Mallarme's Socratic Monologues

By Williams, Benjamin | The Romanic Review, May-November 2014 | Go to article overview

Mallarme's Socratic Monologues


Williams, Benjamin, The Romanic Review


Since the 1880s, when numerous studies of Stephane Mallarme began to appear, interpreters have taken him to stand for different and sometimes even opposite values. He might be a lucid teacher or a mystifying charlatan, a byzantine elitist or a socially conscious democrat. His writing's celebrated richness of meaning helps explain why interpretations of Mallarme seem to be, when taken together, at once contradictory and strangely absolutist. Jean-Francois Hamel analyzes such tendencies in his excellent recent book on ideologically motivated recuperations of the poet: Camarade Mallarme: Une politique de la lecture (2014). (1) While my study focuses on some of the same twentieth-century interpretations of Mallarme, it differs in its emphasis on the Mardis (the weekly gatherings at the poet's home in Paris). Of particular interest to me are the Mardistes' comparisons of Mallarme's monologues or causeries to Socrates's interrogative teachings. These comparisons emphasize the active listening elicited by the maitre, which in turn calls to mind Socrates's objections to writing in Plato's Phaedrus. There, Socrates observes that, instead of an interactive exchange, writing results only in the reader's passive reception of a fixed message (Plato 275b). Writing also fails to provide the privacy of a spoken conversation, according to this famous argument, because it cannot tell to whom it should divulge its contents (Plato 275e). (2) In my analysis of the Mardis, I argue that references to Socrates evoke these two objections to writing in a general way but not, for example, the irony of Plato's formulation of them in a written text. This probable overall influence of the Phaedrus provides occasion to reexamine some divergent understandings of Mallarme. Whereas the Mardistes cast him as a modern exemplar of the Socratic and Platonic privileging of speech over writing, more recent thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Jacques Ranciere have taken Mallarme to represent a key break with Plato's attitude. (3) Thus Mallarme has been compared to Socrates and Plato in entirely opposite senses: for a number of Mardistes, Mallarme was above all an oral genius, but for these two philosophers, he was among the first to depart from the Western tradition's long-standing view of writing as a "dead" imitation of speech.

Very broadly put, in Derrida's and Ranciere's interpretations, Mallarme's originality resided in his conception of writing (not just his own) as independent from the pretense of substituting for an absent speaker. The philosophers' interpretations differ in other respects, of course, but they seem to agree in their characterization of Mallarme as not an oral but a paradigmatically written genius. These contrary receptions of Mallarme derive from different evidence and are not always entirely incompatible. If a Mardiste had in mind a conversation with Mallarme and a twentieth-century scholar had in mind the Coup de des, it makes sense that the former would dwell on the maitre's oral genius and the latter on his written genius. The Mardistes did not say that Mallarme's writings did not matter, but some claimed that his conversations mattered more. The first sections of my article analyze this contemporary reputation for spoken genius, putting emphasis throughout on appraisals of the Mardis that correspond with the two points just raised from the Phaedrus (the "interactivity" and "privacy" of speech). I then return in more detail to Mallarme's Socratic reputation and twentieth-century arguments that he was intent only on his writing and his eventual readers.

Interactivity and Privacy in Oral and Written Communication

Two of the Pbaedrus's objections to writing might be summed up as a lack of interactivity (it cannot respond to questions) and a lack of privacy (it shares its contents with anyone who can read). Both objections are relevant implicitly and explicitly to accounts of Mallarme and the Mardis. In this article, "interactivity" especially appears in various, somewhat approximate terms. …

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