Mallarmé’s Book #2

“Unable to discount either the fantasy of totality or the materiality of dissemination, I can do nothing but come back, again and again, into the Mallarméan fold,” reflects French scholar and translator Barbara Johnson in the essay “Discard or Masterpiece? Mallarmé’s Le Livre” on her experience handling the primary sources that constitute Le Livre. Johnson remarks Scherer’s fastidious hand in organizing the remnants intended for burning, and asks with sincerity “do we have a masterpiece yet?” when she confronts the hundreds of folios of “dimly after inscrutable page” of repetitive, diagrammatic drawing and incantations of the words “Mystery,” “Theatre,” “Drama,” “Idea,” “Hero,” and “Hymn.”

The folder containing the pieces of paper drafted as Le Livre was purchased for Harvard’s Houghton Library at a 1969 auction for $4,922. Johnson writes: “The fetishism of metonymy—I am touching the very paper that the master himself once touched—is magnified by the fact that there exists no finished work, no proof of intention…what forces have created the belief that this thing is a work of genius? What sort of privilege does one have to have already acquired in order to draw attention to oneself by whispering?”

Mallarmé’s lifelong obsession with the will to narrativize, in the first place, or, even at all, seems to be both the central question and obstacle in his poetic production. The approach towards intention, and the posthumous readerly eye—our own will to make of what Mallarmé himself considered detritus—fascinates me the most, historically, and in regards to the material production of publishing, which also shifts according to historical contingencies. Mallarmé was highly concerned with the consumption of the newspaper as text, and the burgeoning media of fin-de-siècle French society in general. This is reflected in many of his other works which drew on contemporary typographical designs and page layout in order to take advantage of the busied and stimulated sensorium.

His intentional use of paratext is of particular interest to me, as it seems much of the time spent with his work accrues in silence, and in fact, off the page, with no attention paid to the literal words. As Johnson remarked “…no proof of intention” is gleamed upon first, or any, glance. I believe this resistance, or tension, perhaps, contains innumerable lessons for the “reader.” It is no surprise, then, that Mallarmé ended up influencing some of the most famous French modernist musicians, such as Erik Satie and Pierre Boulez, whose compositions force the listener to engage with more than just the ears.