L’Union des Nations, 23 Rue Notre Dame des Victoires, 75002 Paris, France
32 Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, 75009 Paris, France
15 Rue Vivienne, 75002 Paris, France
7 Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, 75009 Paris, France
Comte de Lautréamont was the nom de plume of Isidore Lucien Ducasse (4 April 1846 – 24 November 1870), a French poet born in Uruguay. His only works, Les Chants de Maldoror and Poésies, had a major influence on modern arts and literature, particularly on the Surrealists and the Situationists. Ducasse died at the age of 24.
Ducasse was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, to François Ducasse, a French consular officer, and his wife Jacquette-Célestine Davezac. Very little is known about Isidore's childhood, except that he was baptized on 16 November 1847 in the cathedral of Montevideo and that his mother died soon afterwards, probably due to an epidemic. In 1851, as a five-year-old, he experienced the end of the eight-year Siege of Montevideo in the Argentine-Uruguayan War. He was brought up to speak three languages: French, Spanish and English.
In October 1859, at the age of thirteen, he was sent to high school in France by his father. He was trained in French education and technology at the Imperial Lycée in Tarbes. In 1863 he enrolled in the Lycée Louis Barthou in Pau, where he attended classes in rhetoric and philosophy (under and uppergreat). He excelled at arithmetic and drawing and showed extravagance in his thinking and style. Isidore was a reader of Edgar Allan Poe and particularly favored Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron, as well as Adam Mickiewicz, Milton, Robert Southey, Alfred de Musset and Baudelaire. During school he was fascinated by Racine and Corneille, and by the scene of the blinding in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. According to his schoolmate Paul Lespès, he displayed obvious folly "by self-indulgent use of adjectives and an accumulation of terrible death images" in an essay. After graduation he lived in Tarbes, where he started a friendship with Georges Dazet, the son of his guardian, and decided to become a writer.
After a brief stay with his father in Montevideo, Ducasse settled in Paris at the end of 1867. He began studies at the École Polytechnique, only to abandon them one year later. Continuous allowances from his father made it possible for Ducasse to dedicate himself completely to his writing. He lived in the "Intellectual Quarter", in a hotel in the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, where he worked intensely on the first canto of Les Chants de Maldoror. It is possible that he started this work before his passage to Montevideo, and also continued the work during his ocean journey.
Ducasse was a frequent visitor to nearby libraries, where he read Romantic literature, as well as scientific works and encyclopaedias. The publisher Léon Genonceaux described him as a "large, dark, young man, beardless, mercurial, neat and industrious", and reported that Ducasse wrote "only at night, sitting at his piano, declaiming wildly while striking the keys, and hammering out ever new verses to the sounds". However, this account has no corroborating evidence, and is considered unreliable.
In late 1868, Ducasse published (anonymously and at his own expense) the first canto of Les Chants de Maldoror (Chant premier, par ***), a booklet of thirty-two pages.
On 10 November 1868, Ducasse sent a letter to the writer Victor Hugo, in which he included two copies of the first canto, and asked for a recommendation for further publication. A new edition of the first canto appeared at the end of January 1869, in the anthology Parfums de l'Âme in Bordeaux. Here Ducasse used his pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont for the first time. His chosen name was based on the character of Latréaumont from a popular 1837 French gothic novel by Eugène Sue, which featured a haughty and blasphemous anti-hero similar in some ways to Isidore's Maldoror. The title was most probably paraphrasing l'autre à Mont(evideo), although it can also be interpreted as l'autre Amon (the other Amon) or "l'autre Amont" (the other side of the river).('En amont'= French for: 'Upstream')
A total of six cantos were to be published during late 1869, by Albert Lacroix in Brussels, who had also published Eugène Sue. The book was already printed when Lacroix refused to distribute it to the booksellers as he feared prosecution for blasphemy or obscenity. Ducasse considered that this was because "life in it is painted in too harsh colors" (letter to the banker Darasse from 12 March 1870).
Ducasse urgently asked Auguste Poulet-Malassis, who had published Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) in 1857, to send copies of his book to the critics. They alone could judge "the commence of a publication which will see its end only later, and after I will have seen mine". He tried to explain his position, and even offered to change some "too strong" points for coming editions:
I have written of evil as Mickiewicz, Byron, Milton, Southey, A. de Musset, Baudelaire and others have all done. Naturally I drew register a little exaggerated, in order to create something new in the sense of a sublime literature that sings of despair only in order to oppress the reader, and make him desire the good as the remedy. Thus it is always, after all, the good which is the subject, only the method is more philosophical and less naive than that of the old school. (...) Is that the evil? No, certainly not.— letter from 23 October 1869.
Poulet-Malassis announced the forthcoming publication of the book the same month in his literary magazine Quarterly Review of Publications Banned in France and Printed Abroad. Otherwise, few people took heed of the book. Only the Bulletin du Bibliophile et du Bibliothécaire noticed it in May 1870, saying: "The book will probably find a place under the bibliographic curiosities".
During spring 1869, Ducasse frequently changed his address, from Rue du Faubourg Montmartre 32 to Rue Vivienne 15, then back to Rue Faubourg Montmartre, where he lodged in a hotel at number 7. While still awaiting the distribution of his book, Ducasse worked on a new text, a follow-up to his "phenomenological description of evil", in which he wanted to sing of good. The two works would form a whole, a dichotomy of good and evil. The work, however, remained a fragment.
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.
Among the works plagiarized were Blaise Pascal's Pensées and La Rochefoucauld's Maximes, as well as the work of Jean de La Bruyère, Luc de Clapiers, Dante, Kant and La Fontaine. It even included an improvement of his own Les Chants de Maldoror. The brochures of aphoristic prose did not have a price; each customer could decide which sum they wanted to pay for it.
On 19 July 1870, Napoleon III declared war on Prussia, and after his capture, Paris was besieged on 17 September, a situation with which Ducasse was already familiar from his early childhood in Montevideo. The living conditions worsened rapidly during the siege, and according to the owner of the hotel he lodged at, Ducasse became sick with a "bad fever".
Lautréamont died at the age of 24, on 24 November 1870, at 8 am in his hotel. On his death certificate, "no further information" was given. Since many were afraid of epidemics while Paris was besieged, Ducasse was buried the next day after a service in Notre Dame de Lorette in a provisional grave at the Cimetière du Nord. In January 1871, his body was put into another grave elsewhere.
In his Poésies Lautréamont announced: "I will leave no memoirs", and as such, the life of the creator of the Les Chants de Maldoror remains for the most part unknown.