Mallarmé and Debussy: Unheard Music, Unseen Text
Elizabeth McCombie's approach to the comparative study of music and literature might be called an interdisciplinary formalism, of a disarmingly subtle kind. She begins from the premiss that one can point to 'abstract, non-mimetic patterns that music and poetry have in common' (p. 97). The patterns she finds between Mallarmé and Debussy are described in the Glossary, which concludes the text, and which sums up the figures around which she builds many of her analytical chapters. Its headings are: arabesque, éclat, enroulement, éventail, explosante fixe, Möbius strip, pli, and thyrsus. However, it would be wrong to conclude from this that McCombie is simply proposing topographical structures that one can map onto either music or literature. Her forms, rather than being concretely present in the works analysed, appear as supplements to them, constructed, as we read or listen, in an intermediary space between words and music, asymmetrically related to each (McCombie is as sensitive to the differences between the arts as to their similarities). They are structures that represent, in various modes, an interplay between a tangible, fixed or ordered element, and a movement that discovers unpredictability, invisibility or absence. McCombie's commentaries on Mallarmé's writings (for example, La Musique et les Lettres, 'Billet à Whistler', or Un Coup de Dés) and on Debussy's music (including the Préludes and Jeux), coordinated in her study, at the end of the book, of Debussy's Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, are always directed towards the points at which traditional musical or verbal logic is evaded, perturbed or perverted; she can see these points, not merely as moments of loss, but also as part of a positive pattern. I am not sure to what extent I am convinced by her occasional apparent claim that there is a 'precise modelling' (p. 199) at work here. Indeed, on the most concrete level, her presentation of Mallarmé's prose sometimes lacks a certain precision: there are too many errors in the quotations, which might sap the reader's confidence in the interpretations. (The worst instance is on pp. 36–37: there are five such errors in one paragraph, two of which are omitted commas; this makes one feel uncomfortable when McCombie goes on to say that 'the air provided by the commas gives a dynamic energy to the page'.) The merit of McCombie's figures seems to me that they provide, rather than anything precisely verifiable, a means to look towards the unverifiable; the thyrsus, for example, she says, 'is a keyhole through which the manifestations of hesitation, reflection, and linear improvisation, either in the poem and poem as music individually or between them, may be viewed' (p. 196). Perhaps one could [End Page 405] say, taking up this metamorphosis of the thyrsus, that her achievement is to have turned figures into keyholes, to have shown how a concern with abstract structures can, at least in the space between music and literature, set up endless aesthetic perspectives.