What Is Mallarmé For?

Mallarmé Rancière, Milner, Badiou
Mallarmé: Rancière, Milner, Badiou
by Robert Boncardo and Christian R. Gelder
Rowman & Littlefield
$60.99 AU
Published March, 2018
ISBN 9781786603128

I shall begin my exploration of this new book about one of modern poetry’s most emblematic figures by referring to an iconic episode in the life of another of modern poetry’s singular characters. In 1967, the poet Paul Celan, having been feted as one of the German-speaking world’s foremost writers, paid a visit to the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was known to have admired Celan’s poetry; and Celan, as with many other European poets of his generation, had been influenced by Heidegger’s famous treatise on poetry, ‘What Are Poets For?’. And yet, the encounter between the poet and the philosopher did not result in anything like a brilliant meeting of the minds.

In the words of the poem that Celan wrote after the incident – ‘Todtnauberg’, named after the village in the Black Forest where Heidegger lived – the philosopher refused to speak truthfully to him when they came face to face, without uttering a ‘Wort / im Herzen’, a ‘word / in the heart’; and the conversation between the two men was mostly ‘krudes’ (translated as ‘coarse stuff’ by Michael Hamburger and ‘raw exchanges’ by Pierre Joris). Perhaps it should not surprise us that Celan, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, and Heidegger, an unapologetic member of the Nazi Party, could not find common ground. And whilst this meeting has acquired some kind of mythic status, primarily because of what it tells us about an important German intellectual’s inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the Shoah, it also tells us a good deal about the fraught relationship between poetry and philosophy.

It is this uneasy relationship between words and ideas, between poetic techniques and theories of art, and between artistic singularity and the philosophic pursuit of wisdom, which is at the heart of young Australian scholars Robert Boncardo and Christian R. Gelder’s fascinating book, Mallarmé: Rancière, Milner, Badiou. I will return later in this essay to the crucial questions raised by the traumatised survivor-poet Celan’s encounter with the unrepentant fascist philosopher-mystic Heidegger, but I shall first present an overview of Boncardo and Gelder’s book which, as its title makes clear, combines three contemporary philosophers’ perspectives on that ‘mild-mannered schoolteacher’ – to quote David Brooks – who was also ‘one of the most influential poets of the modern era.’

That Stéphane Mallarmé is a massively influential poet is one of the least contentious things that can be said about him. He was, without a doubt, one of the chief instigators of the great transformation in poetry – which I would call a great revolution in poetry, was I not committed to using the word revolution in strictly political contexts – that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Western writing and also in milieus conversant with Western literature. It would be impossible to account for the quite sudden decline in the cultural and artistic value of metric, mostly rhyming verse (traditional poetry, if one must) in favour of irregular, non-rhyming free verse, without acknowledging the fin-de-siècle French Symbolist’s poems. His dazzling, dizzying and, to many, downright puzzling 1897 poem ‘Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard’ (‘A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance’) is seen, even by the most staunch opponents of his legacy, as one of the origins – perhaps the origin – of poetic modernism.

What is disputed is the substance of Mallarmé’s writing. He is the supreme manifestation of the inaccessible modern poet, a writer whose poetry, according to Alex Ross in a recent article in the New Yorker, remains ‘so inscrutable that it still causes literature students to fall to their knees in despair’. Even Mallarmé’s most enthusiastic admirers, imitators and propagators readily acknowledge the difficulty of his work. Writing in the preface to an important 1982 collection of English translations of a selection of Mallarmé’s writings, the great American scholar Mary Ann Caws described her task of editing the publication as ‘dangerous’, due to ‘the multiple meanings of the intricately styled verse or the equally intricate (and often more obscure) prose’ that constitute Mallarmé’s oeuvre.

There is something perhaps paradoxical in this characterisation of Mallarmé. In him we have the unlikely combination of, on the one hand, global literary fame and canonical eminence and, on the other hand, notorious complexity and textual impenetrability. Among the literary giants of modern Western letters, no other poet has been so highly venerated and yet so little understood. And yet it is perhaps precisely this rare combination of potentially divergent qualities which has made Mallarmé the poet of choice for many late twentieth and early twenty-first century-philosophers. In his poems, philosophers as diverse as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva have found texts that are immediately recognisable to readers; texts that are, at the same time, so cryptic and multifaceted that they can be used to illustrate and advance a host of complex philosophical concepts.

As stated by the title of their new book, Boncardo and Gelder have brought together the theories of three particular philosophers who have written extensively on Mallarmé’s mysterious poetry. These are three of France’s key contemporary thinkers: Alain Badiou, arguably the country’s – and, according to some of his followers, the world’s – most important living philosopher, whose theory of event has put an end to the postmodernist preoccupations of the 1970s and 80s and has revived the primacy of truth and subjectivity; Jacques Rancière, almost as well-known as Badiou in philosophical circles, noted for his own opposition to postmodernism in favour of the radical manifestations of the common people or the masses in political, pedagogic and artistic scenes of the modern world; and Jean-Claude Milner, lesser known in the Anglophone world but as prolific a writer and belonging to the same generation of thinkers as Badiou and Rancière, best-known for his works in psychoanalysis, linguistics and political theory.

Boncardo and Gelder’s book comprises four elements: transcriptions of three detailed interviews, one with each philosopher, on the topic of the philosopher’s life-long interest in the enigmatic Mallarmé, preceded by a long and very helpful introduction written by the erudite interviewers. This is a format that is fast becoming a convention in philosophical publications, particularly where the work deals with a somewhat challenging – and almost always European – thinker. Gone are the days of philosophy students having to slave over fearsomely thick volumes – Heidegger’s Being and Time, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Badiou’s Being and Event, etc. – in order to become familiar with the philosophers’ key concepts. Today’s readers can both be introduced and be (literally) made conversant with important contemporary philosophers through reading the less formal, more spontaneous answers given by the thinkers to questions put to them by interviewers who are, for the most part, highly sympathetic to a hypothetical reader’s limited knowledge of the particular thinker’s theories.

I could find fault with this genre of intellectual transmission – particularly if it were to substitute the central value of reading the actual writings of the philosophers – but, whatever the shortcomings of this type of publication, these do not bedevil Boncadro and Gelder’s book. A recent book-length publication of an interview between Badiou and another French philosopher, Marcel Gauchet, presented a fairly simplistic account of Badiou’s meticulously constructed theory of communism. Boncardo and Gelder’s interviews with him, Rancière and Milner, on the other hand, neither simplify the thinkers’ refined readings of Mallarmé nor brush over the subtle and not-so-subtle differences and conflicts in their dealings with the famous poet.

Of the three thinkers, it would be fair to assume that Badiou may have the most natural and intuitive view on Mallarmé’s poetry. For Badiou, poetry has an intrinsic and unique quality which allows him to approach Mallarmé from an openly literary position, unlike Rancière and Milner who, respectively, view the poet through political and scientific prisms. In his ground-breaking book on art, the 1998’s Handbook of Inaesthetics, Badiou has defined art in general – and poetry, in particular – as capable of giving us immanent and singular truths.  Badiou believes that art’s actuality and capacity to produce meaning and value exist only in so far as art is treated as nothing other than art. This approach entails, as one may expect, a defence of the apparent obscurity of Mallarmé’s poetry against those who object to the poet’s supposed ‘hopeless hermeticism’ and ‘opacity’. Reprising this defence almost twenty years later in his interview with Boncardo and Gelder, Badiou claims that Mallarmé, far from indulging in an obscurantist aestheticism inaccessible to ordinary readers, aimed to ‘establish the rules for universal communication’, and that ‘the processes of the Mallarméan poem are not hermetic, but dialectical’.

The dialectic – the idea that things can be divided into two and be seen as conflicted dualities as opposed to harmonious single beings – is one of the key concepts of European philosophy, particularly for those philosophers who, after Karl Marx’s famous injunction, have aspired not simply to interpret the world but to change it. For Marx, modern capitalist societies, despite claims to equality of opportunity and egalitarianism by their dominant political voices, are in fact an outcome of the dialectical opposition and antagonism between the two major classes of the bourgeois bosses and waged workers. Badiou, Rancière and Milner all come from a generation of French thinkers who, developing their youthful ideas and ideals during the tumultuous years of the 1960s, either engaged with or committed themselves to various forms of radical Marxism. Of the three, only Badiou has maintained an explicit fidelity to far left politics – Rancière is often noted as a champion of democracy and Milner has openly disavowed the Maoism of his early years and even endorsed the centrist, neoliberal Emmanuel Macron during the recent French elections.

According to Badiou, what makes Mallarmé dialectical is not the presence of anything like anti-capitalist content in the poetry nor the unconventional or innovative aspects of more outwardly modernist writings such as ‘Un coup de dés’, but the poet’s preference for division over fusion. In an answer to the interviewers regarding his position on Mallarmé in the 1960s, Badiou claims that the poet, instead of concluding his infamously challenging poem with an image of unity or Oneness, gives us two competing images, one of waves and one of stars:

The central philosophical question for the Maoism of this time was the question of the dialectic. During the 1960s, this question had already pitted the Chinese communists, who argued that the active heart of dialectical thought was that ‘One divides into two,’ against the Soviet communists who, in order to justify their politics of “peaceful coexistence” with American imperialism, supported the formula ‘Two fuse into One.’ Now, it is clear that Mallarmé supports division against fusion: at the end of Coup de dés, there is clearly, on the one hand, “these latitudes of indeterminable waves in which all reality dissolves,” and on the other hand, if the poem is victorious (and it can only “perhaps” be victorious), these is a Constellation, which means an Idea. I therefore simply thought that, in the register of the poem, Mallarmé was on the side of Mao. But I have never fused poetry and politics: for me, they are distinct truth procedures.

Is Badiou’s Maoist reading of Mallarmé not itself a fusion – and a rather tendentious one, at that – of poetry and politics? Not so, according to Badiou, because even if the Chinese communist leader and the French Symbolist poet are on the same side in so far as they are both practitioners of the dialectic, the contexts or conditions for their practices or truth procedures – i.e. politics for Mao and literature for Mallarmé – are categorically different. And it is precisely on this point that Badiou most strongly disagrees with Jacques Rancière, his foremost and most unflinching intellectual sparring partner.

Unlike Badiou who sees politics and art as separate but collaborative or compossible conditions, Rancière sees them as interrelated and composite. According to Rancière, since the eighteenth century, the quotidian or non-artistic desire for the sensible or the aesthetic and the common or non-aristocratic people’s passion for political inclusion have combined to give us, on the one hand, an era of artistic innovation or radical populism in the arts – which Rancière has termed the aesthetic regime of art – and, on the other hand, modern, participatory democracy. How does Mallarmé fit into this schema? In one of his most important books on literature, Mute Speech (1998), Rancière describes Mallarmé’s contribution to the democratisation of poetry by arguing that his poems ‘discover the heaven of the poetic idea’ not in religious or mythological themes and dramas of most earlier poetry, but in ordinary, common motifs of ‘the glow of a chandelier, the pantomime at a fair, or the swish of a gown.’

This characterisation of the poet counters the caricature of an aloof literary aesthete. Rancière’s Mallarmé is an artist dedicated to expressing the dynamics and aesthetics of his society. As the philosopher puts it in his interview with Boncardo and Gelder, we would be wrong to view Mallarmé ‘as elitist and formalist’ because Mallarmé’s poetry, as challenging as it may initially appear to a casual reader, was in fact deeply enmeshed with the ordinary lives of common people,

with popular spectacles as its models (pantomime, the circus, music hall, fêtes, and, later, sport), and [it] pursued a new alliance between the people on the basis of the very divergence with the bourgeois model of cultural consumption. Think of the way in which the Symbolist theatre directors, abstract painters, or ‘Cubo-Futurist’ artists transformed themselves into militants of the Soviet revolution. Mallarmé is at the beginning of this movement.

So Rancière, too, affiliates the French poet with revolutionary Far Left politics. And yet there is something fundamentally different in his depiction of Mallarmé as an aesthetic militant and Badiou’s proto-Maoist poet. For Badiou, Mallarmé is primarily and singularly a poet, and what makes Mallarmé radical are the literary techniques and poetic operations – which Badiou sees as dialectical and subtractive – that result in a poetic and literary newness that breaks with or ruptures existing (hegemonic and ideologically reified) forms of literary production. But for Rancière, Mallarmé’s literary techniques, startling as they may be, are subordinate to the aesthetics, appearances and virtuality of the modern, democratic society as included in Mallarmé’s poetics, making Mallarmé a rather unlikely and no doubt very idiosyncratic poet of the people.

The third philosopher interviewed in this book, Jean-Claude Milner, views the contested poet entirely differently. He accuses Rancière of seeking to find in Mallarmé’s poems ‘the justification for his [own] blind trust in the left.’ More pointedly, Milner claims that it was the desire ‘to wrest [Mallarmé] away from the follies of his faithful’ which compelled him to write about the poet in books such as Mallarmé au tombeau (1999). In direct disagreement with Mallarmé’s faithful, Milner does not find in the poet either a producer of radical artistic truths compatible with political radicalism (à la Badiou) or the militant documenter of the lives of common people (à la Rancière), but a tragic figure of ‘political nihilism’, haunted by his ‘failure’ to reconcile his idealism with the ordinary world, which, according to Milner, the poet in fact resented as ‘the site of a mere scattering of insignificant events.’

And yet Milner does not dismiss Mallarmé and his legacy. For him, it’s not politics or art but science that serves as the key to understanding the poetry. Milner describes the poet as someone who tried ‘to bring mathematization and literalization as close together as possible.’  Milner is known for his own scientific – by which I mean rigorous, systemic and evidence-based – approach to linguistics and psychoanalysis, resulting in what he himself has described as a tendency in his earlier works to overlook some of his mentor Jacques Lacan’s more idiosyncratic ideas. When it comes to Mallarmé and the poem ‘Un coup de dés’, Milner argues that it is mathematical calculations and properties that can best account for the strange text of the poem. The dice and the constellation in the famous work are associated not through any kind of metaphoric literary or semantic allusion, but through a property of mathematics:

The seven of the dice is mathematical only because it is attained thanks to addition – or, more precisely, thanks to a nontrivial property of addition, namely commutativity: 1 + 6 = 6 + 1 = 2 + 5 = 5 + 2 = 3 + 4, etc. By itself, the seven of the Great Bear is not mathematical, insofar as it is limited to the ‘septuor,’ but it becomes so when related to other sevens, such as the seven of the dice.

Peculiar as this numerical analysis of a poem may appear to some, it is not entirely odd or unique when it comes to Mallarmé scholarship. Another important contemporary French philosopher – and a former student of Badiou’s – Quentin Meillassoux, in his 2011 book on the poet, The Number and the Siren, has set out to decipher the cryptic ‘Un coup de dés’ by counting the words of the poem and revealing the hidden code that results from reading these words in terms of their verbal as well as numerical associations. But how convincing is a mathematical approach of any kind when compared with Rancière’s political take and Badiou’s artistic view?

Boncardo and Gelder avoid advocating one thinker’s theory against the others, either in their introduction to Mallarmé: Rancière, Milner, Badiou or in the content and tenor of the carefully formulated questions put to each thinker. It would be fair to say that they allot the thinkers roughly equal spaces to elaborate on and explain their understandings of the poet. Nevertheless, in part due to my own proclivities, and also due to the fact that Badiou gets to have the last word in the book – and it is a quote from his interview which appears on the book’s cover – I’m inclined to announce him the winner of this philosophical three-way debate. By fusing – or, as Badiou himself might say, suturing – Mallarmé’s poetry to either politics or science, Rancière and Milner have arguably ignored its actuality as poetry. For Rancière, Mallarmé’s poetry comes to bear witness to the event of egalitarian democratic politics, and for Milner it testifies to the truthfulness of mathematical operations such as commutativity – but in Badiou’s thought, Mallarmé’s poetry is shown to be an event in itself, and to possess the capacity to produce uniquely poetic truths via specifically literary operations. Of the three philosophers, Badiou is the only one who approaches and accounts for the poet as nothing more or less than a poet.

And it is for this reason that I’d like to end this essay by not only returning to the image with which I began – Paul Celan’s trying encounter with Martin Heidegger – but by doing so via Badiou’s account of this same incident. In his 1989 book, Manifesto for Philosophy, Badiou claims that ‘everything hinges, it is quite true, on the sense we give to the encounter between Celan and Heidegger, a quasi-mythical episode of our epoch.’ According to Badiou, Heidegger’s seminal post-second world war essay ‘What Are Poets For?’ had celebrated, in an excessively Romantic fashion, the ‘torment and solitude’ of the poet in a soulless modern world. One can readily understand why this perspective would have initially appealed to Celan, the psychologically wounded survivor of the most horrific genocide of the century. But Badiou also reminds us that Heidegger’s hyperbolic penchant for poetry is a ‘philosophical fetishism’, designating the philosopher as one of poetry’s ‘speculative parasites’, and further condemning the poet to solitude and, ultimately, to ‘complete silence’ – a silence which parallels Heidegger’s own duplicitous unwillingness to speak about the Holocaust.

And, according to Badiou, it is against this silence and this imposed solitude that the poet writes. Reflecting on Celan’s poetry and his eventual refutation of Heidegger, Badiou writes:

The most profound sense of his poetic work is to deliver us from this fetishism, to free the poem from its speculative parasites, to restore it to the fraternity of its time, where it will thereafter have to dwell side by side in thought with the matheme, love and political intervention. The event is that, in hopelessness and anxiety, Celan the poet deflects within poetry the pass of this restitution.

The poet, in other words, counters the false philosophic desire for him or her to play the part of a remote, tortured genius. The poet, despite immense hopelessness and anxiety, writes to leave the realm of abstraction and metaphysical irrelevance, to return the poem to the fraternity of its time, and to produce and invent new ideas and possibilities alongside – but not in subordination to – scientists and revolutionaries. The interviews with Badiou, Rancière and Milner, as occasioned and recorded in this important new book restore Stéphane Mallarmé to the world of real artistic, political and scientific events and actions, and hopefully contribute towards further emancipating the great poet’s work from perceptions of inaccessibility and obscurity.


Works cited

Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy, translated by Norman Madarasz (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).
Handbook of Inaesthetics, translated by Alberto Toscano (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).
David Brooks, The Sons of Clovis (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011).
Mary Ann Caws, ‘Editor’s Preface’, Stéphane Mallarmé: Selected Poetry and Prose (New York: New Directions Books, 1982).
Paul Celan, ‘Todtnauberg’, translated by Pierre Joris, Poetry Foundation. Accessed October 2017.
Michael Hamburger, ‘Paul Celan’s Todtnauberg’, arduity. Accessed Octorber 2017.
Jacques Rancière, Mute Speech, translated by James Swenson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
Alex Ross, ‘Encrypted’, The New Yorker, 11 April 2016. Accessed October 2017.