Thought Trafficking

Le vide papier que la blancheur défend
September 28, 2009, 2:27 am
Filed under: academese, knitting, outside, wanderlust

I am sitting in the kitchen, books on Mallarmé all around me, watching the reflection of the sunset in the trees. A semi-circular flock of birds just passed in front of the moon, a moon that is half-full or maybe even gibbous. It will be easier to tell when the sky darkens.

Fall arrived with the wind a couple of nights ago, and I obligingly began to knit my first pair of mittens, noting to a friend that I had graduated from sweater-gloves (arm warmers) to mittens when I moved back to the prairies. These first mittens are a lively green in a soft, fat, single-ply wool, mitered and long enough to fit down the cuffs of my coats.

This weekend I very nearly drove down to Bellingham for a concert. I didn’t, couldn’t, but the temptation was palpable. I could taste the air, was planning the trip out loud for several hours, could see the trees and the way the sun is on the ocean. The very next night, driving home from an opening at the art gallery where I used to work, the moon (smaller than it is today) was tempting me to drive all the way down to Milk River, down to the farm. At night, in the living room facing the Sweetgrass Hills, I can see the fat old stars even with my glasses off. I wanted to test the sky from a different latitude. Before I can really give in to this wanderlust, however, I need to finish this project.

One of the larger questions on my mind right now is: do I want to go back to grad school? Do I want another degree? Is it practical? Do I care if it is practical? I think that my frustration with my current project colours all of these thoughts. I am tired of explaining myself. I am tired of being uncertain as to whether I am “getting it wrong”, or whether I am just studying something that is so obscure that few people have the background to be able to discuss it without a lot of explanation. Something stronger is maybe in order: I hate explaining myself. Maybe it’s that I have a lot of questions and not a lot of ways to answer them. When asked what I am studying, I have almost got it down to a sentence or two: nineteenth century French poetry and its relationship to music. Which rings false to me, so I rephrase it for myself: the aesthetic theory (/attitude) of Stéphane Mallarmé, specifically with regard to music, and the success (/failure) of Pierre Boulez’s work, Pli selon pli, to translate this attitude. Mallarmé’s attitude towards music was ambiguous – he at one envied music’s capacity for wordless expression of an idea and it’s esoteric notation and pooh-poohed it as non-signifying and unspecific. Poetry, he felt, was above music (as an art) because it could suggest a thing, allude to an idea without mentioning it and yet still conjure something more specific. It could still be sure of communicating in something that an observer could hope to pinpoint and perhaps interpret, whereas music could allude and and suggest all it wanted, without necessarily convincing, without specifically evoking. That said, when he speaks about music or about poetry, you can’t be sure that he is talking about music (as we refer to it) or poetry (as we refer to it); he might be using a more archaic acceptation of these words. Music, as in mousike (from Greek), as in inspired by a muse. Poetry, as in poiesis, to make. The poetry and music he refers to he would consider as derived from the same orphic source but even as two faces of the same coin, they are separate. By this point in the explanation, eyes have glazed over.

I have narrowed my interests to two concepts specifically. First, performance and performativity. According to Barbara Johnson, poetry – Mallarmé’s poetry, at any rate – can be considered performative because it isn’t simply describing something, it is doing. It is poiesis, it is making. That is to say, a performative utterance is an utterance that literally performs the action contained within it: I declare war. It isn’t simply a description or a statement. Mallarmé’s poetic language is creative: the poem is bringing something into being, and not simply describing an individual or a place. He imagines a discontinuity between the speaker and his words; poetry is emitted from the poet when he is brutally punched in the stomach. The words are, at once, naming and exhibiting the thing that they describe and so she is sign and referent and thus independent of the kind of reality we may imagine the poem to take place within. The words at once distance themselves from these expectations and create something new. In this way, his poetry is performative. I’m not even sure that I understand this transposition, and so explaining it feels like having teeth pulled. Having read a great deal of Mallarmé over the past two years, however, I feel that there is something to it. Poetry, or at least his poetry, is not subject to the kinds of conventions, the kinds of categories that we usually employ when parsing the grammars of speech and prose.

Hopefully, if the above has even a small gleaming of sense, you can see why music – the idea of music, not necessarily the reality of it – appealed to Mallarmé. He also felt that words and writing were taken too easily, too lightly by the reading public. Anyone literate might open a book, read the words, and be satisfied that they have understood its contents. A musical score, however, must be interpreted, and that interpretation must be taught and practiced. In many ways, Mallarmé’s conception of music is (as Edward Lockspeiser would say) utter nonsense. Musical literacy really isn’t that far off from other kinds of literacy. But music remained more of a notion him than a concrete reality that had systems, a grammar and notation and literati of its own.What he appreciated, I think, was the performance – the audience and the ceremony of a musical performance, the idea of a studied interpretation.

The other concept that interests me is, loosely, mimesis. I’m still trying to grasp this one, but Derrida’s article “Economimesis” is what got me thinking about it. What I gleaned from that article was that mimesis should not be considered an imitation of one thing (I use that term very loosely) by another: mimesis is the imitation of the source of inspiration. That harkened back to a line from “Richard Wagner: Rêverie d’un poet français” : “Tout se retrempe au ruisseau primitif: pas jusqu’à la source.” Wagner’s music was in some ways flawed or devalued due to the fact that he was simply imitating the ancient myths, replaying them, not drawing on a more ancient well-spring of inspiration; he was re-presenting what had already been presented. Mimesis, then, is the attempt at seizing the idea – in Mallarmé’s case, the object that he refuses to name and will only allude to.

What this means more concretely is that I would like to evaluate the success or failure of Boulez’s work according to that mimetic criterion: is Boulez simply transcribing the meter of Mallarmé’s poems the way he sees them? Setting a poem to music? Or is he grasping Mallarmé’s intent? Re-presentation, or re-creation? This includes the attitude towards the interpreting public (the audience) and Boulez’s ideas of what performance is or can be juxtaposed with Mallarmé’s. If Mallarmé saw Wagner as terrorizing his audience, what would he say of Boulez? If Mallarmé sought consonance and sonorous fluidity in his work, what would he say of Boulez’s dissonant, modern sound? Does this even matter? What is “the matter”: the aesthetic idea behind the work, or its delivery to a waiting mind? In this way, the question of mimesis (in this case) flows into the matter of performance/performativity.

If you have read this far, or skipped this far ahead, I hope that you can understand why I hate explaining this. I come up with more questions every time I do and end up following tangents down dead ends. I know that my interpretations of these concepts are flawed and incomplete, but the more avenues I follow, the further I spiral out of control, and so I am forced to tighten up, to pull my limbs back in and make do with simpler explanations.

The other problem (what, another one?) is that this-all seems very much like navel-gazing. Who cares if Boulez’s interpretation is proper to Mallarmé, aesthetically. It exists. It is performed, it is heard. Mallarmé is dead. But I think that the questions are relevant. These artists and their works are experimenting with boundaries in their own, perhaps dated or quaint, ways. Daniel Oster says that thought Mallarmé’s work is generally considered esoteric, hermetic and inaccessible, Mallarmé is one of the most exoteric poets he has read: he is begging to be interpreted, demanding further consideration and hoping for a kind of cooperation. How does this attitude compare with, for instance, Ann Liv Young’s treatment (/abuse) of her audience? Or the audience reaction discussed in this article: ? Mallarmé’s art isn’t raising a moral issue, but an artistic one. It is perhaps the degree zero of this question, before it takes on a moral or social character.

I don’t have much of a conclusion here. I could just say that I don’t believe in conclusions – zing! – but that would seem a cop-out. Maybe I will re-read this tomorrow to see if it still makes sense to me, edit it later. I hope I will. For now, back to trying to write about this whole mess, but in French. Allons-y!


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