Monday, December 06, 2004

Week 16, Henry James, Mallarmé

Stéphane Mallarmé Notes

Post-It Notes on Mallarmé (with some additions)

Mallarmé is anti-utilitarian and anti-instrumentalist: poetry is an encounter with language as language. As a discussion point, one might ask whether or not this whole Mallarméan scheme takes anti-instrumentalism and impersonalism too far. It amounts to a complete divorce between ordinary language and poetic language, and therefore repeats on the level of pure language the isolation of the romantic poet from his society. At least, that's one way of looking at the matter.

Music, for Mallarmé, is orderly and yet liberatory. It aligns us with its successive notes, with its unfolding, and is experienced as pure play. We should not reaffirm our personal or “tribal” power over nature, but instead, and like the Greeks, connect by means of music and poetry with something beyond ourselves. Mallarmé refers to this realm as “impersonal,” but that doesn’t mean it is devoid of passion, I suppose. Poetry is a supplement -- it supplies a lack in the ordinary.

845-47. The “French Revolution II” is the movement from the Alexandrine verse of Racine and Corneille to free verse, vers libre. This change is no doubt allied with a shift in social and political arrangements from monarchical, semi-feudal to modern, parliamentary, commercialist C19 society. Well, Mallarmé isn’t exactly in favor of middle-class vulgarity and self-satisfaction, but the breakup of the Alexandrine is an opportunity not to be missed. It’s an opportunity for poetry to become what it ought to be -- both sensuous and ideal, an order that liberates all who come to it. It ought to be personal and yet lead us beyond personality.

The Alexandrine imposed a false decorum and order upon language, tamed it and imprisoned it. Language was therefore used to ratify conservative French values. Mallarmé’s poetics are anti-instrumentalist, just as he is anti-Cartesian more generally -- against the preeminence of mind as opposed to matter, reason as opposed to passion. As for ordinary language, we “use” it to express our feelings and ideas (romanticism) and to refer to things in the external world (realism, everyday living). Both uses are instrumental, and they falsify experience and even the meaning of being human. Language thereby becomes a mere tool shed full of tools, not the House of Being.

But Mallarmé considers language more worthwhile than the fake “autonomous individual” who supposedly uses it to shore up a narrow sense of self and world, more worthwhile than the everyday business that can be transacted with it or within its sphere. This anti-middle-class sentiment makes language the new principle of aristocracy, the ennobling force, the power that lets us keep contact with mystery, with “play” (jouissance, as in Barthes and Derrida) with the holy (Heidegger). Yet, the realm of Language isn’t an empty externality, a metaphysical far-away place we can use. The goal isn’t to get there from here since that would be to commit the same error as instrumentalists commit.

848-49. As the Beckett character says, “what matter who is speaking?” Ordinary speech disappoints us because it doesn’t correspond to real-world qualities when we expect it to. We aren’t Gods and cannot achieve a one-to-one correspondence between words and things. (Perhaps this is what Paul de Man refers to when he says that even Mallarmé leaves the supremacy of nature untouched.) But poetry liberates us from such selfish demands for pedestrian intelligibility; it’s an impersonal language where the Ideal is at play. It creates an order that we can step into, a sort of mystical realm. There is no need, as far as Mallarmé is concerned, to turn to the “author-function” (Foucault) as a principle of interpretive stability.

Evocation, suggestion, are better than fact. In somewhat plain and inaccurate terms, they lead us to a better realm than the everyday. Mallarmé might be described as a Platonist, but again that would be a bit misleading. He isn’t really pushing a movement from a deluded “here” to a metaphysical “there.” In his view, it seems, language itself is the realm of purity; language is a here-realm of pure play, not a beyond of the sort that philosophical realists posit.

851. Mallarmé’s flower example implies that what Nietzsche calls the abstraction-making power of language, its tendency to lie about the referential world, ought to be turned to account as music, as suggestibility that creates its own order. He is not out to shore up the triumphant individual ego, the narrow shopkeeper-self in us all. Instead, he wants to see the triumph of language with a capital “L,” language as its own order, one that liberates us into what Heidegger will later call “the light of Being.” Language isn’t a tool shed; it is the dwelling-place of all that is most valuable in humanity.

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.

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