- “Un fil visible”Poetry and Reportage in Stéphane Mallarmé's “Un Spectacle interrompu”
Stéphane Mallarmé lamented the vulgarity of the press, but the newspaper, with its increasing audience, awakened his desire to appropriate journalism's commercial power. In describing journalism's "theft" of literature, its invention of the feuilleton, in the poème critique "Étalages" (1892), he implies an uncharacteristic conclusion: popular culture must be reclaimed for poetry.1 The question of journalism's value, prominent in the poèmes critiques of the 1890 s, such as "Le Livre, instrument spirituel" (1895), enters Mallarmé's work in the 1870 s. The prose poem "Un Spectacle interrompu" (1875), first published when Mallarmé was in the midst of journalistic projects and recognized as a harbinger of his later prose style, exemplifies Mallarmé's experimentation with reportage.
Anticipating both his 1880 s explorations of performance and the 1890 s poèmes critiques, Mallarmé's anecdote interrogates the poetic vision, the "recherche assoupie d'imaginations ou de symboles."2 Presenting itself as a report, and the poet as reporter, the poem announces the poet's spiritual authority and the hierarchy of poetry and journalism. Yet this poetic report linguistically and dramatically overturns the poem's hierarchies. In "Un Spectacle," encounters between the poet-reporter and reporters in general, poetry and reportage, reality and artifice, the poet's and the audience's interpretations of the spectacle, the poet and the clown, and the clown and the bear, implicitly question the distinction between the poetic and the popular, as well as the poetic and the real.3 Rather than establishing poetry's superiority over reportage, the prose poem seems an odd attempt at reconciliation. In showing how the accident that interrupts the spectacle produces meaning, this poetic [End Page 1] report interrogates the theatrical illusion to illustrate the interdependence of the figurative and the real. The poet's vision of the audience and their response to this spectacle hints at the desire for a ritual that reveals the poetic within the public. "Un Spectacle interrompu" foreshadows the possibility, entertained later in the poèmes critiques, of a rapprochement of poetry and the popular. In its exploration of the oppositions of poetry and journalism, reality and artifice, and the mythic and the public, "Un Spectacle interrompu" dramatizes one of Mallarmé's early attempts to capture the power of popular genres and discourse for poetry.
The poem's opening is an avatar of Mallarmé's stance toward journalism. The speaker states that he seeks to write about the spectacle as a poet, not a reporter:4 "Je veux, en vue de moi seul, écrire comme elle frappa mon regard de poète, telle Anecdote, avant que la divulguent des reporters par la foule dressés à assigner à chaque chose son caractère commun" ( OC 276). The poet's account results in an understanding different from the vulgarized version reporters are required to provide, "divulguent," to the crowd. This remark, anticipating observations about reportage in "Crise de vers," starts to formulate the problem of defining poetic prose ( OC 386). In "Crise de vers," Mallarmé redivides the poetry/prose split, implicitly replacing it with a split between language that is musical, and thus poetic, and language that is not.5 This notion generalizes "poetry" into what Roman Jakobson called "the poetic function" of language. Jakobson acknowledged his debt to Mallarmé when he observed that "poeticalness is not a supplementation of discourse with rhetorical adornment but a total re-evaluation of the discourse and of all of its components whatsoever" (377). The tension of distinguishing and incorporating poetry and prose persists in Divagations (1897), where the section collecting this and other prose poems is entitled "Anecdotes ou poèmes."
The anecdote relates how a person describing himself as a poet attends a popular spectacle in a theater. The performance consists of an actor—a clown—and a bear. Twenty pedestals, on which sylphs stand, opening their arms and smiling sympathetically at the bear, border the stage. The clown taunts the bear and then raises his arm in a gesture that the bear imitates. In doing so, the bear accidentally touches the clown's shoulder and then places his...