STÉPHANE MALLARMÉ: Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (ND)
STÉPHANE MALLARMÉ: Un coup de dés n’abolira le hasard (ND) Estelle J. Self-covering accordion format with three tipped-in pages. H245 x 185 mm closed, 2100 mm open. Twenty-four panels and flap-insert for closing. Edition of 6 variations, of which this #6. Acquired from Studio Montespecchio, 22 February 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Little information has emerged about this artist or her work that arrived in a shipment from a dealer based in Italy. He seemed to recall that she was young and at a table of her own at an exhibition in … was it Barcelona or Madrid? There is only the artist’s signature at the end of the work and an indication that it is the sixth of six copies. The dealer remembers that each of the six varied due to their handmade nature.
With its three tipped-in pages inside a double-sided accordion structure, with their mix of laser-cut and printed text, with the bright collage of abstract and figurative images (screen printed?), the work speaks for itself. But where in the collection does this work belong? First and foremost, it belongs among the many works of homage to Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard such as those by Christopher Brennan or Benjamin Lord.
The cover gives the poem’s title in French, but the abridged text is in English, some of it laser-cut and some printed, all on tipped-in pages. The unhappy translation comes from the Oxford University Press’ World Classics. The cuts place it among the “works of homage by redaction”, for example, those by Jérémie Bennequin or Michel Lorand. As the burnt edges suggest, it comes chronologically after the adoption of laser cutting in artists’ books, which has growing representation in the collection, for example, in works by Jaz Graf or Islam Aly. In its combination of letter and geometric shapes, the work falls between Scott McCarney and Aaron Cohick.
The paper is a heavy card, susceptible to fine cuts and sturdy enough to hold them.Colors of black, yellow, orange, silver and red cover the inner side, while those on the outer side adhere to an orange-gold-yellow palette. Its bright colors place it among the bursts of color from Shirley Sharoff and Andrew Morrison.
Perhaps the mystery artist will stumble across this entry, have a view on where it belongs and share some of its background, technique, process and materials — and what the other five versions look like.
Après Un Coup de Dés (2015) Michel Lorand Cover and gatherings, untrimmed and unbound, in glassine envelope. Cover: H362 x W260; gatherings: H362 x W256 mm; 32 unnumbered pages. Edition of 50, of which this is #19. Acquired from the artist, 22 October 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with the artist’s permission.
Since the 1960s when Ernest Fraenkel, Mario Diacono and Marcel Broodthaers blotted out the text of Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897) to create their works of homage, numerous others have expanded on the technique: substituting images of sonograms (Sammy Engramer, 2009) or algorithmically generated abstractions (Eric Zboya, 2018, and Benjamin Lord, 2019), or excising the text (Michalis Pichler, 2008, and Cerith Wyn Evans, 2008) or algorithmically erasing it (Jérémie Bennequin, 2009) — just to name a few.
In Après Un Coup de Dés (2015), the only printed marks are the cover’s traditional black and red borders and the printer’s registration and gathering marks on the sheets. Wherever else Mallarmé’s text would have been printed has been excised. In reply to a question about the process involved, Lorand explains that he had asked the designer Filiep Tacq to create a layout that would cover in black exactly the blocks of text as it appears in the current Gallimard book edition of Mallarmé’s poem, including the front and back covers (correspondence with the artist, 1 November 2021). Lorand took a scalpel to the offset printed sheets, removed the blackened blocks, folded the sheets by hand into the four gatherings, assembled them in the correct order and laid them untrimmed and loose inside the cover. Each of fifty copies was placed inside its own handmade glassine envelope along with a flyer including introductory text by Jacques Sojcher (emeritus professor, University of Brussels) and the colophon for the work. It is a book that is not-yet a book.
Lorand’s and all of these other works of homage give us inverse ekphrasis. They are the visual, tactile and conceptual works of art that come after Mallarmé’s text. We are more used to ekphrasis where the object, painting or sculpture comes before the text — like Achilles’ shield before Homer’s description, or the Grecian urn before Keats’ ode, or Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus before Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts. Homer, Keats and Auden vie with the art of the crafted object to put that object (and more) in front of us with words. With the inverse, the crafted objects vie without the words to put Mallarmé’s poem (and more — and sometimes less!) in front of us.
Many of the hommageurs hint at the “and more” with a subtitle to Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard. With Broodthaers, it is Image; with Pichler, Sculpture; with Engramer, Onde (Wave as in soundwave); and with Bennequin, Omage (as in hommage with the “h” and “m” missing). With Lorand, there is no subtitle. Instead, we have the word après prefacing the truncated title of the poem. But, “after” Mallarmé’s poem, what is Lorand proposing? An homage in the form of something that restates, reproduces the poem but without the words? An homage in the form of something else presented in the manner of Un Coup de Dés but without the words? Or something else that simply occurs after the poem’s roll of the dice? As it turns out, all that and more.
Paul Valèry was probably the first of Mallarmé’s circle to see and hear Un Coup de Dés. His reaction picks out one of the themes that make up Lorand’s “and more”:
It seemed to me that I was looking at the form and pattern of a thought, placed for the first time in a finite space. Here space itself truly spoke, dreamed, and gave birth to temporal forms. Expectancy, doubt, concentration, all were visible things. With my own eye I could see silences that had assumed bodily shapes. Inappreciable instants became clearly visible: the fraction of a second during which an idea flashes into being and dies away; atoms of time that serve as the germs of infinite consequences lasting through psychological centuries — at last these appeared as beings, each surrounded with a palpable emptiness…. there in the same void with them, like some new form of matter arranged in systems or masses or trailing lines, coexisted the Word! — Paul Valéry, Collected Works of Paul Valery, Volume 8: Leonardo, Poe, Mallarmé (1972).
My <<Après un Coup de Dés>> introduces a corpus of approaches to what might be “the movement” that constitutes speech: “A language that speaks” as Martin Heidegger calls it (Unterwegs zur Sprache, Verlag Günther Jeske, Pfullingen, FRG, 1959).
How can we think, how can we imagine this movement within language itself? What path to take to allow us to experience this movement, the one that constitutes the word itself. This word is sound. The object of all my work is the identification of what could be the image of this movement, of this word. This exploration attempts to approach the nature of this movement: a word beyond language when the latter is silent. (Correspondence with the artist, 1 November 2021.)
Like his others, Heidegger’s On the Way to Language is a dense book; more than the others, it is poetical, an invitation to experience language. In it is a series of lectures entitled “The Nature of Language” in which Heidegger uses two poems, one by Stefan George and one by Gottfried Benn, to question language about its nature. Although George’s poem is the one that Heidegger deeply explicates, Benn’s is the one that, echoing Valèry, sheds the most light on Lorand’s Après Un Coup de Dés — especially with its last two lines.
A word, a phrase –: from cyphers rise Life recognized, a sudden sense, The sun stands still, mute are the skies, And compacts it, stark and dense.
A word — a gleam, a light, a spark, A thrust of flames, a stellar trace — And then again — immense — the dark Round world and I in empty space.
Après Un Coup de Dés seems to be a wordless invitation to experience language. But in a sense, Mallarmé’s words have not disappeared, not entirely. Their shapes — embodied in the voids — move silently and rhythmically across the unfolded sheets; in the gatherings, they cascade over one another much as they do syntactically and typographically in print. And even though the text is not before (in front of) us, Lorand’s artwork delivers a wordless experience of a key paradox of language with which Mallarmé sought to imbue his poem: the language of the void or abyss — the void or abyss of language. One of the ways in which the poem presents this self-enveloping paradox is that it begins and ends with the words un coup de dés, the act that can never abolish chance and the act that all thought emits. Similarly, Après un Coup de Dés displays the presence of language by displaying the absence of language, or les blancs defined by and defining empty space.
Mallarmé’s invitation in Un Coup de Dés, however, beckons us to a slightly different concept of language than that articulated by Heidegger. For Mallarmé, chance plays a prominent role in what Heidegger would call the “neighborhood of poetry and thought”. But chance, hazard or a roll of the dice plays a much less prominent role for Heidegger, and in Lorand’s work of art, with its registration and gathering marks and glassine enclosure, there seems little allusion to it — perhaps naturally so since Lorand’s work comes after the dice have been rolled.
Even though it comes after Mallarmé’s completed poem and after the Gallimard book edition, Après presents as an unfinished work, a book not yet trimmed and bound, which reflects not only Mallarmé’s unfinished realization of the poem as a book but also his unfinished life’s pursuit: le Livre, the thing in which everything in the world would end up — the thing that, by virtue of a spacious mobility of typographic layout and the interplay of its elements, would be “the total expansion of the letter”. Lorand’s attention and manual precision in excising the blackened blocks where the text would otherwise appear evoke Mallarmé’s attention to the minute details of typeface, size and font shown in his handwritten mark-up of the proofs for the book edition he was planning before he died.
In the 2018 display of Après Un Coup de Dés, the previously gathered but now unfolded sheets and cover lie side by side under glass. Often this is cause for complaint about the distanced display of artist books. In the case of Après Un Coup de Dés, the distance effectively draws point-blank attention to what the privileged reader gradually discovers in handling the work. The unprivileged reader may have to imagine the making, unmaking and remaking of the book but, confronted with the gestalt of the undone gatherings and their registration marks, that reader immediately sees/witnesses the void defined by a void.
Après Un Coup de Dés in the group exhibition Reading Hand Writing Bodies at Les Abattoirs de Bomel, Centre d’art de Namur, Belgium, 8 February – 11 March 2018. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
In relation to Broodthaer’s Image and Pichler’s Sculpture, Après comes both before and after. The positioning of the words après, image and sculpture vis à vis the poem’s title has been noted already. Of all three visual, tactile and conceptual works, Lorand’s stands as the chronologically “after” yet unfinished “before” to Broodthaers’ and Pichler’s finished works. In yet another “afterness” to Mallarmé’s poem, Lorand likens Après to a silent score of music or a piano roll (correspondence with the artist, 1 November 2021). This echoes — if that is not too perverse a verb — Mallarmé’s reference to “score” in his preface to Un Coup de Dés. In premonitory, if not coincidental, irony, Lorand’s piano-roll-like 2015 work precedes a work that Michalis Pichler created for his 2016 Milan exhibition: a piano roll playable on a foot-pumped pianola and entitled Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Musique (see video above).
The interplay of its philosophical roots with its mechanically produced print and its manual cuts makes Lorand’s AprèsUn Coup de Dés one of the more challenging works of homage to Mallarmé’s poem. To “hear” it side by side with the others in the Books On Books Collection (see below) is rewarding.
“Eric Zboya“. Books On Books Collection. 01 June 2020.
Heidegger, Martin, and Peter D. Hertz, trans. 1959/2009. On the Way to Language. San Francisco: HarperOne. Reprint. “No matter how we put our questions to language about its nature, first of all it is needful that language vouchsafe itself to us. If it does, the nature of language becomes the grant of its essential being, that is, the being of language becomes the language of being” (p. 72).
A Fluke follows in the footsteps of several parodists of Un coup de Dés and even more “homageurs”. Edwards mingles bilingual homophonic mistranslation with the monolingual variety, false cognates, mis-contextualization and more to deliver his “fluke”. Part of that “more” leads off with the subtitle and the side-by-side prefaces.
The pun in “pretext” plays out not just in the word itself but in Edwards’ squeezing into one page the French predecessor alongside its English exaggeration. The squeeze harks back to Mallarmé’s “Note” being added to the Cosmopolis issue, where it first appeared, at the insistence of the editors. Having led with the pun and clown-car layout, Edwards follows on with a fright wig (mixed metaphors, too, are part of the “more”). He turns Mallarmé’s tongue-in-cheek “I would prefer that one not read this Note or that having read it, one forgets it” into “I wish I knew what lunatic pasted this Note here– …”.
Edwards’ preface is proleptic — to use the word with which the overlording associate professor interrupted the teaching assistant’s nervous first lecture on how a poem’s opening line can encapsulate the working of the whole. (But nevermind the digression, though digression is another part of Edwards’ “more”). In transforming “Lecteur habile” [“practiced Reader”] into “Hannibal Lecter”, Edwards forecasts such transformations as “SOIT / que” [“Whether”] to “SO IT / came to pass”, “l’Abîme” [“the Abyss”] to “the Bistro” and “LE HASARD” [“CHANCE”] to “BIO-HAZARD”. After the preface, Edwards spreads his sails — so to speak. The French moves to the verso, the English to the recto. The double-page spreads of the 1914 edition of Un coup de Dés are nevertheless crammed into a single page to facilitate enjoyment of the pretext’s mistranslation.
But no, “proleptic” is not le mot juste (which juste goes to prove that the professor remains mal dit, if not maudit). Nothing in the side-by-side prefaces prepares the reader (or Hannibal Lecter) for Mallarmé’s “COMME SI …. COMME SI” becoming Edwards’ exactly mapped, appropriately italicized, all caps loan phrase “COMME SI … COMME ÇA“. And so it goes — linguistic, spatial, typographic, cultural antics piled atop each other.
Edwards’ madcapping his way to A Fluke must have been part of a global warming trend in pastiche. How else to explain Jim Clinefelter’s A Throw of the Snore Will Surge the Potatoes (1998), John Tranter’s “Desmond’s Coupé” (2006) and Rodney Graham’s Poème: Au Tatoueur (2011)? The trend had its beginning distant in time but close in proximity to Edwards.
In New South Wales Public Library in 1897, when that issue of Cosmopolis arrived, a cataloger-cum-poet/scholar named Christopher Brennan seized on it. Shortly after publishing his own XXI Poems: MDCCCXCIII-MDCCCXCVII: Towards the Source (1897), Brennan received several negative reviews of his Mallarmé-influenced poetry. Turning to Un coup de Dés for solace and a format with which to tear the critics to shreds, he performed his own coup in calligraphied manuscript where it remained undelivered until 1981, when it was published in facsimile by Hale & Iremonger (see below). In length alone, its title — Prose-Verse-Poster-Algebraic-Symbolico-Riddle Musicopoematographoscope — must have had some influence on Edwards’ subtitle. Or perhaps it was just a coincidence, a fluke.
A perceptive reading of Brennan, Edwards and Tranter has become available from Toby Fitch, courtesy of the Cordite Poetry Review. It is a dynamite work itself.
“Jim Clinefelter“, Books On Books Collection, 17 July 2020. An American-English mis-translation.
“Rodney Graham“, Books On Books Collection, 3 July 2020. Un coup de Dés as instructions to a tattoo artist.
Edwards, Chris. People of Earth: Poems (Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2011). The mistranslation is printed without the “French pretext”. The briefest comparison provides a convincing argument for the artistic and comic genius of the 2005 version. People of the Earth itself does reveal more of Edwards’ poetic and philosophical grasp of the issues that preoccupied Mallarmé and the avant garde when it comes to language, glyphs, meaning and the technique of collage.
Just as Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (1897) launched a new host of visual poems in the 20th and 21st centuries, it also launched a host of homage and parodies. Perhaps the quickest off the dock was the Australian Christopher Brennan. Already a fan of Mallarmé, Brennan, who worked at the New South Wales Public Library, seized on the May 1897 issue of Cosmopolis when it arrived and found in Mallarmé’s poem just the form with which to respond to the rough ride Australian critics had given to his own XXI Poems: MDCCCXCIII-MDCCCXCVII: Towards the Source (1897).
Not until 1981, though, was his tinker’s damn published. Given the debated choices of layout, typeface and illustrations that Un coup de Dés in book form had faced since 1897 and would continue to face after 1981, the choice to publish a facsimile of Brennan’s calligraphic effort was well made — perhaps even artistically original. Book artists have blotted out the poem, excised it, collaged, illustrated, performed, recorded (and cast the sonographs in three-dimensional PVC), programmed it into computer graphics, typed it out on a modified typewriter, and more. André Masson‘s may be the only calligraphic treatment so far…
“Jim Clinefelter“, Books On Books Collection, 17 July 2020. An American-English mis-translation.
“Chris Edwards“, Books On Books Collection, 7 December 2020. An Australian-English mis-translation.
“Rodney Graham“, Books On Books Collection, 3 July 2020. Un coup de Dés as instructions to a tattoo artist.
Clinefelter’s is not the first parody or spoof of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard. That claim belongs to a nineteenth-century Australian poet and aficionado of Mallarmé’s poetry — Christopher Brennan. Brennan’s Prose-Verse-Poster-Algebraic-Symbolico-Riddle Musicopoematographoscope appeared in manuscript in 1897 but wasn’t published until 1981.
With images from a reprint of an early Sears Roebuck Catalogue and drawing on John M. Bennett‘s poetry as well as Un Coup de Dés, Clinefelter composed his book on a borrowed Macintosh SE — the late twentieth-century substitute for penmanship. Mallarmé only thought of having some images from his friend Odilon Redon separated from the text Un Coup de Dés. Clinefelter’s sense of fun and close attention to the original led him to integrate those Sears images throughout with the text to mimic Mallarmé’s textual and typographic road signs. Notice in the third row of the photos above how the hands holding pencils point toward lines (or perhaps enclose the lines between them like single quotation marks) and how the figure of the man’s head with directional arrows indicates the order or path in which the text should be read.
Clinefelter’s text, which draws on Bennett’s boisterous poems, pokes fun at the original’s emphasis on sonority even at the expense of semantic or syntactic clarity. It also pokes fun at some of the lines that have challenged readers and translators alike:
LE MAÎTRE surgi inférant de cette conflagration à ses piedsde l’horizon unanime que se prépare s’agite et mêle au poing qui l’étreindrait … becomes
“THE MASTER knees inferring from this conflagration drips there as soft threatens the unique clam”
and cadavre par le bras écarté du secret qu’il détient … becomes
“corpse mud the arm”.
For their parody, Clinefelter and Bennett may have to apply for honorary Australian citizenship. It seems that, starting with Christopher Brennan, the Australians cannot stop teasing Mallarmé. We have Chris Edwards’ A Fluke: A Mistranslation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Un Coup De Dés…” with Parallel French Pretext (2005) and John Tranter’s Desmond’s Coupé (2006). Parody, pastiche or spoof — Clinefelter’s and these other responses enrich the genre of Un Coup de Dés. Somehow in their exuberance they are all saying “yes” to the abyss or, at least, managing one more guffaw of the dice.