The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé(1842-1898) was the master of the symbolist writers in France. His poetic theories and difficult, allusive poems separated him from the general public but won him intense admiration within the circle of his initiates.
Stéphane Mallarméwas born in Paris on March 18, 1842. After a mediocre beginning at school, young Stéphane excelled in languages (French, Latin, Greek, and English) and obtained his baccalaureate degree in November 1860. In February 1862 he published his first poem (Placet) in Le Papillon. His liaison with Maria Gerhard led to their marriage on Aug. 10, 1863, and to the birth of a daughter, Françoise Geneviève Stéphanie (in November 1864), and a son, Anatole (1871-1879). In September 1863 Mallarméobtained his certificate for teaching English and at the end of the year went with his wife to Tournon to teach in the lycée there. His teaching career was to last for 30 years and to take him to Besançon (1866), Avignon (1867), and finally Paris (1871). An agonizing spiritual crisis in 1866 led to Mallarmé's complete loss of religious faith and to his austere, half-mystical preoccupation with eternity and le Néant (Nothingness, or Annihilation).
In 1875 Mallarmépublished Le Corbeau (his translation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven) with illustrations by Édouard Manet; and the following year appeared L'Aprèsmidi d'un faune, églogu…., one of his most memorable poems. L'Après-midi d'un faune exemplifies many characteristics of Mallarmé's exquisitely evocative poetry and many of his cherished ideas—for example, that in the "pure work" the poet disappears as speaker and gives over the initiative to the words, which "kindle each other with reciprocal reflections like a virtual trail of fires over precious stones." The faun, in his evocation by the word lis (lily), exemplifies also Mallarmé's claim in the essay Crise de vers for the ideal power of verbal creation.
In L'Après-midi d'un faune there emerges from Mallarmé's subtle suggestion and evocation the drama of a young faun trying to decide between dream and reality in his confused recollection of an erotic adventure with two nymphs, who finally escaped from his embrace. In a vague Sicilian landscape we see the faun, after trying vainly to resolve the mystery of his experience, turn to a fantasy of ravishing Venus herself and then, at the last, going back to sleep under the silence of the noonday sun.
Mallarméis cited by Jules Huret in 1891 as criticizing the Parnassians' direct presentation of objects in poetry: "To name an object is to suppress three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem which is made up of gradual discovery: to suggest it, that is the dream…. There must always be an enigma in poetry…." In his later writings, Mallarméasxspired to the creation of hermetic poetry.
J. K. Huysmans' …rebours and Paul Verlaine's Poètes maudits in 1884 helped make Mallarmémore generally known in France. He was known also through his famous "mardis" (Tuesday receptions from 9 to midnight in his home at 89 Rue de Rome), which flourished into the 1890s and brought together over the years many of the most significant writers, musicians, and artists of the time.
In 1887 appeared Mallarmé's Poésies, and the following year his prose translations of Les Poèmes d'Edgar Poe and of Ten o'Clock, James McNeill Whistler's famous lecture on art. On Jan. 27, 1896, Mallarméwas elected "prince of poets," succeeding Verlaine. Publications near the end of his life included Vers et prose (1893), La Musique et les lettres (1895), Divagations (1897), and Un Coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard (1897). Mallarmédied at Valvins on Sept. 9, 1898, and was buried 2 days later in the cemetery of Samoreau (Seine-et-Marne). Posthumous publications included a separate edition of Un Coup de dés (1914), Madrigaux (1920), Vers de circonstance (1920), Igitur ou La Folie d'Elbehnon (1925), Contes indiens (1927), and Thèmes anglais (1937). Mallarmé's Oeuvres complètes was published in 1945.
The exquisite qualities of Mallarmé's art are evident both in his poetry and in such prose poems as Plainte d'automne and Frisson d'hiver. Of individual poems (aside from those named earlier) one may cite such examples as Apparition, Les Fenêtres, L'Azur, Brise marine, Soupir, Hérodiade, the more difficult Prose pour des Esseintes, the three Tombeaux (Poe, Baudelaire, Verlaine), and the sonnets Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui, Victorieusement fui le suicide beau, and Ses purs ongles très haut dédiant leur onyx.
Mallarméliked images of snow, ice, swans, gems, mirrors, cold stars, and women's fans. There is often a burning sensuality under the austere form of his poems; but there are also numerous overt images of chastity, sterility, and artistic impotence. In Un Coup de dés Mallarméused typography to dramatize his words and enhance their imaginative suggestiveness. He saw the poet's function as being, above all, "to give a purer meaning to the words of the tribe." He claimed to have come to understand "the intimate correlation of Poetry with the Universe" and hinted that he was beginning where Baudelaire left off. Finally, he carried his ideal so far that, as he admitted, his art became "a dead end." But Mallarméwas not a sterile artist; he was one of the most exquisite poets of the century.
For translations from Mallarmésee Some Poems of Mallarmé (1936), translated by Roger Fry with commentaries by Charles Mauron; the Selected Poems (1957), translated by C. F. Maclntyre; and Anthony Hartley, ed., Mallarmé (1965), with prose translations. Among useful studies in English are Hasye Cooperman, The Aesthetics of Stéphane Mallarmé (1933); Wallace Fowlie, Mallarmé (1953); Joseph Chiari, Symbolism from Poe to Mallarmé: The Growth of a Myth (1956), with a foreword by T. S. Eliot; Haskell M. Block, Mallarméand the Symbolist Drama (1963); Guy Michaud's Mallarmé (trans. 1965); Robert Greer Cohn, Toward the Poems of Mallarmé (1965) and Mallarmé's Masterwork: New Findings (1966); and Thomas A. Williams, Mallarméand the Language of Mysticism (1970).
Millan, Gordan, A throw of the dice: the life of Stéphane Mallarmé, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994.
Sartre, Jean Paul, Mallarmé, or, The poet of nothingness, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.
Woolley, Grange, Stéphane Mallarmé, 1842-189, New York: AMS Press, 1981. □
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Stéphane Mallarmé (stāfän´ mälärmā´), 1842–98, French poet. Mallarmé's great importance is as the chief forebear of the symbolists; many poets and other writers of the mid-1880s drew inspiration at the Tuesday evening gatherings where Mallarmé expounded his theories. He held that the poet should express the ideas of a transcendental world, that poetry should evoke thoughts through suggestion rather than description, and that it should approach the abstraction of music. Mallarmé's language defies traditional syntax and is frequently so obscure that it must be read with commentary. His best-known poems are Hérodiade (1869), L'Après-Midi d'un faune (1876; The Afternoon of a Faun), which inspired a composition by Debussy, and Un Coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard (1897; A Throw of the Dice Will Never Eliminate Chance). Editions of Mallarmé's poetry were published in 1887 and 1899, and a selection of prose, Divagations, in 1897. Mallarmé earned his living by teaching English. The influence of his poetry was particularly felt by Valéry.
See selected letters, ed. and tr. by R. Lloyd (1988); biography by A. France (1967); studies by T. A. Williams (1970), D. H. Morris (1977), M. Bowie (1982), L. W. Marvick (1986), and G. Robb (1996).
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BORN: 1842, Paris, France
DIED: 1898, Valvins, France
GENRE: Drama, poetry
Afternoon of a Faun (1876)
A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance (1914)
Stéphane Mallarmé is one of France's four major poets of the second half of the nineteenth century, along with Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud. Although he was recognized as a prominent artist during his lifetime, much of his poetry was acknowledged to be difficult to understand because of its fractured syntax, ambiguous expressions, and obscure imagery. Critics during his lifetime and afterward have continued to disagree as to the precise interpretations of many of his later works.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Bourgeois Upbringing Stéphane Mallarmé—as he is known, although his birth certificate records his first name in its more usual French form of “Etienne”—was born into a middle-class family on March 18, 1842, in Paris. His mother died when he was seven years old, after which his maternal grandmother played an increasingly significant role in his upbringing. His grandmother sent Mallarmé to various boarding schools, generally attended by the upper-class, where he often felt self-conscious and ill-at-ease because of his bourgeois background. When Mallarmé was fifteen, his youngest sister and closest companion, Maria, died. Her death strongly affected
Mallarmé's development as a poet; he abandoned his youthful interest in Romantic lyricism and turned to Charles Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal (1857, Flowers of Evil) for inspiration. Mallarmé's earliest work, in which he chose to describe imaginative visions rather than depict reality, dates from this period. While his family disapproved of his interest in Baudelaire and confiscated his copy of the book, Baudelaire remained Mallarmé's first strong literary influence.
First Publication, Language Studies, and Return to France In 1860, Mallarmé received his baccalaureate degree from the university in Sens; after graduation he became an apprentice at his grandfather's registry office. He also became friends with professor Emmanuel des Essarts, with whom he discussed literature and art. Encouraged by des Essarts, Mallarmé published his first sonnet in 1862 in the short-lived literary journal Le papillon. Shortly after the sonnet's publication, Mallarmé met his future wife, Maria Gerhard, a schoolteacher who accompanied him to London in 1863. Mallarmé aspired to become a foreign-language teacher and to learn English in order to translate Edgar Allan Poe. He succeeded, and his translation, Les poemes d'Edgar Poe, appeared in 1888. When he returned to France at the age of twenty-two, Mallarmé married Gerhard and took a teaching position in Tournon, a small village on the Rhone River.
Poetic Struggles Although Mallarmé had already begun to develop his poetic and linguistic theories, his work and meditations were constantly interrupted by what he considered the tedious duties of a schoolteacher. His pupils openly mocked him, and when Mallarmé's poem “L'azur” (The Sky) was published, along with ten other pieces in Le parnasse contemporain in 1866, the students scrawled the poem's final line over the blackboard: “Je suis hanté. L'azur! l'azur! l'azur!” (I am haunted. The sky! The sky! The sky!) Their ridicule, however, did not inhibit Mallarmé's poetic studies, and although his writing habits were slow and meticulous, his work began to receive attention in literary circles. Poe replaced Baudelaire as Mallarmé's dominant literary influence, and he began to write lengthy, dreamlike poems that reflected the poetic theories of his new mentor.
Inventing Language from Poetics After his poems were published in Le parnasse contemporain, Mallarmé wrote a letter to his friend Henri Cazalis in which he explained his developing poetic aesthetic and his work on a prose poem titled Hérodiade: “[I] am inventing a language that must necessarily spring from a very new poetics, which I could define in these few words: to paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces. The poetic line should be composed not of words but of intentions, and all words should efface themselves before sensations. I mean—for the first time in my life—to succeed. I would never pick up a pen again if I failed.” Hérodiade is a reworking of the biblical story about Hérodiade, or Salome, as she is also known, who causes John the Baptist's murder by decapitation. In Mallarmé's interpretation, Hérodiade is a melancholic and chaste princess who eschews her own sexuality in order to attain moral perfection. This work, which remained unfinished, caused Mallarmé much anguish throughout his life as he struggled to properly convey his poetic vision.
An Exploration of Sensuality As Mallarmé was struggling to complete Hérodiade, he began to compose Afternoon of a Faun, which he intended to be a companion piece to the first work. In a letter to Henri Cazalis dated 1865, Mallarmé explained his motivations: “I have been at work for ten days. I have left Hérodiade for the cruel winter: That solitary work had sterilized me, and in the interval I am rhyming an heroic interlude with a Faun as its hero.” While Hérodiade is a mystical interpretation of sexual repression, Afternoon of a Faun addresses how sensuality, ardor, and physical sensation attain significance through meditative introspection. Therefore, while Hérodiade suggests chastity can lead to spiritual perfection, Afternoon of a Faun explores the nature of sensual pleasure only to reveal the deceptive nature of illusion and reality.
The Belle Époque The period during which Mallarmé grew up and attained success was known in France as the BelleÉpoque, or Beautiful Era. This was a time notable throughout Europe for its political stability and economic prosperity. The Franco-Prussian War, the culmination of many years of hostilities between Germany and France, came to an end in 1871; the devastation of World War I would not arrive until more than forty years later. Because of this relative peace and prosperity, the Belle Époque led to a flowering of the arts, with performance arts, such as plays and music, enjoying a boost as audiences sought light entertainment. Mallarmé's work was perfectly suited for the French audiences of this time period.
The Tuesday Poets In 1875 Mallarmé moved to Paris, where he obtained a teaching position at College Rollin and came in contact with such notable Parisian poets as Paul Verlaine and Theodore de Banville. Gustave Kahn, in particular, admired Mallarmé's poetry and began to call on him in the evening. Others soon joined him, and Tuesdays became the day that Mallarmé received visitors. As the number of guests grew, the legendary Tuesday evening meetings or les mardis (Tuesdays) grew famous, and the faithful became known as les mardistes. In 1884, Mallarmé finally achieved widespread recognition when two books by mardistes were published: Les poetes maudits by Verlaine, and A rebours by Joris Karl Huysmans, which hailed Mallarmé's prose poems. By 1891, such young poets as Paul Valéry and André Gide had joined the group. At these meetings, Mallarmé lectured on how to use words as symbols and was revered by his audience as an oracle. Because of the tremendous influence he had over the writers of his time, Mallarmé became known in certain literary circles as the “Master of Symbolism.”
Persistence Against All Odds Uncertain and despondent though he may have felt late in life, Mallarmé nevertheless recovered sufficiently from his pessimism on occasions to write elegies to Baudelaire in 1895, to Verlaine in 1897 and to Vasco da Gama in 1898. This last poem, “Au seul souci de voyager” (To life's sole goal of sailing onwards) was written to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of da Gama's voyage to India, but Mallarmé also saw, in the great explorer's persistence in sailing into the unknown against all odds, an image of his own unwavering pursuit of the ideal world, despite disappointments and setbacks. Mallarmé died in Valvins later that year.
Works in Literary Context
Mallarmé's vision was of the transcendent word—of language that belongs neither to the world of things nor to the human world of speech but rather to primordial emptiness, in which the splendor of beauty exists as a sheer presence, a pure quality not based on any reality but the written word. Although Mallarmé has sometimes been hailed as the originator of the symbolist school, his poetic aesthetic was greatly influenced by the works of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud, other French poets also associated with the developing trend toward symbolic representation of human emotion.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Mallarmé's famous contemporaries include:
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926): A transitional figure between traditional and modernist poetry, Rilke—who wrote in both German and French—is considered one of Germany's greatest poets.
Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922): Inspired by his work with speech therapy, Bell experimented with mechanical speech devices. These experiments eventually led to his most famous invention, the telephone, a device he would later repudiate as too much of a distraction.
Wyatt Earp (1848–1929): One of the prototypical figures of the American Old West, lawman and entrepreneur Earp is best remembered today for his role in the gun-fight at the O.K. Corral, along with Doc Holliday and Earp's brothers Virgil and Morgan.
Sanford B. Dole (1844–1926): A member of the wealthy family that owned the well-known pineapple-canning company, Dole was instrumental in forcing the late-nineteenth-century transition of Hawaii from a monarchy to an American territory.
Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935): A French artillery officer who was charged with treason in 1894 in what was revealed to be an anti-Semitic conspiracy. His subsequent exoneration was one of the biggest political scandals of its day.
Symbolism Stéphane Mallarmé was one of the foremost contributors to French symbolism, a nineteenth-century poetic movement whose members believed that the function of poetry was to evoke moods and impressions rather than to describe concrete realities. Mallarmé differed from his predecessors, however; while he was dissatisfied with conventional interpretations of existence, he attempted to delineate other possibilities in a way that appealed not only to the heart but also to the intellect. Charles Chadwick explained: “[Mallarmé] could not simply take refuge in some exotic memory or vision of an ideal world. If there was an alternative to reality then it must, in Mallarmé's view, be capable of rational definition.” Attempting to transcend the limits of language and therefore locate what he believed was the purity and perfection inherent in poetry, Mallarmé often utilized innovative syntax, complex metaphors, and experimental typography to create poems that challenge readers' perceptions.
Throughout his career, Mallarmé's insistence that the reader work with the poet in search of symbolic meaning, his disdain of immediate gratification in literature, and his vacillating poetic intentions also proved problematic; he intermittently suffered from depression and creative sterility. When a student announced, for example, that he had deciphered the meaning of one of Mallarmé's sonnets, the poet replied: “How wonderful! You have figured out in one week what has taken me thirty years.” Although Mallarmé failed to achieve his goals, his small output forms an important contribution to the symbolist movement and contemporary poetry because it demonstrates his belief that the inexplicability of poetry can be consciously expressed through precise symbolic language. Guy Michaud explained: “[Mallarmé] liberated the poetic instrument once and for all from the harness of three centuries of rationalistic and French rhetoric, up to and including Romanticism. He … forcefully established that the function of the poet, and of the writer in general, is to decipher the mystery of the world.”
While Mallarmé's oeuvre is small and has sometimes been faulted for being deliberately obscure and ambiguous, his influence on twentieth-century art and literature has been lasting and profound. In addition to having a direct impact on the poetry of his disciple Paul Valéry, Mallarmé also inspired symbolist and avant-garde theater, surrealism, the New Novelists, and such respected writers as Franz Kafka and T. S. Eliot. Charles Morice emphasized the enormous effect of Mallarmé's complex and revolutionary verse on modern letters: “[Anyone] who has listened to him, dates from him.”
Works in Critical Context
Mallarmé was recognized by his contemporaries to be a highly influential innovator of French letters. Since his death in 1898, his reputation as the literary “Master of Symbolism” has grown steadily, reinforced by his ongoing influence on French literature. While critical response has not been without negative commentary on the difficulty of some of his works, by and large, Mallarmé has retained his status a significant literary figure of the nineteenth century whose work is deserving of both praise and scholarship.
Experimental Poetry Yields a Mixed Critical Response Mallarmé abandoned traditional grammar, vocabulary, and syntax in the majority of his poetry, but it is his final work, A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance, which is considered his most experimental. Expressing his interest in the musical and polyphonic possibilities of the verse form, Mallarmé's words are set in different typefaces to produce visual representations of the poem's subject and to accentuate the intertwining of thought and sound. By tracing the fate of the ambiguous character known only as the “Master,” Mallarmé attempts to recapitulate the role chance has played in the evolution of humankind. Although critics have praised Mallarmé's stylistic experimentations in A Throw of the Dice, they also note that the poem is occasionally strained and overambitious. F. C. Aubyn commented: “[Poetry] cannot be read exactly like music so … Mallarmé's harmonic intentions get lost in the typographical inventions. But its aesthetic beauty, visual as well as auditory, cannot be denied.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Mallarmé is often cited as one of the first symbolist poets. His work was an inspiration to a generation of artists. Some of the best-known symbolist poetry includes:
A Season in Hell (1873), an extended poem by Arthur Rimbaud. The prototypical enfant terrible, Rimbaud had written his best work and quit poetry before his twentieth birthday; A Season in Hell's hallucinogenic imagery would continue to influence many artistic movements beyond symbolism.
Sagesse (1880, Wisdom), a poetry collection by Paul Verlaine. A collection of poems dealing with maturation, Verlaine's poetry was, like his partner Rimbaud's, influential on nonsymbolist poets and artists in the twentieth century.
Au Le jardin de l'infante (1893, Garden of the Princess), a poetry collection by Albert Samain. The volume that made Samain's name as a poet, these melancholy verses are firmly placed within the symbolist genre.
Mallarmé's teaching career and the demands of his disciples left him little time for writing in later years. Some of his finest works during this period are the short pieces he composed in honor of his colleagues, such as Toast funebre, written in 1873 to commemorate the death of the poet Théophile Gautier. In addition to celebrating Gautier's accomplishments, this poem also delineates Mallarmé's beliefs about the role of the artist in society and the meaning of poetry. Wallace Fowlie commented: “Toast funebre celebrates the essential paradox of poetry and of all art: the transitoriness of human experience fixed in a form of permanency.” In 1875, Mallarmé wrote “The Tomb of Edgar Poe,” a celebration of Poe's “eternal genius” despite his tragic life. Considered one of the greatest symbolist poems written in the late nineteenth century, “The Tomb of Edgar Poe” is one of the most frequently quoted works in French literature. In “Tombeau,” his tribute to Paul Verlaine, Mallarmé disregards Verlaine's controversial bohemian lifestyle, emphasizing instead the poet's unique contribution to French Symbolism. F. C. St. Aubyn underscores the poetic merit of Mallarmé's tributes: “Among [the ‘tombs’; and homages] are to be found some of Mallarmé's most famous and most difficult poems.”
Responses to Literature
- Discuss the nature of obscure allegory in Mallarmé's verse. Do you feel such obscure analogies benefit a poem, or detract from it? Why?
- Mallarmé's works have been described as “decadent.” Do you agree with this? What evidence do you see to support this label?
- What does Mallarmé mean when he uses the term Transposition?
- Do you agree with Mallarmé's position that poetry is the only way to adequately express our feelings and that ordinary language is a disappointment? Are there other forms of communication that serve the same function as Mallarmé's conception of poetry?
Beum, Robert, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 217: Nineteenth-Century French Poets. Detroit: Gale, 2000.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Stéphane Mallarmé. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Michaud, Guy. Mallarmé, translated by Marie Collins and Bertha Humez. New York: New York University Press, 1965.
St. Aubyn, F. C. Stéphane Mallarmé. Woodbridge, Conn.: Twayne, 1989.
Williams, Thomas F. Mallarmé and the Language of Mysticism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1970
Wolf, Mary Ellen. Eros Under Grass: Psychoanalysis and Mallarmé's Hérodiade. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1987.
Paragraph (November 1989): 181–96.
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"Mallarmé, Stéphane." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Retrieved August 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mallarme-stephane
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The French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé was born in Paris in 1842 into a bourgeois family of civil servants. He was expected to follow into his father and grandfather's profession but, influenced by Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier, he turned to writing poetry. After leaving school he went to England, and while in London, he married Marie Gerhard. They had two children, Geneviève and Anatole, who died at the age of eight.
Mallarmé taught English in Tournon, Besançon, and Paris until his retirement in 1893. Throughout Mallarmé's life his literary output was sparse and deliberate. His first poem was published when he was twenty-four. The famous "L'après-midi d'un faune" appeared in 1865, but between 1867 and 1873 his principal poems were left unfinished. From the 1880s he was at the center of a group of French artists that included Édouard Manet and Paul Valéry. Mallarmé died in Valvins, Seine-et-Marne, in 1898. His modernist masterpiece, "Un coup de dés jamais
n'abolira le hasard" (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), was published posthumously in 1914.
Unique Approach to Fashion
Mallarmé's relationship with fashion is marked by his association with the exponents of two literary movements of the late nineteenth century, the Parnassians and the symbolists. However, his is not the use of clothing or accessories as mere metaphors or symbols for character or sentiment, which occupied the literary output of his contemporaries. Mallarmé's singular contribution lies in his recognition of fashion as a social, cultural, psychological, and economic force in itself, and in the way in which this recognition finds poetical expression in different forms of writing, from occasional quatrain, via complex prose poem, to journalism.
La dernière mode
Mallarmé's artistic expression found its most potent voice in journalism. In the autumn of 1874 he single-handedly wrote and edited a magazine entitled La dernière mode (The latest fashion). It was composed of a number of stylistically well-defined columns on such topics as couture, accessories, and hair and makeup. The poet wrote each of these columns under different female pseudonyms, slipping easily into each mode and adopting, with a mixture of reverence and irony, various poetical voices as well as mannerisms of the commercial prose of the Second Empire.
Albeit short-lived—only eight issues were published before it went into receivership—the richly illustrated La dernière mode became a gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art on fashion and style, crossing and quoting artistic disciplines in the spirit of the fin de siècle.
Fashion as Cultural Form
Mallarmé's development from a symbolist poet to a modernist writer, from an esoteric style to pared-down aesthetics, finds its unique expression in his attitude to fashion, to a mode dressing as well as sociocultural existence. There are, of course, a number of central subjects around which he built respective works, but fashion—with its haptic qualities, its shaping of the human form, and its metaphoric potential—appears as one of the most significant themes in Mallarmé's oeuvre. In what proved to be the last issue of La dernière mode (20 December 1874), he concluded, "No! for a compendium that intends to view fashion as art, it does not suffice to say 'this is what is worn'; one has to state 'this is the reasoning behind it'" (p. 2).
Here is Mallarmé's credo in regard to fashion. It is not simply an industry that creates material objects, nor is it a medium for a merely typified, gendered, or socialized representation. Fashion is a cultural form that demands critical investigation on a par with other artistic media, like plays, paintings, or novels. Moreover, it possesses a unique structure that lends itself to a redefinition of habitual rules and expressions. Mallarmé realized that, just as he used and reused a hermetic, musical vocabulary, where words take on very different meanings or are brought into an alternative syntax, so fashion invents its own forms anew each season. The look of a familiar piece of clothing is changed beyond recognition, or its use is radically redefined. As a structuralist before the advent of structuralism, Mallarmé found in fashion a willful and skillful reshaping of formal appearances, and thus a technique that he himself pursued from his early, fragmentary poems (such as "Hérodiade" of 1869) to the open spaces of his late, formal experiment, "Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard."
Fold and Word
Mallarmé's work is characterized by a quest for pictorial composition and at the same time by a forceful rejection of the subject. In fashion he found both his visual stimulus, through the colorful, sweeping fabric of French couture between the 1850s and 1890s, and a subject matter that was regarded as marginal within the contemporary cultural hierarchy. The topic of fashion allowed Mallarmé to work against narratives, to remain resolutely subjective within the nonlinear, associative rhythms of his verses, but, simultaneously, to remove himself from the sublime, weighty subjectivism that was considered necessary for symbolist poetry.
La dernière mode ran a dialogue with imaginary correspondents, where the poet celebrated the "profound nothingness" that pervades the life and sartorial consumption of the bourgeois female. Unlike Gustave Flaubert, Mallarmé used the seemingly empty existence and ennui of a female readership not for narrative drama, as Flaubert did with the character of Emma Bovary, but for a concentration on formal questions. Fashion, seen as insignificant and ephemeral by the cultural status quo, thus becomes a carte blanche for a poetically elaborate, yet curiously precise, description of fabrics, ribbons, pleats, and folds, as the journal aimed at fulfilling its commercial function as a source of sartorial information.
The fold in particular operates, as pli modal—an abstract fold that primarily exists in semantic form—in a material analogy to syntactic or stylistic innovation. Thus, a notion is either hidden within the surface of a specific word, or else one word refers to another unknown one and needs to be drawn from the depth of the linguistic fabric through combinative or connotative efforts. Fellow poets credited La dernière mode with the "invention of the word" (Burty, p. 587); indeed, the vocabulary in the journal surpasses the mere description of clothes or accessories and moves to constitute fashion in the abstract, as a verbal equivalent of sartorial innovations in contemporary haute couture.
The professed independence from the material aspect of clothing, and the deliberate ignorance vis-à-vis stylistic minutiae, rendered La dernière mode less than commercially viable among competitive fashion journals. However, the formal yet radical nature of its prose (such as the metaphysical musings of Marguerite de Ponty in her column, "La Mode") and the irony of its stylistic quotations (repeated references by Miss Satin to Charles Frederick Worth and Émile Pingat) create a unique and extended text that floats unconstrained by a specific stylistic period. Indeed, the prose speaks as eloquently of the sartorial as of the literary form.
A further removal from the habitual approach of the artist to fashion, whether critical or celebratory, occurs through the exclusive choice of female pseudonyms. This technique was not new in itself. Honoré de Balzac and Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, for example, preceded Mallarmé as "female" fashion journalists in the 1830s and 1840s. Yet Mallarmé does not hide behind or subsequently disavow his feminine personae but becomes them. A mental cross-dressing allows the poet to indulge in the transitory and ephemeral, unobserved by the patriarchal mainstream, and thus free to subvert a commercial medium for the dissemination of formal experiments to a readership hitherto unaccustomed to such an approach.
Personal and Historical Impact
At the end of his life Mallarmé reminisced about the literary significance and the personal impact of the autumn of 1874. "I tried," he said, "to write up myself clothing, jewelry, furnishings, even columns on theaters and dinner menus, a journal La dernière mode, whose eight or ten issues still, when I undress them from their dust, help me to dream for a long time" (Correspondence, Vol. 2: Paris: Gallimard, 1965, p. 303). Such remembrance, aided by fashion's mode of existence in modernity as quotations from a past source book, prepared the ground not just for Marcel Proust's literary form, but also for Walter Benjamin's philosophy of history. The view of fashion in Mallarmé's writing, therefore, accounts for the coming hallmarks of modernity itself.
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"Mallarmé, Stéphane." Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/fashion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mallarme-stephane
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