When the master of the house returns home unexpectedly he must be greeted, served and lit to bed. God help the slow-witted servant girl who has fallen asleep or forgotten to add oil to her lantern. Conversely, the alert, energetic ones will be rewarded with the gift of his gratitude. This is as it should be, even when he comes unexpectedly as he invariably does. And who can blame him? Who knows the precise hour of one’s arrival, anywhere? It would be unfair to expect the master of the house to both know this and communicate it to others. It is always difficult to voyage, and to arrive requires a special strength given to few. There is so much effort involved in all this, the moment of arrival which is like a somber overture, rustling with questions that the seemingly more difficult voyage suppressed or answered in a less than frank manner. Therefore it is good that the master should be served; his efforts and his appetites demand it.
Maldoror considered these things, shifting his weight from haunch to haunch, then went over to the corner to question the view from his terrace. This evil that I feel, that I taste, that makes the roads slick, is there no end, no fruition to it? It comes from somewhere, sufficient to find out where. For evil is almost the same as éveil, an awakening, as when the master arrives amid a clatter and the servants tear frantically through the house. What is it they are looking for? Not the key, for they are inside, and the master presumably has his own. Is it for the can of kerosene stowed in the attic stairway? Yes, and something more, something to justify this nameless panic, this horror; something as simple and smooth as the figs and cheese on the plate, the frugal midnight collation, and as capable of restoring the dream of order that has suddenly turned everything on end and sent the valet scurrying to the cellar to draw a flagon of wine, the maids upstairs to make the beds, four of them at a time gripping the corners of a sheet that bellies in the air like a spinnaker. This is the rush, and it’s not facile or pleasant, but it does expand like a metal coil in the intoxication of arriving.
The soul, he thought, with its human faculties which put it in immediate touch with the universe, is a divine instrument, an aeolian harp which is not played upon by the winds of chance but by all the winds of despair that blow from the four quarters of human nature; and this music of the soul is a divine harmony which the creative imagination, alone of the human faculties, interprets in creative art.
What is it about the bridegroom?
While he was away, chaos under the guise of calm reigned in the house. The wise and the foolish virgins, or maids, tended to separate into two groups, with the former the most numerous by far. The social interaction that did take place was dictated largely by the nature of their work. The kitchen help, like the rest, was composed of members of both categories, and here as elsewhere much of the conversation consisted of grumbling on the part of the minority that actually did the work, and protests and excuses from the lazy ones. There were, of course, times when the differences between the two factions tended to get blurred, and something like normal social intercourse was the rule of the day. Such is the nature of work. We must of necessity set aside our social differences, or rather our social perceptions of our colleagues, in the interests of getting the job done. And this necessity results in an inferior kind of collegiality which an outsider might easily mistake for intimacy. In getting a meal ready, for instance, those who prepare the vegetables have to confer with each other about the details, i.e., is it necessary to cook the salsifies in a blanc, that is, an emulsion of flour and water which keeps them white, or would it be preferable to omit this step in the interests of getting the meal on the table, especially when there are a lot of other courses and time is short? (The salsifies would come out tasting the same without the blanc, though their appearance would of course be nicer if it were used.) At such moments the maids, both the lazy and the motivated ones, would naturally drift in conversation from the work at hand to more general observations, even to talk about personal matters. Trussing a fowl, for instance, would remind one of them how her mother was old and her fingers too stiff for such work, and of the lot of old people in general, how some age better than others, how some are a burden to their children though a burden one would never dream of trying to unload, etc.
Sometimes indeed the distinctions between the two groups would disappear momentarily or for longer periods. A kind of intimacy would suddenly spring up between two of the women, who would forget their differences under the spell of an anecdote someone might be telling, and this would lead to a conversational give-and-take very much like the chatter between friends, when we float from one topic to another and are drawn into all kinds of irrelevant asides and digressions, while our sudden perception of intimacy stimulates us to persevere in these bagatelles and experience them as a superior form of play, an unexpected gift that friendship brought with it. We get carried away by the intoxication of friendship, to the point even of forgetting about our friends while we are with them as we give ourselves to the joyous interplay of like spirits.
Thus, on certain days, the two coteries would have seemed to form a single homogeneous group, even to the schooled eye of a sociologist, and even the menservants, who considered the women as inferiors, would be drawn into the conversation and discover the physical attractiveness of some of them. On rare occasions a suffused sexuality burnished the air. The love that all the staff, including the lazy ones, felt for their master expanded to fill the house and penetrate the bodies of everyone. On such occasions it was common to refer to him as the bridegroom, for hadn’t he absented himself to take a bride and bring her back to the house? Or would he be arriving with her? Perhaps he would arrive alone to begin organizing preparations for the wedding feast, and the bride and her retinue would travel separately, and the feast be held in the house.
However that might be, the master’s arrival would be a moment of tremendous solemnity. Woe betide those too caught up in their own affairs to give him the reception that was fitting and which he expected. No excuses could or would be tolerated.
For though we always feel that we are an exception and that our lax behavior will be smiled on and tolerated by those who judge us, and even that there is something charming in our careless ignorance of the rules, deep down we know that such is not the case, that we are indeed responsible for all our acts and that our sins of omission are not picturesque gaps in the scenery but objects as solid and fatal as crimes or peccadillos we acknowledge having committed, though we still feel there are extenuating circumstances in these cases too.
And the true terror of the event slowly makes itself felt. The heavy iron knocker slams against the door in the middle of the night when most are asleep or passed out in a drunken stupor, with some of the maids and valets in bed together, and the echo shatters the midnight calm into thousands of fragments. What to do? It would have been better to think of this before, in good time; now there is very little that can be done beyond the usual rending of hair and gnashing of teeth, not a pretty sight when all is said and done, and guaranteed not to inspire the anticipated tears of sympathy, but instead a violent and almost irrational feeling of disgust. The weak at such times seem contemptible in their weakness, a sadistic criminal is more deserving of our sympathy than these cringing, bumbling figures throwing themselves around in the half-light, calling on God to save them, and yet—are they really so contemptible? Couldn’t God begin by forgiving those who are merely “led astray” rather than those who stride confidently down the path toward evil, sneering and cursing at the legions of wishy-washy half-sinners they have left behind in their wake? Alas, it doesn’t seem to work out this way. The hardened wrongdoers are if anything revered for their courage and impudence and end up as heroes, while the irresolute are punished ten times over, their appalling cries reminders of the evil of fickleness and dandyism.
“Maldoror considered these things, shifting his weight from haunch to haunch, then went over to the corner to question the view from his terrace.”
This is the first and only mention of Maldoror, the delightfully evil and nihilistic protagonist of one of Ashbery’s favorite works of literature, Les Chants de Maldoror (1868–69), a novel in prose cantos by the Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Lucien Ducasse).
The shifts in narrator, point of view, and even sympathies that occur across and within these pieces also recall Maldoror’s roving narrative locus. Ashbery titled his 1992 collection of poems Hotel Lautréamont, in homage to the writer whose description of a sixteen-year-old boy so succinctly captures the ethos of surrealism, collage, and assemblage: “As handsome . . . as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!”
To read further, see Skillings’s introduction to this work.
John Ashbery (1927–2017) was a poet, art writer, collagist, and translator from the French. His many collections include Breezeway, A Worldly Country (both from Ecco), and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Viking/Penguin), which received a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, and National Book Award. President Obama presented him with a National Humanities Medal in 2012.