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Chapter Four— How God Didn't Quite Die in France
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Chapter Four—
How God Didn't Quite Die in France

A book by Sartre on Mallarmé came out in 1986, six years after Sartre's death. It includes a long, unfinished essay with the characteristically Sartrean title "L'engagement de Mallarmé" (Mallarmé's commitment) and a shorter essay called, simply, "Mallarmé (1842–1898)." Both were written in 1952.[1]

We don't usually think of Sartre as a funny man, but when he turned his attention to literary subjects, he was capable of being quite a joker. The first section of "L'engagement de Mallarmé" is called "Les héritiers de 1'athéisme" (The inheritors of atheism), and it starts out like this:

1848: the fall of the monarchy deprives the bourgeoisie of its "cover"; with a single stroke Poetry loses its two traditional themes: Man and God.

First God: Europe had just heard a stupefying piece of news, still contested by some today:"God dead. Stop. Intestate." When it came time to divide up the estate, panic reigned: what had the Deceased left?
(p. 15)

Sartre views the whole phenomenon of Mallarmé as essentially a late reaction to the recent "death of God." "Les héritiers de l'athéisme" paints a sweeping picture of European culture in the wake of this event. Sartre then turns his attention to Mallarmé, in a section called "L'élu" (The chosen one). With the same kind of licentiously creative psychological analysis that he was to employ in his later monumental work on Flaubert, L'idiot de la famille, Sartre picks through the spiritual world of Mallarmé, revealing to his eager readers all the exciting details of the


great artist's sexual and religious life. The sexual life need not concern us (it is largely the invention of Sartre, who was fond of doing that sort of thing). But what Sartre says about Mallarmé's religious life is extraordinarily clever, especially because it has a direct bearing on the philosophy of art that Sartre finds in Mallarmé.

Mallarmé's peculiar aesthetics, it would appear from Sartre, actually has a double source. There is the spiritual desolation in Europe caused by the death of God, something that allows Sartre to talk in general about what it means to be a poet in the late nineteenth century. And there is the personal desolation caused in Mallarmé by the death of his own mother (when he was five). The way Sartre sees it, both deaths produced in Mallarmé a strange cult of absence, negation, and nonbeing, which in turn produced a religion and an aesthetics that are intertwined.

The religion is a sort of obverse Christianity. Sartre describes Mallarmé's grief over yet another death, that of his sister, when he was sixteen. "It's the death of his mother all over again," Sartre says. "This mystery of the Disincarnation, the union of a myth and a ritual, seems to found a Christianity in reverse. It's not the Parousia, but Absence that is the hope and aim. What 'was in the beginning' was not the logos, but the vile abundance of Being, Vulgarity; it is neither Creation nor the passage of the Word into the World that we adore, but instead the passage by emaciation of Reality into the Word" (p. 113). For Mallarmé, religion had become an interrogation into being, and all the traditional absolutes had been replaced with negation and absence. The departed mother and sister become the emblems of this absence. "The young priest of the new religion does not address God; he reserves his prayers for a Great Goddess who will be the image of everything a woman can be for a man apart from carnal love, a white goddess of chastity mingling mother and sister in a single absence" (p. 114).

From the absence of God (and mother) the natural place to turn to was poetry, which is how religion and aesthetics are connected for Mallarmé. But the connection is not what we might expect. After all, wouldn't it be natural to seek in poetry a replacement for the lost God (and the lost mother's love)? This is apparently what Mallarmé did, but he faced an irreconcilable contradiction. "After having killed God with his own hands," says Sartre, "Mallarmé still wanted a divine guarantee; Poetry had to remain transcendent, even though he had eliminated the source of all transcendence" (p. 152). So poetry, too, becomes a place where strange ontological impossibilities reign, just as they do in reli-


gion it becomes "pure Negation" (p. 141). It is "a hole bored into Being, the establishment and delimitation of an absence that, bit by bit, from one allusion to the next, turns out to be the world. Through the poem, on a single point in the world, the total absence of the world is realized" (p. 162). The poem "displays the world and everything that's in the world; not in order to give us things, but in order to take them away from us. . . . Meaning is a second silence in the heart of silence; it is the negation of the word-thing" (p. 160). Precisely because poetry could not be the replacement for religion, it became essentially the same thing as religion. But religion, after the death of God, had become a religion of absence, and so poetry became a poetry of absence.

There is much truth in what Sartre says. Not always, of course, in the sense of factual truth: how can Sartre pretend to know about things like Mallarmé's sexual habits? There is truth in Sartre's clever way of contextualizing Mallarmé's religious attitude, and there is truth in the way he links that same attitude with Mallarmé's aesthetics. He certainly tends to conceptualize the figure of Mallarmé in characteristically Sartrean terms (speaking of the engagement, or commitment, of Mallarmé, the emphasis on his existential "situation"), but he has refrained to a surprising degree from the kind of doctrinaire and heavy-handed treatment we might expect from him, especially in the early 1950s.

One comment about "man" and his situation in history, however, is worth citing. I have mentioned more than once Foucault's observation about Mallarmé's pivotal position in the modern history of the way language is seen. In an era when language was increasingly viewed as a functional system, as something with its own objectivity, Mallarmé had played a crucial role in leading thought violently "back towards language itself," Foucault said.[2] But an era for Foucault here means an entire episteme, which implies a certain universal way of understanding, and he credits Mallarmé with a major change in that universal way of understanding. Sartre, too, sees Mallarmé as a pivotal figure, and, like Foucault, he considers Mallarmé's view of language to be the critical thing. But Sartre is interested in it not solely for its impact on the way people think about language but also for its impact on the way people are . Mallarmé, as Sartre saw it, created a whole new man. "Ever since he decided to write in order to launch the Word [Verbe] on an adventure from which there is no return, there is no writer, no matter how modest, who will risk himself in a book without risking the Word [Parole] at the same time. The Word or Man: it's all the same thing. . . . With Mallarmé


a new man is born, reflective and critical, tragic, whose life line reveals a decline." This new man, Sartre continues, "surpasses himself and totalizes himself in the fulgurating drama of the incarnation and the fall, he cancels himself and exalts himself at the same time, in a word, he makes himself exist through the realization of his own impossibility" (pp. 144–45, Sartre's emphasis).

Perhaps Sartre is just indulging in rhetorical excess. It is one thing for Foucault to say that Mallarmé was responsible for a new conception of language. But can we really assert that Mallarmé gave birth to a whole new man? This is a natural way for Sartre to think, reluctant as he was to separate art from life, the artistic calling from one's calling as a man. These days people have grown tired of Sartre's pedantic ideas about commitment in art and the greater, human vocation of the writer. Maybe Mallarmé didn't create a whole new man. Maybe he just created—or helped create—a whole new critic and reader, a whole new way of thinking about literary texts. And maybe Mallarmé's inverse theology had a great deal to do with the new critic and reader he created.

In the Beginning Was . . . Nothing

In almost every Dostoevsky novel, it seems, there is an exchange between two characters in which one, often without warning and always without apology, bluntly asks the other if he believes in God (or if there is a God). Every Dostoevsky character is torn between the twin temptations of faith and faithlessness. Nonetheless, the answer is almost always as blunt and unhesitating as the question: Yes, there is a God, or No, there is no God. Period. Imagine Mallarmé, arch-ironist of French letters, the man who cultivated the art of politesse to the point where he lavished praise on the most tasteless rubbish written by his friends; imagine this man assaulted by one of Dostoevsky's shaggy, maniacal heroes with this question: Do you believe in God, yes or no, answer at once! What would he have said? Did he believe in God?

The question of Mallarmé's religious thought is complicated. The beginnings are not entirely clear. We read that his father and stepmother were both Catholic. His maternal grandparents continued to play an important role in the boy's life after his mother had died. His grandmother appears to have been religious, whereas his grandfather was something of a skeptic. Mallarmé was sent to a boarding school run by


a religious order, where he consistently received poor to passing grades in religion.

For a writer like Mallarmé, whose style is marked by such extraordinarily compulsive economy of expression, every document assumes tremendous significance. So anyone who is interested in the question of Mallarmé's religious beliefs has no choice but to examine a letter the fifteen-year-old Mallarmé wrote to his sister on the occasion of her first communion:

My dear little sister,

How could I let such a pretty day pass by without writing you a few words; I have very little time to myself, but in a case like this shouldn't I make the time? I have learned with great joy that you earned a medal for good conduct. That's proof of your fine preparation for one of the most important acts in your life. . . . I have no advice or exhortations to give you: for I am sure that you have had no lack of either these days, both from our dear mother and from those who have prepared you to receive your God.

The letter continues in this tone, largely about various trivialities that the adolescent future poet is already adept at discussing with great charm. Austin Gill, who cites this letter in his book about Mallarmé's early years, takes a dimmer view of Mallarmé's youthful piety. He thinks the letter is largely a joke on the kind of sentiments normally inspired in a Catholic culture by as important an event as a child's first communion. "The mimicry involved in these pious sentiments and their expression is patent," he says, "whether it is of standard practice or family usage." He mentions that Mallarmé sent his sister a "flurry of letters" in honor of her first communion. In Gill's opinion this "underlines" his mimicry.[3]

What Gill says may be true. Does it settle the question of Mallarmé's belief or nonbelief? Not convincingly. Another commentator, L.-J. Austin, in an article that presents a kind of spiritual biography of Mallarmé, says that Mallarmé was quite traditionally and sincerely religious as a child. He cites as evidence several of Mallarmé's juvenile creations in which the word Dieu is used.[4] Some undoubtedly see raillery where Austin sees piety and would conclude from this and other material that Mallarmé was a skeptic from an early age. I am not persuaded that the matter is so simple. To attribute great religious devotion or great skepticism to a teenager strikes me as placing undue importance on thoughts


that have not yet matured. As it happens, most biographers and commentators do not see things Gill's way and insist that Mallarmé was unquestioningly religious as a boy, just because he was raised to be that way.[5]

Some of the best evidence on the question of Mallarmé's religious attitude comes later. Every artist needs to have a metaphysical crisis at some point, and Mallarmé had his when he was in his early twenties. He made three related discoveries at that time: Nothingness, Hegel, and the idea for his future creation called the Book. His correspondence charts the progress of this strange episode. The central experience seems to have been an encounter with Nothingness (le Néant ), followed by a revelation about Beauty and the Absolute. "I will tell you that for the past month I have been in the pure glaciers of Aesthetics—that after finding Nothingness, I have found Beauty," he writes to his friend, the minor poet Henri Cazalis.[6] "I have died and been reborn," he exclaims in another letter.[7] Over and over again we find the word Néant in Mallarmé's letters of this period.

We also find a kind of popularized Hegelian vocabulary. There are in the correspondence references to the Idea and the Absolute. There are passages describing thought as it thinks itself out, suggesting vaguely the development that Hegel describes in The Phenomenology of Spirit . And we read of "Pure Conception," of a "supreme synthesis," of a "Spiritual Universe" as it "sees itself and develops." Mallarmé, it seems, had recently become acquainted secondhand with Hegel's aesthetics and had appropriated some of the terms and concepts as he had understood them.

Once the crisis was over, Mallarmé wrote to Cazalis what was to become one of his most frequently cited letters. This letter is particularly valuable because in it, in addition to describing once again the crisis that he had been talking about for more than a year, in addition to revealing the resolution to that crisis more completely than he had done before, in addition to flaunting his Hegelian vocabulary, Mallarmé puts the whole experience in a religious perspective. The confrontation with Nothingness had apparently been accompanied by a confrontation with God, and in the end both had to be replaced.

I have just had a terrifying year: my Thought has thought itself out and has arrived at a pure Conception. Everything my entire being suffered as an aftereffect during this long agony is indescribable, but fortunately I died completely, and the most impure region where my Spirit may venture is Eternity,


my Spirit, that habitual hermit of its own Purity that even the reflection of Time no longer darkens.

Unfortunately, I got there by means of a horrible sensitivity, and it is now time for me to envelop that sensitivity with an external indifference, which will replace for me my lost strength. I am now at the point, after a supreme synthesis, of slowly gaining strength—incapable, as you see, of distracting myself. But how much more so I was a few months ago, first of all in my terrible struggle with that old and wicked plumage, now crushed, fortunately, God.[8]

Mallarmé goes on to talk about what has replaced God. He uses the word Synthesis (this time with a capital S ) again, saying that he has "marked out the opus [oeuvre ] that will be the image of this development." That opus will be a collection of poems, including "four prose poems on the spiritual conception of Nothingness." A little bit farther on he says, "I have made a rather long descent into Nothingness so that I can speak with certainty. Beauty is all there is—and beauty has only one perfect expression, Poetry."[9]

I mentioned earlier that Sartre saw the death of family members as having a profound impact on Mallarmé's spiritual outlook. He talked about the death of Mallarmé's mother and sister and the way it contributed to the poet's religion of absence and Nothingness. In 1879, more than a decade after his metaphysical crisis, another death intervened that once again forced Mallarmé into an evaluation of his spiritual "situation," to use the Sartrean term. Once again Mallarmé reacts in a way that shows the basic structure of religious thought, and once again a conscious effort is made to replace God with something else. This time it was Mallarmé's eight-year-old son, Anatole, who died. The father's memorial to his son was to be a work (oeuvre ) of some sort, a tombeau like the one he had written to Edgar Allan Poe in 1876. The tombeau for Anatole never got written, and all that remains is a project for the text in the form of manuscript notes, which Jean-Pierre Richard published in 1961 under the title Pour un tombeau d'Anatole .[10]

It's hard to make sense of these notes. Richard, in his excellent introduction, gives what interpretive insights he can on a collection of pages whose very status is ambiguous (are they plans for a poem, are they fragments of that poem, or are they something else altogether?). One thing is clear both from the notes themselves and from Richard's commentary, and that is Mallarmé's continuing flirtation with religion—not just any religion but specifically Catholicism, the faith in which he was


raised. Referring, for instance, to the various objects associated with the dead boy in the notes, Richard says that they are "reinterpreted by an entirely metaphysical imagination." The ritual gestures expressing mourning "find their complete meaning only as they are situated in a perspective of religious faith and transcendental salvation" (p. 51). All the traditional gestures, Richard says, maintain for Mallarmé their usual prestige in spite of the poet's rejection of God in 1866. Richard thinks all this represents an effort on Mallarmé's part to establish a "natural foundation" and a "human origin" for religious objects and practices, just as Mallarmé will later find a way of laicizing Catholic ritual by likening it to an ordinary Sunday concert. But the fact is that the impulse to respond religiously remains intact.

And so the death of Anatole is seen as a sort of theophany, Richard says, because it "humanly places in evidence the transcendence, present in him [the boy], of death" (p. 63). Mallarmé speaks continually in the manuscript notes of the survival of his son after death, but without ever using a word for "soul." As Richard points out, however, even though Mallarmé had for some time separated himself from the church and its beliefs, "all the images or expressions he uses to evoke the survival after death of Anatole represent little more than hesitating approximations of this word [that is, soul]." Richard sees other evidence of a Christian doctrine of resurrection in Mallarmé's notes, which show a faith in the process by which "bodily decomposition prepares the release of the spirit" (p. 72).

Mallarmé begins to look a bit more like a Dostoevsky character torn between the temptation to believe and the temptation to renounce. The solution he finds to his dilemma, however, is the same one he had found to his actual crisis of 1866. It is a solution that will allow him to live the resurrection myth, but without giving up the religious skepticism and doubt he had embraced twelve or thirteen years earlier. The only trouble is that the secular solution he envisioned was not realizable. In the crisis letter of 1867 Mallarmé had talked about a work of some sort that would reflect the new supreme synthesis he had arrived at. The solution to the new dilemma in 1879 will be the work I mentioned, a book that will allow the "spiritual essence of his son," as Richard calls it, to endure (p. 84). There is not much in the manuscript notes to specify what sort of oeuvre Mallarmé had in mind this time. As we'll see, though, the whole project of a work or a book for Mallarmé was always conceived from the outset as something that could not be actualized. All that we have of whatever Mallarmé thought he was going to create in


memory of his son is the two-hundred-odd sheets of virtually incoherent scribblings Richard has published. The same is true of another, much larger project for a book, which resulted in a similar pile of strange-looking notes. But we'll get to that shortly.


Mallarmé's characteristic procedure thus seems to be to move from religious crisis—brought on by the contemplation of death or Nothingness—to a religious structure in which the divinity has been replaced by an aesthetic quality or object. It may be a Hegelian term like Beauty or the Idea, or it may be a mysterious object like the "work" or "Book" that Mallarmé so often talks about. It thus makes sense to speak of a religion of aesthetics or an aesthetics of religion, as many Mallarmé scholars have done.

This brings us to a curious series of prose pieces that Mallarmé published between 1892 and 1895 and then grouped under the title "Offices" (Religious services). There are three of them: "Plaisir sacré" (Sacred pleasure), "Catholicisme" (Catholicism), and "De même" (The same [that is, the same subject as in the previous essay]). The theme throughout is Catholic rites, the liturgy specifically, treated in a mock-serious way. Mallarmé's conceit is that the liturgy resembles drama or any kind of performance, even a Sunday symphony concert. What is especially valuable about these pieces is that, better than almost any of his other writings, they show Mallarmé straddling the neighboring territories of religion and art. And his rhetorical device for doing so is the use of religious terms in a dual, religious-secular sense.

The cynical premise of "Offices" may be found in the piece called "Catholicism." Mallarmé says this:

A race, ours, to which has fallen that honor of lending the very womb to the fear that a metaphysical and claustral eternity, otherwise than as human consciousness, has of itself, and of expiring the abyss in some firm yelp into the ages, would be . . . ordinary, unharmed, vague; because not a trace remains, at a moment of posterity—when even life reconquered and born does not blossom.
(OC, p. 391)

What this appears to mean is that religion is born from the fear of eternity once that eternity begins to be perceived as something other than human consciousness contemplating itself (a very Hegelian idea).


Consciousness lends permanence to this fear by expiring (that is, breathing out) the abyss (eternity in its most fearsome aspect as Nothingness) into future ages. This process permits a race, like the French, to endure. Such a race would be ordinary and vague unless life, reconquered (as it is in the Resurrection), is allowed to blossom.

And so church ritual becomes mere show—or mere show becomes church ritual. Religion becomes aestheticized, and art becomes divinized. Religious words become secular, and secular words become religious. "Our communion or share of one to all and of all to one, thus, removed from the barbarous food that the sacrament designates—in the consecration of the host, nonetheless, the Mass, prototype of ceremonials, in spite of the difference with a tradition of art, asserts itself" (OC, p. 394). In the rest of the paragraph where this statement comes from, Mallarmé sets up a confusion between Catholic mass and tragedy. Liturgy fades into drama, participants become actors, and the presence of Christ becomes the presence of the pagan god. " 'Real presence': or that the god should be there, long-winded, complete, mimed from afar by the unobtrusive actor" (OC, p. 394), the poet says in a mocking reference to belief in the actual presence of Christ in the consecrated host.

What goes on in a church is described repeatedly in these writings as a mystery, and here, too, Mallarmé is being intentionally ambiguous. Does he mean mystery as divine truth concealed, or as a medieval mystery play, or in the ordinary sense as something obscure? The medieval mystery play had a liturgical structure, placing the actor-hero in the role of priest and the audience in the role of congregation. Mallarmé evokes this setting repeatedly. "Always that, in this place, a mystery is put on: to what degree does one remain a spectator, or does one presume to have a role in it?" (OC, p. 395). "Mystery, other than representative and [other] than, I'll say, Greek, Play, [religious] service" (OC, p. 393). But this "mystery" is clearly not a sacred event since the author continually makes us aware of a decor that is modern and very secular. We keep seeing the elegant finery of feminine toilette, and we keep being reminded that all we're really doing is going to a Sunday concert: "Performance with concert," announces the author in one paragraph, indulging his taste for desecrating art by imitating the style of an advertising poster (OC, p. 393).

"Let's penetrate into the church, with art," says Mallarmé (OC, p. 395). And to show just how much we are penetrating into the church "with art," he describes its interior, during mass, in a passage that cleverly blurs the boundary between art and religion:


The nave with a crowd I won't say of onlookers, but of elite: whoever can from the most humble source of his gullet hurl out into the vaults the response in misunderstood but exultant Latin partakes, between everyone and himself, of sublimity meandering out towards the chorus: for this is the miracle of singing, one projects oneself as high as the shriek goes. Say whether it is artifice, prepared better and for many, egalitarian, this communion, aesthetic at first, in the hero of the divine Drama. Even though the priest of this church is not qualified as an actor, but officiates—designates and repels the mythic presence with which one has just merged"
(OC, p. 396).

Read in one way, this passage is quite cynical. The "real presence" of Catholic doctrine is reduced here to "mythic presence," the priest becomes an actor, and the liturgy becomes a "divine Drama," That's if we read it as a comment on Catholicism. Read in another way, however, the passage has the effect of exalting drama (or whatever sort of performance Mallarmé is talking about). This is the source of Mallarmé's irony. Irony, after all, involves the clash of two meanings or systems of meaning in a single utterance, frequently where one meaning is serious and the other is not. I would be reluctant to say that anything here is entirely serious, but it's likely that Mallarmé is more serious in his comment on art (drama is like a religious ceremony) than he is in his comment on Catholicism (religion is like a Sunday stage performance).

But maybe it doesn't matter whether Mallarmé thought his reflections in "Offices" were a joke. The fact is that he exerts a great deal of effort in surrounding the ceremonies of art with the rituals of religion, so that the first resemble the second as much as possible. In "L'art pour tous" (Art for everybody) the young Mallarmé had likened art to religion and had sought to establish a sacred status for art objects (see above, p. 64). As in "Offices," Mallarmé had focused on the quality of mystery, although in the earlier essay he was a little less mysterious about what he meant by mystery. The tone there was almost as skeptical as in "Offices": "Every sacred thing that wishes to remain sacred envelops itself in mystery," the poet had said in a passage strongly suggesting that religions intentionally cloak themselves in mystery just so as to project a quality of sanctity. But if the young Mallarmé was skeptical about religion, he appeared to be quite serious about art, for instance, in his admonition to the artist to "remain an aristocrat" (OC, p. 259).

Guy Delfel, in his book on Mallarmé's aesthetics, talks at length of Mallarmé's "aesthetic religion."[11] "Aesthetic religion" is exactly the way Delfel wants to put it, not "religious aesthetics," because for him Mal-


larmé's aesthetics is a kind of religion. But what kind of religion needs to be clarified. As Delfel says, Christianity has accustomed us to the idea that the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are necessary components of any religion. That is not true, he says; Mallarmé is a perfect example of a religious man who believed in neither.[12] And he did believe in neither, Delfel insists. Mallarmé remained a man of faith ("You can't do without Eden"); it's just that faith was a part of a religion that did not include God or personal salvation.[13]

What did it include? Delfel agrees with a great many other commentators on Mallarmé that one important ingredient was the notion of essences. He speaks of Mallarmé's tendency to renounce sensible matter in favor of the "transcendence of aesthetic essences."[14] In L'univers imaginaire de Mallarmé (Mallarmé's imaginary universe) Jean-Pierre Richard speaks of Mallarmé's belief in the possibility of discovering, by means of some sensible form of language, an "idea" inside an object. Richard renames that idea "concrete essence."[15] As he shows with many examples, Mallarmé frequently expressed a belief in essences, notions, and ideas. In a passage I quoted before, Mallarmé describes the process by which a "fact of nature" is "transposed" (through poetry) into its "vibratory almost-disappearance," with the result that the "pure notion" emanates from it (OC, p. 368).[16] The whole concept of poetic language that I described, with its strong endorsement of virtuality and vagueness, rests on the conviction that there is an essence to be discovered, through language, in things. Perhaps that is Mallarmé's Eden. A sentence like the following (which I cite out of context) could have been written only by a hardened essentialist: "The moment of the Notion of an object is thus the moment of the reflection of its pure present in itself, or its present purity" (OC, p. 853). Never mind what this statement means in its widest applications. What we need to keep in mind is the urge—call it Platonist, call it Hegelian—to see essences or absolutes in things and in language. It is yet another example of the mystification with which Mallarmé surrounds both art and the vocation of being an artist. Is the old joker fooling us again? What difference does it make? His successors seem to have taken him quite seriously, and that's all that matters for us.

The question remains what Mallarmé's mysticism has to do with literary works. What would a literary work—an actual book or poem—be like if art really were invested with the kind of religious essence that Mallarmé suggests? Mallarmé certainly wrote plenty of literary works, but they are no help at all. What we are interested in is his thinking


about what literary works are. The good thing is that Mallarmé wrote so much about this object called the work (I'oeuvre ) or the Book (le Livre ). The bad thing is that what he wrote is often indecipherable, and what isn't indecipherable leaves more questions than answers about what Mallarmé is saying. On that less-than-hopeful note, let's turn to the Book.

. . . And in the End Is the Book

"Everything, in the world, exists to end up in a book," Mallarmé wrote in a piece published in 1895 (OC, p. 378). Fine. But what is a book (or Book)? This question is one of the trickiest in Mallarmé scholarship because Mallarmé used the terms livre (book), Livre (Book), oeuvre (work), and Oeuvre (Work) in different senses at different times and in ways that indicate that he meant different things by them. His musings about this elusive something began in the context of his crisis of 1866, and they can be organized into about four stages. I already quoted the passage from Mallarmé's letter to Henri Cazalis in which he mentions the work (oeuvre ) he is contemplating and says that this work will contain certain of his poems. Toward the end of the same letter Mallarmé speaks of the heartache he would experience if he were to "enter the supreme Disappearance" without having finished his work, "which is The Work, the Great Work, as the alchemists, our ancestors, used to say."[17] The last phrase contains an example of an additional interpretive problem, one that does not come through in English translation. The passage in French reads, "ce ne serait pas sans un serrement de coeur réel que j'entrerais dans la Disparition suprême, si je n'avais pas fini mon oeuvre, qui est L'Oeuvre, le Grand'Oeuvre, comme disaient les alchimistes, nos ancêtres." The word oeuvre in French is normally feminine. Mallarmé uses it here in the masculine, which is reserved for two senses: the complete opus of an artist and, in the phrase grand oeuvre, the philosopher's stone of the alchemists (the stone that transforms base metals into gold).

In 1885, almost twenty years after his crisis, Mallarmé wrote a letter to the symbolist poet Paul Verlaine in response to a request for biographical information. The letter has come to be called the "Autobiography," and it, too, has a reference to the Work, or Book:

I have always dreamed of and sought something else, with the patience of an alchemist, ready to sacrifice for it every vanity and every satisfaction, just as


in the old days one used to burn one's furniture and the ceiling beams in order to stoke the furnace of the philosopher's stone [Grand Oeuvre ]. What? it's difficult to say: a book, quite simply, in several volumes, a book that will be a book, architectural and premeditated, and not a collection of chance inspirations no matter how marvelous they might be . . . I will go so far as to say: the Book, persuaded that, in the end, there is only one [ . . .] The Orphic explanation of the Earth, which is the sole duty of the poet and the literary game par excellence .
(OC, pp. 662–63)

Whatever it is that Mallarmé has in mind in this letter, there's no doubt that it's something different from just a collection of poems.

A decade after the "Autobiography" Mallarmé published a series of four essays under the title "Quant au Livre" (Concerning the Book). Once again, it is not entirely clear what Mallarmé means by "Book." In the first essay, "L'action restreinte" (The restricted action), he explores the mysterious nature of the act of writing: In the second, "Étalages" (Displays), he speaks of the commercial aspects of the Book. The third, "Le Livre, instrument spirituel" (The Book, spiritual instrument), examines the dialectic between the physical book and its spiritual dimension. The fourth is a meditation on language and reading (and other things).

By far the most interesting document is Le "Livre" de Mallarmé: Premières recherches sur des documents inédits (Mallarmé's "Book": Preliminary research on some unpublished documents), edited by Jacques Scherer.[18] This book itself requires some description. Almost half of it is a scholarly study, by the editor, of the other half. That other half is a printed version of some manuscript notes Mallarmé had made. Scherer thinks Mallarmé wrote the notes in the last few years of his life, although he may have begun them earlier. They certainly respond to ideas he had had since as far back as 1866.[19] Mallarmé had left instructions to have these notes and other loose papers burned after his death. Perhaps we would all have been better off if those instructions had been followed, but thanks to Mallarmé's disciple, Paul Valéry, who intervened after Mallarmé's death to preserve the notes, we now have at our disposal Scherer's pile of 202 sheets of . . . well, it's hard to say what they're of . Some pages do not even contain words but are filled instead with geometric designs and patterns. One page has simply a set of lines, points, and arrows arranged in an almost, but not quite, symmetrical fashion (74 [B]; see illustration). Others have elaborate mathematical calculations. Many pages contain writing, diagrams, and numbers. Much of


From Jacques Scherer,  Le "Livre" de
Mallarmé: Premiéres recherches sur
des documents inédits
Gallimard, 1957), p. 74(B)

the writing looks like instructions for a performance of some sort, while some of it consists of abstract terms and abbreviations arranged in complicated patterns. And some of it is just downright incomprehensible.

There has been considerable controversy over what this material means. Scherer is convinced that the sheets he has selected contain plans for the Book that Mallarmé had envisioned in his other writings. Other scholars are not so sure, some because they don't see the same themes that Scherer sees in these notes, others because they don't think there was ever any such thing as a Book that Mallarmé projected but never created.[20] But it's not absolutely necessary to settle the controversy over whether Scherer's notes have to do with the same thing that Mallarmé refers to in other writings when he uses the words book and work (or whether he always means the same thing in those writings). The notes are a fascinating document that shows, at some indefinable and prepublishable stage, Mallarmé's musings on some sort of book or work. There is much to be said about these musings, and I'm afraid I will have to say it piecemeal since the Book is central not only to religion, but also to the remaining two parts of this book. For now, let's talk about religion.

In the other writings about the Book there is not much to suggest that the concept was fundamentally religious. Certainly the idea of a Book with the kind of mystical significance Mallarmé associates with it conjures up, without much effort, the idea of the Scriptures. The title "Le


Livre, instrument spirituel" has a mystical, religious ring to it. At one moment in the essay of that title Mallarmé says that the crease in the page of a book (any book) is "almost religious" (OC, p. 379). The Book as the "Orphic explanation of the earth" is clearly a religious, if not a Christian, concept. The essays in "Quant au Livre" betray the same taste for humorous profanation as the essays in "Offices" (which, curiously, are placed directly after "Quant au Livre" in the Oeuvres complètes) . But the thing being profaned in "Quant au Livre" is not as clearly religious as in "Offices": in "Quant au Livre" it is more the commonplace idea of the sacredness of literature (which is characteristically profaned by its juxtaposition with the much more commonplace idea of the commerciality of literature).

But Scherer's manuscript notes are another story. I mentioned that many of the pages in that collection contain instructions for a performance of some sort. Mallarmé appears to have in mind an elaborately planned event that by the simplest description will just be a reading of his poems (or the Work, or the Book). The event is to be presided over by an enigmatic personage named the operator. There are repeated references to various elements of the event, including where it is to take place. For instance, we read of a yacht from time to time, and there is even a page that contains the rudiments of a narrative, something like a plot for the event (169 [A]).

In the midst of these stage directions (or whatever they are) are words and phrases that suggest a religious ceremony. The phrase Messe en Musique (Mass in Music) occurs at one point (3 [A]), and passion occurs a few pages later. What sort of reading is it to be? We find this strange note:

I don't pretend to know exactly what this means, but Lect . is clearly an abbreviation for Lecture (Reading) or Lecteur (Reader). This curious little passage seems to have something to do with a reading of the mass. Among the directions concerning the location we read "cloister" several times. And included in the ceremony are two sacraments, baptism and marriage (168, 169 [A], 182). There is even a reference (crossed out subsequently) to "laicized priests" (7 [A]).


The most compelling evidence of the religious nature of the event is the numerous terms that suggest a mystery play. Over and over again we see the words hero, drama, mystery, hymn, theatre, usually abbreviated and arranged in patterns on the page (rarely as part of intelligible sentences). Mystery plays were originally performed with priests and clerics before an altar. They typically represented a biblical story, like the Passion story or some aspect of it, and, as I have said, they frequently had a liturgical structure. In France, during the sixteenth century, popular audiences were fond of seeing scenes with different settings in close succession. Advances in stagecraft made it possible to rearrange the stage quickly and show a variety of scenes in a short time. Mallarmé seems to have something like that in mind in his directions. In addition to the many references to drama, mystery, and hymns, we read of a complicated scheme that will allow the reader or operator of Mallarmé's event to shuffle and redistribute (for example, in little pigeonholes) pages from the Book in the place where the event is staged. He speaks at one point of "mobile pages" (112 [A]), and at another he says that "the volume is mobile" (119 [A]).

One has the impression that the entire set of notes is a plan for a mise-en-scène of the mysteries Mallarmé talked about so much in "Offices." Everything suggests a hieratic stage event, with the same combination of elements as Mallarmé had offered in "Offices": mystery play, mass, passion, tragedy. Even the irony is reproduced here because interspersed in the baffling array of stage directions are equally numerous and equally complicated calculations of the profits the author will realize from the sale of tickets and books. It's really quite astonishing how the sacred impulse was always so reflexively tied to the urge to profane.

Scherer's notes were not available to the public until they were published in 1957. So why talk about them? No one read them for more than a half-century after their author's death, and even then only a handful of Mallarmé specialists have shown much interest in them. The reason is that they show, in a form uninhibited by any concern for the response of a readership or audience, in a form that thus reveals the extremes to which Mallarmé's thinking reached, an impulse that did have a significant impact on succeeding generations. This is the religious impulse I've been talking about.

I've been careful to show all along how the serious and the sacred in Mallarmé are often subverted by the facetious and the profane, and I've said that this creates Mallarmé's special irony. But why pay so much attention to Mallarmé's humor when his legacy is so serious? That is


the whole point. In After the New Criticism Frank Lentricchia demonstrates how American literary criticism, when it imports theories from France, as it did so avidly in the last few decades, has consistently concentrated on the Platonic elements, ignoring other important aspects of the theories—for instance, their historical aspects.[21] The implication is that the American critical mind would insist on seeing the eternal and the essential even if the eternal and the essential were not there. When French structuralism caught on in the 1960s, Lentricchia thinks, it was "mediated" by American critics in such a way as to preserve one of the most important articles of faith from the era of New Criticism, namely that literary artworks are timeless objects containing eternal and unchanging values. Now I don't believe that structuralism is entirely free of this faith any more than the New Criticism was, but Lentricchia's point is that the Americans largely overlooked those elements of structuralism that were primarily secular, namely those that stressed historical change.

If what Lentricchia says is true—if it is true that the American critical mind tends toward the eternal and essential—then it makes sense that it should invent a Mallarmean legacy that includes only the serious, religious side of his aesthetic and overlooks the threatening, subversive element that always accompanies the religious one. And this invented legacy is entirely consistent with the notion of a flight from Eden. Not only is the religious element there in Mallarmé, but also American criticism has focused on it almost to the exclusion of elements that stand in opposition to it. With such an attitude it makes sense that American criticism continues to be bound by the urge to return to mysticism and essentialism, in short, to Eden.


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