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, 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.
A point that Millan might perhaps have emphasized more is that Mallarmé, who in his story Igitur ou La Folie d’Elbehnon promulgated the doctrine of the Absurd, cultivated an admirable line in absurdity. François Coppée records him saying that he attached great importance to the stars (their disorderly arrangement exemplifying Chance), but he had no patience with the moon, that “cheese.” He thought that some day in the future scientists might find the way to dissolve it with chemicals. The only difficulty was, he said, that this would interfere with the tides, so important in his own theory of the human décor. According to him, again, the top hat should be thought of as the pot from which Man grew from the head upward, bifurcating plantwise at the hips.
The point about absurdity assumes importance when one considers a remarkable enterprise, not much discussed by Millan, which Mallarmé embarked on a year or two after his return to Paris. I am referring to the fashion magazine La Dernière mode(“The Latest Fashion”). As we learn from Jean-Pierre Leclercle’s Mallarmé et la mode (1988), this was the speculative venture of a friend of Mallarmé’s, an impecunious publisher named Charles Wendelen living a few doors farther up the rue de Moscou. Apart from a few poems by friends, Mallarmé wrote the entire text of the magazine himself, using a wide variety of pseudonyms: “Marguerite de Ponty” (for fashion in general), “Miss Satin” (fashion for the English colony), “Ix” (for theater and books), “Le Chef de Bouche chez Brébant” (for food), etc.; he also supplied dress patterns and undertook (real or imaginary) commissions with dressmakers from his (real or imaginary) subscribers.
Nothing could be more intriguing than to speculate on Mallarmé’s motives in this literary production. Printed incomplete and relegated to smaller type in the Pléiade edition, it impresses me—more strongly even than Leclercle, who has done so much to throw light on it—as a work of great genius; and Mallarmé was certainly deeply chagrined when, after the eighth issue, the journal passed into other hands. Fashion, as he interprets it, is the system of the whole of human life considered as décor. (“Decoration! Everything lies in that word.”) Through Fashion he is able to reaffirm his entire aesthetic, but in inverse or negative form. The date of the first number, August 1, 1874, he seized on at once as significant. For it is the moment of Absence (Parisians then as now deserting the city en masse on the first day of August). “Without the least remorse, appearing in this holiday season as at its exactly chosen hour,” “Ix” tells her readers in her sententious manner, “this Journal interposes itself between your dreaming and the double azure, maritime and celestial.” Can people who go to the beach be said to be fleeing the “world”? she asks. Hardly, for they are part of the world. Are they in search of Nature, then? No, what they are pursuing is the oblivion of a “vast and naked horizon.” (In this “double azure” of sea and sky we have a parody version of the Mallarméan “Absolute.”) All the same, continues “Ix,” these holidaying Parisians, being people of fashion, will have an eye for what others might call “Nature” and will take note of the “ingenuous and learned” new toilettes embroidered by the waves. In order, no doubt, to pass them on. For the principle of fashion is instant and universal exchange.
Nothing in an epoch’s existence is to be neglected. A smile! See, it circulates already, still only half-formed, in the heavily curtained rooms, expected, detested, blessed, received with gratitude or with jealousy; enrapturing, chafing, or appeasing souls, and it is in vain for the fan, which thought at first to have hidden it, to try to recapture it, now broken loose, or to dissipate its flight.
According to Mallarmé’s vision, Fashion, in its extreme ephemerality, escapes from Time almost as completely as the eternal and the Absolute, thus it can be considered as the latter’s legitimate rival. Indeed, in the magazine’s opening month, Fashion, the phenomenon of the moment, has been deprived even of its moment. The chronicler of fashion finds herself stranded between the past (that “vast nothingness,” which would take too long to recount) and the as-yet-unrealized future. With what inspiration, however—Mallarmé writing as another chronicler—has the municipal gardener risen to this moment, perceiving that, the summer sun having faded the gardens, he should profit from the very defects of the season and compose a summer corbeille of the dusty and the dun-colored. Witness the first flower bed to the right as one enters the Parc Monceau, where he has contrived to express the “entire lassitude of the hour,” juxtaposing Centaurea Candidissima, its pale and lusterless foliage bleached white by dust, with the dry and delicate Obelia erineus, enlivening their drabness with a few “brusque and necessary” spots of scarlet Pelargonium.
The chronicler reflects upon books, promising to keep her readers up to date with works of the intellect, but always according to the taste of the day. People complain that there are no more readers, she writes, but she would contend that there still exist women readers—only women, being spared the gloomy concerns of politics, having the leisure, once their toilette is completed, to address themselves to the adornment of their soul. Later, in the guise of the same chronicler, the future author of the great Tombeaux poems for Poe and Verlaine remarks, lightly, that it appears that tombs may be going out of fashion, in favor of urns.
What is Mallarmé up to in La Dernière mode? Irony, no doubt, but of what kind? Lecercle suggests that, surfeited with descriptions of toilettes, the reader is intended to emerge desperate for poetry. This seems to be part of the idea, but not the whole. One should not read these pages as angry satire, but rather as an alternative and absurd vision of beauty, a beauty which, unlike Symbolist poetry, does not have to be paid for with agony and self-immolation. We have here the same theory or vision of fashion as underlies Mallarmé’s many lovely “fan poems.” The more one studies these pages, the richer they seem in concealed jokes and philosophical ambushes.
If La Dernière mode comes as a surprise (or did so at least to the present reader) so, in a rather less welcome way, does the posthumous “Livre” or Book reconstructed by Jacques Scherer from Mallarmé’s scattered notes.1 This raises the question of how Mallarmé should be approached. Millan observes that during recent years attention has shifted away from his poetry to the theoretical writings and the experimental Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A throw of dice will never abolish Chance)—with the consequence that, in some people’s minds “Mallarmé is now clearly identified with the notion of failure.” This is a very sound remark and points to some kind of confusion of identity between reader and poet. It is only to be expected that Mallarmé, having achieved the extraordinary poems of his early prime, should have hankered after some other, even more grandiose enterprise. But this is no reason for us, for whom these poems are so much part of our being and who will always be discovering more in them, to nurse any sense of incompleteness.
From the time of his great intellectual crisis in 1866 and 1867 onward, Mallarmé, as we know, described himself as preoccupied with a vast enterprise of a different nature from his published poems. At various times he describes it as something like the “Great Work” of the alchemists, or as the Book to which the whole human experiment has been tending. During the 1870s, his ambitions taking a theatrical turn, he imagines producing a “vast popular melodrama,” capable of speaking to and for the “crowd” more effectively than Wagner’s Ring.
Some critics, indeed, have actually believed that the “great work” was achieved, or at least undertaken, and have identified it with Un coup de dés or with the Livre reconstructed by Jacques Scherer, but one cannot help feeling that this is a delusion.
For one thing, Mallarmé’s theatrical projects were wholly abortive, and for a good reason. He was unable to conceive of any theatrical representation other than a one-man drama—this, he said explicitly in his essay on Hamlet, was where the future of the theater lay. Appropriately, the mysterious work reconstructed by Scherer is a solo dramatic reading by Mallarmé, designed to extend over a period of two years. Taking the pages of the work from a set of pigeonholes, he planned to read them over in various different orders, according to an elaborately calculated series of permutations, and he intended in this way to create a book of twenty (imaginary, or semi-imaginary) volumes. The number of pages of each volume was to be 384 (or 480), this figure being crucially related to the number of auditors, which is to be 24, in three series of 8. The number of séances is also all-important, though it will not matter if the seats are vacant. From another complex series of calculations, Mallarmé works out that the sales of the twenty volumes will bring him in exactly 480,000 francs. So far as one can judge from the notes, the work has no actual content.
In a word, like Baconians or theologians who compute the dimensions of Noah’s Ark, Mallarmé was—in whatever spirit of absurdism—hooked on numerology, a well-known snare for the human mind. He left a document imploring his wife and daughter to destroy all his notes, since no one but himself could possibly make any sense of them, and of course they were quite right to disobey him; nevertheless what he said was perfectly correct.
As for the amazing Un coup de dés, here again, though for different reasons, we have no cause to identify it with Mallarmé’s long-contemplated “great work.” It has no particular resemblance to this latter as he described it to Verlaine in 1885; and in his prefatory note to it on its first appearance in the review Cosspolis he describes it merely as a “tentative,” springing out of other experiments dear to the present age, i.e., vers libre and the prose poem. Un coup de dés, as is well known, exploits the visual potentiality of size-contrast in typography and the double spread of a book’s “opening” to defeat the normal sequentiality of writing, allowing subsidiary ideas to form stellar clusters around the central eight-word motif of the work’s title and assigning the blank portions of the double page a dynamic role.
The key to Un coup de dés, if there is one, must lie in the much earlier story Igitur, a Poe-esque tale which leads up to a moment when the hero, having descended to a tomb in the crypt of his ancestral home, throws dice, thereby proving to himself that affirming Chance or denying it amounts in a sense to much the same thing. It is noticeable that Robert Greer Cohn, who is often so good at clearing up difficulties in Mallarmé’s poems, is not very helpful about Igitur.2 An issue about “interpretation” arises here. T.S. Eliot, one remembers, was firmly against “interpretation” as an approach to poems. He was right, I think; and at all events interpretation should never be more than a secondary activity coming after direct encounter with the work itself. Cohn, by contrast, requires us to swallow a complete system of metaphysics of his own, involving “tetrapolarity” and Einstein’s curved universe, before we respond to Igitur. I do not think this can be right.
My own impression is that by clearing one’s mind of presuppositions as best one can, and patiently attending to what is actually there, one can gradually come to appreciate this strange story as a work of art—which is to say, understand it. (It is a matter, partly, of paying a proper respect to the concrete or “real-life” details of the story. For instance it is crucial not to miss the point that the clock which dominates Igitur’s nocturnal meditations on Chance and Necessity is of the kind which shows tide and stellar motions on its dial—hence forming a perfect symbol for “the infinite chance of conjunctions.”)
Matters are different, however, with Un coup de dés. This seems to be a work which has to be interpreted before it can even begin to signify. It will always appeal to one’s sense of wonder. But, since there is no end to the possible ways of interpreting it, it can hardly be said to exist as a work of art.
September 22, 1994