The Maelstrom in Mallarmé’s Coup de Dés

When McLuhan came to read Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés (1897) in the late 1940s, he must have been astonished to find that one prism in its assemblage of prisms reflected, or refracted, Poe’s ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’ (1841). For McLuhan had been engaged with Poe’s story since 1943 or so (although he had begun to read Poe a full decade before that on his way to England with Tom Easterbrook in 1932) and had published ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’ in 1944. Then in 1946 he began that series of descriptions of the Maelstrom that he would continue unabated for the rest of his life:

The sailor in his story The Maelstrom is at first paralyzed with horror. But in his very paralysis there is another fascination which emerges, a power of detached observation which becomes a “scientific” interest in the action of the strom. And this provides the means of escape. (Footprints in the Sands of Crime, 1946)

Mallarmé’s poem (if that is what it is) situates itself (if it can be said to situate itself in “this region of vagueness, in which all reality dissolves”) in the abyss of a shipwreck at the moment of “detached” (McLuhan) “vertigo” (Mallarmé) when its “master” (Poe’s mariner) is between “vessels” (“the man without a vessel”). This is a moment that exposes “the virgin index” of possibilities (“in sight of all non-existent human outcomes”, the “non-existent regions” of “AS IF”) in the flotsam and jetsam circling within the “worldpool”:

THE ETERNAL CIRCUMSTANCE OF A SHIPWRECK’S DEPTH (…) the Abyss raging (…) beneath the desperately sloping incline (…) falling (…) the surges, gathered far within the shadow buried deep by (…) its yawning depth (…) like a hull of a vessel rocked from side to side (…) THE MASTER, beyond former calculations, where the lost manoeuvre (…) that formerly (…) grasped the helm (…) hesitates, a corpse pushed back by the arm from the secret1, rather than taking sides2, a hoary madman, on behalf of the waves: one [wave] overwhelms the head, flows through the submissive beard, straight shipwreck that, of the man without a vessel, empty (…) a legacy, in vanishing, to someone ambiguous, the immemorial ulterior demon having, from non-existent regions, led the old man towards this ultimate meeting with probability, this his childlike shade caressed and smoothed and rendered supple by the wave (…) the sea through the old man or the old man against the sea, making a vain attempt, an Engagement whose dread the veil of illusion rejected, as the phantom of a gesture will tremble, collapse, madness, WILL NEVER ABOLISH (…) AS IF
A simple insinuation into silence, entwined with irony, or the mystery hurled, howled, in some close swirl of mirth and terror, whirls round the abyss without scattering or dispersing and cradles the virgin index there AS IF (…)  that IF the lucid and lordly crest of vertigo on the invisible brow sparkles, then shades, a slim dark tallness, upright in its siren coiling, at the moment of striking, through impatient ultimate scales, bifurcated (…) suddenly evaporating in fog that imposed limits on the infinite (…) rhythmic suspense of the disaster, to bury itself in the original foam, from which its delirium formerly leapt to the summit faded by the same neutrality of abyss (…) NOTHING of the memorable crisis where the event matured, accomplished in sight of all non-existent human outcomes, WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE a commonplace elevation pours out absence BUT THE PLACE some lapping below, as if to scatter the empty act abruptly, that otherwise by its falsity would have plumbed perdition, in this region of vagueness, in which all reality dissolves (…)3

These excerpts comprise over half of the text. Another substantial prism-theme has to do with what occurs at this juncture of “un Coup de Dés“. A de-cision is made (such as Poe’s mariner’s decision to abandon ship and entrust himself to a barrel) that is at once uncertain as regards its provenance (the mariner’s brother can’t understand it) and its viability, but also certain as regards its specific shape: “that imposed limits on the infinite”. The “throw of the dice” is such a “meeting with probability” that cannot hope to “abolish hazard” or “chance”; but at the same time occasions some “unique Number which cannot be another”, “a final account in formation”, “A CONSTELLATION”:

EXCEPT at the altitude PERHAPS, as far as a place fuses with, beyond, outside (…) through such declination4 of fire (…) towards what must be the Wain also North A CONSTELLATION (…) a final account in formation (…) stopping at some last point that (…) expresses a Throw of the Dice [Un Coup de Dés].

As Gilson noted in his 1930 Augustine essay: “by the very act of choosing the way he considered best he precluded himself from at the same time following another”.5 Similarly in McLuhan’s Nashe thesis: “the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among [the three arts] for ascendancy” such that “in any study of the history of the trivium it is unavoidable that one adopts the point of view of one of these arts”.

Human beings always act and experience on the basis of some orientation (“the Wain also North A CONSTELLATION”) — “like a hull of a vessel” — but an orientation singular is not given.  Instead there are orientations and both the art and science of the 20th century came to interrogate how this is decided (or has always already been decided) and how this might or might not be compatible with meaning.


  1. “A corpse pushed back by the arm (of the vortex) from the secret”: a “corpse” because not yet some “final account in formation” that would expose “the secret” of either the “plumbed perdition” below or the “commonplace elevation” above.
  2. Ditto.
  3. Translation by A.S. Kline (underlining emphasis added).
  4. Regarding altitude/declination: McLuhan doubtless read Coup de Dés against the background of Eliot’s Four Quartets, one of whose epigrams is Heraclitus’ ‘odos ano kato
  5. ‘The Future Of Augustinian Metaphysics’, A Monument To Saint Augustine, 1930, 287-315.