Hopkins's failure to solve the rhetorical problems caused by narrative distances makes "The Loss of the Eurydice" a failed poem, for after the reader has been led to sympathize with the drowned men and boys, he finds himself jarred when the poet turns back and makes them guilty victims. In contrast, Lautréamont's Les Chants de Maldoror, which strives to shock the reader, capitalizes upon the jarring effect created by this traditional intonation of the shipwreck situation in post-Romantic and post-Christian literature. His long fugue on the theme of sea disaster opens with a grim parody of the Romantic prospect poem, for rather than attain to a vision of the Promised [187/188] Land or imaginative grace, Maldoror enjoys a vision of destruction the destruction of others:

I sat on a rock near the sea. A ship had just put out from shore a fun sail: an imperceptible dot had appeared on the horizon and was gradually approaching, growing rapidly, pushed on by the squall. The storm was going to begin its onslaughts and already the sky was darkening, turning into a blackness almost as hideous as a man's heart. [trans. Alexis Lykiard]

Full of his hatred for other human beings, Maldoror places himself in a physical position to observe their destruction, and what makes this description of maritime disaster so shocking is that it remains an experience for Maldoror which has no conventional moral meaning. In other words, Maldoror places himself at the physical but not the moral vantage-point of an avenging God, so that effect resembles a Northern Renaissance painting of the Last Judgment in which the artist depicts the blessed enjoying the suffering of the damned but removes God and the angels. Beginning at a distance from the stricken vessel, Maldoror guides us through the stages of its destruction and at each makes us aware of the suffering of those on board only to emphasize his distance from them:

The vessel, which was a great warship, had dropped an her anchors to avoid being swept on to the rocks along the coast.

The wind whistled furiously from an four points of the compass, and made mincemeat of the sails. Claps of thunder crashed amid the lightning but could not outdo the sound of wailing to be heard from the foundationless house - a floating sepulchre.... The pumps were quite unable to expel the vast quantities of salt water which smashed foaming over the deck like mountains.

The distressed ship fires off her alarm gun but slowly, majestically, founders.

He who has not seen a vessel founder in the midst of a hurricane, sporadic lightning, deepest darkness — while those aboard are overcome by the despair with which you are familiar — knows not life's mischances. Finally from the ship a universal shriek or sheer woe hurls forth, while the sea redoubles its redoubtable attacks.... [188/189] The distressed ship fires off her alarm gun but slowly, majestically, founders.

All day long they have had the pumps in action. Futile efforts. And to cap this gracious spectacle, night has fallen, dense, implacable. Each man tens himself that once in the water he win no longer be able to breathe....

The distressed ship fires off the alarm but slowly, majestically, founders.

Having watched the ship go down, this histrionic descendant of Byron's Manfred and Maturin's Melmoth exclaims: "O heaven! how can one live after tasting so many delights! It has been my lot to witness the death-throes of several of my fellow men." The would-be connoisseur of pain tries hard to experience what is happening to these others and so he relishes the sounds that come to him across the waves: "Heard now . . . would be the bawling of some old woman mad by fear; now, the solitary yelps of a suckling infant. . . . By an effort of win I drew nearer to them." In his mad attempt to feel and thus enjoy the sufferings of others, the narrator parodies Romantic notions of imaginative sympathy. He thus tens us that when listening to the groans of the dying, he would "jab a sharp iron point into my cheek, secretly thinking: 'They suffer still more!' Thus, at least I had grounds for comparison." The fact that Maldoror has separated himself from other human beings appears with clarity in this inflicting pain upon himself to gain some idea of their mental sufferings.

This scene, in other words, mocks those theories of moral sympathy proposed by Hume, Smith, Burke, and others. These philosophers, who assume that man's innate moral sense imaginatively thrusts him into the emotional situation of other men, argue that such a capacity for sympathy or fellow-feeling is the basis of moral decision. According to them, one does not do evil unto others because one feels how they would bc affected. One does not have to strain to experience what another feels since any normal man or woman does so automatically. But Lautréamont, who clearly has no such belief in the innate goodness of man, makes his character attempt desperately to experience the fates of others. Maldoror must do so because he looks at them as though they were laboratory specimens behind a pane of glass — removed, unconnected, alien. Lautréamont's protagonist sees himself as other than human; and indeed, he dispassionately uses his musket to murder a survivor who has almost reached the shore, thus making himself the murdering lieutenant of murdering nature.

Maldoror, in other words, is in large part a case study of a man without what the philosophers who provided the foundations of Romanticism took to be a defining human faculty. If Tristram Shandy is simultaneously a parody of Locke's ideas and a moral case study of what happens if one does not live according to them, then one might say that Les Chants de Maldoror is a similar double parody of the moral philosophers who responded to Locke.1 One must be careful, however, not to oversimplify Lautréamont's surrealistic, decadent playing upon the perspectival conventions of the shipwreck paradigm since his work so concerns itself with parody and grim inversion. In the passage at which we have looked, for example, he mocks not only theories of the moral imagination but also the Romantic prospect poem, both pre- and post-Romantic shipwrecks, and the Gothic situation of survivors beset by robbers on the beach. At the same time, the narrator's continuous revisions of the event while it is supposedly taking place (such as his later mention of infants and old women aboard a warship) suggest that this often strained representation of disaster is entirely imagined and not experienced by Maldoror. Similarly, his obvious projection of self-hatred and yearning for death upon these imagined victims further complicates the significance of the shipwreck section Les Chants de Maldoror. Nonetheless, one thing is clear: Lautréamont seeks his primary effect by playing upon the traditional Christian association of the shipwreck with a divine point of view removed from the disaster.

With a heavy-handed irony appropriate to the strident tone of the book, the protagonist who would watch others perish by shipwreck finds himself increasingly implicated in this situation himself. Quite early in Les Chants. Maldoror asks his fictive gravedigger, 'Why do you weep? . . . Remember this well: we are aboard this dismasted vessel in order to suffer. It is a credit to man that God had judged him capable of overcoming his deepest sufferings.' The narrator thus finds himself within the shipwreck, with an men, to suffer some inexplicable test of endurance. He also likens himself to a ship's prow lifted by an enormous wave; and later when he tries to convey his exhaustion, he happens upon an elaborate simile that seems derived from Géricault's Raft of the 'Medusa':

When the storm, with the palm of its hand, has thrust a vessel vertically to the bottom of the sea; if, on that raft, only one man out of the entire crew remains, broken by weariness and every kind of privation; if the billow belabors him like Flotsam for hours longer than the life of man; and if a frigate later ploughing through these desolate latitudes of staved keels sights the unfortunate whose wasted carcass bobs upon the ocean, and brings him the help that is almost too belated I believe this shipwrecked fellow would understand still better the degree to which the drowsiness of my senses was carried.

Lautréamont has made extravagance such a virtue that it is difficult to know how seriously he finally wishes us to understand Maldoror to be himself a castaway, but the evidence of the text suggests that, like so many other decadents, the one who would enjoy the sight of others shipwrecked found himself a victim.

Once the relation between paradigm and narrative point of view and distance is recognized, this relation becomes a convention, and as such it becomes a code available to any author who wishes to make use of it. A poet like Hopkins who employs the shipwreck as divine punishment must find ways to solve the rhetorical difficulties created by breaking this convention. Lautréamont, on the other hand, depends precisely upon breaking it to achieve his ends which are not merely to shock the reader but by doing so to make him look at life, art, and morality in new ways.

Last modified 15 July 2007