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Made with Hugo and the Cocoa theme
© Patrick O'Donovan 1986–2019

'With Mallarmé, on water'

Mallarmé was born in Paris and died in Valvins. From the 1870s onwards, much of his life — creative, domestic, professional, affective, social, recreational — was organized on the basis of an annual calendar of return journeys between these two sites, joined as they were by river and rail connections centred on the expanding metropolis. When in Valvins, Mallarmé allowed his attention to dwell increasingly on the river: he took to sailing, soon acquired a boat, and, in the famous letter, known as the ‘Autobiographie’, which he wrote to Verlaine, proclaimed his ‘ruineux canots’ to be something of an obsession. Though he only ever sailed on the Seine at Valvins, it is the sea and seascapes as much as the river that preoccupied him as a writer. To speculate on space even at a modest distance from the capital was to think according to displacements whose logic was maritime. The trains which radiate outwards from Paris are simply the equivalent of boats in a cosmos which is in the last analysis aqueous: everything in the spatial chain that connects, say, Paris to London is determined by a tidal temporality whose rhythms shape the effective organization of space. Valvins is transformed into a ‘paysage entier’, with its own spatialized temporality, that of each cap (both headland, or cape, and heading, or direction in which a boat proceeds), the symbol of a world, which, because it is apprehended through the experience of distance, comes to be inhabited altogether differently. Mallarmé himself, then, invests this symbolic cap with a symbolic capital of its own, in part by bringing it into a fluctuating relation with the city. His poems show that there is no equivalence without a radical reconceptualization of scale and so of time, one which is imposed by the unfathomable potentiality of the sea. The sea recedes from us, and we from it, leaving us just with equivalences — the honoured river, the remembered lake, the blank sail, the siren, the foam or the froth on the wave, to mention some recurrent Mallarméan figures — each of which amounts to a ‘rien’, to ‘nothing’, or nothing more than a fiction of those things which are indeed capital.