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Playing Against Type

What happened when Stéphane Mallarmé reimagined the book

By Steve Moyer | HUMANITIES, September/October 2013 | Volume 34, Number 5

French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé lived in culturally unsettled times. Bicycle riding had become fashionable, newspaper reading was up, and the book trade was undergoing a crisis of identity. But all this was logs to the fire for Mallarmé, who held a literary salon in his home on Tuesday evenings, where he and other poets discussed the arts during a long evening capped off with a monologue delivered by Mallarmé himself. In addition to poets, a number of painters attended these so-called Mardis. Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot were regulars. Paul Gauguin, when not in the South Seas, was no stranger to the Mallarmé digs. James McNeill Whistler was often present, but not when Oscar Wilde, whom he loathed, happened to be around. With a priest-like gesture, Mallarmé would signal the moment when he wished to start the monologue and then hold forth, leavening his remarks with much appreciated humor and wit.

By profession, Mallarmé was a barely competent teacher in lycées. The Ministry of Education once evaluated his classroom performance as subpar, insane even, given his methods of teaching English by having students attempt translations of Shakespeare’s King Lear or Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. Though his students were unable to render a phrase like “bring me some bread and cheese,” he insisted that they attempt to translate literary passages by relying on intuition and attending to the sound of the language for clues to meaning.

Mallarmé’s true calling, in addition to writing poetry, was as an essayist and translator. He was given to imagining new possibilities for the book, and in the 1870s and 1880s, he worked to define what a book was and, in a utopian world, what it might become. He is known now as one of the innovators, along with Manet, of the livre de peintre, or artist’s book, in which an original text by a poet appeared on a facing page with an original print—often an etching—by a contemporary painter. This may sound fairly tame (especially in an age when books rarely have pictures and “looking at the pictures” is a standard description for reading that is childish), but there was nothing tame about how Mallarmé thought about publishing. He once described the book as "the Orphic explanation of the Earth.”

Earlier writers in France, including Victor Hugo and poet Charles Baudelaire, had hewed to the idea that a true book—some called it the “heroic book”—must have an architectural shape and a unifying vision. Hugo thought of his entire oeuvre as a kind of super book—his many poems, novels, plays, and other writings, all of them the building blocks of an overarching structure. Baudelaire made the same claim for his book of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), published in 1857. Some scholars today are suspicious of Baudelaire’s commitment to his own book’s “secret architecture.” Writing in The Book as Instrument, Anna Sigrídur Arnar notes that it may well be true that Baudelaire exaggerated his reliance on a “secret architecture,” but insists “that this concept continued to exert a powerful influence among Baudelaire’s peers and subsequent generations of writers and artists.”

In the mid nineteenth century in France, printed matter in book form could be known variously by the terms album, almanach, recueil, and roman-feuilleton, in addition to livre, or book. The album and the almanach were heavily illustrated compendiums, often a hodgepodge of humorous drawings and short texts loosely following one theme. Both categories were derisively referred to by Baudelaire and others as “industrial literature,” a term originally formulated mid century by the highly influential critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve. A fine example of a book falling under the rubric of “industrial literature” is a wildly popular work published in 1842 depicting animals dressed as Frenchmen and Frenchwomen engaged in human work and leisure typical of the times. These charming wood engravings by J. J. Grandville gently poke fun at typical Gallic behavior and dress. Grandville’s album did not, however, meet the standards of serious books. Its scrapbook mentality fell far short of the idea of a unifying principle then in place for the true book. Additionally, and this will be extremely important later to Mallarmé’s own concept of the book, image and text were not done roughly at the same time. Saint-Pierre’s eighteenth-century novel Paul et Virginie (Paul and Virginia), for example, was sumptuously illustrated with images from the Romantic era of the nineteenth century. Images in such cases, many critics and authors felt, were out of sync with the texts. Publishers, though, had the last word.

From 1820 to 1850 rapid advances in the technology of illustrating books made such work as Paul et Virginie and Grandville’s album possible and increasingly the norm. Publishers continued to exert near total control over the use and selection of illustrations throughout the century. Gustave Flaubert, who had begun publishing during the Romantic era, had to firmly resist publishers’ efforts to illustrate his work. Short-story writer Prosper Merimée took pride in never allowing his work to be illustrated..

Poets’ work was generally published as a recueil (a collection) and that of novelists often appeared as a roman-feuilleton (a serial novel). A recueil was a collection such as Hugo’s Les Châtiments (Castigations), a book certainly in the way it fit in the hand but not necessarily as it fit into the age’s definition of a book. The book Les Châtiments was the work of a Romantic author—which took as its title a term of disparagement signaling that a work was not thought of as a true book. Les Châtiments is a collection of scathing verse directed at Napoléon III, a powerful collection along one theme, but not a work to be regarded as having achieved a unifying synthesis. A roman-feuilleton fared no better than the recueil among those maintaining the age’s definition of a true book. It was either a book that had appeared originally as serialized novel in a newspaper or the serialized novel itself as it came out installment by installment.

For Baudelaire, then, when he would later defend Les Fleurs du Mal before a tribunal bringing charges of immorality, the problem would be how to craft a watertight definition of his work as a book. A translator of the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, Baudelaire found support for his views in Poe’s assertions that he composed The Raven according to rigorous standards, determining the exact line count at the outset and imposing that restriction without compromise. Additionally, Poe worked, as did Baudelaire, not from inspiration but from a rational step-by-step plan for his work. Poe helped Baudelaire define the poems making up Les Fleurs du Mal, according to the highest standard, as a book. Baudelaire attempted to further distance himself from criticism on terms of immorality by claiming Les Fleurs du Mal had an authentic, fundamentally salutary vision: “Vice is seductive and must be painted as seductive; but it brings in its wake exceptional moral illness and suffering, and these must be described.” Baudelaire’s poetry collection, then, was a book, according to his defense, because it had a solid architectural framework and had a worthy overall objective.

Young Stéphane Mallarmé, born in 1842, was a teenager when the controversy over Les Fleurs du Mal erupted in the late 1850s. He and his friends would have followed the proceedings of the case against Baudelaire as closely as boys his age today follow the World Cup, and soaked up the points Baudelaire presented in his defense. Cited in 1857, shortly after publication of Les Fleurs du Mal, for “an outrage to public and religious morality” and fined three hundred francs, Baudelaire was also asked by the tribunal to remove six of the poems. In short, Baudelaire maintained his defense that his collection of poems was a “book,” a unified whole, from which the offending parts could not be removed without compromising the artistic merits of the entire work. The distinction, then, between book and recueil, or collection, could come to mean for the poet whether he maintained artistic freedom or submitted to censorship.

Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, the question of the book for Mallarmé’s generation had become somewhat more complicated. The “heroic book” of Hugo and Baudelaire’s era had to compete in Mallarmé’s day with the newspaper as well as with an increasing number of roman-feuilletons, recueils, and albums. A publishing crisis was looming: The technology that paved the way for industrial literature was now responsible for overprinting. Fears were growing that kiosks at train stations would soon be inundated with printed matter no one wanted any longer. Mallarmé was concerned, too, about a crisis among readers. Writers of the naturalist school were publishing novels at this time in which little room was left for readers to use their imaginations, so much milieu-setting detail was brushed into each scene.

Mallarmé’s concept of the book at the time of the Mardis in the 1880s was a refinement and redefinition of how it was regarded among Romantic writers of the nineteenth century. What Mallarmé shared with the generation of writers who came before him was a belief in the value of a book as a unifying synthesis; he differed from them in how he came to think of the reader. In The Book as Instrument, on which this article is largely based, Arnar writes that “the book functioned for Mallarmé as a strategic site to engage a modern public.” The reader, in this view, was to be elevated to a level of creative engagement, responding to the physical attributes of the book—the choice of paper, the endpaper, the typography, and especially the illustrations. Mallarmé, both as reader and poet confessed, says Arnar, to having “bibliophilic fantasies.” He involved himself in the minutiae of the publishing process of his own work, choosing the paper and fussing over the typography, which “celebrated the sheer pleasure of reading a beautifully crafted book and the private reveries that such an experience might induce.” If Mallarmé’s “bibliophilic fantasies” had ended there, however, he would not be remembered today for his contributions to the way we’ve come, in many quarters, to value the power of the book as a tool for creative, even transformative, reading.

The etching revival in France occurred at an opportune moment during discussions of the changing role of the book in society.  Baudelaire was a looming presence here, too. As an art critic, he admired the physicality of the work of graphic artists who toiled away on their lithographs and prints, leaving a characteristic griffe, or scribbling. This markmaking, for Baudelaire, was the ultimate expression of individuality of the artist. A griffe was regarded as an artist’s distinctive signature stroke.

Manet, a painter and printmaker admired by Baudelaire, was also an inspiration for Mallarmé, but for different reasons. Rejection by the jury at the Salon of 1866 was a turning point for Manet, and he produced more prints, working independently from juries and more directly with the public. Mallarmé saw in Manet’s rough markmaking some of the same attributes Baudelaire wrote about as an art critic, and he also saw parallels between the etcher, bending before his task, with needle in hand, and the writer, pen at the ready, hunched over the page. But, unlike Baudelaire, Mallarmé saw in Manet’s etchings not a distinctive griffe that expressed his individuality, but rather a different artistic stance, announcing a new school of art, “where individuality is ‘suppressed.’” Mallarmé in his own work strived for “the absence of all personal obtrusion” and applauded it in the work of others.

Manet and Mallarmé collaborated on Le Corbeau (The Raven), by Poe, translated by Mallarmé, and accompanied by Manet’s distinctive etchings. For both Mallarmé and Manet, their collaboration was a way of sidestepping traditional publishers and juries. It was their attempt to reach the public directly. Le Corbeau was a work of art in every aspect, from the choice of the grade of paper to the selection of typeface and the minimalist etchings of Manet, which allowed plenty of room for a reader’s contemplation and creative reinterpretation of Poe’s narrative poem. Critics pointed out the “hallucinatory, nightmarish qualities” of his drawings, the violence, and the “equivocal shadows”  of his markmaking, lending an air of ambiguity to the whole. Le Corbeau did achieve a balance between image and text, but it did not have a wide following. Only two hundred and forty copies were made. “Although disappointed by Le Corbeau’s commercial failure,” writes Arnar, “Mallarmé began to compare a book to a type of repository that only a handful of faithful readers would access.” Later the two collaborated on a deluxe edition of Mallarmé’s poem L’après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun). As with Le Corbeau, Mallarmé regarded it as a place for rarefied aesthetic reverie.

Le Corbeau and The Afternoon of a Faun were issued in limited editions, numbered, and signed by both Mallarmé and Manet. Both tomes had the very characteristics that make a book highly collectible, which seems and indeed was contrary to Mallarmé’s stated wishes for the democratization of reading. Contradictions aside, Mallarmé remained consistent in his belief that the book ultimately cleared the way for a freer society. Sharing the utopian sentiments of anarchists but not their methods, he called their bombings in Paris in the early 1890s “vulgar” and “brutal.” Taking issue with their methods, he said, “I know of no other bomb but a book.” The book, he thought, was a “superior means of protest.”

An astute observer of the changing practices of readers, Mallarmé could see that the newspaper was encouraging new ways of seeing type on a page. In an essay from 1895 entitled “The Book, an Intellectual Instrument,” he notes that with a newspaper “we have a daily, bit by bit, standing for a vision—but whose?” The high priest of modern poetry saw the daily paper’s pages as an unfolding “popular fairy tale,” and he scanned its structure for meaning. He writes of the “electrical charge” that can carry the reader from page one to the back page, where the “flow of text” leads to “an incoherence of inarticulate cries.” He acknowledges that it’s a “moral spectacle” and wonders what more the newspapers need “in addition to this feat, to efface the book.” With the serialized novel, le roman-feuilleton, appearing at the bottom of four columns across the back page, Mallarmé could see the danger, referring to the literary installments found there as the “drainpipe” of the newspaper, where everything else deposits its waste. In Mallarmé’s view, literature, or what passed for literature in newspapers, was quickly becoming the dregs. Newspaper copy, Mallarmé  suspected, released much more of readers’ creative potential than did industrial literature.

Nineteenth-century critics and authors had seen the public in relation to literature as passive admirers, while Mallarmé’s idea was that society would become peopled with empowered readers. The book as instrument or as a tool for creative reading was a concept that allowed the public to engage directly with the book, not having to rely on and follow the authoritative voice of the author. In 1893, Paul Souriau penned the essay “La Suggestion dans l’art” (Suggestion in Art), which jibed with what Mallarmé was saying about the reading life at the same time. Souriau identified what he called “reading-hallucination,” which could send the reader into a state of reverie. He wrote as well of the “interior gaze” readers experience when the imagination is sparked:We can even believe ourselves to have continued reading without interruption; but in these imperceptible intervals that have disrupted it, we have had the opportunity to cast a furtive glance from time to time to an imaginary world.”

A first-time reader of Mallarmé’s most challenging poem would feel some solace in Souriau’s observation. The book-length poem is constantly prompting the eye to cast a furtive glance to an imaginary world. Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Eliminate Chance), published shortly after his death in 1898, employs for the first time highly unconventional placement of type on the page of a book. Visual hierarchies based on important words in all capital letters run through the poem, and in other parts, writes Arnar, italic type “is used to signal tentative modes of discourse, and rhetorically these phrases contrast with the sloganlike phrases in uppercase letters.” Much of the inspiration for this type treatment came from Mallarmé’s study of posters. Arnar writes that he “seized upon the medium’s capacity to visually convey the calibrations of thought.” The poem also plays with the surprising juxtapositions that occurred in fin-de-sicèle newspaper headlines. And “by isolating seemingly cryptic phrases or words,” Arnar writes, “Mallarmé insists on the odd yet fundamentally creative experience of reading the newspaper. Strange and incomplete in nature, headlines invoke curiosity and speculation.”

Mallarmé envisioned public readings of Le Livre, a book about which he theorized at the Tuesday gatherings but never realized. He saw the project as the future terrain for the book in society, where it could engage readers communally. Readings of Le Livre would have consisted of twenty-four participants, twelve men and twelve women, encouraging a dynamic that allowed for a wide group of readers to creatively engage with the text. An essential element of this project was that the pages of the book were not to be bound, allowing for creative interactions with the text by the “reader-spectators.” Mallarmé anticipated that passing around the unbound “feuilles” would lead to creative transformations in the work. The potential for chaos in this scheme was obvious, but Mallarmé’s notes on these theatrical presentations of Le Livre called for—as was the case with the Tuesday gatherings—ritual and structure.

It is ironic that during the belle époque when Mallarmé held out his highest hopes for the democratizing book, reading as a pastime was declining throughout French society. The bicycle frenzy that swept France at the time is sometimes blamed. The vast park in Paris, le Bois de Boulogne, was the scene of much of this recreational enthusiasm, but randonnés to the countryside for picnics, long-distance touring, and racing on both the road and the track increased at breakneck speed. As active participants and as engaged spectators, the French were smitten with the two-wheeled beauty. The book and the bicycle, of course, are far from being incompatible. The two now share space at the inner hub of French society. In fact, in the 1980s, two-time Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon often stretched out his lanky frame on a patch of grass and read Proust between stages. Mallarmé, in his time, however, would have seen only the potential for conflict between the two.

Mallarmé saw the book’s potential for the “total expansion of the letter.” He ultimately regarded the newspaper, in spite of his admiration for its dynamism, as “a scrap,” “a rag,” writes Arnar, and as “a kind of rhetorical foil against which he [could] articulate the ideals of the book.” For Mallarmé, continues Arnar, the newspaper’s worst offense was that it “reduced language to a coarse and utilitarian form of exchange.” Writing in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan saw and appreciated the value of Mallarmé’s thoughts concerning print culture during another time of rapidly increasing mass media, but even McLuhan couldn’t envision the impact of Mallarmé’s thoughts on the way we read today.  With the potential to weave together snippets from some books into others now made possible by digitization, it becomes even more apparent how prescient Mallarmé was—writing from the vantage point of fin-de-siècle France—in anticipating the transformations occurring presently in reading. It still remains an unanswered question, however, as to whether lingering over an artist’s book such as Le Corbeau or using a hyperlink as a springboard to hop from one text to another represents the most highly elevated state of reading.

Steve Moyer is associate editor of HUMANITIES.

Stéphane Mallarmé and his place in book history were examined by Anna Sigrídur Arnar with the assistance of an NEH research grant of $40,000 awarded in 2005. Mallarmé’s poetry along with that of other Symbolists has twice been studied and written about with the help of NEH research grant, while in 2006 Elizabeth Emery received a research fellowship that helped her write about Mallarme and other nineteenth century French writers in Photojournalism and the Origin of the French Writer House Museum (1881–1914).