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Chapter Three— Mallarmé and the Elocutionary Disappearance of the Poet
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Chapter Three—
Mallarmé and the Elocutionary Disappearance of the Poet

To judge from what he wrote, Stéphane Mallarmé never made up his mind whether he was a mystic. There is no denying the existence of a cult of poetic art in him, nor is there any mistaking the tone of almost religious awe when he comes to speak of poetry. But there is also the persistent hint in Mallarmé's writings that he is not entirely serious, that he views his own idolatrous attitude with considerable irony.

One measure of his idolatry is his tendency to liken art to religion. The artist becomes a privileged figure enjoying powers similar to those of a priest or magus. The early "L'art pour tous" (Art for everybody) shows Mallarmé fully in the grip of this idea. "Every sacred thing that wishes to remain sacred," Mallarmé begins, "envelops itself in mystery. Religions take refuge in arcana that are revealed only to the predestinate: art has its arcana, too."[1] Of all the arts, poetry has suffered the most from a democratization that has left it unhappily accessible to the vulgar masses. Only poetry is "without mystery against hypocritical curiosities, without terror against impieties," and Mallarmé nostalgically recalls the "gold fasteners of ancient missals," the "inviolate hieroglyphs of papyrus scrolls" (OC, p. 257). "L'art pour tous" appeared in 1862, five years after the publication of Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal, and it is not surprising to see the young Mallarmé mention that work and adopt the aggressive, antidemocratic tone of its author. The poet soars over the vulgar masses, like Baudelaire's ungainly albatross. "Man may be democratic; the artist splits in two and must remain an aristocrat" (OC, 259).


Later on, in his last years, Mallarmé takes a more cynical view of art and the artist. Perhaps it is out of despair at seeing that his ideal of a sacred art of poetry has not been realized in this life. Perhaps he has simply arrived at a more hardened, demystified view of the whole subject; it's difficult to say. But the tone is unmistakably different from what it had been thirty-odd years earlier. In one of the four pieces collected under the general title "Quant au Livre" (Concerning the Book), after a convoluted passage in which he considers and then rejects the notion of suicide or abstention from writing, Mallarmé makes these comments:

Apart from headline news entrusted with spreading a faith in the everyday nothingness, unskilled if the scourge measures out its own period as a fragment, significant or not, of a century.

So look out for yourself and be there.

Poetry, consecration; that attempts, in chaste crises in isolation, during the other gestation in progress.

(OC , p. 372)

This is Mallarmé at his tortuous best. What exactly does it mean? All that really concerns us now is what it means in its tone, and the tone is unquestionably less earnest than it had been in "L'art pour tous." It had become Mallarmé's custom, when he sought to portray the least exalted side of a profession in letters, to resort to wry descriptions of it as a commerce, both in the literal sense as the marketing of books and in the figurative sense as the marketing of meanings. Mallarmé enjoys depicting the man of letters as a shameless pander to the whims and financial needs of the moment. He characterizes his craft by using vocabulary drawn from the world of newspapers and money, treating the sacred side of literature with a contempt that is almost masochistic. Thus the glib mention of poetry as consecration is followed with the blunt, sarcastic command to publish, that is, to produce literature for consumption.

There is a significant analogy between Mallarmé's attitude toward art and his attitude toward language. His attitude toward art expresses itself as a tension between religious idolatry and skepticism. When Mallarm>CH:233> turns to the topic of language, he shows the same tendency, but without regularly having recourse to the vocabulary and imagery of Catholicism. Instead, the tension turns up as the same one we have seen in the Russian theorists. It is the tension created by the twin temptations


of linguistic mysticism—a kind of naive Cratylism, on the one hand, and modern scientific conventionalism, on the other. We can see these temptations primarily in two texts: the relatively early Cratylic fantasy called Les mots anglais (English words), written in 1875 and published in 1877, and the later "Crise de vers" (Crisis in verse), a patchwork of material written between 1886 and 1895.

English Words and the Game of Cratylism

One sign that something is amiss in English Words is that the text is far longer than any other published work by Mallarmé. The French have a fondness for starting at the absolute beginning of a subject and proceeding by a kind of irresistible logic to the heart of the matter. Even French cookbooks open with an essay devoted to the question, Why do we nourish ourselves? But not Mallarmé. Ellipsis, truncated syntax, and a kind of twisted economy of expression were his trademarks. Few things he wrote in prose were more than several pages long. So it is with considerable suspicion that the reader must regard a treatise that opens in the following manner and then continues for almost two hundred pages in the standard edition: "What is English? A serious and lofty question; treat it in the sense in which it is posed here, that is, absolutely—one simply cannot until the last of these pages, once all has been analyzed. For the moment, it behooves us to answer, keeping in mind the external and commonly noted characters of English, that this idiom is one of those in the world that a contemporary must know" (OC, p. 899).

Maybe Mallarmé is simply making fun of the very tendency that leads his compatriots to write introductions to cookbooks. After all, this first paragraph doesn't give the kind of answer a reader would expect in a learned philological discussion, and in fact it doesn't really make much sense. Besides, it isn't the true logical point of origin. Mallarmé poses a more basic question two pages later, and his answer to this one is hardly more satisfying than his answer to the first: "What is Language, among scientific materials to be studied? From each of them, Language, entrusted with expressing all the phenomena of Life, borrows something; it lives: and, since (to help childhood grasp) it is unavoidable that the outside world should lend its images, any figure of discourse, relative to this or that manifestation of life, is fine to use for speaking about language" (OC, p. 901).


Much of what Mallarmé writes in English Words is borrowed from the works of various nineteenth-century linguists and philologists. The work that served as the source of the bulk of his historical observations on English is called The Philology of the English Tongue, written in 1873 by a man named John Earle (1824–1903). Mallarmé's "borrowings" are so extensive, in fact, that scholars today don't even speak of his text's originality; rather, they find themselves proposing explanations for the cases where Mallarmé merely altered Earle's text slightly instead of shamelessly translating it word for word. Not that he is trying to hoodwink us: any reader can easily discover Mallarmé's heavy reliance on his sources. Using an old-fashioned scholarly study for so much material undoubtedly serves the same purpose as the formulaic Cartesian opening. Both create the illusion that the author is presenting a traditional treatise on language of the sort that might contain a thesis like the one Mallarmé advances.

And what of that thesis? Here is how Mallarmé states it: "What it behooves us to realize now seems to me to be the relation that exists between the meanings of words that I will assume to be unknown to you, and their external configuration" (OC, p. 918). Where does this relation emerge? As he explains a little later, it emerges in the beginning of the word, in what he calls the "attack" (OC, p. 926). An intrinsically meaningful opening sound is common to languages of the north, Mallarmé explains. For we mustn't forget that the close sound-sense relation is something that English has in far greater measure than French: hence the need to write a book about English words and not about French, or Hottentot. Mallarmé's notion is extremely simple. It is that in a great many cases the opening sounds of an English word give an indication of its meaning—though not precisely that opening sounds contain in themselves a clue to a particular meaning. In other words, there is nothing magical about, say, an initial b sound that causes it to signify a certain thing or concept. It's just that in English certain initial sounds commonly denote the same thing or concept. Mallarmé wants us to believe that the force of his theory is in frequency of correlation, not in a mystical explanation. Thus his method: "to group and eliminate" (OC, p. 918).

Once the logical foundation for the essay has been established, Mallarmé can proceed to the principal task of his enterprise: to make lists. His lists are arranged by initial letter and consist first of the group of words that belong to the same "family" and then of the group of "refractory" words that do not—"isolated words," as he calls them. Are the isolated words a problem for Mallarmé's theory? Not at all. "Noth-


ing could be more practical," he says, than to isolate the refractory words. "Nor could it be more in agreement with the theory of a Language, or with intelligent mnemonics. Separated after having so often come together since their common origin, these words now succeed in coming together once again, owing to your reflection, in a state of the Language treated with order" (OC, p. 922).

What this means exactly I hesitate to say, but perhaps it doesn't matter much. The essential thing in each list is the group of words belonging to the same family, and Mallarmé now offers his lists up in the section of his text called "Table." Here is where it is most difficult to take Mallarmé seriously or to believe that he took himself seriously. Under the letter b, for instance, we read that words in this group have meanings that are "diverse, yet secretly connected." The meanings have to do with "production and giving birth, fecundity, amplitude, swelling and curvature, boastfulness; also mass or boiling and sometimes goodness and blessing" (OC, p. 929); hence the common thread in baby, back, bat, bear, beech, beck, bell, bend, bind, better, bet, bid, big, bite, black, blend, blink, bless, block, blot, blow, and so on (OC, pp. 926–28). Further on we read that m (may, make, mash, maze, meet, melt, merry, mid, milk, mildew, mingle, moon, moor, morn, mow) "translates the power to do, thus joy, male and maternal; also, through a meaning that has come down to us from far in the past, measure and duty, number, meeting, melting and the middle term: and, finally, by a turnabout less abrupt than it might appear, inferiority, weakness or anger" (OC, p. 960). And k (keg, kedge, kin, kind, king, kill, quell, knit, knot, knop, knob, knuckle) "generally carries the sense of knottiness, knuckle, etc., but only by allying itself with n and becoming silent for the benefit of this nasal. Note also the group kin, kind, king, from which a notion of familial goodness emerges" (OC, p. 941).

This last group, because it is so small and because so many of the words are etymologically related to each other (as Mallarmé knows), shows better than many others the absurdity of Mallarmé's claims. He might just as well have said that k in English mysteriously unites the meanings of kegs, kedges, kin, kind, kings, killing, knitting, knots, knops, knobs, and knuckles. But of course Mallarmé is writing in French, which allows him to disguise what he is doing; for when he uses French words to give the common ideas from a list of English words, the French words do not resemble each other. Keg, kedge, kin, and kind, for instance, in Mallarmé's translation are caque, flotteur d'ancre, parenté, and familier et bon . Translate these French words into English,


however, and you come up with a list of words for common ideas that looks suspiciously like the original list of words from which the common ideas were extracted. The list of common ideas, to be sure, is shorter than the original list of words, but usually because the original list contains words that are etymologically related. Hence there is nothing amazing in their beginning with the same letter or, for that matter, in their having a common meaning.

What do we make of Mallarmé's linguistic speculations? Certainly not that he meant to be taken at his word. Jacques Michon, who wrote a full-length book on English Words, says that in the debate that has been carried on since Cratylus, Mallarmé places himself squarely on the side of the Cratylists. But he adds that Mallarmé is "a disenchanted occultist, for whom absolute language cannot exist."[2] Edouard Gaède is a little more skeptical, but in being so he shows more faith in Mallarmé. English Words, he says, though it pretends to be a scientific work, is in reality "a vast poem on the nature of language." There can be no sincere talk of naivete in Mallarmé's absurd etymologies, Gaède feels, because Mallarmé's whole enterprise is a fictional one. Mallarmé "sets out to complete, fictionally, the jumble of scattered data that these [etymological] dictionaries offer, by placing the data in a succession that would introduce a law of continuity and thus a principle of intelligibility." In fact, Gaède says, Mallarmé's real point is to propose a theory of language that is thoroughly at odds with traditional Cratylism. The implicit theory of language that emerges from Mallarmé's classifications is one according to which language renders not objects but "a certain plan as a function of which the real takes shape." Gaède thinks that the very fact Mallarmé's work is a fiction signifies that for him language is not a representative, but rather a productive, medium.[3]

This last statement, in my opinion, is excessive. But there can be no doubt that Gaède is right about the fictional quality of the project. Whether Mallarmé is trying to be funny, or whether he is simply giving expression to a kind of Cratylist nostalgia, English Words is a document that exists in the moment of hesitation between an older, mythical view of language and a newer, more skeptical one.

"Crisis in Verse"

The facts that shine through the irony or fiction of English Words —namely, that there is no necessary correspondence between the sound


of a word and its meaning in French, English, or any other language, that the sound-sense relation is arbitrary and capricious—serve as the logical point of departure for the more somber and skeptical view of language that Mallarmé proposes almost two decades later in "Crisis in Verse." But if these facts show that the system in English Words is a lie, and if they thus precipitate the crisis that Mallarmé refers to in the title of his later essay, they also serve as the basis for a hopeful resolution to that crisis.

The section of Mallarmé's patchwork essay in which he presents his view comes from a piece he published in Variations sur un sujet (Variations on a subject) in 1895. The point of departure is two marvelously simple perceptions:

Languages being imperfect in that they are several, the supreme one is lacking: since thinking is writing without accessories, or whispering but the immortal word still being tacit, the diversity, on earth, of idioms prevents anyone from uttering words that otherwise would turn out to be, by a unique stamp, materially truth itself. . . . Next to ombre, opaque, ténèbres darkens little; what disenchantment in the perversity that bestows upon jour as upon nuit, contradictorily, a timbre that is dark in the former case, light in the latter.
(OC, p. 363–64)

Mallarmé is making the same point that Humboldt made in his principal work on language. Both refer to the fact of the diversity (Verschiedenheit, diversité ) of human languages. Any theory of language that pretends to see a necessary correspondence between sound and sense is contradicted by the simple fact that there are so many languages and that each has its own word for any one thing or concept. Otherwise we would be able to utter words that "would turn out to be, by a unique stamp, materially truth itself." That is the first point. The second applies to an individual language considered apart from "the diversity, on earth, of idioms." Take a language like French, for instance, and put it to the test to see if there is a necessary connection between the sounds of its words and their meanings. You will soon come upon examples like the one Mallarmé mentions: jour, which has a dark sound but a light referent (day), and nuit, which has a bright sound but a dark referent (night). As Mallarmé well knows, this single example is sufficient to demonstrate the fallacy of supposing with Cratylus that even in a single language there can ever be an intrinsic correspondence between sound and sense. And as Mallarmé undoubtedly also knows, having demonstrated the fallacy of the sound-sense correspondence, he has demonstrated the fallacy of English Words as well. For even if English did show a statistically high


correlation between words with certain initial letters and a small group of related concepts (and Mallarmé has not shown that it does), this would still not be enough to establish the inevitability of the correlation. Either language is magic or it's not; the existence of even a few exceptions shows that it's not. English Words, filled as it is with faulty methodology (intentionally, no doubt), really demonstrates the same thing as "Crisis in Verse," only ironically.

But that's only the crisis in language; the essay is about a crisis in verse . Here is how Mallarmé makes the transition. Immediately after the last phrase I quoted he says, "The wish for a term of brilliant splendor, or that it should be extinguished, the opposite; as for simple, luminous alternatives—Only know that verse would not exist : it, philosophically compensates for the shortcoming of languages, superior complement" (OC, p. 364). This appears to be Mallarmé's crabbed way of saying that if our wish for a universal match between bright words and bright ideas, dark words and dark ideas, were to come true, then we would no longer have verse. Verse owes its existence to this patent shortcoming of language. This is certainly a novel idea, particularly since other, contemporary poets and thinkers asserted the distinctness of verse by claiming for it the mythical, Cratylic condition.

But Mallarmé has a somewhat more imaginative notion of (verse) language than many of his contemporaries. In fact, what he has done is to invert the poetry-prose distinction of his contemporaries and successors by claiming a Cratylic aim for prose and a different notion of language for verse. Here is how he introduces the distinction, in a characteristically complicated and humorous passage:

Abolished the pretension, aesthetically an error, even though it governs masterpieces, to include on the delicate paper of a volume anything other than, for example, the horror of the forest, or the silent, scattered thunder in the foliage; not the intrinsic and dense wood of the trees. A few spurts of deeply felt pride veraciously trumpeted abroad arouse the architecture of the palace, the only one fit to live in; apart from any stone, on which the pages would close with difficulty.
(OC, p. 365–66)

It's not just that Cratylism is false in the real world; it's that, even if it were true, it would be an aesthetically wrong concept. In the privileged language of poetry, language mustn't strive to render the forest—that is, the trees themselves, or the palace—in its physical reality. After all, Mallarmé quips, we wouldn't be able to close the book on all those big stones. No, poetic language instead must strive to communicate intan-


gible things, like the horror the forest inspires or the mute thunder—not the actual crashing thunder, but the residue of feeling it leaves behind in the trees.

Ordinary language doesn't function in this way. It functions, so Mallarmé's favorite joke goes, like money in a commercial exchange: "Narrate, teach, even describe, that's fine and even if it were enough for each of us perhaps, in order to exchange human thought, to take from or place in the hand of someone else a coin in silence, the elementary use of discourse serves the needs of universal reportage, of which, with the exception of literature, all the genres of contemporary writings contain elements" (OC, p. 368).

How is poetic language different? The key is what Mallarmé calls transposition. "What is the use of the marvel of transposing an act of nature into its vibratory almost-disappearance through the play of speech, however; if it is not so that from it should emanate, without the encumbrance of a close or concrete reference, the pure notion" (OC, p. 368). The most famous sentence in this essay once again stresses the nonrepresentational functioning of poetic language. "I say: a flower! and, apart from the oblivion to which my voice relegates any contour, understood as something other than the known calyxes, musically there arises, idea itself and pleasant, the flower absent from all bouquets" (OC, p. 368). The result of the use of language is not the transfer of a concrete thing; the thing is "transposed" so that only the pure notion of it remains. As Mallarmé says in another famous statement, "Divine transposition  . . . goes from fact to the ideal " (OC, p. 522; Mallarmé's emphasis). The "flower absent from all bouquets" is the ideal flower evoked in the sound "flower," and it is absent for the good and sufficient reason that it is ideal. Poetic language, rather than having "the function of facile, representative cash," rediscovers a prized quality: virtuality (OC, p. 368).

Concrete things are not all that disappears in the act of poetic speaking. "The pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who instead yields the initiative to words, mobilized by the clash of their inequality; they light up from their reciprocal reflections, like a trail of fire on gems, taking the place of that palpable breath in the lyric inspiration of yore or the enthusiastic personal direction of speech" (OC, p. 366). Meaning no longer comes from the poet; nor does it come as the result of aggregating the individual meanings of words, the way one can aggregate the individual values of coins and bills in a fistful of cash.


Instead, it emerges from the "reciprocal reflections" of the words, from the relational complex formed by the poem, which is seen as a structure, not a linear accumulation of word-references.

Mallarmé has come a considerable distance in this essay from the apparent impasse he faced in the observation that words don't mean by a "unique stamp." In fact, he has found a way out of the archaic notion of language that makes such an impasse possible. In the old notion, both for those who are confirmed Cratylists and for those who nostalgically yearn for Cratylism in an ideal past, language is a vertical medium made up of distinct units of meaning, each of which has the responsibility of transmitting a particular thing or concept. The naive Cratylists believe that this is how language really works. The skeptics realize that language doesn't work this way in the real world, but they feel that it should, that real languages represent a kind of fall from grace. Mallarmé, however, has abandoned the view of language that both groups presupposed. If there is no "unique stamp," then that is all to the good since language, at least good language, has a higher purpose. In this view it's not even relevant to be "materially truth itself." Truth doesn't have the rudimentary sense that the old view assumes.

Where Mallarmé's reflections lead is to a relational notion of language. But they also lead to another cardinal moment in the history of language theory. In chapter 1 I mentioned Mallarmé's role in the fracturing of language. I quoted Foucault's comment that Mallarmé played a major role in that process and in the movement of language to a state of "philological objectivity." We can now see how true Foucault's comment is, and we can see the logic by which Mallarmé arrived at those ideas. Once we have abandoned the Cratylic comfort of the sound-sense correlation, placing ourselves in a world where meaning assembles itself from the spaces between words, we have also abandoned the bond that unites poet and language. Transposition takes place in the language, not in the poet. It renders the pure notion of things. This pure notion comes to us from the clash of inequality of words; hence the "elocutionary disappearance of the poet," that is, the disappearance of the poet as a speaking presence. Because language is a system of clashing inequalities, the poet has yielded the initiative to words. When it comes right down to it, words are all there is; they are the only real thing that we encounter in language. That's why Mallarmé chooses to compare them with gems—hard, cold, objective gems. And that's why Foucault can speak of the "unique, difficult being" of language that Mallarmé leads our


thought back to. Mallarmé has fractured language by separating it from the poet, and he has rendered it hard, opaque, objective, precisely because it is separate.

Mallarmé is not the only French poet to address problems of language in a context of literary aesthetics. Paul Valéry comes to mind, too. His "Poetry and Abstract Thought" ("Poésie et pensée abstraite") revives the old poetry-prose distinction, suggesting that the peculiarity of poetic language is that it calls attention to itself as language. Valéry also modifies the Cratylic conception of language by proposing that poetic language merely gives the illusion of a necessary harmony between sound and sense.[4] But "Poetry and Abstract Thought" was written in 1939 and doesn't form part of our history. Besides, the most interesting things Valéry had to say about language have more to do with relationalism than with Cratylism or the poetry-prose distinction, so we'll leave them for later.

The value of Mallarmé's theory of language is that it so compactly presents the whole complex of issues in modern literary aesthetics. The argument in "Crisis in Verse" leads naturally, logically, to a theory of relationalism. Mallarmé's hesitation between mysticism and skepticism shows him still in the grips of an older tradition based on faith ("You can't do without Eden") but pulled also toward the realm of the purely speculative and the thorny, characteristically twentieth-century question of aesthetic ontology. All these areas of thought are related. Poised on the edge of the twentieth century, Mallarmé conveniently bequeaths them to modernity as a system.


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