Books On Books Collection – Ernest Fraenkel

Les Dessins Trans-conscients de Stéphane Mallarmé
à propos de la Typographie de Un Coup de Dés (1960)

Les Dessins Trans-conscients de Stéphane Mallarmé, à propos de la Typographie de Un Coup de Dés (1960)
Ernest Fraenkel
Paperback, stapled to fold-in sleeve. H245 x W160 mm, 44 pages bound with 68 pages on 8.5 uncut folded and gathered sheets. Acquired from À la Page, 12 October 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Ernest Fraenkel should have left it at visually mapping Un Coup de Dés and offered it up as simply an artistic response to the poem. Even if it is a mapping of the condensed single-paged Cosmopolis (1897) version of the poem, think of the various renderings in handset chapbook form printed on letterpress or as lithographs, or etchings on glass, or even sculptures. It could have been the “Prometheus bound” to the “Prometheus unbound” of those who paid homage by appropriating the more expansive double-page spread book version (1914) that Mallarmé intended. Instead, it lies tucked away with 44 pages de l’explication. Professor David W. Seaman (Georgia Southern University), who has engaged with Fraenkel’s analysis, puts it well:

It must be said in [Fraenkel’s] defense that the idea is tempting: to make wordless patterns of the pages of the poem in order to see the ideogrammatic shapes more clearly. In addition, Fraenkel has contributed some worthwhile insights into the use of space and text in the poem, … However, there are three major objections to his project. First, he used, for most of his research, the text of the Cosmopolis edition of the poem, an edition which nearly everyone agrees is far from the author’s intentions, especially insofar as the ideograms are concerned; the preface to that edition gives ample warning of this. … / The second objection is that Fraenkel strays too far from the text, preferring to keep in mind a general idea of the meaning of the poem, and then go off according to the feelings the designs give him. … In fact,  sometimes Fraenkel recommends turning the design on its side or upside-down to see what image may present itself! / The third objection is that these designs are then used more or less like Rohrschach ink blots. (Seaman, pp. 142-43)

In his nine sets of single-sided uncut sheets, Fraenkel offers seven different diagrammatic approaches to the poem as it appeared in Cosmopolis, whose editors could not allow the poem’s lines to cross over the gutter to the next page as Mallarmé imagined the layout. The opening pages of Fraenkel’s seven approaches are laid out below in sunlight and paired with the textual opening page.

Seven different diagrammatic renderings. The one at the lower right shows Fraenkel’s sideways view.

The first rendering (above, upper left) is closest to what Mario Diacono and Marcel Broodthaers would create later in the decade.

Left: a METRICA n’aboolira (1968) by Mario Diacono (1968). Right: Image: Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1969) by Marcel Broodthaers (1969).

Fraenkel’s nine sets of sheets break down into eight of 8 pages and one of 4 pages. Below is the first set opened out.

The first set of eight pages

Compared with Diacono’s, Broodthaers’ and all the other works of homage to date, Fraenkel’s renderings retain a distinction and suggest other new directions not yet taken physically or digitally. Given the sculptural interpretations by Geraldo de Barros, Jorge Méndez Blake and Kathy Bruce, doesn’t Fraenkel’s first rendering call for a three-dimensional cantilevered homage constructed of slabs of blackened flotsam connected with brushed steel rods?

From the series Jogos de Dados (1986)
Geraldo de Barros
Photo: Julia Parpulov. Permission from Fabiana de Barros.

Biblioteca Mallarmé/Mallarmé Library (2011)
Jorge Méndez Blake
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Navigating the Abyss (2014)
Kathy Bruce
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Given the video created by Giulio Maffei transforming the 1914 book version into Broodthaers’ and the digital legerdemain of Karen ann Donnachie and Andy Simionato and Tayyib Yavuz, why not an animated digital transformation of the Cosmopolis version into the 1914 book version?

Le Vite dei Libri 26 – Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (2016)
Giulio Maffei
Permission from the artist.


Mallarmé’s Self-replicating Machine: A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance” (2018)
Karen ann Donnachie and Andy Simionato
Permission from the artists.

Experiment Book: “Un Coup de Dés”
Tayyib Yavuz
Permission from the artist.

And Professor Jed Rasula (University of Georgia), who has also explored Fraenkel’s work, suggests yet another medium:

Fraenkel’s sixty-eight seismographic and astral diagrams (or “stylizations”) practice a truly graphic mode of literary analysis. It was Fraenkel’s conviction that “a plastic text rests hidden in the extra-conscious layers of the poet, paralleling the verbal text of the poem” (9). … In their accentuation of the visual character of Un Coup de dés, Fraenkel’s designs are like watching a movie with the sound turned off, forced to rely on gesture rather than dialogue in order to follow the action.”

Except for the sound part, that could describe Man Ray’s Les Mystères du Château de Dés (1929).

Further Reading

Derek Beaulieu“. Books On Books Collection. 19 June 2020.

Raffaella della Olga“. Books On Books Collection. 8 December 2020.

Klaus Detjen“. Books On Books Collection. 9 September 2020.

Sammy Engramer“. Books On Books Collection. 1 June 2020.

Michalis Pichler“. Books On Books Collection. 19 August 2020.

Cerith Wyn Evans“. Books On Books Collection. 16 April 2020.

Eric Zboya“. Books On Books Collection. 1 June 2020.

Donnachie, Karen Ann, and Andy Siminiato. “Mallarmé’s Self-replicating Machine: A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”. MATLIT: Materialities of Literature, [S.l.], v. 6, n. 1, p. 37-49, Aug. 2018. Date accessed: 23 March 2019.

Rasula, Jed. Modernism and Poetic Inspiration: The Shadow Mouth (London: Palgrave, 2009). Accessed via Electronic Poetry Center, University of Pennsylvania, n.d. Accessed 14 June 2020.

Seaman, David W.  Concrete poetry in France (Ann Arbor: Umi Research Press, 1981).

Books On Books Collection – Benjamin Lord

The Abolition of Chance: Sequence (2019)

The Abolition of Chance: Sequence (2019)
Benjamin Lord
Laid finish card cover; hand-assembled perfect binding with inlaid red linen thread;
70 pages printed on translucent cellulose paper. H10 1/2″ x W8 1/4.
Edition of 50, unnumbered. Acquired from the artist, 24 April 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

The title of Benjamin Lord’s book names what Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés declares can never be accomplished: the abolition of chance. Taking the predicate of Mallarmé’s title (its verb and object), elevating it to the title position, substituting the word “sequence” for the subtitle Poéme, and placing it in a cover layout reminiscent of the 1913 NRF edition of Mallarmé’s book, Lord’s cover raises expectations and questions. Perhaps chance can be abolished? Perhaps by a certain sequence — of words?

Bowling over the textual expectations raised by the cover, the interior pages offer only images — images that gradually shift from linearly arranged black rectangles to what seem to be digitally generated Rorschach tests, shifting QR codes or snapshots of a bitmap computer game, all blurred by the turning of the translucent paper. The translucency and images add another layer to each page and double-spread of images and also add another set of expectations and questions. What determined the starting point of those arranged rectangles? What drives the sequence of their change?

Without Lord’s own description of the work, a highly developed form of art-historical, science-historical visual genius is required to answer those questions. A genius with the visual recall to recognize that “The first spread of the book copies the last spread of Marcel Broodthaer’s book Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), made in 1969.” A genius that can recognize the sequence as being “generated using a simple mathematical formula known as the Game of Life, originally devised by the mathematician John Conway, also in the year 1969.

Blocking out Mallarmé’s words with black bars of varying sizes corresponding to the poem’s typography and turning Poème into Image, Broodthaers’s homage has provided the starting point to several works of visual homage: Derek Beaulieu, Jérémie Bennequin, Klaus Detjen, Sammy Engramer, Cerith Wyn Evans, Rainier Lericolais, Alexandra Leykauf, Michael Maranda, Guido Molinari, Michalis Pichler and Eric Zboya. To their common starting point, each brings to bear his or her own approach. For Lord’s approach, the term “starting point” is more properly “seed”. In Conway’s Game of Life, a seed is any pattern of square cells, some filled (“live”), some unfilled (“dead”). Here are two basic patterns:

On the left is a “still-life” seed known as “Boat”; on the right is “Gosper’s glider gun”, an obviously more complicated pattern named after its creator, Bill Gosper. A forerunner of simulation games, Conway’s game poses a set of simple rules to be played out within an infinite grid:

  1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if by underpopulation.
  2. Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
  3. Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overpopulation.
  4. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

Here is Gosper’s glider gun, activated by the Game of Life’s rules encoded in a GIF:

Lord’s seed is the image of the last double-page spread in Broodthaers’ version of Un Coup de Dés.

Like a more complex glider gun, it generates the subsequent double-page spread images, each image being the seed for the next image. As Lord puts it,

The lines of Mallarmé’s poem inflate into balloons which expand and then pop into nothingness, or collide with each other to generate debris, or collapse into thicker bars. The image fragments into a vibratory bitmap constellation of expansions and contractions, in which interactions between forms continuously generate new forms, in a way that is neither random nor intuitive.

This 21st century American artist turning with a 20th century paintbrush dipped into the words of a 19th century French poet via a 20th century Belgian artist calls to mind The Education of Henry Adams. Throughout, Adams refers to himself in the third person. Post-Broodthaers, there is something “third-person-ish” — of being at two removes — in Lord’s homage and those of Beaulieu et al. above. But there is more to the recollection than grammar. Consider this passage from The Education in which “one” writes,

Historians undertake to arrange sequences,–called stories, or histories–assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about. Adams, for one, had toiled in vain to find out what he meant….he insisted on a relation of sequence, and if he could not reach it by one method, he would try as many methods as science knew. Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years’ pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new. Chapter XXV

Adams and his third-person self were in Paris in May 1897, when Un Coup de Dés first appeared in the quarterly Cosmopolis. Despite their proximity, a common interest in quarterlies and the popular press, and a near obsession with the electrical forces of the dynamo, the men’s two paths did not cross. Adams mentions Mallarmé in a letter only in passing.

Sartre called Mallarmé the poet of nothingness. Its title and Lord’s description of The Abolition of Chance as a “constellation of expansions and contractions, in which interactions between forms continuously generate new forms, in a way that is neither random nor intuitive” suggest an alternative to nothingness. The final double-page spread does present a pattern of live cells. Lord, perhaps like his fellow American, responds to nothingness with a type of Buddhist repose, if not affirmation, much as Adams responded to the memorial for his wife that he had commissioned from Augustus St. Gaudens:

His first step, on returning to Washington, took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence. Naturally every detail interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of St. Gaudens’s correctness of taste or feeling; so that, as the spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the figure had to tell him that was new; but, in all that it had to say, he never once thought of questioning what it meant. … From the Egyptian Sphinx to the Kamakura Daibuts; from Prometheus to Christ; from Michael Angelo to Shelley, art had wrought on this eternal figure almost as though it had nothing else to say. The interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in the response of the observer. Chapter XXI

Further Reading

Derek Beaulieu”, Books On Books Collection, 19 June 2020.

Jérémie Bennequin“, Books On Books Collection, 11 April 2020.

Sammy Engramer”, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.

Cerith Wyn Evans”, Books On Books Collection, 16 April 2020.

Michaud, François. Alexandra Leykauf: Chateau de Bagatelle (Nürnberg: Verlag fur moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2010)

Guido Molinari”, Books On Books Collection, 13 April 2020.

Eric Zboya“, Books On Books Collection, 1 June 2020.