Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1914/2012)
Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard(1914/2012) Stéphane Mallarmé (text), Alain Hurtig (design), Catherine Belœil (art) Online and downloadable files for printing at L’Outil Typographique. Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA). Accessed 28 January 2022. Screenshots: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Alain Hurtig.
Much has been made of Mallarmé’s precision or preciosity in the marked-up proofs of the deluxe edition of Un Coup de Dés. Also, as many scholars, hommageurs and facsimilists have attested, a suitable substitute for the Firmin-Didot typeface that the poet specified for the deluxe has been hard to find. Master typographer Alain Hurtig, however, puts “suitable substitute” into perspective with his essay “À propos du Coup de dés de Stéphane Mallarmé“. The essay offers single pages and double-page spreads set in Bodoni Antiqua (Berthold), Legato, Clifford and the Hoefler & Frère-Jones digital revival of Didot.
Clockwise from the upper left: Bodoni Antiqua (Berthold), Legato, Clifford and Didot.
It seems unlikely that Mallarmé pored over the Didot firm’s type books to choose the Firmin-Didot face, but there is nothing precious about specifying a typeface. Different faces have different personalities. Hurtig enables us to see rather than imagine the effect of choosing the business-card-like Legato — not that that would have been a choice for Mallarmé. Nor would the Clifford, although a plausible (if squat) choice with its contrasting thin and thick strokes. The opportunity for the most extensive comparison comes with Hurtig’s two complete settings of the poem — one in Bodoni Antiqua (Berthold), the other in HFJ Didot. Below, for comparison, is the poem’s central double-page spread — the COMME SI … COMME SI verses.
Above: Bodoni Antiqua (Berthold). Below: Hoefler & Frère-Jones Didot.
Of these two revival faces — Bodoni Antiqua (Berthold) and HFJ Didot — Hurtig himself prefers Bodoni. Bodoni is one of the more attractive alternatives for facsimilists. Neil Crawford chose it for the edition created with Ian Tyson, as did Gary Young for his edition with D.J. Waldie. Hurtig even provides a comparative view of three versions of Bodoni:
Hurtig’s explanations of deciding the trim size and adjusting the size of fonts and spacing fascinate. Likewise his choice of Bodoni because it
s’imposait avec élégance, il rythmait les phrases en les faisant incroyablement vibrer et remplissait de sa grâce les immenses blancs de la double page — ces espaces que, selon Mallarmé, “il n’est pas moins beau de composer que les vers” [Hurtig, 2012]
[imposed itself with elegance, it gave rhythm to the sentences by making them vibrate incredibly and filled with its grace the immense blanks of the double page — these spaces which, according to Mallarmé, “it is no less beautiful to compose than the verse”.]
My vote, however, would be for the HFJ Didot. It has a more upright, steelier and brighter aspect, fittingly constellatory. In other online comments, Hurtig points out, however, that the HFJ Didot is not the Firmin-Didot of Mallarmé:
Le didot d’Hoefler n’est évidemment pas celui choisi par Mallarmé, et pour cause : un siècle les sépare — et Hoefler a, dans son dessin, évidemment tenu compte des conditions modernes de composition et d’impression : au plomb, son travail ne tiendrait probablement pas une seconde, et moins encore sur les papiers utilisés à l’époque. [Hurtig, 2018]
[Hoefler’s Didot is obviously not the one chosen by Mallarmé, and for good reason : a century separates them – and Hoefler has, in his design, obviously taken into account modern conditions of composition and printing: with lead, his work would probably not hold for a second, and even less so on the papers used at the time.]
Hurtig, Alain. 11 July 2018. “Remarques typographiques“, responding to Laurent Bloch’s “Le Poème de Stéphane Mallarmé: Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. Son exégèse et sa typographie”, posted 11 July 2018, modified 29 September 2020. Accessed 26 January 2022.
Derek Beaulieu (No Press) first published Sam Sampson’s homage to Un Coup de Dés as a handsewn pamphlet in 2020. To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Mallarmé’s initial publication of “the poem that made us modern”, Sampson enlisted Jacinda Torrance of Verso Visual Communications for design, the firm Centurion for printing, and Louise James of The Binding Studio for hand binding to produce this deluxe edition.
UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD (((SUN-O))) (2022)
Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard ((( Sun-O ))) Sam Sampson Handsewn book, H300 x W225 mm, 28 unnumbered pages. Edition of 20 (10, each enclosed in a hinged-lid box with magnetic flap; 10 unboxed), of which this is boxed # 2. Acquired from the artist, 7 April 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
As with most creative works, (((Sun-O))) had multiple points of inception. One of them was an essay Sam Sampson read by Susan Howe and Cole Swensen. They quote Mallarmé’s preface to the poem (“nothing new except a certain distribution of space made within the reading” and speak of his aim to fuse sequential and simultaneous perception, to fully engage the eye and ear, as a result pushing poetry in two directions – toward visual art and toward musical performance. This resonated with a series of poems Sampson was writing and manifests itself in (((Sun-O))):
The physical design and analogy in my rendition is aligned with what I would call the ‘O Poems’. ‘O’ Zero, being the sound that runs through these poems, but I’ve also been interested in the numerical concept of zero: the beginning point, but also the point of departure, the ‘O’ as an ideogram, giving the text a pictorial as well as vocalised movement. [Correspondence with Books On Books Collection, 29 March 2022]
Another of the “O Poems” is Zeroth. Sampson reads it here:
Zeroth leads to another point of inception: a conversation with Roger Horrocks, a New Zealand poet, writer, film-maker, educator and cultural activist, to whom (((Sun-O))) is dedicated. After reading Zeroth, Horrocks told Sampson that it reminded him of his favorite Seattle experimental metal band at the time – Sunn O))). Sampson describes their sound as slow, heavy, blending diverse genres including “drone, black metal, dark ambient and noise rock”. Sampson’s mulling over the very sound of the band’s name led to free associations with the secondary meanings of drone (surveillance, panopticon). Mulling over the name’s compression of word and the letter O led to his hybridized subtitle (((Sun-O))) “with its parentheses radiating out but never closing”. A potent visual and textual image for a poem touching on, if not touching, the sun, the abyss and the human.
But, of course, the zero point of inception is Un Coup de Dés. On a visually material level, (((Sun-O))) has a scaffolding of bullet-pointed rules, whose lengths are based on measuring each of Mallarmé’s lines, whose weights approximate the variable font sizes, and whose placement matches that in Un Coup de Dés. This lattice serves as the physical structure for the collage of words and O’s that Sampson layers like paint or screenprint onto the page. Some words and lines are upside down like the detritus of a shipwreck. Some words curve and drape between the lines like torn sails. Appropriately, some come from the precisely corresponding pages in Mallarmé’s poem. Faint lines of the circumferences of O’s leap across and down between the lines almost like musical notations.
Within this tangle, Sampson’s own elusive and allusive text plays. Some of its phrases come from traditional song; some fix the geographical location (“blue carbon” places the speaker in a coastal community); some “un-fix” the location (“over the hills and far away”); some are struck through, alerting the reader to be ready to discard and start again; some set the technological time frame (the reference to operating systems like Suse, Symbian and, of course, Solaris). As in Un Coup de Dés, the text’s syntax and placement on the page encourage reading in fits and starts, back and forth. As Sampson puts it:
I wanted [my] poem to somehow capture, as Mallarmé had described it, “the invitation of the great white space”, and the successive, incessant, back-and-forth motions of our eyes travelling from one line to the next, and beginning all over again. [Correspondence with Books On Books Collection, 29 March 2022]
Indeed, before writing Un Coup de Dés, Mallarmé foreshadowed more expansively this phenomenon toward which Sampson strives:
Pourquoi — un jet de grandeur, de pensée ou d’émoi, considérable, phrase poursuivie, en gros caractère, une ligne par page à emplacement gradué, ne maintiendrait-il le lecteur en haleine, la durée du livre, avec appel à sa puissance d’enthousiasme: autour, menus, des groupes, secondairement d’après leur importance, explicatifs ou dérivés — un semis de fioritures. [Oeuvres Complètes, 2, 227]
“Why — couldn’t a considerable burst of greatness of thought or emotion, carried in a sentence in large typeface, gradually placed with one line per page, hold the reader’s bated breath throughout the entire book by appealing to his or her power of enthusiasm: around this [burst], smaller groups of secondary importance, explicating or deriving from the primary phrase — a scattering of flourishes.” [Arnar, 234]
Whereas in Mallarmé’s poem there is a primary sentence in large typeface (“UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD”) off which the secondary groups of phrases and sentences play, (((Sun-O)))‘s primary foil is the combination of two things: the collage made from shards of Mallarmé’s poem and that strange, enjambed subtitle (((Sun-O))). After all, the full title of Sampson’s work is UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD (((SUN-O))).
The “Comme si … Comme si” center double-page spread.
Sampson calls Mallarmé’s poem a form of metaphysical gambling, reproducing the sensation of being both in and outside time. Being both in and outside of time — that could be the defining state of human consciousness. Unlike the abstract representation of humanity in Un Coup de Dés, however, (((Sun-O)))‘s representation is concretely personal. The traditional song “Over the Hills and Far Away“, which Sampson cites at the start of (((Sun-O))), can be read as a reference to Horrocks’ departure from New Zealand for the United States in the 1960s. At one point, the speaker addresses Horrocks directly: “Roger / what of these / parallels of blue / sea shanties / masquerading mind-sets / …”. Sampson takes the image of Roger Horrocks’ signature from Horrocks’ copy of an edition of Un Coup de Dés, fragments it and reproduces it on the pages of (((Sun-O))). Did Sampson have in mind the story of René Magritte’s loaning his copy of Un Coup de Dés to Marcel Broodthaers, which led to Broodthaers’ Image version of Mallarmé’s poem? (See Marine Hugonnier’s retelling of the tale here.) The scaffolding of bulleted-pointed lines certainly pays homage to Broodthaers and other “hommageurs by redaction” such as Michalis Pichler, Sammy Engramer and others. (((Sun-O))) is a work of many conversations on many levels across time and time zones.
One of the main topics in (((Sun-O))), however, naturally seems to defy the bridging of the personal and abstract: climate crisis. It is hard to miss the allusions to the global shipwreck that is the climate crisis, engendering rising ocean levels and spastic efforts towards zero carbon emissions based on a computational chaos of competing environmental models and competing economic and political systems. It is clearly of personal concern to the speaker, but that does not take the issue from the abstract to the concretely personal in the way that Horrocks’s signature in a copy of Un Coup de Dés does. Making the climate crisis personal could, of course, run the risk of descending into small talk about the weather.
The references to music and the poem’s demonstration of musicality throughout are also hard to miss, and given its zero point of inception, the poem would be seriously remiss without them. The aim for union of text, sound and graphic image is as central to Sampson’s poem as the manipulation of syntax and les blancs is to Mallarmé’s. The aim’s importance in Sampson’s poem even has the last note and oversized word in the poem:
... the Never / rolling / listing / pitch / & / fall / A solitary / THRUM
The frequency of achieved union may be what puts Sampson’s homage in the front rank.
The special edition of (((Sun-O))) enhances that union in material ways. The design and materials play off Sampson’s cutting into and out of, sticking on and sticking through Un Coup de Dés. Six circles foiled in white on the front cover of the box turn the subtitle into an emblem — a mark maker. On the box’s inside lining, a design of circles and broken circles echoing the collage of O’s in the poem (even hinting at musical notation) is used to designate the number of the copy in the edition of 10. For this copy (#2), straight lines cut through 2 of the circles.
Like the white circles, six die-cut circles on the book’s front cover correspond to the six parentheses of the subtitle and likewise one face of a die. They also recall the hemistich of French poetry’s twelve-syllable Alexandrine, which Un Coup de Dés shattered. An image peeks through the die cuts and, as the cover turns, reveals itself as a collage of the cut-up cover of Horrocks’ copy of the poem and pages of (((Sun-O))). On the back cover, a single large die-cut circle centers on a black-hole sun with a faint, almost invisible ((( Sun-O ))) disappearing into blank/blackness.
By chance or by sly humor, the typeface used is DTL Elzevir. (((Sun-O))) is obviously not in the hunt for absolute fidelity to the edition planned by Mallarmé and Ambroise Vollard in 1896-97, which collapsed with the poet’s death. When Mallarmé’s son-in-law Dr. Edmond Bonniot issued an edition with Gallimard/NRF in 1914, the typeface was Elzevir, allegedly a face that Mallarmé detested. With this special edition of (((Sun-O))), Sampson is in the hunt on his own terms for his own more personal Mallarméan prism, constellation or radiant (((Sun-O))) that syntactically, auditorily, visually and physically scatters and focuses his response to the human condition.
UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD (((SUN-O))) (2020)
Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard: (((Sun-O))) (2020) Sam Sampson Handsewn pamphlet. H255 x W190 mm, 24 pages. Edition of 60. Acquired from No Press, 4 January 2021. Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
[Mallarmé’s] work is a constellation and trying to unpack and explicate what went into my response hopefully doesn’t remove the joy of just jumping in. I like what John Ashbery said about his own work: “my work is accessible, if you take the time to access it.” [Sampson in correspondence with Books On Books Collection, 29 March 2022]
Davenport, Philip. 27 March 2020. “‘France’, or… we are circles of cancelled stars’“, Synapse International: An international visual poetry gathering. Started by Karl Kempton and Davenport in February 2018, Synapse International quickly attracted online works of homage to Un Coup de Dés, including an early appearance in March 2018 of Eric Zboya‘s Translations and later a visually adapted essay by David W. Seaman and as well as an “ADVERTISEMENT” from Derek Beaulieu that links to his 3D rendering of Un Coup de Dés.
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).