Mallarmé gets a life

Barbara Johnson

  • Mallarmé: A Throw of the Dice by Gordon Millan
    Secker, 389 pp, £16.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 436 27096 X

Stéphane Mallarmé was the darling of French Symbolism and the demon of Existentialism. Later, in the Sixties and Seventies, he was a central figure for critical movements from psychoanalytic and thematic criticism to structuralism, semiotics and deconstruction. We have had analyses of his work by Charles Mauron, Jean-Pierre Richard, Robert Greer Cohn, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Leo Bersani, Malcolm Bowie and others. It might seem surprising, therefore, not to find a single full-length biography published between Henri Mondor’s 1941 Vie de Mallarmé and Gordon Millan’s Mallarmé: A Throw of the Dice. Millan notes in his Introduction that ‘the man himself has been all but forgotten, eclipsed and overshadowed by his writings. Anyone reading recent Mallarmé criticism could be forgiven for wondering whether he ever had a life.’

There is a reason for this erasure. The eclipse of the author by the work is not an accident of Mallarmé criticism: it is Mallarmé’s principal literary discovery. It was Mallarmé himself who dreamed of ‘a Text speaking of and by itself, without the voice of an author’. The affirmative erasure of the poet from the work was a goal for which he never stopped striving: ‘The pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who leaves the initiative to words.’ And it was Mallarmé himself who created the myth of his lack of biography: writing to Verlaine in 1885 in response to a request for a headnote for his poems, he spoke of his ‘life devoid of anecdote’.

Twenty years earlier, Mallarmé had announced to his friend Henri Cazalis, ‘I am perfectly dead ... I am now impersonal and no longer the Stéphane you have known, but an aptitude the spiritual universe has to see and develop itself through what was once me.’ But, as Leo Bersani asks in The Death of Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘what kind of poetry can a dead poet produce?’ Similarly, we might ask, what kind of ‘life of Mallarmé’ can do justice to this poet whose work arose out of the discovery of his own death?

It was largely by learning the lesson of Mallarmé that critics like Roland Barthes came to speak of ‘the death of the author’ in the making of literature. Rather than seeing the text as the emanation of an individual author’s intentions (always a probabilistic and speculative enterprise), structuralists and deconstructors followed the paths and patterns of the signifier, paying new attention to syntax, spacing, intertextuality, sound, semantics, etymology, even individual letters. In each case, Mallarmé had been there before them: calling himself a ‘syntaxer’ and syntax the ‘pivot of intelligibility’, writing a book about the meanings of sounds and letters in English words, creating a concrete poem out of typography and position on the page, inventing a style of critical prose as well as poetry in which ellipses, discontinuities and obscurities played an integral part, and criticising romantic subjectivity and bourgeois realism. Freed from conventions of coherence, authority and psychology, texts could be allowed to unfold as infinite signifying systems.

This is not to say that Mallarmé’s late, most stylistically radical texts have nothing to do with the desire for coherence. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of Mallarmé is that, along with his fragmentation of all the usual modes of meaning, he also imagined that ‘The Book’ would put everything back together in a higher synthesis. This impersonal, prismatic, grand oeuvre would also be a key to all mythologies, the ‘Orphic explanation of the earth’. Somehow the book would actually be the ‘musicality of everything’, not mean it. Another paradox lies in the historical specificity of his most abstract theoretical writings: one of the densest of his discussions of the nature of value, for example, also deals with the failure of the Panama Canal Company. Satanism, an afternoon concert series, an encounter with a construction worker, the authority of the Catholic Church, a vote in the French Academy, a proposal to create a general fund for poets, are all part of the texture of his meditations on what he often capitalised as Literature. And one of his favourite projects was a fashion magazine which, under various pseudonyms, he wrote and edited almost entirely himself.

What, then, might one expect from a Nineties’ biography of Mallarmé? The first requirement, I would think, would be some attempt to come to grips with what it might mean to write the life of a post-dead author. For the author was barely cold before the same mourners brought about a resurrection: Barthes and Derrida have written post-autobiographies, Julia Kirsteva has written a roman-à-clef, and Paul de Man’s life has come back into view like a return of the repressed. At the same time, race, class, gender, post-colonial and sexuality studies have suggested that the ‘death’ of canonical authors is a way of preserving their authority and shielding them from historical and political questioning.

Gordon Millan’s biography of Mallarmé is written as though none of these issues, arising from questions Mallarmé himself invented, ever occurred or mattered. Or rather, his attitude toward the past twenty years of Mallarmé criticism is rather like the attitude he describes Mallarmé’s grandmother as having towards children: ‘She was a woman of quite definite and determined views: children should not be coddled; they must learn to be obedient; they should be seen and not heard, actively discouraged from being too vain or interesting or individual.’ The damning epithet invoked on the two or three occasions on which Millan mentions criticism at all is ‘exaggerated’.

This, then, is a biography that does not exaggerate. It is not vain or interesting or individual. It is respectful, reasonable, carefully researched and unimaginative. When it quotes a poem, in acts as though, in the context, the poem’s meaning is self-evident. After Mondor’s lengthy, soft-focus tome, it is rather refreshing to read about Mallarmé’s financial and professional incompetence. Instead of idealising the poetic temperament above all else, this biographer occasionally expresses his disapproval of Mallarmé’s ingratitude toward his grandmother and stepmother, his unrealistic attitude toward money; and his poor performance as a high-school English teacher. It is rather appalling to learn how often his friends in high places helped him keep his job.

This refreshing everydayness is not, however, matched by any deep historical recontextualisation. The portrait, like those offered by the vast majority of biographies of literary figures, is still mainly that of literary and artistic personalities, narrated from the point of view of the psychological individual, in the context of the family. Mallarmé’s many friendships in the world of painters, musicians and writers are concisely and sensibly chronicled, but not reframed against a non-literary backdrop. The Commune, the Franco-Prussian War, the Eiffel Tower, anarchism, the Dreyfus Affair, the golden age of French imperialism – all are given one or two sentences, but Millan fails to defamiliarise the aesthetic focus of all previous work on Mallarmé. It would be interesting to look at the literary and artistic world from the outside as well as from the inside, or to see its intersections with larger political, social, economic and historical events. In Mallarmé’s case, such a contextualisation of his deep investment in the aesthetic would have been illuminating. Even some of his own projects are described as though they required no comment. La Dernière Mode, the fashion magazine, is treated in two pages, with no discussion of what it meant for a poet with his metaphysical interests to write a fashion magazine, how other poets and writers were involved in similar ventures, where he got the dress patterns, how it linked up with contemporary industrial or commercial enterprises, what was happening in the fashion world etc. The name of Charles Worth is never mentioned. The huge variety of topics covered by Mallarmé’s late prose would never be guessed from the ways in which it is described here.

What is good about this biography is its conscientious closeness to primary documents by Mallarmé and his intimates. But it achieves its narrative verisimilitude by never allowing such closeness to go to the point of raising issues of textuality, partiality and readability. These may be omissions that go with the territory of traditional biography, but, in the case of Mallarmé, it seems, at the very least, ironic. Rather than speculating about unconscious signification, discontinuity among documents or textual ambiguity, Millan sticks to facts for which there is evidence that can be construed as coherent. This sometimes leads him to dismiss in one sentence whole schools of secondary literature – particularly psychoanalytic criticism – but it is what enables him to appear to be presenting an uncluttered account of the ‘facts’ of a life. No life could seem more ordinary: white, male, middle-class heterosexual with wife, two children (and later, mistress) struggles to make ends meet while seeking to move from the provinces to Paris, from which, when he finally gets there, he escapes more and more often to his summer home. Even the untimely deaths in his family (his mother, his sister and his son) were quite typical of the 19th century. A more ambitious biography, whether literarily or historically, would have ended up being longer. Perhaps someone will undertake one when the correspondence between Mallarmé and Méri Laurent (with whom he enjoyed a friendship both before and after they were lovers) becomes available from the year 2000.

As a short, useful reference work on Mallarmé’s life, then, this biography fills a gap in English and provides more details than ever before. Even if it offers no new readings of Mallarmé’s work, it describes that work with a certain tact, and weaves a description of the struggle to write into the fabric of a life of ill-health, financial worry, professional irritation and an unusual capacity for friendship. Perhaps it is impossible to engage with what is most challenging about Mallarmé’s writing through traditional biography. In an age of grand demystifications, this portrait of an ordinary man may be the most demystifying approach of all.

Nevertheless, everything interesting still remains to be done on Mallarmé’s life and times. The late prose cries out for a historicist (new or old) reading that would both research the Panama Canal and the women’s fashion industry and come to grips with Mallarmé’s textuality. The unfinished notes for ‘The Book’, in which Mallarmé tries to invent a total performance art (complete with entrance fees, instructions on folding the pages, the layout of chairs and a seasonal schedule) should be studied by theorists of performance. A historical study of group formation could analyse the transferential appeal of a Master who theorised his own absence (at length, every Tuesday in the Rue de Rome). Someone could connect the Coup de dés to the history of cyberspace. Someone could analyse Mallarmé’s statement that human enterprises are divided between aesthetics and political economy and hold it up to Terry Eagleton’s critique of ‘the ideology of the aesthetic’. Someone could integrate Mallarmé into the history of Catholicism or mythology. Someone could contextualise the French disapproval of poetry that led parents to threaten to take their children out of the lycée in Tournon when they found out the English teacher had published in Le Parnasse contemporain.

But, perhaps more important, the odd fit between this poet’s life and this poet’s work, and between this biography and everything vital in Mallarmé criticism, only points to the difficulty inherent in any attempt to think about a life and a work as a coherent whole. On the one hand, such a project is immensely seductive. There is a genuine pleasure in mapping out the anamorphoses of biographical detail in poetic texts. On the other hand, such a project usually raises more questions than it answers. The difficulty as well as the appeal of biography as an approach to literature has been reinforced in recent years by debates over sexual and racial identity. How does knowledge of the race, class, religion, nationality, sexuality or gender of an author (or reader) affect the reading of the text? Are these things different from centuries and genres? What does it mean to have ‘knowledge’ of such things? Yet how could such ‘knowledge’ fail to affect the reading process? Or is biography only about what is specific to a particular individual? But, as these questions make clear, how can we know what is specific to a particular individual?

In the institutions of literary studies, it is often the authors about whom the least is known (Homer, Shakespeare) that are the most canonical. Was this what Mallarmé understood when he yearned for a text speaking on its own? Why is authority tied to the erasure of particularity? Why are some forms of particularity easier to erase than others? If these are the questions Mallarmé leaves us with, it is clear that they cannot he answered simply with, or simply without, biography.