Shipwrecks in Modern European Painting and Poetry: Radical Mobilisation of the Motif as Political Protest

By | 16 August 2019

Lautréamont’s Songs of Maldoror: Shipwreck as prenuptial cross-species performance art

In 1869 the twenty-one year-old Isidore Ducasse, wild-eyed son of a French consular official to Montévidéo, strikes out chords on the piano in his Paris hotel room, intoning the periods of great Homeric wingspan that become the second canto of The Songs of Maldoror. In this extraordinary book-length suite of prose poems the mathematically and zoologically fascinated boy, who recasts himself as le comte de Lautréamont, lampoons most of the tenets of Anglo and European Romanticism, with which he’s widely acquainted, but in taking some satirical cues from Byron, leaves the British celebrity poet looking relatively restrained, his shipwrecked subjects still elegantly corseted by versified wit. The way these things turn, it’s perhaps to be expected that, as a fierce satirist of Romanticism, the Lautréamont associated with The Songs of Maldoror is hailed retrospectively (Breton 1924) as the forerunner of Surrealism, that extreme form of Romanticism. In parodying the shipwreck scene as at once theatre, art, home décor, fine dining, and sex, he exalts in the seething synaesthetics of the cake he demolishes: With ‘Standing on my rock with the hurricane whipping hair and my cloak,’ Lautréamont opens his shipwreck scene. Via Maldoror as speaker, he thus begins by sending up the Sturm und Drang hero: like Friedrich’s famous cane-wielding consumer of the sublime, he takes an elevated vantage point, but here no swirling anxiogenic fog veils the abyss. The ‘rock’ gives him a godlike purview: he is a calamity-tourist, spectator of the epic misadventure of the Other. With his searchlight eyes, the demonic Maldoror can turn any moving spectacle to stage set:

In ecstasy I tracked the wild tempest bearing down on a ship under a starless sky. Striking a triumphant attitude, I followed all the twists and turns of this drama, from the instant when the vessel threw down her anchors, to the moment when she went under, a fatal wrap that dragged down into the bowels of the sea those who had worn her like an overcoat. But the instant approached when I myself was going to mingle like an actor in these scenes of nature’s upheaval. When the site of the vessel’s struggle showed clearly that she had gone to spend the rest of her days on the ground floor of the sea, then some of those who’d been carried off with the rushing waters reappeared on the surface. They seized one another with both hands, two-by-two, three-by-three; it was the way not to save their lives; they sank like cracked jugs… But what is this army of marine monsters who slice through the wave with such speed? There are six of them; their fins are vigorous and cleave them a passage through the waves […]

What follows is the translation of the shipwreck victims via shark-power into a great ‘eggless omelette’, creating for Maldoror’s aesthetic delectation a ‘pleasantly coloured carpet’, and while blood and water comingle, and as the gathered sharks partake of a moving gourmet’s feast of ‘pâté’ and ‘cold bouillon’, locally sourced from these ‘palpitating’ remnants of humanity, a gigantic female monster appears on the horizon and approaches at ferocious speed, ah yes, because she comes mad with hunger, her eyes setting the scene ablaze. A mock-up of the struggle for ‘the survival of the fittest’ ensues, in this ‘new genre of naval battle’, at which point Maldoror can bear no longer not to participate and dives into assist this supremely wild and murderous female. Now begins the extreme romance, a hilarious parody of the narcissistic love celebrated by such romantics as Bernardin de Saint Pierre, the biologist-cum-poet, famed author of Paul and Virginie whose appropriately named heroine is too pure and fragile to save herself in shipwrecked circumstances and drowns fully clothed as a triumph for female modesty and passivity:

Two nervous thighs clung closely to the viscous skin of the monster, like two leeches, and, arms and fins enlaced around the body of the beloved object […] their throats and their chests soon formed but one glaucous mass with seaweed exhalations; in the midst of the tempest that continued to rage; under the play of lightning; having for marriage bed the foaming wave; carried by a submarine current as if rocked in a cradle; and rolling over each other, towards the depts of the abyss, they were united in a long chaste hideous coupling … At last I found someone who resembled me! Henceforth I was no longer alone in life! She had the same ideas as me! There I was before my first love!

From Lautréamont 1869; Trans. MMC 2019

What seems to be happening from Byron to Lautréamont is that the motif of the shipwreck becomes an indictment of the post-enlightenment celebration of individual human rationality, and certainly of the belief in a hierarchically ordered society. With Lautréamont it’s precociously posthumanist daring, so savage is his attack on anthropocentrism, mobilising for his parodic assault the romantic celebration of the miscreant-outsider with satanic powers.

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