Was Mallarme a Transcendental Philosopher?: The Place of Literature in the 'Divagations.' (Poet Stephane Mallarme)

By Schwartz, Stephen Adam | The Romanic Review, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Was Mallarme a Transcendental Philosopher?: The Place of Literature in the 'Divagations.' (Poet Stephane Mallarme)


Schwartz, Stephen Adam, The Romanic Review


It would be hard to exaggerate the variety of perspectives represented in the bibliography of 20th-century criticism devoted to Mallarme: his texts have in the last century without a doubt been among the most widely interpreted and closely scrutinized literary works. Of course, the diversity of approaches and conclusions advanced by the critics is to be expected when it comes to a body of work whose difficulty, density, and outright obscurity are legendary.

It is therefore with some hesitancy that one refers to a new "orthodoxy" in Mallarme studies. The main tenet of this new doctrine is that Mallarme is a transcendental philosopher. It is true that from very early on Mallarme's work has been taken to be of philosophical significance. Early, philosophically-inclined readers tended to see in Mallarme an Idealist. In 1912 Albert Thibaudet, for example, while emphasizing that Mallarme did not have "une nature de philosophe" also claimed that "des mots propres a caracteriser l'oeuvre de Mallarme aucun ne reviendrait si souvent que celui d'idealisme" an idealism that is at once critical and "constructif, platonicien, qui dans les objets ne voit que leur essence intelligible et se cree, pour la vie de l'esprit, un monde de ces essences."(1) Some time earlier, Camille Mauclair, by contrast, claimed that "la conception fondamental de Stephane Mallarme procede directement de l'esthetique metaphysique de Hegel," such that, "pour lui, les idees pures etaient les seuls etres reels et virtuels de l'univers, alors que les objets et toutes les formes de la matiere n'en etaient que les signes. . . ."(2)

Though these claims, especially those regarding Mallarme's putative Hegelianism,(3) have given rise to much debate, they should we be taken uncritically. For one thing, the notion of "idealism" used to qualify Symbolist or Decadent aesthetics was already an intellectual cliche in Mallarme's time. Idealism was so much in the air in the latter part of the century that, as early as 1893, Remy de Gourmont could complain that "ce mot traine dans; les journaux . . . c'est le mot a tout faire."(4) For another, it bears pointing out that Mallarme did not write any philosophical works. Although the "Idee" (with a capital letter) plays a significant role in his poetry and other writings, it is hardly used consistently. Most frequently it is much more closely allied to other capitalized Baudelairean poetic themes like "l'Azur" and "le Reve" than it is to any philosophical notion of the idea. For Mallarme, "l'Idee" is less an object of contemplation for reason than an object of desire: in the "Prose pour des Esseintes," he writes of the "Gloire du long desir, Idees," which he depicts as a group of flowers whose stem "grandissait trop pour nos raisons."(5) In other words, "the Idea" in Mallarme's work is a kind of shorthand for whatever stands in contrast with the real and the rational: mystical intuition, suggestion, affect.(6) It has little to do with the Platonic idea, which is above all universal or with the Hegelian absolute Idea which is, according to the famous dictum, both real and rational.

Yet in recent years, Mallarme has continued to be treated as a philosopher, but the idealistic reading has been replaced by another philosophical view. In this new view, Mallarme's philosophy is not so much a form of Idealism as a form of its critique, an Ur-philosophy, a going beyond and encompassing of all philosophical categories. And since such categories are held to undergird--in the form of philosophemes(7)--our everyday concepts and categories, Mallarme's writings are held to effect a kind of philosophico-poetic transcendence, an unlimiting of our everyday language by returning to the play of possibilities that precedes it. Thus, for a theorist like Maurice Blanchot, Mallarme's success at seeming to empty his texts of content--saying nothing, as he seems to do in the famous "Sonnet en -yx"(8)--is tantamount to a kind of Heideggerian foregrounding of the stable categories of thought, a moving beyond mere beings toward the primordial Nothing, that Blanchot feels must underlie the mundane and constraining world of our concepts. …

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