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

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