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  • Augustine, Mallarmé, and the Medieval Roots of Modernity
  • R. Howard Bloch (bio)

“Symbols, then, have a divine origin; it may be added that from the human point of view this form of teaching answers to one of the least disputable cravings of the human mind. Man feels a certain enjoyment in giving proof of his intelligence, in guessing the riddle thus presented to him, and likewise in preserving the hidden truth summed up in a visible formula, a perdurable form. Saint Augustine expressly says: ‘Anything that is set forth in an allegory is certainly more emphatic, more pleasing, more impressive, than when it is formulated in technical words.’”

“That is Mallarmé’s idea too,” thought Durtal, “and this coincidence in the views of the saint and the poet, on grounds at once analogous and different, is whimsical, to say the least.”

J.-K. Huysmans, La Cathédrale1

I cannot think of Eugene Vance without bringing to mind a camping trip in the late 1970s. The Société Roncesvals had met in Berkeley, and when the meeting ended, Gene, Alexandre Leupin, a Bulgarian [End Page S6] medievalist by the name of Stoyan Atanasov, and I left for the Sierras for some fishing and talk of the Old French epic. The trip was a misunderstanding from the start. Alexander, imagining from his Swiss mountainous heights that California was a warm place in summer, arrived dressed in a tee shirt. Stoyan had spent his meager stipend on a pair of blue jeans, and complained in the car that my dog Simon was dirtying them before he could wear them proudly back to Bulgaria. The dog ended up sitting in the front seat, with Gene, Alexandre, and Stoyan in the back. Leupin had travelled all the way from Geneva with the illusion that summer in California was warm, and had no clothes suitable for Berkeley, much less the Sierra high country. Stoyan felt so liberated from the oppression of communist Sophia that he began drinking directly from the Little Truckee River, caught a walloping case of giardia, soiling his jeans from within, thus removing some of the opprobrium from my dog Simon. Not knowing quite what to do, I drove to town and bought a large bottle of whiskey. As we consumed it around the campfire, talk turned to the nature of the signifier in twelfth-century France. Gene stood up. He was tall, and the flickering flames made him taller, almost mythic. Waving a great long finger of admonishment at the others, he began to lecture on Saint Augustine until he took on the aspect of the Bishop of Hippo himself. None of us ever recovered from that great lesson around a campfire in the course of which Gene convinced us that Augustine was the thinker of the millennium to which we had devoted our lives because he more than any other had managed to link verbal signs to the personal, the erotic, the social, and to metaphysics.

Gene’s campfire disquisition has influenced everything I have thought or done since, whether in relation to the Middle Ages or not. In a recent course on “The Roots of Modernity,” and a module on the crisis of language at the end of the nineteenth century, I found myself before the daunting task of teaching what is arguably the world’s most difficult poem—Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard.” Mallarmé goes further than any poet I know in actually performing the break between words and the world, which is part of modernism’s divestment of meaning in the world and of the purchase of language even upon such a divestment.

Mallarmé’s masterpiece is an icon of modernism. This is surprising, given that the poet was in almost every other way so moderate and conventional. Born in 1842, raised by pious grandparents, he married at twenty-one, and, with the exception of a mid-life infatuation with the already-taken actress Méry Laurent, the mistress of Napoleon III’s [End Page S7] American dentist, he led a quiet, bourgeois life, what the French call “a little life in the kitchen.” After a brief stint in the...


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