‘Stéphane Mallarmé was the darling of French Symbolism and the demon of Existentialism. Later, in the Sixties and Seventies, he was a central figure for critical movements from psychoanalytic and thematic criticism to structuralism, semiotics and deconstruction. We have had analyses of his work by Charles Mauron, Jean-Pierre Richard, Robert Greer Cohn, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Leo Bersani, Malcolm Bowie and others. It might seem surprising, therefore, not to find a single full-length biography published between Henri Mondor’s 1941 Vie de Mallarmé and Gordon Millan’s Mallarmé: A Throw of the Dice. Millan notes in his Introduction that ‘the man himself has been all but forgotten, eclipsed and overshadowed by his writings. Anyone reading recent Mallarmé criticism could be forgiven for wondering whether he ever had a life.’
‘There is a reason for this erasure. The eclipse of the author by the work is not an accident of Mallarmé criticism: it is Mallarmé’s principal literary discovery. It was Mallarmé himself who dreamed of ‘a Text speaking of and by itself, without the voice of an author’. The affirmative erasure of the poet from the work was a goal for which he never stopped striving: ‘The pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who leaves the initiative to words.’ And it was Mallarmé himself who created the myth of his lack of biography: writing to Verlaine in 1885 in response to a request for a headnote for his poems, he spoke of his ‘life devoid of anecdote’.
‘Twenty years earlier, Mallarmé had announced to his friend Henri Cazalis, ‘I am perfectly dead … I am now impersonal and no longer the Stéphane you have known, but an aptitude the spiritual universe has to see and develop itself through what was once me.’ But, as Leo Bersani asks in The Death of Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘what kind of poetry can a dead poet produce?’ Similarly, we might ask, what kind of ‘life of Mallarmé’ can do justice to this poet whose work arose out of the discovery of his own death?
‘It was largely by learning the lesson of Mallarmé that critics like Roland Barthes came to speak of ‘the death of the author’ in the making of literature. Rather than seeing the text as the emanation of an individual author’s intentions (always a probabilistic and speculative enterprise), structuralists and deconstructors followed the paths and patterns of the signifier, paying new attention to syntax, spacing, intertextuality, sound, semantics, etymology, even individual letters. In each case, Mallarmé had been there before them: calling himself a ‘syntaxer’ and syntax the ‘pivot of intelligibility’, writing a book about the meanings of sounds and letters in English words, creating a concrete poem out of typography and position on the page, inventing a style of critical prose as well as poetry in which ellipses, discontinuities and obscurities played an integral part, and criticising romantic subjectivity and bourgeois realism. Freed from conventions of coherence, authority and psychology, texts could be allowed to unfold as infinite signifying systems.
‘This is not to say that Mallarmé’s late, most stylistically radical texts have nothing to do with the desire for coherence. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of Mallarmé is that, along with his fragmentation of all the usual modes of meaning, he also imagined that ‘The Book’ would put everything back together in a higher synthesis. This impersonal, prismatic, grand oeuvre would also be a key to all mythologies, the ‘Orphic explanation of the earth’. Somehow the book would actually be the ‘musicality of everything’, not mean it. Another paradox lies in the historical specificity of his most abstract theoretical writings: one of the densest of his discussions of the nature of value, for example, also deals with the failure of the Panama Canal Company, Satanism, an afternoon concert series, an encounter with a construction worker, the authority of the Catholic Church, a vote in the French Academy, a proposal to create a general fund for poets, are all part of the texture of his meditations on what he often capitalised as Literature. And one of his favourite projects was a fashion magazine which, under various pseudonyms, he wrote and edited almost entirely himself. — Barbara Johnson
Rotating Folio Leaves as Proposed in Mallarmé’s ‘Le Livre’
Folio leaves in Mallarmé’s Lacquered Cabinet in ‘Le Livre’
Mallarme, The Book By Klaus Scherubel
‘A Survey of Materiality in Literature’
Le « Livre » de Mallarmé de Jacques Scherrer
‘IMPOSTURE BOOK THROUGH THE AGES’
Joseph ATTIÉ Mallarmé le livre
Mary Lewis Shaw Performance In The Texts of Mallarme
Autour de Maurice Blanchot. Le Livre à venir
Stephen Horrocks What Use is a Book? Exploring Stéphane Mallarmé
Graham Robb Unlocking Mallarmé
‘Mallarmé and the Elocutionary Disappearance of the Poet’
mss. pages from Mallarme’s ‘Le Livre’
‘I would like to say a few things about Mallarmé and his aborted project of writing Le Livre. From an early age, Mallarmé had planned to write a Total Book in which all his work and all his energies would contribute and participate: a Dantean vision in which the world would be gathered and bound by the spine of The Book. In 1868 he described this still-inchoate plan–one which he envisioned would occupy him for at least 20 years–to his friend Henri Cazalis: “Mon oeuvre est si bien préparé et hiérarchisé, représentant comme il le peut, l’Univers, que je n’aurais su, sans endommager quelqu’une de mes impressions étagées, rien en enlever” (Mallarmé 1965, 99). Unfortunately, Mallarmé did not write this Livre-at least not as such-and indeed he spent most of the 1870s and 1880s stuck in a colossal writer’s block, a hideous inability to write anything, a crise de vers. In another letter to Cazalis he described this crise by noting that “le simple acte d’écrire installe l’hysterie dans ma tête” (Mallarmé 1956, 301). (Having just written a dissertation, such a line appeals to me.)
‘What Mallarmé did write were plans as to what the Livre would be like: some of these are highly refined essays, most of which are collected in the volume Divagations, and others were simply notes (I will talk about these shortly). In a certain very limited sense we are left with a pretext bereft of a final text. Indeed Mallarmé’s oeuvre-the one he did manage to write-bears the marks of this groping inability to write the Livre. As Leo Bersani says in his engaging study of Mallarmé’s crise: “The very crisis which threatens the writing of poetry sustains poetic composition” (Bersani, 2). If–as Mallarmé famously wrote in the essay Le livre, instrument spirituel–“tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre” (Mallarmé 1945, 378), then even the crise de vers ends up vers le Livre.
‘We seem to be quite far from Joyce here. After all Joyce did manage to write Finnegans Wake, despite much complaining and the exhausted near-abandonment of writing in 1927 to James Stephens, a writer with more stamina (see Letters I: 252). But the Mallarméan experience of writing the Livre–or, more properly, of not writing the Livre–can provide some insight into the inscrutable rapports between text and pretext: how pretexts undo the sacrosanct notion of an autotelic text even as they contribute to its eventual manifestation.
‘First, I would like to turn briefly to the remnants of the notes Mallarmé wrote in preparation for the Livre. Most of these were burned after his death in 1898, according to his wishes, but one notebook survived and was published in 1957 by Jacques Scherer in the volume Le “livre” de Mallarmé (with the word livre within quotation marks). In his introduction, Scherer characterizes these notes as an imperfect record of a thinking of and towards le Livre. Scherer thus defines them by some missing book which would have been their fulfillment.
‘The notes Mallarmé left behind deal very little with the content of the planned Livre, and instead concentrate a great deal on the form and format the Livre was to take, even dealing with such incidentals as its final cost. Unlike a regular book, Mallarmé planned to have the pages unbound, and so the order in which the Livre would be read would be subject to permutation. Each reading of the Livre would be a performance or séance in which it would adapt itself to its circumstance (cf. Scherer, 58-61). For example, the number of pages in each volume of the Livre would vary according to the number of operators and auditors present at each séance (Scherer 102-3). Verso and recto are to be interchangeable in the multiple possibilities of this volume’s binding; and so the Livre would not impose a single direction or vector of reading. Indeed, the notes seem to be experimental jottings concerning this variable ordination of pagination. In a sense, one could consider Mallarmé’s plan as an attempt to enact a manual or non-digital hypertext: a hypertext that does not depend on the latest HTML ordinance from Bill Gates or the WWW Consortium.
‘In Le livre à venir, Maurice Blanchot notes that this performative aspect to the Livre–as planned in the notes–would guarantee that the Livre will always be iterated variably, with no original. The Livre is always in progress and “est toujours autre… il n’est jamais là, sans cesse à se défaire tandis qu’il se fait” (Blanchot, 330 n.1) The Livre remains conjugated in the conditional, and this conditionality is what has impacted into a book, which is still, always, a livre à venir. Each single iteration of the Livre is always an imperfect manifestation. The Livre thus oscillates between manifestation and disappearance, a hypothetical disappearance of what never had been.’ — Sam Slote
1.‘This insane game of writing.” With these words, simple as they are, Mallarme opens up writing to writing. The words are very simple, but their nature is also such that we will need a great deal of time – a great variety of experiments, the work of the world, countless misunderstandings, works lost and scattered, the movement of knowledge, and finally the turning point of an infinite crisis – if we are to begin to understand what decision is being prepared on the basis of this end of writing that is foretold by its coming.
2. ‘Apparently we only read because the writing is already there, laid out before our eyes. Apparently. But the first person who ever wrote, who cut into stone and wood under ancient skies, was far from responding to the demands of a view that required a reference point and gave it meaning, changed all relations between seeing and the visible. What he left behind him was not something more, something added to other things; it was not even something less – a subtraction of matter, a hollow in the relation to the relief. Then what was it? A hole in the universe: nothing that was visible, nothing that was invisible. I suppose the first reader was engulfed by that non-absent absence, but without knowing anything about it, and there was no second reader because reading, from then on understood to be the vision of the immediately visible – that is, intelligible – presence, was affirmed for the very purpose of making this disappearance into the absence of the book impossible.
3. ‘Culture is linked to the book. The book as repository and receptacle of knowledge is identified with knowledge. The book is not only the book that sits in libraries – that labyrinth in which all combinations of forms, words and letters are rolled up in volumes. The book is the Book. Still to be read, still to be written, always already written, always already paralysed by reading, the book constitutes the condition for every possibility of reading and writing.
‘The book admits of three distinct investigations. There is the empirical book; the book acts as a vehicle of knowledge; a given determinate book receives and gathers a given determinate form of knowledge. But the book as book is never simply empirical. The book is the a priori of knowledge. We would know nothing if there did not always exist in advance the impersonal memory of the book and, more importantly, the prior inclination to write and read contained in every book and affirming itself only in the book. The absolute of the book, then, is the isolation of a possibility that claims not to have originated in any other anteriority. An absolute that will later tend to assert itself in the Romantics (Novalis), then more rigorously in Hegel, then more radically – though in a different way – in Mallarme, as the totality of relations (absolute knowledge or the Work), in which would be achieved either consciousness, which knows itself and returns to itself after having been exteriorised in all its dialectically linked figures, or language, closed around its own statement and already dispersed.
‘Let us recapitulate: the empirical book; the book: condition for all reading and all writing; the book: totality or Work. But with increasing refinement and truth these forms all assume that the book contains knowledge as the presence of something virtually present and always immediately accessible, if only with the help of mediations and relays. Something is there which the book presents in presenting itself and which reading animates, which reading re-establishes – through its animation – in the life of a presence. Something that is, on the lowest level, the presence of a content or of a signified thing; then, on a higher level, the presence of a form, of a signifying thing or of an operation; and, on a higher level still, the development of a system of relations that is always there already, if only as a future possibility. The book rolls up time, unrolls time, and contains this unrolling as the continuity of a presence in which present, past and future become actual.’ — Maurice Blanchot
AUTOUR DU LIVRE (DE MALLARMÉ)
‘I am the author of a statement to which there have been varying reactions, including praise and blame, and which I shall make again in the present article. Briefly, it is this: all earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book. It terrifies me to think of the qualities (among them genius, certainly) which the author of such a work will have to possess. I am one of the unpossessed. We will let that pass and imagine that it bears no author’s name. What, then, will the work itself be? I answer: a hymn, all harmony and joy; an immaculate grouping of universal relationships come together for some miraculous and glittering occasion. Man’s duty is to observe with the eyes of the divinity; for if his connection with that divinity is to be made clear, it can be expressed only by the pages of the open book in front of him.
‘Seated on a garden bench where a recent book is lying, I like to watch a passing gust half open it and breathe life into many of its outer aspects, which are so obvious that no one in the history of literature has ever thought about them. I shall have the chance to do so now, if I can get rid of my overpowering newspaper. I push it aside; it flies about and lands near some roses as if to hush their proud and feverish whispering; finally, it unfolds around them. I will leave it there along with the silent whispering of the flowers. I formally propose now to examine the differences between this rag and the book, which is supreme. The newspaper is the sea; literature flows into it at will.
‘The foldings of a book, in comparison with the large-sized, open newspaper, have an almost religious significance. But an even greater significance lies in their thickness when they are piled together; for then they form a tomb in miniature for our souls.
‘Every discovery made by printers has hitherto been absorbed in the most elementary fashion by the newspaper, and can be summed up in the word: Press. The result has been simply a plain sheet of paper upon which a flow of words is printed in the most unrefined manner. The immediacy of this system (which preceded the production of books) has undeniable advantages for the writer; with its endless line of posters and proof sheets it makes for improvisation. We have, in other words, a “daily paper.” But who, then, can make the gradual discovery of the meaning of this format, or even of a sort of popular fairyland charm about it? Then again, the leader, which is the most important part, makes its great free way through a thousand obstacles and finally reaches a state of disinterestedness. But what is the result of this victory? It overthrows the advertisement (which is Original Slavery) and, as if it were itself the powered printing press, drives it far back beyond intervening articles onto the fourth page and leaves it there in a mass of incoherent and inarticulate cries. A noble spectacle, without question. After this, what else can the newspaper possibly need in order to overthrow the book (even though at the bottom—or rather at its foundation, i.e. the feuilleton—it resembles the other in its pagination, thus generally regulating the columns)? It will need nothing, in fact; or practically nothing, if the book delays as it is now doing and carelessly continues to be a drain for it. And since even the book’s format is useless, of what avail is that extraordinary addition of foldings (like wings in repose, ready to fly forth again) which constitute its rhythm and the chief reason for the secret contained in its pages? Of what avail the priceless silence living there, and evocative symbols following in its wake, to delight the mind which literature has totally delivered?
‘Yes, were it not for the folding of the paper and the depths thereby established, that darkness scattered about in the form of black characters could not rise and issue forth in gleams of mystery from the page to which we are about to turn.
‘The newspaper with its full sheet on display makes improper use of printing—that is, it makes good packing paper. Of course, the obvious and vulgar advantage of it, as everybody knows, lies in its mass production and circulation. But that advantage is secondary to a miracle, in the highest sense of the word: words led back to their origin, which is the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, so gifted with infinity that they will finally consecrate Language. Everything is caught up in their endless variations and then rises out of them in the form of the Principle. Thus typography becomes a rite.
‘The book, which is a total expansion of the letter, must find its mobility in the letter; and in its spaciousness must establish some nameless system of relationships which will embrace and strengthen fiction.
‘There is nothing fortuitous in all this, even though ideas may seem to be the slaves of chance. The system guarantees them. Therefore we must pay no attention to the book industry with its materialistic considerations. The making of a book, with respect to its flowering totality, begins with the first sentence. From time immemorial the poet has knowingly placed his verse in the sonnet which he writes upon our minds or upon pure space. We, in turn, will misunderstand the true meaning of this book and the miracle inherent in its structure, if we do not knowingly imagine that a given motif has been properly place at a certain height on the page, according to its own or to the book’s distribution of light. Let us have no more of those successive, incessant, back and forth motions of our eyes, traveling from one line to the next back and forth motions of our eyes, traveling from one line to the next and beginning all over again. Otherwise we will miss that ecstasy in which we become immortal for a brief hour, free of all reality, and raise our obsessions to the level of creation. If we do not actively create in this way (as we would music on the keyboard, turning the pages of a score), we would do better to shut our eyes and dream. I am not asking for any servile obedience. for, on the contrary, each of us has within him that lightning-like initiative which can link the scattered notes together. Thus, in reading, a lonely, quiet concert is given for our minds, and they in turn, less noisily, reach its meaning. All our mental faculties will be present in this symphonic exaltation; but, unlike music, they will be rarefied, for they partake of thought. Poetry, accompanied by the Idea, is perfect Music, and cannot be anything else.
‘Now, returning to the case at hand and to the question of books which are read in the ordinary way, I raise my knife in protest, like the cook chopping off chickens’ heads.
‘The virginal foldings of the book are unfortunately exposed to the kind of sacrifice which caused the crimson-edged tomes of ancient times to bleed. I mean that they invite the paper-knife, which stakes out claims to possession of the book. Yet our consciousness alone gives us a far more intimate possession than such a barbarian symbol; for it joins the book now here, now there, varies its melodies, guesses its riddles, and ever re-creates it unaided. The folds will have a mark which remains intact and invites us to open or close the pages according to the author’s desires. There can be only blindness and discourtesy in so murderous and self-destructive an attempt to destroy the fragile, inviolable book. The newspaper holds the advantage here, for it is not exposed to such treatment. But it is nonetheless an annoying influence; for upon the book—upon the divine and intricate organism required by literature—it inflicts the monotonousness of its eternally unbearable columns, which are merely strung down the pages by hundreds.
‘I hear some one say, “how can this situation be changed?” I shall takes space here to answer this question in detail; for the work of art—which is unique or should be—must provide illustrations. A tremendous burst of greatness, of thought, or of emotion, contained in a sentence printed in large type, with one gradually descending line to a page, should keep the reader breathless throughout the book and summon forth his powers of excitement. Around this would be small groups of secondary importance, commenting on the main sentence or derived from it, like a scattering of ornaments.
‘It will be said, I suppose, that I am attempting to flabbergast the mob with a lofty statement. That is true. But several of my close friends must have noticed that there are connections between this and their own instinct for arranging their writings in an unusual and ornamental fashion, halfway between verse and prose. Shall I be explicit? All right, then, just to maintain that reputation for clarity so avidly pursued by our make-everything-clear-and-easy era. Let us suppose that a given writer reveals one of his ideas in theoretical fashion and, quite possibly, in useless fashion, since he is ahead of his time. He well knows that such revelations, touching as they do on literature, should be brought out in the open. And yet he hesitates to divulge too brusquely things which do not yet exist; and thus, in his modesty, and to the mob’s amazement, he veils them over.
‘It is because of those daydreams we have before we resume our reading in a garden that our attention strays to a white butterfly flitting here and there, then disappearing; but also leaving behind it the same slight touch of sharpness and frankness with which I have presented these ideas, and flying incessantly back and forth before the people, who stand amazed.’ — Stéphane Mallarmé
p.s. Hey. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! In a way maybe the best lectures are teasers, as opposed to the ones where you think, ‘That was interesting. On to the next thing’. Or something. I hope you’ve cured the zombie part of you by now. But the zombie was productive! Huge congratulations on finishing your book! That’s massive! Have you sent it to your secret readers yet? Waiting for responses from the first readers is so intense. Stay confident. I’m good. We did start the color grading yesterday afternoon, and now we’re off and will be doing that on the usual morning till evening schedule again starting in about an hour. So far so good. It’s cool to see the film start looking like a film. What was your day full of? ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Ha, I remember that porn. I don’t think I ever saw it. I wonder if it’s floating out there in in the X-rated ether. Little doubt. ** Steevee, Hi. I think it’s pretty normal and human to let off steam about people outside their hearing. I think it’s the very rare person who doesn’t do that, and mostly it’s a ‘no harm done’ situation. As to how to frame your curation proposal, it’s hard to say. I think you just have to be confident and enthusiastic in your own way and stay positive and keep the power dynamic in that situation in mind. It’s always stressful to do something like that, but it’s important that you do. I’m of the opinion that Errol Morris has never made a less than very interesting film, and I don’t get the anti-Morris thing that seems to be out there in some film critic/buff quarters. I think he’s very easily among the greatest living US filmmakers. A fellow Morris fan I know saw ‘B-Side’ and said it was characteristically excellent. Curious to hear your report. Look forward to your review. Everyone, Steevee’s newest review is of the documentary ‘Bronx Gothic’, and you can read his thoughts, and discover the film itself if you don’t already know of it, by punching this. ** Sypha, Hi. Well, even I, when I look back through the dead blog’s posts seeking restoration possibilities, come across lots of posts that I don’t remember doing at all. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. Paris did that too at one point. I.e. a Love Parade. I didn’t go, and they never did it again, so maybe it’s a square peg/round hole thing. ** Grant maierhofer, Howdy, Grant! Well, duh, of course ‘Gag’ had to be there. Translated into Dutch! That’s cool. That’s a tough transfer: English to Dutch. My work got mangled by that transfer, apparently, and Holland gave up on me after two books. Anyway, very cool! ‘Clog’ is an excellent title. I love Darby Larson’ work too. Man, I hope the tough personal stuff gets becalmed as instantly as possible. Sorry, man. I’m excited for that new Kilpatrick too. I think you must mean the theater piece ‘This Is How You All Disappear’. That’s the only thing of mine I can think of where that line occurs. SOMA did the music with Peter Rehberg. Thanks for passing on your enthusiasms. I’m ‘on’ the ones I don’t know. ** H, Hi. You remember it from its previous life, cool. I haven’t read ‘Not One Day’, but I’m very interested to, thank you. The heat in Paris is gone for now. We’ll see for how long. Not long enough, no doubt. Okay, about the interview, whenever you like, thanks! ** Jamie, Jay-bird! (Insufficient coffee). I’m very happy to have filled your train ride with stuff. Color grading has started well. It’s kind of fascinating. Like probably all color graders, ours wants the film to be too color saturated (for our tastes), but the best thing to begin with is to let her do a pass of the whole film as a starting point/template, and then we’ll back through the film piece by piece and tune out the saturation as much as we can. But it is pretty cool to see the film start looking like a film. All is well. Oh, darn, no animation blow-out. That did sound almost a little too good to be true. But okay, onwards. It’s cool that the project has hooked your imagination. That’ll come in handy somehow here and in the future vis-a-vis other projects you’ll do, no doubt. Not really re: other things than the grading yesterday. But that’s cool. I like being consumed. I hope you caught up on your sleep. I hope your today came with sparkles. Unsaturated love, Dennis. ** Joseph, Hi, man. I will. It’s in my notes and in my immediate (probably weekend) future. Intriguing. I know, right? About the post and post-maker. I hoped he or she would re-pop up, but not so far. ** Misanthrope, The joke of a misanthrope, ha ha. ‘Listening to ABBA videos’. That’s an experimental approach to video. I like that. Yeah, the commute. You need a giant drone. I get that mouth allergy thing with pineapple. ** S., I want the sun to chill and stop being so needy all the motherfucking time. I mean, we know it’s there. It doesn’t need to shout. Our film in progress is kind of uncanny, I think, maybe. Definitely not a pastiche. But yeah. ** Kyler, Hi, K! I remember there was something I liked about Fire Island, but I don’t for the life of me remember what it was. I wish I could have tried your grandmother’s too, trust me. I think the quote was ‘This blog is a Joni Mitchell-free zone’. Or that’s what I meant. Yeah, Joni fans are hardcore. I’m surprised that disparagement didn’t land me in court or something. Special light bulbs? Special how so? ** Right. The blog would like you to use your brain, etc. re: a fascinating project/book by Mr. Mallarme today. Give it a shot, why don’t you? See you tomorrow.