Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

07 March 2012


Isn't it funny how things just come to you sometimes? I am teaching a class on sex, gender, and sexuality in theatrical representations right now and the other day the class discussed Oscar Wilde's extraordinary play Salomé. Many of my students loved it and one in particular asked me to give him everything I had on the Symboliste movement related to sexuality. I have a lot of information about this, as it turns out – even more than I remembered that I had.

And I was looking at Symboliste novels: the really important ones were Raymond Roussel's truly bizarre Impressions d'Afrique, J.-K. Huysmans' À Rebours, and the Comte de Lautréamont's Les Chants de Maldoror. And I realized as I was giving my student the materials he requested that I had never actually read Maldoror and knew next to nothing about its author, who was, of course, not a comte at all (although the Marquis de Sade really was a marquis).

 So I cracked open Maldoror to see what all the fuss was about. And let me tell you it was much crazier than I thought it was going to be. I expected a little weird sexiness and a little darkness. No. Written around 1869, Les Chants de Maldoror are strange and grotesque in the extreme. The hero transforms into a shark, an eagle, and other various creatures. He does battle with the Almighty and with an archangel who has transformed into a crab. The whole thing is also composed very strangely, in what appear to be brief, unconnected episodes. It is truly an amazing book.

Here are a few samples. This is from the second canto:

It was evening. Night was beginning to spread the blackness of her veil over nature. A beautiful woman whom I could scarcely discern also exerted her bewitching sway upon me and looked at me with compassion. She did not, however, dare speak to me. I said: "Come closer that I may discern your features clearly, for at this distance the starlight is not strong enough to illumine them." Then, with modest demeanour, eyes lowered, she crossed the greensward and reached my side. As soon as I saw her: "I perceive that goodness and justice have dwelt in your heart: we could not live together. Now you are admiring my good looks which have bowled over more than one woman. But sooner or later you would regret having consecrated your love to me, for you do not know my soul. Not that I shall be unfaithful to you: she who devotes herself to me with so much abandon and trust – with the same trust and abandon do I devote myself to her. But get this into your head and never forget it: wolves and lambs look not on one another with gentle eyes."

A little later Maldoror meets a shark:

Swimmer and female shark he has rescued confront each other. For some minutes they stare warily at one another, each amazed to find such ferocity in the other's stare. They swim, circling, neither losing sight of the other. Each thinking: "Till now I was wrong – here is someone wickeder than I!" Then of one accord, in mutual admiration, they slid toward each other – the female parting the water with her fins, Maldoror smiting the surge with his arms – and held their breaths in deepest reverence, both longing to look for the first time on their living image. Three metres separated them. Effortlessly, abruptly, they fell upon each other like magnets, and embraced with dignity and recognition, in a hug as tender as a brother's or sister's. Carnal desires soon followed this demonstration of affection. A pair of sinewy thighs clung to the monster's viscous skin, close as leeches' and arms and fins entwined about the loved one's body, surrounded it with love, while throats and breasts soon fused into a glaucous mass reeking of see-wrack.

And in my favorite part from canto three, Maldoror and a young man named Mario ride swiftly on horseback to an unknown destination:

It was said that, flying side by side like two Andean condors, they liked to glide among the strata of the atmosphere adjacent to the sun; that in these regions they fed upon the purest essences of light; but that they would decide only reluctantly to lower the incline of their vertical flight towards the dismayed orbit where the human globe deliriously turns – inhabited by cruel spirits who massacre one another on fields where battle roars (when they do not kill each other treacherously, secretly, in the midst of towns, with the dagger of hatred or ambition), and who feed upon beings as full of life as themselves but placed a few rungs lower on the ladder of existence.
We did not speak. What do two hearts that love each other say? Nothing. But our eyes expressed everything. I warn him to wrap his cloak closer about him, and he points out to me that my horse is moving too far ahead of his. Each takes as much interest in the other's life as his own. We do not laugh. He endeavours to smile at me, but I see that his countenance bears the weight of the terrible impressions engraved there by reflections – constantly bent over the sphinxes which with sidelong glance baffle the mortal intellect and its great agonies.
I again raised my head like a ship's prow lifted by an enormous wave, and said to him: "Do you weep? Tell me if you can, king of snows and mists. I see no tears on your face – beautiful as the cactus-flower – and your eyelids are as dry as the riverbed. Yet I discern in your eyes' depths a vat full of blood, in which your innocence boils – its neck bitten by the large species of scorpion."

Weird, right? The whole thing is fascinating, actually. It is also completely frustrating, very dense, and quite difficult to read. So, I don't recommend it to everyone, but it is definitely worth a look if you are intrigued by nineteenth-century French spiritualism, Symbolisme, or shark sex.