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Byron—In-Between Sade, Lautréamont, and Foucault: Situating the Canon of “Evil” in the Nineteenth Century

  • Joshua D. Gonsalves

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  • Joshua D. Gonsalves
    Rice University

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This animal is a monster, the very “enigma of evil,” “a viscosity with a will,” a boneless, bloodless, fleshless creature with a unique orifice equivocally and disquietingly serving as both mouth and anus; endowed with eight powerful tentacles covered with hundreds of blood-sucking suction cups, the octopus borders on the chimerical—“a medusa served by eight snakes”—as if coming from a world other than our own. Its attack is pure terror:

“It is a pneumatic machine that attacks you. You are dealing with a footed void. Neither claw thrusts nor tooth bites, but an unspeakable scarification. A bite is formidable, but less so than such suction. The claw is nothing compared to the sucker. The claw, that’s the beast that enters your flesh; the sucker, that’s you yourself who enters into the beast. Your muscles swell, your fibers twist, your skin bursts beneath this unworldly force, your blood spurts and frightfully mixes with the mollusk’s lymph. The beast is superimposed upon you by its thousand vile mouths; the hydra is incorporated in the man; the man is amalgamated with the hydra. The two make one. This dream is upon you. The tiger can only devour you; the octopus, what horror, breathes you in! It draws you toward itself and into itself, and, bound, stuck, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied out within that horrendous sack, that monster. Beyond the terror of being eaten alive is the ineffability of being drunk alive.”

Victor Hugo, Les travailleurs de la mer [Workers of the Sea, 1866], qtd. in Weiss 150-1

Poulpe Fiction

To situate “evil” in the nineteenth-century: an impossible project, of course, for how to situate Byron’s ever-re-readable, and hence fundamentally unreadable[1] life-writing in relation to two writers who epitomize the paradigmatic unreadability of literature as defined by French poststructuralism—paradigmatically represented in this case, for reasons that will become clear, by Foucault—and its Anglo-American doubles? If Sade is unreadable due to the infinite variety of horrors his texts reiterate and repeat, Lautréamont attains this apex of cultural capital commonly known as “literariness” or unreadability thanks to the hallucinatory unmanageability of the metamorphoses traversing his 1869 pièce de résistance, The Chants of Maldoror. Although the theoretical horizon of literary criticism is no longer dominated by a French poststructuralist paradigm, the continued currency of Foucault in cultural studies and whatever they are calling historicism these days is noteworthy in that the early Foucault relies on these same two writers in Madness and Civilization and The Order of Things as an anti-trinity supplemented by Antonin Artaud’s interminable writings.[2]

Sade’s underground influence on nineteenth- and twentieth-century writing, reading, and thinking solicits investigation, then, insofar as his motivating influx—direct in the case of French theory associated with the term “La Pensée 68”, and indirect in the case of literary over-determinants of this theory (i.e., Sade’s unavoidable legibility in Lautréamont and Lautréamont’s Sadean repercussions on Artaud[3])—dominates the poststructural theoretical paradigm that has invigilated literary studies until relatively recently (note, for instance, how an under-examined metaphoric of sadistic dominance informs Foucault’s popular panoptic topos). Sade’s afflatus vis-à-vis French poststructuralism (Barthes, Lacan, Tel Quel, etc.) is, moreover, especially symptomatic or worthy of attention in that it is rendered even more problematic as a consequence of poststructuralism’s over-determination by writers who repeatedly re-negotiated their relation to Sade throughout their careers: Bataille, Blanchot, and Klossowski.[4]

Sade’s centrality to poststructuralism is anticipated by the abject shadow he cast on nineteenth-century cultural production, as Mario Praz’s Romantic Agony (La carne, la morte e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica) (1930) has shown, and as was already evident in 1843 to the French literary critic Sainte-Beuve:

I would dare affirm, without fear of being contradicted, that Byron and Sade (I beg pardon for mentioning them in the same sentence) have perhaps been the two greatest inspirers of our moderns, the one visibly advertised and displayed as such (affiché et visible), the other in a clandestine manner, yet not too clandestine. In reading certain of our writers (romanciers) now in vogue, never forget this key if you wish to get to the bottom of the treasure-chest and discover the secret stairway to the well-hidden boudoir.[5]

Sainte-Beuve is referring to romanciers such as Eugène Süe, whose sensational roman populaire, Latréaumont (1837), details the gothic, dark, and noir adventures of the eponymous protagonist who inspired Isidore Ducasse to adopt Lautréamont as his nom de plume. Although Sainte-Beuve is reluctant to admit Sade into the precincts of the literary lionized by Byron—“(je demande pardon du rapprochement)”—he is forced to do so by Sade’s “clandestine” omnipresence in nineteenth-century culture.

Although Sade’s textual, generic, and rhetorical inspiration is legible in the sadomasochistic pulp fiction of the nineteenth-century roman populaire, it is his biographical figure that enables Sainte-Beuve to define “modern” littérature as an art of keeping and revealing secrets in a clandestine (yet not too clandestine) fashion. The unreadable remains, yet it remains—and this is the paradox of literature—as something that appears readable only as a result, as we will see, of the heuristic and hermeneutic parameters provided by Byron and Sade’s over-documented life of letters. I am interested, in short, in tracing how this accord between the biographical and the imaginative produces a tension-riddled, and hence ever-interpretable literature as a disciplinary object of institutional study and in how this accord is frustrated beyond belief by Lautréamont’s exacerbation of these tensions into unworkable contradictions.

Sainte-Beuve’s definition of modern literature as a secret to be decrypted bears the biographical imprint of Sade’s efforts to evade being fingered as the writer of prosecutable writings, yet it bypasses a problem I want to zero in on—namely, what influence does Sade’s hitherto uninvestigated clandestiny have on Byron’s readability? This question is salient in that it will bring us into the exilic abomination of desolation that elicited the secret stratagems of these aristocrats of literature by leading us, in the end, to the problematic of sodomy as a privileged way of representing evil and as a sexual preference both Sade and Byron practiced. Literature will emerge as a contested site for displacing and reworking the aristocratic practices of libertinism exemplified by these two writers in radically different ways. If libertinism finds itself dead-ended in the early nineteenth-century by the social prosecution of evil practices that were once an aristocratic class privilege, the pseudo- or purely literary aristocrat the Comte de Lautréamont undoes this dead end by negotiating a literature of evil beyond the biographic bounds that restricted (and continue to restrict) both Sadean and Byronic transgression.

Re-Writing the “Abyss” of Evil

In his 1966 best-seller The Order of Things,[6] Foucault uses Sade’s name as what Laugaa-Traut’s critical survey of Sade’s reception history calls a “trai[t] of nomination” or a rhetorical shock tactic: the deployment of the name “Sade” to construct a “paradigmatic function for the sadean text and experience” (291). The Sade-text functions in The Order of Things as Foucault’s key paradigm for decrypting the clandestine presence of the “sadean fact in the field of the occidental episteme”.[7] The epistemic shift in western history said to have taken place in what we call the Romantic period only becomes readable, in other words, as literature and this happens for Foucault through the detour of Sade’s persecuted writing, a rhetorical strategy Adorno and Horkheimer previously employed in their appeal to Sade as a paradigmatic “black [dunklen] write[r] of the bourgeoisie” (Adorno and Horkheimer 117).[8] Sade’s persecution in his lifetime was not, however, limited to the writings, but extended to his person. Although his crimes of love were heinous, they were also disproportionately punished so as to re-center the uncertainty of state-power under the ancien régime, the revolutionary years, and Napoleon.[9]

Sade was perceived as a threat to the various regimes that imprisoned him, for he refused to be pinned down, caught as he was in a contradictory desire both for the revolution and for the pre-revolutionary privileges accorded to aristocratic debauch. In prison he gave full vent to his frustrated libertinism by writing what is perhaps the most violent work of literature in existence: The 120 Days of Sodom. I focus on this work since it is Sade’s most unreadable text,[10] and because to evade The 120 Days (from which no one emerges, to cite Bataille, “without feeling sick” [121]) is, as Annie Le Brun has polemically proposed, in the new introduction J.-J. Pauvert selected to accompany his acclaimed edition of the Oeuvres Complètes, to evade the “sudden abyss” that is the Marquis de Sade: “Through being impregnable, [The Château de] Silling [site of The 120 Days of Sodom], quite possibly conceals the secret of the semi-sacrosanct intimidation still exercised by Sade” (9; see chapter one, “A Major Omission and its Repercussions,” 1-28).

Yet here history intervenes. Sade regarded The 120 Days as his most clandestine work, and went to much trouble to hide it from discovery. The author covered both sides of a thirty-nine foot roll with microscopic writing, and hid it so well in his cell that he was unable to retrieve it when he was suddenly removed from the Bastille for inciting the revolutionary masses. The work finally surfaced in a botched German edition in 1904 and a definitive version edited by Maurice Heine in the thirties.

Sade claims that the “loss” of The 120 Days caused him to “shed tears of blood!” (May 1790; Sade, Letters 168-9). In 1791, Sade’s Justine, his re-elaboration of a conte or short tale called “Les Infortunes de la vertu” (“The Misfortunes of Virtue,” written in 1787), appeared on the market. In 1797, Sade published a re-written Justine, La nouvelle Justine, a ten-volume text that “compensate[s] for the loss of his manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom” by making the first-person narrative of Justine suffering a picaresque series of torments and tortures into a more detached third-person narrative in which Justine’s degradations increase in excess of the aggrandized page count (Klossowski 143). From this exponential leap in aggression it can be surmised that Sade reacted to the failure of his desire to write a secret literature encrypted all for himself in his own private Sodom by abandoning a clandestine writing in favor of the in-your-face explicitness (affiché et visible) of La nouvelle Justine.[11]

Evil swells in intensity, then, in a more legitimately “literary” genre in the Justines than in The 120 Days in that Justine’s sufferings fit snugly into well-worn generic paradigms, such as the sadomasochistic travails of Clarissa, which Sade adored, or the mythological trials of Psyche, as updated by Mary Tighe’s highly successful Psyche, or The Legend of Love (privately published in 1805 and publicly re-issued in 1811).[12] Byron’s negotiations with Sade’s ghost cannot be understood if it is forgotten that the text Lady Byron discovered in horror in his Lordship’s secret hiding place was probably La nouvelle Justine, and that the horror this text evoked in early 1816 is indivisible from her “pure terror” in regard to the conjugal sodomy Lord Byron apparently proposed to her at some point in their marriage.[13] Byron’s jilted lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, who once dressed as a boy to stimulate her gay lord, was unfortunately spreading rumors about his Lordship’s homosexual sodomitical practices at the same time, hence Byron’s exile from England for his “open secret” of being a sodomite in April 1816, an exile author William Beckford had also been unable to prevent in 1784 in spite of his fame, status, and exorbitant wealth (Elfenbein 211).

It would be too simple to limit the influence of La nouvelle Justine on Byron’s life-writing to a predilection for heterosexual and homosexual sodomy. First of all, sodomy is a notoriously capacious term. In Intersections: A Reading of Sade with Bataille, Blanchot and Klossowski, Jane Gallop notes how the meaning of the word “slips from a scrupulously single specific act (a true perversion [or “anal copulation”]) to everything but a single specific act (all carnal copulation except penile-vaginal coitus)”—that is, to bestiality, foreplay, any non-genital deviation, or non-reproductive sex-in-general (95). Gallop’s emphasis on the “self-transgressing nature” of “‘sodomy’” enables her to take Bataille to task for limiting sodomy to “the unity and self-sameness of ‘sexual pleasure’” simulated by the all-negating activity of anal penetration (95, 31), as well as for his obsessive focus on this limit as the centric sexual practice for establishing the sovereign (masculinist) individual at the core of Bataille’s (and not Sade’s) theory and practice: “The negation of partners is, according to [Sade; Gallop’s bracket], the fundamental piece in the system (‘Homme souverain’)” (Bataille, “Sovereign Man,” qtd. in Gallop 21).[14] I wish, however, to hold onto the specificity of sodomy as a term for anal copulation in the wake of Lucienne Frappier-Mazur’s nuanced account of “phallic-anal” penetration as the foundation of Sade’s system (39).

For Frappier-Mazur, Sade is, like any normative male, traumatized by the “fundamental difference” between the sexes, and falls upon phallic anal domination as a sex act that simulates a male sovereignty or self-sufficiency by annihilating sexual alterity, thereby reducing the other—boy or girl, man or woman—to a dominated and negated part-object or anus (39).[15] Frappier-Mazur stresses how sodomy serves Sade as a practical denial of sexual difference and of “woman” as an ur-signifier of this difference, yet I think it is possible to regard this vision of domination as the negative condition for Sade’s trans-gendering of sodomy into a libidinal utopia. That is to say, unlike Byron, who was frightened, as most commentators agree, to play the passive or pathic role in sodomy or buggery, insofar as he was “disgusted” by the active “sexual advance” of Lord Grey de Ruthyn in England (Marchand Byron: A Biography, 1: 80) and was “embarrassed” by the homosexual attentions of the Veli Pasha during his touristic jaunts in the Morea (Crompton 149),[16] Sade demands both roles, as his letters and fiction repeatedly testify.

The Sadean violator wants a violation that will dissolve the futile cycle of torturer-victim, an all-violating violence to the self or ego without violation of a non-self that exists in ecstatic excess of this ego: “a being cast outside of oneself [...] in practice equivalent to the disintegration of the conscience/consciousness [conscience] of the subject by means of thought” (Klossowski 32). The Sade-text is driven, in sum, by this impossible desire to be simultaneously sodomite and sodomized: to transcend sexual difference by becoming this hermaphroditic monster or trans-gendered androgyne.[17]

If Klossowski’s fixation on the hermaphroditic Sadean androgyne can be seen as yet another anti-feminist figurative strategy tailor-made to deny sexual difference,[18] Sade’s bisexuality can also be read as an opening of a stereotypical Sadean domination onto a queering of masculinist or phallic sexuality, a queering Byron resists in spite, or perhaps as a very result of, his one-sided homosexuality.[19] Yet isn’t this determination by biographical and biological contingency exactly what literature (and the reading of literature) is supposed to free us from, both from our stubborn selves and from selves alleged to have transcended themselves by signifying a forever deferred secret, as delineated by a poststructural or Derridean reading of secrecy?[20]

Both Byron and Sade testify, on the other hand, to the illusory nature of the pseudo- or quasi-transcendence effected by literature or Derridian écriture by remaining readable in terms of the pre-literary realm of biographical reference despite their strenuous efforts to the contrary.[21] In order to escape the seeming cul-de-sac we have reached—that is, either a heterosexual (Byronic) or a bisexual (Sadean) practice of sodomy, each as vulgar or biographically suspect as the other—I will excavate what lies beneath Byron’s influence by Justine and her sisters. And what else could this be except for the hidden, clandestine, or extra-biographical over-determination of La nouvelle Justine by the lost text—The 120 Days—Sade was in the process of encrypting under the cover of a sentimental romance?

The 120 Days is a fantasy of aristocratic privilege. Three libertines led by the Duc de Blangis obtain young boys and girls, as well as a cadre of young men called “fouteurs” [fuckers], and sequester the entire group in an isolated château cut off from human contact by a bridge that the libertines burn once they have crossed it. The Duc is often seen as a self-portrait of Sade in that he is a passive/active sodomite without the aversion to female sodomy evinced by his partners in crime, as well as by Dolmancé, a fanatically sodomitical segregationist in La Philosophie dans le boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom; published in 1795). The aristocrat figure, be it Sade or Blangis, is, in any case, foundational for any attempt to make sense of the Sadean text, since the ultra-violent Duke provides a heuristic, narratological, and hermeneutic center for The 120 Days’s systematic vivisection of human desire into 600 passions, which grow in evil as the narrative progresses toward a vanishing point of inexpressible violence.

The inevitability of this narrative propulsion is secured by the progressive becoming-violent of the Duc, for he is driven the most frenetic of the four libertines by the filthy stories four courtesans recite so as to stimulate monstrous libertine passions that are then performed on the prisoner-victims. If the transferential figure of the aristocrat propels narrative through the reader’s negative or positive transference onto this figure (there being, it seems, little difference between love and hate when it comes to what compels us to keep reading; Cf. Clarissa), Sade’s enumeration of the passions also concludes the psychic trauma the text relentlessly elicits via the consummating passion (far too complex to detail here) of a “libertine great lord” (Klossowski 54): “Il est très riche, très grand seigneur, très dur et très cruel” (“He is very wealthy, a very great lord, very hard and very cruel”; Sade, Les 120 journées 439). The entire libertine extravaganza then ends with the foursome committing gruesome acts of dismemberment, torture, and murder. If we remember my definition of the function anal domination plays for Sade—that is, as a negative condition or foil to a queer or bisexed sodomy, then this negativity is what The 120 Days enacts ad nauseam.

Peter Cryle is not the first to relate the domination exerted within the panoptic organization of the château (where even excrement is subject to daily inspection and punishment by our coprophilic libertines) to the banality of evil evidenced by twentieth-century genocides (Geometry 146). Sade, a sufferer of arbitrary incarcerations, is undeniably exacerbating the violence of the ruling classes (accompanying the Duc are a judge, a bishop, and a financier) so as to exhibit, with unprecedented insistence, the encruelized desires and vicious urges motivating both state power and de-centered disciplinary regimes of punishment. Yet this reading is too obvious in that it leaves alive the belief that resistance to power (in the de-centered Foucauldian sense; History of Sexuality 81-91) is possible, for example—and this is not just an example—via the critique Adorno, Horkheimer, Foucault, and countless others, such as the Surrealists, have fantasized as a secret legacy of the literary text exemplified by Sade.[22]

Frances Ferguson sketches an alternative to this nostalgia for critique in her recent Pornography: The Theory, where she outlines how the social regulation of difference effected by Sadean “carceral” spaces is paradigmatic for any soft institutional sphere where Bourdieuvian rules of inclusion/exclusion function without the bluster of any tyrannical Duke (26; see 13-26). The aristocratic figure of a tyrant is, like that of a “king”, to be rejected, as Foucault argued in his Introduction to The History of Sexuality, since it misrepresents de-centered histories of power by focusing on a figurehead instead of tracing the palimpsestic superimposition of overlapping institutional regimes (91). Sade’s representation of libertine power in The 120 Days of Sodom, sub-titled A School for Libertinage, “exaggerates” (Ferguson 14), then, not only the regimented violence of instrumental reason (see Adorno and Horkheimer), but the symbolic violence exerted by the educational socialization of docilized bodies (see Bourdieu and Passeron; Cf. Philosophy in the Bedroom, sub-titled The Immoral Institutors).

The objection that Sade remains on the outskirts of the French institutionalization of literature—he only passed the rite de passage of being included in the beautifully bound Pléiade editions in 1990—can therefore be considered moot in that his text epitomizes this education,[23] insofar as Sade, Lautréamont, and Artaud function, for Foucault and his fellow theorists of May ’68 as examples of what remains to be read after the officially-sanctioned canon has been internalized.[24] Sade’s critique of institutional violence is thereby domesticated. His name upholds the institution of literature qua literature.

If the negativity of domination enacted by The 120 Days exposes the excuses employed by carceral institutions of power or “regimented” and “enclosed social structures”—the educational apparatus above all—Sade’s critique of this negativity is, however, inexorably incorporated by pedagogic power and the class-stratifications mobilized under the institutional alibi of “literature” (Ferguson 22-3). Perhaps the Sadean positivity or revolutionary possibility in response to this double negation of the Sade-text by power and the institution of Literature is his opening up of a space beyond incarceration, a violating that violates itself or what I call Sadomy. If this is the case, then Byron neglected to read Sadomy in Sade as a result of his taste for the “active” or heterosexually-coded position of dominance in sodomy.

One of the lessons Byron learnt at the prestigious Harrow school was a by-no-means uncommon love of younger boys or “bitches” in the idiolect of the times. The boy Byron professed to have loved all his life was John Edleston, for whom he wrote a poem called “The Cornelian” to commemorate “an inexpensive stone [or] a cornelian” that Edleston gave him (Crompton 99). Louis Crompton identifies this poem as one of “the chief clues we have as to the nature” of Byron’s youthful homo-social/-sexual “relations,” by which he means a group of poems Byron published (sometimes privately or clandestinely) after he left Harrow for Cambridge in the years 1806, 1807 and 1808 (68). Another of these poems, “To the Duke of D[orset]”, will emerge as a key mediator for Lautréamont’s inspiriting by Byron. For now, I will merely note that the poem, addressed to the aristocrat Crompton describes as his lordship’s “ten-year old ‘fag’”, betrays Byron’s “prophetic warning”, or, less grandiloquently, his “ominous” anxiety that he might be exposed for his homosexual activity in the near future (76-7). Sodomy was, after all, punishable by death, if not the death by crowd violence visited upon those condemned to the ostensibly non-fatal sentence of being pilloried in the public square.

Byron lived sodomy, then, as a biblical anxiety of sublime proportions. A fear and trembling in the face of state-inflicted death is aggrandized into a sense of sin that becomes unworkable due to the paradox that an “active” transgression to hetero-normativity via sodomy is itself hetero-normative or a sodomitical simulacrum of heterosexuality.[25] If Byronic sodomy is more orthodox or socially normative than Sade’s bisexed Sadomy, the latter’s influence counters this conservative tendency by mediating a heterodox reading of the Biblical tradition responsible for erecting Sodom as the extreme epitome of evil.

Gnostic Fictions

In “Sade théologien”, Beatrice Didier shows how the Marquis’s anti-theology ends up being a “Jansenist” (229), or, to follow Klossowski further back in history (whose Sade My Neighbor Didier cites only to ignore), a “Gnostic” theology where the world is reduced to the disfigured creation of an evil God or archon (137). The genesis of the world is therefore a fall from the divine light or the abyss into the alienation of this light in fallen creation. Since whatever exists as the norm is evil, Milton’s anti-normative Satan becomes Gospel truth—“Evil be thou my good” (Paradise Lost 4.110)—an antinomianism select Gnostics sects espoused by valorizing anal intercourse as a sterile resistance to the sexual reproduction of social death. The historical fiction of “Gnosticism” is important here in that it empowers a revision of the orthodox tradition or a counter-reading where God metamorphoses into a tyrant or archon, Adam and Eve’s fall becomes a movement toward knowledge or gnosis, and in which this illumination is given by the serpent through the literal anal penetration of the original heterosexual couple.[26]

I pause here to flesh out Sade’s Gnostic anti-reading of the fall so as to show how Byron re-elaborated it in a far more restricted register. Sade identifies, as Klossowski has shown, with the fallen spirit Lucifer in his battle against the imprisoning nature the evil God has created. For Sade, the “original”, “incorporeal”, or “celestial purity” can only be re-found in the “virgin [as] an image of divine purity”, hence the fallen light is to be endlessly reaffirmed in its impossibility through the reiterated violation, desecration, and destruction of virgins without end: “This purity has to be constantly besmirched in order to make it constantly present” (Klossowski 137, 103-5). The rationale behind the Justines now emerges. By repeatedly degrading the virgin Sade reaffirms the possibility of the divine in a fallen world. Lucifer is figured as a monstrous libertine, whose violence against virginal boys and girls forever confirms his fallenness or sense of sin, thereby proving, via a via negativa, as it were, the existence of an inaccessible purity that his destructiveness makes increasingly transcendent, paradoxically making it real as infinitely impossible.

This specifically Sadean narrative of the fallen spirit’s repeated aggressions against virginal objects as the path to transcendence haunts Byron’s oeuvre. Don Juan is characterized, we recall, by an innocent and naïve ingénu-hero whose picaresque and passive trajectory repeats the romance genre of Justine’s wanderings with gendered variations. The first Justine ends with a flash of lightning [“foudre”] tearing through the protagonist, as if Zeus, the thrower of the thunderbolt [“éclat de foudre”], or God himself, were a fallen spirit perpetually impelled to re-affirm the light from which he alienated himself and creation by repeatedly fucking [infinitive = foutre] virginal representatives of this light to death.[27] So too, Byron planned to end the otherwise interminably episodic Don Juan with Juan’s wholly contingent death by guillotine. I have argued elsewhere that what makes Byron go is exactly this desire for innocence violated as his preferred self-representation, be it the ingénu Juan, the incestuous ingénue also known as his half-sister Augusta, or sinful innocents such as Childe Harold or young John Edleston, for whom Byron expressed “a violent, though pure, love and passion” (Letters 8: 24).

Byron’s anti-Biblical or Gnostic reading of the anti-sodomitical tradition persecuting him is legible in Cain: A Mystery, where Lucifer’s dismissal of normative intercourse leads the eponymous protagonist to see sexual reproduction as no more than an accumulation of fallen nature without end—that is, as:

All foul and fulsome, and the very best
Of thine enjoyments a sweet degradation,
A most enervating and filthy cheat
To lure thee on to the renewal of
Fresh souls and bodies, all foredoom’d to be
As frail and few so happy—


The conclusion to Cain simulates the closure of Paradise Lost by letting Cain and his “sister-brid[e]” ride off into the sunset, yet Lucifer’s Gnostic revision of the post-lapsarian narrative undoes this incestuous ending by proffering sodomy—and not incest—as Byron’s preferred trans-aggression against the “narrow joys” of heterosexuality (2.2.50):

[...] The snake was the snake—
No more; and yet not less than those he tempted,
In nature being earth also—more in wisdom,
Since he could overcome them, and foreknew
The knowledge fatal to their narrow joys.


The snake is abjected into mere materiality and rescued from theological demonization, yet the literalism of the image—“[t]he snake was the snake”—tautologically conjures forth, in the absence of God to whom this tautology is usually positively applied, a wholly desublimated image of the snake as penis, whose fatal knowledge is of the sodomy that resists the fallen God by disseminating death instead of life.

The Epic of the Cephalopod

The non-reproductive monstrosity of sodomy emerges in Cain as Byron’s sterile salvation from the bio-social reproduction of “all the unnumber’d and innumerable / Multitudes, millions, myriads, which may be, / To inherit agonies accumulated / By ages!” (1.1.447-50).[28] Since heterosexual sodomy is, according to Klossowski, “a simulacrum of metamorphosis, always accompanied by a sort of magic fascination”, it is unsurprising that Lautréamont also called on this “fascination” in his reworking of the Sadean narrative of an eternally frustrated fallen spirit (24). Enter Maldoror, who is, among other things, a hybrid Sade-Byron intent on the “sweet degradation” of ingénues of all kinds (adolescents, children, an angel, a she-shark, a louse, etc.),[29] and whose transgressive episodes make Süe’s Byronic hero, the “moral and physical monstrosity” named Latréaumont, pale in comparison (Süe 7). Byron’s influence is legible in the 1868 version of Canto 1 of the prose-poem, where Maldoror invokes an adolescent schoolmate or boy-lover of Ducasse as the epitome of the inspired communication Lautréamont desires: “Ah! Dazet! you whose soul is inseparable from mine; you the most beautiful son of woman even if still an adolescent; you whose name resembles the greatest friend of Byron’s youth” (1868 one-canto edition of Maldoror; qtd. in Lefrère 484).

Lautréamont is referring to the homonym between Isidore’s boyhood chum, “Dazet”, and Lord Dorset, one of Byron’s bitches at Harrow,[30] hence putting himself in his Lordship’s masculinist position as the active sodomite. In the 1869 six canto version of Maldoror all is changed utterly as the same passage metamorphosizes beyond self-recognition:

O octopus [poulpe] of the silken glance! you whose soul is inseparable from mine; you the most beautiful of all the inhabitants of the terrestrial globe, who commands a seraglio of four hundred suction-cups; you in whom are nobly throned as in their natural habitat, by common consent and an indestructible bond, the sweet virtue of communication and the divine graces—why are you not with me, your mercuric belly against my breast of aluminum, both of us seated on some rock by the shore to contemplate this spectacle I adore! Old ocean, with your crystal waves you resemble (by analogy) the parallel azure lines one sees upon the bruised backs of cabin-boys; you are an immense blue bruise slapped on the body of the earth—I like this comparison [...] I hail you, old Ocean!

Ducasse 37-8; translation modified

The ensuing amplification of “old Ocean” is a sublime perversion of the sea-vision that closes Canto Four of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

I cannot love you, I loathe you [...] Your secret destiny I know not: all that concerns you interests me. Tell me whether you are the abode of the Prince of Darkness. Tell me, ocean [...] tell me, ocean (me alone, so as not to sadden those who have as yet known only illusions) if Satan’s breath creates the storms that hurl your salty waters up to the clouds. This you must tell me because I would rejoice at knowing hell so close to man.

42; translation modified

The word “seraglio” in the initial address to the “octopus of the silken glance” associates Ducasse’s cephalopod with Byron’s Eastern Tales, as well as with the cross-dressing harem scenes in Don Juan. The false French aristocrat clearly identifies with Byron’s “nobl[e] thron[e]”, thereby suggesting his ideological capture by the masculinist sovereignty or active sodomy figured by a tyrannical octopus, an eight snake-phallus, or a hydra-headed penis. A later metamorphosis, however, exceeds Byron’s bias by revising Hugo’s terrifying “dream” of a monstrous “octopus” in Les travailleurs de la mer (Workers of the Sea [1866]; quoted as epigraph to this essay). And so we witness Byron-as-Maldoror re-incarnate the unimaginable poulpe fiction of an octopus in order to vampirize the evil creator:

How astonished God was to see Maldoror, changed into an octopus, clamp eight monstrous tentacles about his body: any one of these strong thongs could easily have spanned the circumference of a planet. Caught off guard, he struggled for several moments against this viscous embrace which was contracting more and more [...] I feared some mischief on his part. After abundant sucking on the globules of this sacred blood, I detached myself from his majestic body and hid in a cavern which remained my home thereafter. After fruitless searches he could not find me.

Ducasse 103; translation modified

Lautréamont has read his Byron, Sade,[31] and Sainte-Beuve all too well, since he proffers literature as a perfect way of “hid[ing]” oneself from persecution, yet if both Sade and Byron were hounded for sodomy, nothing is known of Lautréamont’s sexual proclivities, criminal activities, or bodily particularities. He evades seizure by biology and biography, theological or societal law.

We have, instead, a pure sodomy without a fixation on any position. This hermaphroditic non-position is emboldened by Ovid, since the only time the word “polypus”, the root of poulpe, appears in the Metamorphoses is in a recounting of the origin of the hermaphrodite—that is, in a story of the violation of the reluctant boy-lover Hermaphroditus by the manly nymph Salmacis, a becoming-hermaphrodite that the poet metaphorizes as “an octopus [polypus] shooting all its tentacles out / to pounce on its prey and maintain its grip in the depths of the sea” (4.366-7). Ducasse becomes, like Don Quixote in The Order of Things, no more than “a sign” or “a long, thin graphism” of a pseudonymous Literature—an endless intertext (see Lack).[32] Lautréamont similarly becomes a purely literary monster by figuring himself as an anonymous post-human animal in the absence of a historical record of sexual practices associated with the monstrous yet all-too-human libertine, an absence that prevents him from being exiled to the prison-house of reference where Sade, Byron, and Ovid reluctantly reside.

Lautréamont loves, like Sade, to incarnate contradiction—to be simultaneously victim and executioner, virgin and villain, God and Satan, animal and human,[33] and, unlike Sade, the domination his text exerts always cancels out its violence by de-sublimating itself as literary ephemera. If “Ocean” is “an immense blue bruise slapped on the body of the earth”, “this” is merely a “comparison” the writer happens to “lik[e]” (38). Sade’s redolent rhetoric of pure evil has made him amenable to re-institutionalization as literature, whereas Lautréamont never lets us forget that “fleeting hypotheses” of evil merely simulate theology—a simulation of being beyond good and evil that we have become all too familiar with under the domesticated name of “literature”:

Oh! If, instead of being a hell, this universe had been but an immense celestial anus—behold the gesture I make by my lower abdomen: yes, I would have plunged my prick through its blood-stained sphincter, smashing the very walls of its pelvis with my impetuous movements! Misfortune would then not have blown into my blinded eyes entire dunes of shifting sand; I would have discovered the subterranean place where truth lies sleeping, and the rivers of my viscous sperm would thus have found an ocean in which to rush headlong! But why do I find myself regretting an imaginary state of affairs which will never receive the seal of subsequent fulfillment? Let us not trouble ourselves to construct fleeting hypotheses.

Ducasse 173-4; translation modified

I will conclude by showing how Lord Byron’s readability as Literature can be re-situated in between Sade and Lautréamont in relation to the ineradicably secularized presence of evil (sodomy) in the nineteenth-century. Take, for example, the following stanza from DonJuan:

I love the sex, and sometimes would reverse

The tyrant’s wish, ‘that mankind only had

One neck, which he with one fell stroke might pierce:’

My wish is quite as wide, but not so bad,

And much more tender on the whole than fierce;

It being (not now, but only while a lad)

That Womankind had but one rosy mouth,

To kiss them all at once from North to South.


Byron seems to reduce all women to one orifice, yet the pun on “whole” recodes this aperture as a trans-gendered anus. Don Juan had no closure in sight and only Byron’s contingent death by finitude ended it. The reference to the tyrant’s stroke reminds us, however, of his plan to conclude his episodic epic with Juan’s senseless death by guillotine,[34] and it is the mechanical precision of the guillotine that makes everyone expendable in relation to arbitrary political violence (see Arasse). Byron has internalized this violence all too well, as is witnessed by his clandestine desire to reduce humankind to “one rosy mouth”—that is, to plug, annul, and strike out every other orifice—eyes, mouth, vagina, ears, and so on—every one but the one which will reaffirm the frenetic activity of sodomitical domination. If this desire seems to belong to Sade or Lautréamont rather than Byron, my point is that this is not the case.