Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 2: What Mallarmé saw

In his Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters (CHML) lecture from 1954 McLuhan describes Mallarmé’s innovative theory of “the poetic process” as a matter of time:

Gradually it dawned on Mallarmé that pure poetry was impossible. Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be the retracing of a moment of perception. For some of the Romantic poets the doctrine of the aesthetic moment as a moment out of time — a moment of arrested consciousness — had seemed the key to all poetry. (…) But Mallarmé saw deeper. (CHML)

Although it will be necessary to show that a highly complicated (“deeper”) notion of time is in play here — namely, time singular as inherently times plural — it is not entirely mistaken to read this passage as referring to a moment in or out of singular linear time. On this reading, the difference between “the Romantic poets” and Mallarmé would be, on McLuhan’s account, that the former attempted to express “a moment out of time”, while the latter saw “the poetic process” as necessarily unfolding only in time. “Pure poetry was impossible” — that is, the contamination of poetry by time was unavoidable.

In 1951 McLuhan had already described how:

Mallarmé stated the matter: “The poetic act consists in seeing suddenly that an idea fractions itself into a number of motifs equal in value, and in grouping them; they rhyme.” In other words Mallarmé discovered that the aesthetic moment of arrested cognition can be split up into numerous fractions which can be orchestrated in many discontinuous ways. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry1951)

McLuhan termed such “discontinuous” poetry the “prismatically arranged landscapes of Rimbaud and Mallarmé” (ibid). Like a prism exposing the rainbow of color in a beam of light, “the aesthetic moment was, like the band of the spectrum, an affair of zoning” (ibid). Faced with the “fractions” of an idea or “aesthetic moment”, like the different color “fractions” of a spectrum, poets were left with the task of “orchestrat[ing]” them “in many discontinuous ways” to produce their creations. More fundamentally considered, even the ‘colors’ which were the building blocks of such poetic creations, were already the result of the “zoning” activity of perception on the “the band of the spectrum” before it. Thus it was that perception itself had to be interrogated in regard to its central role in human experience and especially in “the poetic process”:

Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be the retracing of a moment of perception. (CHML)

Essential to such investigations of “the poetic process” was the symbolist discovery of the “fission of the moment of aesthetic awareness”1, of the “fractions” into which any idea could be analyzed. And as McLuhan observed in this same place, “in art as in physics fission preceded fusion”. It followed that no amount of fusion resulting in a purported “moment out of time” could obviate the prior “fission” that “preceded” it. Time was not subject to the “fusion” of poets and artists; far rather, their “fusion” was subject to time and to time’s prior “fission”.

The symbolists arrived at this insight through an intense analysis of the romantic “moment of arrested consciousness”:

Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practiced the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness. (CHML)

“Their personal happiness” was at stake because the analysis of “the aesthetic moment” turning on its prior “fission” into “fractions” had the effect of relativizing it in multiple ways. Any such moment could be seen to depend upon a whole collection of social and individual factors such as language, fashion, place and tradition (on the social side) and mood, courage, happenstance and inspiration (on the individual side). All these inevitably ‘colored’ perception and did so in such fundamental fashion that they could not be recalled — except at the unacceptable price of recalling perception itself.

Where insight captured in “the aesthetic moment” was held to be the key to truth, meaning and, indeed, reality (for these had to be perceived as truth, meaning and reality), the intensely felt result of such relativizing analysis was the suspicion that these were arbitrary. And since ‘arbitrary truth’ may well seem no different from ‘no truth’, the further suspicion dawned that life lacked these “esteemed commodities” (as Beckett would later have it). These suspicions were buttressed at the time (beginning around 1860) by Darwin’s discoveries in biology, Marx’s investigations in economics, the beginnings of archaeological and anthropological studies of remote cultures, and the initiation of depth psychology culminating in Freud. Everything began to point to the idea of truth as a construction.

Mallarmé’s life (1842-1898), like that of his close contemporary, Nietzsche (1844-1900), spanned the period of these developments. It was Nietzsche who drew the rigorous nihilistic conclusion from them. If perception was now seen to result from “grouping”, “rhym[ing]”, “orchestrat[ing]” and “zoning”, as Mallarmé’s had it, and if truth, meaning and reality were matters of perception, it was imperative to establish the basis on which poets and artists carried out these defining activities. Since all these techniques amounted to the administration of a kind of glue within perception, how did poets and artists have access to this glue in the first place? Where did it come from? And what reality did poets and artists themselves have, as such orchestrators? For this reality, too, namely their own reality, would — like any other reality — itself have to be “orchestrated” through “zoning”. 

Surely the required glue could not result from its own application (like Baron Münchhausen extricating himself and his horse from a mire by pulling on his own hair). As a result, either the glue of fusion, as subject to time’s fission, was a fortuitous historical development in the evolution of the human species, or the glue “preceded” humans in some prior time of archetypal “fission” and “fusion” such that perception and “the poetic process” (as a special case of perception) amounted to a “retracing” of it. In the former case, human knowing is ground and everything known is a figure on that ground; in the latter case, human knowing is a figure on the “deeper” ground that enables it.

McLuhan opted for the latter possibility, of course, and further posts on CHML will need to detail just how he re-constucted this process. Suffice it to note here only that his views on the multiplicity of time as times, on the fundamentality of “language itself“, on “dialogue” as both “before” all else and yet as “beyond” itself, on the elementary role of media in human life, and, indeed, on the truth of the Catholic tradition, all these must be located in relation to a deep archaeology of the glue of “fusion” in human experience.2

The first possiblility, specified by Nietzsche, was that the glue of fusion, as subject to time’s fission, is nothing but some peculiar historical development associated with the evolution of the human species. A key text here is his early unpublished fragment, ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense‘ from 1873:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe (…) there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history”, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die3. One might invent such a fable, and yet it still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly — as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. (…) It is remarkable that this was brought about by the intellect, which was certainly allotted to these most unfortunate, delicate, and ephemeral beings merely as a device for detaining them a minute within existence.4

On this view “the human intellect” is an adaptation strategy that has nothing to do with ‘truth’:

we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things –- metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities. (…) What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions…5

Fifteen years later, just before his collapse into silence for the remaining decade of his life, Nietzsche drew the consequences of this view in the two final stages of his 6-stage overview of the western tradition, ‘How the “true world” finally became a fable: the history of an error‘ (in Twilight of the Idols):

5. The “true” world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous — consequently a refuted idea: let us abolish it! (…)
6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!6

Nietzsche had come to realize that if we do not “know something about the things themselves” and instead have only “illusions” about ‘them’, the acid of this insight cannot be withheld from our words (as a variety of “things themselves”) — or, indeed, from the users of words, namely from ourselves (as another variety of “things themselves”). Via this general dissolution, of “things”, “words” and finally of our own selves, not only (only!) “the ‘true’ world” is “abolished”, but also “the apparent one” along with ‘it’.

No amount of construction can produce even an apparent world if the only available constructors themselves require construction.

Nietzsche’s nihilism goes decidedly “through the vanishing point“. But the question arises (if pursued with sufficient passion), whether a critique able to effect the utter abolition of the world, even the “apparent” one, can be wielded without implosive effect on its own postulates. In this case, Nietzsche’s nihilism might act as an important way marker, perhaps even as a necessary and unavoidable one, but — like Wittgenstein’s arrows — this would be a way marker potentially pointing in another direction, or other directions, from the one it purports to indicate.

Although not specifically naming Nietzsche, McLuhan was thinking along these lines by 1949 at the latest and, as will be shown below, already associated his take on this complex with Mallarmé:

Existence is opaque to the rationalist. He seeks essences, definitions, formulas. He lives in the concept and the conceptualizable. Ideally in a world of essences, actually in a world of complete inanition. Cut off from the nutriment of existence, his very postulates discourage him from that loving and disciplined contemplation of existence, of particulars. (Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum, 1949)

While it may well seem odd to characterize Nietzsche as a “rationalist” who “seeks essences, definitions, formulas” and who “lives in the concept and the conceptualizable”, Heidegger, too, considered Nietzsche a sort of upside-down metaphysician. For what Nietzsche required of the substantial perception of truth and reality was a demonstrable matching. The dissolution of truth and reality which occurs in his nihilism is able to occur only given this demand.

In ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ (1951) McLuhan remarks that:

“Le Démon de l’Analogie,” by Mallarmé, (…) revealed the proportion that is between knowing and making.

McLuhan’s ever-repeated insistence later in his career on the critical difference between matching and making is already at work here. Matching is the realization of identity between a human activity (like making a certain noise or having a certain idea) and an object. When such an identity is realized, the noise becomes a communicating word and the idea becomes “true”. Nietzsche accepted the necessity of this equation and then pursued the consequences of its breakdown. In fundamental contrast, making is a finite activity of finite beings that yet achieves communication and truth without the realization of identity. Indeed, making has a certain “proportion” with “knowing” only given a fundamental difference between it and its products that can never be recalled or obviated. For it is only (only!) the environment or medium of this difference — a medium that exposes itself above all in the mediating “gap where the action is” — that first of all en-ables whatever making achieves.

In 1954, the same year as CHML, McLuhan described the work of Mallarmé as follows:

His task had become not self-expression but the release of the life in things. [Mallarmé’s 1897] Un Coup de Dés illustrates the road he took in the exploitation of all things as gestures of the mind, magically adjusted to the secret powers of being. As a vacuum tube is used to shape and control vast reservoirs of electric power7, the artist can manipulate the low current of casual words, rhythms, and resonances to evoke the primal harmonies of existence (…) But the price he must pay is total self-abnegation. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press)

The medium is the message here in the all important sense that it provides the possibility of relation — aka communication — across fundamental difference. Where Nietzsche held that “clever beasts invented knowing”, here “knowing”, indeed perception of any sort, is enabled by the ontological medium or “framework” in the context of which it occurs: “the primal harmonies of existence” (subj gen!). Hence McLuhan’s insistence, over and over again, that the activity of knowing, whether in the arts or in the sciences, is always only (only!) a “retracing” (re-cognizing, re-playing, re-tracking, re-trieving, re-presenting, etc etc) of what already takes place in any and all human perception — namely, “gestures of the mind” which are “magically adjusted” to objects in the world, and to words spoken by and to it, because they are first of all “magically adjusted to the secret powers of being” (subj gen!). Since it has — even ‘is’ — these “secret powers” as possibilities of “adjustment”, and since it de-cides to issue them “beyond” itself, so are we able to relate successfully with the world via “retracing” in all the ways to be seen from the most ordinary perception to the most esoteric art or science. Thus (again):

Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be the retracing of a moment of perception. (CHML)

Here “knowing” does not belong to human beings as their invention and especially does not belong to any individual poet or scientist:

Mallarmé (…) saw that a poetry of effects was impersonal. The author effaced himself above all in not assigning causes or explanations as transitional devices of a novelistic and a pseudo-rationalistic type between the parts of a poem. (Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum, 1949)

To supply connections would be to provide what is already there — as if they were not already there . Art (indeed also science and any human activity) therefore had no more important function than the withdrawal of pseudo-connections in favor of existing ones: “the release of the life in things”. The essential act of poets, or indeed of scientists, was thus seen to be to retreat in favor of existing “transitional” possibilities8 reflecting the “secret powers of being” and “primal harmonies”. But:

the price he must pay is total self-abnegation. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press)9

In Mallarmé’s attention to the waters of intelligibility which first enable poetry as an exemplary mode of perception, McLuhan found an articulation of the Catholic tradition — even though Mallarmé himself had no such intent:

In Mallarmé the Word has no theological overtones. It is rather a return to the pre-Christian doctrine of the Logos which included ratio et oratio and was the element in which all men were thought to move and have their being. (Review of Eleven Eliot Books 1950)

the poetic process as revealed by Poe and the symbolists was the unexpected and unintentional means of reestablishing the basis of Catholic humanism. (CHML)

This complete absence of doctrinal intent was, in fact, an essential aspect of Mallarmé’s contribution:

Mallarmé did not approach this question as a speculative one, but as a practical matter of poetics. It was the poetic experience of his time that reconstituted this doctrine and not the other way around. (Review of Eleven Eliot Books 1950)

To follow Mallarmé along this way, it was necessary to go “through the vanishing point” — and this in a double respect. It was necessary in the first place to expose the way of matching as a cul-de-sac10 that, once pursued with sufficient passion, dissolves into nothing  (the lesson of Nietzsche). In the second place it was necessary through this sort of “total self-abnegation” to activate a “loving and disciplined contemplation of existence, of particulars”. This was an attitude that was possible — indeed, actual11 — for all “gestures of the mind” through the prior fact that they are “magically adjusted to the secret powers of being” far “beyond” their own powers of matching. 




  1. The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry
  2. Readers of McLuhan have attempted to understand him absent the drama or contest of perception (subj gen!) he saw to be always at stake in human experience. But as he wrote to Joe Keogh, “I am not a ‘culture critic’ because I am not in any way interested in classifying cultural forms. I am a metaphysician, interested in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities” (July 6, 1970, Letters 413). “Metaphysics” on this view is exactly an interest in “the life of the forms and their surprising modalities” and this “life”, in turn, can be investigated only at the deepest levels of human experience as excavated by thinkers like Nietzsche. Reading McLuhan first of all requires the passion without which these levels of human experience remain inaccessible.
  3. It is noteworthy that, up to a point, McLuhan accepts Nietzsche’s view: “Historic man may turn out to have been literate man. An episode.” (‘Culture Without Literacy’, Explorations 1, 1953)
  4. Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinn‘: In irgendeinem abgelegenen Winkel (…) Weltalls gab es einmal ein Gestirn, auf dem kluge Tiere das Erkennen erfanden. Es war die hochmütigste und verlogenste Minute der »Weltgeschichte«; aber doch nur eine Minute. Nach wenigen Atemzügen der Natur erstarrte das Gestirn, und die klugen Tiere mußten sterben. – So könnte jemand eine Fabel erfinden und würde doch nicht genügend illustriert haben, wie kläglich, wie schattenhaft und flüchtig, wie zwecklos und beliebig sich der menschliche Intellekt innerhalb der Natur ausnimmt. Es gab Ewigkeiten, in denen er nicht war; wenn es wieder mit ihm vorbei ist, wird sich nichts begeben haben. Denn es gibt für jenen Intellekt keine weitere Mission, die über das Menschenleben hinausführte. Sondern menschlich ist er, und nur sein Besitzer und Erzeuger nimmt ihn so pathetisch, als ob die Angeln der Welt sich in ihm drehten. Könnten wir uns aber mit der Mücke verständigen, so würden wir vernehmen, daß auch sie mit diesem Pathos durch die Luft schwimmt und in sich das fliegende Zentrum dieser Welt fühlt. (…) Es ist merkwürdig, daß dies der Intellekt zustande bringt, er, der doch gerade nur als Hilfsmittel den unglücklichsten, delikatesten, vergänglichsten Wesen beigegeben ist, um sie eine Minute im Dasein festzuhalten.
  5. Ibid. “Wir glauben etwas von den Dingen selbst zu wissen, wenn wir von Bäumen, Farben, Schnee und Blumen reden, und besitzen doch nichts als Metaphern der Dinge, die den ursprünglichen Wesenheiten ganz und gar nicht entsprechen. (…) Was ist also Wahrheit? Ein bewegliches Heer von Metaphern, Metonymien, Anthropomorphismen, kurz eine Summe von menschlichen Relationen, die, poetisch und rhetorisch gesteigert, übertragen, geschmückt wurden und die nach langem Gebrauch einem Volke fest, kanonisch und verbindlich dünken: die Wahrheiten sind Illusionen, von denen man vergessen hat, daß sie welche sind,
  6. Götzen-Dämmerung — Wie die “wahre Welt” endlich zur Fabel wurde — Geschichte eines Irrtums: (…) 5. Die “wahre Welt” – eine Idee, die zu nichts mehr nütz ist, nicht einmal mehr verpflichtend – eine unnütz, eine überflüssig gewordene Idee, folglich eine widerlegte Idee: schaffen wir sie ab! (…) 6. Die wahre Welt haben wir abgeschafft: welche Welt blieb übrig? die scheinbare vielleicht?… Aber nein! mit der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!!
  7. McLuhan to Pound, June 12, 1951: “I’m interested in such analogies with modern poetry as that provided by the vacuum tube, The latter can tap a huge reservoir of electrical energy, picking it up as a very weak impulse. Then it can shape it and amplify it to major intensity. Technique of allusion as you use it (situational analogies) seems comparable to this type of circuit.” (Letters, 224)
  8. The whole history of science is a series of such retreats in favor of existing “transitional” possibilities. So Galileo gave up the prior conception of how bodies fall for the perception of how they actually do so. And chemistry requires the retreat from alchemical conceptions in favor of perception of the actual relations of physical materials.
  9. Compare Joyce in Portrait: “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
  10. Cf, Through the Vanishing Point (55): “The three-dimensional illusion of depth has proved to be a cul-de-sac”.
  11. The knot of possibility and actuality is the fundamental concern of Take Today 22. The relationship between the two is the “true strength” of “dialogue” that “goes beyond”.

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