Fabre, Darwin, Dalton & 'DNA' Watson meet Lautreamont

Interweaving the naturalist's objectivity with fantasy Lautreamont created a nomenclature of horror superseding the polarities of science and art by creating a barely coherent third term that is still struggling for its form and truth. Out of the existing taxonomies he generates new species that interact with and re-assemble a human species pushed to the point of absurdity and disintegration. His disruptive imagery had its sights on the notion of the beautiful but in time its visual appeal came to constitute a surrealist aesthetic, though one very much against the movement's original impulse, and then finally formed part of the language of advertising. Despite aspiring to become a practical force, Lautreamont's vision, though reflecting an all enveloping pathology, still remained imprisoned within the form of a book that more than any other work of fiction announced the unravelling of literature.

  "Look at the ancient spider of the large species slowly poking its head out of a hole set in the ground at one of the corner intersections of the room. We are no longer in the narrative. It listens attentively for any rustling that may stir its mandibles in the air. Alas! We have now reached the real as regard the tarantula, and although an exclamation mark might be put at the end of every sentence, that is perhaps no reason for dispensing with them".

                                                                      (The Songs of Maldoror. Lautreamont 1868)  

   "Little Paul has his own insect cages; his own little garden no larger than a pocket-handkerchief, where he grows beans; his forest plantation, in which stand four oaks a hand's breadth high, still furnished on one side with the acorn that feed them. It all makes a welcome change from grammar, which gets on none the worse for it".

                                                          (Souvenirs Entomologiques. Henri Fabre - around the same time)

 We look  "at the ancient spider of the large species" through the eyes of a naturalist, hence what we see cannot be part of a literary narrative. And if there is to be a narrative it can only be like those in Fabre's 'Souvenirs Entomologiques' and insects are a great vehicle for scientific narrative particularly where metamorphosis is involved. We may call Fabre's approach scientific narrative yet where else do we find in a great scientific text chapter headings like:  'A well dressed caterpillar' that then goes on to describe in matchless detail the Puss Moth caterpillar's habit of adorning itself? Though the entomologist Latreille gave the name of 'The Sisyphus' to the scavenger beetle only Fabre, when describing the insect and its habits, can mix unconstrained enthusiasm with a power of close observation that for page after page never flags. We enter in to that world and dimensions change just as they do in Lautreamont. And as for Lautreamont's cryptic remarks on exclamation marks how many do we find in a scientific journal like 'Nature'!

 There very existence implies a lack of impartiality allowing us to then write about the doom of humanity without turning a hair. But it is science, both 'good' and 'bad', that should now be apostrophised considering how much science, for good and evil, is now deeply involved in the ultimate fate of humanity. We can divine in Lautreamont a hidden plea for a changed relationship between subject and object and in how many other major scientific texts not just those to do with entomology (though there are specific reasons for it in the case of the latter) is grammar mentioned like in Fabre? As he says  'it gets on none the worse for it.'

 A closer examination of the relationship Lautreamont and Fabre would be worthwhile. The French context is particularly important. The French contribution to the nascent science of entomology is second to none. We only have only to think of Fabre and Latreille in the 19th century and Reaumur before them. There is also a link, though not an obvious  one, between Pasteur and Fabre that needs explaining. Microbiology dealt with smaller quantities than the smallest of insects. However Pasteur sought out Fabre when investigating  the blight then ravaging French sericulture. The world of the 'infinitely small' (Pasteur) and the 'monde a part' of insects which Fabre did so much  to introduce us to, involved a change of scale in the way we now thought about small organisms. Their importance as regards the human species would henceforth only grow to massive proportions - and is still growing.

The situation was very different here. This rescaling of insects both symbolically and in terms of the Order of Insecta was given a different twist. Possessive individualism and the Victorian passion for collecting tended to remove, particularly butterflies and moths, from their living context. However the arid series of varieties expressed a repressed wish to change life.

In comparison to France the great contributions of British entomology were almost an act of defiance. There was little educational preparation behind them in the sense of established institutions. Wallace was apprenticed to a surveyor at the age of 15 and at the age of 13 Bates was grafting for a hosiery manufacturer. Darwin, Wallace, Bates - all three had subverted the division of labour in their own way in a country, more than any other, gave it ultimate legitimation. It is yet another reason why the mere mention of nature has such an incendiary quality to it. When Darwin broached the idea of publishing his 'Origins of the Species' 10 years earlier it was not just his fears radical Chartists would see grinning monkeys in positions of power everywhere but that personally he had undermined the legitimacy of the division of labour and the crown prince of the free marketeers, Adam Smith. By contrast Latreille had gained his release from prison during the French revolution because of his chance discovery in his cell of a previously unknown species of beetle. Thus almost from its inception entomology became institutionalised in a manner totally at odds with its development in Britain although Fabre was to be denied the chair of Zoology in Marseille because of his peasant mannerisms ('ses allures paysannes'). Both Latreille and Fabre were opposed to evolutionary theory and yet both were in the closest contact with it. (One wonders how much academic state pedagogy has played in all this because opposition to 'official' science ' today we would say 'big science' - has in France largely come from outside since maybe the surrealists and not from within science as is more the case in Britain.) 

We know next to nothing about Lautreamont yet only nine years separates the 'Origins of the Species' from 'Les Chants des Maldoror'.The latter is very obviously the work of a very precocious youth, one versed in the sciences, especially the life sciences. He had to have read Darwin or at the very least was acquainted with his ideas. Not however in order to refute him but redefine him. What scandalised him was not what man had evolved from but what he was evolving in to. And if Darwin appeared to make his peace with god in the concluding paragraph of the 'Origins', Lautremont steadfastly refused to do so. The evolutionary tree finally branches, because of manifold oppression, in to the most grotesque mutations imaginable. Not only are these mutants biologically unable to breed, they have also lost the desire to do so They may try, like the two sharks - one a shark the other a manshark - but their union is a 'long, hideous and chaste union.'

             "I gave them fixatives, jars and boxes, and instructions for removing and fixing the brains (from the extermination camps) and they came bringing them like the delivery van from a furniture company. There was wonderful material among those brains, beautiful mental defectives, malformations and early infantile diseases.'

              (The above is a quote from the Nazi brain scientist, Professor Hallevorden, director of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Brain Research in Berlin. He was reinstated in his post in 1948 and continued there until his retirement)

              "I cast a long look of satisfaction upon the duality that composes me--------and find myself beautiful! Beautiful as the congenital malformation of man's sexual organs consisting of the relative brevity of the urethal canal and the division or absence of its lower wall so that this canal opens at a variable distance from the gland and below the penis;------- or rather as the following truth: 'The system of scales, modes, and their harmonic series does not rest upon variable natural laws but is, on the contrary, the result of aesthetic principles which have carried with the progressive development of mankind, and will vary again'.

                                                                   'as beautiful as the trembling of hands in alcoholism'

                                                      (The above is a quote from Lautreamont's, The Songs of Maldoror)

Today we  find in Lautreamont the hint of something far more sinister that is fast becoming a reality. It is not generally appreciated how much bio-engineering is driven by an aesthetic/consumer eugenics which also resumes the project of the avant garde to change life. Lautreamont deliberately sought to undermine aesthetic niceties by introducing at every turn the pathological that is still then double-edged enough to contain a promise of humanity. That is why the above quotes from 'Les Chants' must not be read as affirming the words of the Nazi brain scientist: in fact the mutilation we experience deep within ourselves, and which Lautreamont  describes with the factual accuracy of a diagnostician, is socially conditioned and therefore temporary. And how does he let us know this. By in the next moment historicizing artistic form - in this instance music - a concept which is also as beautiful as 'deformity'. (Where ever did such a quote come from, if it is indeed a quote).

When eugenics first made its appearance it was the brain child of Francis Dalton, the cousin of Charles Darwin. Paradoxically it arose out of Darwin's failure to crack the laws governing inheritance which his theory of natural selection presupposed. But once known these laws could, in theory, be controlled in the way that evolutionary theory never could be because it is inherently unpredictable. There were economic benefits but eugenics then could not be run as a profitable private business. What the biology lacked in technical achievement it made up for in ideological conviction centred around class and race supported mainly by the state. We hardly need mention the sterilization campaigns, the assault upon the indigent, the mentally ill, the incurably sick, ethnic minorities and the camps because the apostles of the new eugenics will do that for us. What underwrites the certainty of the new eugenicists is their belief this time it will work because the market is now in control, for it was the state that formerly distorted the science of eugenics.

Eugenics has become a consumer item and Watson has gone on record as asking what's wrong in designing females with blonde hair, blue eyes and big tits as that's what men want? Yet female commodity stereotyping is infinitely more diverse than this and like as not today's infant and infantile eugenics may forever be condemned to follow the market, not shape it. In fact Watson's  free market, and supposedly freely chosen stereotype, has definite Aryan characteristics, (the blonde beast not the beautiful blonde), and is every bit as likely, in the name of the beautiful,  to produce nothing but horror. Ultimately it will prove to be the most devastating of ironies where, like in the past, it will be the insane that impose upon those with a chance  of finding sanity. The only way out of this madness is collective creation and Lautreamont cautions us to read his terrible pages with maximum care..

Stuart Wise 2004