French Forum 29.3 (2004) 27-41
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Between Stéphane Mallarmé and René Ghil
The Impossible Desire for Poetry
Among those who frequented Stéphane Mallarmé's Tuesday-evening gatherings in the Rue de Rome, perhaps none caused as much controversy as poet René Ghil. Ghil began as an ardent admirer of Mallarmé's poetry, but soon their views of poetry diverged. Ghil shocked the audience of Mallarmé's admirers one Tuesday evening by openly expressing his disagreement with the Master. This incident led to estrangement between them, but not before Mallarmé had promoted Ghil's poetry and even written a preface to one of his works. In reaction to the Symbolists and Decadents, Ghil created his own "Instrumentalist School," based in large part on a serious misreading of the work of German acoustical physicist Hermann Helmholtz1 and on a much too literal reading of Rimbaud's sonnet "Voyelles."2 Ghil's own contemporaries often found his work confusing or laughable.3 Critics in the twentieth century have followed suit: even those most sympathetic to him have called his literary project "an exceptional and monstrous failure."4 Those more actively hostile to Ghil have grouped him among the "freaks" of literature. One's initial hunch, then, is that René Ghil most certainly deserves his current obscurity.
But then again, what if Ghil's theoretical and poetic project allowed us to gain insight into the way symbolist writers constructed their ideas and their texts? In this article I explore the links between the symbolist Master and his unruly and reluctant follower. Rather than suggesting a simple master-disciple relationship between Mallarmé and Ghil, I will argue that their interactions had a profound effect upon the way Mallarmé composed his seminal essay Crise de vers. My reading of that essay is integrated into an exploration of the way a network of Ghil's and Mallarmé's texts of the 1880s and 1890s can be read [End Page 27] together to shed new light on the symbolist movement's engagement with, and even critique of, notions of "pure poetry."
It may be helpful to provide a basic overview of René Ghil's work before proceeding. Ghil's first book, published in 1885 when he was twenty-three, was a collection of verse influenced by Mallarmé. Also in 1885, Ghil published a series of short articles that would become, the following year, the work for which he is still mentioned today, the Traité du Verbe, which would undergo six revisions and republications from 1885 through 1904.5 After his break with Mallarmé,6 Ghil relentlessly developed his own philosophico-aesthetic system, misreading and incorporating the work of Helmholtz, Darwin, and Comte into his mature thought. Quickly stated, Ghil repeated that "Matter is One!" and that music, poetry, and science come together to further humanity's general "becoming." Accompanying this extensive metaphysics was Ghil's epic poetic work representing matter "in perpetual becoming," a history of the universe and of humankind's development. It was to be in three large sections, only two of which (around a thousand pages) he completed.7
From the start, Ghil dreamt of an ideal poetic language that would subsume and supersede all the other arts. In order to attain it, Ghil developed his system of verbal instrumentation. Expanded anew with each successive published version of the Traité du Verbe, this system established correspondences among vowels, consonants, colors, instruments of the orchestra, and emotions. Here is a representative sample of verbal instrumentation from the latest published version of the Traité in 1904:
oû, ou, oui (ll), iou, oui
Browns, blacks to reds
F, L, N, S
Long, primitive flutes
Monotony, doubt, simplicity.
—Instinct to be and to live.
This is Ghil's impossible dream of exact correspondences among colors, sounds, and emotions. Slippage in Ghil's terminology makes it difficult to establish the basis of these observations. Often he claims that they are based on scientific fact, although it is not clear exactly which scientific principles he applied and how...