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Stéphane Mallarmé, the man who killed the idea of there being an author.

Stéphane Mallarmé was born in Paris. He worked as an English teacher and spent much of his life in relative poverty; but was famed for his salons, occasional gatherings of intellectuals at his house on the rue de Rome for discussions of poetry, art, philosophy. The group became known as les Mardistes, because they met on Tuesdays (in French, mardi), and through it Mallarmé exerted considerable influence on the work of a generation of writers. For many years, those sessions, where Mallarmé held court as judge, jester, and king, were considered the heart of Paris intellectual life. Regular visitors included W.B. Yeats Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Stefan George, Paul Verlaine, and many others.

The eclipse of the author by the work
is not an accident of Mallarmé criticism: it is Mallarmé’s principal literary discovery. It was Mallarmé himself who dreamed of ‘a Text speaking of and by itself, without the voice of an autthhor’. The affirmative erasure of the poet from the work was a goal for which he never stopped striving: Mallarme.jpg

And it was Mallarmé himself who created his lack of biography: writing to Verlaine in 1885 in response to a request for a headnote for his poems, he spoke of his ‘life devoid of anecdote’

It was largely by learning the lesson of Mallarmé that critics like Roland Barthes came to speak of ‘the death of the author’ in the making of literature. Rather than seeing the text as the emanation of an individual author’s intentions (always a probabilistic and speculative enterprise), structuralists and deconstructors followed the paths and patterns of the signifier, paying new attention to syntax, spacing, intertextuality, sound, semantics, etymology, even individual letters. In each case, Mallarmé had been there before them: calling himself a ‘syntaxer’ and syntax the ‘pivot of intelligibility’, writing a book about the meanings of sounds and letters in English words, creating a concrete poem out of typography and position on the page, inventing a style of critical prose as well as poetry in which ellipses, discontinuities and obscurities played an integral part, and criticising romantic subjectivity and bourgeois realism. Freed from conventions of coherence, authority and psychology, texts could be allowed to unfold as infinite signifying systems.

So it was for Mallarmé frgamentation of the usual modes of meaning. I call for the
 ‘death’ of canonical authors.
What shaped my opinions?  It was a non-literary backdrop. The Commune, the Franco-Prussian War, the Eiffel Tower, anarchism, the Dreyfus Affair, the golden age of French imperialism.
yes the larger political, social, economic and historical events that discoursed me.
Narrative verisimilitude? no thanks,  to think about a life and a work as a coherent whole. hmmm.
How can we know what is specific to a particular individual?
In the institutions of literary studies, it is often the authors about whom the least is known (Homer, Shakespeare) that are the most canonical. Was this what Mallarmé understood when he yearned for a text speaking on its own? Why is authority tied to the erasure of particularity? Why are some forms of particularity easier to erase than others?


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