The Brush and the Pen: Odilon Redon and Literature/Aesthetic Rivalries: Word and Image in France, 1880-1926/the Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé the Artist's Book, and the Transformation of Print Culture

Article excerpt

DARIO GAMBONI The Brush and the Pen: Odilon Redon and Literature Trans. Mary Whittall Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 422 pp.; 94 b/w ills. $65.00

LINDA GODDARD Aesthetic Rivaines: Word and Image in France, 1880-1926

Bern: Peter Lang, 2012. 333 pp.; 36 color ills. $69.95 paper

ANNA SIGRÍDUR ARNAR The Book as Instrument: Stephane Mallarmé, the Artist's Book, and the Transformation of Print Culture Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 423 pp.; 12 color ills., 112 b/w. $45.00

These three books share a background, an account of a situation, a culture, especially in France, that had converted itself to market conditions, and which therefore had an "industrial" literature, a commercial print and publishing culture, and an art market. Under these new, or newly pervasive, conditions, writers and artists seeking to survive and to realize their ambitions found it necessary to define their artistic enterprises in terms of the forms available to them. Generally, this meant using the market to make a living, while seeking an autonomy that permitted an avant-garde practice - a coupling bound to create a complex relation of ambitious writers to "industrial" literature. See, for instance, Stéphane Mallarmé's famous ruminations on the newspaper.

Different economic relations to media and different aesthetic experiences of media shaped the various responses of nineteenthcentury artists and writers to the challenge of industrial media and, in turn, shaped their sense of their artistic endeavors. And so Mallarmé's thoughts about the newspaper returned as thoughts about poetry and about the book.

A crucial and common point in this story as all three of these important studies tell it is a line of art- and literary-theoretical thinking that can be traced to Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was, of course, translated by Charles Baudelaire and also by Mallarmé. A key feature of Poe's theorizing was his privileging of effect, which indirectly serves poetry in its struggle for autonomy from external values. We will be able to understand the achievements and the problems of the three studies under consideration here a little better if we begin with a very brief look at Poe's theories.

In "The Poetic Principle" Poe argues that poetry should obey its own imperatives and that "effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes." Moreover, "that pleasurable elevation, . . . which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment":

is at least most readily attainable in die poem. It by no means follows, however, diat the incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve, incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work; but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem.1

The inclination to subordinate poetry to truth, which Poe connects to "Bostoniane" and literary reviews (892), is one sign of the more general problem of poetry's suffering at the hands of literary institutions.

If attention to effect is a way of gaining autonomy from extra-artistic values and institutions, though, it is in another way a threat to the autonomy of the poetic work itself. Poe opens his essay provocatively: "I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, 'a long poem,' is simply a flat contradiction in terms":

I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags- fails - a revulsion ensues - and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such. …