Aestetics • June 2016
Decreation and creation



Written in the second half of the 19th century, the work of Stéphane Mallarmé immediately and painfully envisaged itself as founded on a crisis of artistic creation, a crisis that the poet has never tried to overcome. He simply wanted to unfold and explore it in order to make it the constantly diverse theme of a form of poetry that reflected on its own practice and made writing the very place and instrument of a quite critical form of reflection. Bringing creation to a critical point, that is to say, at the boundary point where it measures and performs its own impossibility; making destruction, not the opposite of creation, but its paradoxical, challenging and dangerous constitutive principle, such is the aporia of Mallarmé’s work, always prompt to reflect on what the poet called “the impious dismantling [...] of fiction” (Mallarmé, 2003a, p. 67) (English translation: Mallarmé, 2001, p. 36.). Contrary to what Mallarmé explicitly said, this aporia is not an impasse; it gives all its vitality and topicality to a project that has inspired the arts of the 20th and 21st centuries. This vitality and topicality could be what was soon to be called “discreation” from an expression borrowed from Charles Péguy, but emancipated from the presuppositions of Christian spirituality that Mallarmé did not share.

Article's keywords

Action, destruction, language, letters, modulation, negation, operator, poetry, suggestion, void.

Table of Contents

Creation as Quasi creation

The dismantling of creation implies developing its internal conflicts, bringing them to their highest point of incandescence by making them seen, making them play, sparkle and even shine as “fireworks that have the loftiness of thought itself [that] allow the ideal rejoicing to blossom” (Mallarmé, 2003b, p. 76) [ 1 ] . These conflicts became particularly acute with The Book, always aimed at but never written, this Great Work conceived like an inverted Bible verging on simulacrum, poetry, theatre, dance, a juggling show in a fair, a mass or a concert. This Book would have included some 20 volumes with interchangeable pages, it would have been published in countless copies (Mallarmé even calculated the price) and would have resulted in public readings with a very precise ceremonial, in sessions and cycles of sessions banning chance although it was built within it. Mallarmé stated:

a) this Book does exist (the writer knew it and had even “executed some fragments of it”) and does not exist (he could have completed it);

b) it must be created but it is already there in all writers and for all eternity as a utopia, a horizon, a limit-idea;

c) it is a work and the idea of a work, that is to say its absence;

d) it is like a chant, an Ode, an Orphic explanation, like magic, mystery, genius and dreams but it must be the result of a methodical, calculated, demiurgic or Promethean production;

e) it is (according to the Neoplatonic and Bergsonian approach) the deployment of a unique experience or a simple intuition into a multiplicity of fragmented aspects as in a procession or an explosion, and it is (according to the Aristotelian opposite approach) the arrangement of a scattered reality (letters) allowing for the unity of textual structures;

f) it is an impersonal and living “big machine” to “set in motion” (Mallarmé, 2003c, p. 962);

g) it relates to industry and to the popular press that Mallarmé hated, while seeing in it the highest meaning or purpose as it is a literary absolute that envelops everything at the time when everything is absolute and when any idea of totality has disappeared.

To summarize this web of contradictions, The Book is a “spiritual tool” according to an oxymoron as spectacular and beautiful as Pascal’s oxymoron defining man as a “thinking reed.” And, as in Pascal, Mallarmé’s oxymoron has for its mission to show nature as a monster, a chimera; nature consisting of a combination of order and disorder, which gives birth to the disorder of order and the order of disorder, without any of the two being able to impose themselves and without an end to their alternation. As in Pascal too, Mallarmé’s oxymoron implies a reality based on its shortcomings and its defects, on another equally unstable mixture of power and powerlessness, control and lack of control. Mallarmé is indeed the writer who emphasized the most the contradiction of a work based on idleness, of creation based on destruction: “Destruction was my Beatrice.” [ 2 ]  Faithful to the requirements of creation and all its presuppositions, Mallarmé, at the same time, removed them. He therefore aimed at “quasi creation,” something that is almost a creation, a near creation:

“The form of a certain sentence or the lake of a couplet, copied under our confirmation, helps insights and correspondences. […] / What purpose does the formula serve? — / That of providing a game. / To provide a superior attraction like that exerted by the void, we have the right, extracted from us by the boredom we feel for things if they establish themselves as solid and preponderant – to madly detach them until we fill that void and thus endow them with splendour through the vacant space, in solitary feasts we hold at will. […] / Nature exists, and cannot be added to; apart from cities, railway lines and several inventions of our making. / The entire act open to us, forever and alone, consists in seizing, while we’re waiting, the rare and multiple links […]. / This is what equals the act of creation: the notion of an object, escaping, that we need. / Such an occupation is enough, consisting in comparing the aspects and their number as they strike our intelligence: awakening, as decor, the ambiguity of some fine figures, at the intersections. The entire arabesque that links them reveals dizzying leaps with a fear that is recognizable; as well as anxious chords. […] A mute melodic calculation, of those motives that combine with our fibers to create a logic” (Mallarmé, 2003a, p. 67-68) [ 3 ] .

There are several ideas here that I would like to briefly introduce.

Creation as Action

1) Art is not, as Francis Bacon said in following Aristotle, what man adds to nature. Art is less linked to a poiesis than to a theoria but a sensitive theoria, with the fibres of our body that captures, from the very sensation, relationships, aspects and correspondences with their logic, their numbers or their calculation.

2) As it is not a production, art is not building a work or an artefact, it is only the game the artist is playing with letters and words, that is to say, a whole set of actions, which exists only in its immanent movement and in the simple use of the rules that make up this game. Art is therefore only an action, a “restricted action,” a praxis that creates nothing but figures of speech, sentences and verses considered as copies.

3) These imitations are neither those of external things, nor those of some idea whether transcendental or not; they are simply variations on the theme of our bodily or linguistic conformation, a conformation, which is that of a hollow space whose void is the condition that makes its operation possible. Art is not creation because it is representation and representation that is not present because, on the contrary, it abolishes things and puts them at a distance by an evocative and suggestive process putting in the foreground, not the positivity and massivity of a content or an object, but puns and word games. These games are negations, that is to say, substitutions replacing “full” things and their representations in their ordinary use (presentifying, numeric and communicational usage of universal journalistic reports) by the principle on which these games are based: the void, the emptiness, the nothingness that allows the combination of letters, sentences and texts.

4) The consequence is that literary and poetic creation is only the recombination of language that has existed before, its redeployment through other structures, fractures and syntaxes than those we commonly use. It is only a displacement, a modalization of what already exists in order to cloud our spontaneous conception of a positive world, our practical relationship to it, our relationship to our own language, which is shaken by and through the verse, whether the verse has the sovereign right like in a sonnet for example, or whether it is dispersed but never transgressed like in free verses, in poetic prose or even in fragmentary provisions, “prismatic subdivisions” where “Everything happens by a shortcut, hypothetically” (Mallarmé, 2003d, p. 391) or through “volatile dispersion” as in Mallarmé’s last poem (A Throw of the Dice, 1897), this poetry pushing the limits so far that Mallarmé described it as “an act of dementia.”

This poetry fully and doubly deployed within and around a verse of thirteen syllables (“a throw of the dice will never abolish chance”) is thought as an effect in the language, an effect of the language and, therefore, a linguistic effect. Its complex organization and its fine architecture very carefully arranged by the poet are therefore thought by him as his work, a work he is responsible for and the author of. But, at the same time, this work manifests its own envelopment within the language of which it only appears as a new arrangement. The author’s work is not so much that of a demiurge but a mediation, a mediation between language and the work itself. As we know, Mallarmé often used the metaphor of the fold because poetry and verse, which are its main and most obvious operators, are only folds in language. Creating means folding, refolding and unfolding verbal material that already has its own folds, that is to say, its own operating laws and its own structures. Mallarmé’s aim was not to fold these structures according to his own will and desires to create original constructions by imposing them an arbitrary order. On the contrary, he simply wanted to produce, through these structures, new effects of language and writing, new dispositions, which had always existed as virtualities as well as predispositions. These effects are only movements and what one would call “camera shake” in photography. Creation is always a recreation and making poetry is simply remaking: remaking another way whose novelty nevertheless existed but was buried in words and in the ancestral laws of their assembly.

Writing poetically is less about producing verbal work than about activating language in order to present it as a foreign language. Writing poetically is therefore translating one’s own language into itself so that it appears different from itself, in “aspects” that we did not know. Writing poetically is therefore to remember, as one might say, to paraphrase Plato, to bring back the infinity of relations it has contained for all eternity and that we had somehow forgotten in the sedimentation and incorporation of practices that are only social: “The line that, with several sounds, recreates a complete word, new, unknown to the language and so to speak  incantatory, achieves this isolation of the word: denying, with a sovereign stroke, the elements of chance which has clung to the terms despite the artifice of their alternating immersion in sense and sonority, and causes you that feeling of surprise at never having heard such ordinary fragment of speech, at the same time as the reminiscence of the named object bathes in a new atmosphere” (Mallarmé, 2003e, p. 213) [ 4 ] .

Creation as Evocation and Scission

The poetic work is therefore limited because it only applies to letters and words, and because it limits itself to operate the language, that is to say, to arrange it in another way to make it operate another way.

This new operation is a new form of imitation, representation and meaning, the three of them being the natural task of language in its relationship to reality. This new operation is that of evocation. “To evoke, in an intended shadow, the tacit object, by allusive words, never direct, reducing themselves to an equivalent silence, constitutes an attempt near creation” (Mallarmé, 2003f, p. 251) [ 5 ] . The suggestion is a blurred and derealizing representation that distances the object insofar as what is imitated is not the object itself but the action it causes, the impression it makes, “the effect it produces” as the poet said in his letter of 30th October 1863, quoting Poe. The effect is threefold: physical effect (the impression “moves” the writing), psychological effect (the memory), sentimental effect (the feeling of estrangement, loss, and beyond, of death and nothingness). The suggestion or allusion then creates what Mallarmé poetically called “a handful of dust or reality without enclosing it,” which in turn produces a musicality (“the musicality of everything”), which the poet (a follower of Rousseau) has always sought until the end of his life. But this evocation results from the work on language and, in a paradigmatic manner for Mallarmé, from the verse so that the game of symmetries and returns breaks the usual illusion that language is transparent and refers directly to the obviousness of stable things and contents. “Herein lies the whole mystery: to pair things off and establish secret identities that gnaw at objects and wear them away in the name of a central purity. [ 6 ]

The work on words shows them in their materiality while it is precisely this materiality that seems to disappear when we communicate. The most original materiality is that of the page, that of the pause or the silence on which one writes and of which one speaks. The interval that is not said is therefore the very condition of the text and speech; allowing one to fix a quota on words, to put them together so that, although separate, they touch. But to showcase the role of the interval, the organization of words must not transgress but disperse the usual arrangements so that this new organization presents them as contingent, that is to say, as the result of a chance that is both “denied and remained” as Mallarmé said.

This discovery dates from 1866 as documented by the following letter (April 28th) expressing itself in an oxymoronic manner, using doubt and certainty, despair and confident exaltation: “Unfortunately, in the course of quarrying out the lines to this extent, I’ve come across two abysses, which fill me with despair. One is the Void, which I’ve reached without any knowledge of Buddhism and I’m still too distraught to be able to believe even in my poetry and get back to work, which this crushing awareness has made me abandon. Yes, I know, we are merely empty forms of matter, but we are sublime in having invented God and our soul. So sublime, my friend, that I want to gaze upon matter, fully conscious that it exists, and yet launching itself madly into Dream, despite its knowledge that Dream has no existence, extolling the Soul and all the divine impressions of that kind which have collected within us from the beginning of time and proclaiming, in the face of the Void which is truth, these glorious lies! That’s the plan of my lyrical volume and that might also be its title: The Glory of the Lie or The Glorious Lie. I shall sing it as one in despair! / If I live long enough! For the other void I’ve discovered is that of my chest. I really am not very well, and cannot breathe deeply, or with the pleasure of physical well-being.” [ 7 ]

Materialist, atheist, immanentist and monist, Mallarmé quite simply knew that ‘it is nothing that is the truth,” this nothing can be metaphysical (absence of principle) and even physical (the discomfort Mallarmé felt in his chest), but it is essentially linguistic and Mallarmé wanted to think and express it in a strictly literary way. The poetic text should not hide this nothing as do journalistic reports but must instead show it and introduce it everywhere according to this negative logic of scission, replacement and abolition and of what he continually called “quarrying.” Folding the language means hollowing it out, engraving in its very matter folds that had not yet occurred and that are so thin that the matter becomes lace. The writing of Mallarmé thinks itself as this highly critical movement of introduction, of intromission even, of the void that undermines from within all that men usually consider as solid, perennial and substantial: gods, things, the starry sky, the earth, ordinary language, language, press articles, an article of law, art criticism, concepts of philosophy, social relationships, economic relationships based on gold, etc. For Mallarmé, writing meant, without doubt, creating a work and even a Great Work, but (and this is why this Great Work will never exist) writing mainly means interfering in discourses to integrate in the language new effects that are new relationships still nascent and constantly in motion in order to show their destabilizing power.

“To introduce myself to your story
It’s as the frightened hero
If he touched with naked toe
A blade of territory”
(Mallarmé, 2003g, p. 43) [ 8 ] .

Beyond the romantic and even sexual dimension of the first quatrain of this sonnet dedicated to his mistress Méry Laurent in 1886, Mallarmé expressed the law of all human and literary action, undoubtedly heroic but frightening and frightened because it does not have pure and sovereign control: introducing itself into spontaneous movement of reality and words (movement in which we are caught, immersed and which we do not control) in order to include only variations, that is to say, oblique statements that are only discrepancies and new divides. In so doing, poetry continues, radicalizes and pushes to its limits the movement of the internal scission of reality, which Mallarmé saw everywhere: in the section of a verse that merely reflects the movement of a paper knife between two pages, the movement of the labourer’s pickaxe digging the earth, that of the sexual act, that of digging a tunnel or canal, that of a stock market crash, the explosion of a bomb on the walls of Parliament, that of an waved fan that opens and folds like a butterfly’s wing, that of a sunrise or sunset on the horizon, that of all the crises that I mentioned at the beginning, that which the arts have in common and constitutes a single theme of which the works are endless variations: drawing a line that breaks the pristine whiteness of the page, the canvas, the silence, the “beautiful hole” of the stage of a theatre, opera or dance; breaking their virginal whiteness to fertilize it and to show that it is the matrix of all meaning for man.

Creation as Modulation

For this rupture to generate the “almost vibratory disappearance” of a “fact of nature” according to the process of writing, it is necessary that the poem never ceases to continue within itself the incessant movement of fragmentation by which it constitutes itself. The arrangements of words, their ruptures and dispositions are so fine and so complex that the meanings of the text escape both author and reader. It escapes the author first as Mallarmé said in Crise de vers: “The pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who yields place to the words, immobilised by the shock of their inequality; they take light from mutual reflection, like an actual train of fire over precious stones, replacing the old lyric afflatus or the enthusiastic personal direction of the phrase” (Mallarmé, 2003e, p. 211) [ 9 ] . The author relinquishes his music inspiration, his own authority and his own control in the anonymity of the words he himself arranged and that yet seem to, “like cave walls” light up in “a reciprocity of fires distant and presented on the bias as contingency” (Mallarmé, 2003h, p. 233) [ 10 ] . In other words in La Musique et les Lettres: “Literature, like hunger, consists of suppressing the person writing” (Mallarmé, 2003a, p. 77) [ 11 ]  because the work itself acts through the interaction of its parts. The meaning of the work shows itself anonymously and in a non psychological manner, as an externality, without the lyricism of a topic that overflows and only exists on one side, without any really consistent, assignable or identifiable objects on the other side.

The disappearance (the omission) of the author that Mallarmé has long painfully experienced as the death of the self is echoed by those of the reader. If the author has engineered structures that escape him, the reader is submitted to an endless work, to constantly rereading the work, always discovering new meanings, condemned to “a series of deciphering processes” and therefore having to renounce the possibility of “cutting short.” The reader is summoned to complete the work and therefore to be, with the author, co-responsible for it or co-operating it. Between the text and the reader, there is a link of “participation” by which the one who reads the work not only rereads it but “almost rebuilds the text himself” (Mallarmé, 2003i, p. 227), that is to say, performing it like a musical score. As this execution or interpretation can be made in endlessly and constantly variable ways, Mallarmé concluded: “Strictly, I envisage […] reading as a desperate practice” (Mallarmé, 2003a, p. 67) [ 12 ] .

The literary effect is that of a double negation, that of the creator and that of the receiver, who disappear as autonomous subjects to only be instances or functions involved in the process of the work, which, without being self-sufficient (it is founded on a relationship) seems independent from it: “Impersonified, the volume, to the extent that one separates from it as author, does not demand a reader either. As such, please note, among human accessories, it takes place all by itself: finished, existing” (Mallarmé, 2003b, p. 217).

“Captives of an absolute formula that, of course, there is only what is,” Mallarmé thinks the universe and the work of which it is only a fragile effect in an almost tautological way: since “nothing takes place but the place,” if it is not “reconquered,” life is necessarily “doomed to the evidence of everything being the same” (Mallarmé, 2003a, p. 68). In this Mallarmean world where nature and language take place, “it cannot be added to; apart from cities, railway lines and several inventions of our making,” the objective for men and poets is not to create but rather to produce modulations of what exists and what is already modulated by itself and the self. In this world where “one has touched the verse” (Mallarmé, 2003a, p. 64) to the point that it “[…] almost ruptured itself” (Mallarmé, 2003e, p. 205), in this world where “a great harm has been caused to the association of people on earth” (Mallarmé, 2003a, p. 74) [ 13 ] , that is to say where crises make and unmake themselves without purpose or author, the artist is only a craftsman who is similar to the blacksmith but also and especially the labourers digging and “fertilizing uncultivated land” (Mallarmé, 2003j, p. 105) to build a railway in front of the house at Valvins.

The labourer of the verse can only add to nature because he now knows that the verse is irrevocably part of “our material” like the language that he works with. Only, instead of using the “double utensils, the shovel and pickaxe, sexual,” the poet-labourer uses the lightest tool but the one that requires the greatest reflexivity, the pen, which is the tool of the scribe. His action of construction through quarrying only consists of producing, at the surface of language, literary effects in all the meanings of the term that Mallarmé liked to superimpose: alphabetical, typographical, classical and humanist such as res literaria, literary in the modern sense and even epistolary if we consider that all completed texts of Mallarmé are addressed and offered, and that they depict the pure act of their address, of the conversation or dialogue that they establish and of the relationship that they are. Because, for this thought that attempts to remove all illusions or mystifications of creation, while it rests on a speculative conception of art, on an artistic and literary religion, the relationship is the substance without substance, unsubstantial, processual, always moving, constantly enveloping and never fully controllable of which the work is merely an ephemeral modality: what Mallarmé called “scintillation,” the poet wants to be the modest operator of this fire, a refined and virtuoso operator whose irony seems to be the most readily dissolving weapon, which he bequeathed to the majority of what we call “contemporary art.”

One can therefore clearly see, finally, how the critique of creation was brought here to its critical point: since poetry does not generate an object but is defined as an action, since it does not create a new language but exploits the potentialities of the a language that already exists, since it even produces a volume for nobody and by nobody, dreaming of the ideal of doubling reality into a supreme representation constantly modulating itself, since it is mainly based on the operation of fragmentation and finally on a practice of negation, Mallarmé’s poetry undoubtedly opened the way towards works defining or “de-defining” themselves as montages, actions and devices.

Such is Mallarmé’s discreation and the justification, in my view, of this term: the renewal and critical contestation of the requisits of the concept of creation. In other words, its abolition that should not be understood in the sense of suppression or destruction but in the purely Mallarmean sense of ironic suspension, which, in the same process of revival of contradictions, conserves and exceeds — exceeds and conserves —, without the prospect of any dialectic reconciliation.

Notes de bas de page   [ + ]

1. English translation: Mallarmé, 1998.
2. Letter dated 27th May 1867.
3. English translation: Mallarmé, 2001.
4. English translation: Mallarmé, 1999, p. 174.
5. English translation: Mallarmé cited in Kristeva, 1998, p. 34.
6. Letter dated 8th August 1891.
7. English translation: Mallarmé, S. (1988) in R. Lloyd (Ed. and Trans.), Selected Letters of Stéphane Mallarme (p. 60). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
8. English translation: A. S. Kline © 2004-2009.
9. English translation: Mallarmé cited in Symons & Ellman, 2004, p. 73.
10. English translation: Mallarmé cited in Cook, 1998, p. 73.
11, 12. English translation: Mallarmé, 2007.
13. English translation: Mallarmé, 2001, p. 44.


Mallarmé, S. (2003a). La Musique et les Lettres. In Mallarmé, S., Œuvres complètes, II. Paris: Gallimard. [English translations consulted: Mallarmé, S. (2001). Music and Letters. In M.-A. Caws (Ed.), Mallarmé in prose. New York: New Directions; Mallarmé, S. (2007). Divagations (B. Johnson, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press].

Mallarmé, S. (2003b). L’action restreinte. Dans Mallarmé, S., Œuvres complètes, II. Paris: Gallimard. [English translation consulted: Mallarmé, S. (1998) cited in Polish American Academic Quarterly, 13-14. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan].

Mallarmé, S. (2003c). Notes en vue du Livre. Dans Mallarmé, S., Œuvres complètes, I. Paris: Gallimard.

Mallarmé, S. (2003d). Coup de dés. Dans Mallarmé, S., Œuvres complètes, I. Paris: Gallimard.

Mallarmé, S. (2003e). Crise de vers. Dans Mallarmé, S., Œuvres complètes, II. Paris: Gallimard. [English translations consulted: Mallarmé, S. (1999). Crise de vers. In R. Lloyd, Mallarmé, The Poet and His Circle. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; Mallarmé, S. cited in Symons, A. & Ellman R. (2004). The Symbolist poet in literature. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing].

Mallarmé, S. (2003f). Magie. Dans Mallarmé, S., Œuvres complètes, II. Paris: Gallimard. [English translation consulted: Mallarmé, S. cited in Kristeva, J. (1998), The revolt of Mallarmé. In R. G. Cohn (Ed.), Mallarme in the Twentieth Century. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press].

Mallarmé, S. (2003g). M’introduire dans ton histoire. Dans Mallarmé, S., Œuvres complètes, I. Paris: Gallimard.

Mallarmé, S. (2003h). Le Mystère dans les Lettres. Dans Mallarmé, S., Œuvres complètes, II. Paris: Gallimard. [English translation consulted: Mallarmé, S. cited in Cook A. (1998), "Etendre, simplifier le monde": the philosophical purchase of Mallarmé. In R. G. Cohn (Ed.), Mallarme in the Twentieth Century. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press].

Mallarmé, S. (2003i). Le Livre, instrument spirituel. Dans Mallarmé, S., Œuvres complètes, II. Paris: Gallimard.

Mallarmé, S. (2003j). Conflit. Dans Mallarmé, S., Œuvres complètes, II. Paris: Gallimard.

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, Decreation and creation, published 13 June 2016


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