Thursday, March 12, 2015

'My Country and My People' Lin Yu Tang

China is the greatest mystifying and stupefying fact in the modern world.

Written in 1935, Lin’s was the first major work by a Chinese to introduce China and her culture to the West. Lin was born in China, but was educated in the West, in the US and Europe. He was a key figure in the New Culture Movement of the 1920s, but after 1935 spent most of his life in the US. He was the compiler of a Chinese - English dictionary which is still one of the most widely used today, and the inventor of the first Chinese language typewriter – a kind of Renaissance Man. He is ideally suited, then, as a kind of insider-outsider to write about his own culture.

The Chinese observer has a distinct advantage over the foreign observer, for he is a Chinese, and as a Chinese he not only sees with his mind but he also feels with his heart… he writes of his mission to observe and explain his birth culture to his adopted culture.

Lin’s book covers subjects as diverse as the role of women, the Chinese mind, the importance of calligraphy as a way to understand Chinese culture; he gives potted histories of Chinese literature and painting; he teases out patterns of circularity and repetition within and across the various Dynasties; he discusses the importance for the Chinese of their houses and gardens, tea culture and The Golden Mean. In fact, the topics he chooses to enlarge upon are an indication of what is important for an understanding of the Chinese, as it might not have occurred to a Western commentator to give such weight to calligraphy, for example.

Lin is very clear sighted about the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese culture, especially the great influence of Confucianism, of which he is rightly highly critical. In this, of course, he follows other writers of the New Culture Movement such as Lu Xun and Lao She.

Of the Confucian ideal of the gentleman ruler  (junzi 君子), ruling by example through correct morality, Lin notes: it is a queer irony of fate that the good old school teacher Confucius should ever be called a political thinker, and that his moral molly-coddle stuff should ever be honored with the name of a political theory. He notes the difference between form and substance, or appearance and reality, one of the key tensions in Chinese life, between a political theory that emphasizes virtue and morality, and yet which gives rise to the most consistently corrupt and incompetent governments the world has ever seen, in any and all periods of history.  

Of the five relationships as defined by Confucius - ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, friend to friend- Lin notes the omission of the relationship between stranger and stranger, and calls this a great and catastrophic omission, and one that partly accounts for the lack of a civic consciousness in Chinese life, the complete indifference to others outside ones own family circle, the lack of manners, the lack of what he calls a Samaritan spirit, and the all pervasive presence of nepotism and venality in public life. Another reason for the lack of public spirit is the Confucian emphasis on the family, of which he notes: family consciousness degenerates into a form of magnified selfishness at the cost of social integrity.

Lin is very good indeed on the special features of the language, and how these features restrict the ability of the Chinese to express themselves clearly and indeed to think clearly: one sometimes wonders whether the Chinese people as a whole would be so docile and so respectful to their superiors had they spoken an inflectional language and consequently used an alphabetic language. This is absolutely right, in my view. In a language that has no word for ‘no’, how do you refuse, or disagree with someone?

Mind is determined by language, and of the Chinese mind Lin notes the absence of real logic as Westerners understand it, and its replacement by, on the one hand, ‘common sense’, which he lauds, and on the other, a kind of Taoist epistemology which holds truth to be something above words, and impossible to be expressed by them. (Consider the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching: The Way that can be spoken of/ Is not the constant Way/The name that can be named/Is not the constant name.)  Lin writes: Anything like cogent reasoning is unknown in Chinese literature for the Chinese inherently disbelieve in it. Consequently, no dialectic has been evolved and the scientific treatise as literary form is unknown.

Lin is a wonderful guide to Chinese literature, and he presents a wealth of poems, excerpts from the histories, essayists and novelists from all dynasties. Among my favourites is this example of  the Chinese method of classification and naming, Lin is talking about the names given to the different styles of writing in Classical criticism:

the method of watching a fire across the river (detachment of style)
the method of dragon-flies skimming the water surface (lightness of touch)
the method of painting a dragon and dotting its eyes (bringing out the salient points)
the method of releasing a captive before capturing him (playing about a subject)
the method of showing the dragons head without its tail (freedom of movement and waywardness of thought)
the method of a sharp precipice overhanging a ten-thousand-feet ravine (abruptness of ending) (our cliff-hanger, I suppose)
the method of letting blood by one needle prick (direct epigrammatic jibe)
the method of going straight into the fray with one knife (direct opening)
the method of announcing a campaign on the east and marching to the west (surprise attack)
the method of side-stabs and flanking attacks (light raillery)
the method of light mist hanging over a grey lake (mellow and toned down style)
the method of layers of clouds and hilltops (accumulation)
the method of throwing lighted firecrackers at a horse's buttocks (final stab towards conclusion)

Much of what Lin writes is extraordinarily perceptive and confirms my own experience. He is at his best when he is explaining facts and teasing out their ramifications, for example the dialectic between Confucianism and the legalism of Han Feizi; or the importance of Face in the interactions that go to make up a culture and a society, or the special characteristics of the language. He is at his worst, however, when he is lauding those aspects of Chinese culture that he considers virtues, for example the emphasis he places on reasonableness and common sense. ("I have lived here for nigh on 20 years, and I’ve seen precious little evidence of common sense anywhere during that time", mutters the Old China Hand.) Lin seems to be unaware that common sense is as much a relative cultural construct as anything, and that it is completely incompatible with the notion of Face. When he is in this mode, Lin is no more than your usual Chinese chauvinist, although a highly articulate and learned one.

Lin’s book is dated; it contains many references to race, and the purity of Han blood or the necessity for its reinvigoration; and in this Lin shows how he is bounded by the limitations of the time of writing. ‘Race’ and ‘blood’ are common tropes of the sociology of the 1930s, and Lin spent much of the 30s in Germany, where this kind of writing was infected with notions of racial purity. He is also backward in his discussion of the role and nature of women in Chinese life. His solution for China’s ills is to shoot the officials, and he ends the book with an image of the Great Executioner cleansing out the stables of government. Well, Chiang Kai Shek, and the Japanese, and Mao, and Deng Xiao Ping tried that in one form or another; today’s leaders are also showing great enthusiasm for shooting officials, yet the fundamental problems Lin highlights in his book still persist. Perhaps Lin is merely being ironic, and rather too sanguine. Perhaps only when Confucianism has been eradicated and the Chinese language has evolved subject/object pronoun differences and created a word for ‘No’ will her problems – and her unique culture – be eliminated.

However, Lin has an engaging style, an energy and idiosyncrasy of vision (he is adept at the long sarcastic, rant) and can turn out pithy and memorable epigrams that extend beyond their immediate context:

Graft, or ‘squeeze’, may be a public vice, but it is always a family virtue
All Chinese are Confucianists when successful and Taoists when they are failures.
Buddhism is Taoism a little touched in its wits.
The Chinese are by nature greater Taoists than they are by culture Confucianists.
When people persist in talking of moral reforms as a solution for political evils, it is a sign of the puerility of their thinking and their inability to grasp the political problems as political problems.

Until everybody loses his face in this country, China will not become a truly democratic country.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Fragment 21022015

There are two places in the Chu Ci where the interaction between Confucianism and Taoism becomes most acute and obvious. The first is the poem called Bu Ju (Divination) the second is the poem called Yu Fu, (The Fisherman). They appear side by side in the middle of the anthology, and are the only pieces in the anthology that contain prose and dialogue. They both are anecdotes about Qu Yuan, and therefore cannot have been written by him. Authorship is unknown, but there are similar parables concerning encounters with Confucians and Taoists in the Zhuang Zi.

Bu Ju is interesting because it concerns the I Jing. It is, as far as I know, one of the earliest depictions in Chinese literature of the I Jing in use, and it gives us a picture of how to use the Oracle, or rather how not to use it.

Qu Yuan (Confucian ideal) consults a famous diviner (Taoist ideal). “I have an uncertainty in my mind which I should like you to resolve for me”, he says. The Diviner readies his yarrow stalks. “What are your instructions”, he says, when he is ready. Qu Yuen asks eight questions concerning his dilemma, seven of which are framed in the same way: ‘Is it better to X or to Y?’; and the eighth is a kind of summary of the previous seven: “Of these alternatives, which is auspicious and which is ill-omened. Which is to be avoided and which is to be followed?”
The Diviner’s reaction is to throw away his divining stalks and excuse himself, with a speech in which he says: “There are things to which my calculations cannot attain, over which the divinity has no power. My lord, for one with your mind and with resolution such as yours, (…) the divining stalks are really unable to be of help.”  

Why does the Diviner react in this way?

The answer lies in the way the questions are framed, and in the last sentence spoken by the Diviner.

Commentaries of the I Jing, repeatedly note the importance of the way the question is framed, and this is arguably the most important part of the process of consulting the oracle. The Diviner usually works with the person consulting the Oracle to make sure the question is framed in the correct way. John Blofeld writes: Above all, the either/or type of question is to be avoided. Other commentators stress the same thing and also that the same question cannot be asked more than once. (Some who consult the Oracle as a game ask the same question more than once to ‘test’ the Oracle to see if it will give the ‘same’ answer.) Qu Yuan makes both these mistakes, with his string of either/ or questions all on the same problem: is it better to remain unsullied, or is it better to go with the things of the world?

In the comment the Diviner makes to Qu Yuan: My lord, for one with your mind and with resolution such as yours, the divining stalks are really unable to be of help.” The Diviner notes from Qu Yuan’s questions that his mind is already made up about the best course to follow: resolution such as yours. The question has been answered before it has been put. 

This is not the way to approach the Oracle, which requires an openness of mind for its power to work. In the Da Chuan commentary to the I Jing, it is written:

First take up the words
Ponder their meaning
Then the fixed rules reveal themselves.
But if you are not the right man,
The meaning will not manifest itself to you.

Qu Yuan is not the right man because he is not in a position mentally to be able to ponder  anything. He is obsessed with his either/or choices. This is why the Diviner cuts short the consultation.

But there is another deeper level to this encounter between Confucianism and Taoism. After he has framed his questions, Qu Yuan breaks into poetry, describing the times as out of joint: ‘The world is turbulent and impure,’ he begins. Turbulence is another word for change. But the I Jing, or the Book of Changes does not see change as turbulent, or impure, as the Confucian does. The Taoist sees change as the basis of life the universe and everything. For the Confucian, change is negative; for the Taoist, who abhors catgegories, it is neither positive nor negative, it simply is.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

楚辭 'Chu Ci' 'The Songs of the South'

It has to be said, really, that considered as poetry, the Songs of the South  is exceptionally boring. An anthology of poems from the Warring States period, usually attributed to the poet Qu Yuan, or ‘school of’, it takes its tone from the first poem, Li Sao, the only poem in the collection that modern scholars can confidently attribute to Qu Yuan.

In the Li Sao, the poet bemoans the fact that his loyalty, integrity, knowledge and generally exceptional character has not been recognised by his employer, the Prince of the State. The poet leaves his home (banished or not, it doesn’t matter, he cannot return) and goes on a journey which ends, usually, with the resolve to drown himself. Qu Yuan did in fact drown himself for this reason, and his death is celebrated to this day in the Qing Ming festival, or Dragon Boat festival, held all over South China on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. Thus is born the figure of the lofty Confucian scholar, stubbornly resisting the necessity to taint his soul with the common things of the world, and choosing a lonely, watery martyrdom instead of compromise and socialisation.

The Li Sao spawned a whole genre of Sao poems, all based on the same theme, of the unregarded Confucian scholar (usually but not always Qu Yuan himself) choosing death over compromise. The problem is that the other Sao poets included in the anthology don’t have Qu Yuan’s imagination. Common tropes include flower imagery, the analogy of Prince and servant to lover and beloved, the use of a clearly delineated set of similes, the spirit journeys and real journeys, all are exactly the same. None of the other poets in the anthology are doing anything creative with the elements of the genre: it seems to be enough just to provide a checklist of elements for the reader to recognise. Jade and pebbles are mixed together (jade being the Confucian scholar the man of virtue, pebbles being the common riff raff of the court, his enemies), warlike steeds stabled with nags (ditto), orchids grown alongside millet (ditto) etc etc. One longs to shake the poet and tell him to get over himself.

The problem is not one of translation: David Hawkes miraculously manages to catch differences in tone and style in his translations – his introduction and notes are fascinating and indispensable for students of early Chinese history. But, as he puts it:

The conventions of …the symbolism of plant and flower and the parallels drawn from ancient history and mythology – seem in these poems to have become an end in themselves. The result is a long, almost unrelieved litany of complaint which progresses by mere accumulation and ends only when poet, reader and metaphor are all three exhausted.

An old man here once told me an old Chinese legend about a man on a journey who comes to a mountain he cannot traverse. Unwilling to give up his journey, he decides to remove the mountain stone by stone out of his way, and he spends his life doing so. The story was held up to me as an example of perseverance, patience, dedication to an ideal and the refusal to give up or stray from a path, the classic Confucian virtues, in short. My old man was sure I would regard it as a model to follow, but I was thinking only of the stupidity inherent in the enterprise. Surely it would be more sensible to walk around the mountain than to try to remove it? I get the same feeling from the Sao poems. There’s a point where commitment and dedication become mere boneheaded stubbornness and inflexibility; and the obverse of stubbornness is not flexibility but inertia. The Chu Ci provides fruitful ground for speculations as to the historical origin of the inertia found in the Confucian/Chinese character. 

Enough! There are no true men in the state: no one understands me.
Why should I cleave to the city of my birth?
Since none is worthy to work with me in making good government,
I shall go and join Peng Xian (Taoist immortal) in the place where he abides.

There’s something, dare I say it, pubescent in this. It reminds me of an adolescent who is bitter at the world for not recognising his genius, a sense of teenage entitlement. To kill yourself because the world doesn’t recognise your genius, in our culture this is a sign of great immaturity, illness even. (Sylvia Plath anyone?)

The Chu Ci does however, contain seeds of dissent, a hint of an ironic Taoist corrective to the Confucian ideal. The Li Sao itself contains a beautiful  description of a spirit journey made by a shaman, and the poem is interesting also for the use it makes of ancient Taoist tales and legends, some of which are now lost and which have only survived here in this anthology. In a poem called Yu Fu, Qu Yuan (Confucian ideal) encounters a fisherman (Taoist recluse). Qu Yuan is bellyaching in his usual manner: “How can I submit my spotless purity to the dirt of others? I would rather cast myself into the waters of the river… than hide my shining light in the dark and dust of the world”. The fisherman can put up with this no longer, smiles faintly, and sings as he paddles away:

When the Cang-Lang’s waters are clear
I can wash my hat-strings in them.
When the Cang-Lang’s waters are muddy
I can wash my feet in them.

The Taoist ideals of adaptability and non-interference in the flow of nature are contrasted beautifully with the Confucian ideals of steadfastness and loyalty.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

'Les Chants de Maldoror' Comte de Lautreamont

 “All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:”

Satan in Paradise Lost Book 1, 106-8

These are the songs of Maldoror: prose poems in the style of Baudelaire’s Le Spleen De Paris, organized into six cantos of between 5 to 16 stanzas each, first published in 1868, to almost universal neglect and uninterest.

Who is Maldoror? The text tells us that he was born evil; that he never cuts his fingernails so that he can pierce the breast of a child more easily therewith to drink its blood; that his breath exhales poison; that his forehead is furrowed green; that his face is like the face of some hideous deep-sea fish; that he lives alone in a cave, shunned by and shunning humanity; that he prowls the city at night wrapped in black; that he hasn’t slept for thirty years; that he was born deaf but that he developed the ability to hear; that he likes to have sex with prepubescent boys; that he is permanently tumescent; that he changes his clothes twice a week so as to save mankind from dying of their stench; that he is a shape-changer wanted by an army of spies and agents throughout Europe; that he loves the cold purity of mathematics; that he has assisted at the revolutions of the globe and been a silent witness to cataclysms and disasters; that he only has one eye in the centre of his forehead; and finally, in the last canto, there is the suggestion that Maldoror is Lucifer himself, the devil with a myriad names, this particular one conjured up by Lautreamont himself, and compounded of (echoes of) the French words for sickness or evil (mal), gold (or), and  horror (horreur). We let these words, then, as defined by Littre’s Dictionary (first edition published 1863-72, coterminous with the publication of Maldoror) stand as symbols of various aspects of the text, and our responses to it.

1.) MAL: that which is contrary to virtue, probity and honour, that which wounds, which hurts. A symbol of transgression and pain.

Maldoror’s text transgresses not least in the shocking power of its images, to which we will return later, but in the general violation and blurring of traditional literary boundaries such as genre and structure, such as the relationships between author and protagonist, and between reader and text.

Genre and Structure
As prose poems, the writing violates the traditional distinctions between poetry and prose. To be sure, Lautreamont is taking Baudelaire as his model here, but he does so in a quite self-conscious way, in which the discourse is aware of its own ambiguous status as song, chant, lay, and text, and in which it proclaims a synesthesia between speaking and writing, reading and hearing: I propose to proclaim in a loud voice and without emotion the cold and grave chant that you are about to hear. 1.8 We are reading prose, but the spirit of poetry saturates language and protagonist: the fundamental accents of poetry preserve none the less their intrinsic sway over my intelligence. 5.1.

Although Maldoror present his texts to us as songs, he also highlights the process of writing: I find it stupid that it should be necessary…. to place before me an open ink stand and several sheets of uncrumpled paper. 6.2

In an ironic dig at the late 19th century doctrine of art for art’s sake, he proclaims the ‘usefulness’ of his ‘poems’, calling them Dramatic Episodes of implacable utility! 6.2 blurring the distinction between the lower reading for pleasure (titivation) or the loftier reading for improvement (cultivation). If Maldoror is the devil, from his point of view, the utility of the verses must lie in their poisonous, damning effect upon the reader.

Baudelaire’s prose poems were written as sketches and published randomly in various journals over a period of time. Maldoror’s prose poems have the same appearance of being occasional pieces, but they are in fact carefully structured into a whole, as Maldoror himself tells us: Now the synthetic section of my work is complete and sufficiently paraphrased…Today I am about to invent a little novel of thirty pages 6.1

The first three cantos have a different character from cantos 4 and 5, and use various repeated lines or sentences within each stanza as a quasi poetic device, one used frequently in chants. Cantos 4 and 5 exchange this device for another one: a parody of French Academic prose, which –both parody and target- is often impenetrable. Maldoror here employs embedding, double negatives, parentheses and other rhetorical devices; he starts sentences that get longer and longer, and then he simply abandons them:
By that very fact, depriving myself of the light and skeptical mannerisms of ordinary conversations, and sufficiently prudent not to ask… I no longer recall what I was intending to say, for I do not remember the beginning of the sentence. 6.2

Canto 6 contains a story spread out over several stanzas – up till now, each stanza has been totally self contained with no reference to others around it. This ‘novel’ is supposed to embody the themes and images in the preceding part of the work. The work thus has certain similarities in structure with another contemporary work, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, which also foregrounds ‘metaphysical’ matter by placing it in front of a narrative. In its form, then, and by appearing to be something which it is not, the text transgresses notions of literary probity.

Relationship between author and protagonist
Throughout the text there is the disconcerting suggestion that Maldoror is a portrait of the author himself, but of course, one must always guard against such readerly naivete. The danger of identifying protagonist with author is not mitigated by the fact that almost nothing is known about the author. Lautreamont is a pseudonym which covers the real name of Isadore Lucien Ducasse, an indigent writer who was kicking around Paris in the late 1860s but who doesn’t seem to have made many friends, or made much of a mark on his times. His death certificate dated 24 November 1870 states that he was found dead in his lodgings, was a bachelor, and then contains these highly suggestive, emblematic words, so suitable for a writer who left virtually no other trace of his existence on earth except for this one vile, sublime masterpiece: no further information.

Matters are not helped by a deliberate inconsistency in the use of pronouns and point of view. In some stanzas, Maldoror is being observed/described by another party (pronoun ‘he’; mocking title ‘Our Hero’); in others he is presenting himself or events from his viewpoint (pronoun ‘I’). This blurring of boundaries between viewpoint and selves of protagonist and author can take place in the middle of a stanza, in the middle of a sentence, even, with no warning or explanation, and the reader has to be alert. Madmen, savants and children often refer to themselves in the third person. So the question stands: is Maldoror referring to himself in the third person, or is Lautreamont referring to his creation? It’s this slippage of pronouns and resulting ambiguity that does much to create the transgressive mood of the work on a rhetorical, structural level.

Relationship between reader and text
For a text to break frame and address the reader directly is of course not new in 19th century literature, but Maldoror/Lautreamont’s handling of this device is quite original. Surely no reader in 19th century fiction has been so abused or treated with such contempt, bile and venomous rancour by an author; and surely no reader has been so well understood by his author. This attitude can be seen in its most concentrated and brilliant form in stanza 5.1, a long meditation on the nature of the reader and our interaction with the work. Maldoror anticipates the disgust and confusion of the reader in our encounter with his text: since the instinctive repulsion that manifested itself during my first pages has noticeably diminished in depth in inverse ratio to your application to the reading,…we must hope that your recovery will soon have reached it final stages. And he suggests a remedy for those readers whose sensibility does not allow them to enjoy these rancid visions. This remedy involves first ripping off your mothers arms and eating them. After he has effectively called the reader’s sister a whore, he provides a recipe of a potion the reader must drink in order to fully enjoy the work:
A basin full of lumpy blennorrhagic pus in which was first dissolved a hairy ovarian cyst, a follicular chancre, an inflamed prepuce skinned back from the glans by paraphimosis, and three red slugs. 5.1
Once you have drunk this evil brew, he crows, you will appreciate my poetry!

Maldoror’s ideal reader is one who knows how to unite enthusiasm with an internal coldness, [an] observer with a concentrated disposition (an accurate and sensitive description of any careful reader, it seems to me), and Maldoror tells us that he finds us perfect, even though – or perhaps because- the reader refuses to understand him. Paradoxically, and as a supreme transgression of the normal relationship between reader and text, the text simply does not wish to be understood; it refuses this kind of assimilation.

But it’s really in the second meaning of our emblematic word mal that the work really transgresses, for Maldoror sings of his utter hatred for God and Man. My poetry will consist only in the attack by all means in my power upon Man, that wild beast, and the Creator, who should never have created such vermin. 2.4 Maldoror, we learn, has suffered pain, a wound from both God and Man, and he sings about his resulting anger, humiliation and despair. Not since Milton’s Satan has wickedness and lust for revenge sung itself so powerfully. In one sense, the work is a long dark paean to revenge, the revenge of a soul outraged that consciousness has been thrust upon him; that he has to endure life on such unequal terms in a body marred by atrocious ugliness; revenge for being outcast.

Maldoror begins his text by warning the reader that he will be negatively effected by the work to come: the deadly emanations from this book will imbibe his soul as sugar absorbs water 1.1, and this is no empty rhetorical boast. The sickening power of Maldoror’s images and the virulent hatred for everything under the sun (with some notable exceptions as we shall see) does indeed cast a spell on the reader, altering forever the way he sees the world. The reader is literally sickened, as we have seen in the extract quoted above. By singing his pain and hatred so lucidly, Maldoror transfers it to his reader. Maldoror, his Creator (Lautreamont) and Man (the reader) are locked into an inescapable and terrible trinity.

2.) HORREUR: a physical sensation which causes goose bumps on the skin and the hair to rise, something which causes a sense of dread mixed with admiration and respect A symbol of physical revulsion produced by a text for which one has admiration.

The text is full of images of horror straight out of Bosch or the images of war photographers. To be sure, Lautreamont is using conventions well established by the Gothic literature of Maturin and Radcliffe, but he lifts them to a whole new level of gratuitous cruelty.

In one canto a young man is hung from a tree by his hair while two women – his mother and his wife- tar him and whip him; in another we are treated to an image of God sitting on a throne made of human excrement and gold holding the corpse of a man which he is eating, his feet bathed in a pool of boiling blood in which other living men are swimming or drowning; the text abounds with lice, spiders, tapeworms, grubs, all eating each other or eating man or being eaten by him; there are countless cruel murders and swollen corpses, rapes of prepubescent boys and virgin girls, acts of bestiality; disembowelment, torture, and death by a thousand different inventive means. The text is a catalogue of cruelty, a handbook of techniques for the depraved. Metaphors and similes all involve acts of violent cruelty: [the Creator] would show much wisdom if, during the time strictly necessary to  smash a woman’s head with hammer blows, he would forget his sidereal majesty… 2.3 Maldoror’s horreur is intensely physical: the text abounds with descriptions of body parts and fluids. There is a stench arising from the pages. (Ironically, when composing this piece my automatic spell checker kept ‘correcting’ Maldoror to ‘malodor’.)  You who are now gazing upon me, stand back, for my breath exhales poison.1.8

Maldoror strips away the conventional pieties of culture and civilization and reveals the true basis of life: horror and cruelty, nature red in tooth and claw. (It’s this aspect of the work which had such a profound effect on Artaud’s thinking.) Perhaps the only other writer to approach this level of depravity is De Sade, but Lautreamont goes further than De Sade because the Marquis always stays firmly in the realm of the real: De Sade’s perversions are limited to the physical reality of the body and what it is capable of enduring or doing. Maldoror’s cruelties transcend human capabilities, however, and enter the realm of the surreal: his anus is colonized by a crab, his testicles have been emptied, dried and turned into a dwelling for two cute little hedgehogs; Maldoror fucks a talking shark, the only being, he says, that can match his own evil; God comes to visit earth and falls into a drunken sleep by the side of the road whereupon a passerby shits on his face for three days…Throughout, Maldoror accuses the Creator of having created this cruel world: Maldoror’s own evil is no match for the Creator’s (although, god knows, he tries hard enough).

Ironically, this is a profoundly religious work  because it is not atheist. Maldoror/Lautreamont knows for sure that God exists, and his belief is sustained not by love of God but by an absolute implacable hatred of God.

3.) OR: metal of brilliant yellow and great weight, which one makes the currency of the highest value. A symbol of imperishable beauty and weighty value.

The work is not all depravity and disgust, however, for such a work would be indeed be unreadable. Buried in the middle of the syllables that make up the name of Maldoror, like gold in the pile of excrement of God’s throne, is the syllable for gold. Among Maldoror’s chants of unremitting hatred and cruelty are three that celebrate something positive, something good that Maldoror loves. The first of these is the stanza in which Maldoror sings of the sea, which he loves because its brine has the same taste as gall, because men have not been able to plumb its profundities, and because, deep though it is, it is still not as deep as the human heart. I salute you, ancient ocean. 1.8

The second is the stanza  in which he celebrates friendship. Friendship, and the betrayal of it, is a recurring theme throughout the work. Maldoror has been betrayed by a friend - the Creator- and he retaliates by describing incidents where he befriends a being and then betrays it in the most savagely cruel way, in incidents of transgression. This is the main action of the ‘novel’ in the last canto, for example. But in stanza 3.1 he describes a friendship that is not betrayed, that is not perverted. He and his friend Mario are riding along the beach on two horses, inseparable, united. They light a fire and share a cloak, they become the angel of the land and the angel of the sea. The text has this to say about them:  What do two hearts that love say to each other? Nothing…. Each takes as much interest in the life of the other as in his own life. 3.1

The third stanza where Maldoror sings the good, is his astonishing hymn to the abstract power and beauty of mathematics, the luminous triangle of Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry 2.10. Math for Maldoror is something extremely cold, prudent and logical; it disperses the smoke in his mind and makes him more intelligent; it is unchanging, impersonal and eternal. The words he uses to describe math are the words used by other beings to describe God, but Maldoror cannot talk about God in this way because he is tied forever to God by the strength of his hatred for him. Math is Maldoror’s religion, cruelty and hatred his mode of being. It is with math that he was finally able to dethrone his Creator and unmask the evil that is the Creator’s true nature. Interestingly, in this stanza he mentions Descartes in passing, which seems to suggest that perhaps Maldoror’s Cruel Creator is Descartes’s demon, le dieu trompeur.

For the reader, then, what gives the text its beauty, its weight and value? First, is the power of Lautreamont’s language. Maldoror describes his depravities and cruelties in the most exquisite, limpid, purely nuanced French. The text is widely regarded as one of the great glories of the language, rendered impeccably into English by Guy Wernham in the NDP translation. Second, is the depiction of a kind of sensibility that is entirely modern, it seems to me, a psychology in which consciousness is foregrounded and which describes the dualism of mind and body as intrinsically problematic: I feel that my soul is padlocked in my body and cannot free itself to flee far from coasts beaten by the human sea 3.1. We can call this an ‘underground sensibility’, after Dostoevsky’s underground man, the character in 19th century literature who bears the closest psychological resemblance to Maldoror. Lautreamont gives us strings of beautifully crafted epigrams and insights into the kind of sensibility that experiences life as a wound:
How long it has been since I ceased to resemble myself. 3.1 If I exist, I am not someone else. I will not admit any equivocal plurality within myself. I wish to dwell alone within my intimate reason. Autonomy! 5.3 I received life like a wound, and I have forbidden suicide to heal the gash. 3.1

Finally, the value of the work lies in its utter uniqueness. To be sure, Lautreamont has spawned a host of imitators, from Huysmans to Genet, from Burroughs to Bukowski, from the Decadents to the Surrealists; and his metaphysics opens the way for the existentialism of Kafka and Camus; but really, none of these can approach Lautreamont for sheer intensity of writing, technical brilliance and bravura originality of conception and performance. The only contemporary writer who comes close to Lautreamont in mood and matter is Dostoevsky. Some of the things Dostoevsky’s more jaundiced characters say would be well understood by Lautreamont’s Maldoror: When Ipolit Terentyev in The Idiot remarks: Isn’t it possible to simply eat me without demanding that I praise that which has eaten me? we hear also the mocking vengeful singing of Maldoror.

He who is singing now does not claim that his songs are new. On the contrary, he is proud in the knowledge that all the lofty and wicked thoughts of his hero reside within all men.

Oh if only instead of being a hell, the universe had been an immense anus! 5.5