Meillassoux on Mallarmé, first half

September 24, 2011

I spent part of the afternoon reading the first half of Meillassoux’s book, and may finish it tonight (or may need to do other things; that’s still unclear).

So far, it’s a brilliant reading of Mallarmé’s famous poem, Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard. (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance.)

Meillassoux finds a numerical code at work in the text, admitting all the while that many will find secret codes to be “puerile,” but he makes it work nonetheless. He draws on a number of techniques to establish this.

Un Coup de Dés consists of 707 words plus the closing 7-word phrase “Toute Pensée émet un Coup de Dés.” The two key poems regarded as precursors to this one total, in fact, 70 and 77 words in length. In one of these cases (I can’t remember which) we have 25 separate versions of the poem, in each of which Mallarmé takes care to preserve exactly the same word count once all his changes are made, which does seem like much more than coincidence. Why 707 words rather than 777 or 770? Meillassoux considers the problem, and uses clever arguments to show that 707 works as a dialectical preservation of the 70 and 77 of the two shorter poems. (He even makes a light joke about the Boeing 707 aircraft.)

Furthermore, one of the key phrases in the larger poem is “Comme si” (“As if”), and if we read “si” instead as the musical note of that name, we find that it is 7th in the scale. 7 is also the difference between 12 and 5, which are the two key numbers in Mallarmé’s famous and bizarre “Livre” project which would have established a civic and non-theistic religion with heavily Catholic overtones of sacrifice. Meillassoux also draws on further peripheral considerations, such as bits of Mallarmé’s correspondence and a few typographical facts pertaining to the oddly formatted Un Coup de Dés itself.

The motivation for having a “unique number” in his poem? Mallarmé was somewhere in the middle in the raging debate of the time between classical French meter and the newly emerged free verse. (The “Maître” or “master” in the poem is read by Meillassoux as a homonym for “mètre,” or meter.) By establishing a unique number of his own, Mallarmé could avoid the arbitrary chaos of free verse while also steering clear of the academic stranglehold of the 12-syllabled French Alexandrian meter.

So, why didn’t Mallarmé just tell us the code was there? Meillassoux has an answer for this. Un Coup de Dés can be read as a response to a poem by Alfred de Vigny about a message in a bottle. By inserting an obscure code into his major poem, Mallarmé is thus also performing the act of sending a message in a bottle rather than simply describing it. There was a chance that no one would ever have found the code (though the implication is that Meillassoux himself has found the bottle after all, and read the message). The poet took a double risk in this sense. 1. The risk that the hidden principle of his major poem would never have been found, a “physical sacrifice” on Mallarmé’s part. 2. The risk that, once found, we will all burst out in laughter at how stupidly shallow the idea of a secret code is, and Mallarmé will quickly lose his hard-earned reputation as an esoteric master, a “spiritual sacrifice” on his part.

As of page 123 (where I am) out of 207, Meillassoux is now saying that it actually goes deeper than this, but I’ll need to read the final 84 pages to find out. It’s not yet clear as of page 123 whether this is just a brilliant reading of Mallarmé or will also push Meillassoux’s own metaphysics of contingency a step further. But even if that doesn’t happen in this particular book, I suspect that he’s setting the table to use these findings in the multi-volume version of L’Inexistence divine. (Mallarmé does play a role in the 2003 manuscript version from which I translated, though those passages didn’t make the final cut. I’d have to go back and remind myself what he said about Mallarmé there; it’s been more than a year since I read it.)

Lucidity and wit sparkle throughout the book, of course. And Meillassoux is clearly a good surgeon on literary texts no less than on philosophical ones. Among his major gifts is the ability to construct proofs made up of rather surprising chains of argument, and the reader (or this reader, at least) finds the interpretation quite convincing so far. 84 pages to go.


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