The Poem that Foretold Modernism - Stéphane Mallarmé

A year before his death in 1898, French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé published his chef d’oeuvre, a 20-odd-page poem titled “Un Coup De Des Jamais N’abolira Le Hasard” (One Toss of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance). No one agrees on how it should be read. It spreads out in all directions on the page, inverts normal French word order, eschews ordinary punctuation, and presents a variety of fonts, typefaces, and letter sizes. It surprises its reader with oddly placed italics and eccentric full-word capitalizations. It offers, in short, a cornucopia of visual oddities that seem arbitrary yet torment the reader because they suggest the possibility of meaning. It induces a thoroughgoing bewilderment that borders on mystification.

Attempts to elucidate Mallarmé’s poem have often served instead to create still more entrancing forms of mystification. In 1969, the Belgian Surrealist Marcel Broodthaers made a bold tribute to the work: René Magritte had given him a copy of the poem in 1945 in hopes that he would explain it; instead, Broodthaers replicates Mallarmé’s careful scattering of text on the page but replaces its words with black ink blocks. Absence morphs into presence as unmarked space advances and seeks to hold our attention, while the ebony words, which normally focus our minds when we read, sporadically recede. Blankness is broken only by the “plume solitaire éperdue” (“solitary wandering feather”) in tiny italics and then, just toward the center of the book’s spine, the lonely word “sauf” (“except”). What can we make of all this?

The latest scholar to argue for our renewed attention to this arcane work is R. Howard Bloch, in a new book called One Toss of the Dice: The Incredible Story of How a Poem Made Us Modern. His book follows the poem’s influence after Mallarmé’s untimely death and proposes that its publication marked the beginnings of twentieth-century Modernism. He argues that Mallarmé’s transcendence of conventional poetics, his spatio-temporal gyrations, his yearning efforts to collapse signifier and signified, his wish to erase all boundaries between word, idea, and object, as well as between art and life, paved the way for innovative Modernist thought and practice in literature, music, visual art, philosophy, modern physics, and even prefigured aspects of today’s digital era. It’s precisely the poem’s difficulty that makes its influence so enduring.

In explicating the formal eccentricities of Mallarmé’s work, however, Bloch forgoes the lenses of psychology. Yet, it is psychology that may help us to parse the emotional tone of the long, mysterious poem, and emotion is a crucial element that often goes missing in discussions of it. By psychology, I mean delicate, nuanced, non-reductive efforts to connect an artist’s life with his or her art; I mean the posing of questions as to how inner streams of feeling find external expression in objects of aesthetic value and originality. As Bloch himself perceptively writes: “For Stéphane Mallarmé, the first decade and a half of his life must have felt like a shipwreck during which he had been tossed overboard.”

Born in 1842, during the reign of “Citizen King” Louis Philippe, Mallarmé came from a bourgeois family with royalist sympathies, which negatively influenced their reputation so that, in contrast to many of his later artistic circle, the poet lived modestly throughout his life and survived by toiling for decades as an English teacher in two lycées. His performance in this role was so poor that, a school inspector noted, 14 of Mallarmé’s students, all pooling their knowledge, could not translate the sentence “Give me some bread and water.” Eventually, the brilliantly eccentric poet, dwelling in a Parisian walk-up on the rue de Rome, managed by dint of his sparse poetic output and other critical and cultural writings, to attract the city’s literati and its glittering artistic milieu; he established his famous “mardis,” his Tuesday night salons, where he held forth in a smoke-filled living room surrounded by many of the most interesting minds of France and England.

Baptized Étienne, Stéphane Mallarmé was his parents’ firstborn child, and, at five, after the birth of a sister, he lost his mother to fatal illness; then, almost immediately, his father, who vanished into the arms of a new young wife, and had three more children in rapid succession. Beyond bereavement and feelings of abandonment, chance also brought him exile, as the little boy was sent away to his grandparents’ home and subsequently to a hated boarding school. There, despite being supremely gifted, he proved too miserable to perform well academically, later failing his baccalaureate exam on the first try. When he was 15, death struck another blow, and he lost his treasured younger sister Marie, his one link to their mother and “the only person I adored,” as he wrote to his best friend.

A few years later, Mallarmé came upon a melancholy, slender blond German girl named Maria Gerhard, who was working locally as a governess. Re-naming her “Marie” after his sister, he fell in love and pursued her doggedly, married her, and never abandoned her, although her intellect and dour personality did not match his own. As he later said, “I read and write, she embroiders and knits.” Loathe to suffer deprivation once more, he may have felt her constant presence a comfort. Although, in time, he pursued an erotized liaison with Proust’s inspiration for Odette de Crécy, Méry Laurent, his role as a family man remained intact. “Hasard,” in daily life, was kept strenuously at bay, flowing fitfully and circuitously into his art.

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