Bollack, Jean. 2016. The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan. Trans. C. Porter and S. Tarrow with B. King. Edited by C. Koenig, L. Muellner, G. Nagy, and S. Pollock. Hellenic Studies Series 73. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BollackJ.The_Art_of_Reading.2016.
22. A Sonnet, a Poetics—Mallarmé: “Le vierge, le vivace …”*
Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui!
The type of poetry Mallarmé has adopted here implies an intention. This intention is entirely deposited in an irreducible movement toward abstraction. This aim brings the poet all the more overtly into competition with philosophy, in that we are not dealing with a form of philosophical poetry. It suffices to consider the rigor in the poetic redefinition of the notions and their connections within the framework of a system. The syntax is not disjointed; it is not subject to the arbitrariness of untrammeled violence (legitimized in Finas 1961:32). The aujourd’hui (“today”) placed at the threshold of the composition can be posited as a precise temporal entity. The context leads us to see represented in the poem something like an order of things, the dynamism of life or the reality of nature, life in its constancy and its perpetuation, opposed to art. The aujourd’hui does not mark a particular moment in lived experience. It stretches infinitely to the point of reigning uninterrupted, without past or future.
Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.
The swan appears in counterpoint. It has not been directly at issue up to now, except implicitly through the aviary gestures that situate the poetic momentum. The adventure is initiated here by a narrative. What came before set forth the framework, the preliminaries. The opposition is introduced with the emergence of the bird; its deliverance is accomplished in a strongly marked distancing. The theme is reversed with the triumph of winter, every threat set aside. No overflowing of the perceptible in proliferation. The swan guarantees purity, a withdrawal accomplished. As the choice of the passage to liberated language has been made, the swan is the master of the kingdom, the author of the surpassing, the conqueror of a truer world. The transition has enthroned immobility. The liberating aim of the words has been turned back with the swan; this aim escapes the destructive succession of natural creations.
Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l’espace infligée à l’oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.
The bird is cut in two; it is divided between its neck, held up straight, and its plumage, trapped in the earth. Elevation, separated from natural movement, transcends itself. The primary division is reproduced in the conquered realm, changing its nature. There are now two fastenings, one downward and the other upward. The one is left behind; it allows the other to propagate itself. Space opens up, flight unfolds there, exploring all the possibilities of ascension. The upward thrust claims the entire network of movements, all the entanglements possible; it is vanquished by the unique power of a distant resistance. It takes advantage of the irresistible support of the double fastening, in which anchoring and elevation come together. The opening disavows itself, welcoming also its negation. Thus speech triumphs through its gravity over space; it imposes its law on space.
Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s’immobilise au songe froid de mépris
Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne.
The apotheosis is outlined; it is developed as a stunning masquerade in the conceit of the sonnet. At its culminating point, the fixation of the words, called to structure space, has allowed an emblem to rise into the heights. The bird has not positioned this sign or the writing that the sign transfers and retraces. The constellation that bears the name Cygnus, the Swan, is already there, installed in the sky, like the other stellar figures, preceding poetic elocution. The bird, or what remains of it—namely, that into which it has been reduced and purified—has rejoined the constellation, stripped of all substance. The “phantom” is the sketch, released not from the shadows, but from an empyrean region, a figure for light adapted to its final destination.
Will it rend with a blow of its dizzying wing
This hard lake, forgotten yet haunted beneath
By the transparent glacier of unreleased flights!
A bygone day’s swan now remembers it is he
Who, magnificent yet in despair struggles free
For not having sung of the regions of life
When the ennui of winter’s sterility gleamed.
All his neck will shake off this white agony space
Has inflicted upon the white bird who denied it,
But not the ground’s horror, his plumage inside it.
A phantom assigned by his gloss to this place,
Immobile he stands, in the cold dream of scorn
That surrounds, in his profitless exile, the Swan.
N.B. Translations interpolated in the text may diverge slightly from Johnson’s translation, in order to bring out additional dimensions of the phrasing.]
J’ay vescu, j’ay rendu mon nom assez insigne,
Ma plume vole au ciel pour estre quelque signe
Loin des appas mondains qui trompent les plus fins.
Also cited in Marchal 1998:1187.