not simply kept, a static sign, but is continually acted upon by the hero--through a very particular part of the body: "Une tete a la main, dont je rongeais le crane ..." 'Gnawing the skull of the head which I held in my hand ....' (186, Knight 117). (11)
Is the recurring act of "rumination" in this text, in its most physical, un-conscious form simply ... conscious (7). That is to say, is the poet in control of this gesture, as Pierssens has suggested, playing with this figure of conscience after having dominated and killed it, like a cat with its prey? This would initially seem to be yet another, very intentionally orchestrated act of aggression in the text, Maldoror demonstrating his ability to dominate conscience in a world in which he rules--the malleable textual reality of Maldoror. By continuing to "gnaw" on conscience, he flaunts the extent of his poetic power in an uncharacteristically subtle manner, not simply elaborating a fantastic physical combat, but inverting a fundamental linguistic structure that (unconsciously) determines our understanding of actual reality--a "gnawing conscience."
Such a reading would fit easily into a critical tradition which, beginning with his discovery by the Surrealists, and especially since his centrality for early theorists of Post-Structuralism, has valorized the transgressive, liberating aspect of Lautreamont's work. (12) And yet, in reading the rest of this passage, we observe developments in the text that would suggest an absence of conceptual motivation and control of the writing process, as the poet's "rumination" shifts, in the increasing momentum of the text, from the conscious manipulation of allegory, to a frenzied gnawing of language.
And at this point, the particular relevance of Byron's work should become fully apparent. First of all, because what we witness in Lautreamont's text here amounts to a mirroring of the earlier work, in the fullest sense--not simply a replication, but an inversion of the latter. Where the spirits that haunt Manfred until the end of Byron's text finally dissipate when the hero manages to reconcile himself with his own psyche, the ghost of conscience becomes increasingly present in Lautreamont's text, despite the hero's impressive exploits. Or rather, because of them: each extravagant contest Lautreamont creates for his hero to win serves only to further aggravate the conflict with conscience, highlighting his inability to completely vanquish it. And this inversion of the Byronic is all the more striking, insofar as these attempts at a certain transcendence depend on the very topo'f that Byron has problematized in his own work. Where the earlier poet refuses to allow Manfred to successfully enact the "extremes" associated with the Byronic, instead forcing him to truly confront the problem of individual conscience, Maldoror embraces and re-enacts these gestures, pushing them to the point of absurdity.
What initially appeared a single act of de-figuration, Maldoror's claim to "gnaw on the head (of conscience)" becomes a refrain, a key rhetorical device that seems to help sustain the affective charge, not only of the reader's experience of the text, but of the writer in the process of composing it. If Byron recognizes the ultimate inability of poetry to take him beyond conscience, Lautreamont cannot help plunging above and below the limits of the real in his text, as if gnawing on his own words had given him shamanic powers. In the Second Act of Manfred, the hero recounts how he once descended into the depths of his imagination, only to be drawn back by/into the tug of conscience:
In phantasy, imagination, all The affluence of my soul... ... I plunged deep, But, like an ebbing wave, it dashed me back Into the gulf of my unfathom'd thought. (2.2.140-44)
When Lautreamont's hero dives into similar depths, the real and the fantastic remain undifferentiated, and he moves freely, unhindered ... though still gnawing: "On m'a vu descendre dans la vallee.... Une tete a la main dont je rongeais le crane (emphasis mine), j'ai nage dans les gouffres les plus dangereux, longe les ecueils mortels, et plonge plus bas que les courants, pour assister, comme un etranger, aux combats des monstres marins" 'I was seen going down the valley.... Gnawing the skull of the head which I held in my hand, I swam in the most dangerous gulfs, along by lethal reefs, and I dived deeper than any current, to witness, as a stranger, the combats of sea-monsters' (186, Knight 117-18). In one of the most "Byronic" scenes of Manfred, the hero ascends the highest alpine peak--expected site of Romantic sovereignty--only to be refused any transcendence of his suffering, even in death:
I feel the impulse--yet I do not plunge; I see the peril--yet do not recede; And my brain reels--and yet my foot is firm: There is a power within me which withholds, And makes it my fatality to live. (1.2.20-24)
When Maldoror similarly ascends an immense tower, he is granted--or rather, he grants himself--absolute power over reality. After surveying all of creation, and cursing the Creator, he defies death and the divine Law, plunging ... though still gnawing: "Une tete a la main, dont je rongeais le crane (emphasis mine), j'ai franchi les marches ascendantes d'une tour elevee. Je suis parvenu ... sur la plate-forme vertigineuse. J'ai regarde la campagne, la mer; j'ai regarde le soleil, le firmament; repoussant du pied le granit qui ne recula pas, j'ai defie la mort et la vengeance divine par une huee supreme, et me suis precipite" 'Gnawing the skull of the head which I held in my hands, I mounted the steps of a high tower. I reached the platform, high above the ground. I looked out over the countryside and the sea; I looked at the sun, the firmament; kicking hard against the granite which did not give way, I challenged death and divine vengeance with a supreme howl of contempt and then hurled myself (down)' (187, Knight 118).
To return to the question of intertextual "combat," raised at the beginning of the present study: does Lautreamont thus outdo his predecessor, demonstrating that he is in fact the messiah of "extremes," as prophesied in the passage cited earlier ("II nest pas donne a quiconque d'aborder les extremes, soit dans un sens, soit dans un autre," 'It is granted only to a few to approach this problem, either in the one direction, or in the other' (333, Knight 259)? Not only does Maldoror survive his contest with death, but he seems to have finally freed himself of his need to ruminate on the "matter" of conscience: "Les hommes entendirent le choc douloureux et retentissant qui resulta de la rencontre du sol avec la tete de la conscience que j'avais abandonnee dans ma chute. On me vit descendre, avec la lenteur de l'oiseau, porte par un nuage invisible" 'Men heard the painful, resounding thud which occurred as the head of conscience, which I had abandoned as I fell, hit the ground. I was seen descending, slow as a bird, borne on an invisible cloud' (187, Knight 118).
As acknowledged above, reading such a passage sympathetically, as a form of victory--at least in the realm of literary convention--would not be out of line with a significant body of scholarship that views Lautreamont as the liberator of modern poetry--not only from the limitations of the Byronic, but the Romantic tradition in general: "Lautreamont exaggerated and stretched the conventions of demonic romanticism until it tore apart, giving way to something new" (Lindsay 151, emphasis mine); "By extending these landscapes to their logical extreme, Lautreamont breaks down their metaphorical purpose (the representation of an idealized inner realm of feelings, and of ethical judgments)" (Winspur 84, emphasis mine). (13) If such critical discourses are convincing, however, this is perhaps because they echo the language, not only of seminal critical work on Lautreamont, but that of Lautreamont himself. In one of the few surviving letters from the poet's correspondence, he explains: "J'ai chante le mal comme ont fait Mickiewickz, Byron ... etc. Naturellement, j'ai un peu exagere le diapason pour faire du nouveau dans le sens de cette litterature ..." 'I have sung of evil, just as Mickiewickz, Byron ... etc. Admittedly, I exaggerated the diapason a bit in order to introduce some innovation into this literature' (378, emphasis mine). And as the preceding reflections have been intended to show, this is hardly the most reliable source for establishing how the transgressive poetics of another poet actually function, much less his own. For, however much a given trial of the hero may seem to allow for the transcendence of a constrictive literary tradition, the textual violence that "exaggerates" and "tears apart" inevitably draws the poet back into conflict with that tradition: by a fate which rules, arguably, over all poets, Ducasse's relation to language and himself is ultimately determined by that which remains obscured to him, at the deepest, refractory levels of conscience.
And indeed, having dropped the head of conscience in his successful transcendence of mortality, Maldoror is driven to take it up again! And why? Not simply to continue gnawing on it, but to make it a witness to a "triple crime": "(J'ai) ramass(e) la tete, pour la forcer a etre temoin d'un triple crime.... Une tete a la main dontje rongeais le crane je me suis dirige vers l'endroit oil selevent les poteaux qui soutiennent la guillotine" '(I) pick(ed) up the head, so that I could force it to witness a triple crime.... Gnawing the skull of the head which I held in my hands, I made for the place where the guillotine is' (187, Knight 118). As the structures of repetition multiply in triplicate, amplifying the violence of the text, Maldoror leads, not one, but three young girls to the guillotine, who gaze upon him "sweetly" as they die: "J'ai place la grace suave des cous de trois jeunes filles sous le couperet.... et, le fer triangulaire, s'abattant obliquement, trancha trois tetes qui me regarda avec douceur" 'I placed the smooth and delicate necks of three young girls beneath the blade.... and the triangular blade, falling obliquely, lopped off three heads which were looking at me sweetly' (187, Knight 118, emphasis mine). And then, as if this were not spectacle enough for the lifeless stare of conscience, he puts his own neck beneath the blade: " Troisfois, le couperet redescendait entre les rainures avec une nouvelle vigueur; troisfois, ma carcasse materielle, surtout au siege du cou, fut remuee jusqu'en ses fondements" 'Three times, the blade slid along the grooves with renewed force; three times, my material carcass was moved to the very depths, especially at the base of my neck' (187, Knight 118, emphasis mine).
The initial act of negation we observed--the beheading of conscience--thus reproduces itself in increasingly violent gestures, despite the supposed destruction of its original object. Where Byron had come to comprehend something integral to human conscience over the course of his poem, without ceding to the desire to justify it from without (in the "spirits" that stand in for social and spiritual authority), Lautreamont can never quite convince himself that he has entirely acquired such mastery without recognition--a fact which is highlighted most, ironically, by forcing the head of conscience itself, supposedly dead, to serve as this witness. And it is this inability to prove his supposed evacuation of conscience (to conscience!) that makes the latter return throughout the text, not simply in the lifeless head Maldoror cannot release, but in his inability to quit gnawing on it; to quit expounding in increasingly florid language, the rumination that is supposedly beneath him. The unresolved remorse of the Byronic hero surges up in the very discourse that ostensibly transcends itself. Whatever victory over conscience may seem to be effected through the textual process, the latter can never entirely efface, and would in fact appear to exacerbate the haunting of the executioner. As Zweig aptly observes: "His suicidal energy is turned aside, even death is powerless against him. But he cannot root out the pain of conscience judging him from within. Unable even to die, he will be haunted by his moral impotence" (74).
While the unusual dearth of biographical information regarding Ducasse limits any such attribution of interior "pain" to the realm of hypothesis, this does not prohibit us from identifying a form of mauvaise conscience in the composition of the text, as suggested earlier. As the above formulation proposes, and the preceding analysis has attempted to demonstrate, the poet's ability to stage and win battles with figures of the literary tradition reveals less an ability to transcend the mortality he reveals in them, than an inability not to ("Unable to die"). If the poet has taken on the Byronic persona with the aim of finally laying it to rest, the consummation of "suicidal energy" does not in fact take place at the end of the passage in question. Indeed, as Maldoror improbably rises from the guillotine, he gloats:
Le peuple stupefait me laissa passer, pour mecarter de la place funebre; il m'a vu ouvrir avec mes coudes ses flots ondulatoires, et me remuer, plein de vie, avam;ant devant moi, la tete droite, pendant que la peau de ma poitrine etait immobile et calme, comme le couvercle dune tombe.
The stunned crowd let me pass and leave the gloomy square. It saw me opening up with my elbows its undulating waves, carrying the head straight in front of me, while the skin of my breast remained as still and as calm as the lid of a tomb! (187, Knight 119).
Not only is Lautreamont's hero able, like Manfred, to hold his head high at the moment of death, but he manages to pass this ultimate threshold, unlike his predecessor. And yet, there is something decidedly lifeless in the mute, passive crowd that has suddenly appeared to observe and validate this event. And when the quickening heartbeat of the text--the impassioned cycling of language that gives this unusual peon to amorality its rhythmic life--is suddenly buried at the moment of victory, in forced stillness ("comme le couvercle d'une tombe" 'as the lid of a tomb'), it is less than clear who precisely has survived, and who, or what, has been vanquished.
Bachelard, Gaston. Lautreamont. Paris: Corti, 1956.
Beatty, Bernard. "Inheriting Humors, Legating Humor," in Byron: Heritage and Legacy. Ed. Cheryl A. Wilson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Bersani, Leo. A Future for Astyanax. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Blanchot, Maurice. Lauteamont et Sade. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1963.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Manfred, A Dramatic Poem. The Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. Vol. IV. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.
Ceron, Cristina. "Manfred, The Brontes and the Byronic Gothic Hero," in The Gothic Byron. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.
Ducasse, Isidore. Les Chants de Maldoror, Poesies I et II. Ed. Jean-Luc Steinmetz.Paris: Flammarion, 1990.
--. Maldoror and Poems. Trans. Paul Knight. London: Penguin, 1978.
Glass, Loren. "Blood and Affection: The Poetics of Incest in Manfred and Parsinia."
--.Studies in Romanticism 34:2 (Summer 1995): 211-27.
Gonsalves, Joshua. "Byron--In-Between Sade, Lautreamont, and Foucault: Situating the Canon of 'Evil' in the Nineteenth Century." Romanticism on the Net 43 August 2006.
Hara, Taichi. "Evocation creattrice : une lecture des Chants de Maldoror" La Licorne 57 (2001): 168-181.
Kenyon Jones, Christine. Ed. Byron: The Image of the Poet. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008.
Kristeva, Julia. La Revolution du langage poetique. Paris: Seuil, 1974.
Lindsay, Cecile. "Tearing the Body: Modern Self and Postmodern Corporality in Les Chants de Maldoror." Nineteenth-Century French Studies 22: 1 & 2 (Fall-Winter 1993-94): 150-171.
Luke, K. McCormick. "Lord Byron's Manfred: A Study of Alienation from Within." University of Toronto Quarterly 40 (Fall 1970): 15-26.
Macdonald, D.L. "Incest, Narcissism and Demonality." Mosaic 25:2 (Spring 1992): 25-38.
McGann, Jerome. Byron and Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
--."Introductory Note to Manfred!' Byron. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.
Melaney, William D. "Ambiguous Difference: Ethical Concern in Byrons Manfred!' New Literary History 36:3 (Summer 2005): 461-75.
Pierssens, Michel. "Lautreamont et l'heritage du byronisme." Romantisme 7 (1974): 77-85.
--. Ducasse et Lautreamont: Denvers et Tendroit. Charente: Presses universitaires de Vincennes, 2006.
Pleynet, Marcelin. Lautreamont par lui-meme. Paris: Editions du seuil, 1967.
Rutherford, Andrew. Byron: A Critical Study. Stanford: Stanford University Press: 1961.
Sandy, Mark. "'The Colossal Fabric's Form': Remodelling Memory, History, and Forgetting in Bryon's Poetic Recollections of Ruins." Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. 51 August 2008. Universite de Montreal.
Sibillio, Elisabetta. Lautreamont, lecteur de Dante. Rome: Portaparole, coll. "Petits essais," 2008.
Soderholm, James. "Byronic Confession." Byromania. London: MacMillan Press, 1999.
Steinmetz, Jean-Luc. "Isidore Ducasse et la question des genres." Malediction ou revolution poetique: Lautreamont/Rimbaud. Paris: Valenciennes, 1990.
Strathman, Christopher A. "Byron's Orphic Poetics and the Foundations of Literary Modernism." Texas Studies in Literature and Language. (Fall 2009) 51.3: 361-382.
Throsby, Corin. "Bryon, commonplacing and early fan culture," in Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750-1850. Ed. Tom Mole. Cambridge: Cambridge Universiy Press, 2009.
Winspur, Steven. "Ethics, Change, and Lautreamont." L'Esptrit Createur. XXVII: 2 (Spring 1987): 82-91.
Zweig, Paul. Lautreamont: The Violent Narcissus. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1972.
(1.) The title of Harold Bloom's work on the difficulty of innovation within an existing poetic tradition. Ceron has presented a convincing argument for a successful assimilation of the Byronic anti-hero, in the work of the Brontes.
(2.) Among numerous works on Byron's influence, see Throsby's recent study of the poet's role in the origination of modern fan culture, and the collection, Byron: The Image of the poet.
(3.) Andrew Rutherford condemned Manfred, the incarnation of this hero we will be looking at, in just such terms: "This new spiritual superman, in fact, has an emotional and intellectual immaturity of a kind usually associated with adolescence ..." (90).
(4.) "Bien que cette connaissance de premiere main ne soit pas indispensable (les traductions etaient largement accessibles), il y a dans la langue meme des Chants quelque chose qui la laisse supposer. Le melange de fluidite et de complexity de la phrase, son elan lyrique mele a une constante ironie, la juxtaposition des vastes envolees et des expressions crues--tout 9a laisse deviner une lecture attentive, non seulement a la thematique, mais a la texture meme des mots" 'While first-hand knowledge would not be indispensible (translations were widely accessible at the time), there is something in the language itself of the Chants that suggests as much. The mixture of fluidity and complexity in the phrasing, his lyrical elans combined with constant irony, the juxtaposition of soaring flights of fancy and crude expressions--all of this points to an attentive reading, not only of thematic structures, but of the very texture of words' (Pierssens 80).
(5.) "... for Byron to have allowed this unbidden, non-manipulated, 'authentic' spirit to be stronger than him would rob the play of its originality. If after all his assertions of independence, God and Sathan(sic) triumphed over him, Manfred would have never had the impact on nineteenth-century Europe that it did" (Cochran 75). Nietzsche was in fact influenced, at a very early age, by this particular text of Byron's, actually preferring it to the similar, monumental work of his countryman--Goethe's Faust. Several scholars have identified the role of Manfred in the development of his ideas, including McGann ("Introductory Note"), Beatty, Sandy, and Soderholm ("Manfred ... impressed, among others, Nietzsche, who considered Manfred superior to Faust precisely because Byrons hero does not make a pact with the spirits or barter away his soul," 188).
(6.) A number of critics have proposed readings of the autobiographical element in the creation of this text. See Macdonald (36-7) and Melaney (468).
(7.) Melaney similarly identifies the un-speakable as central to the composition of Manfred, in a challenge to more dismissive readings of the text. Stratham has gone even further, locating in it a Heideggerian inquisition into Being itself: "The exile in question here would be a more radical ontological exile in which one is estranged not merely from this or that being or entity or thing or place, but from the Being of all beings, the Place of all places" (5).
(8.) "[L]e temps de I'aggression ... est toujours homogene a Timpulsion premiere. Le temps de l'agression est produit par letre qui attaque dans le plan unique ou letre veut affirmer sa violence. Letre agressif n'attend pas qu'on lui donne le temps; il le prend, il le cree" le time of aggression ... always partakes of the primal impulse. The time of agression is produced by the being who attacks on the plane where being is driven to affirm its violence. The aggressive being does not wait for time to be given; he takes it, creates it' (9); "La decision grossit en s'affirmant. Le vouloirattaquer s'accelere. Un vouloir attaquer qui diminuerait est une absurdite" 'The wanting-to-attack accelerates. The idea of a diminishing wanting-to-attack is an absurdity' (17).
(9.) If he refuses to speculate on Ducasse's virtually undocumented personal life, Gonsalves cites an earlier version of Maldoror that suggests the poet identified with Byron in this regard: "Ah! Dazet! you whose soul is inseparable from mine; you the most beautiful son of woman even if still an adolescent; you whose name resembles the greatest friend of Byron's youth" 28). The recurring presence of conscience in the writing process of Ducasse is central to Maurice Blanchot's monumental text, Lautreamont et Sade, as well (71-6).
(10.) Critics have tended to assert the contrary. Marcelin Pleynet, notably, in his important Lautreamont par lui-meme, suggests that the endless repetitions and resistance to closure are a very conscious, and appropriate component of the "revolutionary radicalism of this oeuvre" (133).
(11.) It seems likely that this figure was derived from the infamous image of Ugolino, in Dante's Inferno (Canto XXXII, lines 124-29). See Elisabetta Sibillio's Lautreamont, lecteur de Dant, for the earlier poet's influence on the creation of Maldoror in general.
(12.) "Le rejet marque par l'abondance d'enonces negatifs des Chants de Maldoror ... est le fait d'un sujet en proces qui arrive--pour des raisons biographiques ou historiques--a remodeler le dispositif signifiant historiquement accepte, en proposant la representation d'un autre rapport aux objets naturels, aux appareils sociaux et au corps propre" 'The rejection inherent in the abundence of negative statements in the Chants de Maldoror ... is the fact of a subject in process who is able --for biographical or historical reasons--to reshape the historically accepted signfying system, by proposing the representation of another relation to natural objects, to social aparatii, and to the body itself' (Kristeva 116).
(13.) Winspur's reading is more nuanced, it should be noted, and is explicitly opposed to a certain facility in recent analyses of the poet's innovation (82).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
|Previous Article:||Scientific racism and masculine recuperation: Charles Lummis and the search for "home".|
|Next Article:||Masao Miyoshi. Trespasses: Selected Writings.|