Roger Peters Copyright © 2005
Journal for the Advancement of the Quaternary Evolution in Shakespeare
JAQUES is the cover-all title of a journal which incorporates essays about proto-quaternary thinkers (JAQUES), essays that investigate the historic misrepresentation of Shakespearean thought (INQUEST), and essays that examine social and political issues(QUIETUS). The essays will provide another level of evidence and argument for the presence of a consistent philosophy in Shakespeare's works, and for the claim that it is a philosophy unparalleled in the literatures of the world.
The intention in each essay is to lay down in general terms the relationship between Shakespeare's Sonnet philosophy and the topic to be critiqued. The idea is to show how the Sonnet philosophy resolves psychological problems consequent upon millennia of dependence on the inadequate biblical paradigm.
The poetry of Stephane Mallarmé (1842-98) offers one of the purest
examples of the mind working at its highest pitch. Despite his reputation
as the most obscure of all symbolist poets, once the mind attunes to
Mallarmé’s deeply realised meaning, no other recent poetry so singularly
reconciles the world, human nature and the act of writing.
Mallarmé’s progress toward a profound symbolism, though, was not
without difficulty. As he deepened his understanding of the logic of poetry,
beyond the contradictions in his Christian faith, he experienced what he
called the ‘abyss’. Only gradually did he find a way beyond the influence of
his family’s resolute Catholicism to a mature expression of the relation of
poetry to life. So it is possible to follow his trajectory from the psychological
trap of an idealistic faith to his philosophic expression in poetry of the logical
basis of religious symbolism.
When in 1864 Mallarmé precociously announced, in a letter to his friend
Henry Cazalis, a new method for writing poetry, he did not anticipate the
personal crisis it would precipitate. His insight that he should ‘paint not the
thing, but the effect that it produces’ (1) brought him face to face with the
contradictions in biblical belief. After all, the sacred entities or ‘effects’ in
biblical mythology were religiously held to be prior to the ‘things’ in the
Mallarmé’s insight was that any writing depends on ‘effects’ generated
within the mind by ‘things’ in the world. But beliefs based on biblical writing
had, for psycho/social reasons, turned the natural process on its head. They
had accorded the ‘effects’ generated by the mind priority over the ‘things’
in the world.
Mallarmé overcame the ‘abyss’ when he dismissed the psychological
comfort of the biblical promise and accepted his logical role as a creator of
‘effects’. In bypassing the notion of God as the ideal creator he was reclaiming
the right for poets to evoke the world in the symbolism of their work
As Mallarmé moved beyond the psychology of biblical belief, he rejected
the death-orientated male-based idealism of the Old and New Testaments.
Critically, though, for the extraordinary depth of meaning in his later poetry,
as he freed himself from subservience to the male God, he did not reject
the logical function of the ideal. And neither did he merely substitute the
idea of God with an abstract Hegelian Ideal. Instead, he rediscovered the
sexual basis of the ideal as it is generated in the erotic dynamic of the mind.
Mallarmé’s poetry, and things in the world
Mallarmé’s poems use for their symbolic effects quite ordinary and everyday
things such as windows, sunsets, fans, tombs, birds, stars, female and male,
voyages, and even the words and books with which the poems are made
and presented. He does not presume to reproduce those things realistically,
abstractly, or metaphysically. Rather he realised that language and ideas
transform ‘things’ into logically different ‘effects’.
In one of Mallarmé’s earlier poems, The Windows, he uses the everyday
familiarity of light and sight passing through a set of windows to comment
on the illusory effect of poetry compared with the things in the ‘world
below’ that is ‘master’. The illusory image of an ‘angel’ that appears on the
window momentarily excites his mind to thinking he can be ‘reborn’beyond
the glass. But such an ‘obsession’ through ‘art or mysticism’ is a fantasy caused
by the ‘effects’ of a poem being illogically divorced from ‘things’ in the world.
In The Windows, Mallarmé dismisses, beginning with ‘stale incense’ and
the ‘vast crucifix weary of the empty wall’, the Christian expectation of
redemption (‘banal whiteness’) and transcendence (‘hard soul’). The idealised
vanity of escaping angel-like through the glass is rewarded with an Icaruslike
fall through broken ‘crystal’. In its place, Mallarmé presents his new
awareness of the priority of ‘things’ over ‘effects’ through metaphors of
sunlight, blue sky, the wife ‘suckling her little ones’, and concludes with the
triumph of avoiding the psychological abyss of ‘falling throughout eternity’.
Tired of the dreary hospital and of the stale incense rising in the
banal whiteness of the curtains towards the vast crucifix weary
of the empty wall, the dying man cunningly straightens his old back,
drags himself and, less to warm his decay than to see sunlight
on the stones, goes to flatten his white hairs and the bones of his
thin face at the windows which a bright lovely sunbeam wishes
And his mouth, feverish and starving for the blue sky, just as in
its youth it went to breathe in its treasure, a virginal skin of long
ago! dirties with a long bitter kiss the warm golden panes.
He lives intoxicated, forgetting the horror of the holy oils, the
tisanes, the clock and compulsory bed, the cough; and when
evening bleeds among the tiles his eye, on the horizon choked
sees golden galleys, beautiful as swans, sleeping on a river of
purple and perfumes, rocking the rich, tawny lightning of their
lines in a vast indifference laden with memory!
So seized by disgust of man and his hard soul, wallowing in
happiness where only his appetites eat, and persisting in the search
for this filth to offer it to his wife suckling her little ones,
I flee, and I cling to all the casements from whence one turns
one’s shoulder to life, and, blessedly, in their glass washed with
eternal dews gilded by Infinity’s chaste morning,
I look at myself and see myself as an angel! And I die, and I
love – whether the glass be art or mysticism – to be reborn,
my dream like a diadem, in the earlier heaven where Beauty
But alas! the world below is master: its obsession comes to
disgust me sometimes even in this certain shelter, and Stupidity’s
impure vomiting forces me to stop my nose in face of the blue sky.
Is there a way, O Self familiar with bitterness, to break the
crystal insulted by the monster and to escape, with my two
feather-less wings – at the risk of falling throughout eternity?
In another well-known sonnet, The Virginal, Living, and Beautiful Day,
the image of a swan caught in ice carries both the erotic idea of the swan’s
neck immobilised in ice, and the inability of the words on the page to
emulate the actions of a living swan that would answer the call of the seasons.
In other poems Mallarmé uses the doubled imagery of cranial/pubic hair.
The play of light on the hair attracts the poet but when within the hair he
feels impotent. He also uses the image of a fan a number of times to suggest
both a surface that conveys ideas through images and the pubic area where
the poet experiences frustration because writing a poem is not a sexual act.
Mallarmé’s poetry and the sexual
The imagery of Mallarmé’s poems coheres for the reader if it is remembered
that the poet is decidedly conscious of the sexual dynamic, but is writing
down its erotic equivalent. Mallarmé evokes the thing through the effect
without the psychological diversion of fantasising a separate world or an
omnipotent God. He does not invoke a self-contained realm of fantasy, as
did other Symbolists, to escape from the natural relation of thing and effect.
Rather the evocation of worldly things through erotic effects in his poetry
reveals that otherworldly fantasy is a psychological condition because its
‘effects’ are divorced from their logical connection with ‘things’.
Mallarmé’s long poem Afternoon of the Faun, for instance, examines the
logical relationship between the erotic imaginings of the mind and the sexual
world from which those imaginings arise. The poem mentions the ‘ideal
error of roses’ and the ‘the cold blue eyes of the most chaste’ as erotic
imaginings that have their origin in the sexual activity to which poetry can
Afternoon of the Faun
The evocation of the erotic through the continual use of imagery derived
from the sexual provides the logical underpinning for Mallarmé’s exploration
of the relation of body and mind. The Faun is the poetic beast who signals
the moment when ‘things’ in the physical world become the ‘effects’ evoked
in the mind.
I desire to perpetuate these nymphs.
So bright their light rosy flesh that it hovers in the air drowsy
with tufted slumbers.
Did I love a dream? My doubt, heap of old night, ends in many
a subtle branch, which, remaining the true woods themselves,
proves, alas! That alone I offered myself the ideal error of roses for
triumph. Let us reflect…
or if the women that you tell of represent a desire of your
fabulous senses! Faun, illusion flows like a weeping spring from the
cold blue eyes of the most chaste: but the other, all sighs, do you
say that she contrasts like the day breeze warm on your fleece? No!
Through the motionless, lazy swoon suffocating with heat the cool
morning if it struggles, there murmurs no water not poured by my
flute on the thicket sprinkled with melody; (lines 1-20) (3)
Mallarmé’s unwillingness to accept the traditional religious priority of
the conceptual over the physical led him to search for another way to express
the ‘effect’ he experienced when he confronted the whiteness of the
untouched page. As he could not avoid referring to things or events, and
as he could not ignore the role of the word on the page, he needed to
remedy the psychological insistence of the abyss he experienced when he
challenged the presumptions of faith.
The answer lay in the logical relation between his human mind and
things in the world. He saw, for instance, that the naming of the constellations
of the Zodiac imparted human meaning to the universe. As the light
of the stars might be from stars now dead, then the signs of the Zodiac served
purely human ends (4). The seamlessness of the way in which Mallarmé’s
poetry combines its effects is a consequence of the logical reintegration of
body and mind in his understanding. The poet is conscious of his pen’s
movement across the paper as he makes the marks that demonstrate the logic
of their derivation from the bodily dynamic.
Mallarmé’s poetic logic differs significantly from that of other Symbolists
with whom he has been associated, and who credited him with leadership.
Because Mallarmé accepts that the physical world is prior to the conceptual
operations of the mind, then religious fantasy reveals itself as a secondary
psychological effect. His decision to focus on ‘effects’ is not a flight from
the objective world but a realisation that if beauty was all that existed only
poetry could give it ‘one perfect expression’. Conceptual processes differ
logically from physical ones. In a letter to Cazalis he said,
Beauty alone exists and it has only one perfect expression, Poetry.
Everything else is a lie - except, in the case of those who live the life of
the body, for love, and, for that love of the mind, friendship. (5)
Unlike Descartes, Mallarmé found that it was the ‘life of the body’ or
‘love’ and the ‘love of the mind’ or friendship that constituted certainty or
did not ‘lie’. The body is the locus of meaning, as it must be if meaning has
a human reference. As he said in a letter to Eugene Fefebure,
I think the healthy thing for man – for reflective nature – is to think with
his whole body; then you get a full harmonious thought…. When
thoughts come from the brain alone…, they are like tunes played on the
squeaky part of the first string (of a violin)’. (6)
Similarly, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his later work found
himself having to accept the logic of the body. The insistence of natural logic
is evident in Wittgenstein’s use of such terms as ‘family resemblances’ and
‘forms of life’ to characterise language and certainty, and in the statement, ‘it is
there – like our life’ (7). The poem, as Mallarmé saw it, becomes an expression
of certainty or a bulwark against chance, because it attains through its erotic
logic the mental equivalent of the state of the ‘body’, and by extension the
universe. He realised that the logic of language identifies doubt and knowing
as mental processes, and that certainty is a function of the body because the
body does not ‘know’ or ‘doubt’. Certainty is the cessation of knowing and
doubting when the priority of the ‘body’ is accepted. His insight is consistent
with his certainty of having been born and so of the sexual dynamic, which
consequently generates the erotic dynamic of the mind.
Mallarmé’s poetry and the erotic
Standard dictionaries define ‘eroticism’ as desires or thoughts in the mind,
whereas they define ‘sexual’ in terms of the biology of the body, or the
relationship of male and female involving fertilisation and conception and
birth. Eroticism, then, is etymologically distinct from and posterior to the
sexual or biological.
Mallarmé arrived at a simple poetic method for realising the traditional
erotic acknowledgment of embodiment in poetry. Such acknowledgment is
evident in the eroticism of God’s creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis, in the
virgin birth and death and resurrection of Christ, or in the non-biological
birth processes in Greek mythology (8). Mallarmé forged a logically consistent
expression that accepts the priority of the body and its effect on the mind.
Mallarmé knew he could not reproduce the sexual in the conceptual
realm of poetry because that would contradict the priority of the biological
experience. (The double meaning of reproduce and conceptual indicates
something of the logical relation between the sexual act and the erotics of
language.) The biology of conception is a physical event not accessible
through poetry. Simply put, the human child is not born of the mind. The
mind is not a womb. Mallarmé knew it would be sufficient to allude to the
sexual (with its preparatory desires and consequent detumescence) through
erotic suggestion to create an abiding ‘effect’ of the ‘thing’.
The sexual/erotic dynamic is evident in poems such as Another Fan.
Of Mademoiselle Mallarmé
Mallarmé creates not just a sensory experience as in Impressionism, or
an abstract arrangement as in Cubism, or an emotive outpouring as in
Expressionism. His poems elicit rather a body-dependent aesthetic consistent
with the erotic logic of the mind. The effect is to generate a kinesthetic
experience in the conscious mind, just like the kinesthetic or ‘muscular effort
that accompanies a voluntary motion of the body’ (OED). The cerebral
cortex is excited and, consequently, the whole body is suffused.
O DREAMER, that I may plunge into pure and pathless delight,
know how to keep my wing in your hand by a subtle falsehood.
A twilight coolness comes to you at each fluttering, whose
captive stroke delicately pushes back the horizon.
Vertigo! Behold space shivering like a vast kiss which,
driven mad by coming to birth for no one, can neither gush forth nor
Do you feel the savage paradise like hidden laughter flow
from the corner of your mouth to the bottom of the unanimous
This is the sceptre of rose-coloured shores stagnant over
Golden evenings, this white closed flight which you place against a
bracelet’s fire. (9)
The sexual body is the given. Logically, the body, simply by being there,
is the basis or stage for the aesthetic effect. The conceptual part of the process
satisfies the erotic mind that, as Mallarmé knew, generates an uncompromised,
deep, and enduring aesthetic expression.
The erotic element in traditional mythologies has the same logical
function, except that the beliefs based on those mythologies confound the
aesthetic experience by claiming that the ‘effect’ is prior to the ‘object’. The
illogical prioritising of the ‘spiritual’ leads inevitably to illogical prejudices
against the body as in Descartes’ defence of his Christian belief, and in all
Mallarmé’s poetry and writing
Mallarmé’s faith in the ‘love of the body’ ensures that his poetry or aesthetics
is determined by erotics. Eroticism is the subject of his longer poems
Herodiade and the Afternoon of the Faun, and is an inescapable presence in
other sonnets and poems that are based on realistic images or events.
A poem written on a piece of paper, while erotically active, is sexually
impotent, however beautiful or absolute it seems. The differing logical
functions of body and mind give rise to metaphors of sterility or impotence
in poetry. When the sterility of a poem is acknowledged, poetry can convey
its content without prejudice to the body. And the content then has an
aesthetic and ethical consistency.
So the theme of impotence in Mallarmé’s poems is not, as some
commentators would have it, a psychological or religious frustration in the
face of the absolute. Rather, it is the logical state of a poem written by a
human being who is primarily a sexual being, which means being born and
so defeating chance. Despite its suggestiveness, ultimately a poem is an
‘effect’ and not a sexual ‘thing’.
When, for instance, Mallarmé’s typographically experimental poem Un
coup de dés is seen from the vantage of the poet, pen in hand, sitting over a
white sheet of paper, the placement of the words on the page reflect an
image of the poet engaged in the writing process. The imagery captures the
poet confronting the ‘whiteness’ of the paper with his ‘fist’, his ‘virgin index’
(finger) or ‘feather’, etc., and his ‘arm’, ‘feet’, ‘corpse’, ‘beard’. All are images
within his visual field as he sits at his writing table.
En coup de dés
The blank paper becomes a screen or theatre on which images of the ‘sea’,
‘shipwreck’, etc., are generated by the poet in a somewhat fragmented way as
he strives to set down words, and as words already in place suggest further
ideas. As he strives to order ‘his’ universe, he attempts to abolish chance by
creating the logical masterpiece on the paper in front of him despite the fact
that ‘every thought (still) gives off a dice throw’. Once finalised on paper,
though, the ‘thought’ of the night sky becomes the constellation of words
committed to the paper in front of his eyes. Once aligned with the natural
logic of thought they are beyond the influence of chance.
A DICE THROW
even cast in eternal circumstance
from the depth of a ship-wreck
whether the Abyss whitened at slack tide and furious beneath an
inclination to hover desperately with wings (its own) fallen back in
advance from a difficulty in trimming its flight and covering the
spoutings cutting off the leapings
resumes very far into the interior the shadow buried in the depth by
this alternate veil
to the point of adapting to the span
its gaping depth inasmuch as the hull of a vessel leaning to one or
the other side. (10)
Un coup de dés as a poem cannot be a sexual act. It is after all merely words
on pages. The page is part of its meaning and the words locate that erotic
meaning in themselves and not in the things they refer to, whether a
Mariner, a Shipwreck, the Sea, or the Stars. By compounding the latent
eroticism of the imagery with the imagery as the whiteness of the page and
the ‘virgin index’, etc., Mallarmé introduces the idea of chance in a way
that capitalises on its human equivalent in the logic of the possibilities in
Mallarmé reaffirms his certainty in the ‘love of life’ by ‘recreating’ its
beauty in a poem. When he crafts a poem that corresponds to the logic of
life, the logical effect enables an escape from the perturbations of chance,
or from the psychology of the abyss.
Ironically, of course, the ‘perfect’ poem that ‘defies’ chance has an erotic
basis that forever trades on the certainty of the sexual process. This must be
the case for the living human being who constitutes the audience for the
poem. The mind alone, though it re-creates certainty, cannot logically
determine it. Mallarmé’s poetry points to the logical basis of words and
writing in the sexual dynamic behind the eroticism of any mythological tract.
Mallarmé and Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1967), following the lead of
Mallarmé, also wanted to return art to the service of the mind, away from
the painterly or ‘retinal’. For him the Impressionists, the Expressionists, or
the Cubists whose influence he transcended, were not sufficiently above
their senses, their forms, or their subjectivity to represent ideas aesthetically.
He was interested not so much in how sensations enter the mind, or how
emotions condition the mind, or how the mind reads abstract shapes, but
rather how the mind generates content in art, and more specifically content
at the level of myth.
Only when Duchamp acted in accord with the erotic logic of the mind
could he choose an everyday object and, with a slight change, confer on it
an aesthetic resonance free from psychological baggage. The objects he called
readymades, which began to appear in 1913, resonate with aesthetic significance
because they were conceived according to the natural logic of art. In
1912/13 he had already given expression to the logical conditions for a
natural aesthetic in the mythic arrangement of the relationship of female
and male in his major work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,
or the Large Glass.
Duchamp’s appreciation of the significance of Mallarmé’s accomplishment
was crucial for the mythic achievement of the Large Glass. His
comment on Mallarmé is relevant: ‘A great figure. Modern art must return
to the direction traced by Mallarmé: it must be an intellectual, and not
merely an animal expression’ (11). Of the many influences on Duchamp, only
Mallarmé’s understanding of the logical relation of body and mind gives
Duchamp’s work its abiding profundity. From Mallarmé, Duchamp imbibed
the perfect balance between everyday common taste and supreme aesthetic
Marcel Duchamp explicitly identifies eroticism as the element in his
work about which he would always be ‘serious’ and which he uses as a
‘platform’for the Large Glass. His ‘serious’ attitude to eroticism contrasts with
the humour, irony, contradiction, punning, etc., he otherwise used to ‘avoid
Many commentators regard Duchamp’s irreverent Jarryesque and
Roussel-like mechanisms of humour, irony and chance as central to his
achievement. For others his interest in geometry, perception, and the
mechanical world take priority. Duchamp’s work, though, is as free as he
was of any of the technological dependencies, the psychological ‘problems’
and the ‘metaphysical’ conceits that commentators have presumed on to
sustain their interpretations of his work.
The logical priority Duchamp gives eroticism identifies it as the basis
for his aesthetic enterprise. Most commentators have recognised eroticism
as a significant element in his oeuvre, but because they critique his work
on the basis of lesser priorities, the pivotal function of eroticism has not
been understood. Rather, his sexual references have been interpreted in
alchemical, mythological, or psychological terms (for instance, Arturo
Schwarz the symbolism of alchemy, Octavio Paz the mechanical portrayal
of love, and Thierry de Duve the minimal gesture of naming). The
philosophic, or the deeply aesthetic status of Duchamp’s eroticism, has not
Duchamp’s Large Glass expresses the logical relation of the sexual and the
erotic. Although both the Bride and the Bachelors ‘reveal’ or expose themselves
to each other and experience desire, their relationship is not and cannot
be consummated. They must and do express themselves auto-erotically.
Consequently, Duchamp’s readymades are imbued either visually or
verbally with the same erotic logic as the Large Glass. After all, Duchamp
said that eroticism was the basis for all of his work. Just like Mallarmé, and
even more famously, Duchamp introduced chance into his working
processes, and just like Mallarmé, and unlike most of his disciples, chance
was always conditional on the sexual/erotic relationship.
Mallarmé’s focus on aesthetics
Why then, if Mallarmé and Duchamp’s understanding of aesthetics is so
incisive, is their work considered difficult or esoteric? Mallarmé’s decision
to ‘paint not the thing but the effect that it produces’, and Duchamp’s
profound distaste for ordinary ‘language’, leading to his subversion of
language for aesthetic ends, create difficulties for an understanding of their
ideas. The problematic moment would seem to be when they bring to focus
the eroticism of everyday language as they evoke the deeply symbolic or
the mythic logic of the mind.
The esoteric dimension in the work of Mallarmé and Duchamp is a
consequence of their disinterest, or even hostility in Duchamp’s case, to the
‘difference’ or the oppositional dynamic of propositional language. Neither
Mallarmé nor Duchamp develops a language-based ethics, where ethics
involves the give and take in everyday language (expressed in Genesis as the
‘knowledge of good and evil’). Both were aesthetes who reveled in aesthetics
and spurned ethics.
In the logic of language, words differentiate the sensations that enter the
mind through the body from the world. There is a logical transition from
unmediated sensory experiences to deliberate linguistic communication. In
mythological terms the move is represented in Genesis when Adam and Eve
lose their sense of unity with nature to become ‘like God’ in having ‘the
knowledge of good and evil’.
As clearly articulated in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the process
of differentiation in language establishes the logical difference between
‘things’ perceived and ‘objects’ of thought. In his Tractatus, Wittgenstein
identifies the operation of negation as basic to the possibility of a proposition.
The proposition ‘p’ simultaneously identifies both the object of thought and
everything in thought that is not the object, or ‘not p’.
Duchamp intentionally inverts the logic of differentiation that is central
to Wittgenstein’s analysis of the logic of language. He establishes the ‘beauty
of indifference’ when the polarised objects of language are reunited in a
singular image or a verbal pun. In a note to the Large Glass, Duchamp talks
of losing ‘the possibility of recognising 2 similar objects’. (12)
Duchamp captures the aesthetic moment succinctly in his aphorisms
‘beauty of indifference’ and ‘irony of affirmation’. They both refer to the
operation where the propositional difference through negation is nullified
by a further negation. Duchamp refers to the moment of indifference as the
‘rendezvous’ which invokes the experience of an ‘aesthetic echo’.
Ironically, Wittgenstein, despite his clarity as to the logic of language in
the Tractatus, decided that both ethics and aesthetics belong in the realm of
the aesthetic. Under the influence of traditional metaphysics, he put both
ethics and aesthetics beyond language in the realm of the ‘unspeakable’.
While Wittgenstein thought ethics and aesthetics were one and the same,
Mallarmé and Duchamp’s distaste for the everyday volitional processes of
language and its ethical logic led them to focus primarily on the aesthetic.
They, however, were at least logically consistent in their allocation of art to
aesthetics and language to ethics.
But, in a further irony, even though Mallarmé and Duchamp were determined
to remain within the logic of aesthetics, when they explained their
ideas in notes and letters they had to use propositional language. Their drive
for aesthetic incisiveness in their poetry and art could not completely
circumvent the logic of ethics or propositional language.
Duchamp, for instance, wished to work beyond the possibility of
consciously deciding between good and bad taste, a language-bound set of
choices. He knew that in the logic of the singular moment of aesthetic
experience in art taste is eliminated. But despite his ability to avoid the
perpetual argument between good and bad taste, he had no interest in articulating
the logic of ethics from which he was escaping.
Fifty years before them, in the Descent of Man, Darwin had argued for
the evolutionary development of the moral sense from naturally occurring
affections such as sympathy. His evidence for the derivation of the moral
faculty from human progenitors points to the logical connection between
aesthetics and ethics.
Mallarmé and William Shakespeare
A measure of Mallarmé’s awareness of the logical relation of the erotic to
the act of writing is evident in his references to Shakespeare. His sonnet,
The Clown Punished, begins with the image of the eye. In Shakespeare’s
Sonnets and his poems and plays there is continuous call on the eroticism of
the mind’s eye, which is logically derived from the sexual eye of the body.
And significantly for a poem that examines the drama of sexual/textual
frustration, Mallarmé evokes the name Hamlet.
The Clown Punished
The clown is punished because he attempts to treat the poem as more than
a series of effects. His ‘simple intoxication to be reborn’ parodies the expectation
of religious idealists that they will be resurrected or reincarnated. The
clown wants to be ‘other than the actor’but notices that his gestures, like writing,
evoke nothing but ‘soot of the lamps’.
Eyes, lakes with my simple intoxication to be reborn other than
the actor, who, with his gestures as with a pen, evoked the
disgusting soot of the lamps, I have pierced a window in the wall
Limpid, treacherous swimmer with my leg and arms in many a
bound renouncing the evil Hamlet! It is as if I began a thousand
tombs in the waves to disappear into them virgin.
Merry gold of the cymbal beaten with fists, all at once the sun
strikes the nakedness purely breathed from my cool motherof-
When you passed over me, rancid night of the skin, not knowing,
ingrate! That it was my whole anointing, this rouge drowned in
the deceitful water of glaciers. (13)
The clown imagines he has literally (as if sexually) ‘pierced a window’
in the ‘wall of cloth’. The clown’s desire to have more than what a poem
can logically deliver renders him virginal. His vigorous efforts to attain
transcendence entomb his fantasies beneath the waves.
In the clown’s blind frustration he renounces Hamlet as ‘evil’. But
Mallarmé knows that Hamlet’s failure to avoid his fate is likewise a consequence
of his frustration at Polonius’ pious expectation for himself and
Ophelia (the ‘wall of cloth’), and more seriously at Claudius and Gertrude
(‘rancid night of the skin’) whose acts were contrary to natural logic. The
clown’s attempt to imitate the sun serves only to remind him of his
‘nakedness’. What he hoped would be an ‘anointing’ or the glorious last rites
before he ascended to heaven, is reduced to the logic of his rouge or penis
drowning in the coldness of the white page.
Only a ‘clown’ could expect to be ‘reborn’ in the fantasies engendered
on the page created by the ‘gestures as with a pen’. A poem is an artifact
that logically refuses to satisfy the sexual expectations of the clown. The sense
of erotic frustration at the impasse of the ‘wall of cloth’ (read page), is
conveyed again and again in the suggestive symbolism of impotency. The
poem’s litany of sexual metaphors leaves no doubt that Mallarmé was using
the ‘thing’ of the sexual dynamic in nature to create an intensified erotic
experience of the proscribed ‘effect’ in poetry.
Mallarmé’s reading of Shakespeare correctly appreciates that immortality
through verse, or any sense of immortality, be it the Platonic or biblical ideal,
is the result of a misunderstanding of the logic of the written/spoken word.
Shakespeare argues endlessly for an understanding of the priority of increase
in nature over truth and beauty, or the logic of the mind in the Sonnets and
in the poems and plays.
In the caption above his long poem, Igitur, Mallarmé acknowledges the
erotic logic of poetic experience when he states: ‘this story is addressed to
the intelligence of the reader which stages things itself ’. The central image
of Igitur, of the poet descending stairs into the crypt of his ancestors, looks
back to the descent of Hamlet into the genealogical impasse of Claudius’
crime, and anticipates Duchamp’s painting Nude descending the Staircase.
Igitur acknowledges the influence of the play and anticipates the painting
in its critique of the unrealisable fantasies of idealism and its extensive use
of sexual metaphor to establish the logical relation between life and art.
Throughout the poem Mallarmé uses many words and phrases that critique
the absolute. They range from ‘the absolute at dead centre’, ‘indifference’,
‘reciprocal nothingness’, ‘malady of ideality’, ‘neurosis boredom (or
Absolute)’, ‘frightful sensation of eternity’, ‘Absolute has disappeared’,
‘mirror absolutely pure’, ‘isolated from humanity’, ‘believing in the existence
of the sole Absolute imagines he is everywhere in a dream’, ‘ashes of stars’,
and the ‘empty flask’ or ‘madness’ leaving the ‘castle of purity’.
More importantly, Mallarmé uses a range of sexual metaphors. He evokes
the sexual in ‘a vague quiver of thought’, ‘hair languishing’, ‘stripped of any
meaning’, ‘plunged into the shadow’, ‘sterility’, ‘miscarried’, ‘a pendulum
about to be extinguished’, ‘stifle the guest irremediably’, ‘gasping’, ‘friction
of a superior age’, ‘volume of their nights’, ‘pinnacle of myself ’. He continues
with ‘pulsations of my own heart’, ‘the same rhythmical sound’, ‘disengage
my dream’, ‘hairy stomach’, ‘torture of being eternal’, ‘curtains invisibly
trembling’, ‘burrow in the curtains’, ‘gray shiver’, ‘saturated and weighted
draperies’, ‘act useless’, ‘monsters rigid in their last struggle’, ‘one-horned’,
to the impotence of the ‘empty flask’. (14)
As Mallarmé says in the introductory lines, Igitur as a poem is ‘simply
word and gesture’ in which ‘the family was right to deny it (the Absolute)
its life – so that it stayed (or kept at bay) the absolute’. Mallarmé demonstrates
that a poem that refuses to be deceived by its own seductiveness, while
losing its appeal for those who live for fantasy, gains immeasurably in veracity
and consistency. His symbolism is profound both because it touches the
depths of the sensational mind and because it sustains its integrity in the
process. In this he resembles Shakespeare, even if he does not rise to a mythic
level of expression.
In his Sonnets Shakespeare articulates the logic of aesthetics more precisely
than do Mallarmé and Duchamp in their work. In sonnets 127 to 152 he
shows that sensations from the world are differentiated into ideas (beauty
into truth), and then in sonnets 20 to 126 that ideas are recombined into
sensations of the mind (truth into beauty). As aestheticians of poetry and
art, Mallarmé and Duchamp focus on the second possibility. Like
Shakespeare, though, they gain their consistency by accepting the priority
of nature and the sexual dynamic.
The complete dynamic from nature to the aesthetic experience in
poetry and art can be rendered schematically from the logical structure of
Nature template (Sonnet numbers)
In his complete philosophy Shakespeare goes further than Mallarmé and
Duchamp because he also articulates the logic of ethics or the dynamic of
true and false in language. In the Mistress sequence, sonnets 127 to 137 are
devoted to the aesthetic of primary sensations and sonnets 138 to 152 present
the logic of truth or ethics derived from those primary sensations.
Shakespeare’s account of both aesthetics and ethics out of nature gives his
work a completeness lacking in the esoteric poems and art of Mallarmé and
In the Mind template, taken from the Nature template for the Sonnets,
the logical relationships are evident. Primary sensations enter from the left,
where they are differentiated through the dynamic of language into true and
false. Then sensations of the mind, such as absolute beauty, God, etc., are
formed to the right by the recombination of ideas into singular effects.
When Mallarmé talks of representing the effect and not the thing he
short-circuits the logical difference between the aesthetics of primary sensations
and the aesthetic experience generated in the mind through the
unifying of ideas. He jumps from primary sensations through to the
secondary sensations of the mind.
The primary and secondary sensations are both singular effects unmediated
by thought. The difference is between the effects generated by
the senses and the poetic or artistic effects generated in the mind. When
Duchamp talked of the connection between the sense of smell and the
aesthetic echo in art he showed his awareness of the logical connection.
Shakespeare establishes the logical relationship between primary and
secondary sensations by first articulating the logic of the sexual dynamic in
Nature and the logical requirement to increase for the persistence of
humankind. The logical relationship in Nature acts as a given for the
isomorphic relationship of beauty and truth in the mind. In the work of
Mallarmé and Duchamp the Body template is a barely indicated given.
Shakespeare establishes the logic of the sexual out of nature in the first
19 sonnets and explores the logic of the erotic in sonnets 20 to 154. The
first 19 sonnets provide the key to appreciating Mallarmé and Duchamp’s
logical insights into aesthetics. They predate Darwin’s explanation of the
development of the moral faculty in the Descent of Man. They also reveal
the strengths and weaknesses in Wittgenstein’s analysis of propositional logic.
Shakespeare’s articulation of the logical difference between aesthetics and
ethics corrects Wittgenstein’s illogical consignment of them both to the
realm of the ‘unspeakable’.
The Sonnets not only address the logic of ethics or truth and aesthetics
or beauty by accepting the priority of the body, they also state that the sexual
process is prior to understanding truth and beauty or erotics. Mallarmé and
Duchamp did appreciate the logic of the erotic but they do not explicitly
incorporate a statement of the priority of the sexual dynamic in their poetry
or art. At best Mallarmé, in the letter to Cazalis, and Duchamp, in a letter
to Carrouges, when forced to define the irreducible concerns in their work,
do allude to the significance of human persistence.
Following Mallarmé’s lead, Duchamp argued that other artists, such as
the Impressionists, Expressionists, Cubists and Futurists, were limited in their
expectation of the aesthetic. They were too focused on the first part of
the Mind template, which represents incoming sensations and their illusory
Beauty to truth template
Like Mallarmé, Duchamp realised that the more he focused on secondary
sensations the more his art would be a product of the intellect. He wanted
to put art at the service of the mind.
Truth to beauty template
The Sonnets show how the specialised interests of Mallarmé, Duchamp,
and Darwin can be reconciled, and the errors of Wittgenstein be rectified.
An acceptance of the priority of the body (and so nature) over the mind
for human understanding aligns their philosophic expectations with
Shakespeare’s natural logic. A combination of their specialisations from
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries postdates by 300 years the philosophic
comprehensiveness and consistency of the logic in Shakespeare’s
set of 154 sonnets.
The logical relationship of the sexual and the erotic in human persistence
suggests the sexual provides the logical basis for all thought processes. Only
the body with its sexual dynamic has the appropriate multiplicity to account
for the logic of the mind.
Mallarmé and Duchamp, by accepting the logic of eroticism, are free of
the contradictions that arise with a Descartian ‘disembodied’ mind.
Mallarmé’s early experience with the inconsistencies and contradictions in
traditional biblical belief led him beyond the psychological or mind-determined
view of the world through the abyss of doubt to the certainty of a
philosophic view based in nature. Leo Bersani acknowledged Mallarmé’s
achievement when he felt constrained to leave aside his psychological hat
in the Death of Mallarmé (15). He recognised Mallarmé deserved a purely philosophic
approach to penetrate his eroticism.
When the Nature template is flipped about something of Mallarmé’s
problem is revealed. To correct the consequences of millennia of male God
contradictions he needed to recover the natural logic of life in his poetry.
Mallarmé’s achievement is exemplary when viewed against the attempts
by his contemporaries to break the psychological hold of biblical mythology
taken literally. Although other poets and artists have rejected the traditional
inconsistencies, they have then resorted to the psychology of scepticism, or
turned to mysticism or other arcane beliefs and practices. Only Marcel
Duchamp fully appreciated Mallarmé’s philosophic level of insight and gave
it a consistent mythic expression.
1 Anthony Hartley, Mallarmé, London, Penguin, 1965, p. ix. Back
2 Ibid., p. 17. Back
3 Ibid., p. 51. Back
4 Gordan Millan, A Throw of the Dice:The Life of Stephane Mallarmé, New York, Farrar,
Straus, Giroux, 1994, p. 154. Back
5 Ibid., p. 154. Back
6 Mary Ann Caws, Stephane Mallarmé, Selected Poetry and Prose, Trans. Bradford Cook,
New York, New Directions, 1982, p. 89. Back
7 Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright,
trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1974, no. 559. Back
8 Gordon Millan, p. 159. Back
9 Anthony Hartley, p. 66. Back
10 Ibid., p. 14. Back
11 Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp or The Castle of Purity, Trans. Donald Gardner,
London, Cape Goliard, 1970, p. 34. Back
12 Marcel Duchamp, Notes and Projects for the Large Glass, Selected, ordered, and with
an introduction by Arturo Schwarz, New York, Abrams, 1969, p. 22. Back
13 Anthony Hartley, p. 14. Back
14 Mary Ann Caws, pp. 91-101. Back
15 Leo Bersani, The Death of Stephane Mallarmé, Cambridge University Press, 1982. Back
Roger Peters Copyright © 2005
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