Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse

Ben Robinson - Isidore Ducasse Memorial Plaque, 2009

Comte de Lautréamont was the pseudonym of Isidore-Lucien Ducasse (4 April 1846 – 24 November 1870), an Uruguayan-born French poet. His only works, Les Chants de Maldoror and Poésies, had a major influence on modern literature, particularly on the Surrealists and the Situationists. He died at the age of 24.

Les Chants de Maldoror is based on a character called Maldoror, a figure of unrelenting evil who has forsaken God and mankind. The book combines a violent narrative with vivid and often surrealistic imagery.

In April and June 1870, Ducasse published the first two installments of what was obviously meant to be the preface to the planned "chants of the good" in two small brochures, Poésies I and II; this time he published under his real name, discarding his pseudonym. He differentiated the two parts of his work with the terms philosophy and poetry, announced that the beginning of a struggle against evil was the reversal of his other work:
I replace melancholy by courage, doubt by certainty, despair by hope, malice by good, complaints by duty, scepticism by faith, sophisms by cool equanimity and pride by modesty.
At the same time Ducasse took texts by famous authors and cleverly inverted, corrected and openly plagiarized for Poésies:
Plagiarism is necessary. It is implied in the idea of progress. It clasps the author's sentence tight, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, replaces it with the right idea.

Man Ray - L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse, 1920, remade 1972

L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse consists of a sewing machine, wrapped in a blanket and tied with string. Man Ray’s idea of using a sewing machine was inspired by a simile used by the French writer, Isidore Ducasse (1809-87), better known as the Comte de Lautréamont, ‘Beautiful as the accidental encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella’. It was a phrase that was greatly admired by the writers in Paris with whom Man Ray was close friends and who formed the nucleus of the Paris dada and later surrealist groups. They saw it as paradigmatic of a new type of surprising imagery, as well as replete with disguised sexual symbolism. (The umbrella was interpreted as a male element, the sewing machine as a female element, and the dissecting table as a bed.). Man Ray’s wrapped object, however, was a mystery, and suggested not so much a sewing machine as some utterly undefined, and therefore potentially more disturbing, presence.
Jennifer Mundy

Glenn O'Brien: I've remembered an event and thought I'd said something when actually it was somebody else who said it or vice versa. I think, especially in writing, so much of plagiarism is completely unconscious.

Mike Kelley: I have experienced that often. I've stolen ideas, and people have stolen from me. I'm all for it. That's the way things get created. That's how culture grows. When there's an amazing idea, you take it and run with it. I mean, you're going to take it someplace else than the source anyway. There are a lot of artists who've worked at that specifically. One of my favorite writers is the Comte de Lautréamont, and much of his writing is constructed from plagiarized texts. Who would claim that his work is no different than what he plagiarized?

Mike Kelley - Lumpenprole, 1991

On this day in 1870 the single greatest poetic influence on surrealism, Isidore Ducasse, died in Paris aged 24. He is better known by his colourful pseudonym, the Comte de Lautréamont, author of Les Chants de Maldoror (1868), which André Breton called "the expression of a total revelation which seems to exceed human possibility". André Gide claimed that reading the sixth book of Maldoror (which includes the celebrated simile "He is as handsome as ... the chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table") made him ashamed of his own work. "Ignorance of the circumstances of Lautréamont's death and of most of his life has opened the door to all kinds of speculation and a mystique has arisen around this mysterious, elusive individual," notes the translator Paul Knight. "History tells us, simply and sinisterly, that the death certificate was signed by the owner of the hotel and the waiter who brought him his meals," observed the former surrealist Antonin Artaud in 1946. "For a great poet this is a little brief and a little thin ... it smells of the unspeakable." Today a plaque at the site of Ducasse's death quotes from Maldoror: "Who is opening the door of my funeral chamber? I had said no one was to enter. Whoever you are, go away."


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