Mallarmé: “a competition for the foundation of the popular modern Poem”

Between 1949 and 1954 McLuhan’s thought underwent a profound revolution. Primarily through his readings of the French symbolist poets — especially Mallarmé — in connection with his ongoing work on Eliot and Joyce, McLuhan came to see that incarnation must be experienced and expressed against any attempt to consider it in some supposedly special moment of time or in some supposedly oceanic feeling or in some supposedly pure thought.

Considered originally, as first principle, incarnation necessarily rebounds on any experience of it (subj gen!)1. If incarnation is fundamental, any and all experience of it must be incarnated (ie, later than incarnation) and therefore informed by it and therefore particular and finite. There can be no special experience of incarnation (obj gen!).

This rebound (in league with the nihilist thrust culminating in Nietzsche) at once negates any supposedly foundational pier of the western tradition depending on special experience and points to a foundational complex (“dialogue [that] came before, and goes beyond”) dynamically supporting that tradition even, or exactly, in its weaknesses and failures. For incarnation is just (just!) the dynamic release into weaknesses and failure that yet sustains2.

In ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ (1954), McLuhan formulated this turn as follows:

Moral and aesthetic horror at the ignobility of the popular scene gave way to an opposite attitude (…) and Mallarmé is, before Joyce, the best spokesman of the new approach.

This was a “radically democratic aesthetic” where “democratic” refers to the utter lack of privilege (whether sensual, conceptual or institutional) prompting it. And it was Mallarmé who first began to map the labyrinthine terrain:

The author of Ulysses was the only person to grasp the full artistic implications of this radically democratic aesthetic elaborated by the fabulous artificer, the modern Daedalus3, Stéphane Mallarmé.

It was this “radically democratic aesthetic” which lay behind the decided animus McLuhan developed at this time against ‘gnosticism’ (even — or especially — when he found it in any of his literary heroes like Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Lewis) and which grounded his new positive valuation of the mass media, precisely in the face of his previous — especially in The Mechanical Bride — and continuing [!] critique of them.

Incarnation, limited in any way by moral view or distaste or doctrinal conviction, is not incarnation.

The following texts from this period highlight the role of Mallarmé in this revolutionary process through which McLuhan became the theorist of all media.

Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum, 1949
in the library section of Ulysses (…) Joyce (…) presents (…) Mallarmé as his Hamlet who walks the world only to read “the book of himself”. This image is the exact opposite of the activity of Joyce and of the Mallarmé that Joyce at that time knew better than anybody else. To read not in the book of the self but in the book of the existent and subsistent world, the world of the incarnate logos (…) was the esthetic task (…) “Symbol” means to “throw together”, to juxtapose without copula. And it is a work that cannot be undertaken or understood by the univocalizing, single plane, rationalist mind. 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. (…) 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.

Review of eleven Eliot books 1950
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. 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 Essays in Criticism 1920-1948, ed R W Stallman, 1950
Poetry is made with words not with emotions, feelings, or ideas — it is that perception of Mallarmé [subj gen!] that has changed first poetic and then critical practice in the past seventy years. (…) Poems such as Mallarmé’s Igitur or Un Coup de Dés are great symbolist structures which made possible the metapoetic orchestration of Ulysses, The Cantos, Finnegan’s Wake, and Four Quartets. (…) Beginning with Mallarmé, poetry once more embraced the entire diversity of civilized interests. (…) Superficially, the first Romantics had rejected the formal methods and content of the encyclopaedic arts and sciences. But the last Romantics, such as Mallarmé, Joyce, Yeats, Rilke, and Eliot, have joined poetry once more to theology, metaphysics, history, and anthropology.

Letter to Innis, 1951
it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years. Mallarmé saw the modern press as a magical institution born of technology. The discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items made necessary by the influx of news stories from every quarter of the world, created, he saw, a symbolic landscape of great power and importance. (He used the word “symbol” in the strict Greek sense sym-ballein, to pitch together, physically and musically). He saw at once that the modern press was not a rational form but a magical one so far as communication was concerned. Its very technological form was bound to be efficacious far beyond any informative purpose. Politics were becoming musical, jazzy, magical.

Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process, 1951
“Le Démon de l’Analogie,” by Mallarmé, (…) revealed the proportion that is between knowing and making. (…) The Stephen of The Portrait, (probably named after the Dedalian Stéphane  Mallarmé) understands Aquinas via Mallarmé whereas Joyce the artist [in contrast to Stephen Daedalus,] while led to Aquinas by Mallarmé and the symbolists, finally was able to complete the work of the symbolists because he discovered [through reversal] how to perfect their insights by means of Aquinas.

The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951
With Joyce words syntactically ordered to statement yielded to words as pantomime, as ballet, and especially as static landscape. Mallarmé, in his Coup de Dés, had preceded Joyce in establishing the printed page as a symbolist landscape able to evoke the most ephemeral incident and, simultaneously, the most remote cycles of time. For Mallarmé, as for Joyce, the minutest, as well as the most esoteric, features of the alphabet itself were charged with dramatic significance, so that he used the word and the printed page as do the Chinese, for whom landscape painting is a branch of writing. Mallarmé had been led to this technique by an aesthetic analysis of the modern newspaper, with its static inclusiveness of the entire community of men. But the newspaper, not so much as a cross section as a vivisection of human interests, stands, as I have shown elsewhere, behind Ulysses, with its date-line Thursday, June 16, 1904. The shape of Ulysses is that of the city presented as the organic landscape of the human body. The shape of the Wake is the same, save that the landscape of the human mind and body is presented more intimately and under a much greater diversity of forms, landscape taking over even the functions of “character”. What Mallarmé and Joyce exploit in landscape technique is its power of rendering an inclusive consciousness in a single instant of perception. (…) Earlier than Mr. Eliot or Joyce, Mallarmé, pointing to the intimate connection between the ultimate artist and nature, insisted that fragments of the great work were constantly being written by the many who are as Nature to the hero-artist (…) For them [Joyce, Pound, and Eliot] the aesthetic moment was, like the band of the spectrum, an affair of zoning. As 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. (…) Joyce, Pound, and Eliot recovered the secret of the dolce stil nuovo through the prismatically arranged landscapes of Rimbaud and Mallarmé. And this secret consists in nothing less than a fusion of the learning and the creative processes in the analysis and reconstruction of the aesthetic moment of arrested awareness. This peculiar fusion of the cognitive and the creative by an act of retracing the stages of apprehension was arrived at by Joyce as a result of the prior [viz, by Mallarmé] discovery for the technique of fission of the moment of aesthetic awareness. And landscape plays an indispensable role in every stage of both fission and fusion. In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.

Review of Ruskin and the Landscape Feeling, by F G Townsend, 1952
Ruskin was (…) seeking always the collective center of the poetic process but finding only the peripheral effects in the individual or the society. (…) [the symbolist (namely, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Valéry)] view that the art process is the analogue of cognition itself, is metaphysical. But it provides all those insights into the poetic process and into the social role of the poet which Ruskin never stopped seeking.

James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953
Modern linguistic theory is quite sympathetic to the semi-magical views of the ancients. Our idea of language as gesture, as efficacious, and as representing a total human response, is a much better base for a study of the figures and arts of speech than any merely rationalistic approach can provide. But for Mallarmé, Valery, Joyce, and Eliot the figures of rhetoric are discriminated as notable postures of the human mind. The linguistic studies of Edward Sapir and B. L. Whorf have lately shown that language is not only the storehouse of scientific thought. All actual and potential scientific theories are implicit in the verbal structure of the culture associated with them. By 1885 Mallarmé had formulated and utilized in his poetry these concepts about the nature of language uniting science and philology, which nowadays are known as “metalinguistics.” However, these views of languages were commonplaces to Cratylus, Varro, and Philo Judaeus. They were familiar to the Church Fathers, and underlay the major schools of scriptural exegesis. If “four-Ievel exegesis” is back in favor again as the staple of the “new criticism,” it is because the poetic objects which have been made since 1880 frequently require such techniques for their elucidation.

Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954
Gradually it dawned on Mallarmé that pure poetry was impossible — a poetry which would have as its theme the poetic process itself. 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. The pre-Raphaelites had pushed this doctrine as far as they could. But Mallarmé saw deeper (…) It is a crucial matter for us to understand in the age of the so-called mass media. Mallarmé wrote his most difficult poem, Un Coup de Dés, in newspaper format. He saw, like Joyce, that the basic forms of communication — whether speech, writing, print, press, telegraph, or photography — necessarily were fashioned in close accord with man’s cognitive activity. And the more extensive the mass medium the closer it must approximate to our cognitive faculties.

Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press, 1954
But it was Mallarmé who formulated the lessons of the press as a guide for the new impersonal poetry of suggestion and implication. He saw that the scale of modern reportage and of the mechanical multiplication of messages made personal rhetoric impossible. Now was the time for the artist to intervene in a new way and to manipulate the new media of communication by a precise and delicate adjustment of the relations of words, things, and events. His task had become not self-expression but the release of the life in things. 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 power, the artist can manipulate the low current of casual words, rhythms, and resonances to evoke the primal harmonies of existence or to recall the dead. But the price he must pay is total self-abnegation. (…)
Moral and aesthetic horror at the ignobility of the popular scene gave way to an opposite attitude in the symbolists, and Mallarmé is, before Joyce, the best spokesman of the new approach. In his Shop-Windows (Etalages), while analyzing the aesthetics of the commercial layout, he considers the relations between poetry and the press. A shop window full of new books prompts his reflection that the function of the ordinary run of books is merely to express the average degree of human boredom and incompetence, to reduce to a written form the horizon of the human scene in all its abounding banality. Instead of deploring this fact as literary men tend to do, the artist should exploit it: “The vague, the commonplace, the smudged and defaced, not banishment of these, occupation rather! Apply them as to a patrimony.”
Only by a conquest and occupation of these vast territories of stupefaction can the artist fulfill his culturally heroic function of purifying the dialect of the tribe, the Herculean labor of cleaning the Augean stables of speech, of thought and feeling. Turning directly to the press, Mallarmé designates it as “a traffic, an epitomization of enormous and elementary interests (…) employing print for the propagation of opinions, the recital of divers facts, made plausible, in the Press, which is devoted to publicity, by the omission, it would seem, of any art.” He delights in the dramatic significance of the fact that in the French press, at least, the literary and critical features form a section at the base of the first page. And even more delightful:
“Fiction properly so called, or the imaginative tale, frolics across the average daily paper, enjoying the most prominent spots even to the top of the page, dislodging the financial feature and pushing actuality into second place. Here, too, is the suggestion and even the lesson of a certain beauty: that today is not only the supplanter of yesterday or the presager of tomorrow but issues from time, in general, with an integrity bathed and fresh. The vulgar placard, bawled (…) at the street corner thus sustains this reflection (…) on the political text. Such experience leaves some people cold because they imagine that while there may be a little more or less of the sublime in these pleasures tasted by the people, the situation as regards that which alone is precious and immeasurably lofty, and which is known by the name of Poetry, that this situation remains unchanged. Poetry (they suppose) will always be exclusive and the best of its pinions will never approach those pages of the newspaper where it is parodied, nor are they pleased by the spread of wings in our hands of those vast improvised sheets of the daily paper.”
Mallarmé is laughing at these finicky and unperceptive people [McLuhan may be thinking here of the author of The Mechanical Bride] for whom the press appears as a threat to “real culture”; and continues:
To gauge by the extraordinary, actual superproduction, through which the Press intelligently yields its average, the notion prevails, nonetheless, of something very decisive which is elaborating itself: a prelude to an era, a competition for the foundation of the popular modern Poem, at the very least of innumerable Thousand and One Nights: by which the majority of readers will be astonished at the sudden invention. You are assisting at a celebration, all of you, right now, amidst the contingencies4 of this lightning achievement!”
The author of Ulysses was the only person to grasp the full artistic implications of this radically democratic aesthetic elaborated by the fabulous artificer, the modern Daedalus, Stéphane Mallarmé. 

  1. The ‘experience of incarnation’ is necessarily a subjective genitive (i.e., experience belongs to incarnation) exactly where incarnation is taken originally, as cause and not as effect, as subject and not as object, as ground and not as figure. But at the same time it is essential to incarnation that it submits itself to experience as its object. The mystery is the knot of these two genitives together (‘at the same time’): the absolute release as ground is figured in the relative capture — since only (only!) such capture IS such release!
  2. Sustains — because it is the grounding first principle. And because its release is not its loss of itself but its fulfillment of itself. Like time, incarnation could not be what it is without going out from itself.
  3. As frequently remarked by McLuhan, Daedalus was the creator of the labyrinth of King Minos in Knossos, with its minotaur. Not incidentally, since the design of the labyrinth was the key to human discovery, he also found a way for his son, Icarus, to fly.
  4. The last page of Hegel’s Phenomenology (1807) enacts this “celebration” of (dual gen!) finite spirits, whose finitude is the “hidden” way in which the “true strength” of the infinite ex-presses itself.

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