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  • Digression in Mallarmé
  • Andrew Elbon (bio)

A traveler leaves Paris by train for the countryside. Along the track, posters glow, golden in the autumnal sunshine, and the traveler contemplates the rare beauty of a forest in October. Suddenly interrupting his silent exaltation, a railroad employee announces the destination. The traveler silently offers his ticket. To his surprise, no one else descends, and as the train disappears in the horizon, he waits at the threshold of the forest.

Such is the anecdote in Mallarmé’s short prose text “La Gloire”—or, as he writes in the early version of another prose text, “Tels sont les faits.” 1 And yet, “facts”—the stuff of the anecdotal—are difficult to uncover in the labyrinth of Mallarmé’s prose. To be sure, the narrator in “La Gloire” appears to leave the city by rail, and he appears to contemplate the posters in the sunshine along the way. However, something else is obviously at stake in Mallarmé’s rendition of this occasion:

Cent affiches s’assimilant l’or incompris des jours, trahison de la lettre, ont fui, comme à tous confins de la ville, mes yeux au ras de l’horizon par un départ sur le rail traînés avant de se recueillir dans l’abstruse fierté que donne une approche de forêt en son temps d’apothéose


The structure of the passage is such that the content of the message is not readily obvious. In Mallarmé’s rendition, it is the posters, and not the train, which seem to fly along the track. The narrator’s presence in a railroad car is only suggested by the detail “mes yeux... sur le rail traînés,” and his eyes apparently follow the horizon as the train approaches its destination. This is to say nothing of the elliptical expression and fragmented sentence structure which is full of stops, starts, and points of indecision.

As the text continues, it puts into play a clash of voices, or rather a clash of voices and silence. The silent ecstasy of “l’abstruse fierté que donne une approche de forêt dans son temps d’apothéose” is disturbed not by the employee, but simply by a disembodied “cri”: “Si discord parmi l’exaltation de l’heure, un cri faussa ce nom connu pour déployer la continuité de cimes tard évanouies, Fontainebleau....” The metonymic suggestion of the employee by his cried announcement underscores a basic opposition in the text, that of silent contemplation and noisy, busy participation in the traffic of the everyday [End Page 74] world. Also, the railroad employee announces the destination with complete indifference to the narrator’s quiet exaltation and the glory of an approaching forest in apotheosis. Too “vociferous,” he “barks” the name of the stop, Fontainebleau. In response to this announcement, the narrator fantasizes grasping him by the throat and offering “une monnaie” to keep him quiet. However, instead of engaging in the fantasized acts of violence and bribery, the narrator, in silence, simply offers his ticket: “Un uniforme inattentif m’invitant vers quelque barrière, je remets sans dire mot, au lieu du suborneur métal, mon billet.”

More than anything else, this abrupt announcement of the destination represents a certain exchange of information in “La Gloire,” and my present interest in Mallarmé’s text is precisely what it has to offer by way of a critique of how we exchange things, whether it be in the silent exchange of a ticket, the cried announcement of a destination, or the rendition of an anecdote in a prose poem. In the final edition of his prose works, Divagations (1897), “La Gloire,” like prose texts including “Le Nénuphar blanc” and “Le Démon de l’analogie,” appears in a section called “Anecdotes ou poëmes.” It is precisely the anecdotal that will be called into question here—or at least desire for the anecdotal—along with the possibility of a narrative kernel (or, for that matter, a syntactic kernel) in the mass of its written rendition. Such a reading, as I shall attempt to show, implies a certain economy and excludes the (economic) significance of the rendition itself, as...

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pp. 74-94
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