The Maelstrom in Mallarmé’s Coup de Dés

The Symbolists long ago, and Yeats, Joyce, Pound, Eliot in this century, spent their entire lives expounding the aesthetics of the resonant intervals of acoustic space. The same resonant intervals have become the basis of modern quantum mechanics.The major factor is that the interval is where the action is. (McLuhan to Barbara Ward, February 8, 1973, Letters 466, emphasis in the original)

When McLuhan came to read Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés (1897) in the late 1940s, he must have been struck to find that one prism in its assemblage of prisms reflected, or refracted, Poe’s ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’ (1841).1 For McLuhan had been deeply engaged with Poe at least since 1943 (but he had begun to read Poe’s stories a full decade before this on his way to England with Tom Easterbrook in 1932) and had published an essay on ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’ in 1944. Then in 1946 he began that series of descriptions and prescriptions 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 situation is even possible in “this region of vagueness, in which all reality dissolves”)2 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 “the moment of striking”, like the striking of a spark, through which some or other particular form of experience is to be actualized out of the “original foam” or spectrum array of its possibilities. Hence it is a moment “beyond former calculations” (defining “the old man”) but that is “not yet some [further] account”. 

This is a time aside from chronological time that unaccountably “hesitates” and so provides a kind of freeze-frame portrait of “THE ETERNAL CIRCUMSTANCE” of the exposure of the master’s “childlike3 shade” or “immemorial ulterior demon” to “the virgin index” of possibilities (“in sight of all non-existent human outcomes”, the “non-existent regions” of “AS IF” constituting the un-decided “neutrality of [the] abyss”). These formal seeds may be imagined as the flotsam and jetsam circling within the Maelstrom’s “worldpool”, some one of which Mallarmé’s “master”, like Poe’s mariner and his brother (and, indeed, everyone) must forever, over and over again, ‘select’, or somehow originate, as the momentary “vessel” of their eternally forthcoming experience.4

This is the ‘story’ (although exactly not a chronological one, not linear ‘history’) of “the memorable crisis where the event matured, accomplished in sight of all non-existent human outcomes“. But this singular “event” is one that is “accomplished” over and over again in (or to) all human experience such that it is the “ETERNAL CIRCUMSTANCE” by which precisely “NOTHING (…) WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE (…) BUT THE PLACE”.  That is, nothing itself, the synchronic gap or interval between particular vessels of experience, as an original creative force before experience, unaccountably activates itself (or ‘takes place’) and the result is — some “place”, some “CONSTELLATION”, some orientation, like “North”. In the midst of this synchronic way humans eternally reenact the original creation where, too, “NOTHING (…) WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE (…) BUT THE PLACE”.

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 (…) 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 secret5, rather than taking sides6, a hoary madman, on behalf of the waves: one [wave] overwhelms the head, flows through the submissive beard (…) 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 (…) the mystery hurled, howled, in some close swirl (…) whirls round the abyss without scattering or dispersing and cradles the virgin index there [of] 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 (…) 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 [gen subj!] where the event matured, accomplished in sight of all non-existent human outcomes, WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE a commonplace elevation pours out [of] 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 (…)7

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 declination8 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”.9 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”), but an orientation singular is not given.  Instead there are orientations, plural, and both the art and science of the 20th century came to interrogate how de-cision is made between them (or has always already been made between them), at the prior level of AS IF possibility (although to the normal mode or “vessel” of experience such questioning could only seem to be a shipwreck). And the great question was, and is, how such achieved singularity out of pluripotent ground might or might not be compatible with meaning.


  1. Following Baudelaire’s intense engagement with Poe, Mallarmé published his sonnet, Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe, in 1876, and his translations of Poe’s collected poems (Les Poèmes d’Edgar Poe) in 1888.
  2. Quotations from Mallarmé’s Coup de Dés in this and the following two paragraphs come from the extensive excerpt from the poem given immediately after them.
  3. “Childlike” because ‘hesitating’ before possibilities yet to be actualized (or not): “someone ambiguous”.
  4. McLuhan’s unpublished manuscript on ‘The Little Epic’ from the later 1950s: “Language itself and every department of human activity would in this view be a long succession of ‘momentary deities’ or epiphanies.  And such indeed is the view put forward in the Cratylus of Plato: I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be, that a power more than human gave things their first names, and that the names which are thus given are necessarily their true names. In this way etymology becomes a method of science and theology. William Wordsworth called these momentary deities ‘spots of time’, Hopkins called them ‘inscapes’ and Browning built his entire work on the same concept of the esthetic of the ‘eternal moment’.”
  5. “A corpse pushed back by the arm (of the vortex) from the secret”: a “corpse” because “a legacy, in vanishing” and not yet some “final account in formation” that would expose “the secret” of either the “plumbed perdition” below or the “commonplace elevation” above.
  6. Ditto.
  7. Translation by A.S. Kline (underlining emphasis added).
  8. Regarding altitude/declination, see note 4 above. McLuhan doubtless read Coup de Dés against the background of Eliot’s Four Quartets, one of whose epigrams is Heraclitus’ ‘odos ano kato
  9. ‘The Future Of Augustinian Metaphysics’, A Monument To Saint Augustine, 1930, 287-315.