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The Forerunners
From Cubism to Surrealism in French Literature. (1947): Rpt. in
Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris and Jay Parini. Vol. 12. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1986. From Literature Resource Center.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1986 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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[In this excerpt from his discussion of the forerunners of surrealism, Lemaître characterizes Lautréamont as a révolté, or one whose goal is destruction. According to Lemaître, the poet uses sarcasm and irony to create an evil, nightmarish world in which Maldoror rejects God and attacks all human values. Lemaître also briefly examines the subliminal sources of Lautréamont's imagery.]

Lautréamont appears to belong to the type of extreme or absolute révolté. While with Baudelaire and Rimbaud revolt was but a transitory stage, a means of clearing the way to a higher sphere of self-realization, with Lautréamont it seems to have been a real end in itself. His attacks are not confined to the domain of human morals, human society, or human reason; they are directed against even God Himself. God, as the first source of all things, is held responsible for the appalling atrocity that constitutes life on this earth. The spectacle of the gaping, raw wound which life inflicts on the unfortunate animated beings who inhabit the globe is held to be the just punishment of its original Cause and Creator. "J'ai reçu la vie comme une blessure.... Je veux que le Créateur en contemple, à chaque heure de son éternité, la crevasse béante. C'est le châtiment que je lui inflige." ... Maldoror stands forth like a modern Prometheus, challenging and insulting the Supreme Deity, deliberately turning his own existence into a continuous, withering blasphemy.

First, he sets himself to disintegrate the world of God's creation by virulent and caustic sarcasm. All kinds of forms and shapes, principles and ideas, are made to appear impossibly preposterous. Maldoror systematically jumbles and confuses all normal connections and values; grave problems are treated as mere bubbles; trifles are investigated with methodical thoroughness. A feeling of utter absurdity slowly pervades a universe turned topsy-turvy. The concentrated acid of the author's irony dissolves all the aspects of the world that we know into an inconsistent and odious nightmare.

But the most corrosive of all the means of destruction at his disposal is undoubtedly the existence of Evil itself. Les Chants de Maldoror constitutes a tremendous and amazing epic of evil. Evil is here presented, without indictment, explanation, or excuse, simply as a stupendous fact dominating the whole creation. Malefic influences are shown creeping irresistibly everywhere; and Evil, developing and expanding monstrously, finally dwarfs everything else into insignificance, all but eclipsing the very spirit of God Himself.

The feeling of guilt, intoxicating as a powerful drug, causes Maldoror to experience a curious surge of exaltation, temporarily giving to an otherwise desperate and miserable existence a zest of lurid and violent intensity. Scenes of cruelty and lust, sadistic murders, torture of living bodies, profanation of corpses, are all evoked with a wealth of gory detail that creates a haunting impression of inescapable horror. The gripping fascination exerted by horror upon certain inferior but very deep-seated strata of common human nature is here brought to a climax, and the morbid appeal possessed by certain of Lautréamont's pictures goes far to disclose the unavowed and perhaps unsuspected elements lurking at the bottom of man's subconscious mind.

Lautréamont himself obviously did not draw these pictures with any cold-blooded consideration of their import and possible effects. He seems to have obeyed an impulse from within which bade him pour out a flood of images, without restraint or discrimination, from the innermost recesses of his soul. The continuous, though uneven flow of his sentences, in which the most unusual associations come together in overpowering abundance, precludes the idea that this is a deliberate combination of heterogeneous fragments artificially pieced together. It is nothing more nor less than the current of secret, turbid subconscious thought which is allowed to come to the surface and escape through the free, uncontrolled outlet of spontaneous verbal procreation. Every metaphor brings forth an image which in turn begets a comparison; so the poet watches--without trying to interfere with--the amazing procession of strange things coming from the depths of his own being, realizing that this automatic development can reveal a new world, truly momentous and fundamental, which dialectical intelligence would certainly fail to approach.

The new world brought to light by the vision of Maldoror is not without an internal logic of its own, but it is marked by a prodigious efflorescence of weird forms with their roots spreading down into the uncertain substratum of subliminal dreams. We catch glimpses of ambiguous creatures, half-human, half-plant, suggesting a monstrous submarine flora stranded after the ebb of some preternatural tide; again, swarming legions of polymorphic beings are shown crawling on the face of some bald, arid immensity.... All that phantasmagoria, imbued with the elemental forces of fabulous epochs, evokes the primal mysteries which must have haunted the dreams of men from the very dawn of time. Even now it arouses in us dormant memories, the remnants of an almost vanished consciousness of potential cosmic forces whose display is for ever endowed with an enthralling, awe-inspiring grandeur.

Alternating with the recurrent themes of inevitable malediction and universal suffering are the shrill notes of demented, passionate frenzy, the chaotic torment of mutual destruction, or the anguished appeals of a lone victim pursued in the dark, shrieking with fear. But above it all sounds the voice of fierce, exasperated human pride, constantly struck down, yet indestructible, always rising again, always ready to rebel and fight; then, joining in a tremendous chorus of demoniac fury, taking up the original motif of desperate revolt against God. (pp. 37-40)

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Lemaître, Georges. "The Forerunners." Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, edited by Laurie Lanzen Harris and Jay Parini, vol. 12, Gale, 1986. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 22 May 2019. Originally published in From Cubism to Surrealism in French Literature, by Georges Lemaître, 1947.

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420025394