Thursday, 10 October 2013

Stephane Mallarme's Haunting Absence in the 21st Century (Part 1)

The French Symbolist Poet's Crucial Relevance as a "Semiotic Ghost"    

by J. Albert Barr

"Poetry is the expression, by human language restored to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious meaning of the aspects of existence: it thereby endows our sojourn with authenticity and constitutes the sole spiritual task."
                                                                       - Stephane Mallarme (to journalist Leo d'Orfer - 1884)

It's been 115 years since French poet Stephane Mallarme died at age 56 in 1898, and his notoriously elusive poetry has, perhaps, never been more timely than it is right now early in the 21st century. But that so-called timeliness, however, should be taken with an ironic grain of salt. The reason for this is fairly obvious: while we presently live in a feverish world of material dominance, techno-romanticism, gadget obsession, ubiquitous event-presence and the deluge of ever-flowing information (as opposed to genuine knowledge), Mallarme's poetry and literary theories have quietly and unassumingly resided in abject obscurity outside the more appreciative confines of academia and poetry's selective cognoscenti. Yet, his verse continues to haunt us peripherally, like, as William Gibson aptly put it in his 1981 short-story, "The Gernsback Continuum", a semiotic ghost.

What makes Mallarme's work a kind of "semiotic ghost" can be directly analogized with what cultural critic and author Charles R. Acland refers to as residual media, which is usually in connection with a form of technology, but I would argue can, and is, related to culturally artistic media as well, like Mallarme's poetry, and even prose works. Residual media is characterized by Acland as "reconfigured, renewed, recycled, neglected, abandoned and trashed media technologies and practices" that continuously haunt and insistently occupy a peripheral space in contemporary society. As Acland further explains: "Figures from the past...creep up to remind us of their existence and of the influence they wield in the present. For an era such as ours that puts a premium on advancement and change above all else, declarations of the presence of the past can be confusing or alarming. There is nothing like that old party pooper 'historical consciousness' to dull the gleeful celebrations of progress and the new".

The Gibson phrase, "semiotic ghost", however, is especially suited to Mallarme and his work, particularly, because of the poet's strong connection with both the technical term "semiotic" and
the non-corporeal quality of the word "ghost", which is so prevalent in Mallarme's verse.

The word semiotic is an adjective that comes from the branch of linguistics called semiotics. Linguistics, itself, is the study of the structure and meaning of language, which is prominently associated with the monumental work of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), though the basis of this work would be challenged, and some believe superseded, in the 20th century's second half by Chomskian linguistics, cognitive linguistics and generative grammar. His book, "Course in General Linguistics", which was published posthumously in 1916 from the collected notes of some of his students who attended his lectures in Geneva, became one of the seminal works on linguistics in the 20th century. He also, subsequently, was one of the founding fathers of semiotics (or semiology), and introduced the concept of sign/signifier/signified/referent. Semiotics, then, is the study of signs and sign processes (also known as semiosis), such as: indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification and communication. Semiotics is basically divided into three specific branches: 1) Semantics - the relation between signs and the things to which they refer or denote; their particular meaning, 2) Syntactics - the relation of signs in formal structures, such as sentences; and 3) Pragmatics - the relation of signs and sign-using agents, which determines context.

Semiotics doesn't just cover signs found in language structures, but also in non-linguistic and concrete signs that are indicative of a particular culture, custom and time period. Pro wrestling, for instance, is one such example of a semiotic system of signs depicting a staged spectacle where the socially constructed concepts of Good and Evil are acted out by muscle-bound performers who exaggerate stereotypes of human strength and weakness within their pre-chosen "characters", while being watched by an audience who expects to see, time and again, the on-going myth of justice and treachery played out before them, and respond accordingly with great unwitting gusto and excitement. Fashion is another, where what one wears projects and disseminates, either consciously or not, a certain image and identity, class and social position or attitude. In fact, famed French semiotician, Roland Barthes (who wrote about wrestling and fashion in his important books, "Mythologies" and "The Fashion System"), once said that: "Nobody dresses innocently".

For Stephane Mallarme, the semiotic richness suffused in his relatively small poetic output (a little over a hundred published poems) extended beyond the page and thoroughly into his very life and constitution. He was born in Paris, France in 1842 into a middle-class family of provincial lawyers; a profession that Mallarme had never flirted with taking seriously, much to the chagrin of his ineffectual father, Numa. His mother, Elizabeth, prematurely died when she was just 28 - Stephane was only 5 at the time. Mallarme's maternal grandmother, Fanny Desmolins, forthwith became his substitute mother and guardian. He had a sister, Marie, who tragically died young at the age of 13 from a severe recurring rheumatic disorder. Though premature deaths of children were not uncommon for that period, Mallarme was deeply affected by his adored sister's death, and subsequently developed a preoccupation with death and mortality, which would unsurprisingly find its way into his poetry and themes.

After circumventing law school, and inevitably failing a Registry exam to become a clerk, Mallarme chose, practically by default, to become a teacher; specifically an "English teacher". His interest in poetry and writing had gradually developed since childhood, and eventually became not only a passion, but an outright vocation by the time he hit his twenties. His main influences, initially, were Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe, thanks, exclusively, to Baudelaire singularly introducing the work of Poe to French readers with his excellent translations of not only Poe's poems and stories, but perhaps most importantly - for Mallarme - his translations of Poe's theoretical essays on poetic composition. Victor Hugo and Theophile Gautier were also significant influences on Mallarme.

When Gautier died in 1872, Mallarme was commissioned to compose a poem in his honor. The title of the poem was "Toast Funebre" ("Funeral Toast"), and it is one of Mallarme's greatest poems. In the poem, Mallarme, while paying due homage to one of his poetic heroes, still took it upon himself to compose an exquisitely elaborate "rallying cry" for all pure poets: "Et l'on ignore mal, elupour notre fete/ Tres simple de chanter l'absence du poete,/ Que ce beau monumentl'enferme tout entire." ("And we who have been chosen guardians of the word/ Are simply called upon to sing the absence of the bard./ Whom this fine monument encloses now indeed.") Mallarme's obsession with absence and nothingness and the void (le neant) is clearly expressed in this remarkable poem. But, as was his subtle touch and uncanny perception, Mallarme would always seem to make a delicate connection with the ontological membrane between life and death, presence and absence, corporeality and nothingness, essence and void, entity and ghost; and with an appropriate sense of wit and irony: "Nous sommes/ La triste opacite de nos spectres futurs," ("We are nothing, then,/Save the sad opaqueness of the future ghosts we bear.")  Aptly enough, we can see how William Gibson's notion of the "semiotic ghost" fits perfectly with Mallarme's poem, its significations and symbols throughout. Mallarme, himself, became one of those "future ghosts" that continue to haunt literary tradition, French culture, English culture, academic syllabuses, linguistics and semiotics, textual space, the blank page and computer screen, modernist tradition and postmodernism, musicality; "the flower missing from all the bouquets"; "the silent thunder suffused in the leaves"; "the shade that now you are"; "The scintillations of the one-and-six"; "the transparent glacier of flights never flown"; "And avaricious silence and night's immensity" - the closing line from "Funeral Toast".

Some of the most memorable, yet unnerving and powerful, lines from "Funeral Toast" come from the poem's middle-section where Mallarme essentially spells out the ineluctable discovery and burden of the pure poet; a poet with an artist's soul, a philosopher's mind, a scientist's curiosity, a craftsman's precision, and a wise person's unvarnished consciousness:

"Vaste gouffre apporte dans l'amas de la brume
  Par l'irascible vent des mots qu'il n'a pas dits,
  Le neant a cet Homme aboli de jadis:
  'Souvenirs d'horizons, qu'est-ce, o toi, que la Terre?'
  Hurle ce songe; et, voix don't la claret s'altere,
  L'espace a pour jouet le cri: 'Je ne sais pas!'"

("Vast abyss transported to the gathered mists prevailing,/ By the irascible wind of words that he did not say,/ Nothingness to this Man, abolished yesterday:/ 'Memories of horizons, O thou, what is the Earth?'/ Howls this dream; with a voice that can barely issue forth,/ Space as a joke returns the cry: 'I do not know!'")

How did Mallarme arrive at this unsettling, if not harrowing, conclusion, which Milan Kundera called, in his 1984 novel of the same title, "the unbearable lightness of being"? In early 1866, when Mallarme had just turned 24, he had been utterly exhausted, mentally and even physically by his composing the first section of what would become his predominately dialogical poem, "Herodiade". A poem that would ultimately occupy his time and incessantly revisionist activities for the rest of his life, and remain unfinished! That first section was titled "Ancient Overture".

While slowly and painfully composing "Herodiade's" first section during the entire winter of 1865-66, Mallarme made a devastating discovery, and it involved the very nature and dynamics of language and existence itself. As he composed each line, carefully selecting the exact right words in the exact right syntax and line formation with painstaking scrutiny, he noticed the inherent, contradictory aspects of language, as he attempted to synthesize the intended musical quality with the poem's narrative and overall sense. As Gordon Millan put it in his excellent 1994 biography on Mallarme (only the second such official biography done after Henri Mondor's initial tome about fifty years earlier): "He (Mallarme) realized that in practice the kind of harmony or correlation between sound and sense which he desperately sought was extremely rare. What was even more disturbing, he discovered that in the French language at least, these two elements which he specifically sought to unite were frequently in direct and total contradiction to each other. It was a fundamental defect in the language which he commented upon much later, and with some humor, in one of his critical essays: ' Compared to ombre [shadow], which is opaque, the word tenebres [darkness] has little density, and how disappointing it is when one is faced with the perversity which, in total contradiction, confers in the case of jour [day] and nuit [night], a tone of dark upon the former, of light upon the latter.'"

Without any previous knowledge and familiarity with Buddhism, Mallarme viscerally encountered "two abysses" which brought him to the edge of despair. The first one was the sense of Nothingness itself, the pre-Lacanian sense of the notion of the Order of the Real; that which is outside of the language-buffering realm we all became accustomed to when we all learned language as a small child, and thus entered the Symbolic Order, which is to say, the world as we know it in our daily, diurnal and quotidian lives. And the second abyss was the precarious nature of life itself, "the unbearable lightness of being" that Kundera wrote about. Utterly exhausted and anxiety-ridden, Mallarme was in desperate need of a vacation, away from his boring and unfulfilling teaching job, for which he wasn't very good at anyway, and decided to travel to southern France to visit Cannes and hook-up with an older friend, Eugene Lefebure, who was highly cultivated and crucially receptive to Mallarme's existential plight. Their long discussions, which covered nearly all of Mallarme's concerns and passions, all the while beholding the breath-taking beauty and vistas of the Mediterranean, greatly recuperated Mallarme and provided a much-needed mental, emotional and creative replenishment....

Please continue on to Part 2 which is available here at The Culture Fix!   :-)

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