Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.1&2 (2003-2004) 183-184
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Benoît, Eric. De la crise du sens à la quête du sens. Mallarmé, Bernanos, Jabès. Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2001. Pp. 157. ISBN 2-204-06810-1
Eric Benoît examines how Mallarmé's themes on the crisis of meaning, the death of God, and the question of the Book are present in Bernanos and Jabès, among other French writers, philosophers, and critics. Benoît's interest lies on the convergence of the aesthetic dimension of a work of literature with the spiritual preoccupations and ethical and historical responsibilities of the writer, in a Christian and Jewish per-spective. What I think is important in this book for the reader of nineteenth-century French literature is the author's re-examination of Mallarmé's place in French thought regarding the crucial importance of the questions that the poet raised on self, art, meaning and creation. It is particularly refreshing, after the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when Mallarmé was often read and analyzed through a linguistic, semantic, or deconstruction approach, to read a book that addresses the spiritual dimension of the poet's work, and situates its legacy through this perspective, in our contemporary times.
Benoît's book is divided into four chapters. The first chapter examines the crisis of meaning in literature based on an ontological and metaphysical investigation. The death of God, witnessed in the nineteenth century, is particularly at the heart of Benoît's argument, as language became the new ontological support of the world. The contrast which Benoît offers between Mallarmé's and Nietzsche's vision is particularly revealing. Even though they were contemporaries, very few studies have shown the fundamental differences that separated the poet from the philosopher and Benoît enlightens us on that very question. Each experienced the same loss but for Mallarmé, the meaning of poetry, its raison d'être, was to reinvest the "religious" and the "sacred" in the poetic language. As an absolute, poetry aimed at giving a new meaning to the world. Unlike philosophy however (Benoît thinks of Hegel), its ideal was unachieveable.
In Chapter 2, Benoît addresses the theological crisis in Mallarmé and beyond. The author examines here the tension between the poet's vision that transcends God through the idea of the divine, and the Nietzschean posterity of the death of God leading to the degradation and the shipwreck of humanity. "Discovered" in the nineteenth century, the death of God is "endured" in the twentieth century through the death of man (Bernanos) and the Holocaust (Jabès). In Chapter 3, Benoît seeks to demonstrate how the death of God puts history in crisis. Here the nineteenth century is seen as the origin of totalitarianism. Present in Mallarmé, the question of God and nothingness takes on a new dimension in the twentieth century with the end of history. The author examines the tension between liberty and a determinist conception of history, continuity and causality from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. On this point, Mallarmé opposed Hegel's systematization. For Benoît, the three authors characterized the end of history as a de-creation, annihilation of man [End Page 183] through Capitalism, Marxism and the rise of techniques, and a de-spiritualization of humanity and the world.
In Chapter 4, Benoît analyzes Mallarmé's conception of the Book as a teleology without end. Whereas for Hegel, the human mind is denied to the benefit of the absolute spirit, the poet envisioned an incompletion of the Book that rehabilitated the individual as an active participant in creation. Mallarmé's aim was aesthetic and ideal. It supposed an inexhaustible future and presented the impossibility of negating the spiritual dimension of man. The impossibility to say God leads to the infinite attempt of naming it. Through this teleology without end, the Book took on an orientation toward an unachieved totality (Jabès) that was paradoxically salutary. Hence, the mystery of the Book had to be...