1925 – Montevideo in the Orient: Lautréamont’s Ascent Among the Paris Surrealists

Gabriel Götz Montua


Lautréamont became the preeminent forebear of Surrealism through his inclusion in the movement’s first political agenda, the Orient. His overseas origin predisposed the Surrealists to re-read his works from the perspective of their own anti-occidental thinking. This was possible only through the near-complete absence of biographical data that would have contradicted the figure they desired to see. This made the imagined Lautréamont extremely malleable, easily aligned with other desires after the short agenda of the Orient ceased.

The Surrealists appropriated Lautréamont with increasing vehemence, fashioning him into a quasi-demigod, the utopian Surrealist fighting in their ranks. Again, no biographical data could contradict such a claim. Initially, the Surrealists united to fend off any outside claims on their idol, thus tightening the coherence of the tentatively emerging group. Then, when the movement had stabilized after opting for an affiliation with the political arms of dialectic materialism, Lautréamont was also used against members who had become undesirable. Renegades were denied any right to the model Surrealist and separated from the ideal of surreality that Lautréamont represented.

In addition to the obsessive imagination at work in the making of their Lautréamont, it is worth noting three internal contradictions in the Surrealists’ practice in relation to their idol. First, there is the problematic racially-motivated drive to appropriate Lautréamont because of his place of origin, even if its purpose is to attack a whole system of racial imperialism. Second, the classification of acceptable and unacceptable historic authors that led to the cult of a single genius closely resembles the bourgeois cultural practice to which the Surrealists opposed their narrowing anti-canon of predecessors. Third, the irrational and apodictic seriousness compressed in the symbolic act with which group exclusions were delivered in the name of Lautréamont have elements of those merciless displays of power one would find in medieval ecclesiastic practice or in 20th century totalitarian justice, both designated archenemies of Surrealism.

The appropriation of Lautréamont by the Surrealists in the mid-1920s remains an interesting early case study of entangled history. Particularly in the first half of the 20th century, critics in both France and Uruguay tended to claim Lautréamont as a national hero, sometimes forcefully against the other nation. Those claims proved easy to advance since fundamental biographical data was missing up until the 1970s. The Surrealists’ appropriation arose from the same lack of data and desirous projections, but developed in the opposite direction than most of their compatriots. They did not claim Lautréamont for France, but against France, and his South American origin were not read as a sign of his belonging to Uruguay, but paved the way for his entry into Surrealism.

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