Stéphane Mallarmé and French Symbolism

It is no accident that references to the literary ideas and example of Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98) abound in contemporary literary criticism and theory. The great French poet’s notoriously refined aestheticism and fervent devotion to language led him to expound a view of literature and literary meaning that profoundly influenced the modernist avant-garde from Symbolism through surrealism and on into postmodern cultural theory. Mallarmé’s firm belief in the self-sufficiency and self-referentiality of literary language, to which his own eccentric, stylistically innovative poetry and prose attested, came to fruition most dramatically in the structuralism and poststructuralism of the 1960s and 1970s in France. Mallarmé was a favorite of both Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault , whose own stylistic achievements compared favorably with his. The controversial French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan frequently invoked Mallarmé, and what many took to be the obscurantist style of the former was attributed in no small part to the latter’s influence. One of Jacques Derrida’s most influential essays, “The Double Session,” is a deconstructionist reading of Mallarmé’s brief prose fragment “Mimique.” In her early work, Julia Kristeva upheld Mallarmé, along with the comte de Lautréamont (1846-70), as an exemplary figure in the development of a subversive modernist “revolution” in poetic language.

As a result of the immediate influence of these and other theorists, a new generation of critics on both sides of the Atlantic has returned to Mallarmé, producing an impressive array of books and essays that increasingly present him as a vital force in a postmodern literary culture reverberating, a full century later, with his enigmatic pronouncements. In a very real sense, Mallarmé’s influence remains greater today than it was in his own lifetime, limited as it was to a small, devoted circle of friends and admirers.

Stéphane Mallarmé/Pinterest

Stéphane Mallarmé was a relatively obscure English teacher employed by a series of lycées. His evenings were devoted largely to poetry, typically sonnets and other short poems but also the prose poem genre he, along with Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91), inherited from Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) and continued to refine. Mallarmé also produced critical treatises and even brought out, single-handedly, a women’s fashion magazine (La Dernière Mode) during the period of 1874-75. With the exception of his voluminous correspondence, his complete works comprise a single substantial volume in the standard Pléiade edition. Regarded since his death as one of the greatest poets in the French language, Mallarmé is remembered for a handful of poems marked by uncommon beauty, intelligence, and often baffling linguistic complexity.

After years of teaching in lycées throughout France, Mallarmé secured a position in Paris and moved his family there in 1871. He gradually befriended a circle of prominent fellow poets, such as Paul Verlaine (1844-96) and, much later in his life, Paul Valéry (1871-1945), as well as the painters Edouard Manet (1832-83), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Berthe Morisot (1841-95), James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), and Odilon Redon (1840-1916). In the last years of his life, Mallarmé and his friends formed the habit of gathering at the poet’s home each Tuesday evening for discussions, or perhaps one should say monologues, wherein Mallarmé would hold forth, omnipresent cigarette in hand, on the aesthetic topics that most concerned him. Much of what we know of these Mardis was recounted by Valéry. The ideas Mallarmé expressed to his friends, in conversation and in letters, on the subject of poetry and aesthetics in general were to have a profound impact on fin-de-siècle French culture, particularly on the artistic movement known as Symbolism.

Both representing and transcending the limits of French Symbolism, Mallarmé can be seen as one of the most significant figures in a process of transition in the modern development of poetic meaning and the role of the poet. “Symbolism,” a suspiciously tidy label for a host of complex and contradictory aesthetic tendencies, yokes together the successive attempts of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Verlaine to redefine the poetic task, previously viewed as one of conveying powerful emotional states or of crafting art as an end in itself, as one of forging a separate symbolic reality by means of densely coded subtle sensations perceptible only to a select readership uncompromised by the banality of bourgeois tastes.

The Symbolists reacted against the l’art pour l’art emphasis of the so-called “Parnassian” school of the midnineteenth century, as well as against positivism and literary naturalism, in favor of impressionistic, contemplative preoccupation with powerful symbols and their effects on consciousness. Baudelaire’s poetry was the first to explore these often private symbols, selected for their ability to produce what he would call “synaesthesia,” or the tendency for one sensory experience (such as a color) to evoke another (such as a sound) related with it. With this goal in mind, he sought to broaden the scope of metaphoric and metonymic language in order to elevate sensory experience to the level of intellect, fueling it yet remaining separate. Whatever the enduring power or aesthetic appeal of the symbols, however, Baudelaire’s poetry still remains close to the late Romantic, subjective sensibilities that produced it.


As Symbolism continued to develop in French poetry, the personal, subjective stance of the poet could nevertheless be glimpsed through the forest of symbols that proliferated around it. Of all the poets who worked within the Symbolist tradition inaugurated by Baudelaire, Mallarmé appears to have devoted the greatest energy to populating a symbolic universe whose inhabitants bore few obvious traces of their poetic creator. Perhaps this is why many critics and historians of French Symbolism regard him as the Symbolist par excellence, for all of Symbolism’s diverse tendencies. In recent years, as preoccupation with symbols has given way to analysis of linguistic signs and multiple effects of signification, poststructuralist fascination with and emphasis on Mallarmé has changed the way we view Symbolism. Whereas earlier generations of critics mined Mallarmé’s oeuvre for telltale symbols that offered clues to his personal and poetic preoccupations, poststructuralist approaches have explored the dense textuality of Mallarmé’s writings in order to advance a poetics of literary signification.

Where Baudelaire had been content to generate poetic symbols that retained an obvious link to his personality, Mallarmé, beginning with the very poem in which he rendered homage to Baudelaire (“Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire”), expressed the wish for his own poetic “death,” in terms of suppressing his personal voice in favor of a sacrificial opening up to language. Mallarmé’s symbolism was thoroughly rooted in language. He believed in the pure essence of words and a poetic ideal of such dazzling immediacy that words need serve no referential purpose beyond their placement in the text. His frequent expression of this poetic credo cannot fail to spark a knowing response in readers steeped in postmodern literary theory, and yet his was a thoroughly classical view, harking back to Plato‘s vision, discussed in the dialogue Cratylus, of the absolute unity of language with the real objects it would designate.

In his most ambitious and experimental writings, Mallarmé created an intensely visual, nonreferential style that, for all its “Cratylan” idealism, appears to anticipate recent concepts of the “materiality” of the signified, in need of no validation outside the text. Nearly a century before deconstuction would refuse any reality beyond the text, Mallarmé was to declare that “tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre” (“everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book”), one of many such Mallarméan statements that encourage a cultish fetishization of the literary work of art.

After 1866, very near the time of “Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire,” Mallarmé, at work on his great poem Hérodiade, saw his poetic task as one of breaking from the Parnassian emphasis on representation of objects and moving toward a poetic language that could portray the effects of objects on the poet’s consciousness. In his words: “Peindre, non la chose, mais l’effet qu’elle produit.” What recent critical emphasis on language or discourse helps us to appreciate is the extent to which Mallarmé’s creative labors led him to a poetics of language’s effects per se. He came to feel that it was his poetic responsibility to “yield the initiative to the words” (céder l’initiative aux mots). While he may have articulated this view out of his belief in the power of words to contain true meaning, for the contemporary critic his move appears to solicit the multiple, even contradictory effects of literary signification, especially as it becomes rather pointless, if not impossible, to declare with any degree of certainty what Mallarmé’s own most challenging texts may “mean.”

Increasingly Mallarmé’s poems, such as the late poems “Prose pour Des Esseintes” and the boldly experimental “Un Coup de dés,” refer not to a representable world or to the poet’s own consciousness but to themselves, or most radically to the act of writing and the unstable character of black marks on white page—what Rimbaud had designated l’alchimie du verbe (“the alchemy of the word”). Moreover, Mallarmé, for all his faith in the inherent immediacy of poetic meaning, forced a radical separation between the aural, bardic sense of poetry and the silent arrangement of marks on the page that constitutes the written poem. In “Un Coup de dés” [A roll of the dice], the work that preoccupied Mallarmé during the last years of his life, the bizarre configuration of the words of the poem on the page mimic both the roll of dice across a table and the reader, regularly turning pages, in the act of reading. The poem has become a visual artifact, albeit an unstable one. For these reasons, it has been better elucidated by recent critics preoccupied with the multiple effects of written language than by earlier practitioners of n ew c r it ic ism, who treated the poem as a complete, stable entity.

Paul Valéry, discussing his regular attendance at the legendary Mallarméan Mardis, remarked that Mallarmé spoke and acted as if he himself had invented language. Mallarmé’s strong convictions and ideas about language dominate his later poetry, beginning, according to Robert Greer Cohn, with his “first truly hermetic poem,” “Ses purs ongles très haut dédiant leur onyx,” or the “Sonnet in yx.” Published in 1887 (although incubating since the 1860s), this sonnet would appear at first glance to be “about” his lover’s attractive fingernails, yet the rhyme scheme that makes use of words ending in yx (e.g., “onyx” and the strangely non-French “ptyx”) allows the verbal play to take over, so that the poet’s fascination with stubborn consonant sounds displaces the representational function of poetic language. Indeed, Mallarmé had begun to declare open rebellion against mimetic language and representation per se. This preoccupation with consonants was also a feature of his Les Mots anglais (1877), one of the prose works of this dedicated Anglophile. Using the phrase introduced by Roland Barthes, we would say today that the “Sonnet in yx” is a scriptible (writerly) text, its unprecedented material elements inviting us to remake it playfully in the act of reading.

In “Prose pour Des Esseintes” (1885), words that would appear to designate objects are metamorphosed into hybrid forms that could only be found in the silent play of language within consciousness. Thus “irises” merge with “ideas” to form iridées, a new kind of linguistic way station located somewhere between the world of flowers and the world of ideas. In his essay “Crisis in Poetry,” Mallarmé seemed to pen a kind of poetic manifesto, one that contained the celebrated proclamation “Je dis: une fleur! … l’absente de tous bouquets” (“I say: a flower! … the one absent from every bouquet”). Much as his iridées are objects found only in poetic language, Mallarmé seems here to refer to an effect unique to the act of reading, the only way to glimpse or savor a flower l’absente de tons bouquets of our accustomed daily experience.

Viewed from the perspective of recent textual criticism, this becomes a way of stating that literature provides sensory experiences that are distinct from, yet no less real than, lived human experience. One thinks perhaps of René Magritte’s realistic painting of a pipe, with its paradoxical caption Ceci n’est pas une pipe (which translates as “This is not a pipe”), a blunt and startling reminder of the distinction between “reality” and representation. Or it may be analogous to the paradoxes of Lacanian psychoanalysis, where language can only imperfectly serve to express frustrated desire for the unattainable object. Even more recently, the flower able to bloom only within a reader’s consciousness must seem to be a manifestation of the Derridean “trace,” the delayed detonation that can only occur beyond the hearing range of an ethereal presence.

In poem after poem, Mallarmé’s fascination with sky, foam, lace, or fog seems metaphorically to express a sense of the impermanence of language, its tendency to dissolve or be transformed into new elements. Edmund Jabès (1912-91), a contemporary French poet who expressed his considerable debt to Mallarmé, remarked that he used to wonder why the words in a book did not get all jumbled up during the night while the book was closed. This seemingly whimsical observation conveys rather neatly Mallarmé’s own fascination with language that is as delicate and impermanent as foam settling onto a beach. Such willingness to view written language in this way helps to explain the importance of Mallarmé for contemporary critical theory, especially the work of Jacques Derrida and the deconstructionist criticism he has inspired. Those convinced by Derridean advocacy of “writing” in opposition to speech and presence, with the many textual operations that are seen as undercutting or subverting linear narrative, stable meanings, and ethereal control, are tempted to view Mallarmé as a poststructuralist avant la lettre. Recently, this has also been true of new feminist theory and criticism, as the search for an alternative feminist written discourse has emerged. Such a discourse is viewed by some feminist theorists as necessarily in opposition to what is seen as a patriarchal ideology of authorial mastery and fixed meanings. One of the critical strategies for exposing this has been metaphorically to equate the female body with a celebration of the open-ended textuality of writing, as opposed to the “phallic” would-be mastery of male authorship. Mallarmé has been cited as a masculine writer who nevertheless evolved a differently gendered approach to writing more in keeping with a would-be feminist alternative. Whatever the merits of these or other contemporary uses of Mallarmé, it is safe to say that he has come into his own during the late twentieth century.

Stéphane Mallarmé, Mallarmé: Prose Poems, Essays, and Letters (ed. Bradford Cook, 1956), Oeuvres complètes (ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry, 1945), Selected Letters of Stéphane Mallarmé (ed. and trans. Rosemary Lloyd, 1988), Selected Poetry and Prose (ed. Mary Ann Caws, 1982). Maria L. Assad, La Fiction et la mort dans l’oeuvre de Stéphane Mallarmé (1987); Harold Bloom, ed., Stéphane Mallarmé: Modern Critical Views (1987); Malcolm Bowie, Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult (1978); Steven M. Cassedy, The Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modem Literary Criticism and Theory (1990); Robert Greer Cohn, “Mallarmé on Derrida,” French Review 61 (1988), Toward the Poems of Mallarmé: Expanded Edition (1980); Jacques Derrida, “The Double Session,” Dissemination (trans. Barbara Johnson, 1981); Roger Dragonetti, Un Fantôme dans le kiosque: Mallarmé et l’esthétique du quotidien (1992); Gérard Genette, “Au défaut des langues,” Mimologique: Voyage en Cratylie (1976); Barbara Johnson, “Mallarmé as Mother: A Preliminary Sketch,” Denver Quarterly 18 (1984); Julia Kristeva, La Révolution du langage poétique: L’Avantgarde à la fin du XIXe siècle: Lautréamont et Mallarmé (1974, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller, 1984); Virginia A. La Charité, The Dynamics of Space: Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (1987); Jean-Pierre Lecercle, Mallarmé et la mode (1989); Mary Lydon, “Skirting the Issue: Mallarmé, Proust, and Symbolism,” Yale French Studies 74 (1988); Kevin Newmark, “Beneath the Lace: Mallarmé, the State, and the Foundation of Letters,” Yale French Studies 77 (1990); Marshall C. Olds, Desire Seeking Expression: Mallarmé’s Prose pour des esseintes (1983); Laurence M. Porter, “Mallarmé’s Disappearing Muse,” The Crisis of French Symbolism (1990); Jean-Michel Rabaté, “‘Rien n’aura eu lieu que le lieu’: Mallarmé and Postmodernism,” Writing the Future (ed. David Wood, 1990); Deirdre A. Reynolds, “Mallarmé et la transformation esthétique du langage, à l’exemple de ‘Ses purs ongles,”‘ French Forum 15 (1990); Donald Rice and Peter Schofer, “Mallarmé’s Clown,” Rhetorical Poetics: Theory and Practice of Figural and Symbolic Reading in Modem French Literature (ed. Donald Rice and Peter Schofer, 1983); Frederic C. St. Aubyn, Stéphane Mallarmé (rev. ed., 1987); Nathaniel Wing, The Limits of Narrative: Essays on Baudelaire, Flaubert, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé (1986); Yale French Studies 54 (1977, special issue on Mallarmé).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Categories: French Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Poetry

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