Some writers’ legends are so large that they are usually read about rather than read. The author’s work takes on such a large, imposing existence that intimidates us and forces us to learn about the work through the life that produced the words; Joyce, Proust, Kerouac, to name a few. Oftentimes the life behind the work is more compelling than the words. Rare instances, like the life and work of Isadore Ducasse, AKA the Comte de Lautréamont, are glorious in that the scant information about his life forces one to do the opposite and assume comprehension of a brief but brilliant existence on earth only through the work it produced. Best of luck to whoever endeavors. In the case of Lautréamont, the absence of much personal history magnifies the intensity of the work, which sadly might have been forgotten as the author incorrectly predicted if not for Philippe Soupault stumbling across a copy in the mathematics section of a Parisian bookstore. Since then, the book’s encouragement has infected artists of every discipline with its darkly comedic situations, deeply subversive assaults on reason, and the dense language that presents it all to us—but remember, a warning was issued from the onset.
By even greater chance, the mischievous influence of Lautréamont spread even farther abroad and inspired a vast breadth of creativity and thought. Wonderful examples are showcased in the collection, The Celestial Bandit: Tribute to Isadore Ducasse, the Comte de Lautréamont, edited by Jordan A. Rothacker. A beautiful offering showcasing just how Lautréamont enriched already creative minds, this variety of interpretations displays the full effect of a terrible stimulus that he would surely appreciate. Beginning with Rothacker’s introduction, an idea of how Maldoror and Lautréamont affected artistry across disciplines presents a compelling portrait of someone we know little about outside of his creation. A brief history is also given in the editor’s introduction before correctly announcing the contents: poems, prose, and art “inspired by Maldoror’s uniquely evil voice …” Contributions range from being about Ducasse himself (factual or otherwise), some continue the narrative within the world of Maldoror, essays on the importance of the author and the work, translation notes, and yet still more.
Tosh Berman’s “Maldoror’s Note” takes facts from Ducasse’s life and reimagines the creator’s thinking in the wake of his creation while offering fantastic interpretations of key events from the work. Here, Ducassse rightly believes “To be defined by others is unthinkable, but it is unbearable when one puts their own restraints on themselves.” An important statement artists of all disciplines must certainly observe, distilled from the essence of the source material. While writing Maldoror, Ducasse as Lautréamont showed no restraint while creating his perfectly formed vision of a malcontent. Also, “I like to see literature as wide and deep as the ocean,” and with six evil cantos, further depths proved possible of existing and ready to explore. Further insight into a possible version of Lautréamont’s Maldoror comes from one of Faisal Khan’s three brilliant contributions: “An image of our hero is made difficult by the sheer abundance of his metamorphoses. He is never static, never still, nor is his form.” The sole photo attributed to Ducasse has never been confirmed. The real cause of his death has also never been confirmed. Physical descriptions vary. What is real and what is myth? The benefit of enigma only burnishes the reputation and allure, forever ripe for discovery.
One certainty gleaned from this collection is that Lautréamont has assured placement in the annals of literature, towers of ivory be damned and felled. He knew the work promised limited readership, and Faisal Khan agrees: “What canon would contain it? In which syllabus would we find this book? Where would this be required reading?” Regardless, the reach continues to widen. Thankfully, scholars are doing the work. Reading accounts pertaining to the difficulties of both translating the work between languages or mediums proves fascinating in the support that they lend to spreading the word. RJ Dent’s essay on the perils of translating gives valuable perception into the “huge number of words and phrases available to the translator. There are so many possibilities.” Even more promises for interpretation are made possible by the opaque sentences and sometimes single paragraphs that comprise the cursed cantos of Maldoror. Stephen Finbow’s failed attempt at a Maldoror theatre production in his essay “The Art of Appropriation – Stealing Books in the 1970’s” and Chris Lloyd’s “Reflections on a Piece of Music Not Yet Written: Maldoror, the opera” prove that true translation doesn’t always give way to whims of amazing ideas.
So much of what Ducasse as Lautréamont wrote still proves shocking by today’s standards. Sadly, scenes of excessive violence and merciless terror even are commonplace (as discussed in David Leo Rice’s, “On Seediness, Undead Literature, and Maldoror in the 2020’s”) but some of the scenes still hold up. In Jeremy Reed’s stunning essay, “If Francis Bacon Had Painted Isadore Ducasse,” he speculates: “A lot of what Ducasse wrote must have personally shocked him in the process of writing it and scared him into attributing authorship to his alias Lautréamont in order to dissociate from the book’s more toxic pathologies.” The essay also states “Maldoror, as a book, remains like an unsolved crime, its un-analyzable pathologies forcing the reader into observing his or her potentialities to do the same.” Few scenes seem to have made quite the splash than the part from Canto Two where Maldoror “recognizes a wickedness greater than his own” in a female shark in which they “bond, embrace, and eventually make love …” to paraphrase the introduction, a scenario wondrously poeticized by Faisal Khan in “Shark.” Ben Azarte’s “The Shark Child” gives a story where the offspring of that union makes a new friend on the beach. Stewart Home’s riotous fan fiction even sheds light on the encounter to reveal a hypothesis of said union between man and beast.
Where would artists be without the allure of discovery? A new expression, a transformed medium, the potential of a cross-pollination of ideas and notions. Possibilities are revealed by inventions often deemed difficult, or unworthy. If the wealth of words and thoughts contained within this tribute provides an example, then upon further inspection that instance reveals itself as proof. The power and spirit of Lautréamont, née Ducasse, through Maldoror, will continue to wind its way through the minds of mystics and miscreants alike. What that will bring about excites as much as it terrifies, alluring while also repelling, much like Maldoror’s shark-like offspring. The book will continue to find its audience by nefarious and prodigious means. Curiosity over how the artists involved in this tribute discovered Lautréamont warrants at least an essay from each contributor. Perhaps another book for the future from the good folx at KERNPUNKT Press.
The Celestial Bandit: Tribute to Isidore Ducasse, the Comte de Lautréamont, Edited by Jordan A. Rothacker. Hamilton, New York: KERNPUNKT Press, December 2021. 112 pages. $14.99, paper.
Jarrod Campbell is a writer living in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. His short stories, essays, and reviews appear online and in print. He is currently at work on a second collection of short fiction.