Poetic Gift as A Spiritual Disequilibrium


Edouard Manet’s “Portrait of Stephane Mallarme” (1876)

Manet’s painting didn’t offer a comfortable seat to Mallarme’s inspiration. His posture is rather restless – he is not sitting/not lying, and his reclining/non-reclining body is in un-decided position (is he falling back or getting up?). He is here, in front of us, but not really here. Where is he? It could be possible to say that his gaze is rooted in reality much more than his body is if reality (where his gaze is rooted) was the physical world but not the trembling pre-verbal ghosts of his intuitive thinking/concentrations/sensations.* Mallarme’s attention is rooted in reality not suitable for roots, where human intellectual effort can only be a guest, not master.

While looking at the painting we get the impression that the poet is in the process of falling down, but, somehow, harmoniously, without heaviness. His relying on his right elbow is not solid. Is he in a process of putting his weight on the right hand, or is he changing posture from relying on his right hand to the left one? It is as if his body cannot decide how to locate itself in space (because it cannot choose between its weight and its weightlessness. And can Mallarme’s very feeling of pre-verbal reality of his intuitions prop itself up with his hand of the writer?

Physical nature for Mallarme-the poet, according to Manet’s painting, is… a wall paper. But it is not an insult to the physical world and the beauty of creation. It is simply that nature as a cradle of everything alive is not Mallarme’s cup of tea. What for nature-worshippers is the brightest and wisest world, for an intellectually spiritual poet is just the physical capsule, shell of the noumenal glory of both, animated and not-animated reality, a kind of genetic code of the very existence. Too much attachment to the beauty of the physical world is the cousin of the technical science and predatory hunt after the natural resources (that destroys nature in the very moment it attends it). Mallarme is too alien, much more than Manet as a painter, to nature as a womb – his environment is a limitless world (that nevertheless is available to human reason and empathy, congruent with human cognition and is in tune with our emotional vivacity), it is not only what is created but what is in the process of being created/co-created by the world and the human spiritual effort. We have to forgive Manet’s Mallarme for seeing nature as a design of the wall-paper – there are not many people like him among us.

A similarity and difference between poet and painter, between Manet and Mallarme is of the same nature as similarity and difference between Manet and other impressionist painters. Impressionists are not realists (they prefer to have a deal with the spirituality of human perception rather than with physical and social world as it is), but Manet while also cultivating visual perception, is interested in semantics, in understanding of the reality in its psychological and social aspects. The similarity and difference between Manet and Mallarme then is that the spiritual painter cultivates two types of analysis – more subjective (perception) and more objective (social and psychological understanding of the world) while the spiritual poet is, as if, impressionist of the very thinking (he is concentrated on the analysis of subjective aspects of the verbal understanding). In this sense Mallarme is simultaneously Manet and other impressionists.

Mallarme for Manet is the verbal “impressionist” The both as creators of culture complete one another. In Mallarme Manet meets the impressionist of the verbal discourse, of the argument without arguing, the impressionist-philosopher, creator of intuitive/subjective meanings not only as meanings but also as a style, as formulations in the process of being formulated (opened to their future). It seems that Mallarme for Manet is a creator in verbal form what Manet as a painter-philosopher is doing himself with visuality.

Is behind Mallarme on the painting a pillow or an angelic wings? Why not to specify what it exactly is? Because Mallarme’s angelic status is not literal, it is a connotation, a metaphor; it is an “as if” reality (we are not having a deal here with a fundamentalist sort of realistic art – propaganda or advertisement). Secular spirituality is metaphoric. The discourse of secular spirituality is not dogmatic knowledge produced by belief – it is gentle meaning, the one produced gently, without commands and orders, hypnotic suggestions or rhetorical seduction. It is hypothetical, modest and full of humility and for this reason – full of reality. It needs verification. It is just a suggestion. It’s asking for verification. That’s why it is able to produce, step by step, the real – sublimated (and at the same time full of sublime ambition), knowledge of reality.

What is Manet’s Mallarme looking at? – At his intuition in a process of projecting itself into the world? His concentration is not greedy and vulgar, not that of a soldier or a businessman. His gaze is not that of a hunter. It is not even the gaze of a fisherman. It is neither a gaze of an admirer, nor a consumer or destroyer of nature. It is close to the gaze of an amateur astronomer amazed by what he has managed to see in the sky.

Is Mallarme’s cigar his pen? Is trail of its smoke the ink/paint of the poet, the first phase of poetic incarnation of his inspirations, before the white piece of paper?

In comparison with Mallarme’s photographs, Manet’s Mallarme is less strong, more fragile, less physical than the “actual” Mallarme. In real life a poet must be physically and mentally stronger in order to be able to be gentler than others. But it is exactly in real life that it’s absolutely necessary to emphasize the fragility aspect of the poet’s strength, exactly as Manet does.


Mallarme standing in front of his portrait by Manet

In our world today, the very concept of gentle power is in a process of being lost together with serious culture (with its metaphoric and symbolic discourses). Mass culture transforms everything into beer drinking (with chips and jokes) activity and imposes an atmosphere of primitive self-assertion that is perceived as democracy. In American reality of 21st century, with the marginalization of poets, philosophers and intellectual artists, gentle power (authority of truth and subtle beauty) also becomes marginalized. The vulgar power of the financial speculators, conservative (hateful) politicians and belligerent emotions of jingoistic (jungle-istic) crowds is rooting itself deeper in the world. In this universe we have to restore our sensitivity to the gentle power of culture, and on this path the legacy of Manet and Mallarme is of a great help.

*It could be possible to say that his gaze is rooted in reality much more than his body is if reality (where his gaze is rooted) was itself rooted in the physical world but not, as it is in reality, in the trembling pre-verbal ghosts of his intuitive thinking/concentrations/sensations.