Shipwrecks in Modern European Painting and Poetry: Radical Mobilisation of the Motif as Political Protest

By | 16 August 2019

Mallarmé: shipwreck as metapoetic motif in ‘Brise marine’/ ‘Sea breeze’ (1864) and ‘Un coup de dés’/ ‘A throw of the dice’ (1897)

Back in 1864 it’s a young Stéphane Mallarmé, exiled from Paris in his first English teacher’s post to what he experiences as grim, Mistral-blasted Tournon, in the Ardèche. He’s ensconced far from his literary friends with his wife Marie and baby Geneviève, and while his seafaring has been limited to a Channel crossing, he daydreams of being lost at sea on a lurching steamer. Under the lashing of storms he dares the vessel to be progressively stripped of her masts – we hear nothing more of the functionality of the ‘steam’ engine, although there’s not much room in a sonnet for realist continuities. Far from dreaming any Crusoe-form of arrival, the poet is irreversibly cast away from the domestic trap of wife breastfeeding her [sic] child – and finally at sonnet’s end, there’s great relief in being terminally adrift: No masts! No masts! nor fertile isles and But oh my heart how the sailors’ song beguiles! (Mallarmé 1864 ‘Brise marine’/ ‘Sea Breeze’ Trans. MMC.) Of course ‘Brise marine’ is foremost about the frustrated escape to poetry, but it’s also a pastiche of Baudelairian ennui before the domestic, from a young man, who at this stage in his career writes to his mate Cazalis, ‘Ici-bas a l’odeur de la cuisine’ / ‘This world smells [too much] of the kitchen’ (Mallarmé 1863).

What seems to have happened is that not only is the domestic goddess negated, but so are the Sirens: it’s the sailors adrift who sing. It seems that it’s only as a shipwrecked subject that the poet can receive this song in his yearning heart.

Three decades later, Mallarmé imagines the whole of the poet’s enterprise on an oceanic scale in Un coup de dés / A throw of the dice, where the abyss has swallowed shipwreck and the ‘Master’ [Captain] textually resolves and retreats as cadaverous forearm (‘cadavre par le bras’), paralysed before the task of the dice throw. With tourbillon d’hilarité et d’horreur / whirlpool of hilarity and horror insinuated into this superb musical score, Mallarmé makes of the oceanic abyss the active emblem of the absurdity of human endeavour in a godless world. Sole remnant of the whole catastrophe of puny virile reason (‘petite raison virile’) is the defiant little feather, the fragile boast associated with the suicidal and aboulic Prince Hamlet, ‘bitter prince of the reef’. The hesitant feather is synecdoche for Mallarmé of the poet’s gamble, doing its dance of the what-if (‘comme si’): the pivot of the ‘supreme game’ (Mallarmé 1887). In Mallarmé’s image-repertoire, the feminised gutter between the open, wing-like pages of the book hosts the seething, foaming potential of the abyss. To pack the world into a poem depends on this extreme reduction down to the feather / pen / plume / – that is, the elocutionary elimination of the poet (Mallarmé 1887). What is played out at some extreme altitude, before and beyond contingency, before the universe ticks its countdown to extinction, is perhaps the total calculation. Perhaps a constellation in formation … Perhaps the site itself – of writing will have been incited into being. But nothing will have taken place / but the place …

Kafka’s ecstatic negativity in the ‘Silence of the Sirens’, and again, the Mallarméan gamble

In an era where posthumanist perspectives invite the abandonment of anthropocentric philosophy, daydreaming that the world is made to end in a book can look like a rather shocking aristocratic reverie (Sartre 1988 [1953]), albeit one celebrating a world of musical relations through the erasure of the human. However, Mallarmé’s A throw of the dice isn’t without resonance with Kafka’s Ulysses in ‘The Silence of the Sirens’, whose elation in anticipation of missing the Sirens’ song, lends such rapt beauty to his face, that in seeing him, the Sirens actually forget to sing. As the catastrophic WW1 draws to an end this ‘silence’ can be read as a blockage of transcendent meaning. Yannis Gabriel (No date) points out in his suggestive meditation ‘Kafka and Ulysses: when the Sirens fall silent’ that it’s a story of multiple misperceptions, not least of the reader’s doomed struggle to find a code that might keep such paradoxes simultaneously in play. Like Mallarmé’s in a way, Kafka’s prose poem depends on multiple erasure: the ‘purity’ of the silencing of the song answers the elision of the labouring crew: the mast-tied hero is rapt in imagined music that plays out solipsistically in the labyrinth his ear, while all is premised on the muted danger of shipwreck and the marauding possibility of the master-navigator’s demise. But, if Kafka has his Ulysses ecstatic before the Sirens’ silence, Mallarmé negates the authorial anecdote, the subject, the persona, narrative continuity, and versification itself (Mallarmé Crise de vers 1897), inaugurating a revolutionary poetics, opening out the page as site of shipwreck where a flotilla of fragments dances over the abyss.

In this final, magnificent poem, a hypothesis scintillates via a secondary cluster of questions in the imperfect subjunctive, bearing coquettishly their stellar circumflexes against all that threatens the idea of a necessary universe:

                                                            LE NOMBRE 

                                          autrement qu'hallucination éparse d'agonie 

                                                sourdant que nié et clos quand apparu 
                                          par quelque profusion répandue en rareté 

                                                                                                SE CHIFFRÂT-IL 

                                          évidence de la somme pour peu qu'une 


suggesting that perhaps, at some ‘superior elevation’, the constellations might have cryptically configured the code (‘le nombre’ / ‘the number’) of the game – the one with the highest stakes, namely poetry.

Given that the Arabic etymology of ‘le hasard’ / ‘chance’ points to ‘the game of dice’, (Kristeva 1974), then the kernel sentence tying the whole 21-page composition together asserts at once that ‘a throw of the dice will never abolish chance’ and that ‘a throw of the dice will never abolish the game of dice’ … Since the poem ends with ‘Every thought emits a dice throw.’ (‘Toute Pensée émet un Coup de Dés. ’), perhaps one could extrapolate from this a relationship between parole and langue, between utterance and code, which suggests that the tautology is only apparent, that its excess, its supplement (Derrida 1967) is always productive – definitive meaning being endlessly deferred, despite the full-stop Mallarmé places at poem’s end.

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