Dancing under Their Own Gaze: Mallarme, Jarry and Valery

By Fell, Jill | Journal of European Studies, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Dancing under Their Own Gaze: Mallarme, Jarry and Valery


Fell, Jill, Journal of European Studies


Stephane Mallarme and Paul Valery are both well known for their writings on dance. Not so Alfred Jarry, a subversive writer, whose originality of thought and inventiveness they both admired, whom they both knew personally and whose radical presentation of solo male dancing has not yet been registered by commentators on dance in French literature. It is the purpose of this essay to situate his contribution, which challenges the cult of the female dancer and provides an important counterpoise to the two other writers.(1)

Jarry counted himself among Oscar Wilde's supporters and friends in a group which centred around Rachilde and Marcel Schwob at the Mercure de France publishing house. Presented as fiction, his challenge to the prevailing image of dancer as 'sylph' came in the wake of Oscar Wilde's conviction but it is also a riposte to Mallarme's earlier comments on dancing as writing. As such, it provides a much more immediate response to Mallarme than Valery's dance pieces. His little known reconstruction of decadent Roman dance performance, presented in his novel, Messaline, roman de l'ancienne Rome, of 1900 not only challenged society's attitude to homosexuality, but forms a crucial part of his aesthetic theory and emphasizes his position as a visionary author and a prophet of dance movements to come. Valery, although much more of a disciple of Mallarme's than Jarry, delayed so long in publishing his thoughts about dance, that they need to be considered as much in relation to concepts being aired in the 1930s, such as Federico Lorca's definition of the inspiring force known as duende(2) and to Andre Breton's notion of beaute convulsive, as to Mallarme's famous statement about the dancer as metaphor. I shall use Mallarme's statements as a backdrop to set out Jarry's fictitious but well documented reconstruction beside Valery's later analyses of dance.

Jarry's three-fold challenge was first against the primacy of the female dancer and the recent tendency to include wafting drapery as a part of dance movement. The golden dancing figure that he creates represents the writer as a spiritual mediator-magician, whose whirling dance, according to the principles of the ancient Greek mysteries, reflects the movement of the stars. Second, he challenged the strict boundary separating dance from acrobatics and, in typical pioneering fashion, made a case for bringing acrobatic performance into the high canon of dance. His implicit argument was that acrobats, by virtue of the extreme physical and mental discipline of their art, should be placed on a par with dancers. The third aspect of his challenge was against dance as spectacle. His chapter title 'I1 dansait quelquefois la nuit...', a citation from Suetonius' account of Caligula, implies that dance has an inner value other than the seen. In this he is at one with Valery.

Jarry's appreciation of Mallarme's and Valery's aesthetic worlds, worlds that he perceives to be pulsating with movement, helps to contextualize his own. He registered this in his novel, Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien, partially published in serial form in 1898. It is striking that his whimsical portrait of Mallarme as Lord of the Island of Ptyx incorporates the soothing movements of nodding and rocking. Mallarme's use of the Greek word [Greek Text Omitted] (ptyx) meaning 'fold' has provoked a large body of comment. A collector of esoteric words himself, Jarry selects ptyx as representive of Mallarme's poetic universe. Its secondary meaning as 'tablet' may account for his interpretation. In his imagination the Island of Ptyx is composed of a translucent stone of the same name, comparable to white sapphire but emitting a warmth evocative of drumskins. He thus evokes not only the hard transparency of Mallarme's poetry but also the shaman's drum and, by association, the receptive ear drum.(3) He depicts Mallarme as emanating a similar hospitable warmth to the smooth, table-shaped island that he envisages as his poetic domain. …

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