by J. Albert Barr
"Yes, on an isle the air had charged
Not with visions but with sight,
The flowers displayed themselves enlarged
Without our ever mentioning it;
And so immense, each burgeoning shape,
It was habitually adorned
In such clear outline that a gap
Between it and the gardens formed."
- Stephane Mallarme: "Prose (for des Esseintes)"
During the last twenty years, I’ve read and reread Stephane Mallarme’s famously (or infamously) obscure poem “Prose (for des Esseintes)”. The fact that Mallarme titled his poem “Prose” is, certainly on the surface (an extremely important discrepancy behind the ultimate understanding of practically every Mallarme poem!), a rather odd, ambiguous and ironic title to give a poem. But as Henry Weinfield explains in his always illuminating commentary in his collected translations of Mallarme’s poems (which I’ve had a copy of now for seventeen, much-appreciated, years), Mallarme absolutely meant for the title to come off as very ironic, and yet, wittily appropriate as well. According to Weinfield’s elucidation, the word “prose” actually refers to a “hymn” which is sung during church Mass. A prosa, in fact, is a Latin hymn such as "Dies Irae" that is apparently sung between the readings of the Gospels. So “Prose” is thought to be a kind of hymn and/or ode to the poetic process itself. Weinfield actually brings up the issue of whether “Prose” is either a “hymn” or an “ode”, because the poem itself appears to ask, self-referentially, that very question about itself:
“ The question of whether “Prose” is a hymn, as its title ambivalently asserts, or whether it should not rather be regarded as an ode, is one that is worth considering because, in a sense, it is raised by the poem itself. Comparing the two genres, Paul Fry notes that ‘like the hymn, the ode…longs for participation in the divine, but…never participates communally, never willingly supplies the congregation with common prayer because it is bent on recovering a priestly role that is not pastoral but hermetic. While there could hardly be a more hermetic poem in any language than “Prose”, it may be that in this poem the hymn/ode dialectic has evolved yet another turn, and that the ode, having come into existence as a result of a disappearance of the possibility of establishing poetic communion in a congregational or public setting, had become a hymn once again – as if the self, driven into exile of its own solitude, had now disappeared into the otherness, not of God but of the Poem itself.”
The myriad implications suffusing through this telling paragraph are considerable! Firstly, the idea that the ode “longs for participation in the divine” but refuses to cater to the common flock out of a desire to “recover a priestly role that is not pastoral but hermetic” is quite a modern gesture, beyond the old world faith of traditional divinity and communion; in essence, it suggests a kind of secular mysticism, a secular divinity that is free, or at least alienated, from communion with God. And yet, ironically, after distancing itself from religion in the strict, traditional sense, it sublimates itself from mere ode to hymn to sing the praises of poetry’s divine power (i.e. of its own essence and being!) to evoke and, if ever so transitory and barely apprehensible, that which is behind the seemingly impenetrable veil of existence, of our all too human bounds of perception; using poetry to peak into the noumenal realm, that which lies beyond the mere phenomenal world of our basic senses and degree of daily perception. Since the spiritual crisis of the age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, which eventually gave us the Romantic period of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Byron in the early 19th century, all of whom were inspired to seek communion in a return (as exhorted by Rousseau) to the neo-innocence and ancient divinity of nature (for many, the source of their Muse), there was still, for the most part, a God of sorts, still hanging on to the collective conscious of most people living in those times. But, with capitalism, the urban city and the Industrial Revolution literally picking up steam by the mid-1800s, God’s hold all but completely loses its grip on the Western hemisphere by the 1880s, as officially expressed by Nietzsche’s “Zarathustra” and Meredith’s “army of unalterable law”, and confirming Blake’s daunting query of the “dark Satanic mills” substituting for his envisioned “New Jerusalem”. With the demythologizing of Lucifer/Satan in Meredith’s monumental “Lucifer in Starlight” in 1883, those “mills” were no longer rendered “Satanic”, but the inalienable representation of unbridled capital and free-enterprise in the modern world. Even Eliot incorporated Meredith’s “army of unalterable law” (in his own non-mythological idiom) in his short poem, “Cousin Nancy” (a much more casual and incidental tone of a poem than Meredith’s dramatic declaration) to further depict the new, burgeoning modern world of the 20th century.
It was in these importantly contextualized times of the second-half of the 19th century that Mallarme conducted himself as a truly modern poet. He had had his own spiritual crisis in the 1860s, a crisis that nearly did him in as a person, let alone an aspiring poet. It was, during the 1864-1866 period, when he proclaimed to his close friend and confidant, Henry Cazalis, that he was no longer "the Stephane Mallarme [he] once knew", in that Mallarme experienced a sort of Buddhist purification when he confronted the mere arbitrariness of language, which, in effect, for Mallarme himself, killed God about twenty years before Nietzsche announced it in 1882. The “word”, Mallarme distressingly discovered, in all actuality, was empty, without spirit, without divine substance, without any real power unto itself. Thus, as in John 1:1 in the New Testament, if “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, then God was truly non-existent, or rather, for the Promethean/Faustian man, was indeed now dead. And so it was with this new found understanding and insight into the nature, the artificial, and ultimately arbitrary, nature of language that Mallarme’s identity “disappeared into the otherness of the Poem itself”, in search of meaning and beauty in a new, Godless, mechanized, modern world and existence! In a sense, what Mallarme “performed” (because, as Shakespeare said, and Mallarme himself intimated in several verse and prose poems, the world is theatre, a stage for the inherited performance of what Rene Girard called “mimetic desire”) was a veritable transformation of his ontological and subjective, and even physical, self into an objective and epistemological vessel of sorts willingly used as a conduit for poetry to gradually reveal itself in as pure a state as possible, ideally.
To expand on that idea of the vessel, the body as “conduit” for “the music of the turning spheres”, as Owen Barfield beautifully put it in Poetic Diction, I turn to Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his notion of the “ontology of the flesh” as rendered in this passage I got from an essay/overview of Merleau-Ponty at the Plato Stanford Education website in 2005:
“The flesh is neither some sort of ethereal matter nor is it a life force that runs through everything. Rather it is a notion which is formed in order to express the intertwining of the sensate and the sensible, their intertwining and their reversibility. It is this notion of reversibility that most directly problemetizes the concept of intentionality, since rather than having the model of act and object, one has the image of a fold, and of the body as the place of this fold by which the sensible reveals itself…We see that this notion of intertwining does not only concern the relationship between the sensible and the sensate, between the body and world. It also orchestrates the relationship between the visible and the invisible. As Merleau-Ponty undercuts, or if one prefers deconstructs, the opposition between subject and object, he also wishes to do the same for the opposition between the visible and the invisible, the sensible and the ideal.”
The “sensate” would, of course, be that which is ultimately sensed, experienced, felt as opposed to that which can be sensed, its potentiality, but hasn’t, in the “sensible”. The cousin of the sensate/sensible dichotomy is the visible/invisible dichotomy. The body is connected with the former coupling and the mind is connected with the latter coupling. The body and mind DO NOT generate or create the substance or essence being encountered or sensed, felt, seen, be it directly or implicitly. They (the body and mind in physical and metaphysical conjunction) form the idea and image based on previously established categories that result in what Merleau-Ponty calls “the intertwining and reversibility” of the sensate and sensible, the visible and invisible from the p.o.v. of the sentient being inter-acting with said substance or essence. Apparently, the reversibility tends to cause trouble for the “concept of intentionality”. What is this intentionality? Well, no doubt, it refers to an aim or purpose, but I feel it also suggests “desire”. An aim or purpose requires, fundamentally, a desire to bring about a particular end. And if this is the case, which verily it is, I believe, then we are certainly in the vicinity of Girard’s “mimetic desire” theory. In this theory, there is a triad-relationship between subject, object and “model”. The model acts as the “mediator” for the subject that desires the object. In Rene Girard’s theory, he states that “desires” are actually borrowed, or better yet, appropriated from others. In other words, most desires, if not all, are not originally those who have them, but are attained because someone else had them first, hence our sense of purpose and aim to acquire the spoils of that which is desired. We, in a word, “mimic” the desires of others. The “model” is always needed to fuel the drive of the subject towards the object of desire, but then it is the model itself that evokes the desire which is ultimately placed onto the object, hence the model’s mediating role. And after the subject successfully attains that which they desired, the model, at least for that particular symbolic exchange, vanishes. This, of course, implies Fredric Jameson’s concept of “the vanishing mediator”.
The model, for instance, that acted as mediator between feudalism and capitalism in the 16th century was the Calvinist off-shoot of Protestantism, which, when capitalism began to develop through the “Protestant ethic” to generate profit through hard work in order to prove their devotion to God and improve their chances to get to Heaven, it eventually gave way to a religious faith-free, secular monetary enterprise. This was famously elucidated in Max Weber's crucial 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. When this happened, Protestantism disappeared, vanished from the symbolic exchange and reverted back to a private and marginalized, specifically religious, faith.
Now, finally getting back to Mallarme, I can definitely see another symbolic exchange between Mallarme (the subject) and poetry (the model) to acquire that which is desired, the object (pure beauty, truth, illumination, the world as it is behind the phenomenal curtain incarnate). There is, of course, through the act of poetic creation, an intention, aim, purpose, and thusly, desire to achieve the alchemical prize of the truth of existence and being, at least for the true poet, but this creative process nearly always involves a reversibility (and sometimes outright “writer’s block”!), and so this symbolic exchange recurs again and again, oscillating back and forth, resulting in the composing of poetry as a consolation for having, time and again, failed to fully grasp and attain the “unknown”, to “reverse the army of unalterable law”, if you will, as I indicated in my sonnet, “Owl in Darkest Blue”. It is, in the end, that unquantifiable feeling and sense that drives the inspired poet to compose his/her verses through the mind/body conduit. Wordsworth put it well when he wrote in “Tintern Abbey” over two hundred years ago:
“And I have felt/ A presence that disturbs me with the joy/ Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused,/ Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,/ And the round ocean, and the living air,/ And the blue sky, and the mind of man;/ A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things.”
Stephane Mallarme’s notoriously obscurantist, but positively brilliant, and very much still relevant, poem “Prose (For des Esseintes)” was first published in La Revue Independante in January 1885. This was shortly after J.K. Huysmans’ “breviary of decadence” novel (as Arthur Symons put it), A Rebours (i.e. “Against Nature” or “Against the Grain”), was published the year before in 1884 to much controversy, because of its world-forsaking and aesthetically-insular posture and attitude. For many years, my understanding of the term decadence was somewhat off-key and inaccurate. I always thought it meant predominately a sordid and ribald life-style consonant with, say, depravity or perversity, and though there is a certain degree of these ill-reputed attributes associated with decadence, especially from the perspective of a traditionalist or cultural conservative, the word and concept actually refers to a cultural period in decline when compared to the established or accepted quality and excellence of the prior age/period before it. When summarizing the so-called decadent period of French literature, and particularly of French poetry, “cultural decline” doesn’t exactly come rushing to mind. However though, in its right historical context, I suppose I can definitely see where such a judgment can arise from, considering the notion of the high-brow, “proper classic” that ascends to the literary canon. Still, so many of my favorite poets come from this cherished period!
I find it quite interesting, and certainly ironic and amusing, that Huysmans himself (but also, I’m sure, conveying his character Jean des Esseintes’ opinion too, “naturally”) says in his first-person narrative in A Rebours, regarding the notion of decadence, seemingly while it was in progress no less, in the midst of des Esseintes’ rhapsodically aesthetic musings on the poetry of Mallarme, that:
“The truth of the matter was that the decadence of French literature, a literature attacked by organic diseases, weakened by intellectual senility, exhausted by syntactical excesses, sensitive only to the curious whims that excite the sick, and yet eager to express itself completely in its last hours, leave behind the subtlest memories of suffering, had been embodied in Mallarme in the most consummate and exquisite fashion.”
Huysmans (and therefore des Esseintes by direct association) may have cultivated a severe hatred and sense of alienation from his time and place, enough to regale his self with exquisitely highfalutin, dramatic phrases and with such esoterically descriptive bon mots of, yes, hyperbolic intensity and extreme, exclusive-only bias, but Mallarme, himself, was never this severely against society and culture, though he was definitely frustrated and felt isolated by most people, he had a too inclusive social attitude, as evidenced by his celebrated “Tuesday gatherings”, to exclude society outright, because it would not concede to his preferred vision and understanding of things. According to Symons’ description of Huysmans’ social outlook on the world, in his indispensible, Symbolist Movement in Literature: “The world has always appeared to him to be a profoundly uncomfortable, unpleasant, and ridiculous place: and it has been a necessity of his temperament to examine it minutely, with all the patience of disgust, and a necessity of his method to record it with an almost ecstatic hatred”. In other Huysmans novels such as: En Route, Marthe, En Menage and La-Bas, J.K. continued his literary evisceration of the world and society as he saw it. In La-Bas, for instance, Symons explains how Huysmans' pronounced misanthropy burrowed deep into his internal constitution:”In La-Bas we are in yet another stage of this strange pilgrim’s progress. The disgust which once manifested itself in the merely external revolt against the ugliness of streets, the imbecility of faces, has become more and more internalized, and the attraction of what is perverse in the unusual beauty of art has led, by some obscure route, to the perilous halfway house of a corrupt mysticism”.
After some 20-25 years of writing about his misanthropic litanies (under the apparent guise of “art for art’s sake”), cast towards a long-perceived and sickening state of things before him, Huysmans finally became worn down and wearied by all the hate and disgust he’d been carrying around deep inside of him for so long; he decided to surrender, ironically enough, given such a short span of time since the declaration that “God was dead”, to Christianity just before the turn of the century. I didn’t notice it before, surprisingly, - I mean, I have read Symons’ Symbolist Movement in Literature several times now – but Huysmans actually felt compelled to do what T.S. Eliot was also driven to do almost four decades later, out of emotional and mental necessity, and that was to join the Church, accept God into their respective lives and souls, seemingly after having reached the absolute nadir of their existences!
Admittedly, I do sympathize with Huysmans’ black-colored-glasses-view-of-things-and-people, even back then, compared to the state of the, now, digitally-mechanized world in the early 21st century, but, like the situation with Eliot too, seeking refuge in religion is NOT the answer, whatever ostensible relief it brings to one’s soul, mind and overall constitution, I tenably feel, especially being fairly privy to all that has gone down in the last fifty years, in particular; what with postmodernism, the arts, rampant technology, consumerism, virtuality, the media and our beleaguered language itself. I know I’ve spewed, incorrigibly, aspersions galore against society and culture, in general, in my journal through the constitutionally-embattled years, but it only really represented a “blowing off of steam” as I forged onward with my studies, writings and new discoveries/understandings of the world around me and the felt essence within all things, visible and invisible, sensate and sensible. The fact of the matter is that most people tend to come off as mindless sheep and blissfully unaware imbeciles, but they are mortal, fragile human beings, with thoughts (however limited) and feelings just like myself, and just like Huysmans and Eliot, when they were alive and taking in everything so enormously sensitively, as I do now. My guess is that Mallarme shared the same opinion and feelings as I do based on all that I have learned of him and gleaned from his amazing writings. Reading Mallarme, I have indeed detected critical views of people and society, and even condescension from time to time, but never any outright hatred and disgust.
And so with that understanding, in full discernment, I think I may have, at last, come to a realization concerning Mallarme’s apparent, ironic dedication of his monumental, and truly symbolic poem “Prose” to Huysmans’ fictionalized character des Esseintes (who was actually drawn from a few real-life 19th century Parisians, most notably the Comte de Montesquiou, whose G. Baldini portrait, in characteristically full dandy-style garb and pomp, graces the cover of my debilitating copy of A Rebours/Against Nature). “Prose” opens with a traditionally Romantic trope called an “apostrophe”, and with very deliberately ironic fashion! The first word is appropriately, but with ironic cleverness and wit, exclaimed in a direct address to an abstract concept: “Hyperbole! Can you not rise/ In triumph from my memory,/ A modern magic spell devise/ As from an ironbound grammary:/ For I inaugurate through science/ The hymn of all hearts spiritual/ In the labor of my patience,/ Atlas, herbal, ritual”. I believe what Mallarme implied here in the opening of his poem, in relation to his dedicating it to des Esseintes, was to comment on, or respond to, A Rebours' protagonist in a rather critical manner, but done with brilliant subtly and sleight-of-hand wit. I feel Mallarme may have been commenting on des Esseintes’ (and therefore Huysmans’ by implication) exaggerated and extremely insular self-segregation in such a literal fashion; that perhaps the character hadn’t compartmentalized enough in order to remain aesthetically-devoted, not estranged from nature, and still interact with society. The idea, as suggested in “Prose” is to reach the “island of poetry”, apprehend as much beauty/illumination as possible, and make the “virtual trek” back to the real world and conditions until it’s suddenly deemed possible to return to the island for more poetic sustenance.
In the prosaic world, the so-called “real world”, the world of practicality and commerce, poetry is, of course, unimportant and predominately marginalized, in a word, ignored. Because of this majority attitude and ultimate persona non grata mandate towards the art and pastime of writing, reading and reciting poetry, poets themselves are irrepressibly obliged to feel “embarrassed” by poetry, by being a poet (I know I can actually relate to this awkward position!) in the first place. Prose, of course, is speech and writing, as opposed to song and verse, which is poetry. If poetry is usually connected with rhapsodic expression, song, hymn, ode, rhyme and “stanzaic structure”, than prose is of the “prosaic persuasion”, of the commonplace, diurnal, everyday conditions of the tedious, working world; this means it’s also associated with “intellectual analysis”, which is traditionally not associated with poetry, but here in “Prose” Mallarme thinks it should be, hence the seeming irony of the title.
In Henry Weinfield’s commentary on “Prose” he provides an etymology of the word hyperbole and explains the ambivalent and paradoxical nature of invoking the concept in verse:
“The Greek word from which “hyperbole” is derived means “to throw beyond the mark”; and thus, the act of invoking Hyperbole is a profoundly ambivalent, not to say paradoxical, one; for at the same time that it calls up what from the standpoint of the prosaic world, the world that does not believe in poetry, is an unbridgeable gulf between Prose and Poetry, by the very act of calling, it manages to bridge that gulf. The metaphysical boundary separating the prosaic world from the realm of Poetry will be allegorized in ”Prose” as a symbolic journey to a magical island - the island, of course, representing Poetry, and the mainland, Prose.”
It’s important that old-world “magic” and new-world “science” be both included in the creative ritual of poetic invocation in “Prose”, because Mallarme here is implying the historical connection of all humanity and our ancestral ceremonial heritage. One of the key lines, I feel, in the first two quatrains of the poem is: “Atlas, herbal, ritual”. Atlas suggests the Greek Titan god who carried the world on his back, and the world-map, treasure map, or more specifically, land. There is the mainland of the prosaic world and the island, or smaller land, where poetry’s riches are gathered, such as the “irises”, suggested through the mention of “herbal”. The land, the herbal, or exquisite plant, and the ritual of invocation are combined to obtain poetic beauty, and/or illumination. The muse, or “sister”, as Mallarme states in the poem, is the envoy for the poet, the transitory or coy messenger, who delivers the essence of the poem with only a mere “smile” to which the poet must translate as closely as possible, and only through “cultivating his ancient skill” in order to comprehend her at all. This apparent “ancient skill” is crucial because I think it represents “historical consciousness” and the “evolution of human consciousness”, and also economy of our myths, that connects the true poet to the past ages and epochs of humanity and of existence, in general. An “envoy” is also, and quite appropriately here, a concluding short stanza of a poem; sure enough, at the near end, the penultimate quatrain in “Prose”, the “child resigns her ecstasy”, that is, the creative process of exchange between the “sister” and the poet on the “island of poetry”. But she assures an “Anastasius” (a Byzantine Greek word), or resurrection of this poetic act unless, of course, “Pulcheria” (from the Latin), or Death, rears its head, i.e. the “mother of Beauty”, the awareness of by which the poet is spurred to create poetry at all; and here representing the prosaic world of reality that can hide “the island” with “too large a lily flower”. Also, “envoy” comes from the French word envoye, meaning “one sent”, that is, a messenger being sent, but as a pun it also hints of the “scent of the iris flower/sister” that could be hidden by the prosaic/real world of the “lily flower":
"The child resigns her ecstasy,
Already mastering the steps,
And 'Anastasius!' says she,
Born for eternal manuscripts,
Lest at a tomb her ancestor
In any clime should laugh to bear
This sacred name: 'Pulcheria!'
Hidden by the too large lily flower."
- Stephane Mallarme: "Prose (for des Esseintes)"