Maintaining the visual form of Stéphane Mallarmé’s proto-visual, late Symboliste poem, Edwards’ ‘A fluke: A mistranslation of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés’ (2005) is a clever and ludic mimicry that parodies Mallarmé’s notion of pure literature at the same time as achieving a kind of pure ‘litter-chewer’, rustling and mucking about in the gutter of the double-page spread and in the gulf between itself and Un Coup de Dés. This essay explores how the mistranslation of a poem can act like the strange attractors of chaos theory by playing on Edwards’ paranomastic techniques in homophonic transliteration, and, via Kristeva’s theory of the abject, it exposes how mistranslation can take the exemplary poem and over-exemplify it, bend it over, queer it to the point where historical dichotomies of sign and signified, subject and object, exemplary and non-exemplary, break down. This essay even raises the question of whose poem came first, and whether the Master of Un Coup de Dés is in fact Edwards, not Mallarmé.
Keywords: translation – mistranslation – poetics – Australian poetry – French poetry – Chris Edwards – Stéphane Mallarmé – Un Coup de Dés – symbolism – puns – homophonic translation – experimental poetry
Un Coup de Dés by Stéphane Mallarmé, that exemplary gnomic poem of the late nineteenth century which arguably kicked off modernism, that proto-visual poem full of esoteric symbolism and disjointed syntax that broke fully the French alexandrine’s back, exploding from the left margin across the page, and across the gutters of eleven double-page spreads, in scattered fragments — like disjecta membra — visual, musical, collage-like, and typographically diverse, looks like many things on the page: rocks emerging from the white foam of the sea; ash on the table to be swished about by some diviner; a mobile hung across a child’s crib; threads or strings blown in the wind; constellations in the night sky.[i]
Its full title, UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD (‘A THROW OF THE DICE WILL [N]EVER ABOLISH CHANCE’)[ii] — perhaps a serious interpretation of probability — describes the event of the poem and, like dice, its words leap through the double-page spreads[iii] in corresponding large and capitalised typeface. Every fragment of the poem that falls around this title, thrown across the sea of pages in variously sized typeface, switching between Roman, italic and capital letters, unravels and overlays in what Alain Badiou describes as ‘a stupefying series of metaphorical translations around the theme of the undecidable’ (Badiou 2005: 194). Or, as Mallarmé dubs it in his Preface, ‘prismatic subdivisions of the Idea’: lines of text, if read from the upper left, across the book’s gutter, to the lower right, ‘speed up and slow down the movement … intimating it through a simultaneous vision of the Page’ (Mallarmé 1996: 121). Within these subdivisions, fragmented images surface as remnants of some lost-at-sea narrative, wavering, oscillating, vibrating throughout: the Master of a vessel, standing at the bottom of a shipwreck, his fist holding the dice shaking eternally at the stars, the lurching ship, a feather hovering over the Abyss, the proposed rolling of the dice between possible outcomes. ‘All Thought emits a Throw of the Dice’, to quote the last line, yet, ‘A throw of the dice will never abolish chance’ — a decisive act with a result determined by ever greater and obscure forces (Mallarmé 1996: 144–45).
Jacques Derrida describes Mallarmé’s poetics as ‘and/or’, citing Mallarmé’s deft use of homonyms and puns and their chain-like linkages across his oeuvre not as a crisis (remember Mallarmé’s book of criticism Crises de Verse) but as the key to its understanding, and to new possibilities for literature:
Let us not forget that these chains, which are infinitely vaster, more powerful and intertwined than is even possible to hint at here, are as if without support, always suspended. It is the Mallarméan doctrine of suggestion, of undecided allusion. Such indecision, which enables them to move alone and without end, cuts them off, in spite of appearances, from all meaning (signified theme) and from all referents (the thing itself, and the conscious or unconscious intention of the author). Which leads to numerous traps for criticism, and numerous new procedures and categories to be invented. (Derrida 1991: 120–21)
In 2005, after the many artistic ruptures, revolutions, and invented categories and conceptions of the twentieth century, Mallarmé’s chains and prismatic subdivisions got inverted by Down Under poet Chris Edwards in his ‘A FLUKE: A MISTRANSLATION of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés’. Edwards, a collagist[iv] who knows all too well the connotations of that descriptor (the French verb coller means ‘to paste, stick, glue’, while collage is French slang for an illicit sexual union, Perloff 1988: 384), took to Un Coup de Dés with a ‘willy-nilly … mish-mash of approaches’ (note the self-consciously silly and phallic double entendre); or, more technically, he mistranslated it with ‘a variety of transformational logics’, including homophony, paranomasia, litotes, malapropism, mimicry, metonymy, and translation. Yet he sticks to many of Mallarmé’s poetic principles:
At the heart of things, at the heart of the poem, at the heart of the Idea with its double proposition, is division, according to Mallarmé: the gap, the fold, or, more famously, the Abyss … The unit of composition in Un Coup de Dés is not the line or even the page, but the double-page spread, and the Abyss is physically embodied in the fold or gutter dead centre. It’s a place the eye can’t quite see into, full of stapling, stitching and gluing. (Edwards 2006)
Maintaining the visual form on the page of Mallarmé’s poem, Edwards’ ‘A fluke’ (2011a) is a clever and ludic mimicry that parodies Mallarmé’s notion of pure literature at the same time as achieving a kind of pure ‘litter-chewer’, rustling and mucking about in the gutter of the double-page spread and in the gulf between itself and Un Coup de Dés:
Mallarmé’s notorious difficulty, his untranslatability – figured, for example, in the abyss between the English translations I relied on for the sense of his poems and the mutant music I could hear in the French – inspired A Fluke, my mistranslation of ‘Un Coup de Dés …’, which it only now occurs to me was an attempt at pure literature, marred perhaps inevitably by its own impure thoughts. (One can only remain philosophical about it.). (Edwards, in Brennan 2011)
Edwards’ philosophy of ‘impure thoughts’ demonstrates an abject revelry in the collapsing of signifier and signified. According to Julia Kristeva, the abject refers to the human reaction (such as horror, spasms, nausea) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object, between self and other. A corpse (traumatically reminding us of our own materiality) is a prime example of what causes such a reaction; other things, however, can draw the same reaction: blood, shit, sewage, even the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk (Kristeva 1982: 1–3).
Derrida compares Mallarmé’s method of writing, and the form it took, to the careful cutting up and reallocating of body parts: ‘Mallarmé knew that his “operation” on the word was also the dissection of a corpse; of a decomposable body each part of which could be of use elsewhere’. He then quotes Mallarmé from Les Mots Anglais[v]: ‘Related to the whole of nature and in this way coming closer to the organism that possesses life, the Word presents itself, in its vowels and its diphthongs, like a piece of flesh, and, in its consonants, like a skeletal structure difficult to dissect’ (Derrida 1991: 117). And this might be how Edwards sees both Un Coup de Dés and a poem more broadly — as a body to dissect into its many parts; or in other words, as an abject provocation.
Kristeva’s notion of the ‘abject’ is in direct contrast to Lacan’s ‘object of desire’, his ‘objet petit a’. The objet petit a allows a subject to coordinate his or her desires, maintaining the symbolic order of meaning and intersubjectivity (Lacan 1977: 139–40), whereas the abject ‘is radically excluded’ and rather, as Kristeva writes, ‘draws me toward the place where meaning collapses’. Our reaction to such abject material re-charges what is essentially a pre-lingual response in us: ‘as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’ (Kristeva 1982: 2–3; emphasis in original). Edwards lifts the already dismembered body parts of Mallarmé’s poem from the gutters of the past and re-enlivens them, dramatises them in new gutters, for new readers. His overt gay erotic imagery, his abject subjectivity, is also designed to shock those readers expecting a ‘straight’ translation, perhaps showing them what they have ‘thrust’ aside. Where the French of Un Coup de dés has:
cette blancheur rigide
en opposition au ciel
pour ne pas marquer
prince amer de l’écueil
s’en coiffe comme de l’héroïque
irrésistible mais contenu
par sa petite raison virile
(Mallarmé 1996: 136–37)
‘A FLUKE’ reads, in Australian English:
this blank rigidity
in opposition to the ceiling
prince amid sewage
your hair-do may well be considered heroic
oh irresistible make-over
parsed by rational virility
(Edwards 2011: 53)
To quote Kate Fagan: ‘In an exemplary queering of his own text, Edwards performs a drama of progenitorship by robbing A Fluke of stable lines (“pure parody”) while reinstating its “sameness” as a fair copy’ (Fagan 2012: 3). Note the quotation marks around ‘sameness’ because, of course, it’s not a like-for-like French-English translation, but rather a corpse brought back to life, a ‘prince amid sewage’, an ‘exegetical / cock-up’.
In Edwards’ hands (fingers, or ears), Mallarmé’s full title, UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD, is broken down, contorted and reassembled into, ‘A FLUKE? [N]EVER! NOBLE LIAR, BIO-HAZARD’. The brackets around the ‘N’ are to cover both meanings of jamais at once: ‘never’ and ‘ever’, also allowing for an echo of the ‘Never Never’, that Australian settler version of the Abyss or void — the Outback (and its legal fiction of terra nullius). Edwards explains his choice of title as ‘the remains of a quarrel … it reminded me of the quarrel that broke out in me between various possible mistranslations at every turn of phrase’ (Edwards 2006).
The third wheel to this quarrel is Plato, his ‘old quarrel’ between poetry and philosophy, and his description of the ‘noble lie’ (as in, a politician’s untruth) (Plato, The Republic 607b5–6 and 414b–415e).[vi] Edwards’ ‘fluke’, an unexpected piece of good luck, speaks to Mallarmé’s prismatic subdivisions of the Idea (that a throw of the dice will never abolish chance), the ‘noble liar’ to Edwards’ misreadings, and the ‘bio-hazards’ of his misrenderings. As in Mallarmé, all of Edwards’ fragments that fall around the title to form the poem are deduced from the flukes laid out in the title.
A ‘fluke’, incidentally, can also be a parasite, a flat fish, the triangular bits on an anchor, and anything resembling that shape, like barbs on a harpoon or the tail of a whale. These connecting flukes are Mallarméan chains, but Edwards isn’t creating knock-off, fake jewellery made of flukes (however much Mallarme’s La Dernière Mode might have something to say about the connection between fashion and poetry). Edwards’ chains are the stuff of chaos.
According to Edwards, in writing ‘A fluke’ he was guided mainly by what he calls in his ‘homophonically (mis)translated’ preface (Edwards 2011: 39), ‘the latent conductor unreasoning verisimilitude imposes on the text’ (in Mallarmé’s preface it’s a fil conducteur latent, meaning ‘latent guiding thread’), which alludes to (presciently, in Mallarmé’s case) the strange attractors of string theory/chaos theory, a late twentieth century scientific discovery (see Fig 1 for a Lorenz Attractor). Strange attractors make an interesting theory for mistranslation, as Edwards writes:
An attractor is the state into which a system will eventually settle. The black holes around which galaxies cluster are examples of attractors; cultural attractors include chiefs, tribes, states and anything that gives us identity, like religion, class and world view. Strange attractors are a special class. They live in phase space, a multidimensional imaginary space in which numbers can be turned into pictures. Fractal objects, they consist of infinite numbers of curves, surfaces or manifolds, and as their name suggests, they draw things toward them. (Edwards 2006)
So, here, mistranslation is a gathering together of multiple swerving objects (think of Lucretius’ clinamen), objects that become interchangeable (by dint of their correlations and correspondences), which brings to mind (strangely) George Bataille’s Story of the Eye, an erotic novel that is ‘really the story of an object’, a composition that ‘should be called a “poem”’, as per Roland Barthes. The initial object of attraction in the narrative is the Eye, but then other globular objects become variously and erotically interchangeable, in both form and content: an egg (in French, egg is oeuf and eye is oeil), disc-shaped objects like a saucer of milk, then testicles. A secondary metaphorical chain concatenates from these, ‘made up of all the avatars of liquid: tears, milk in the cat’s saucer-eye, the yolk of a soft-boiled egg, sperm and urine’. At the climax of this erotic tale even the sun comes to stand in for the Eye as a ‘urinary liquefaction of the sky’, drawing together the eye-egg-saucer-testicle metaphors (Barthes 1979: 119–27). Accumulated image-associations form an epic ‘cataract’, in both senses of the word:
by virtue of their metonymic freedom they endlessly exchange meanings and usages in such a way that breaking eggs in a bath tub, swallowing or peeling eggs (soft-boiled), cutting up or putting out an eye or using one in sex play, associating a saucer of milk with a cunt or a beam of light with a jet of urine, biting the bull’s testicle like an egg or inserting it in the body—all these associations are at the same time identical and other. For the metaphor that varies them exhibits a controlled difference between them that the metonymy that interchanges them immediately sets about demolishing. The world becomes blurred; properties are no longer separate; spilling, sobbing, urinating, ejaculating form a wavy meaning, and the whole of Story of the Eye signifies in the manner of a vibration. (Barthes 1979: 125)
I hope this goes some way to explaining how a homophonic translation, or simply a poem, can work as a system of attraction, of wavering objects — where the poem is not an object but many similar objects oscillating; where these word-images, these image-associations, become interchangeable — a poem in which any one of these objects could equal another. Object = desire = fetish = dream. A similar compositional approach occurs (in terms of the imagery used) in Bataille’s ‘Solar Anus’ (which Edwards quotes from in his epigraph), but let’s look back to the flukes of ‘A Fluke’, in which Edwards’ word-images vibrate alongside and askew from Mallarmé’s. Here’s the final double-page spread of these fractal objects (imagine the gutter down the middle, indicated here by the bracketed phrase):
aussi loin qu’un endroit
[continues on same line on the opposing page]
fusionne avec au delà
quant à lui signalé
selon telle obliquité par telle déclivité
ce doit être
le Septentrion aussi Nord
froide d’oubli et de désuétude
sur quelque surface vacante et supérieure
le heart successif
d’un compte total en formation
brilliant et méditant
avant de s’arrêter
à quelque point dernier qui le sacre
Toute Pensée émet Un Coup de dés
(Mallarmé 1996: 144–5)
for the attitude
his aussie loins proved quaintly adroit
[continues on same line on the opposing page]
once fused with the wrecked and disorderly
whore of the internet’s
saloon tales obliquities and declivities
less petrol oh Signor
fraudulant doubler of desuetude
queller of the numerous
suckers of clogged surfaces vacant and superior
each hurt succeeding
in mentioning sideways
the constantly totalled formation
I want to see Rita
of the collapsible derrière oh sacred
toupéed enemy little mate I guess you’ll want the code word eh?
(Edwards 2011: 60–61)
We can read and misread many notions in Edwards’ flukes here, but I want to concentrate on some of the more Australian nuggets in the language for a moment:
aussi loin qu’un endroit fusionne avec au delà
for the attitude
his aussie loins proved quaintly adroit
once fused with the wrecked and disorderly
Edwards uses the more colloquial ‘maybe’ instead of ‘perhaps’, turns altitude into ‘attitude’ and aussi loin into ‘aussie loins’. Now, considering the literary meaning for loins — the region of the sexual organs regarded as the source of erotic or procreative power — we can read into this as saying that, besides the attitude (Mallarmé’s hifalutin-ness), his literature (his sexual organ) hangs, much like the shape of the poetry on the page, a little to the right, as the Australian saying goes, and it was only right (as in adroit, not politically to the right) once it had fused with the ‘errors and wrecks’ (an Ezra Pound phrase[vii]) caused by its intertextual relations with Edwards.
Further down the page, zooming in on the lines: ‘veiled / doubting / roly-poly / brillianted emetic // I want to see Rita of the collapsible derrière oh sacred’; Rita, here, and her strangely attractive derrière (perhaps a half-pun on Derrida) surely comes to represent the promiscuity of the pun and its ability to collapse the sign and the signified.
To end the poem, Edwards mistranslates Toute Pensée émet Un Coup de Dés (‘All Thought emits a Throw of the Dice’) into ‘toupéed enemy little mate I guess you’ll want the code word eh?’ Where Mallarmé rounds out his poem almost neatly with his openly enigmatic and existential poetic statement (on how each thought emits a ripple into the universe, affecting the course of history, perhaps), Edwards plays the parodist by presuming that the reader will want to find the code word in the final line of the poem, as if with a code word they might be able to solve the poem — as many have tried to with Un Coup de Dés. It’s a sly comment on how gnomic Mallarmé is (and how gnomic poetry can come to seem to readers who seek singular or straight meanings in poetry and, by extension, in their being in the world). Edwards’ conclusion is also a bizarrely prescient comment on the future gnomic leader of the free world, that ‘toupéed enemy’ who may want the code word for nuclear weapons sometime soon. After all, Australia’s ‘little mate’, when it comes to political and military ties (and, dare I say, expediency), has always been the POTUS.
Speaking of prescience, the phrase CE SERAIT (‘it would be’) is translated by Edwards into Pig-Spanish: ‘QUE SERA’. Que sera sera (‘what will be, will be’) is an exclamation used to convey a fatalistic recognition that future events may be out of the speaker’s control. (Could ‘A ROLL OF THE DICE NEVER ABOLISHES CHANCE’ be a long drawn-out analogy for this sentiment or just a premonition of the poem’s future upending?)
être un autre // Esprit / pour le jeter
at the neither either // nor or / of the Spirit self-jettisoned (Edwards 2011: 47)
Edwards plays cleverly on a reader’s proclivity to read sexual puns (and often of a queer bent) into the text. His deliberate paranomastic tactics of lapsus and misreading mean that words he has not mistranslated can just as easily be misread by the reader. Take the above fragment. To have the vagueness of ‘the Spirit’ (not to mention the self) jettisoned is often Edwards’ prerogative in his poems, but his queer and deliberate inappropriation of the high-minded language of Mallarmé, his sexualising of its content, his use of litotes (to downplay his intentions but emphasise play with another) — also allowed this reader to see ‘Spirit self-jettisoned’ as ‘Spirt self-jettisoned’ (my emphases).
Reading ‘A Fluke’ alongside Un Coup de Dés — its ‘veiled inversions at a juncture whose supremacy’s probably // celluloid / oh puerile shadow’ (Edwards 2011: 48) — at some point they begin to merge into each other’s shadows and superimpose. The homophonic verisimilitude reaches a point where it appears that Mallarmé is in fact translating the sense Edwards makes. For instance:
An insinuation simple
in the silence enrolled with irony
in some nearby whirlpool of hilarity and horror
flutters about the abyss
(Mallarmé 1996: 134–5)
In other words, who is haunting whom, here?
So, while an imitator like Edwards would acknowledge his debts to this proto-modernist poem, to all his Freudian slips, and indeed to a famous quotation misattributed to Freud, ‘Everywhere the signs that a poet has been here before me’ (Freud),[viii] Edwards’ mistranslations also recall pre eighteenth-century attitudes toward originality, or what was called ‘creative imitation’, whereby the imitation and strategic revision of prior authors was a kind of ‘filial rejection with respect’ (Frye 2012: 675–7). Moreover/move over, as Northrop Frye joked in his Anatomy of Criticism, published the year after Edwards’ birth, 1957: ‘any serious study of literature soon shows that the real difference between the original and the imitative poet is simply that the former is more profoundly imitative’ (Frye 1957: 97). And this is where we come full circle to the etymological roots of the word ‘exemplary’, which can be found in the late 16th century Latin word exemplum, meaning ‘sample’ or ‘imitation’. One could execute an old plumbing pun here, but Edwards’ ‘A FLUKE’ is doing enough plumbing of the past on its own.
This ‘exemplary’ exemplary poem — his ‘dance of paragons’ (Edwards 2011: 59) — is both symptomatic and representative of the age of the Internet, in which fake news is real news, is cut-and-pasted, nay, mistranslated into your browser; an age in which wowsers and identity politics are at fever pitch; an age in which the problems of authorship and originality are arguably more global and intense than ever because the mediums and media in and through which we write have expanded so rapidly via an economic capitalisation of coding, hypertext, and computer-generated text. ‘A FLUKE’ is:
fused with the wrecked and disorderly
whore of the internet’s
saloon tales obliquities and declivities
(Edwards 2011: 61)
at the same time as attempting to ‘interrogate the real so dissolute’. Mallarmé is ‘awkward in the original’. His ‘doubts and nagging susurrations justify the crime’ of Edwards’ jokey ‘translation’. All of Mallarmé’s and Edwards’ ‘parallelised neutralities identify as the gaffe’, or the ‘gap’, between subject and object, sign and signified, sense and nonsense, truth and untruth, in a post-truth world (Edwards 2011: 56–61).
It is important to reflect on the political implications of poetry such as that discussed in this essay: poetry generated by paranomasia – by the difference and sameness in words; a poetry of multiplicity that questions truth, mastery, authority, and symbolic structures by trespassing over and through them, undermining them; poetry that ‘offers you up’ a serious parody, serio ludere, a paradox in terms; a poetry of unreason, that transgresses boundaries.
And so perhaps the last word on Edwards’ mistranslation is the first word, as in Edwards’ epigraph, from Bataille’s ‘Solar Anus’: ‘It is clear that the world is purely parodic — in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form’ (in Edwards 2005: n.p.). Here the strange attractor of Mallarme’s proto-avant-guardist poem is queered in the abject flukes, ‘fractal objects’, and ‘bio-hazards’ — ‘disruptive versions of human subjectivity that are dangerously prankish (le blague) (Fagan 2012: 8) — of Edwards’ anti-version. No mere fluke, this anti-version settles into its own multidimensional imaginary and ontological space — yes, ‘a like shipwreck’, a ‘puerile shadow’, and yet its own solar anus, its own black hole on the bright ‘carte blanche’ of the white page.
[i] There are two representations of the ‘Big Dipper’ (US) or ‘The Plough’ (UK) in the poem’s fragments. The Big Dipper is an asterism that represents the seven brightest stars of the northern hemisphere constellation Ursa Major.
[ii] Following Edwards’ translation. The full title occurs as the largest font used in each poem and in fragments across their respective eleven double-page spreads.
[iii] ‘Page openings’ is the common bibliographical term, but for the purposes of this essay I will use Chris Edwards’ ‘double-page spreads’. He employs the term ‘double-page spread’ to describe Mallarmé’s ‘unit of composition’ in Un Coup de Dés (Edwards, ‘Double Talk’).
[iv] Chris Edwards’ work is known for its collage aesthetics, from his chapbook Nicked (Sydney: Vagabond 2006), which came out the year after A Fluke, to his selected poems People of Earth (Sydney: Vagabond, 2011), in which source texts from all walks of life are nicked from and grafted into otherworldly, at times sci-fi, poetic works that interrogate the self, subjectivity, queerness, and much more. More recent publications include After Naptime (Sydney: Vagabond, 2014), a book that combines Edwards’ usual mix of collage so(u)rcery, illustrations, and the expansive use of the page of A Fluke.
[v] David Brooks describes Mallarmé’s Les Mot Anglais as an ‘eccentric account of the strange correspondences and etymologies of English words’ (Brooks 2011: 87).
[vi] A fourth wheel might be William Butler Yeats: ‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry’ (Yeats 1924: 331).
[vii] The full line from Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto CXVI’ goes: ‘Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me,’ complete with its double entendre on ‘lie’ (Pound Cantos 816). The phrase ‘errors and wrecks’ is misquoted back-to-front as ‘wrecks and errors’ by Henry Weinfeld in his ‘Commentary’ to Mallarmé’s Collected Poems, 1996: 266–67.
[viii] For a brief summary of a plagiarism scandal in Australian poetry, see T Fitch, 2013, ‘Plagiarism scandal has revealed an ugly side of Australian poetry’, The Guardian, 23 September http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/23/australian-poetry-plagiarism (accessed 19 August 2019).
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