no ptyx

― for Eric Gans

    In 1887, Stéphane Mallarmé published a sonnet composed in the form of an allegory of itself. Its outer parts, the first quatrain and the second tercet, comprised a frame that contained the inner parts, the second quatrain and the first tercet. Their relation represented the way whereby the literal subject matter of the poem, a window reflected in the mirror in a darkened room, contained the nighttime sky. To complicate his task further, the poet chose to alternate in the quatrains the masculine rhymes in ‘ix’ and ‘yx’ that ended with a consonant, with feminine rhymes in ‘ore’ that ended in a silent e, inverting their genders to feminine ‘ixe’ and ‘yxe’ alternated with masculine ‘or’ in the tercets. The French vocabulary is ill suited to supplying rhymes in ‘ix/yx’. In response to this deficiency, Mallarmé invested the word ptyx with a novel meaning. His usage seemed at first a hapax legomenon within French literature, a term thitherto unexpressed in its language. But in ancient and modern Greek, πτύξ stood for a layer, a plate, a fold, or a writing tablet. In particular, it designated a special kind of a fold, such as may be found in a seashell. In fact, Victor Hugo already had drawn his inspiration from this term to employ Ptyx as a proper name in La Légende des siècles. Mallarmé had something very different in mind. His ptyx was not any given being, place, or thing, but a special kind of object. Its very nature inhered in its absence:

Ses purs ongles très haut dédiant leur onyx,
LAngoisse, ce minuit, soutient, lampadophore,
Maint rêve vespéral brûlé par le Phénix
Que ne recueille pas de cinéraire amphore
Her pure nails sprung up exalting their onyx,
Anxiety, this midnight, bearing light, sustains,
In twilight many dreams burnt up by the Phoenix
Whose smoky ashes no sepulchral urn contains
Sur les crédences, au salon vide : nul ptyx
Aboli bibelot dinanité sonore,
(Car le Maître est allé puiser des pleurs au Styx
Avec ce seul objet dont le Néant shonore.)
Atop the sideboards, in the empty room: no ptyx,
That voided toy of vibrant nonsense, left inside,
(Because the Master’s gone to draw the tears from Styx
With that exclusive object wherein Naught takes pride.)
Mais proche la croisée au nord vacante, un or
Agonise selon peut-être le décor
Des licornes ruant du feu contre une nixe,
In vacant north seen through the casement frames, a gold
May agonize at times, within the setting, to behold
Fire-breathing unicorns arrayed against a nix,
Elle, défunte nue en le miroir, encor
Que, dans loubli fermé par le cadre, se fixe
De scintillations sitôt le septuor.
She, lifeless naked mirror image, repetition
Whom in the twinkling framed forgetting, is to fix
Through sparkling timed in septet, composition.
― Stéphane Mallarmé, Œuvres complètes, édition présentée, établie et annotée par Bertrand Marchal, tome I, Gallimard: Bibliothéque de la Pléiade, 1998 (MOC I), pp. 37-38, cf. p. 98 ― translated by MZ

The poem was over two decades in the making. Originally it was entitled Sonnet allégorique de lui-même. The title spelled out its nature as a sonnet allegorical of itself. The coincidence of the grammatical gender of the sonnet with the anatomical gender of its author suggested the extension of the allegory from the poem to the man. The literal reading yielded something ostensibly unrelated. At the first approach, the original version of the poem read as a convoluted description of an empty room:

La Nuit approbatrice allume les onyx
De ses ongles au pur Crime, lampadophore,
Du soir aboli par le vespéral Phoenix
De qui la cendre na de cinéraire amphore.
The Night’s abettingly igniting the onyx,
While pure Crime holds the torch up to her nails,
The evening, voided thus by the twilight Phoenix,
Whose smoky ashes no sepulchral urn contains.
Sur les consoles, en le noir Salon : nul ptyx
Insolite vaisseau dinanité sonore,
Car le Maître est allé puiser de leau du Styx
Avec tous les objets dont le Rêve shonore.
Atop the sideboard, in the black Salon: no ptyx,
Unwonted vessel of sweet nonsense, left inside,
(Because the Master’s gone, and water’s drawn from Styx
With all the objects wherein Dream takes pride.)
Et selon la croisée au Nord vacante, un or
Néfaste incite pour son beau cadre une rixe
Faite dun dieu que croit emporter une nixe
According to the casement, vacant north, a gold
Somber, incites in its fine frame a lurid fix
Wherein a god might be abducted by a nix,
En lobscurcissement de la glace, décor
De labsence, sinon que sur la glace encor
De scintillations le septuor se fixe.
The mirror darkening the setting, will enfold
The vacancy, though settled down therein, controlled
Through sparkling septet, frozen framed its starry mix.
MOC, p. 131 ― translated by MZ

The word ptyx stood out in both versions of the poem. This situation caused a good deal of backstage anxiety in friendly correspondence:

    Enfin, comme il se pourrait toutefois que, rythmé par le hamac, et inspiré par le laurier, je fisse un sonnet, et que je n’ai que trois rimes en ix, concertez-vous pour m’envoyer le sens réel du mot ptyx&nbsp: on m’assure qu’il n’existe dans aucune langue, ce que je préfér[er]ais de beaucoup afin de me donner le charme de le créer par la magie de la rime. Ceci, Bour et Cazalis, chers dictionnaires de toutes les belles choses, dans le plus bref delai, je vous en supplie avec l’impatience « d’un poëte en quête d’une rime ». Je ne vois presque personne ici, n’étant pas tout à fait fait comme ces félibres ; manque de livres, et vous ne seriez pas mes amis, si vous ne remplaciez tout cela. Décidément ― et c’est désolant ! ― je ne puis vivre qu’avec les absents ― ou peut-être (plutôt), qu’avec vous, qui êtes absents.
    —Lettre de Stéphane Mallarmé à Eugène Lefébure, 3 mai 1868 in Stéphane Mallarmé, Correspondance, 1862-1871 (C I), recueillie, classée et annotée par Henri Mondor avec la collaboration de Jean-Pierre Richard, Paris: Gallimard, 1959, p. 274; MOC I, pp. 728-729
    Lastly, however as it could be that, given my rhythm by the hammock, and inspired by the bay-tree, I made a sonnet, and that I have only three rhymes in ix, put your heads together to send me the real meaning of the word ptyx: I am assured that it does not exist in any language, which I [would] greatly prefer, so as to avail myself of the charm of creating it through the magic of the rhyme. Do this, Bour and Cazalis, dear dictionaries of all beautiful things, within the shortest time, I beg you with the impatience “of a poet in search of a rhyme”. I see almost nobody here, being formed altogether unlike these southern scriveners; and lack books, and you would not be my friends, if you do not take the place of all that. Definitely ― and it is disconcerting! ― I could live only with the absent ones ― or perhaps (rather), only with you, who are absent.
    ― translated by MZ

Lefébure was generaly unavailing. His familiar refrain to Mallarmé was to do less well so as to do better: « Si vous pouviez faire moins bien, vous feriez mieux peut-être. » Voltaire has been attributed with the maxim that the best is the enemy of the good: « Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. » His actual words amounted to an epitome of hedonism, repudiating Plato and Dante alike:

    Le plus grand bien est celui qui nous délecte avec tant de force qu’il nous met dans l’impuissance totale de sentir autre chose, comme le plus grand mal est celui qui va jusqu’à nous priver de tout sentiment. Voilà les deux extrêmes de la nature humaine, et ces deux moments sont courts.
    Il n’y a ni extrêmes délices ni extrêmes tourments qui puissent durer toute la vie : le souverain bien et le souverain mal sont des chimères.
    ― Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique, BIEN (SOUVERAIN BIEN), Garnier, 1967, p. 53
    The greatest good is that, which delights us with such force that it makes us utterly incapable of feeling any thing else; just as the greatest evil is that, which deprives us of all feeling. Here are two extremes of human nature, and these two moments are brief.
    There are neither extreme delights nor extreme torments that can last for a lifetime: the supreme good and the supreme evil are chimeres.
    ― translated by MZ

In his quest for the absolute Mallarmé was unfit to submit to tepid advocacy of moderation. This disability defined the boundaries of his life and opinions. The ensuing correspondence witnesses a futile effort to explain his hermetic work to Henri Cazalis:

    J’extrais ce sonnet, auquel j’avais une fois songé, d’une étude projetée sur la Parole : il est inverse, je veux dire que le sens, s’il en a un, (mais je me consolerais du contraire grâce à la dose de poésie qu’il renferme, ce me semble) est évoqué par un mirage interne des mots eux-mêmes. En se laissant aller à le murmurer plusieurs fois on éprouve une sensation assez cabalistique.     I am extracting this sonnet, of which I thought once, from a projected study on the Word: it is inverted, I want to say that its meaning, if it has one, (but I would draw comfort for the contrary, from the amount of poetry that it contains, or so it seems to me) is evoked by an internal mirage of the words themselves. If you murmur it to yourself several times, you get a fairly cabalistic feeling.
    C’est confesser qu’il est peu « plastique », comme tu me le demandes, mais au moins est-ce aussi « blanc et noir » que possible, et il me semble se prêter à une eau-forte pleine de Rêve et de Vide.     This is to confess that it is not too “plastic”, as you request of me, but at least it is as “black and white” as possible, and it seems to to me to lend itself to an etching filled with Dream and Void.
    Par exemple, une fenêtre nocturne ouverte, les deux volets attachés ; une chambre avec personne dedans, malgré l’air stable que présentent les volets attachés, et dans une nuit faite d’absence et d’interrogation, sans meubles, sinon l’ébauche plausible de vagues consoles, un cadre, belliqueux et agonisant, de miroir appendu au fond, avec sa réflexion, stellaire et incompréhensible, de la grande Ourse, qui relie au ciel seul ce logis abandonné du monde.     For example, a window opened at night, two fastened shutters; a room with no one inside, in spite of the still appearance presented by the fastened shutters, and in a night made of absence and questioning, without furniture, if not for the likely outline of what might be sideboards, a quarrelsome and agonizing frame, of a mirror hung up in the back, with its reflection, stellar and incomprehensible, of the Ursa Major, which connects to heaven alone this dwelling abandoned by the world.
    J’ai pris ce sujet d’un sonnet nul se réfléchissant de toutes les façons, parce que mon œuvre est si bien préparé et hiérarchisé, représentant comme il le peut l’Univers, que je n’aurais su, sans endommager quelqu’une de mes impressions étagées, rien en enlever, ― et aucun sonnet ne s’y rencontre.     I took this subject of an empty sonnet reflecting itself in every way, because my work is so well prepared and ordered top to bottom, representing as best it can the Universe, that I could not have removed anything from it, without damaging some one of my layered impressions, ― and no sonnet is to be found there.
    ― Lettre à Henri Cazalis de 18 juillet 1868, C I, pp. 278-279     ― translated by MZ

Ursa Major, Joannis Elerti Bode, Uranographia sive Astrorum Descriptio, Berlin, 1801

Mallarmé accounts for his poem in terms that apply the language of Judaeo-Christian religiosity to the subject matter of Greek philosophy. The figures of his art recapitulate this interplay between Athens and Jerusalem. Its meanings shall be found at the crossroads.

One thought on “no ptyx”

  1. I’ve read this entry of yours twice so far; I can’t say that I understand everything, but it’s fascinating and gives me plenty of food for thought. Please keep writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *