Mallarmé and the Fallen Reader
A preoccupation with precisely what happens in the reading of a poem is at the heart of symbolist aesthetics. The quasi-official theoretician of the symbolists, Stéphane Mallarmé, devotes as much attention to creative reading as to creative writing. Obsessed with such matters as the reader's overall function in the aesthetic process and competence to perform that function, Mallarmé refers repeatedly to the situation of poets who find themselves at once in need of and deprived of competent readers.
Mallarmé's references to readers of poetry and to the reading process are, unfortunately, anything but consistent. In one breath, he execrates the reader as a dunderheaded fool; in the next, he honors him as a hidden poet. In one essay, he banishes the general reader from the house of poetry; in another, he welcomes him as a creative participant in a poetry festival. The ostensible contradictions in Mallarmé's theories of reading derive largely from the common assumption that poetry can be read in the same way at all times. Mallarmé maintains, conversely, that poetry must be read dispensationally, or, in other words, that it must be read in one way at one time and in quite another way at another time. Reading must be conceived of in terms of the readers at hand. When they are generally competent, he advocates one method of reading; when they are generally incompetent, he advocates a different method, one that recognizes and attempts to circumvent that incompetence.
The term "dispensation" is borrowed from Christian theology. It refers to a period of time during which one's responsibilities to other people and to God are reckoned according to a special system of divinely ordered principles. Dispensational theology, acknowledging that God deals with people in different ways at different times, is a first principle in hermeneutics, so elementary that the simplest