Stephane Mallarmé : a portrait of the poet as a spider

by Jean-Michel MAULPOIX

Translated from the original French by Catherine Wieder


« No reasonable man may capriciously chastize the study of insects ».


« A silent white ant, I dig and work »

Stéphane Mallarmé

Mimicking Bonaparte himself putting Napoleon's crown on his own head, the romantic poet had invested himself with a nobility and a radiant power. His task had aimed at « making the future blaze ». Stephane Mallarmé surges in our literature after the flickering off of that very torch : i.e. after Hugo, after Gautier, after Baudelaire, the dusk. One only has to read once again the first pages of his Poesies to find oneself confronted to a vast array of ironical self designations in which the lyrical reign that had been vindicated by Hugo abdicates without any hope of restoration. A « beggar of azure », « ready for alms or revenge », an « exasperated hero with jocular disquiets », « a castrated fool », a « histrionic mediocre Hamlet », a « sly dying man » with his sour face, sterile and impotent, bored, in such a way does Stephane in his first period, i.e. the 1860's, agonizingly portray himself, « haunted as he is by his own shroud », or as a « bell ringer », just about to hang himself for being so tired of pulling for no reason on the thread of the Ideal. On the day after Christmas day in 1864, he wrote to Cazalis : « A poet should be on this earth but a mere poet and a poet only, whereas I am but a corpse for quite a while in my own life. » For the wretched teacher of English, Tournon is but a « stable ». Hereafter, does he keep repeating, « reeks like a kitchen ».


Here is thus the most limping and most offended by the vulgar of poets, worse than Baudelaire's albatros, « a wretched, lamentable lord exiling his ghost of ruins slow to shroud himself into legend and melodrama, here does he stand in daily care and order ». Sheltered in dreams, he vehemently refuses the idea of an « art for all » and begs his companions never to become « worker-poets ». « Ô thou, poets, who forever were proud, now do become more : become disdainful ! »


Such would be the first portrait of Mallarmé, exasperated as he was by the real and devoured by the Ideal at a time when the latter has tired out its borrowed names : whether it be God, the People, Progress and the very Beauty itself. Azure is reduced to its nerve : the blue filigree of the soul. Poetry goes on claiming « some other thing » but it is well aware that is totally in vain and for nothing. Mallarmé surges at the terminal stage of romantic lyricism : it will lead him all the way to aphasia after Rimbaud had made it give its last goose note. As the man from Ardennes had to, either will he have to give up writing rhymed lines, or to grasp again radically the figure and task of the poet by making them more ideal, more critical and more lucid, more impersonal and more prosaic : « I will sing as a desperate man », such will be his creed.


In Idumée's night, hence, is a new Mallarmé born from monstrous kinships, a mourning and an abortion : Baudelaire's death, the « Prince of dream » and the missed genesis of the dramatic work that was to lead Princess Herodiade to drama.


Mallarmé at last begets his own self, gifted of his own poetics as he is and having determined the topic of his work &endash; i.e. Beauty &endash; by dreaming the unattainable perfection of Hérodiade. Cuddling a chimera, he invents a very new poetics. His so difficult task begets a revelation in the shape of a resolution. Stepping down from the absolute, as he himself writes to Lefébure on May 3., 1868, he turns his collapse into a victorious fall and a paradoxical coronation. Hérodiade operates a reversal of weakness into strength and the loss of the metaphysical heavens into a bias of relationship. Then a poetics of the link substitutes itself to the impossible fusion to the object and the « pratical jealousy » of his writing to the elocutory forlorn poet. No other strength than that of lines themselves will ever stand up forever on. The ideal will no longer keep alive the itching of a spleen. It becomes the awareness of an irremediable burn, the won and kept pace of he who fought with the « old and nasty plumage » of the divine and closed down its wings hereafter. Having understood that one may neither reach Eden nor do without it, Mallarmé intends, fully aware of it, despite anything that fights against it , to further on the page that very lyrical task that the persistence of a « sky instinct » claims in him. On April 28, 1866, he wrote to Cazalis about the strenuous efforts that the lines of Hérodiade demanded from him and about the abyss which such a task of digging deeper into the line, had compelled him to meet with :


« Yes, indeed, I know we are but vain shapes of matter but so sublime as to have invented both God and our own souls. So sublime, dear friend ! That I wish to give myself that show of matter, by being aware of it, and yet by rushing frenzily into the Dream it knows that it is not, bringing the Soul and all the divine similar impressions that have gathered in us for ages, thus proclaiming such glorious lies in front of that very Nothingness which is truth ! Such is the pattern of my lyrical volume, and such may be its title. The Glory of Lies or The Glorious Lie. I will sing as a desperate man. »


A true « Overture » which witnesses belief closing in and poetry reopening itself in its « demented interplay », such is thus Hérodiade. In order to reach that point, Mallarmé will have had to go through several years of crisis, to work furiously away at the line and acknowledge that the metaphysical sky had definitely closed itself on to the poem with aphasia and Baudelaire's death in 1867.


He will then on move in « lucid heights » with his azure turned into white. His last spiritual casket is made of himself, of his soul, his reflexive conscience, such as he wishes to hold on to both as one holds to some new behaviour, a resolution, a principle and as one remains in a place where one thinks he may have found « an area where to dwell and live ». Hence a new figure of the poet as a spider, strongly grasping the center of its web, taking care of it, of its threads, its weaving and, above all, of the weaving of its intersections.


In a letter to Aubanel, dated July 28, 1866, three months later exactly, Mallarmé wrote :

« I only wanted to say to you that I had just thrown the plan of my whole Work after having found the key to myself &endash; a keystone, or centre, if you wish, in order not to get mixed up with metaphors &endash; the center of myself where I stand as a holy spider on the major threads of my soul and with which I will weave at the crossways a few lace which I guess already exist in the heart of Beauty ».


The « light, winged and sacred » creature to which Plato identified the poet in Ion, such a luminous bee having its own field day with everything, has now become a « spider ». For ever holy, no longer flying with its wings, busy only to joint together. What did the bee used to do too when gathering pollens if not jointing and even impregnating the flowers by letting its pollens gliding along with its flights and its works. But the threads it was delineating were not visible, whereas the spider is the silent and motionless mistress of a thread by now obvious and resting like a « drop of darkness » in the centre of its night.


When one watches it from a closer angle, what does a spider do ? One would believe it builds in space. At least, doesn't it build a nest in the way a bird would : it never piles up either straw or mud. Rather, it draws, geometrizes, wefts, institutes, outlines. Its dwelling is not resting on things but is hardly sketched, suggested, hanging above between themselves, almost as if it were invisibly clinging to them. Indeed it is an « architectural and aforethought matter », but so thin, fragile and imponderable a texture that no one would be able to catch it in one's hands without running the risk of destroying it. After all, the spider is such that it gives a seat to a place, in the very element of the web out of nothing will take place but place itself, working slowly in the boredom of time and whose web is woven in dead angles where no existence is moving. In Tournon's entrenchment, for example. A cobweb is nothing, being nothing but such a « foam, a virgin line » or threads worthy, when all is said, only by what allows itself to be caught in it whether it be an insect or a circumstance…


Weaving in the secrecy of the room as the spider does, in its soul as the thinker does too, the poet is neither « a gold spark of nature light », nor a rope dancer, a funambulist or a hanged man. Even if, as Francis Ponge reminded us of, in « The spider », it is also precisely « that very animal which, in the void, as an anchor is first to be chucked ». Rimbaud used to stretch « Sentences » like chords, garlands or gold chains between the windows, the church spires and the stars, Mallarmé's task is less ambitious and more patient and domestic : very much like Penelope's rather than a Promethean one but it still carefully looks to relationships, to links, to encounters and transitions.


Like the spider, the poet destroys what lets itself be caught in its dark ink-web, whether it be an insect, an object or a circumstance. It enables things to disappear instead of displaying them. But by spiriting them, it makes them subtle. At the very crossroads of both subject and object, on the very spot where « marvellous lace » are woven, it warps its web and transposes a fact or nature into its « almost vibratory appearance ». Instead of the object, an idea surges and the totality of its qualities, almost as « something else than known chalices » musically and all of a sudden are substituted to the flower. That « something else » is first and foremost the sign, the « divine numerator of our apotheosis », such that it comes to dwell amid « the central chasm of a spiritual impossibility that nothing were exclusively belonging to everything », thus dedicated to resting on the very void of the page or of space its net of correspondances, its strange and unique system of structures and links in which no detail exists but when it asserts and strengthens the whole.


Thus inspiration is less a matter of breath than of weaving and spinning. Mallarmé erects its task in terms of delineation, like a long thread unwinding itself, circulating, branching off, branching out and weaving itself into a web. If both thought and writing are, according tp Ponge's words, a work of dribble, then the body becomes both production and resonance chamber of this very thin thread of intimate chords. On May 27, 1867, Mallarmé wrote to Lefébure :


« one should think with one's whole body, which gives a full thought and in tune, in the same way as those violin chords immediately vibrating with its box of hollow wood ».


The man who thinks builds chords. Like the thoughtful and pensive spider, as Ponge had noted it, never stretching a line without its own body having gone through the very same attempt which consists in turning its body into chords and erecting some kind of meaning without loosening the rein on the sensible. It means inventing - as Mallarmé said once more in La Musique des Lettres - those motifs that « compose some kind of logic with our fibres ». It means playing from one's fibre exposed, since man is a musical instrument.


Poetry, one is aware of it, has always remained since the Ancient Bards a matter of chords carefully stretched and giving an adequate tune. But where the « bell ringer », breathless as he still was in 1866, were trying in vain to pull the cable meant to ring the ideal, Mallarmé, such as himself at last, says he can do with only acknowledging the « magnificent lace » he guesses and which, as he stresses it, « already exist in the heart of beauty ».


« Nature takes place, nothing will be added to it, cities, railroads and several inventions, such is our material

Any act at hand forever and only remains compelled as it is to grasp the relationships between the times be they rare or multiplied ; according to some interior state whether one wishes of his own free will to widen or to tighten the world. »


Grasping the relationships means « attempting to explain the earth Orpheus-like, to decypher or to translate rather than invent or create. Hence, writing which is the pattern for such a « jealous practice » is closely linked to that very desperate practice, called reading in which an everlasting quest of meaning of its debates, of its difficulties and trials repeats itself. In the same way as the cannibalistic spider, an expert in conjunction weaving its web in order to catch something to feed upon, the poet's strain consists in apprehending, understanding and grasping through a tight meshing of words.


Mallarmé, like Rimbaud, turns the meaning into the plural. But where the man from Ardennes advocates the « systematic disturbance of all senses » and invents the poetics of Illuminations (brainwaves and coinages: « diamonds devoid of control », « inventions of some unheard of »…), to the void of meaning Mallarmé substitutes the patient settlement of meanings understood as a system of calculated relationships. He develops a poetics of refraction: gleamings reflections of meanings linked to the interplay of reciprocity, « transitions of scales » and an erection of that very single « total word » which is the line… For that linguist algebrist, « Syntax, which is some kind of calculation, was to recapture the rank of the Muse ». The poem is the seat of a new economy of language, the actual seat of a kept or reinstalled value, the space for an upgrading of both gestures, affecting meaning from the closestr : writing and reading. If access to Eden or to Azure is barred or blocked, it yet remains liable virtually through the upward strength proper to the exercise of language.


The spider doesn't fly, I used to say, and yet something in its weaving is close to the take off up to the point that people may have spoken of the flight of the spider (at least dictionaries say so) about the gossamer covering with white snowflakes the grass of fields in autumn used by young spiders as aerofoils implements to carry themselves afar … Those threads were thus called because the popular imagination thought them to have escaped Marie's bobbin. Wasn't Marie, the Christian name of Mallarmé's wife ?


If he be neither bee, nor rope dancer, nor eagle, albatros or seagull flying over the world with wide twinklings of the wings, but rather, a swan caught in ice, Mallarmé could also be allegorized as a bat or, rather, what he calls « the genius », a night-mammal, familiar with the ruin and, like the spider, with dead angles. In his medallion of Theodore de Banville, he wrote :


« Like the shining bat and the fanning of gravity, all of a sudden, of the site by an an autochtonous tip of a wing, I wait for the mad, adamantine, angry, swirling genius, colliding the ruin and freeing himself in acrobatics, so is he, so am I : alone. »


Here again, in order to conclude, a new brisk figure of inspiration, all opposed to the spider's patience, however consecrated as it may be to ruins and dark nooks and recesses. « A holy spider », « a dazzling bat », such oxymorons are inscribed in the filiation of mythologies about poetic creation but, this time, amid darkness, they look for the ugliest and least loved animals liable to raise them to the loftiness of symbols. From these insects and black birds, over which Edgar Poe's tombstone comes to project its « never more », Mallarmé does not create ironical counter-patterns in the manner of Corbière or Lautréamont. Rather, he believes in showing accurately wherefrom the poem proceeds and from which dead realities his task is to extract himself from. It is by virtue of a sky instinct kept but also upturned towards the hereafter, falling back onto the page, or folded back into a fan like the very paper-wing in Geneviève's hand that his Orpheus-like task is carried out.


To the poet who flew off, the perplexed poet substituted himself, going deeper and deeper by virtue of a doubt, cautious like the spider, working like it at spinning the line drawn from oneself, or digging and going down like a miner in the depths of language. For Baudelaire, the modern pote was twinned and doubled by the critic, for Mallarmé, he is « ac critic before all ». A reversed Icarus, such a miner is not just fallen on the ground but further down into the twenty-four letters of the alphabet to which unyieldingly he keeps his piety :


« Reborn through his own self, (…) however much he may have taken care of keeping from his closet a piety for those twenty-four letters as they, through the miracle of infinity, fixed in some language of his own, then into some meaning through the symmetries, actions, reflections all the way to transfigurations into the supernatural terms of the very line, such an Edennic civilized creature owns, beyond any other goods, the element of bliss, i.e. a doctrine as well as a land. »


Language is both doctrine and land. Writing presupposes some kind of behaviour. Its own economy, made both of solitude and elective affinities, rules the multifold modalities of friendship, of the links and of the lyrical relationships. Against the figure of the doomed, necessarily a solitary man, Mallarmé rents up again that of the poet surrounded in his publications and his Tuesdays. Entrenched and surrounded, such is also the spider standing at the center of its web. Its threads, as he is well aware of, are of two kinds : those which help to hang the web and those which catch and keep the preys. Such is also the case with the Mallarméan web either when it works at recreating the Dream and keeping its capital letter to the Book, or when it catches as a passing remark any odd circumstance, which it either burns or consumes.


An ideal or a circumstance, what is thus the poem after all if not some kind of a salvation ? An exquisite politeness the day before it disappears. The poet remains courteous, he whose Lady is under the slab. His reverence now goes on onto the language through which the links are both held and sublimated. Taking leave of presence and advantage of absence, he works at keeping above all on paper the « liability of something else ». it works at projecting through such a trickery which writing represents, to « some forbidden loftiness made of thunder ! » Dont' we miss the consciousness of what is bursting up there… »