Stéphane Mallarmé died 118 years ago today. He wrote the letter below to his friend Eugène Lefébure, in May 1867, at age twenty-five, when he was working as a teacher in the provinces. It was, apparently, stressful, and Mallarmé came to feel that he’d entered “the Void”—a liberating (albeit terrifying) abyss of constant, torturous renewal. His Selected Letters are edited and translated from the French by Rosemary Lloyd.
This is what I heard my neighbor say this morning, as she pointed to the window on the opposite side of the street from her: “Gracious me! Madame Ramaniet ate asparagus yesterday.” “How can you tell?” “From the pot she’s put outside her window.” Isn’t that the provinces in a nutshell? Its curiosity, its preoccupations, and that ability to see clues in the most meaningless things—and such things, great gods! Fancy having to confess that mankind, by living one on top of the other, has reached such a pass!!—I’m not asking for the wild state, because we’d be obliged to make our own shoes and bread, while society permits us to entrust those tasks to slaves to whom we pay salaries, but I find intoxication in exceptional solitude … I’ll always reject all company so that I can carry my symbol wherever I go and, in a room full of beautiful furniture just as in the countryside, I can feel myself to be a diamond which reflects everything, but which has no existence in itself, something to which you are always forced to return when you welcome men, even if only to put yourself on the defensive … Read More