Here’s how I read Mallarmé’s prose, in Barbara Johnson’s lustrous new English translation: painfully, dutifully, passionately, a sentence at a time, while holding the French original in my other hand, so I can compare her sentence with his sentence, and so I can measure as accurately as possible each crevice where an adjective meets a noun, a comma meets a dependent clause.
Mallarmé published Divagations (a collection of essays and other highly compact prose implosions) in 1897 and died the following year. English-speaking aficionados of Symbolist rarities have relied on Mary Ann Caws’s exquisite anthology Mallarmé in Prose (2001), which contains some of the pieces in Divagations. Now we have in English the whole of Divagations, a volume whose contents are at once "scattered" (like Osiris’s limbs) and scrupulously arranged (like a rigged séance).
Readers unfamiliar with Mallarmé’s prose will find Divagations, certainly, strange, but its aftershocks appear elsewhere in Continental literature—in, for example, the short prose of Robert Walser, whose self-canceling sentences are, although profoundly autobiographical, as impersonally hiccuping, in rhythm, as Mallarmé’s; and Fernando Pessoa’s raptly void-regarding The Book of Disquiet. But the major heirs of Mallarmé’s prose have been those practitioners of the genre that he christened, at its birth, the "critical poem." Readers of Ponge, Jabès, Blanchot, Lacan, Derrida, and even Heidegger will recognize traces of these men’s prose in Mallarmé’s beguiling combination of abstraction and precision, of philosophical abstruseness and a style of presentation that relies more on ecstatic and broken attestation, on baffling interjections and ellipses, than on direct statement. And Mallarmé is certainly an early and influential adept of a style of antirealist self-cartography that flowers in the works of Artaud, Genet, and Leiris. For Mallarmé any statement offers a richly coded and unparaphrasable performance of an absolute gesture. This taste for things absolute—absolute music, absolute poetry, absolute dance—comes with the evasive territory of Mallarmé’s prose, an elusiveness, a deliberate mysteriousness ("The fog around it was purposeful: it would be a mistake to be too precise"), that dominates Divagations. I read Mallarmé, indeed, as proponent—apostle—of a faith, albeit godless, in the pause, in minutely calibrated dosage, in interstice, in vacancy—in a series of virtues that all hold together, though I can’t exactly say why.
Mallarmé’s motley text (which claims to erase the reader but actually gives the reader responsibility for writing the novel that Divagations is always on the verge of becoming) contains lyric apostrophes and reminiscences, appreciations of contemporary figures (Manet, Morisot, Poe, Whistler, Tennyson, Rimbaud, Verlaine), descriptions of dance (Loie Fuller), and visionary fragments of literary credos, including indications toward the composition of Mallarmé’s limit-text, Le Livre. The prose poems in Divagations ride the line between topicality and antitopicality: Some verge on journalism or served, at one time, that role (they were originally published in such journals as the Chap Book, which Mallarmé calls "an exquisite and daring periodic out of Chicago"), but all are written in a style so preposterously nondescriptive and nonexpository that Divagations rebuts the notion that lyric writing can ever serve a social or utilitarian function. Like Emily Dickinson’s "Master" letters, Mallarme’s poems-in-prose oppose cozy interpersonality; they refuse to consider the reader-writer relationship an egalitarian and friendly meeting of minds. Instead, Dickinson and Mallarmé, in their disfiguring prose, make clear that they approach Text as a dangerous battle and that the reader had best beware.
Mallarmé ends his book with the word prosody: "No doubt there’s a way, here, for a poet who doesn’t habitually practice free verse, to show, in the form of fragments both comprehensive and brief, eventually, with experience, the immediate rhythms of thought that order a prosody." Questions of prosody—Divagation is at its core a meditation on and a performance of alternative prosody—are strictly and punitively lined up, for Mallarmé and for me, with questions of vacuity, of the pause. No idea can proceed without quickly being interrupted, after a pause, by another phrase, sent on a mission perpendicular to the first. Listen to these interruptions: "To act, otherwise, and for someone who doesn’t begin the exercise by smoking, meant, visitor, I understand you, philosophical, to produce on many a movement that gives you the impression that you originated it, and therefore exist: something no one is sure of."
What does Mallarmé want? What any good reader wants: to squeeze the hypothesis, like a lemon or a melon, to ruin it as well as to check that it is ripe. The phrase is Mallarmé’s ("approfondissant d’hypothèse"), or, in Johnson’s searching and wily translation: "However, one must, squeezing the hypothesis until it yields up the eventual beauty of this glorious career" (emphasis mine). Mallarmé wants to squeeze words and also to squeeze more space into consciousness by extending sentences via pauses, by truncating clauses and remixing them. The comma, a form of parenthesis ("Let me insert here a succinct parenthesis" is Johnson’s helpful gloss of "Ici, succincte, une parenthèse"), is Mallarmé’s mainstay, his gateway to accurate dosage of experience. Notice how comma glut facilitates ecstatic transport: "Stageboards, lustre, obnubilation of fabrics and liquefaction of mirrors, in the real, all the way up to excessive leaps of our gauzy form around a still center, on one foot, of virile stature, a Place presents itself, on the stage." Self-conscious diction, said Mallarmé, turns prose into poetry ("there is verse as soon as diction calls attention to itself"), and obnubilation—the word is the same in French and English—represents an apogee of this self-pointing. The comma isn’t Mallarmé’s only ally in the art of interruption. The dash works well, too. "Just so does an essay, this one, turn to facts, hoping, in reporting them, to air out the present for a while, so I won’t study a return of nobility, to continue with that word—Ah! really—They say we need one—It appears—Some people are fostering it—The need can be felt—undauntedly."
Mallarmé uses these self-conscious gestural markings—pause, parenthesis, and hyphen are merely the superficial signs of pleats and folds that equally operate on the levels of diction, syntax, and address—because he strives to instill "a certain vagueness," to avoid the interrogating and oversimplifying police light of clear statement, to make world, that phantom, happen through language’s incantatory ability to throw reality into existence by merely saying it is there: "I say: a flower! And, out of the oblivion where my voice casts every contour, insofar as it is something other than the known bloom, there arises, musically, the very idea in its mellowness; in other words, what is absent from every bouquet." Why does Mallarmé place so much emphasis on voice’s—language’s—power to half-create reality? Because he wants (I believe) to erase the outside and to make consciousness the primary arbiter of objective reality. His use of complexly modulated language to rush headlong into the vague and the unshareable—certainly an escapist desire—is above all a yearning for "the luxurious and unconscious obliteration of everything outside." Consider it a death wish, thrust outward. In Mallarmé’s case, as in Rimbaud’s, it meant that he "rejected dreams . . . and amputated from himself, wide awake, all trace of poetry, finding, perhaps, far away, very far away, a new state of being." This far away, this elsewhere, is prose, from which poetry has been amputated and in which poetry, the damaged revenant, perversely lingers. Mallarmé hates anything that is not writing, anything that does not originate in the purely internal and self-governing act of inscription: He is "imbued with a sort of hostility toward states of rarity sanctioned from outside, or which are not purely the act of writing." Damn everything that emerges from outside!
I have not yet adequately explained the issue of dosage. Let me now, in a salute to this remarkable book, and to its intrepid and wise translator, explore the connection between dose and prosody. (It is difficult to do so, for, as Mallarmé put it, "I am racked with contradictory states," and I am the victim of "an almost lyrical clownishness.") We pay attention to prosody—scrutinizing and valorizing the incremental behavior of language, its divisibility into beats, segments, couples, triads, parallelisms, measurable remnants—because we wish to ask how the realm of feeling (or the sentiments) finds habitation in language; and, indeed, feeling acquires verbal location only when the writer can accurately transcribe mental and vocal gesture (a form of disembodied dance). Mallarmé’s obsession with precise prosody led him to his visually splayed poem "Un Coup de dés," which would not be published in book form until 1914 (although it appeared in a journal in 1897); indeed, parts of Divagations defend the radical departure that "Un Coup de dés" presents. As Mallarmé writes in "Magic" (included in Divagations): "Our job is to learn the subtle dosages, deleterious or revitalizing, of the essences we call feelings." ("Subtle dosages" is Johnson’s respectful translation of "le dosage subtil"). Dosage is a rhythm issue: how much, when, of what. The stakes are high: life or death. Prose, in the form of the critical poem, of which Divagations is the manifesto and the manger, has the capacity to bear a level of torsion and ambiguity that we mere humans run from in terror. Steeled, we turn back to prose and force it to submit to such pressure in the hope of keeping it a vibrating and accurate mechanism for the transmission of our basest as well as our loftiest gestures. The only reason for a poet, in prose, to broach a conventional subject, Mallarmé may have felt, is to employ that circumstantial topic as a pretext for hunting down an absolute rhythm—for it may be that "in speaking of general things, rhythm has a chance to find its contours and pure lines."
I don’t know whether I’ve expressed excitedly or lucidly enough my sense of this translation’s importance. It arrives in my life as a reminder to squeeze a few more hypotheses. But—I’m making Mallarmé sound lugubrious and pontifical. He also used poetics as a laboratory for new forms of interpersonality—call it social intercourse. As he puts it: "Then came the desire, common to all great minds, even the most reclusive ones, to throw a party." To party is another, less exalted aspect of Mallarmé’s aesthetic, which, though concerned with fashion, is too difficult ever to be fashionable. In partying—in making of prose an orgy—he was hoping to be offered "hospitality against the insufficiency of oneself." Mallarmé, remember, killed the Author long before Barthes noticed its demise. Mallarmé hotly pursued the No One, the evaporated catalyst of speech: Everything in his prose "moves toward some supreme bolt of light"—some orgasm—"from which awakens the Figure that No One is." What happens if you write a party, and the No One you are shows up?
Wayne Koestenbaum’s most recent collection of poetry is Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films (Turtle Point, 2006).