THE FRENCH SYMBOLIST POET Stéphane Mallarmé presents such an enigma to English language audiences that it’s really quite difficult to discern his influence. While Ezra Pound admired the poetry of the one major English language symbolist, W.B. Yeats, and championed some figures loosely associated with the movement, like Jules Laforgue and Arthur Rimbaud, he railed against the use of the “symbol” in his early polemics, and doesn’t mention Mallarmé in his frequent lists of literary greats. Certainly Mallarmé, whose deeply philosophical works unfold with the precision of a mathematical formula, and yet whose sound and syntax aspired to the ambiguity of music, could not be accused of the “direct treatment of the ‘thing.’” Hart Crane was clearly a deep reader of Mallarmé, but his own poems were written in much looser meters than that of the Master, and fused such a variety of American influences (Whitman and Eliot) that it’s difficult to discern the Mallarméan flavor — redolent of the Paris literary salons, fussed over like hothouse flowers — in such ecstatic reveries as “Voyages” and “The Bridge.” British and American contemporaries of Mallarmé, like Arthur Symons, Oscar Wilde, and Stuart Merrill, all of whom frequented Mallarmé’s famous Tuesday evenings, never themselves achieved the level of music and inscrutable perfection of his poems, leaving us mostly with what seems like pale chinoiserie compared to his heights of synesthetic reverie.
Mallarmé’s best-known poem to English readers, and the subject of an exhilarating new book by French speculative realist philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, is the typographical extravaganza Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance). Mallarmé had cut his teeth on graphic design by creating single-handedly one of the first fashion journals, La Dernière mode, which ran for six issues in 1874. Consequently, he began around this time to take notes on what he considered to be his ultimate poetic project, the publication of what he called “the Book,” a poetic object that would replace the Bible as a central figure in a sort of secular art/religious ritual. While the Book was never fully realized, Mallarmé’s increasing concern over the “crisis in verse” — basically, the arrival of free verse in France, and the untoward retirement of the much-loved alexandrine — led him to conceive the 12 pages of Un coup de dés, whose words spill across the pages like stars strewn across the sky or, indeed, like throws of the dice. Mallarmé’s fellow Symbolist Paul Valéry wrote a memorable description of first seeing the poem in The Master’s workshop:
It seemed to me that I was looking at the form and pattern of a thought, placed for the first time in finite space. Here space itself truly spoke, dreamed, and gave birth to temporal forms. Expectancy, doubt, concentration, all were visible things. With my own eye I could see silences that had assumed bodily shapes. Inappreciable instants became clearly visible: the fraction of a second during which an idea flashes into being and dies away; atoms of time that serve as the germs of infinite consequences lasting through psychological centuries — at last these appeared as beings, each surrounded with a palpable emptiness […] There in the same void with them, like some new form of matter arranged in systems or masses or trailing lines, coexisted the Word!
Like many readers of Un coup de dés, Valéry thought he was gazing on a poem that reflected an improvisatory air: a map of a human mind, not to mention a chart through “psychological centuries.” The heroic nature of Mallarmé’s achievement, of a sort that seems decidedly unfashionable in poetry today, is palpable in Valéry’s breathless encomium. The poem has since been seen as one of the most successful typographical achievements ever, harbinger of the experiments of the Futurists and Dadaists, not to mention the mesostics of John Cage, Brazilian concrete poetry, Flash and animated poetry, and interactive iPad apps like Jörg Piringer’s whimsical “abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz.”
Though literary critics and philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Maurice Blanchot, and Alain Badiou have written about Mallarmé in the past, none of them have ever quite managed to make him, and this poem in particular, appear lucid. Un coup de dés has become something like the handmaiden to other philosophical or artistic concerns, never revealed, leaving those of us, particularly Americans, enticed but still baffled. There hasn’t been a Mallarmé industry in English-language criticism quite like there has been, say, a Rimbaud industry or a Kafka industry. Consequently, though serviceable translations have appeared by C.F. MacIntyre and Henry Weinfield, among others, none have been able to make Un coup de dés — a single distended sentence that lacks all punctuation — really available as a text in English in the manner translators have done with The Trial or “The Drunken Boat.” Like its polar opposite, James Joyce’s ebullient, encyclopedic Finnegans Wake, it is often respected more than deeply appreciated.
Meillassoux’s The Number and the Siren, his “decipherment” of Un coup de dés, reads like a detective fiction written with breathless enthusiasm. And, as with a detective novel, it is difficult to describe its contents — the suspenseful approaches and big reveals — without detracting from the experience of reading the book itself. More than any other work of literary criticism I’ve read, this one has spoilers. Meillassoux’s thesis is centered around the presence of a particular number in the text itself that, once discovered, grants the poem the aforesaid lucidity — and it is just this number that I don’t wish to reveal in this review, in order to save the joy of discovery for you. (Meillassoux reveals the number on page 67, a little less than a third of the way in, in case you want to rush out to your nearest bookstore or flip through the sample pages on Amazon to take a peek.) He then offers a number of proofs concerning the Number, its value in the “decipherment” of the poem, and finally how the Number, and the poem itself, fit in with Mallarmé’s entire oeuvre and range of concerns. What is important to poets is, as I’ve mentioned, how lucid the poem becomes after reading Meillassoux’s explication (regardless of whether you buy his central thesis); what is important for philosophers is how this book fits in with the small library of translated writings by Meillassoux, one of the most exciting new presences on the continental philosophy scene.
Meillassoux coined the word “correlationism” to denote those philosophies that he and his speculative realist cohorts –– Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ray Brassier, and Levi Bryant, among others –– believe have characterized metaphysics since Kant. In a nutshell, correlationist philosophy believes that there is no way to describe the world or “reality” without bringing subjectivity, or the mind, into the equation; our perceptions are flawed, hence we are left in a between-state of knowing only mental phenomena. Consequently, correlationists believe there is no way to discuss the mind beyond how it relates to what is outside the mind, that very same world or “reality”; we have no access to pure mental activity or to the “soul.” Ultimately, correlationist thinking led to what has come to be called the “linguistic turn” in 20th-century philosophy — think of Wittgenstein’s "language games" or Derrida’s deconstruction — burying the Continental tradition in a seemingly endless reconsideration of the ways that language itself constructs reality.
Though Meillassoux, whose own writing exhibits an admirable concision — he publishes infrequently, and his volumes are all quite brief — created the word “correlationism,” he out of all of his peers is most intent on privileging the mind as a major component of philosophy. In his theory of “advents,” available in excerpts from his major, as yet unpublished work The Divine Inexistence, Meillassoux argues that the three moments of temporal novelty — the appearance of something truly new that is not merely a possibility within the state of the universe prior to its arrival — are the advent of matter, the advent of life, and finally the advent of thought:
God did not create thought, and nothing in the world was thinking before the advent of thought; God did not create the suffering or pleasure found in vital activity, and nothing suffered or enjoyed in the world before the advent of life. This indicates in the most striking fashion that if we think advent in its truth, it is an advent ex nihilo and thus without any reason at all, and for that very reason it is without limit. In revealing the contingency of laws, reason itself teaches that becoming is ultimately without reason.
Meillassoux, then, argues against necessity — an ultimate reason prior the origins of the world (God or a grand design), or lying somewhere at the end of it (a day of judgment or an ultimate purpose) — for the way things are. For Meillassoux, within our present state of advent, that of the regime of thought or mind, there are things that can or cannot happen, but that doesn’t preclude the operations of an ultimate contingency that stipulates that a new advent could occur at any time, “without any reason,” changing the laws entirely. Contingency, not necessity, is the only absolute.
You may have noticed Meillassoux’s interest in “God” with a capital “g,” which some commentators have understood as a form of crypto-Christianity, considered anathema in the decidedly secular realm of academic philosophy. The dramatic conclusion to The Divine Inexistence offers a pretty good summary of where he stands in relation to religion. “Humans can establish four different links with God,” he writes, “of which only three have been explored so far:”
- Not believing in God because he does not exist. This is the atheist link [t]hat all lead to the same impasse: sadness, tepidity, cynicism, and the disparagement of what makes us human.
It is the immanent form of despair.
- Believing in God because he exists. This is the religious link […] leading to the same impasse: fanaticism, flight from the world, the confusion of sanctity and mysticism and of God as love and God as power.
It is the religious form of hope.
- Not believing in God because he exists. This link […] is the Luciferian position of rebellion against the Creator which expresses a reactive need to hold someone responsible for the evils of this world.
- Only the fourth link, the philosophical link and immanent form of hope — believing in God because he does not exist — has never been systematically defended.
It has now been done.
The four possible links of humans with God are henceforth known.
One must choose.
Meillassoux wishes to preserve a version of hope that is neither religious nor tainted with cynicism and sarcasm. Politically, it is this that makes him “our” –– meaning the generation of Occupy and the “Arab Spring” –– contemporary. That is, after a century of failed or thwarted idealisms and attempts at achieving a radical politics entirely based on humanistic, lateral, and pragmatic notions of human responsibility, Meillassoux writes of a form of action, at least of conviction, that is tied to an absolute, even if it is one characterized by his brand of radical contingency. A similar call is raised by Alain Badiou in The Rebirth of History, The Communist Hypothesis, and other political writings that seek to link the recent wave of “riots and uprisings” (his phrase) to something like the complete revaluation of history through the “event.” “What is important here,” Badiou writes, “is not the realization of a possibility that resides within the situation or that is dependent on the transcendental laws of the world. An event is the creation of new possibilities.” Revolution, or “change,” is an attempt to try the hand of chance: to create historical singularities that are transformative, truly novel, and that leave in their wake nothing unchanged.
Meillassoux’s paean to secular hope, and his theory of advents in The Divine Inexistence — started as a doctoral dissertation, but now expanded into several as yet–unpublished volumes — offer the links between his major philosophy, and his take on Un coup de dés. True, The Number and the Siren argues that there is a Number at the heart of the poem — and you’ll have to buy me an awful lot of martinis to reveal it here — and the book cycles through a lot of textual analysis, along with close readings of related poems (themselves encrypted with numbers), the unfinished prose fiction Igitur, and journal entries to support this claim. What gets Meillassoux really going, though, is that he believes Mallarmé was meticulously crafting a singularity: a poem that is the ultimate, and unrepeatable, response to the “crisis in verse.” Not only did Mallarmé create a new poetic form premised on an unrevealed Number, a new form of measure, with its attendant metaphysical properties, he also created the ultimate response to the secularization of Europe and the need, expressed in countless ways in 19th-century culture, to raise art to the status of religion. Meillassoux makes an interesting critique of Richard Wagner and his particular response to secularization:
[T]he weakness of Wagnerian “total art” resides in its will to reconnect with the Greek articulation of theatre and politics. To figure upon a scene the relation of humans and their gods, to render visible to the masses the principle of their communion with the aid of a narrative embellished with song — in short, to represent to a people its own mystery: such is for Mallarmé the Greek heritage upon which art, including Wagnerian art, continues to feed. But, according to the poet, it is precisely the representation that art must break with if it would claim to go beyond Christianity.
While Mallarmé referred to Christianity as the “black agony,” he nonetheless saw the roots of European culture lying not in ancient Greece but in the Latin Middle Ages. “Christianity has handed down to us a ritual superior in power to those of paganism,” Meillassoux writes, “namely the real convocation of a real drama.” Thus, the Master favored the mysteries of the Eucharist over the catharsis of theater or allegorical pageantry:
The Eucharist […] even if it is a real Presence of the Son of Man in the course of the Mass, is not his full presentation: The latter remains hoped-for, expected, by the faithful. The Eucharist is thus a paradoxical mode of “presence in absence”: The divine is there, among the elect, in the very host — but is not yet returned. It gives itself according to a sufficiently withdrawn mode of reality to leave room for both remembrance (the Passion) and expectation (Salvation). It is a presence that is not in the present, but in the past and in the future. To take up Mallarmé’s vocabulary — and his evocation of “God [...] there, diffuse” — we should speak, to signify the Eucharistic mode of presence, whether or not it is transcendent, of a diffusion of the divine, as opposed to its representation, or its presentation. The ultimate singularity of Mallarmé’s poetics — the idea that oriented his last writings — thus consisted in the quest for a “diffusion of the absolute” emancipated from representation (even if, evidently, the latter is not annulled in the labor of the work) and dismissing all eschatological parousia.
For Mallarmé, art doesn’t conjure the divine for humans by overpowering them with presence — narrative, technology, song, the “limelight” — but imitates rather the act of Christ, whom Mallarmé sees as the “anonymous official, effaced before transcendence, and whose sole movement of retreating, back into the throng, attests to the presence of divinity.” Though Mallarmé’s poem does indeed have all the trappings of a Gesamtkunstwerk, it is not theater so much as an event, the “diffusion of the divine,” in all modesty an attempt to replace religion with poetry.
But who, then, is the Christ figure? That would be, in a sort of Decadent trinity, the character of the Master in the poem hesitating before a throw of the dice, Chance itself, and finally, the poet and historical figure Mallarmé:
This “Master” who would be both thrower and non-thrower would be only a representation of the Master. He would be nothing more than a fiction engendered by the Poem — and it is precisely his fictional status that would permit him to be virtually all things, at the behest of the reader’s imagination. Now, according to our hypothesis, at stake in the Coup de dés is the “diffusion of the divine” and therefore the real presence of a real drama, a drama supporting an effective infinitization — not an empty fiction. Thus, it is indeed the gesture of Mallarmé himself — his throwing of the Number, his wager engendered by the performative purport of the encrypted Poem — that must be infinitized if we would extract the Coup de des from the sole reign of representation.
Un coup de dés is not merely a narrative poem or a fiction, telling the story of the Master hesitating before Chance. Rather, the poem itself becomes this very act, a hesitance in which the throwing and not throwing are both coexistent, like life and death in the though experiment of Schrödinger’s cat. The Number tossed, of course, is that number I’m choosing not to reveal to you, but which Meillassoux writes can only have been discovered by chance. That is, there are no clues in the poem or elsewhere to point you, Raiders of the Lost Ark–like, inevitably to the Number; hence, the wager that Mallarmé himself took that his poem would never be “deciphered,” and Meillassoux’s palpable excitement at having done so. Un coup de dés is the union of history, poem, and poet through a single mathematical (temporal and spatial) point that holds the key to the meaning of all three while remaining, possibly for all of time, undiscovered.
If this seems weird, there’s a good reason why Meillassoux’s version of “realism” is called “speculative”: it is a secular, but largely non-empirical, form of metaphysics that is willing to take in the apparent ravings of poets and madmen as revelatory of true perspectives on reality. I’ve only scratched the surface of what is contained in this remarkable book; I haven’t even mentioned the siren of the title! Several appendices include a new translation by Robin Mackay of Un coup de dés along with the original, as well as translations of the other two poems Meillassoux discusses. Especially handy for those wishing to test his theory is a numbered listing of the words of the poem in order, allowing those of us taken with Meillassoux’s enthusiasm to test our own theories of the role of numbers in the poem. My own is this (and this will seem gibberish to those who haven’t read the book): Isn’t it significant that the word “peut-être” (perhaps) lands as word 626, and thus represents a sort of mundane mirror to the Number, the two sixes on either end representing the dice, the middle number the presence that mirrors the absence at the Number’s center? In any case, I see this book as a major contribution to our understanding of Meillassoux’s startling philosophy, still in the making, but also as a gift to American poetry as an explication of an important poem that should be in our canon as much as it is in the French.
Brian Kim Stefans is a poet and professor of English at UCLA.