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Mysteries of Mallarmé

A Throw of the Dice: The Life of Stéphane Mallarmé

by Gordon Millan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 389 pp., $35.00

Stéphane Mallarmé, who died in 1898, had to wait till 1941 for a biography. Its author was the great Mallarmé scholar Henri Mondor, who later produced the Pléiade edition. Mondor was writing in German-occupied Paris and, partly for this reason no doubt, his book glorified Mallarmé as stoic hero, victim of base ingratitude and incomprehension. The book was exceedingly long, Mondor having decided to describe this career, so outwardly uneventful, as part of the day-to-day chronicle of events on the Paris literary scene. It was not an absurd plan, but Mallarmé tends to become lost to view, and one wearies of Mondor’s assumption that anyone criticizing Mallarmé must be a fool or a knave.

The new biography by Gordon Millan makes a neat contrast, both in scale (it is not much more than a quarter the length) and in tone. For it is clearly Millan’s theory that, just because people are great writers, they must not be allowed to get away with things. His attitude toward Mallarmé is that of the candid friend or sympathetic social worker. When the young Mallarmé admits to a friend that his stepmother, whom he had written off as a penny-pinching Philistine, had acted with great tact and generosity, Millan comments firmly that “the apology was well deserved and long overdue.”

On the events leading to Mallarmé’s marriage Millan is even more downright. The story itself is fascinating and rather touching, being the only occasion when we observe the imperturbable Mallarmé confused and humanly bewildered. He was, in 1862, twenty years old. With great struggle, he had just extricated himself from a career in the civil service and had found an excuse to escape to England, to prepare himself as an English teacher. What is more—though his family did not know this—he was taking with him a mistress, a German governess two years older than himself, named Marie Gerhard. The two took lodgings near Piccadilly Circus, and for a week or two were happy, Mallarmé deciding that London, when invisible in fog, was the finest city in the world. Then Marie grew full of foreboding, terrified of becoming pregnant, and took it into her head that she might be wrecking Mallarmé’s future. She insisted she must get back to France, and he escorted her sadly as far as Boulogne. Without her, London proved unbearable and soon he had persuaded her to return—following which there was a series of goings-and-comings, Stéphane at one point conceiving a bizarre scheme that he should offer marriage to Marie once he was sure she would have the firmness of mind to accept him without it.

Gordon Millan comes down sternly on him at this point. His attempt to “pass himself off as a heroic martyr” in marrying Marie is, says Millan, altogether unconvincing. “Of the two, it was Marie who had demonstrated the greater maturity, Marie who had made the greater sacrifice and taken the greater risks.” These are very sensible remarks, and very likely, had we been on the spot in 1863, we would have said the same. Nevertheless some instinct tells us it might have been better for Millan to leave us to make such judgments for ourselves. For, once in the relationship of judge and mentor toward his subject, how is a biographer ever going to get out of it? Millan, in a sense, has bound himself to go on passing judgment on this astonishing writer, and keeping him up to scratch, to the end of his career. It is a task to make anyone quail.

A related point is that Millan is intensely concerned about Mallarmé’s health, constantly insisting on his agonies from rheumatism or headaches and the terrifying risks he takes with his mental stability. He is not a whit more vocal on the subject than Mallarmé himself. But one needs to remember that men of genius—one thinks of Coleridge—often spend much imaginative energy on their ailments and, as it were, make them part of a “system.” In Mallarmé’s case there is no clear dividing line between his conception of health and disease and his aesthetic theories. If he complained of exhaustion, or the mistral, or of torpor or impotence, it was for hindering him in the production of beauty; and in his imagination, to produce beauty was not very distant from being beautiful.

Psychologically speaking, as a hundred details convey to us, Mallarmé was a narcissist. Laurent Tailhade noted that from his friendship with Mlle. Beaugrand, the last exponent of classical dance, he had “taken a taste for beautiful attitudes.” It followed that, when he was unable to create, he felt ugly. How movingly he writes to his friend Henri Cazalis in November 1864, not long after the birth of his daughter Geneviève:

Where shall I start? With our health. Genevievè, who eats her mother, flourishes like a rose, but my poor Marie, who is eaten, is pale and perpetually fatigued. As for me, I drag myself about like an old man and spend my hours in front of mirrors, observing the advance of stupidity [bêtise]—already extinguishing my eyes, with their sagging lids, and dragging down my lips.

By no means was Mallarmé’s narcissism and preoccupation with mirrors a warping or crippling condition (though no doubt we think of it when he writes that his wife is “himself,” is simply his “reflection”). Narcissism, fully recognized as such, was rather the route through which he arrived at a general aesthetic theory. “As for me,” he wrote in 1867, “Poetry stands in the place of love because it is in love with itself [herself] and its [her] pleasure in itself [herself] falls back deliciously into my soul.” In the dramatic poem Hérodiade, of which we have three fragments, his narcissistic, mirror-obsessed Hérodiade is the supreme impersonation of this theory.

But then, his Hérodiade (the name was his own invention) was really Salome, and for Symbolist poets (Yeats among them) Salome and her murderous dance is the chosen symbol for the human cost of art. As Frank Kermode writes in Romantic Image, “Salome is the Dancer in the special role of the Image that costs the artist personal happiness, indeed life itself.” She incarnates the principle that the artist needs to destroy his own nature to create a second nature, the “Image” or Beauty. It is with this in mind that one reads the remarkable letter of May 27, 1867, in which Mallarmé tells his friend Eugene Lefébure how, feeling extremely ill and stiffening over his work on Easter day, he decided to try not thinking with the head. Attempting to localize thinking to the heart and the hand, he notes the paradox that the artist needs to decompose himself to achieve a vision of the universe as “one.”

The experience celebrated here is only one episode in the prolonged and amazing intellectual adventure of the years 1866-1867. This was the time when, as a disgruntled Lycée teacher in “exile” in Tournon and Besançon, Mallarmé followed out—re-enacting them, as it were, in his own flesh and blood—the vertiginous theories implicit in his great early poems: the theory of Le Néant (Nothingness), of creation by elimination, the death of the “Subject,” i.e., the writer’s need to sacrifice his own personal identity, and the Jacob-like “struggle with the Ideal.” Millan traces the stages of this formative crisis with the closeness and carefulness they deserve; nevertheless one gets the feeling he can hardly bear all the havoc and tearing-apart that Mallarmé inflicts on himself.

Indirectly, this raises a somewhat general question about biography. Millan declares that he holds the “nowadays unfashionable belief that a better understanding of an artist’s life can lead to a deeper appreciation of his work.” I am not sure, actually, that this belief is so unfashionable: it seems to be creeping back, prejudicing the opposite truth that an artist’s work is the key to his life. Here is the last stanza of Mallarmé’s early, very Baudelairean, poem Les Fenêtres (The Windows):

Est-il moyen, mon Dieu qui voyez l’amertume,
D’enforcer le crystal par ce monstre insulté
Et de m’enfuir, avec mes deux ailes sans plume,
—Au risque de tomber pendant l’Eternité?

Is there any way, O God who sees my bitter tears,
For me to break the glass insulted by the Monster
And to fly off on my two featherless wings
—Even at the risk of falling until the end of Time?
(Millan’s translation)

Millan, practicing the biographical approach, glosses what he calls these “anguished” lines as follows. “Looking out of the window, as he [Mallarmé] must have done many a time during his lonely London vigils, and contemplating, not without trepidation, the enormity of the step which he has taken [to decide to become a writer], he wonders if he will ever reach his Eden or whether, like so many other hopefuls, he will plunge without trace into the void.” But this, if one listens carefully to the poem itself, surely misses something all-important: that what the last two lines convey is not so much worry or anguish as exhilaration. Falling, in Mallarmé’s imagination, is a triumphal act. The point is clear in a letter to Henri Cazalis (May 14, 1867) describing how, after a terrible spiritual wrestling match, he floored that “ancient and wicked plumage, God” and “fell victorious, bewilderedly and infinitely….”

Millan’s book has much to recommend it, being decent, serious, and thoroughly well informed. All the same, I cannot feel that it quite “gets” Mallarmé—any more than Mondor’s did. If Mondor becomes bogged down in literary junketings and quarrels, Millan grows rather too much preoccupied with the practical details of Mallarmé’s career as an educator.

I do not mean that the Lycée teaching was unimportant to Mallarmé. According to his own account it poisoned his life for thirty years. He seems always to have been considered a bad teacher of English: not bad enough to get dismissed, but sufficiently so for headmasters to be all too eager to grant him sick leave. There was an element of cultural prejudice in this—parents would complain of his “outrageous publications,” quite unbefitting a Lycée professeur—but also an element of bloody-mindedness on the part of Mallarmé himself, the “poet on strike.” Léon-Paul Fargue has a description of him at the Collège Rollin in Paris. Looking a very queer shape as he approached the classroom, from the mass of books and journals loading his pockets, he would mount the dais, carefully spread out all this literature, and, having assigned the class some vague task, plunge straight into his reading—like, says Fargue, a horse with its nosebag. Eventually, disturbed by the rising din from the benches, he would surface and deliver a formal lesson, most probably not on Milton or Wordsworth but on the syntax of a nursery-rhyme like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

There is something odd and unexplained about Mallarmé’s failure as a teacher, and it is to the credit of Millan to have tried to solve the mystery. The trouble is, rather, that the mere practical details of Mallarmé’s school career, the ruses and resorts to influence in high quarters by which he managed to survive, tend too much to become the spine of Millan’s narrative. There is certainly a plot to Mallarmé’s life, if only one could find it, but it cannot quite lie here.

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