Even within the context of the always provocative work of Badiou, his reading of Un coup de dés cannot fail to strike the reader as audacious. Coming after eighteen densely-argued chapters whose expositions and exegeses sought to expose the intrication of mathematics and philosophy, the introduction, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, of ‘a poem by Mallarmé’ is as much of a surprise as it is, perhaps, a relief to the weary reader.
This uninitiated reader, asking himself what place Mallarmé’s notoriously contorted poetic productions could have within a philosophy which has wagered all on the subtractive power of mathematics in its superlative clarity (and sets the latter in a relation of ‘tacit rivalry’ with the poem) might well answer that, just as, notoriously, anything can be proved with figures, so the mischievous exegete can call Mallarmé’s more obscure writings to the defence of any philosophical position. As a poignant example, we can read Deleuze in an early work employing Mallarmé’s image of the fan to introduce the implicative relation of Life with the lives that are folded within it.
As Mallarmé himself stated, the poem is ‘a mystery whose key the reader must seek’; or as Badiou has it, ‘There is a certain element of the detective novel…what crime, what catastrophe, what enormous misadventure is indicated by these clues?’ [BE 191]. The reader is forewarned that what follows is more than a simple deduction—error is possible.
In fact, between Comte (and Taine) on one side and Swedenborg on the other, between an oppressive positivism—obscene, commercial—and a neoromantic mysticism—seductive yet lacking the precision and discipline behoving the poet—the symbolist aesthetic was bound from the start to diverge from the properly oracular or illuminist tradition to seek a new mathesis, a mental discipline and a corresponding practice, which would be neither that of pathos nor that of logos. So, whereas for Baudelaire it was still more or less a matter of direct revelation, for Mallarmé the work of poetry became a punishing labour whose inhumanly high standards consigned him to hover perpetually between sterility and transcendence.
It is this continual invention or search for a definition of the poetic art, to the poimnt where the poem no longer expresses or invokes but seeks a sensuous exposition of the pure lines that articulate reality, that, for Badiou, allows modern poetry to escape definitively from pathos.
But upon closer examination of Badiou’s extremely selective group of poets, this apparent redemption of poetry from the severe excommunication to which Plato consigned it doesn’t seem quite so generous. It simply flips poetry from pathos directly into logos. An impression that is reinforced by his extremely selective reading of them.
Mallarmé’s crowning ‘failure’, Un coup de dés, consists of the painstaking deployment of a constellation of semantic, syntactic, and typographical energies: phonic and lexicographical particles are held in tension across pages, creating the waves of intensity that course through the text.
And doesn’t this musical verse also consist in a manipulation of tone, of sound, an attempt to find the ringing ‘prime word’ that sets vibrating the great memory of language—in striking the right note(s) that would resonate the entire hazardously accumulated abstract body of linguistic matter, the matter of culture, rendering its lines of articulation luminous, if only for the duration of a single word?
Badiou does in fact succeed in convincing us that the poetic resonances, indeed amplifications, between Mallarmé’s thought and his own, amount to far more than opportunism or hazard. But if he succeeds in this, there is no miracle at work: it is no doubt because the evolution of his philosophical thought took place in an atmosphere already imbued with a lifelong familiarity with Mallarmé’s work: there is no relation of forced application here, rather Badiou’s philosophical themes themselves emerged through the effort of unravelling Mallarmé just as much as through the long nights poring over textbooks on set theory.
All the same, it is necessary to mention the aspects of the work which this reading leaves unremarked: not to demand that Badiou account for the whole effect of the poem, as if this were even possible, but to help us to understand in what consists the severity of his interpretation, and what it leaves behind as mere residue.
Rather than the portico of the ruined temple through which we enter Badiou’s magnum opus—where are inscribed the founding intuitions of the one and the multiple—let’s imagine ourselves before the temple of Nature whose ‘living pillars sometimes allow confused phrases to pass through; Man passes there through forests of symbols which observe him with familiar gazes’. Because Mallarmé belongs to the aftershock of the frisson nouveau brought to French poetry by Baudelaire, and in particular the promise of Correspondances, in which the above lines appear. This is the promise that the poetic pursuit of relations of analogy and universal symbolism could reveal a universe as luminously distinct and as irrecusably real as that of mathematics, but placed well beyond the limited sphere of the latter. Through a disciplined deciphering and reduction, poetry was to seek the pure concepts that structure the absolute.
Now, we have to remark that in the prose explication offered by Badiou, these potentials seem ultimately to be discharged, neutralised, and implicitly rendered redundant. It’s not clear whether Badiou is suggesting that the poem itself is simply an argument overlaid by linguistic flourishes.
It is certainly fair to say, though, that in unfolding and explicating Mallarmé’s own text, Badiou tends as a consequence to implicitly deflate any claims made on behalf of poetic language, to the benefit of formalised language. Thus the practice of poetry as distinct equally from invocatory intuition and formalised conceptual thought—as precisely the indecisive in-between, neither animal nor number—is not sufficiently upheld.
The danger of erring on the side of logos, and this despite Badiou’s own protestations to the contrary, is one of reducing everything that is not conceptual thought to a decoration of or a route toward conceptual thought. If the poem is more than this, then the philosopher must somehow account for, or at least indicate, its excess over the concept, and admit at least in this one instance, that the translucid transmission of knowledge, of formal symbolism, gives way, in certain obscure regions, to rhythmic contagions, vagabond significations, and symbolic flights.
In fact there is every difference between the symbol which, steeped in what Yeats called the ‘great memory’, owes its energy to the fathomless density of historical and mythological association, and the axiomatically-defined symbols of a mathematical corpus. Presumably the former, for Badiou, are tainted by their ‘revelling in meaning’, in verbal, onomatopoeic, and semantic transits, and by anthropological artefacts.
But what does this mean for the poet’s self-understanding?
Perhaps to the inevitably myopic ‘working mathematician’ whose quotidian manipulations contribute little to the thinking of number, we might add the analogous figure of the ‘working poet’ who, in writing, does not yet understand what it is that poetry thinks or Is capable of thinking. It seems that poets are submitted to a disciplinary injunction which would have them, abandon, so to speak, their trade, if they would think its truths. The history of poetry would enact its ontological revolution as blindly as the history of mathematics; it would take a Badiou to finally explain to Mallarmé what he had been doing.
There is no doubt that the severe standards to which the ‘conditions’ are submitted can appear in danger of repeating an old philosophical condescension toward the more ‘worldly’ professions. Badiou himself is hardly restrained in this regard, speaking of the ‘commercial usages’ which consign language to a relation of ‘vain and prosperous reality’. He takes to far greater extremes than Mallarmé himself the idea of ‘giving a purer meaning to the words of the tribe’. This ‘completion’ of the Mallarméan operation, wiping out any vestiges of analogical and symbolic thinking therein, is a most characteristically Badiousian epuration sauvage. But it was precisely through the common fund of tribal symbols that we were to attain access to what the poem proposed.
For Badiou, the poem needs the philosophical explication in order that it can carry out the operation of (symbolically transmissible) thought secreted within it. But, returning to the importance of Mallarmé for Badiou’s own development, we shouldn’t forget that this philosophy had need of the poem—of those effects of the poem which, ultimately, cannot be distilled into conceptual discourse—in order to provoke, to catalyse that very discourse, to raise the philosopher to the place from where, in turn, he interprets the poem. Which is the condition?
‘Man passes here through forests of symbols which observe him with familiar gaze’: it is this journey from the everyday situation of language, however ‘commercial’, toward the purity of the concept, which goes largely unmarked by Badiou; it is the ladder to be discarded. Here, however, lies the process—neither a mystical initiation nor a mathematical demonstration—by which poetry provokes thought.