Stéphane Mallarmé, the anti-symbolist

Learn about how semiotic theories of Owen Barfield and Charles Sanders Peirce make Stéphane Mallarmé an anti-symbolist

Stéphane Mallarmé is often called a "hermetic", "obscure", and "ambiguous" poet, one of the reasons for which is the symbolism of his poetry. But can Mallarmé really be considered a symbolist par excellence? In this article, I will try to show the paradoxical nature of Mallarmé's creative system, in which anti-symbolist methods are no less important than symbolist ones, as manifested by Mallarmé's attempts to create a certain universal language.

Édouard Manet, Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé
Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé by Édouard Manet

One of the main "keys" to Mallarmé's work is considered to be the lines from his poem "The Tomb of Edgar Poe", where he writes the following:

They, with a Hydra's noxious spasm when once it knew
The angel gave to tribal words a purer sense.

Charles ChasséChassé C. Les clés de Mallamé. Paris: Aubier, 1954. 240 p. interprets this as "using words in a strictly etymological sense" ("employer les mots dans un sens strictement étymologique"), that is, the words that Mallarmé writes should be read in their original, etymological sense, not in the senses of the French language of the time. These "original" meanings should be taken from the language that is as close as possible to the origins of the entire language family. Taking into account that French is an Indo-European language, the closest to the "origins" would be Sanskrit, as Chasse also writes in his book. Already in this use of etymological meanings, one can see a certain universality of the language to which Mallarmé aspires, because, through the use of etymological meanings, speakers of any Indo-European language should (at least in theory) be able to recognize certain meanings in the words of Mallarmé's poetry.

The universality and anti-symbolic nature of the language Mallarmé strives for is also confirmed by the very retreat to the primitive state of language and consciousness. According to Owen Barfield's theoryAs stated in Barfield O. Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. New York: Harcourt. 190 p., the original state of language is inextricably linked to the very environment in which this language appears. In other words, the word itself (as a sign) and an element of extra-linguistic reality (as a referent) are not just related and non-deterministic, but also exist in a state of "unity". That is, the word and the object that the word denotes are one and the same. But over time, this "unity of sound and meaning" begins to weaken, and in modern languages we no longer see this connection, words are mostly arbitrary for us. In Mallarmé's work, we can see an attempt to restore this original state of language, a state of unity of sound and meaning, as well as harmony between them. This can be seen, for example, in Mallarmé's attitude to the very form of the name Hérodiade. In one of his lettersLetter to Eugène Lefébure from 18 February, 1865, he says that even if the heroine's name was only Salome, he would've given her the name "Hérodiade" instead, "this word, dark and red like a pomegranate that has been split open."

Salome and the Apparition of the Baptist's Head, watercolor by Gustave Moreau
"Salome and the Apparition of the Baptist's Head" by Gustave Moreau

That is, Mallarmé sees a certain meaning in the very sound of the word, in its very form. The same can be seen in Mallarmé's famous "musicality," which he writes about in the preface to René Guill's treatise:

I say: a flower! And…there arises musically, as the very idea and delicate, the one absent from every bouquet.

Here, too, we can see the extraordinary importance of the very form of the word, because the very musical combination of letters in the word "flower" evokes the idea of a flower.
This "musicality," the combination of the word form and its meaning, are precisely the expressions of anti-symbolism if we take into account the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce, who made a distinction between three types of signs:

  • Symbol. This is a type of sign with an arbitrary connection between the signifier and the signified, i.e. this connection is purely conventional, it's the result of a certain agreement between people. For most people in the modern world, words are symbolic signs, because we no longer perceive the connection between the form of a word and its meaning.
  • Index. This is a type of sign, according to Peirce, that "refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of being really affected by that Object", i.e. there is a certain connection between the form of the word and the meaning, but this connection is not a complete correspondence and still has a certain amount of conventionality.
  • Icon. This is a type of sign that is completely nonconventional, that is, there is a complete correspondence between the sign and the signified, and to some extent it is even difficult to tell the sign itself from the signified.

Having analyzed Mallarmé's poetic method, we can say that this method is not based on symbols, but on icons. One can even see a certain similarity between the already mentioned "I say: a flower!" and the way Peirce definesIn Peirce C. The Essential Peirce. Selected Philosophical Writings: in 2 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Vol. 2. 584 p. an iconic sign:

a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes merely by virtue of characters of its own and which it possesses, just the same, whether any such Object actually exists or not.

Just as in Mallarmé the very form of the word "flower" evokes the idea of a flower without its physical presence in a bouquet, so for Peirce the real existence of the object is not so important, because to a certain extent the sign itself is the object. Likewise, music (or musicalité in Mallarmé's lingo) often has this unity between the sign and the signified, because music does not refer to something beyond the sign, music does not want to convey anything to us except the music itself. As the Pierce scholar T. L. Short wroteIn T. L. Short. Peirce's Theory of Signs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 374 p.:

Musical ideas or feelings are not mere sound, and yet are nothing apart from sound; they may be described in emotive language ('sad' and the like) and yet are never adequately so described.

"Description" is understood here as a logical interpretation that cannot quite comprehend the emotional nature of music.
Therefore, we can say that music, including music in Mallarmé's poetry, is a kind of ideal language in which there is no arbitrariness of sign, it can be listened to and felt by everyone, regardless of knowledge of languages, which are mostly systems of arbitrary signs. The problem of the poet's "darkness" and "hermeticity" lies, in my opinion, in the wrong approach to reading Mallarmé, whom one usually tries to logically understand, "describe," rather than feel.
Thus, we can conclude that Mallarmé is an anti-symbolic poet in terms of his attempt to create a universally understandable language that would, firstly, rely on the origins of Indo-European languages and, secondly, blur the boundaries of signifier and signified, remove the arbitrariness of the relationship between them, just like music.