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Mallarmé: The Politics of the Siren by Jacques Rancière (review)

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 309-316 | 10.1353/com.2013.0017

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Mallarmé is a difficult poet, and this book, like many others on the nineteenth-century French poet, readily attests to the fact. But he is not, claims Rancière, a hermetic poet, willfully and self-indulgently complex, singing a siren's song to the virtues of poetic Enigma. Nor is he a poet floating far above the everyday world, writing poetry too "pure" to offer any relevant engagement with social or political matters. The argument of Rancière's book is that, on the contrary, there is a politics to be discerned in Mallarmé—a politics of the siren.

If Rancière begins, therefore, on the acknowledgement that Mallarmé is a difficult poet, it is in order to declare that what is difficult about this poet is appreciating the political task Mallarmé sets himself. That task is to inspect the possibilities of imagining new forms of social community. "Imagining" is not quite the right word, however, and Rancière would probably reject the criticism that literary visions of a new polity can only be experiments in idealism—literary fantasies, not exercises in real-world political activism. Nonetheless (and this is a point forcefully made in another of Rancière's books, The Politics of Literature), literature carries out its activism on its own terms, and the politics of a literary work is not just a matter of what it says about a certain political issue. It is also a matter of how that work intrudes into a given context, lodges itself there as a stylistic achievement, a generic experiment, a formal innovation, or indeed, a treatment of subject matters previously unaddressed. A poem, be it ever so pure, is not to be relegated to the aesthetic sphere, and an effective political literature only sought in romans à thèse. There can be a political potency to a poetic exercice de style; if a poem pays lyrical homage to swans, fans, foaming oceans and the trinkets of an aesthete's drawing room, it does not mean that such a poem cannot have a political impact.

It may be instructive to resume Rancière's formulation of the politics of literature, particularly insofar as it bears upon his reading of the politics of nineteenth-century French literature. The starting point for such a politics is that one begins by rejecting the tendency to oppose pure literature and committed literature. One reason one might wish to do so is directly linked to the difficulties of defining "literature" in the nineteenth century. For Rancière reads that age as one in which literature suffered the loss of the definition it had previously enjoyed during the age of classicism, or Belles Lettres. Admittedly, during the classical age, the price for a "definition" of literature was the submission of a given literary work to a set of normative conventions (formulated, let us say, by Aristotle's Poetics, imposed by various institutions like the Académie française, and confirmed by a set of readers in whom those conventions already reside—norms interiorized as the principles of their literary "taste"). But a certain normative identity nonetheless gave literature a place in classical society, a purpose, and a likely audience. In the nineteenth century, with the fading away of classicism, all this changed. Literary works had to find their readers, find a purpose, and accommodate themes and subjects that Convention no longer dictated to them. This pitched literature into a situation of considerable risk. And if certain works, especially of poetry, retrenched behind a conception of pure art, it was a conception that only intermittently succeeded in maintaining the difference between art and non-art. Whence the risk: a literary work looks no different from an article in a newspaper (or what Mallarmé called "universal reportage"). Poetry is continually menaced by prose. The most crafted literary style becomes indistinguishable from the most leaden platitude. But for Rancière this risk is also a boon: doubtless French writers like Flaubert and Balzac worried about the abasement of literature, but that flattening-out of the difference between art and non-art put literature within reach of all readers. It also put literature itself into contact with subject matters—people and things...

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