A Review of The Celestial Bandit: A Tribute to Isidore Ducasse, the Comte de Lautréamont, Upon the 175th Anniversary of His Birth
There’s something I need to tell you. I know it seems early, but it feels important. I have never read Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont. No surprise to the anthology’s editor (Jordan Rothacker), who described Lautréamont (aka Isidore Ducasse) as the most important writer most people have never heard of. Fittingly, my entry point for Ducasse, Lautréamont, and his character Maldoror would be fueled solely by artists reflecting on their passion.
Les Chants de Maldoror is a work that seems to permeate each mind it touches, even if briefly. Whether role-playing or reminiscing, the contributors to The Celestial Bandit bleed confessions. Jordan Rothacker sets the stage expertly by giving a framework for the influence the Comte de Lautréamont has had on generations of creative renegades. “[Lautréamont was] inspired by the blasphemous craving to see what would happen if [he] poured scorn on absolutely all the rules.”
The anthology that follows is a love letter. For some it is a manifesting ritual for the ghost of an enigmatic malcontent, for some it is a sweaty, gagging struggle with a monolithic text. For some it is a desperate thank you to a work and a conceit that changed their world view permanently.
In spite of my ignorance with regard to Ducasse and his work, I was able to view Les Chants de Maldoror through the authors’ emulation, adoration, and analysis. This anthology is not a scientist’s microscope, but a lover’s gaze. We learn what we need to about Les Chants de Maldoror by the blood spilt in its name.
From the start, the anthology honors Lautréamont by being playful and rebellious, looking down its paper nose at convention. Les Chants de Maldoror dispenses with linear storytelling completely, disrupting the concept of a novel by using a technique that William S. Burroughs later stole and called “cut-up”—snippets of linear text are cut into pieces and pasted back together, resulting in new, unique configurations and therefore new, unique meanings.
Mark Amerika’s piece (“Other Lives by DJ Lautréamont”) begins the dance by announcing an intention to mix existing ideas backward, forward, and sideways. Amerika’s obsessive narrator hints at the self-obsessed, self-fellating inner musings of Lautréamont’s Maldoror character. Audrey Szasz’s excellent piece (“Medusa Phase”) is an absurd, surreal, and rapturous incantation, a cut-up begging Lautréamont from the sepulcher.
Louis Armand (“DISSECTION D’UNE FEMME ARMÉE”) provides a more extreme rendition of pastiche writing that pulsates between complete diversion and cogent sobriety, “. . . (believing all humxn beings carry within them the potential to die harmoniously to an upswell of violins).” Finally, we are jostled by the hypnotic discord of Christopher Nelms’s broken and repasted images (“Melinda Gates and Ghislaine Maxwell at Bluebeard’s Castle”).
Then, there’s the shark.
Yes. The shark. At some point in Les Chants de Maldoror our guy Maldoror saves a shark from being devoured by her kind. They lock eyes, and out of a deep respect for the other’s violent nature, they fornicate. Ben Azarte (“The Shark Child”) grapples with the demon of the deep as well; instead of arming himself with hyperbole and chaos, Azarte plays on the amorality of making a vulnerable connection and then committing murder. Betrayal of the character in the story, but also a betrayal of the reader. We feel for the isolated shark boy in Azarte’s tale, then learn it was never more than a cold predator.
Yearning is performance art, and the intersection of emulation and mimicry is theater. Especially when one concedes to publish and pass it to the grubby hands of strangers: Jennifer MacBain-Stephens (“The Best Authors”) spills her own dark vision to venerate ‘the author’; duncan b. barlow (“A Different Kind of Vulture”) shares the inner thoughts of a deeply manipulative and malevolent companion in a disjointed set of reflections that may well also be a confession; Tosh Berman (“Maldoror’s Note”) takes the form of a young, contemplative Maldoror. His compact piece seems to hint at details of the character’s inner musings and adventures (including a cameo by our cartiligious friend). Douglas Doornbos (“Scolding the Hedgehog: On Maldoror”) offers us a window into the guilt one feels enjoying a depraved work like Le Chants de Maldoror: part dialectic and part diary of a madman torturing his companion, surfacing often to offer epiphany: “I had been wrong to suspect that the dead author’s life might have explained or equaled his work.” Structure is run through with a blade by Golnoosh Nour and Chris Kelso’s surreal multimedia series of broken missives (“Ça Fais Mal”), which form a collage that becomes interchangeable, while structure is teased back in by John Reed’s poignant glossary of terms (“Disruptionary, or Contrabulary: Nine Preliminary Entries (in alphabetical order)”), a telling of collapse folded into a brief lexicon-refresh. And before the curtains close and the slate clears, James Reich weaves a deadly narrative (“The Case of Arthur Craven, Solved”), pregnant with horror and admirable wordplay wherein Ducasse is depicted as a craven assassin poised to fell a killer drunk on triumph.
Three poets step forth with love and devotion. Seb Doubinsky (“MONUMENT IN THE SHAPE OF A SEWING MACHINE”) pays symphonic tribute—“O Isidore!”—with an abstract mingling of biography and worship, venerating Ducasse the man more than Lautréamont the author. Dylan Krieger (“Three Poems”) brings us a triptych of raw rebellion: “the circle of satellite orbit and the circle of the headless chicken intersect like a corporate logo/follow the sound of your own fangs piercing my empty fists without argument/i don’t believe in evil, and if i did, i have already worn it thin.” Alexis Lykiard (“THE UNMENTIONABLE”) delivers a passionate rebuttal for all haters: “[Les Chants de Maldoror] deflates correctness, proves itself, persists/It prompts urgent debate, lends a fine sensual itch to metaphysics and relationships.”
Faisal Khan (“Infinite Enigma”) presents a beautifully complicated work filled with brief eclipses. His use of short bursts of text form a careful, moral, and commanding treatise made of puzzle pieces, aligned just so. Khan joins several writers in paying brief penance: “. . .when you fling the book clear across the room in horror, or disgust. Why do you pick it up again?” Khan walks the reader through various canon and fringe arguments for and against loving Les Chants de Maldoror. It is a balanced, sober, yet deeply poetic symphony for this devil.
Khan also brings the anthology its first foray into drawings (Maldoror, Shark). His discordant lines argue his point that Maldoror is unseeable, and also add a terror of movement to his rendition of our friend the shark. Callum Leckie (“Two Portraits of Isidore Ducasse/Comte de Lautréamont”) attempts to capture the elusive Comte de Lautréamont, first as a virile young man flanked by the dorsal fin of a large shark and a blackened sun, and next, a less idealized image, sincere in its admission of the author’s mortality.
Chris Lloyd regales us with a desperate love story (“Reflections on a Piece of Music Not Yet Written: Maldoror, the Opera”) filled with brilliant madness that humbly admits its highest aims may be gargantuan, but will never be forsaken. Steve Finbow (“The Art of Appropriation—Stealing Books in the 1970s”) concludes his recollection of outlaw means to inspired ends with a confession: “I no longer steal books, just the words inside them.”
RJ Dent (“‘Stop, turn around, go no further.’ On translating Lautréamont’s The Songs of Maldoror”) changes gears for the anthology by offering a breakdown for arriving at a more perfect translation of the warning that opens Les Chants de Maldoror. Dent includes a very Ducassian comment from the great Borges: “The original is unfaithful to the translation,” remaining true to the playful intent of the author.
Jeremy Reed (“If Francis Bacon Had Painted Isidore Ducasse”) powerfully illustrates Maldoror’s tendencies by meditating on Bacon’s obliteration of a sacred art object, the face. Ducasse left scant information behind, somehow escaping credible photographic evidence and surviving posthumously almost exclusively through Les Chants de Maldoror. Faceless, haunting nonetheless.
David Leo Rice (“On Seediness, Undead Literature, and Maldoror in the 2020s”) uses Les Chants de Maldoror to lament America’s current state of uncertain horror. Every new tragedy robs us of the comfort our minds receive from a meaningful narrative. “The hallucinogenic feed, which is endless by design, preys on and perverts our innate hunger for a meaningful narrative. . . [and] only perpetuates itself.” Rice suggests that literature can still stand in opposition to this social possession, and should.
Creations always exceed their creators
And perhaps I should abstain from reading Maldoror. It would be very difficult for Ducasse to live up to this collective tribute. This fierce ensemble is a diverging tsunami released by passion for this enigmatic book. Bravado and hyperbole rest in the pauses between somber analysis and obsessive performance. For Les Chants de Maldoror to inspire such a raw reckoning of our current reality makes it a harbinger. Even if the work is not great (which seems improbable), its effect has been.