Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lautréamont, yesterday and today

During my undergrad reading I came across a marvelous simile: “beautiful as the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table.” Later I learned that the mantra exemplified the concept of “making strange” or alienation, as expounded by the Russian Formalist critics. Such conjunctions provide the “shock of the new” so characteristic of modern literature, art, and music.

I knew that the words stemmed from the “Comte de Lautréamont” (Isidore Ducasse), a nineteenth-century French writer, and that they had been picked up and disseminated by the Surrealists in the 1920s.

However, I never got round to reading the work that is the motto’s source, “Les chants de Maldoror” (Maldoror’s Cantos) of 1870. Now, with the aid of an excellent new French version edited by Jean-Luc Steinmetz for the prestigious Pléiade collection, I have done so. To my surprise, I found that the original context was praise of the attractions of a sixteen-year old boy! The consciousness of Lautréamont, like that of many students at fancy French boarding schools, was decisively imprinted by the charms of a blond boy. Roger Peyrefitte’s “Les amitiés particulières” is the best-known example of this infatuation. It often persists into later life, and in fact the “Chants” are full of adored blond boys.

Like his predecessor the Marquis de Sade, Lautréamont was fascinated by violence and death. At the end of the book he executes one of the beautiful boys, the Scot Mervyn, in a particularly spectacular way. This connection with violence perhaps explains why his book has not been taken up as a classic of gay literature.

However, the gay element has also been played down by straight admirers, beginning with André Breton, leader of the Surrealists and a noted homophobe.

In the English-speaking world today, the cult writer Dennis Cooper qualifies as Lautréamont’s most loyal disciple. Cooper was born in 1953 to an upscale family in Pasadena, California. An unruly student, he was expelled from public school and placed in a private one. He began writing poetry at fourteen after reading Rimbaud and Lautréamont. In 1973 he published first chapbook of poems “The Terror of Earrings.” After rumbling about in the LA avant-garde scene, he moved to Europe for good. He now lives in Paris, Lautréamont’s choice as well.

Cooper's breakthrough work of fiction was the 1991 novel "Frisk." The gist of the narrative is as follows. As a boy, the book's protagonist, “Dennis” formed the habit of rifling through hardcore pornographic magazines at Gypsy Pete's, a storefront run by an aged, unshaven alcoholic. The reprobate introduces Dennis to even more taboo publications, some of them containing what appear to be images of necrophilic sex. As a result of this unusual education, Dennis comes to link desire with destruction, and love with assassination. Sexuality appears intimately bound to murder.

As he grows older, Dennis finds himself fixated on the same type of boy that he saw in the magazine. Seeking, or so he claims, to master his original experience, he careens from one impersonal tryst to another. Then the hero teams up with two Germans. They move from one scene of human destruction to the next, murdering young boys and having sex with their dead bodies. Call it the literary (and one hopes purely imaginative) counterpart of Jeffrey Dahmer.

Disturbingly, Cooper seems to view these necrophilic encounters as paradigmatic of sexual relation itself. Desire for the beloved is indistinguishable from the wish to kill that person.

Is Cooper’s model/muse Lautréamont, or is it Sade? Whichever it is, his work seems to exhibit the declining value of literary currency. In my view, he is not up to the standard of his predecessors. It is better to go back to the archetypes, to Lautréamont and Sade.



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