A hallmark of Mallarmé's poems is his poetic prestidigitation — the way rhythm, sound and grammar produce meaning. In these essays, Éric Benoit examines how creation arises from nothing, the "creux néant musicien," as the sonnet "Une dentelle s'abolit" figures it. Benoit's investigation spans the 1899 edition of the Poésies, La Dernière Mode, selected letters, articles and prose poems, as well as "Un Coup de dés," Notes pour Un Tombeau d'Anatole, and the sketches for Le Livre. In two parts of seven chapters each, this collection resembles a novel woven from short stories; the main characters are the ideas so intrinsic to Mallarmé's work — "la notion pure," "la disparition élocutoire du poète," "le central rien," "le hasard." Benoit explains how negation shapes these concepts and reveals their essential tie to Mallarmé's notion of fiction, the textual instantiation of the tension of existence and non-existence.
In part one, "Autour des Poésies," readings of poems composed from 1862–65 introduce the paradoxes Benoit sees in Mallarmé's work and trace the æsthetic and spiritual itinerary that the poet inscribed into the design of the collection when he revised it in the 1880s and 90s. Chapters one and three survey Mallarmé's shifting portrayal of the demands and desires of art and life, poetry and the flesh, arguing that the poems' later arrangement suggests the interdependence of these contraries. In the second and fourth chapters, Benoit traces the sources of Mallarmé's revised conception of the Absolute as the Néant, which some of the Poésies anticipate. Mallarmé's recognition of the absence of God and the human need for transcendence, albeit imaginary, inspires his experiments with a fragmented linguistic persona and a poetic language that exposes the disengagement of words and their referents. Benoit explains how this new poetics creates meaning — "la notion pure" — through "virtualisation," or fictionalizing, abolishing reality and recreating it verbally. The reading of "Prose (pour des Esseintes)" in chapter five describes how poetic vision, seeing with the eyes of poet, functions in Mallarmé's æsthetics. Chapter six discusses ontological fragility, the "drame solaire" or the spiritual drama of human beings, which Benoit calls the "l'angoisse du Néant" (75). Chapter seven, which investigates what the Poésies' sequence suggests about poetry itself, argues that for Mallarmé, poetry, through fictions that contain the dynamic of creation and negation, gives ontological authentication in the face of potential destruction.
The second part, "Vers le Livre," treats the paradox inherent in the poetic, psychological and epistemological pursuit of the Néant, the unattainable Absolute. These chapters consider how Mallarmé forged his ideas from his encounters with death, real and imagined, embodied in the scientific theories of his time, such as thermodynamics and the notion of entropy; in the metaphors of the "drame solaire"; in his observations of merchandising and fashion, which threaten to extinguish the mystery at the center of beauty; in his experience of deaths in his family and his resolution of his grief; in his vision of a new, impersonal lyric subject, "la disparition élocutoire du poète"; and in his evolving understanding of discontinuity. In the epilogue, Benoit sympathetically describes Mallarmé's final year and the poet's daily traversal of the paradoxes of life and art through his engagement with friends, family, and literature. [End Page 174]
Among the many beautiful interpretations in these essays are Benoit's exploration of reading: chapter four recounts how the process of simultaneous negation and proposition, via the use of comme si, peut-être, and suppositional verb tenses, is key to the way a poem's meaning, for readers, "s'actualise en notre esprit"(68), and the fascinating discussion of fashion in chapter ten reveals how Mallarmé's descriptions of knickknacks, gaslights, top hats, and women's dresses aimed to deepen his readers' apprehension of the transcendent within "l'univers mondain" (150). Chapter nine sees "Le Démon de l'analogie" as a nodal point in Mallarmé's investigation of the...