Saturday, 21 December 2013

Stephane Mallarme's Haunting Absence in the 21st Century (Part 2)

The Hymeneal Violence of the Poet's Verse and its Rendering as Hamlet

by J. Albert Barr

"Whoever hovers around an exceptional character such as Hamlet, is merely Hamlet himself." - Stephane Mallarme: Hamlet (1886)

"All of Mallarme's text, however, is organized in such a way that at its strongest points, the meaning remains undecidable; from then on, the signifier no longer lets itself be traversed, it remains, resists, exists and draws attention to itself. The labor of writing is no longer a transparent ether. It catches our attention and forces us, since we are unable to go beyond it with a simple gesture in the direction of what it means, to stop short in front of it or to work with it." - Jacques Derrida: Acts of Literature (1992)

"Reader, this is what you have before your eyes, a written work..." - Stephane Mallarme: Les Mots Anglais/English Words (1876)

Despite the revitalizing experience spent with his great friend and confidant, Eugene Lefebure, at Cannes, in which his creative and intellectual strengths and energies were recharged, Mallarme suffered a horrible following winter in Besancon where he was, somewhat ignominously, transfered from the lycee in Tournon, not just because of his decidedly poor evaluation as an English teacher by the French Ministry of Education, but most probably because of his controversial reputation as a decadent, avant-garde poet of very un-Christian and immoral works that even provoked an influential member of the community to threaten to remove his child from the school. 

After only a short period in Besancon, which initially appealed to Mallarme until he was obligated to socialize with his conservative and complacent new neighbors and colleagues, he asked for yet another transfer; this time to Avignon where, among other benefits, he would be able to better afford a home for his family, see friends who already resided there, and incur more optimal, surrounding conditions in which to compose his unusual poems. He struggled harshly with his bills and inadequate salary while in Besancon.

But while all these domestic problems and distractions were usurping so much of his precious creative time, Mallarme had initiated, what he felt at the time, was a necessary study of both philosophical and scientific texts to significantly prepare him for his exceedingly ambitious "life's work": le Livre, the Great Book, his Epos. This, however, proved fruitless, despite his initial intentions because he wasn't, after all, a trained philospher, and derived very little pleasure from the reading of pure philosphical texts, such as Hegel's, for instance (most of his Hegel books remained in their store-bought wrapping). And, in the end, Mallarme was a fiercely independent thinker who preferred to arrive at his discoveries completely on his own, for better or worse (his understanding of Plato's Ideal Realm, for instance, was fairly inconsistent in his later critical writings, despite their ultimate brilliance, mostly by the more individually original ideas expressed throughout them). 

It was during the summer of 1866 that Mallarme envisaged his great work; a work that he figured would take at least twenty years to achieve. In a remarkable letter (Mallarme's amazing, poetic letters are perhaps only revivaled by those of John Keats) to his friend, Theodore Aubanel, Mallarme attempted to explain to the ultimately perplexed Aubanel the profound transformation his thought, creativity and overall sense-of-self had recently sustained:

"As for me, I have worked more this summer than in my entire life. I have laid the foundations of a magnificent work. Every man has a secret within him, many die without ever finding it... I am dead and resurrected with the jewelled key of the ultimate treasure chest of my mind. It is now up to me to open it in the absence of any impression borrowed from elsewhere, and its mystery will spread out into a most beautiful heaven. I need twenty years during which I am going to retreat within myself, avoiding any publicity except for some readings to my friends. I am working on everything simultaneaously, or rather I mean that everything is so well organized within myself that now, whenever a sensation reaches me, it is transfigured and is automatically lodged in a particular book or poem. When a poem has matured it will fall. I am imitating the laws of Nature, as you can see."

Unfortunately for Mallarme, after such a lofty declaration to his friend Aubanel, he found his exciting new intellectual and poetic clarity was waning as he engaged the philosophical and science texts later that year, and right before the harrowing winter he barely endured at the end and beginning of that 1866/67 period. Reporting once again to Aubanel, Mallarme informed him of his rather slow going regarding his "great work":

" My befuddled mind refuses to return to its former lucidity and I am just having to endure it, on my divan amongst a pile of books which I peer at and dip into without being able to finish them. It is true that they are books of science and philosophy and that I wish to experience through myself each new idea and not learn it from someone else."

Finally coming out the other end of that awful, but also crucial, winter, Mallarme had at last regathered his physical and mental strength enough to reengage his work by composing two of his greatest sonnets: "Quand l'ombre menaca de la fatale loi" (his "religious crisis" sonnet, where he declares his breach with "the old dream" of God) and "Le viege, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui" (his exquisite "Swan trapped in ice" sonnet). Between his revelatory visit to Cannes the previous summer resulting in his monumentally important discussions with Lefebure, his taxing winter, in which much of his evenings were spent staring up into the clear night skies and contemplating the constellations (in which the light he was seeing emanated from stars that had died eons ago, thus revealing to him its fundamental paradox and the dichotomy of presence/absence that would incessantly preoccupy his creative vision thereafter), the letters he sent to Aubanel, and the two sonnets he would compose between the spring of 1867 and 1870 (though they weren't officially published until the early 1880s), he came to a renewed spiritual conclusion that would, for the rest of his life, dictate his religious/philosophical attitude and constitutuion. He would officially pronounce (only to those close to him, understandably) his break with his Catholic upbringing and declare himself, essentially atheist, despite his wife, Marie's, continuing belief, as well as the rest of his family and the majority of people he interacted with, particularly at school. Although, he would retain elements of religiosity within the aesthetic confines of his poetic approach, where later he would define his Great Work as "The Orphic explanation of the Earth which is the sole duty of the poet and the supreme literary game."

Essentially, several years, in fact, before Nietzsche declared "God is dead" in his 1882 book "The Gay Science", Mallarme arrived at that conclusion himself. For him, and decidedly for an increasing number of like-minded others (mainly artists, writers, poets, scientists and philosophers, but certain intelligent laymen as well) throughout the 19th century, significantly enough, it was historically important, and about time, that Man become truly "modern" in his thought and in his understanding and perception of the world and of his being. Crucially, for Mallarme, this entailed the realization of the significance - in every sense of that term - of what language actually was and did. In this regard, Mallarme anticipated the 20th century obsession with language via linguistics, semiotics, intertextuality and deconstruction (in the works of Saussure, Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva, Lacan, Eco, etc.) with his painstaking and laborious process of contemplating every-single-word he employed in his poems with exhaustingly precise detail and exact purpose, always noting their etymolgies, sound and double meanings. It was with this "post-Christian" world-sense of the truly modern that Mallarme boldly and confidently wrote to Lefebure:

"Yesterday I finished my first outline of the Work, clearly delineated and totally endurable, if I myself endure. I contemplated it quite calmly and without any horror and, closing my eyes, I saw that it existed. The Venus de Milo - which I like to attribute to Phidias (the Venus de Milo had only been discovered in Milos in 1820, about fifty years before this letter had been written, and was originally credited to Praxiteles who lived around the 4th century B.C., but eventually attributed to Alexandros of Antioch circa 130-100 B.C.), so generic has the name of that artist become to me - and the Mona Lisa seem to me to be and are the two great shimmerings of Beauty on this Earth and my Work, such as it is imagined, is the third. Absolute and unconscious Beauty, which is inalterable in Phidias's Venus; Beauty whose heart, with the arrival of Christianity, received the venomous bite of the Monster, painfully resurrected with a strangely mysterious smile, but a smile of forced mystery which she senses to be the condition of her being. Finally, Beauty which, through the knowledge of Man, has discovered in the universe the relative stages of its development, remembering the secret horror which forced her smile in Da Vinci's time, and to smile in a mysterious manner - smiling mysteriously now, but happily and with the eternal inner serenity of the Venus de Milo which has been recovered, having understood the mystery of which the Mona Lisa could only know the fatal sensation."

Of course, with the exception of several, not directly-related, but incredibly beautiful and brilliant poems (among them "Les Fenetres", "Funeral Toast", "L'Azure", "Sonnet en-yx", his "tomb sonnets" to Baudelaire, Poe, Verlaine, Wagner, "Prose [for Des Esseintes]", "L'apres-Midi, D'un Faune" [for which Debussy so wonderfully translated into one of the greatest pieces of late 19th century classical music], and his collection of exquisite prose poems such as "Le Phenomene Futur", "Plainte D'Automne", "La Pipe", "Un Spectacle Interrompu" and "La Declaration Foraine") Mallarme, in the end, did not live long enough to see the realization of his Great Work. Before he suddenly died in 1898, at age 56, he had composed one of the most radically modern poems of the entire century; a poem that would have a profound influence on 20th century letters and theory: "Un Coup De Des", or "A Throw of the Dice". This landmark Symbolist poem was the culmination of everything Mallarme put into the art of composing poetry and tackling the existential crisis of humanity so viscerally felt more and more by century's end, only to explode climatically and globally in every literal sense in the first half of the 20th century.

But therein lies the ultimate and unbearable irony of the implications suffusing through Mallarme's monumental poetry: the violence, however Silent as well as audible, so inherent in everything, despite the almost equally unbearable Beauty found in existence if apprehended and truly beheld with attending understanding and appreciation, if ultimately ineffable, resisting language and clarification. This is the key to understanding Mallarme's poetry and critical theories. In order to essentially defy and transcend the innate imperfection in language and communication, Mallarme, via Symbolism, short-circuited and circumvented the rules of language, and the Symbolic Order that perpetually vacillates (like the optical trick of the candle between two human profiles) and precariously mortars our collective reality, our world, in order to access truisms of pure perception.

This very "violence" is intimated in one of his best earlier poems, "Les Fenetres" (i.e. "The Windows"). In the poem's final stanza Mallarme, with an existential urgency, asks: "Is there a way, O self, thou who hast known bitterness/ To burst the crystal that the monster has profaned,/ And take flight, with my two featherless/ Wings - at the risk of falling through eternity?" This poem anticipates his "Swan trapped in ice" sonnet composed years later; and is related to an earlier well-known sonnet, "The Chastised Clown", who wants to escape the confines of his make-up and the circus tent; a poem that, not insignificantly, references Hamlet and his own existential dilemma and gloom, brought on, or rather surfaced from its dormancy, by the dark and insidious conditions of Elsinore's grieving, yet corrupted and debased, courtly state.  Mallarme's poetry, in fact, is peppered with either direct references or allusions to Hamlet; and for good reason. Mallarme was a great admirer of Shakespeare's masterful turn-of-the-17th-century play, and became basically obsessed with its titular character. He profoundly identified with Hamlet. In his 1886 review of the play that he had just seen around that time Mallarme quotes in his review: "Whoever hovers around an exceptional character such as Hamlet, is merely Hamlet himself. And, with his useless sword-point, the prophetic prince, destined to perish on the threshold of manhood, melancholically pushes that heap of garrulous nothingness off the path which he himself cannot follow - heap which he in turn might be, if he grew old." 

The "monster" mentioned at the end of "Les Fenetres" is crucial to Mallarme's work and philosophical aesthetics. In his excellent book of translations and commentary of Mallarme's poetry, Henry Weinfield elucidates on his understanding of where Mallarme was coming from regarding the Monster: "A monster, commonly, is something unnatural, something paradoxical, something that, in possessing a dual nature (like humanity itself), surpasses nature. But if we trace the word 'monster' back to its roots (recalling that Mallarme was always concerned with etymolgy), we find that it derives from the Latin 'monere', 'to warn', and that it originally has the meaning of an omen or divine portent, which is consonant with the prophetic quality of the poem ["Funeral Toast" in the case of this specific quote, but indeed related to 'The Windows" as well]."

The notion of "the monster" echoes all through the 19th century, particularly, perhaps beginning with Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Sand-man" through to some of Poe's macabre stories (who was one of Mallarme's biggest influences), and eventually to Robert Louis Stevenson's "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and H.G.Wells' "The War of the Worlds". Even Joseph Conrad's classic tale, "The Heart of Darkness" implicates the mounting, century-spanning ominousness at the turn of the 20th century, which concluded Marlow's mission with Kurtz's final unnerving words: "The Horror! The Horror!"; and expressed visually in Edvard Munch's famous painting of 1893, "The Scream". Perhaps the best expression of the collective sense of foreboding and dread that ultimately culminated in the pronoucement of "the death of God" in the 1880s, and was fully realized in the global devastation of two World War's in the first half of the next century, was the end of Edgar Allan Poe's, seemingly ironic, breakthrough 1833 short-story, "MS. Found in a Bottle":

" A feeling, for which I have no name, has taken possession of my soul - a sensation which will admit of no analysis, to which the lessons of by-gone times are inadequate, and for which I fear futurity itself will offer me no key. To a mind constituted like my own, the latter consideration is an evil. I shall never - I know that I shall never - be satisfied with regard to the nature of my conceptions. Yet it is not wonderful that these conceptions are indefinite since they have their origin in sources so utterly novel. A new sense - a new entity is added to my soul."

This "feeling", this "new entity" added, and inured, to the collective soul of the 19th century, particularly in Europe, had utterly haunted Mallarme and ultimately drove his creativity and feverish desire to express this inexpressible "thing" that hopelessly eluded the narrator of Poe's disturbing story. And in Shakespeare's "Hamlet", a very early example of the initial dread and portentousness that ineffably disseminated through the next few centuries, originally provoked by the alleged "bifurcation of human consciousness" caused by the Calvinist offshoot of the Protestant Work Ethic advent of what would eventually develop into full-blown, and human-alienating, Capitalism, Mallarme would profoundly hitch his star to and attempt a retroactive explanation of what exactly Hamlet was really going through as history's first exponent - regardless of his "fictional status" -  of the existential plight of Man.

In Roger Pearson's superb 2010 book on Mallarme in the "Critical Lives" series, he states that: "For Mallarme the theatre is, ideally, a place where human beings join together in undergoing a 'solemn' ritual of cosmic understanding: 'the stage is the evident foyer/hearth/focal point [in French, 'foyer'] of pleasures taken in common, also and all well reflected, the majestic opening onto the mystery whose grandeur it is our purpose in this world to envisage'....,for Mallarme, 'Hamlet' is 'the play par excellence': 'for there is no other subject, mark my words: the antogonism between man's dream and the fateful circumstances meted out to his existence by misfortune'. With the minimum of interference from the particularities of place, time, and plot, Hamlet's dilemma is our dilemma - to be caught 'between': between childhood and adulthood, sanity and madness, doing and not doing, life and death. He is the 'latent lord who cannot become', a 'juvenile ghost of us all, partaking thus of myth'. Increasingly for Mallarme - although he had already intimated this in 'Un Spectacle Interrompu" - the purpose of art is to hold us in suspense: not the foolish suspense of the melodrama, so glibly resolvable, but a suspense that promises a meaning beyond the suspense, a prolonged wondering that opens onto 'Mystery'. The 'fury against the formless' prompted by the death of Anatole (Mallarme's eight year old son who tragically died in the 1870s) is calmed by the all-embracing 'relations' of the Idee, by the 'ministry of the poet'."

This all-encompassing "between" is what Derrida refers to as "the hymen" when studying and deconstructing Mallarme's work. Mallarme himself used the word in his tongue-in-cheek prose work, "Mimique", which is about a murder by tickling, in order to evade all traces of the crime. In his essay on Mallarme Derrida determines the characteristic "undecidability" depicted in Mallarme's verse. And it's this prevalent, linguistic indecisiveness, much like Hamlet's chronic delaying to kill the murderous King Claudius, that pervades through so many of Mallarme's poems, which Derrida brings to our attention in his patently clever and profoundly insightful way: "In 'Mimique', the word hymen is inscribed in such a place that it is impossible to decide whether it means the consummation of marriage or the veil of virginity. The syntax (and Mallarme was quoted as saying that 'I am profoundly and scrupulously a syntaxer') of the short word or is sometimes calculated to prevent us from deciding whether it is the noun 'gold', the logical conjunction 'or', or the adverb of time, 'now'."

In Hamlet's - and literature's for that matter - most famous soliloquy beginning with "To be or not to be, that is the question", we can see for ourselves the instant connection with Mallarme's syntactical manoeuvrings of "undecidability", as a way of preserving the - sometimes exasperating - mystery, and seeming elusiveness, of his verse in order to protect the integrity and existential delicateness of his message and textual music. Essentially, in the end, Mallarme's text, by virtue of its syntactical and undecidable character, is Hamlet. And, to conclude here, from Henry Weinfield's closing words on his introductory essay of his book of Mallarme translations: "After observing that the plurality of language militates against the immediacy of spoken truth, Mallarme concludes that if there were only one language, and if the truth could therefore be uttered immediately, then 'poetry would not exist: supreme complement [or completion], it compensates philosophically for what all languages lack." 


(note: I'd love to hear any feedback regarding this or any of my previous articles! Both positive and negative responses are welcome. If, by any chance, you are having difficulty accessing my comment section located below (like a few people have claimed) then you can reach me at this email address:, Thank you all for your readership and support here at my blog!) 


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