Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Mallarme at the Millennium

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Mallarme at the Millennium

Article excerpt

The Gare Saint Lazare on a sweltering late summer morning, swirling groups of travellers coming to a disconsolate stop before the barriers as they wait for the details of their train to be flashed on the big screens above them, with small constellations gathering as friends or colleagues meet. This is Mallarme's station, the one he saw on leaving his apartment on the rue de Rome, the one his friend Manet painted in one of those great transformations of cultural icons, the cathedral of the industrial age. In addition, in the summer of 1997 it was for a group of Mallarme scholars the point of departure for the first of the conferences organized to celebrate his life and work. Through his poetry, through his intricately worded meditations on all branches of the arts, and through his demandingly innovative work Un coup de des, Stephane Mallarme, who died in September 1898, exerted an extensive influence over twentieth-century art and thought. A close friend of most of the impressionist painters, especially Manet, Berthe Morisot, Monet, Renoir, and Whistler, of musicians such as Chausson, Debussy, and Augusta Holmes, of numerous writers from Oscar Wilde to Emile Zola, from Villiers to Valery, Mallarme has continued to challenge creative and critical writers, philosophers, and poets throughout the twentieth century, inspiring some of the most profound and stimulating work of Derrida, Lacan, and Kristeva, Bonnefoy, Wallace Stevens, and Paul Auster, among numerous others. Painters and photographers have delighted in his image of the dice or his celebration of the ballerina. Musicians, from Ravel and Debussy to Cage and Boulez, have sought to capture in their works that sense, on the one hand, of sensuality and melancholy, and on the other, of silence and dislocation, that marks Mallarme's writing. He certainly left his stamp on his century and on ours, as the French postal service acknowledged by issuing its own stamp in 1998, Mallarme's face against a background of the night sky with the Great Bear. And from the tranquil depths of rural Normandy to the blatant postmodernism of New York, in gothic northern towns, and in one of the planet's southernmost cities, that influence has recently been celebrated and explored in a remarkable variety of conferences, exhibitions, publications, and performances.

They began in the summer of 1997, with a ten-day colloquium at the seventeenth-century chateau of Cerisy-la-Salle, deep in the heart of Normandy. The Mallarme 'decade' offered a satisfactory point of departure, for Cerisy, both in its physical manifestation and as a well-established series of summer conferences, suggests a continuity through time, its walls hung with photos of earlier participants such as Gide, Lytton Strachey, and Dorothy Bussy. Moreover, through its isolation, together with the intensity that a ten-day colloquium engenders, it enacted something of the hermeticism and high seriousness of symbolism itself. Unlike its equivalents in Anglophone countries, Cerisy colloquia are amazingly eclectic, for while the organizers of each conference invite the main speakers, the audience consists of whoever wishes to come and spend some vacation time in a rural setting. People can, and do, sign up each year for the same ten days, not particularly concerned about whether the topic is children's literature or eroticism, Jarry or Racine, Malherbe or Mallarme. Moreover, they take it all remarkably seriously, attending each of the one-hour presentations and participating in the following hour of discussion and questions. It makes for some unpredictable questions and some equally remarkable footwork as the speakers attempt to fit those questions into some recognizable category. This, together with the copious nature of the meals and the generous supplies of wine and cider that goes with them, has led at times to a particularly heightened sense of dicing with words, but in the case of the Mallarme 'decade' it also produced a surprisingly coherent image of the subject. …

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