Mallarme, technology, and the poet engineer.
Yet technology defined as a process of increasing rationalization and control over economic, political, social, and cultural life, which has been central to twentieth century accounts of modernity from Weber to Heidegger, is notably absent from studies of Mallarme. (2) Siegfried Kracauer and his critical heirs, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, identify technology at the heart of the rationalizing Enlightenment project to demythologize nature by gaining scientific control over her forces and processes. In what Horkheimer and Adorno famously termed the "dialectic of enlightenment," the technological push to rationalize all spheres of human activity has the potential to double back on itself, as reason turns purely instrumental: rationalization, organization, and efficiency become ends in themselves rather than the means to finding and expanding human truth. In his essay "The Mass Ornament" (1923), for example, Kracauer explores the rise in popularity of chorus-line dancing in the 1920s as an aesthetic symptom of rationalization gone awry. In these spectacles, the dancers' bodies are choreographed into ever-more complex ornaments, "girl-clusters whose movements are demonstrations of mathematics" (72). The aesthetic equivalent of assembly-line production, regularity and efficiency of movement becomes an end in itself, as the individual dancing bodies are effaced behind abstract "pattern[s] of undreamed of dimensions" (72).
It is the aim of this essay to explore the ambivalent philosophical complicity between technology as rationalization and Mallarme's poetic project. To some extent, Mallarme's work and its notorious "difficulty" resists the rationalizing processes of technological modernity, which prizes streamlined and standardized patterns of production and consumption. From his 1862 essay "Heresies Artistiques: L'Art pour tous" to the mature formulations of "Le Mystere dans les Lettres" (1896), Mallarme claimed true poetry must "detourner l'oisif" (CEuvres 382), resisting "industrialized" consumption by the masses. And yet at the same time, a close examination of Mallarme's work reveals it to be subtly informed by the very rationalizing, managerial instincts of the technological culture from which it takes its distance. In his 1895 essay "Bucolique," Mallarme speaks of the poet's relationship to nature in terms that directly invoke what he calls an "industrial" parallel between the organizing instincts of poetry and technology. What Mallarme calls "la Nature" is "primitif" or "foncier, dense des materiaux encore (nul scandale que 'Industrie l'en emonde ou le purifie)" (403). Nature's "primitive," dark materiality must be worked upon and "purified" by the penetrating force of industry. Poetry works, in parallel fashion, upon the body of Nature in order to illuminate, aerate, and transform it into thought: poetry, or what Mallarme here calls "Musique," is the "ardent, volatil depouillement" of Nature in "traits qui se correspondent, maintenant proches la pensee" (403). Poetry is the dismantling or stripping of nature in order then to re-arrange its elements (traits) in rational, "thoughtful" form. "Ordonnance" and "ordonner," "correlation" and "reciprocite" are among Mallarme's most frequently employed terms to describe the organizing process of poetic creation. By minutely calibrating and arranging a poem's internal relationships (semantic, phonetic, grammatical, or lexical) Mallarme sought to take the hasard of mute materiality and transform it into calculated thought.
Closely linked to the definition of technology as increasing rationalization--and central to the argument of this essay--is the discovery at the end of the nineteenth century of the universe as a thermodynamic machine. As Anson Rabinbach argues in The Human Motor, the laws of thermodynamics uncovered by nineteenth-century physics instituted a new vision of nature as a teeming reservoir of forces (steam and electricity chief among them) that humans could harness in order to produce work. The universe became a vast interconnected technology for the production of work, with each linked cog in the universal machine laboring toward maximum productivity and efficiency. As an integral link in the cosmic energy chain, human "nature"--man's capacity for muscular and nervous functioning--was one force among others whose laws could be calculated by science and whose mechanisms could be adjusted through proper training.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, electricity was one of the most spectacular examples of a natural force that was increasingly being brought under human calculation and control. Indeed, in the imagery of the period, "la fee electricite" operated as a potent symbol for technological progress in general, representing the relentless forward push of "light" against the darkness of a recalcitrant nature. The advance of electricity (through the web-like spread of telegraphs, telephones, and--eventually--power supply lines) signified the triumph of rationality, number, and network over the obscurity and unpredictability of nature. In the frontispiece illustrating the 1884 issue of the periodical La Lumiere electrique, a neoclassical electricity goddess presides over the image, lightning bolts radiating out from her feet; she holds in her hands a web of power lines connecting electrical generators on the left side of the page to a factory on the right. In the bottom corners of the image nestle two cherubs conversing on an electric telephone, whose connecting wire sweeps a symmetrical arc across the bottom of the page and mirrors the power lines stretching across the middle of the image. In the background, across the Atlantic, we glimpse Frederic Bartholdi's colossal "La liberte eclairant le monde," a reminder of the transatlantic telegraph cables connecting old to new world, and underscoring the "liberating" reach of electricity. Although widespread use of telephones and of electricity as a general power source would have to wait a decade or more to be fully realized, this image emphasizes the extent to which, by the mid-1880s, electricity was already pictured as a rationalizing and connecting force, drawing the world together into ever-denser networks of communication, information, and productivity.
This essay explores Mallarme's encounters with technology in his writings on theater and dance in order to sketch out a fuller portrait of Mallarme as inaugurating a new type of lyric poet: the poet-engineer. From the extravagantly illuminated ballets-feeries staged at the Eden Theater in the 1880s to Loie Fuller's electric dances, Mallarme's attraction to patently "industrial" or technological spectacles is not fortuitous. Rather, mirroring the technological impulses of his age, Mallarme viewed the materials of aesthetic creation (whether dancing bodies or words on a page), as well as the "material" of human aesthetic consciousness, as latent energy sources to be maximally organized by the poet. More specifically, I argue that Mallarme gravitates toward the image of electricity as a disciplined, densely interlaced network of energy in order to figure the action proper to poetry.
I. "Une synthese mobile": Mallarme's Balletic Machines
Mallarme's most sustained commentary on theater and dance is known today under the title Crayonne au Theatre, a series of twelve polished essays first published in 1896 as part of his prose collection Divagations, and which gained canonical status as a self-standing literary artifact when it was included in the 1945 Pleiade edition of Mallarme's complete works. And yet the original review articles from which Mallarme compiled Crayonne au Theatre were conceived and published on the pattern of traditional theater criticism, canvassing theatrical actualites, and appearing as monthly columns in La Revue Independante (1886-87) and The National Observer (1892-93). In the process of re-editing the original texts, Mallarme elided references to particular performers, titles, and theaters, re-grouping review material on the basis of thematic affinity rather than chronology. Mallarme thus effectively transformed the original texts--in the journalistic, historically bound genre of the theatrical compte-rendu--into an abstract treatise on the Theater in general, purified of all historical "anecdote."
Yet if we do a bit of historical excavation, we come to a deeper appreciation of the ascendency of technology on the stage in the 188os and '905, and thus a better understanding of Mallarme's peculiar relationship to the "industrial" spectacles of his era. The opening of the Eden Theater in 1883--"le seul [theatre] ou j'allais de mon gre" (322), Mallarme remarks in Crayonne au Theatre--was touted in the press as a particularly spectacular feat of electrical mastery. In a book presenting the miracles of electricity to a lay audience, Louis Figuier described the new theater as a paradigm of dazzling electric light, with upper bay windows illuminated by "feux multicolores, qui rejouissent les yeux," and large entrance doors emitting "une lumiere blanche et crue ... qui contraste avec le bariolage des parties superieures" (204). Appropriately, the Eden Theater's opening ballet, Luigi Manzotti's ballet Excelsior, was a spectacle which both in size and technical precision surpassed anything like the French ballets staged at the neighboring Opera. The subject of Excelsior is an allegorical struggle between "la Lumiere" and "l'Obscurantisme." Opening on a scene of desolation where the genie des Tenebres holds sway, the fairy of Light, danced by La Cornalba, sweeps in to save the day: "Le genie de la Lumiere, enchaine rompt ses fers et jette le gant au genie des Tenebres, et on se trouve transporte dans le royaume du Progres ou, par contraste, tout est lumiere et activite," writes a contemporary reviewer ("Eden-Theatre"). In his bimonthly theater column for le Temps, theater critic Francisque Sarcey commented of this scientific phantasmagoria: "n danse, on se rejouit sous les feux de la lumiere electrique. Cest un ballet scientifique, corn me vous voyez: tout a la science!"
The ballet's homage to scientific rationality, figured through the trope of electric light, is carried out in Excelsior's choreography, as well. Manzotti's Italian ballets, or "ballets d'action," caused a great critical stir when they were introduced for the first time in France; their reliance on symmetry, synchronization and continuous movement was foreign to the choreographic tradition in French ballet. Comparing the stage to a "champ de manceuvres" and the dance corps to a military regiment. Sarcey notes that Manzotti sought to replace traditional stage decor with the rationalized movement of masses of dancers:
Du fond de la scene arrivent cent danseurs de front; us fondent sur la rampe comme une charge de cavalerie, en executant des pas et des mouvements identiques; une fois au bord de la scene, il se derobent, et l'on en voit une autre bande, puis une troisieme, qui toutes accourent sur le meme rythme; us se baissent tous a la fois, et l'on apercoit ... des centaines de bras et de tetes qui s'agitent a la fois et qui forment ... un horizon a souhait pour le plaisir des yeux.
In contrast to the small scale and narrative emphasis of French ballet, Italian ballets emphasized the organization of "masses dansantes sur une scene vide," or human material, into aesthetically pleasing patterns.
Manzotti's desire to coordinate human bodies into a spectacle of disciplined energy found its complement in the search for ever-more spectacular electrical effects on the stage. In his 1894 book L'electricite au theatre, Julien Lefevre describes the invention of electrically "lighted jewels," whose "jeux de lumiere" produced "[le] plus bel effet" (4). These bijoux electriques were essayed for the first time at the Folies Bergere in 1884 in a ballet, "ou figuraient une vingtaine de danseuses portant, au corsage et dans les cheveux, deux magnifiques bouquets de fleurs lumineuses" (Figuier 261). The theatrical intertwining of the energies of the dancing body and the energy of electricity was brilliantly figured in the creation of a human candelabra, or "lustre vivant", in which electrified women were organized into the shape of a multi-faceted chandelier. The increased electrification of the performance space--and, at times, the performers themselves--coincided with the period's increased interest in viewing human bodies as linked parts in a rationalized and networked energetic whole. Indeed, period images of dancers as ordered constellations of light resemble early maps of city electrical grids, where electricity's ever-expanding network weaves a web of light against a black backdrop. (3) The human candelabra gives a suggestive image of how human energy was, like electricity, imagined as a force to be gridded, calculated, and rationally distributed.
Mallarme published his first dance review in December of 1886 (for the Revue independante) on a production staged at the Eden Theater: the ballet Viviane starring la Cornalba. By the time Mallarme began his dance chroniques in December of 1886, the rage for Italian imports that launched the Eden's opening in 1883 had waned. Yet Mallarme was familiar with the Italian influence originally fostered by the music hall, and the strong impress of Manzotti's numerate and rationalized choreography is legible in his critical assessments. Mallarmes vocabulary describing dance throughout his Crayonne au Theatre collection consistently gravitates to a mathematical and technological idiom: the dancing body is an "instrument" (312); dance is an "operation" (296, 307, 309), a matter of "correlations" (296), "fractions" (304), "nombres" and "equations" (306). And when we turn to Mallarmes review of Viviane, we find that--not coincidentally--this technological vocabulary is paired with a reference to the Eden Theater's reputation for catchy electrical light effects. Mallarme recounts a scene in Viviane in which stars spangled across the night sky magically come together to form a constellation, tracing out the letters of the fairy's name:
Les astres, eux-memes, ... je feuillette et j'apprends gulls sont de la partie; et l'incoherent manque hautain de signification qui scintille en l'alphabet de la Nuit va consentir a tracer le mot enjoleur VIVIANE, enjoleurs nom de la fee et titre du poeme, selon quelques coups d'epingles stellaires en une toile de fond bleue. (303)
If Mallarme critiques Viviane's recourse to vulgar or "industrial" stage decor, he at the same time admires the image of an electric network as a model for the proper functioning of dance. Mallarme seizes upon this cas sideral in order to argue that the dancing troupe should be so choreographed as to efface the individual dancer in favor of "la danse ideale des constellations" (303); each dancer becomes a "fraction" of a larger interconnected whole:
... [L]e premier sujet ... de la danse [est] une synthese mobile, en son incessante ubiquite, des attitudes de chaque groupe: comme elles ne la font que detailler, en tant que fractions, a l'infini. Telle, une reciprocite, dont resulte l'in-individuel, chez la coryphee et dans l'ensemble, de l'etre dansant, jamais qu'embleme point quelqu'un ... (304)
Mallarme's prized image of dance as a "mobile" constellation, kaleidoscopically fractioned "a l'infini," defines aesthetic material through connectivity (reciprocite, synthese) rather than any particular narrative or representational content ("jamais qu'embleme point quelqu'un"). Pattern and connectivity are prized for their own sake; a certain density of controlled correlation, correspondence, and "reciprocite" becomes an aesthetic end in itself.
In a fragment on dance written in 1896 and included in Crayonne au Theatre, Mallarme returned to his 1886 image of Viviane as a constellation in motion when he compares the corps de ballet to an "armature," an architectural scaffold or frame:
Une armature, qui n'est d'aucune femme en particulier, d'ou instable, ... attire sur tel fragment revele de la forme et y boit l'eclair qui le divinise; ou exhale, de retour, par l'ondulation des tissus, flottante, palpitante, eparse cette extase. (311)
In his insistence on the "instability" or ephemeral nature of any single representational pattern, Mallarme proposes the ideal spectacle as a mise-en-scene of energy itself in its ceaseless transformations: what the corps de ballet brings to presence is not any particular ordering of the elements of aesthetic creation, but the "divine" fact of energy's endless openness to ordonnance itself.
The purity of these energetic formations is compromised, Mallarme suggests, by the intrusion of clumsily realist decor, which obstructs the free flow of energy, "freezing" it into a single representational content instead of leaving it open to its naturally "infinite" (304) evolution. Referring to Viviane's much-praised special effect by which a snowstorm is magically transformed into a whirlwind of flowers to represent the turning of winter to spring, Mallarme argues such tricks detract from the spectacle of energy in its "incessant ubiquite" (304): "la Poesie, ou nature animee, sort du texte pour se
er en des manoeuvres de carton et l'eblouissante stagnation des mousselines lie et feu" (303). Like Manzotti before him, Mallarme sought to sweep the dance stage clean of "stagnant" realist props in order to deliver it up to the fluid evolutions of the corps de ballet--the rationalized or ordered spectacle of energy at work--as "la seule decoration," to quote Sarcey.
Mallarme was also among the crowd of artists drawn to the electric choreography of the American dancer Loie Fuller when she made her debut at the Folies Bergere in 1892. Fuller's ground-breaking incorporation of electric lighting effects into the very body of her art led Mallarme to remark that her spectacle presented an innovative fusion of the aesthetic and the technological: "L'exercice [de la Loie Fuller] ... comporte une ivresse d'art et, simultane, un accomplissement industriel" (307). (4) In her signature spectacles, Fuller occupied the center of the darkened stage wrapped in white silk, whose long panels she extended on light poles along her arms. Beams of colored light were then projected onto her body as she manipulated the swathes of silk into suggestive, flowing shapes: orchid; sunset; butterfly; wave.
In her autobiography, Fuller speaks of her fascination with light as a natural force she longed to harness to aesthetic effect: "[C]olour so pervades everything that the whole universe is busy producing it, everywhere and in everything. It is a continued recurrence, caused by processes of chemical composition and decomposition. The day will come when man will know how to employ them so delightfully that it will be hard to conceive how he could have lived so long in the darkness ..." (67). Fuller's aim is to achieve a total "control of light" (66) so that these harmonious effects can be induced in the viewer's retina, which she compares to a photographic plate that registers fluctuating light vibrations. Just as Mallarme selected a vocabulary of chiffres (296) and equations (306) to describe dance, so Fuller is led to use a quasi-technical vocabulary to speak of aesthetic, experience: color is a function of "chemical" reactions that the experienced poet-engineer will learn to discipline or "control"; the eye is a light-registering mechanism that can be educated in its ability to respond to luminous vibrations. Fuller thus imagined the heart of her spectacle as a complex concatenation and harnessing of natural forces: the body's muscle power and precision movements would be used to intercept and shape the disseminated light of electric lamps.
Mallarme could not help but be fascinated by Fuller's conception of the dancer as a hybrid muscular-electric force, a "machine de la nature" generating lyric expressivity through strict technological control, or what Fuller called "un rythme precis et mathernatique du corps humain" (qtd. in Lista 176). Fuller is a "froide" (308) and "stricte" (309) figure fixed at the center of a "bain terrible d'etoffes" that she "orders" (309) into a series of continually shifting shapes. As was the case with his critique of Viviane, so Mallarme's commentary on Fuller emphasizes the lack of vulgarly literal decor or stage sets that would obstruct the pure mobility of the dancing form as the spectacle of energy in its infinite, web-like potential: "Tout a l'heure va disparaitre comme dans ce cas une imbecillite, la traditionnelle plantation de decors permanents ou stables en opposition a la mobilite choregraphique" (309). Here again the dancer contains virtually within herself a wealth of expressive shapes or "emblemes" (304) "a l'infini" (308) which she materializes on stage one by one, "fontaine intarissable d'elle-meme" (311). She then dissolves each shape back into a kind of primal latency or "virginite de site" (308): Mallarme lauds her dance as the spectacle of "visions sitot eparses que sues, leur evocation limpide" (309). As was the case with the corps de ballet, it is not any one particular ordering of aesthetic elements but the "intarissable" power of ordonnance itself that Fuller embodies in her dance.
In his writings on dance and theater, Mallarme's continual emphasis on abstract pattern, ordonnance, and aesthetic material as a reservoir of latent energy allows us to glimpse an unexpected affinity between his model of aesthetic creation and the ordering impulses of the late nineteenth-century technological project. This technological project sought not only to increase control over nature's vast energy reserves, but to establish increasingly complex and efficient inter-relationships between the parts composing the larger work-system. Mallarme's concept of dance as a constellation of bodies linked by a set of complex, mobile, and "infinitely" expanding relationships uncannily mirrors this technological vision.
II. "Un savant ballabile": Mallarme and the Crowd
Mallarme viewed dance as the spectacle of energy's capacity for ever-expanding connectivity and metamorphosis. In a similar light, he envisioned the aesthetic consciousness of the audience--both individual and collective--as an energy-dense resource whose connective capacities had, as of yet, not been developed to the full. Mallarme's writing on what he variously terms the crowd's "instinct" (307), "imagination" (307, 308) or "reve" (298) consistently emphasizes its latent or dormant quality, signaling its status as an energy source awaiting its proper aesthetic expression. (5) And, not surprisingly, Mallarme turned to electric lighting effects to describe this aesthetic prise de conscience: the electric lustre suspended above the heads of the theater-going crowd becomes a symbol for the connected, energized, and lucid collective consciousness generated in the presence of true art. Thus the glow of the lustre, "sous toutes les facettes," mirrors the multifaceted "vue adamantine" of the watching audience (296); the "sursaut du gaz ou de l'electricite" mimics the spectator's waxing "lucidite" (297) as the drama unfolds. In his 1886 essays on the Eden Theater, Mallarme describes in detail the play of electric light over the audience:
Une lueur de faux cieux electrique baigna la recente foule, ... puis a travers l'exaltation, par les sons, d'un imbecile or et de fires, arreta sur La fulgurance des paillons ou de chairs l'irremissible lassitude muette de ce qui n'est pas illumine des feux d'abord de l'esprit. (322)
The electric light bounces off the glittering garments and flesh of the milling crowd; in his pessimistic mode, Mallarme suggests that these surface games of light merely serve to emphasize the lack of a deeper, spiritual "illumination" in the souls of the spectators. And yet Mallarme remains transfixed by the possibility that such surface patterns of electric light linking together the spectators' bodies might be transformed into a coordinated collective mental pattern, giving luminous direction and form to the crowd's poetic instinct:
Parfois j'y considerai, au sursaut de l'archet, comme sur un coup de baguette legue de l'ancienne Feerie, quelque cohue multicolore et neutre en scene soudain se diaprer de graduels chatoiements ordonnee en un savant ballabile, effet rare veritablement et enchante. (322)
Here Mallarme imagines that the conductor's baton not only orchestrates the spectacle transpiring on stage (directing the corps de ballet's ballabiles), but like a "fairy wand," transforms the consciousness of the inchoate crowd into a glimmering, "ordered" whole: "un savant ballabile." Patterns of reflected electric light physically bind the audience together, and for Mallarme hint at the possibility of a kind of mental "electricity" that would charge and connect the crowd into a similarly networked whole.
In his 1893 essay "Plaisir sacre," Mallarme returns to this earlier image of aesthetic experience as a crowd bound together through patterns of light under an electric chandelier. In this case, the lighted crowd forms a pattern that mimics, not the luminous ballabiles of the dancers' bodies, but the complex gold shimmering of the music rising from the orchestra pit. Mallarme opens the essay with the same rhetorical move with which he described the crowd at the Eden Theater, comparing unfavorably the bright constellation of lights suspended over the heads of the concert-goers to the paltry enlightenment he expects of them: "Jamais ne tomberait l'archet souverain battant la premiere mesure, s'il fallait qu'a cette instant special de l'annee, le lustre, dans la salle, representat, par ses multiples facettes, une lucidite chez le public, relativement a ce qu'on vient faire" (388). But Mallarme appears more hopeful about the possibility of audience illumination in this review. He goes on to draw a parallel between the glinting notes of music and the opulent clothing of the audience glinting under the light of the chandelier:
Une conscience partielle de l'eblouissement se propage, au hasard de la tenue de ville usitee dans les auditions d'apres-midi: pose, comme le bruit deja de cymbales tombe, au filigrane d'or de minuscules capotes, miroite en le jais; mainte aigrette luit divinatoire. (390)
Like the showering gold of the cymbals, light ricochets off the feathers, faux jade, and gold-threaded capes of the assembled female bodies, binding them together in the "partial" "eblouissement" of a collective aesthetic experience. The constellation of aigrettes "lighting up" with--here and there--a "divinatory" lustre mimics the lightning-like speed of an electrical charge as it passes along a fil conducteur. Mallarme imagined theater as essentially a religious rite: a modern culte that would replace traditional religion with an aesthetic experience of the sacred. Religion is, etymologically, rooted in connection--liaison and ligature--and Mallarme offers an unexpectedly technological spin on religious connectivity with his vision of the crowd as an electrically-linked or networked whole.
III. "Une Ordonnance du Livre": The drame discret of Poetry
Mallarme's original reviews in Crayonne au Theatre almost always qualified their references to contemporary spectacles as impoverished metaphors for the mental theater of le livre, presenting theater's lighted proscenium as a dubious substitute for the "gala intime" (295) or "tacite concert" (380) of a page of verse. For Mallarme dance is "le rendu plastique sur la scene de la poesie" (312); in poetry, words and letters replace dancing bodies as the latently rich aesthetic material to be organized into constellations. Just as Mallarme envisioned the corps de ballet and Loie Fuller as "fontaines intarissables," reserving within themselves a store of potential patterns "a l'infini" (304, 308), so he viewed language as "quelques vingt lettres" "doues d'infinite" (380) to be mobilized by the poet. Producing poetry is a matter of "putting letters to work" ("les mettre en oeuvre"), thus exploiting and maximizing the "force virtuelle des caracteres divins" (646), Mallarme tells us in his 1894 essay "La Musique et les Lettres."
Mallarme identified language's virtualite or latent energy with what he called its rhyming potential. In a metaphor describing Theodore de Banville's distinctive rimes riches, Mallarme explains the inherent ordering or connective power of rhyme: "[L]e Vers ... attire non moms que degage pour son epanouissement ... les mile elements de beaute presses d'accourir et de s'ordonner dans leur valeur essentielle" (333). Verse, by repeating a sound, produces a condensing or attracting force on language; one sound exerts a gravitational pull on its rhyme, "sealing" a relationship between the two sounds: "identite de deux fragments constitutifs" (333). At the same time, by focusing the reader on language as pure phonetic material rather than the semantic unit of the individual word, verse opens up or releases (degage) words into their constituent fractions or facets (phonemes, graphemes, letters). In masterfully organized verse, "fractions" of language "order themselves" ("presses d'accourir et de s'ordonner") into a rigorously calculated whole. Words then "s'allument de reflets reciproques comme une virtuelle trainee de feux sur des pierreries" (366). Reciprocal lines of force dart from word to word, letter to letter, lighting up "virtual" connections like a zigzagged trail of fire. The poem is saturated with an infinity of virtual patterns and links--"symetries, action, reflet" (646)--that it remains to the pattern-seeking reader to trace and "inventory" (370).
Just as in his writing on dance Mallarme encouraged the effacement of the individual dancer in favor of the "emblem" of the interconnected whole, so in poetry: "ce a quoi nous devons viser surtout est que, dans le poeme, les mots ... se refletent les uns sur les autres jusqu'a paraitre ne plus avoir leur couleur propre" (Correspondance 330), Mallarme writes in an 1866 letter to Francois Coppee. Individual words recede before language conceived as a mobile material that can be composed and de-composed into an infinity of shifting groupings or emblems. To take an example, we might examine a part of Mallarmes late sonnet "A la nue accablante tu." In the first two quatrains of this famously obscure sonnet, Mallarme evokes the eerie scene of a shipwreck silenced beneath a threatening sky.
A la nue accablante tu Basse de basalte et de laves A meme les echos esclaves Par une trompe sans vertu Quel sepulchral naufrage (tu Le sais, ecume, mais y baves) Supreme une entre les epaves Abolit le mat devetu
After scanning the poem several times, the reader is able to reconstruct the syntactic structure of the quatrains (it is one long independent clause); once this work is done, we might "translate" the referential content of the first two quatrains as: What sepulchral shipwreck, low/reef of rock and lava, and located at the same level as the slavish echoes, is not heard by (tu a) the crushing cloud, low/reef of rock and lava, (by virtue of its) dysfunctional horn (trompe sans vertu); what shipwreck (you know which one, [sea] foam, but drool on it), abolishes the unclothed mast (which is) the supreme fragment (from the wreck). (6) We might first attack the syntactical or grammatical ambiguity of the phrase, as basse may be read as modifying either the nue or the naufrage; as either as an adjective ("low") or as a noun (a "reef" of ossified ocean rock). The image of a low cloud or a rocky cloud, a low wreck or a rocky wreck flicker alternately into view as the reader pieces, un-pieces, and pieces together again the divergent paths of syntax holding the line together. Read as an appositive describing the nue accablante, the rocky connotations of basse color and refine the reader's image of a weighted cloud. If we read basse as an adjective, the related expression "nuages bas" glimmers into view, conjuring up images of dark, rain-laden storm clouds (Benichou 320). Oscillating between adjective and noun, the multi-layered basse piles upon the cloud (nue) a surplus of heavy connotations, "weighting" it the more. The grammatical and syntactic ambiguity of the word basse thus sets the poem vibrating with virtual connections as first one, then another, syntactical branch "lights up" and disappears like a feu electrique along a conducing wire.
The poem opens with the paradoxical image of a nue accablante, or "crushing" cloud, forcing the reader to hold balanced together the light, airy connotations of a cloud with the weight of "accablante." The basse de basalte or reef of stone reinforces the opening image of an aerated material hardened into a solid mass, and the nue accablante is also echoed in the image of laves, or liquid lava frozen into rock. Yet the watery lexical echo of "laver" in laves equally accentuates the softer qualities of the cloud, balancing out its solidity and emphasizing instead its ambiguous suspension between vapor and solid. The crushing cloud perfectly allegorizes poetic language as material suspended between solid condensation (the crystallization of rhyme) and cloud-like evaporation (the dispersion or spacing-out of letters). Esclaves/laves/accablante/basalte/baves, taken as a series, are near-anagrams of one another, alternating-e and-a sounds with the consonants--s,-l,-b,-c,-t,-v. The words compose. and discompose themselves before the eyes of the reader in a rhythmic, anagrammatic shuffling. Words break apart, but then fuse together again in over-determined layers. Thus, for instance, when the foam of the waves (ecume) "drools" on the remains of the wreck, the liquid baves is cobbled together out of the phonemic "dispersion" of the solid basalte et laves of the first stanza. Basalte and esclaves, when broken apart into their constituent phonemes (ba, cla, te) are nearly reassembled in accablante. And the triple-consonant--scla in esclaves condenses the more diluted-sa,-ca,-la series into a single syllable, as if demonstrating the "slave-like" (echos esclaves) centrifugal force of sound. By manipulating language's phonetic, semantic, lexical, syntactical, and grammatical potentiality, Mallarme thus makes available to the reader who is "musicalement organise" (Correspondance 595) a wealth of patterns and associations that remain undetectable in "la suite ordinaire" (CEuvres 386) of language.
None of these overlapping patterns, echoes, or rhymes was lost on Mallarme, who calculated the virtual reciprocal effects of words and their fractions almost to the point of madness. In the middle of composing Herodiade, a jewel of self-reflecting language, an exasperated Mallarme wrote to Henri Cazalis describing the "impressions tres-fugitives" which tortured his creative endeavor: "Ajoute, pour plus de terreur, que toutes ces impressions se suivent comme dans une symphonic, et que je suis souvent des journees entieres, a me demander si celle-ci peut accompagner celle-la, quelle est leur parente et leur effet ... " (Correspondance 220). Mallarme was at times paralyzed by language's proliferating internal reflections and the "terrifying" work of marshaling them into a perfectly balanced and efficiently organized whole. At the limit, Mallarme ceded all claims to a "stable" referential or semantic content for his poems, conceiving of them, instead, as spectacles of language as pure connectivity. Stable meaning is ceaselessly composed and decomposed within the poem, becoming thus a "mirage interne des mots" (Correspondance 392)--"visions sitot eparses que sues," as Mallarme comments of Loie Fuller's mirage-like apotheoses.
Mallarme imagined language as a complex cluster of linguistic material whose capacity for generating meaningful patterns far surpassed the referential value of its individual terms. "Une ordonnance du livre de vers poind innee ou partout," he announces in Crise de vers; "Susceptibilite en raison que le cri possede un echo--des motifs de meme jeu s'equilibreront, balances, a distance ... " (366). Order is "inherent" in language; meaning emerges from the combinatory play of repetition and difference among language's "quelque vingt lettres" (380). The task of poetry, for Mallarme, was to take language's blindly proliferating patterns--what Mallarme called the hasard inherent in language--and bring them under the thoughtful control of the poet, infusing them with an order that they lack in their "natural" (referential) state.
A long tradition of criticism has interpreted Mallarme's wrenching of language away from its referential function as a rejection of modernity in its tendency to commercialize and standardize art for a mass audience. Turning his back on "reality," Mallarme would thus pledge his commitment to poetry as an autonomous, pure language exempt from market exchange--the "sonnet nul se reflechissant" that he created in his "Sonnet en-yx" (Correspondance 382). (7) That Mallarme promoted an image of the poet as a sacred figure operating outside or above the vulgar constraints of nineteenth-century mass culture is undeniable. Like the cygne d'aturefois that haunts "Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui," Mallarme repeatedly cast the poet as an historical isolate, cut off and thus to some extent preserved from the rationalizing, homogenizing forces of modernity.
Yet this reading has obscured the equally important sense in which Mallarme's obsessive quest for ordonnance within language also--at the same time--mimics the calculating, rationalizing impulse that was the hallmark of late nineteenth-century technological modernity. As this paper has argued, Mallarme was intrigued by electricity as a metaphor for technology's drive to multiply the density and efficiency of the inter-connected parts making up a work-system. In his essays in Crayonne au 'Theatre, he drew on the period's imaginative investment in electricity as an ever-expanding network of energy in order to theorize poetic creation as a disciplined ordering of aesthetic material. We must learn to hold in tension these two juxtaposed images of the poet. It is, perhaps, by affirming the paradox of Mallarme's poetry as both rejecting and embodying the techno-logic of modernity that we are finally most faithful to it as a hieroglyph of the modernist moment.
University of Southern California
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(1.) Jonathan Crary's Suspensions of Perception examines the period's preoccupation with measuring and rationalizing human attentiveness in the emerging fields of psychology and labor studies; he then traces this "managerial" tendency through Impressionist painting from Manet to Seurat. Carrie Noland analyzes the intersection of technology, market rationality, and literature in the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire and his lyric heirs. Sara Danius argues that technologically-induced shifts in human perception are constitutive of Proust's modernist project.
(2.) See, for example, Max Weber's theory of the rise of "bureaucratization" as part of the Enlightenment's project to rationalize economic and political life. In a different vein, in his essay "The Question Concerning Technology." Heidegger seeks to pull "technology" away from its narrow modern definition as a technique for controlling or exploiting natural resources which, he argues, leads to an inauthentic and instrumental relationship to Being.
(3.) See Schivelbusch (64-76) on the shift from gas to electric lighting and the consequent re-thinking of power as a network generated by a unified central supply source.
(4.) For an interesting treatment of Mallarme as critic of Fuller, and in particular his use of Fuller's art to re-think the traditional medical/aesthetic relationship between a feminine subject and a male gaze, see Felicia McCarren (1995).
(5.) This rhetoric of unconscious energy was equally central to the sociological crowd theory of Gustave LeBon as an effort to explain and, if possible, administer and rationalize this potentially de-stabilizing force. See also Barrows and Poggi on the concept of "la foule" as a calculable energy source in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century aesthetics.
(6.) Interpretive readings of this poem are manifold and divided as to the sonnet's meaning. For a useful bibliography of competing interpretations, see Marchal (251-255).
(7.) Paul Valery was a key figure in the reception of Mallarme as a high-cultural shibboleth whose obscure texts served to divide the literary wheat from the chaff: "En cette oeuvre etrange, et comme absolue, residait un pouvoir magique. Par le seul fait de son existence, elle agissait comme charme et comme glaive. Elle divisait d'un seul coup tout le peuple des humains qui savent lire" (45). For a brief history of the "idealist" reception of Mallarme after his death, and in particular the part played by Valery, see Meschonnic.
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