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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.

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