Strictly mod­ern

Sug­ges­tion is all in a prose col­lec­tion by this ar­che­typal French sym­bol­ist poet, writes Barry Hill Di­va­ga­tions By Stephane Mal­larme Trans­lated by Bar­bara John­son Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 312pp, $ 60

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TEPHANE Mal­larme, the bronchial, in­som­niac French school­teacher who was pre­co­ciously mod­ern by the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury, set­ting the pace, as it were, for 20th- cen­tury po­et­ics, was a glut­ton for pun­ish­ment. ‘‘ In truth I am on a voy­age,’’ he de­clared in 1866, ‘‘ but in un­known lands, and, if to flee tor­rid re­al­ity, I take de­light in images of the cold . . . for a month I have been in the purist glaciers of Aes­thet­ics — and that af­ter hav­ing found the Void, I’ve found Beauty— and you can’t imag­ine in what lu­cid al­ti­tudes I’m ven­tur­ing.’’

He was, it must be said, only 25, so can be for­given such ro­man­tic dandy­ism. He was al­ways go­ing to sound vamped- up, a strange cock­tail of om­nipo­tence and neu­roti­cism, not un­like his con­tem­po­rary Charles Baude­laire, or the shrewder, cooler Gus­tave Flaubert.

But Mal­larme had the grand plan. Af­ter 20 years of hard, se­cluded work, he would have just five short books, each of them per­fect. His aes­thetic stud­ies would lead to ‘‘ the great­est work writ­ten on Po­etry’’. He thought he might call his next vol­ume The Glory of the Lie, or The Glo­ri­ous Lie. ‘‘ I shall sing it as one in de­spair,’’ he pro­claimed, and he did go on to pub­lish a small but ex­quis­ite body of work, rav­ish­ingly sen­sual, sym­bol­ist po­etry that has in­flu­enced gen­er­a­tions of po­ets since from Paul Valery and T. S. Eliot to Aus­tralia’s Christo­pher Bren­nan, as well as sev­eral im­por­tant con­tem­po­rary po­ets.

Even so, that de­spair sounds af­fected. Mal­larme seems to be con­struct­ing the poet as a celebrity, rather as if he has an­tic­i­pated the mod­ern need for the cult of the writ­ers fes­ti­val. But that is where th­ese grandil­o­quent ab­strac­tions — the Void, Beauty, Glo­ri­ous Lies — be­come im­por­tant. They are the key to Mal­larme’s fa­mous lin­guis­tic cri­sis of the 1860s, which he re­solved by find­ing the strate­gies that helped de­fine mod­ern writ­ing, and a great deal of re­cent French the­ory with re­gard to it.

The cri­sis was a com­pound of the spir­i­tual and philo­soph­i­cal. The abyss of which Mal­larme spoke opened be­neath him in a way that was com­mon in the 19th cen­tury. It in­volved the thought that if there was no God there was noth­ing, a noth­ing­ness he chose to ex­press by ref­er­ence to Bud­dhism. In his let­ters he says this aware­ness crushed him and made him aban­don his work, but this too sounds over- the­atri­cal. There is noth­ing in his let­ters to sug­gest that he was a re­li­gious man.

Rather, Mal­larme was a sen­si­bil­ity yearn­ing for

Sab­so­lutes with re­gard to lan­guage. He be­moaned the mul­ti­plic­ity of lan­guages, the house of Ba­bel in which we live. More specif­i­cally, he lamented the way words do not re­ally fit the world. Mal­larme’s con­vic­tion was that in the ab­sence of an ideal lan­guage po­ets could fill the gap.

All this sounds straight­for­ward enough, if a touch Napoleonic. The com­pli­ca­tions, and the ex­tra- moder­ni­ties, en­ter when we have to ap­pre­ci­ate Mal­larme’s con­vic­tion that words could never do the job of copy­ing the world: there could be no mimetic po­etry. Rather, po­etry’s task was to at­tune us to the spirit of things by sug­ges­tion. Beauty was Mal­larme’s code for a writ­ing that might re­store, or at least hint at or sim­u­late, ‘‘ the mu­si­cal­ity of ev­ery­thing’’.

Given this, you would ex­pect Mal­larme to have pro­duced po­etry that was ut­terly lyri­cal, ex­pres­sions of a unique self ro­man­ti­cally in­dulged. Not so. His lin­guis­tic cri­sis dis­man­tled his sense of the self. ‘‘ My thought has thought it­self through . . . I have died per­fectly . . . Hav­ing felled God, I still have to look in a mir­ror to think . . . I have be­come im­per­sonal.’’

This cel­e­brated pas­sage in­vites much philo­soph­i­cal thought, which Mal­larme sidestepped by means of po­etry that must be, he now thought, im­per­sonal with re­gard to the self, and sym­bolic rather than ex­pres­sive.

What mat­tered was the mu­sic of the words, the rhythm of their con­nec­tions and dis­con­nec­tions. The poem would go out into the world to sig­nify some­thing uni­ver­sal. ‘‘ More and bet­ter than Ni­et­zsche,’’ Jean- Paul Sartre once re­marked, ‘‘ Mal­larme lived through the death of God.’’

Dur­ing his hum­drum life as a teacher, he re­mained a re­li­able hus­band and a good fa­ther to his two chil­dren, all the while modelling his small body of work which, as it was slowly pub­lished, earned him the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing bril­liant and dif­fi­cult to the point of ob­scu­rity. Un­like most fel­low po­ets he was good- hu­moured about the charge of ob­scu­rity. ‘‘ Of course I be­come ob­scure,’’ he snorted, ‘‘ if the reader makes the mis­take of think­ing he’s open­ing a news­pa­per!’’

This was in 1893, only four years be­fore his death, by which time he had added to ev­ery­one’s dif­fi­cul­ties, in­clud­ing his own, by in­vent­ing what he called the ‘‘ crit­i­cal poem’’, a po­etic prose that played with the spirit of the times while ward­ing off its vul­gar­i­ties. Di­va­ga­tions ( or Some

Mus­ings), is a col­lec­tion of such pieces, pub­lished here in English for the first time in the or­der Mal­larme in­tended.

‘‘ This is a book,’’ he wrote in a de­fi­ant pref­ace, ‘‘ just the way I don’t like them: scat­tered and with no ar­chi­tec­ture.’’ But he adds that the pieces do have ‘‘ a sin­gle sub­ject of thought’’: ‘‘ if you look at them with the eye of a stranger, they re­sem­ble an abbey that, even though ru­ined, would breathe out its doc­trine to the passer- by’’.

The breath­ings, the sound­ings, the me­an­der­ing, the ex­ploratory, pro­vi­sional tone: that is the thing. Mal­larme’s sen­tences are ser­pen­tine and in­tri­cate; sug­ges­tion is ev­ery­thing, es­pe­cially in the fa­mous pieces that make up the first 50 pages of the book, with which read­ers of Mal­larme will be familiar. The first en­try is called The Phe­nom­e­non of the Fu­ture, and be­gins with a sen­tence that throws us into our own cen­tury: ‘‘ Over the world as it ends in de­crepi­tude is a pale sky that may per­haps dis­si­pate with the clouds — streaks of used sun­sets that bleed into the dor­mant wa­ters of a river . . .’’

The new ma­te­rial, hith­erto scat­tered in small French publi­ca­tions, in­cludes pen por­traits of other artists ( Paul Ver­laine, Baude­laire, James McNeill Whistler, Richard Wag­ner, to name a few), vi­gnettes scrib­bled at the theatre, re­flec­tions about the book and then, in a sec­tion wit­tily en­ti­tled Im­por­tant Mis­cel­la­neous News Briefs, pieces un­der such head­ings as Catholi­cism, Gold, Con­fronta­tion, and The Court.

De­spite what Mal­larme said about the scat­tered na­ture of Di­va­ga­tions , it can be read as a pro­foundly co­her­ent re­sponse to his own times, a mar­vel­lous sign of his ge­nius for recog­nis­ing the psy­chic and struc­tural pres­sures built into moder­nity. In the fore­ground is the ma­te­ri­al­is­tic, French so­ci­ety on the eve of the Franco- Prus­sian War and the revo­lu­tion in Paris that fol­lowed. In the back­ground is the ner­vous ten­sion in so­cial spa­ces: be­tween the bour­geoisie and the aris­toc­racy; the city and coun­try; the Church and magic: be­tween money and lit­er­ary ex­is­tence; or, to use Mal­larme’s mar­vel­lous im­age, be­tween the labourer dig­ging the ditch and the poet stand­ing be­side that ditch, pen in hand.

Mal­larme’s images are meant to light up the world, ‘‘ like a vir­tual swoop­ing of fire across pre­cious stones’’ as he writes in his most fa­mous crit­i­cal poem, Cri­sis of Verse , which oc­cu­pies a com­mand­ing po­si­tion here.

Di­va­ga­tions is also a re­minder that Mal­larme was a friend and ad­mirer of such po­lit­i­cally con­scious artists as Emile Zola and Edouard Manet. Ad­mit­tedly, it con­veys much dis­dain and lap­fuls of arty en­nui, the kind of camp rhetoric that fed schools of fin- de- siecle deca­dence. But ac­tu­ally Mal­larme’s heat came from the ground up, as you would ex­pect of the man whose work as­pired to ‘‘ the or­phic ex­pla­na­tion of the Earth’’. Barry Hill is po­etry ed­i­tor of The Aus­tralian. His new book of po­ems, Ne­ces­sity, will be pub­lished next month.

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