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 …
I think that to be truly a man, to be nature capable of thought, one must think with one’s entire body, which creates a full, harmonious thought, like those violin strings vibrating directly with their hollow wooden box. As thoughts are produced by the brain alone (which I so abused last summer and part of this winter), they now appear to me like airs played on the high part of the E-string without being strengthened by the box,—which pass through and disappear without creating themselves, without leaving a trace of themselves. Indeed, I no longer remember any of those sudden ideas I had last year. On Easter day, when I was suffering from an extreme headache, as a result of working with my brain alone (stimulated by coffee, for it can’t begin on its own and as for my nerves, they were probably too weary to receive any impression from outside), I tried not to think with my head any more, and, with a despairing effort, I stiffened all my nerves (as a pectus) to produce a vibration, or an impression—and, in that way I sketched out a poem long dreamed of. Since then, I’ve said to myself, in the hours of the essential synthesis, “I’m going to work with the heart” … Truly I am broken down into my constituent parts, and when I think that that is necessary to have a very unified view of the Universe! Otherwise one feels no other unity than that of one’s life. In a museum in London there is “the price of a man”: a long box, with numerous pigeonholes in which can be found starch, phosphorous, flour, bottles of water, alcohol—and great pieces of artificial gelatin. I’m such a man.
From the depths of its sandy burrow, the cricket,
Watching them pass by, redoubles its song.
Hitherto the cricket used to astonish me, it seemed slight as an introduction to a magnificent line … I knew only the English cricket, a sweet-singing caricaturist. It was not until yesterday that I heard in the young wheat that sacred voice of the innocent earth, already more unified than that of the bird, that son of the trees in the solar night, which has something of the stars and the moon, and a little of death. But above all how much more unified it is than the voice of a woman, who walked and sang before me, and through whose voice one could see a thousand words in which it vibrated—a voice pregnant with the Void! All the happiness the earth possesses in not being broken down into matter and spirit was contained in the unique sound of the cricket.