Preferred Citation: Cassedy, Steven. Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

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


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crisis—brought on by the contemplation of death or Nothingness—to a religious structure in which the divinity has been replaced by an aesthetic quality or object.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.

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

Preferred Citation: Cassedy, Steven. Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.