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French Forum 28.3 (2003) 41-58

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The Performative Voice in Mallarmé's Poetic Reverie

Jeannette Leigh Callet

Of all the arts, music, an exemplary model of expressive aesthetics throughout the nineteenth century, figures most predominantly in Mallarmé's conception of poetry's communicative function.1 In his 1894 essay "La Musique et les Lettres," Mallarmé claims that music and literature together constitute in their form and content the very fabric of their mystery, the essence of which he calls "l'Idée."2 Music, a non-linguistic code of symbols, transcends any representational value that might be attributed to it when interpreted or performed. Literature, visualized as text (not unlike a musical score), constitutes a place of aesthetic expression, in providing cognitive manifestations of the metaphysical. In the space of a Mallarméan poem, language, conceptualized as a reflection of the metaphysical Idea, functions as the agent which attempts to reveal the significance of this mysterious union and may be seen to represent both the corporeal and the spiritual since music—a performing art with reference to the body—and literature—a performed art of the mind—make up the two sides of the coin "Idée."3 Mallarmé's fusion of music and literature exemplifies the heightened recognition of music's primacy over the other arts amongst Symbolist poets in France, whose interest in the aesthetics of Richard Wagner (prompted by Baudelaire's "textualization" of Richard Wagner's music and theory in the essay "Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris") brought to their attention the full spectrum of the composer's influence in the domains of music, writing, and philosophy. Wagnerism stimulated the Symbolists to reflect upon their own artistic endeavors; and so, the prestige accorded to music and to its instruments of interpretation, the most pure and organic of which is the human voice, became situated in the reinventions of the theoretical language by which these poets described their own creative practice.4 [End Page 41]

In his critical work, Mallarmé suggests that music as song becomes a figure of poetic actuality and ideality. In the following passage, in which Mallarmé articulates the crux of Symbolist ideology, the term "le chant" is used to describe how the poetic expression of an object is epitomized through its musical evocation of that same object:

La contemplation des objets, l'image s'envolant des rêveries suscitées par eux, sont le chant: les Parnassiens, eux, prennent la chose entièrement et la montrent: par là ils manquent de mystère; ils retirent aux esprits cette joie délicieuse de croire qu'ils créent. Nommer un objet, c'est supprimer les trois quarts de la jouissance du poëme qui est faite de deviner peu à peu: le suggérer, voilà le rêve. C'est le parfait usage de ce mystère qui constitue le symbole: évoquer petit à petit un objet pour montrer un état d'âme, ou, inversement, choisir un objet et en dégager un état d'âme, par une série de déchiffrements.
(oc 869)

In "Mystère dans les lettres," Mallarmé makes further reference to the presence of song, submerged in the poetic text like a silent idea, in the expression "l'air ou chant sous le texte" (oc 387). Underneath the body of the text rests a potentially musicalized voice, which acts as an instrument of re-creation and reveals an innately mysterious lyricism. Mallarmé even conceptualizes the presence of music as a unified essence, in describing it as both an intangible source of inspiration and a tangible concept or personification in La Dernière Mode: "Muse incorporelle, toute de sons et de frissons, cette déité" (oc 817).

If the privileged presence of music and of its performative voice informs the indefinable potentiality of creative expression in Mallarmé's poetics (since music and poetry together constitute the "Idée"), one can claim that an originary voice exists in his poetic texts, contrary to the demystifying interpretation of modern theorists of poetry in the wake of deconstructionism. The idea of voice with relation to...


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