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B ook R eview s Louis Wirth Marvick. M a lla rm é a n d th e Sublim e. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986. Pp. xiii +211. Paper $14.95, cloth $39.50. Long in the shadows, the sublime is again the focus of critical debate. Louis Wirth Marvick ’s study is certain to figure prominently in this revival. Analyzing the sublime as both an exalted attitude towards the ideal and a rhetorical device, Marvick shows its continuing importance in Mallarmé’s revolutionary poetics. While the study is divided into two parts, the first presenting a general theory of the sublime, the second establishing its specific relevance to Mallarmé, aesthetic theory and literary criticism are happily wed throughout. In part one, Marvick examines the diverse treatment of the sublime in the writings of Longinus, Johnson, Dennis, Coleridge, and Burke. The changing criteria for what con­ stitutes sublimity is explained as a “ function of the balance or imbalance of the motives of irony and enthusiasm” characterizing the subject’s relation to the ideal (p. 22). The percep­ tion of the ideal (the sublime object) as real takes the form variously of stylistic modera­ tion, the imperative to silence, or untempered expressions of enthusiasm. For Mallarmé, the ideal cannot be represented because it does not exist. But instead of reducing him to silence, his belief in the nothingness and ineffability of the ideal engenders “a principle of (aesthetic) faith” (p. 41). We are shown how Mallarmé engages in a persistently ironic poetics that enthusiastically articulates what cannot be named. Especially admirable in this study is Marvick’s rigorously formal yet flexible approach. While the varying concepts of the sublime are deduced from a meticulous analysis of their expression through rhetorical figures, the effect of these figures is in turn evaluated with an eye toward the (not necessarily encoded) historical circumstances in which they are received. These may determine whether hyperbole, for example, is actually felt as exaggera­ tion—as a departure from the truth. To complete his explication of the philosophical structure of the sublime, Marvick sum­ marizes its three stages as presented in Kant’s Analytic o f the Sublime. When the subject becomes overwhelmed by an object too great or too powerful to imagine, abstract reason­ ing supplies for its comprehension a still greater notion such as that of infinity. In this turn­ ing on itself, the mind gains superiority over its object, finding the “ ‘absolutely great only in the proper estate of the Subject’ ” (p. 66). To show that Kant’s analysis of the experience of the sublime in nature is applicable to the experience of literary texts, Marvick convincingly demonstrates how its terms may be converted into the language of Jakobson and Saussure. With the difference that Mallarmé’s obscure rhetoric does not allow the reader to abandon his object (i.e., the signifier.? that make up the text), Mallarmé’s poetic practice, in Marvick’s view, validates the Kantian model of the sublime. The poet’s use of praeteritio, of oxymorons, of phrases such as “ les étoiles à midi,” which constitute images as much as “ imponderable abstraction[s]” (p. 137), requires that the reader exercise his “capacities for ironic perception and enthusiastic participation simultaneously” (p. 135), While the body of literary exegesis in part two per­ tains to the passages where the word “sublime” actually occurs in Mallarmé’s prose, Mar­ vick also suggests how an understanding of Mallarmé’s concept of the sublime would bear fruit in a study of his poems. Because it contributes much to our knowledge of the history of the sublime as well as elucidating its on-going vitality within Mallarmé’s avant-garde texts, this work will be of special interest to comparatists in the field of aesthetics and to Mallarmé scholars alike. M ary L fw is Shaw Rutgers University Vol.XXVII, No. 4 105 ...


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