previous sub-section
Chapter Eleven— Being in the World and Being in Structures in Mallarmé and Valéry
next sub-section

The "Unique, Difficult Being" of the Work

The ontology of language is not the whole story. What I've said so far is that Mallarmé makes us think ontologically, not that the content of his writings is ontological. But as it happens, there is ontology in his writings, even though it's not called that. Ontology in Mallarmé has to do with strange questions about boundaries and limits. Mallarmé always joked about the most serious subjects, and this is one of them. I already quoted his remark about cramming stones into a book, a remark designed to illustrate the view that language—that is, poetic language—renders not objects but intangible things (see above, p. 71). The question here is silly but enormously profound: writers are supposed to put things into their books, so how do they fit them in without breaking the bindings? With Mallarmé, though, the answer to a silly question is complicated. Here it involves a kind of dialectic that corresponds to other dialectics in Mallarmé. How do you fit stones into a book? You don't, because . . . well, first we need to say what a book is, and then we need to say what's in it, and that's a spiritual matter. Question and answer imply a dialectic involving two perspectives: literal-physical and spiritual-philosophical

We can see this dialectic at work in the middle two of the four essays Mallarmé published under the title "Quant au Livre" (Concerning the Book). The first, "Etalages" (Displays [of merchandise]), presents the literal-physical perspective (predominantly), whereas the second, "Le Livre, instrument spirituel" (The Book, spiritual instrument), presents the spiritual-philosophical (predominantly). "Etalages," like any other


Mallarmé essay, is full of tortured syntax that has been wrapped around in a double carrick bend. But here, when we unravel it all, we find that Mallarmé is talking about . . . books. That's right—the things you buy in stores or at those stalls along the Seine in Paris, those piles of printed paper that bear a commercial value just as a tie, a bottle of perfume, or a tarte aux poires does. "A piece of news circulated, with the autumn wind, in the market and returned to the bare, solitary trees: might you get a retrospective laugh out of it, equal to mine; it seems there was a disaster in the book business, one might recall the term 'crash'? Volumes were scattered all over the ground if you can believe it, unsold" (OC, p. 373). Another of Mallarmé's jokes: if there's been a crash in the book market, it must mean that all the books have come crashing down to the floor. The essay is full of references to physical books and the book trade. In the midst of it we find the poet struggling to uphold the ideal of beauty when all around him books are being marketed and exchanged like dry goods. "As the Poet has his divulgation, so he lives; apart from and without the knowledge of publicity, of the counter weighed down by copies [of books], or of exasperated canvasers: previously according to a pact with Beauty that he has taken it upon himself to perceive with his necesssary and comprehensive gaze, and of which he knows the transformations" (OC, p. 378).

"Le Livre, instrument spirituel," by contrast, starts out with the Orphic proposition that "everything, in the world, exists to end up in a book" (OC, p. 378). Once again Mallarmé evokes the physical dimension of books, but now it is to show the passage from the physical to the spiritual. The act of reading accomplishes that passage: "A solitary tacit concert is given, through reading, to the mind that recaptures, on a lesser sonority, the meaning" (OC, p. 380). In a paragraph pregnant with the imagery of pagan sacrifice and sexual conquest, Mallarmé describes the act of cutting the pages of a book, an act by which one takes "possession" of the book (possession is a sexual euphemism in French). Mallarmé here and elsewhere is obsessed with the "folds" of a book, which are endowed with a mystical significance as they conceal and reveal its spiritual contents. Mallarmé's descriptions are very physical. In fact, he even compares himself with a cook, knife in hand, slaughtering poultry. But the physical book promotes a kind of expansion by which the spiritual is created: "The book, total expansion of the letter, must draw from it [i.e. the letter], directly, mobility and, spacious, by correspondences, institute play, you never know, that will confirm the fiction" (OC, p. 380).


Both between the two essays and within each one the dialectic goes on as always in Mallarmé: physical and spiritual, profane and sacred, prosaic and poetic. But the issue is unquestionably ontological. The conflict between the poet with his ideal of beauty, on the one hand, and packets of folded paper, on the other, involves two forms of being: the physical being of signifying objects and the uncertain being of the created world and the meanings associated with those objects. Does Mallarmé resolve the conflict? Of course not; he sees no possible resolution. The important thing is that he explores it.

There is another angle to the ontological question in Mallarmé. We've looked at books and pondered what they are and how we get from them to the spiritual dimension contained in, or associated with, them. How does that spiritual dimension come into being in the first place, and what does the author have to do with it? What is the mode of being of both the author in the work and the world of that work as it materializes? Mallarmé likes to envisage this world as theatre, just as he uses the theatre as the decor for the representation of other spiritual and religious ideas. "The Restricted Action," the first of the four essays on the Book, contains a bizarre passage that describes the coming-into-being of a poetic world—at least that's what it appears to describe:

The writer, from his ills, dragons that he has coddled, or from a gladness, must set himself up, in the text, the spiritual histrion.

Floor, chandelier, obnubilation of fabrics and liquefaction of mirrors in the real order, up to the excessive leaps of our gauze-enshrouded figure about an intermission, standing, of the virile stature, a Place emerges, stage, overvaluation, in front of everyone, of the spectacle of Self.
(OC, p. 370)

I don't pretend to be able to explain every word in this passage. But it appears that Mallarmé is picturing what it means to "set oneself up" (literally, "institute oneself") as an author in the text. The minute he thinks about that question, a theatre appears to him, with all its trappings—floor, chandelier, mirrors. What is taking place is the "spectacle of Self," as if the author's interior were a place where dramatic performances were put on with the self as hero.

Clearly this passage doesn't go far toward giving us a "serious" answer to the question of what a literary artwork is and where it comes from, since everything in it is highly metaphorical. At least it seems that way. After all, the floors and chandeliers are not real.

Or are they? We have already seen another place in Mallarmé's writ-


ings that features a theatre and something like a "spectacle of Self": the manuscript notes for the "Book," edited by Jacques Scherer.[4] The notes contain the same kind of images we find in "The Restricted Action" and some additional ones having to do with theatrical events. There is a performance, there are places for spectators, there is a reading of some sort, there are stage directions, there are the plans to shuffle and distribute pages in the room, there are arrangements for the sale of tickets and the collection of proceeds. Mallarmé repeatedly writes the words hero, drama, mystery, hymn, and theatre (or abbreviations for them). But in the manuscript notes Mallarmé doesn't appear to be speaking metaphorically, as he does in "The Restricted Action." Rather, he seems to have in mind a real performance of some sort, or at least a performance that could take place in the real world. It is as though he had asked himself how he could perform in actuality the "spectacle of Self," the spectacle of his own self, as he had pictured it in his essay. Indeed, how could he? By "instituting himself" in the text, as he had proposed in the essay? But then he'd run into those big rocks, and besides, the book covers wouldn't close on him or them. The joke comes back. By making floors and chandeliers literally spring from his head? No, the only thing to do was to get a theatre, a real theatre, and somehow make the performance there be as much like the one described in the essay as possible. Everything about the room would be set up so as to make it a reflection of the poet's self; in that way, to the extent that such a thing is possible in an atheized and desacralized world, everything could be infused with the poet's real presence, just as the consecrated Host contains the body of Christ. The trouble is, though, that he'd end up having to settle for something mundane, like reading his own poems to a bunch of people sitting in carefully arranged seats and surrounded by sheets of real paper with more poems written on them.

It's no wonder Mallarmé never got far with this project. I don't know whether he seriously thought he could do anything with it. I suspect he didn't. The important thing, however, is the degree to which he explored the limits and boundaries of a category of objects that has always defied precise definition. German romantic artists had done something similar almost a century before Mallarmé by playing with the boundary separating the world of their fictions from the real, historical world of their author. That's why we find all those funny scenes in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Ludwig Tieck, where a character in the story stumbles upon a copy of the story in which he's a character, or where the author suddenly announces a visit he has recently made to a character of his


own invention. But Mallarmé has gone farther than this and has given us, if only in a dialectic pondering, the outlines of a metaphysics of aesthetic objects.

I've been saying that Mallarmé probably considered the ontological question unanswerable. Given the idealist tendency we consistently find in him, this is not surprising. If beauty is an ideal and art is meant to contain or embody beauty, then artworks exist at the intersection between a knowable, real world on the one hand and an unknowable, ideal world on the other, and almost by definition their ontology is impossible to specify. There are several places in the manuscript notes where Mallarmé has written things that comment on this state of affairs. For example, here is a curious notation that calls to mind the dialectical nature of the four essays on the Book:

a book may
thus contain
only a certain quantity
of matter—its
not numerical whether
       it [the value] is
    more or less
than what is—to sell it [the book]
is too expensive and not enough.
(39 [A])

The issue here appears to be the impossibility of specifying "matter" and "value" in a book, which is the same as the impossibility of really saying what a book is. In another place a solitary notation reads, "a book neither begins nor ends: at most it pretends" (181 [A]). In still another place the author speaks of "this volume (of whose meaning I am not responsible—not signed as such)" (201 [A]). As we read these passages, the Book starts to look like a wondrously open structure with fluid or nonexistent boundaries. The author isn't there (but then that's nothing new for Mallarmé), and so what is there is free to escape into a real-ideal world that perhaps looks like our world and perhaps looks like its own private world.

Mallarmé's idealism leaves him at a hopeless impasse when it comes to distinguishing between the two worlds. But at least he deserves credit for having the imagination to point us in the direction of the other world—whichever one that might be.


previous sub-section
Chapter Eleven— Being in the World and Being in Structures in Mallarmé and Valéry
next sub-section