11 September 2010

Making the rounds as result of Roberto Bolaño's new New Directions collection is his reaction to Mallarmé's "Sea Breeze," one of the most straightforward and rhetorical of Mallarmé's poems. Mallarmé's first line [“The flesh is sad – and I've read every book”] is both catchy and imprecise, the sort of declaration – like the lines that Rimbaud crossed out - that you wouldn't find in later Mallarmé, which gives Bolaño the opening to take him to task in his edgy stylistic evocation of Céline and the Beats which the Anglophone world can't seem to get enough of:

How could anyone declare that the flesh is essentially sad, that la petite mort, which doesn’t last even a minute, casts a pall over all lovemaking, which, it is widely known, can last for hours and hours, and go on interminably? If the line had been written by a Spanish poet like Campoamor, it might have meant something like that, but such a reading is quite at odds with the work and life of Mallarmé, which are indissolubly linked, except in this poem, this encoded manifesto, which Paul Gauguin, and he alone, followed to the letter (as far as we know, Mallarmé himself never listened to the sailors singing, or if he did, it certainly wasn’t on board a ship bound for an unknown destination). And the claim to have read all the books makes even less sense, because although books themselves may come to an end, no one every finishes reading them all, and Mallarmé was well aware of that. Book are finite, sexual encounters are finite, but the desire to read and to fuck is infinite; it surpasses our own deaths, our fears, our hopes for peace. And what is left for Mallarmé, in this famous poem, when he desire to read and the desire to fuck, so he says, are all used up? Well, what is left is travel, the desire to go traveling. And maybe that’s the key to the crime. Because if Mallarmé had concluded that the only thing left to do was pray or cry or go crazy, maybe he’d have come up with the perfect alibi. But no, what Mallarmé says is that the only thing left to do is travel—which is like saying “to sail is necessary, to live is not necessary,” a sentence I used to be able to quote in Latin, but that’s just one of the many thing I’ve forgotten with help of my liver’s traveling toxins—in other words he sides with the bare-chested traveler, with Freedom (who’s bare-chested too), with the simple existence of the sailor and the explorer, which isn’t so simple when you get right down to it: an affirmation of life, but also a constant game with death, and the first rung on the ladder, the first step in a certain kind of poetic apprenticeship. The second step is sex, and the third, books.

“Sea Breeze” was written by Mallarmé when he was 23 and had married Maria Gerhard two years previously, who'd given birth to his daughter Geneviève: “Nothing can hold this heart steeped in sea-/ not my lamp's desolate luminosity/ nor the blank paper guarded by its white/ nor the young wife feeding her child..” He was in this period both an apprentice poet imitating elders and the poet he was becoming, formulating his own poetic revolution, as his first draft of The Afternoon of a Faun was written at about the same time. A year and a half later he would write: “I am terrified because I have to invent a new poetics, which I could best express in these words: 'Paint not the thing itself, but the effect it produces.'” As Walter Benjamin has written, the representation of consciousness was a project set forth by Baudelaire, a project that Mallarmé indeed created a new poetics to realize.

This poem "Sea Breeze," however, is a rather clumsy and unoriginal amalgamation of poems and sentiments of Baudelaire and Theophile Gautier. From Gautier we get a romantic maritime drama of what the soul requires: Mallarmé's poem ends with “..my soul, listen to the sailor's song!” which may contain Gautier's longing in “Sea Gloom” for the sound of the ocean to take pity on his soul and transform it and his grief into a shipwreck. Mallarmé paints a scene in “Sea Breeze” where “storm winds buckle above shipwrecks cast/ away.”

Starting a new sentence in line 10 with “Un Ennui, ..” is about as Baulelairean as it gets, as the term occurs with emphasis and famously as the conclusion of "To the Reader" but also several times in "Le Voyage," which Gauguin did, in fact, cite in his journals, the poem that appears to be the most direct antecedent to “Sea Breeze.” Baudelaire's uses of it here are crucial: it illustrates both the naïve wanderlust of the tourist and the realization, at the end of the poem, that “the world's monotonous and small; we see/ ourselves today, tomorrow, yesterday,/ an oasis of horror in the sands of ennui!”

We should consider that Baudelaire's only experience of travel was when at age 20 his domineering stepfather put him on a boat bound for India to apparently separate him from his druggie friends (“the least senseless../ Flee the great herd penned in by Destiny/ And take refuge in a great opium!”) and the boat was damaged by a storm and returned after landing in Mauritius and Reunion, perhaps inspiring a confrontation with death, the final journey of the poem (“to drown in the abyss – heaven or hell,/ who cares? Through the unknown, we'll find the new.)” Baudelaire begins by saying “the true travellers are they who depart/ for departing's sake” who “dream/of spacious pleasures, transient, little understood,/ whose name no human spirit knows” then describes the soul as a ship in which the voice atop the mainsail cries out “Love.. glory.. fortune,”* “the poor lover of chimerical lands.” He then describes the traveller as they who “gladden the ennui of our jails.” At 21, Mallarmé in his earnest poem “The Windows” uses a dying man looking out the window of a hospital room as a metaphor for his desire to escape his life for art and mysticism: “can I flee with my featherless wings-/ and risk falling through all eternity.” Baudelaire goes on to describe the “monotonous and small” world, in which our travels are a visualization of the race against time, at the end of which “if sea and sky are both black as ink,/ you know that our hearts are full of sunshine.” The equation of the discovery of “the new” with death contains all the irony of his embrace of modernity and everything else.

The “spacious pleasures whose name no human spirit knows” may have taken an entirely new form in Mallarmé's masterpiece The Afternoon of a Faun. The refrain “There, all is order and beauty;/ luxury, calmness and beauty” from Baudelaire's more idyllic “Invitation to the Voyage” appears to turn up in Faun as “..fringes of a placid mere in Sicily,/ plundered” by Mallarmé's “sun-rivalling vanity,/ silent beneath the blooms of brilliant night.” It is also where the soul goes: “void of words and heavy body slowly/ fall before noon's haughty calm.” Wherever Mallarmé was right then, he'd left the others behind.

* If there were finalists for the worst translations of all time, Robert Lowell would field several entries, but his Le Voyage (from the New Directions collection) should merit serious consideration. “«Amour... gloire... bonheur!» Enfer! c'est un écueil!” becomes “"Here's dancing, gin and girls!" Balls! it's a rock!” and “Partout où la chandelle illumine un taudis” becomes “we see Blue Grottoes, Caesar and Capri.” In both cases, his attempts at humor convey the exact opposite of what the poem is communicating, in key moments of the poem.

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