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. . . 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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