In the lyric essay “The Book as Spiritual Instrument,” Mallarmé famously wrote: “everything in the world exists to end up as a book.” Given this dictum, there exists a profound irony inherent to the object of inquiry, the material book that so fascinates me and countless others. Mallarmé’s obsession with the book as a conceptual tool for language spanned over 30 years, traceable to multiple letters written between 1866-1867. He would refer to the idea as “le livre,” and “l’œuvre,” “the book” and “the work.”
Translator Sylvia Gorelick writes “this idea comes with a revelation of the groundlessness of existence and the absence of ideality, resulting in a radical materialism…Poetry, with its privileged relationship to mendacity, represents a source of power in the face of materiality. Without a divine substratum for thought, Mallarmé suggests, we can nonetheless hope for a book in which the ‘spectacle of matter’ and the dream of idealism would be synthesized.”
The irony of undertaking a visual and poetic “study” of The Book then lies in another letter addressed to Mallarmé’s daughters Marie and Geneviève in 1898, a year before his death, in which he instructs his daughters to burn all the papers comprising the extant book: “Burn, then: there is no literary inheritance there, my poor children.” Immediately following Mallarmé’s death, Paul Valéry was shown the papers. In 1957 Jacques Scherer, a French scholar and professor, editorialized the papers under the title Le “Livre” de Mallarmé, thus fashioning the collected papers into a text. The impasse of any and all interpretation, reading, meditation, and study undertaken thus follows the editorial decision to imply a published coherence.
I am interested in interrogating the implications of the decision to publish, and thereby attempt to reify, some latent “narrative” or “message” of The Book, the original papers of which are currently at Harvard’s Houghton Library. I’ve selected the above images from Gorelick’s translation, which remains the most faithful and loyal to Mallarmé’s original papers in their near illegibility, as a way to think through the act of publishing’s relation to the production of “knowledge.” As you can see, The Book, as it has been editorialized, is more a circuitous, obsessive, and hermetic fragmented journal about Mallarmé’s endless fascination with content and form, page and language, production and unrealizable impossibility.
To be continued…
In Mallarmé’s lifetime (1842-1889), the following advancements in publishing, book production, and typography were made:
1878: Photogravure; Foil cylinder recording
1879: Stitched-binding machine
1886: Linotype; Berne Convention on Copyright
Just four years after his death in 1903 the offset Lithographic press was invented.