Mallarmé and Bataille

Richard Howard

Although Professor Bersani's earlier books of criticism have attracted me—sensible when so much of their ground was elsewhere given over to devil-dancing; wide-ranging within the rather cramped issues raised, or at least upturned, by the theoretical implications of modern French literature—and although I had found last year's essay Baudelaire & Freud of particular avail in preparing a translation of Les Fleurs du Mal, I was not ready for this incisive little enchiridion, which is far and away the finest thing Bersani has yet written and, perhaps because of its brevity or at least greatly abetted by it, the best book in English I have read on the vexed and inveterately vexing question—never to be answered, of course, but at least to be acutely, as here, to be accurately raised—of Mallarmé. This is the book which to have read equips one, rather fetchingly of all things, for venturing into that cold country, not as into a jungle or a desert, but a feasible region of intentions, susceptible to naming if not quite to be colonized. Even if the nymphs had been real, Bersani remarks with the giddy wit that redeems a good deal of close argument, the faun would have had to invent them.

An aspect of Bersani's success with Mallarmé—he takes in verse and prose, the noblest aspirations to what the poet called The Book, a forever-asymptotal Text that was to overcome the arbitrary relationship between words and reality, as well as the silliest of occasional pieces, poems on Easter eggs, versified postal addresses, and the eight issues of a women's fashion magazine the poet wrote, under such pseudonyms as Miss Satin, Zizi, and Marguerite de Ponty, in 1874—derives from his good manners. Imperturbably amenable to the fierce maenads of Mallarmé-exegesis, Bersani manages to reserve their contortions for an ulterior enterprise, and his inclusive affability enables his criticism to be the first, at least the first in English, which does not treat the Mallarméen text as if it were sick—as if it could be appreciated only if it were first mitigated, corrected, cured. The impression is that we have arrived at a stage of discourse analogous at last to Shakespeare criticism since, say, Wilson Knight, a phase which acknowledges the experience of writing as the loss of authorship, and such a loss as not a scandal. What Bersani says of Mallarmé is true of the Shakespeare we read, if we do not hear in the theater, today: the author dissipates the oppressive themes of his being in the exuberant irony of his work.

Notable are the comparisons—with Proust and with Henry James—which help us identify, rather than define, what it is that our "modernism" demands of us. When Bersani, in the course of a fine discussion of The Golden Bowl, remarks of James's rewritings of all his earlier novels for the New York Edition, "the later text is the recording of an experience of the earlier text," he affords us an approach to that image of the palimpsest which Proust and James, no less than Baudelaire and Whitman, have obliged us—in the current critical phrase—to deconstruct on every side. Mallarmé, perhaps the culmination of all such figures, or of their enterprise, makes us experience meaning, in his poems, as something which thought is always cancelling, or approaching, or—Bersani uses the word—deferring; ultimately Mallarme appears to have extracted sense from even his most occasional, his most circumstantial pieces by not only removing himself from them but also by removing them (the circumstances) from himself, so that all that is left is writing poetry, the dispersal of subjects. The way is clear for Jacques Derrida, who makes his dread entrance on Bersani's last page, but perhaps "clear" is scarcely the word:

In his remarks on Mallarme's short essay Mimique, Derrida interestingly speaks of Mallarme's maintaining the differential structure of mimesis but without the Platonic or metaphysical notion of ''l'être d'un étant" which would be imitated. Mallarme produces a wandering, unlocatable difference without any referents.

Announcements of loss, intuitions of failure which capsize and reverse to become triumphs of poetic constitution usher in Beckett and Genêt as well as ces messieurs de la critique, and remind me of the one failing, not failure, of Bersani's peppy manual: " . . . it has seemed best to give all quotations in French ... I am, a bit desperately and a bit lightheadedly, quite ready to argue that Mallarmé proposes not merely the impossibility but even the inconceivability of translation." Though a serviceable trot is given in the notes, this is evidently a book for francophone readers: caveat gaudiatque emptor, in the nature of the case.


To make us see dying
as power . . . Mallarmé's undertaking (surely the right word) as Bersani accounts for it here makes a traversable bridge to the protean (or elusive, according to your tastes) Georges Bataille, born the year Mallarmé died and himself dead twenty years ago. But not to Bataille-in-general; Professor Richman is concerned chiefly to show that Bataille's "theory of general economy which assumes the experience of laughter continues to orient the most innovative departures of recent French critical thought." Though hers is the glory of a first book on Bataille for an American audience, she is quite cavalier about the diversity of his accomplishments, even those already translated (she does not appear to know—or to care to show—that Bataille's L'Erotisme, from which she makes extensive deductions, has been translated into English as Civilization & Death, and that his book on Manet is to be found in English in the Skira series; that his novel Le Bleu du Ciel and his essay Les Larmes d'Eros, too, are available to the English-speaking reader). It is her study, rather, to explore the philosophical notions which have made Bataille, in recent years, an admired progenitor of Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida. She (and her editor, Ms. Tilman) have decided, however, not to translate the terminology which Bataille, an extremely idiosyncratic rhetorician, to say the least, devised for his conceptions, and not even to translate some of the nomenclature which Bataille worked against (in Mauss, in Durkheim); hence her readers are confronted with a series of unassimilable counters—part maudite, dépense, don—not even italicized in the text; further,
when translations are made, they are alarmingly literal (terrain vague, here translated as "vague terrain," means of course an empty lot: not a dangerous faux ami in this instance, but suggestive of the pitfalls that strew the ground). Fortunately, even as I write this, a translation is being prepared by Matthew Ward of Bataille's La Notion de dépense, and a little more of Professor Richman's work will be done for her. Not that she shirks doing what she does. This is a most energetic and formidable scrutiny of an ecstatic in search of community, and though the text is considerably marred by misprints and oddly variant translations of the same bits of Bataille. it affords an authentic insight into the work. "If one were to ascribe to me." Bataille wrote, "a place within the history of thought, it would be, I believe, for having discerned the effects within our lives of the dissolution of discursive reality."

Carlyle, Nietzsche, Artaud—it is in the lineage of these strident advocates of silence that Bataille takes his distinguished place, though Professor Richman does not choose to write him into intellectual history as I
have just done; she is far more rigorous, and argues out Bataille's theory of a general economy, one that must include or account for all phenomena of excess which appear within a culture at the "point" where collective emotions and discursive categories meet. Occasionally, in acres of extremely abstract discussion—what she would call vague terrain—Professor Richman comes up with really eloquent, luminous formulations, and I am very grateful to her for such perceptions as this:

Solitude, isolation, and despair are momentarily overcome within ecstatic instants of continuity labeled sacred in primitive cultures, divine in our own, and which Bataille himself subsumes under the nonmystical, atheological category of the experience interieure . . .

And again, on her last page:

The general economy is never claimed as the foundation of a new order. Rather it constitutes a point of view discernible within those moments of furtive illumination when "language is cried, a cruel spasm, mad laughter, and where harmony is born from the shared awareness of the impenetrability of ourselves and the
world" . . .

But at the same time I am perplexed and even galled by an encroaching abstractness of vocabulary which defeats my intelligence, or let us say my interest:

Science, reason, and discourse are not absent from the vue d'ensemble, but integrated through a "dialectics of intoxication" (to use Benjamin's terminology). Such expenditure without reserve entails two phases: first, the demotion of the status of idealism's logos by the materialism of heterogeneity. Sovereignty then transgresses the opposing systems of the material and the ideal by exceeding them,
but it also highlights the inability of most discourse to "see" beyond its own blind spots.

Well, yes. As in this passage, Benjamin will be abruptly convoked in order to justify or at least to propitiate an insanely arid and attenuated series of propositions. The book clearly takes place within a context being argued elsewhere; I believe it has important contributions to make to the realm of discourse (located within an equilateral triangle consisting of anthropology, sociology, and hysteria) it so confidently shimmers within. But to readers not equipped with French, or with a history of Bataille not even sketched here, I wonder if I dare echo that second adjective of Fredric Jameson's blurb—"authoritative, useful, and important"—with the same conviction I can bring to my own astonishment and pleasure when I read
Bataille saying "to look at a person laughing can be a form of erotic encounter."

Richard Howard was an American poet and translator. He received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Untitled Subjects.
Originally published:
October 1, 1982

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