Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 20, 2012
Anna Sigrídur Arnar The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book, and the Transformation of Print Culture Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 428 pp.; 12 color ills.; 112 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226027012)

Bracingly original, Anna Sigrídur Arnar’s study positions Stéphane Mallarmé as a poet of engagement, for whom the book represented a critical instrument for social change. Contesting twentieth-century theorists who shape-shifted Mallarmé into a hermetic aesthete or a nihilist subversive, Arnar situates him within nineteenth-century debates about print culture and readership, and she views his conception of the book as an active response to the crises of fin-de-siècle France. Plotting her study around the poet’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), she approaches it from cross-linked historical and theoretical perspectives. Her wide-ranging, lucid analyses illuminate Mallarmé’s poetic practice and offer richly formulated insights into the period’s visual culture.

In the autobiographical letter sent to Paul Verlaine in 1885, Mallarmé regretted that his own writings had not comprised a book, which he characterized as something “architectural and premeditated,” but amounted to no more than an album—“an anthology of haphazard inspirations no matter how wonderful they may be” (in Stéphane Mallarmé, Œuvres complètes, ed., Bertrand Marchal, Paris: Gallimard, 1998, 1:788; quoted in Arnar, 29). Working from his opposition, Arnar explores nineteenth-century publishing practices to elucidate the formal and evaluative concepts associated with each term. Earlier in the century, great advances in technology had flooded the market with inexpensive publications—the album among them—that were assembled by accretion and produced for commercial consumption. That this industrial literature lacked the integrity of the book, and placed it at risk, had been decried by mid-century writers, including Charles Baudelaire. In an extended analysis, Arnar links Mallarmé and Baudelaire in terms of the significance they assigned to the book form, but distinguishes between the two poets in terms of their conception of the reader’s relation to the text.

In the same period, publishers capitalized on the new technologies to load their books with text-driven and text-dependent images. Serious writers, however, came to regard the addition of illustrations as a commercialized cheapening of the book and as a visual distraction that diminished the reader’s imaginative response to the text. Enter the Société des aquafortistes (Society of Etchers), formed in 1862 to establish the original etching as essentially different from the now-vulgarized reproductive print. Working with the publisher Alfred Cadart, the sociétaires produced portfolios of prints, which were prefaced by endorsements from leading writers of the day and made available in both deluxe and inexpensive versions. These strategies were meant to legitimize the status of the contemporary original etching (75) and to broaden its audience. Then, in 1869, Philippe Burty published his Sonnets et eaux-fortes (Sonnets and Etchings), which comprised pairs of works by contemporary poets and etchers. The placement of text and image on facing pages, each given “separate but equal space,” was a move to grant integrity and autonomy to the book illustration (99). Also, Burty issued the book in a limited edition and announced that the plates would be destroyed—a move that Arnar delineates as “a guarantee of quality control as well as an artificial means to ensure rarity and originality” (100).

Mallarmé’s involvement with print culture began in 1875 with the publication of Le Corbeau (The Raven). Featuring Mallarmé’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem and lithographs by Édouard Manet, Le Corbeau adopted strategies utilized by Cadart and Burty. A founding member of the Société des aquafortistes, Manet had contributed to Cadart’s portfolios as well as to Sonnets et eaux-fortes. These experiences informed the format of Le Corbeau, which was similarly shaped by concepts of autonomy and originality. Manet’s images maintain an independence from Mallarmé’s translation, and both painter and poet numbered and hand-signed each copy of the limited edition. In creating the prototype for the livre de peintre (artist’s book), a work that loosely associates images by a contemporary painter with text by a contemporary writer, Le Corbeau occupies a preeminent place in the history of book culture.

Turning to an analysis of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, Arnar considers how the poem’s unorthodox structure and evocative use of blank space demand a new kind of reading, in which the reader becomes active, creative, and empowered. In elucidating the singularity of this necessarily participatory process, she contrasts nineteenth-century pedagogical paradigms. Within the French educational system, the teaching of reading emphasized the rote memorization of the nation’s classical (rather than contemporary) texts. The shortcomings of this approach became the subject of particular concern after the Franco-Prussian War, when it was believed that part of Germany’s success stemmed from the superior education that its students received (151): whereas French students were limited in their readings and trained to be submissive, young Germans were encouraged to read and think with greater independence. Though Mallarmé had been educated in the French system, and worked within it as a teacher of English, he devised imaginative strategies to expand the students’ reading and to engage them in the text. In the classroom, he used poems by Poe, as well as nursery rhymes and proverbs, to enliven the process of language acquisition; for L’Anglais récréatif: Boîte pour apprendre l’Anglais en jouant et seul (Recreational English: Kit for Learning English While Playing Alone), he created handmade, interactive games to convey the essentials of English grammar.

From participatory reading and L’Anglais récréatif, Arnar moves to the image that inaugurates Un coup de dés and relates the metaphor of dice to the poem’s construction and to Mallarmé’s changing the rules for “the game of reading” (168). Setting up a multiplicity of alternative readings, Un coup de dés prompts the reader to create new strategies of negotiation and, thus, to play the central role in constructing “order or meaning in the text” (168). After surveying the hostility of French critics toward the difficulties of Mallarmé’s writing, Arnar concludes that his decision to publish Un coup de dés in the British journal Cosmopolis (1897) derived from his reluctance to “entrust” a poem that entailed risk-taking and multiple meanings to an audience schooled in a passive relation to a text (171).

The following chapter considers the moribund state of book design in fin-de-siècle France, which became evident at the Exposition internationale du livre moderne (International Exhibition of the Modern Book), held in 1896. In the exhibition, illustrated books from Belgium and the United Kingdom stood out as exemplifying the ways in which new technologies could be fused with avant-garde design and could serve as instruments for social reform. Tracing the reception of several of these books—projects that involved the Belgian artist Henry van de Velde and the British designer and book publisher William Morris, among others—Arnar contrasts their inventiveness with the weaknesses of French publications. What was lacking in France, contemporary critics said, was an understanding of the illustrated book as an integrated, unified whole; in longstanding tradition each person involved in producing a book (writer, artist, designer, typesetter) worked in isolation from the others (189).

In that same year, an exhibition of etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs was organized by the dealer Ambroise Vollard, who like Cadart and the Société des aquafortistes promoted the original print. Including works by the contemporary painter-printmakers Paul Gauguin and the Nabis, Vollard’s exhibition took the unusual approach of displaying the prints both in limited-edition albums and as independent works of art hung on the gallery’s walls. At the time, Vollard was working with Mallarmé and Odilon Redon on a book version of Un coup de dés. On the face of it, the collaboration seems fortuitous, as the publisher, the poet, and the printmaker shared a commitment to the principles of the livre de peintre. Linking back to the history of the French illustrated book, Arnar cogently observes that its highly criticized individualist design now assumed positive significance as a premeditated avant-garde strategy for engendering “‘parallel’ relationships between text and image” (195).

Though the Vollard edition of Un coup de dés remained unpublished at Mallarmé’s death in 1898, several attempts have been made to reconstruct it on the basis of the poet’s corrections to the proofs. Working from Mitsou Ronat and Tibor Papp’s reconstruction (Paris: Change errant/d’atelier, 1980), Arnar analyzes the ways in which Mallarmé, working as the book’s designer, radically altered and refined the poem’s mise-en-place. In Cosmopolis each page of the poem had been treated as a discrete unit, but for the Vollard edition Mallarmé reconceptualized the layouts as double-page spreads, with some words and phrases migrating across the book’s vertical seam. Wanting the layout “to approximate the operations of thought itself” (206), he floated lines of text within large areas of blank space, so that the whiteness of the page, rather than functioning as a traditionally static framing device, became an active, evocative “oceanlike” element (212).

Arnar’s descriptions of the effects of these layouts bring rich insight and depth to this most difficult of Mallarmé’s works. Using the concept of “the page as an electrical field” (217), she cites numerous examples of the poem’s allusions to electrical phenomena and then fathoms the conceptual purposes they serve: “For Mallarmé, electrical metaphors functioned as an invisible force uniting the dispersed fragments of the text—but the fluid and variable nature of this force simultaneously encompasses dispersion and synthesis, fragmentation and cohesion, mystery and revelation” (218). Images of electricity also appear in his descriptions of reading, where they “become powerful metaphors for the process of reception and cognition” and replicate “the experiences of modernity, including change, movement, and ephemeral encounters” (221).

In his 1895 essay “Le Livre: Instrument spirituel” (The Book: Intellectual Instrument), Mallarmé likened the dynamism of the newspaper’s structure to “an electrical charge” (Mallarmé, Œuvres complètes, 2: 225; quoted in Arnar, 221), and in other writings he viewed the often maligned mass medium of the newspaper as requiring a new kind of reading and thus offering “valuable lessons for writers seeking relevance in the democratic age” (228). The newspaper is also related to his radical typesetting of Un coup de dés: the variations in type size and the isolation of words and short phrases have their analogue in the newspaper’s use of headlines and boldfaced fragments. As for the poem’s page size, Mallarmé envisioned it as being fairly large—perhaps not as oversized as that of the standard newspaper, but large enough to require a different relation between reader and text than had been offered by the previously published, small-sized volumes of his poems (236).

Pushing the envelope of le livre de peintre, Un coup de dés is widely regarded as one of the first livres d’avant-garde, a more experimental collaboration between writer and artist, which, as Arnar describes, “focuses not only on the materiality of reading but on self-generated change and transformation” (238). And yet in the end Vollard seems to have lost faith in the book’s viability, which Arnar interprets as a reflection of the fundamental tension between his ideas for a livre de peintre and Mallarmé’s more extreme formulation of a livre d’avant-garde. Thus, Vollard abandoned Un coup de dés, and for his first publishing venture he banked on the more accessible, and sensual, Parallèlement, which featured poems by Paul Verlaine and illustrations by Pierre Bonnard (1900).

The penultimate chapter moves beyond Un coup de dés to the fragmentary notes Mallarmé made for the theatrical staging of a poetic Book (the capitalization is his). Published by Jacques Scherer as Le “Livre” de Mallarmé (Paris: Gallimard, 1957), the manuscript comprises handwritten, sometimes illegible thoughts, cryptic sketches, and mathematical formulae. These concern a public performance of the Book, which, after subtly analyzing the notes, Arnar interprets as an attempt to liberate the Book from objecthood as well as to demolish the boundaries between popular culture and what was considered high art. Relating the project to Richard Wagner’s operas, to the Third Republic’s centennial celebrations of 1889, and to the utopian visions of French anarchists, Arnar suggests that for Mallarmé “no other cultural practice or political force . . . will equal the Book’s ability to provide appropriate structures to liberate and support humanity” (277).

The Book as Instrument ends with reflections on a few “reroutings” that the Mallarméan book engendered. After considering such topics as Alfred Jarry, Marcel Duchamp, Aspen magazine, and Marshall McLuhan, Arnar arrives at the most recent manifestations of Mallarmé’s “liberated book”: the digitized, disembodied publications available on the World Wide Web and via devices such as the Kindle and iPad. Though raising questions for the future, she sees the ebook as an instrument that holds out the prospect of unprecedented social and cultural change and concludes by asking the reader to “imagine the possibilities of the creative communal transformations, established not only horizontally over time but also vertically across geographies and demographics, that the networked book could spark” (296).

Arnar’s study is both deeply researched and fearlessly nonlinear. Throughout, she circles through her arguments—broaching, expanding, linking back, folding forward—a Mallarméan strategy that encourages an unusually active relation between reader and text. The range of her references, the elegance of her methodology, and the acuity of her analyses reveal the long years of engagement that have gone into The Book as Instrument. As a result, Arnar has succeeded in writing a highly refined intervention into the history of visual culture.

Jane Mayo Roos
Professor Emerita, Hunter College and the Graduate Center of CUNY