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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 14-30

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Mallarmé Contra Wagner

Eric Gans


In early 1885, Edouard Dujardin wrote to Stéphane Mallarmé for a contribution to his newly founded Revue wagnérienne. Mallarmé, admitting that he had never seen--and perhaps never heard--anything of Wagner, replied to Dujardin in July that he was working on a "half article, half prose poem," and that "never has anything seemed to me more difficult." 1 A month later, the Revue published a text, more prose poem than article, entitled "Richard Wagner, rêverie d'un poète français." 2

Wagner was an increasingly obligatory reference for the French avant-garde after his death in 1883. But as far back as 1862, the 20-year-old Mallarmé, no doubt influenced by Baudelaire's enthusiastic groundbreaking article "Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris" of the year before, had included Wagner along with Mozart and Beethoven in a group of three creators of the "mystery" of music, in a brief article entitled "Artistic Heresies: Art for Everyone." Characteristically enough, what fascinated the young Mallarmé was not music itself so much as the "signes sévères, chastes, inconnus" ("severe, chaste, unknown signs") (OC, p. 257) with which it was written, which give music the advantage over poetry--written in the universally understood alphabet--of being inaccessible to the uninitiated. This characteristic emphasis on writing over sound reappears in the "Hommage" sonnet for Wagner published in Dujardin's journal in January 1886, where Wagner's music is described as "mal tu par l'encre même en sanglots sibyllins" ("badly silenced by the ink itself in Sibylline sobs") (OC, p. 71). As we shall see, however, the relation between music and poetry suggested in "Art for Everyone" had by then been reversed. [End Page 14]

Unlike most of his circle, Mallarmé was no Wagnerite; his "Rêverie," like his sonnet, expresses reluctant praise and reflects a certain professional jealousy. The theater had long been Mallarmé's chief preoccupation, as it had been for so many nineteenth-century writers who would be forced to make their reputation in other genres. The unfinished poem "Hérodiade," which occupied him throughout his life, took the form of a drama, and an early version of the "Après-midi d'un faune" had actually been presented to a theater director. References to music in Mallarmé's writings increase in number and specificity after 1885, and it is not unreasonable to assume that for him the prime representative of "music" in this period was Wagner. However much Mallarmé's own theater had become internalized and idealized, Wagner's theatrical success, as well as his near-deification by friends and disciples like Dujardin or Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, could not leave the poet indifferent.


What I would like to explore, however, is something more fundamental than the personal equation. Mallarmé's rivalry with Wagner over the theatrical center of culture is the rivalry of two arts and their respective means. What makes Mallarmé's critique of Wagner of particular interest is the exemplary rigor of the former's artistic intentions. Mallarmé's poems are a series of attempts to produce literary form with a minimum of figural content. Each poem has been submitted, so to speak, to Ockham's razor. The ultimate aim of this labor may be described as the discovery of the originary scene of poetry itself, the minimal sine qua non of representation, and therefore of humanity. 3 On the contrary, Wagner did not shrink from saturating the figural imagination in the pursuit of his totalizing aims. The confrontation reveals that musical maximalism in the service of national myth becomes a threat to what we may call, from Mallarmé's minimalist perspective, the anthropological mission of true art.

Mallarmé held no particular brief for the theater of words; his tastes in performance went rather to the ballet, or to the mime-show, the subject of one of his most aesthetically interesting reflections. 4 Mallarmé anticipated 20th-century dramaturgy in seeing the theater not as a place for ratiocination and...


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