Meillassoux – The Number and the Siren

This will be our reading for Saturday, March 10th.  You can find the details on our page.

The Number and the Siren uses Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un Coups de Dés [A Throw of the Dice] to talk about chance, divine providence, and the political and religious aspects of literature.  The book’s argument follows three basic steps. First, the poem contains a secret code, which allows us to identity the “unique Number” the poem mentions twice.  Second, the code is not a cheap trick; it has the serious literary function of reconciling free verse and traditional verse. Third, the code reveals Mallarmé’s attempt to found a new civic religion, one that would satisfy the common nineteenth century hopes of a religion that could compete with and surpass Christianity.  As a review of the book says, “Stéphane Mallarmé is, in short, a modern-day Jesus, and Meillassoux is his St. Paul.”

1. The idea that Mallarmé placed a code within the Coup is an old one, though it has long fallen out of favour.  Critics insist there is no hidden secret: “The only secret involved, we like to repeat, is that there is no secret” (5).

2. Past critics, writing before the present consensus, were tempted to find a code because Mallarmé did pursue such calculations in his notes for the “Book,” which was to be his magnum opus and the foundation of a new modern religion.  All we have left of his plan for the Book is a set of mathematical calculations governing all aspects of the publication and public readings of the Book.  For example, the twenty-four assistants that were to be involved in public readings symbolize the twenty-four syllables of a couplet of rhyming alexandrines.  Several possibilities for a code have been put forward, but each one has been refuted. Of course it is difficult to prove no code exists, because it is difficult to prove a negative.  Hence, what the critics actually claim is that the poem must not be coded, and for a particular reason: “The ‘non-coding’ of the Coup de Dés guarantees Mallarmé’s own repudiation of the Book” (8).  On the other hand, the discovery of a code in the poem would mean that Mallarmé never repudiated the Book’s project at all.  This is the option Meillassoux wants to defend.

Part One: Encrypting the Number

3. The Coups de dés portrays the aftermath of a shipwreck.  Only a “Master” is left above the water; all he does is hesitate over whether or not to throw the dice he holds in his fist.  The Master is then swallowed by the water, and all that is left is his toque and plume. For a brief moment, a siren emerges and smashes the rock the ship foundered on.  We do not know if the dice were thrown, but once the feather falls below the water, the poem closes with the image of a constellation (perhaps the the Septentrion, aka Ursa Major).   The poem begins and ends with the words “a Throw of Dice.”

4. The phrase “a Number that cannot be another” appears twice in the poem and seems to name the potential result of the throw of dice.  The first mention of it is when the Master is considering whether or not to throw the dice, and he infers from the chaotic scene that a “unique Number that cannot be another” is being prepared.  This property appears to be either trivial or impossible. We could say that every number is identical to itself, or we could say that every number is interchangeable through addition or subtraction.  Or if we consider the problem from the point of view of throwing the dice, we get a similar problem. Either every result is necessary because we cannot reverse time, or every result is contingent because it could have been different.  Neither perspective (either the property of the number, or the result of the throw) helps us “single out a unique result that, unlike all others, would manifest an absolute necessity” (21).

5. The Number could be a metric.  In this reading, the shipwreck would be the crisis caused by the emergence of free verse, which called into question the necessity of fixed meter and regular rhyme; the Number would be the poetic Number par excellence, which for French poetry was the 12 of the alexandrine.

6. There were two extreme positions in the quarrel between the advocates of free verse and of official verse.  The old guard denied that free verse was poetry at all, seeing it only as a typographical trick. The defenders of free verse saw traditional meter as an essentially political constraint: “[T]he inherited legacy of royal centralism and absolutism, put to work in a servile manner… ” (22).  They thought poetry was not linked at all to the counting of syllables. Rather, its unity was rhythmic and semantic.

7. Mallarmé found a middle road, a division of labor: the alexandrine for grand occasions, and free verse for individuation.  This allowed free play into poetry, while maintaining the alexandrine allows poetry to “conserve its power of unification, and even its religious role”— that is, its capacity to unify a “throng” that Mallarmé wanted to use to create a civic cult in which art would replace an outmoded faith.

8. The number 12 frequently appears in the notes for the Book.  For example, the size of the book was related to divisors of 12.  Despite the rise of free verse, Mallarmé found a way to preserve the 12 of the alexandrine in the setting of the text—but the number 12 seems to play no role in the content of the Book.  Earlier code-hunter Mitsou Ronat thought 12 did appear in the content of the Coup, but his analysis was based on an older, unpublished draft of the text.

9. If Ronat was correct about the Coup being coded by the number 12, it would have placed that poem in continuity with an earlier unfinished Mallarmé poem, Igitur.  In this poem, Igitur goes into the tomb of his ancestors at midnight to throw dice to see if they will yield a 12.

“The number 12: at once that of midnight—the critical instant, the irreversible separator of Past and Future—and that of the perfect alexandrine.  The question is whether this throw, which aims at the perfect verse, must still be perpetuated, and with it the line of his ancestors (romantic and [French] poets)—given that, since God has ceased, for the young Mallarmé, to guarantee the status of literary symbols, nothingness and ‘chance’ alone reigned over letters and existence alike.” (28)

10. The drama of the poem is whether or not Igitur will throw the dice, exactly like the master in the Coup de dés.  All the elements of the “Igitur problem” are found in the Coup de dés: midnight, the nonsense of Nothingness, hesitation, and a throw of the dice.  If the Coup de dés meant for 12 to be the “Number that cannot be another,” it would have applied Igitur’s solution to its own problem.  However, for Mallarmé, 12 is a failed solution, probably based on his reading of Hegel, from whom he took the idea of the infinity of chance.  Mallarmé said, “In short, in an act where chance is in play, it is always chance that accompanies its proper Idea in affirming or denying itself.  Before its existence, negation and affirmation are exhausted. It contains the Absurd—implies it, but in the latent state, preventing it from existing: which permits Infinity to be.”

11. This gives “Chance” the power of contradiction, as it contains the absurd.  It allows it to be what it is, and what it is not—and so “infinite” in the dialectical sense, to absorb what is beyond it.  To make this more clear, we can contrast this dialectical infinite with two other ideas. For Spinoza, the infinite is that which is not limited by another thing; there is nothing different from an infinite thing.  For someone like Heidegger, the finite limits itself, or has its own limit within it—an example of this is human morality.  We carry our end within ourselves. For Hegel, the infinite is contradictory: it has a genuine other, unlike Spinoza, but it include that other within in and so is unlimited, unlike Heidegger’s finitude.  Mallarmé alters this Hegelian idea.

12. The underlying idea of the dialectical infinity of chance is simple enough: when I throw dice, the result is erratic; chance as nonsense is visible in the insignificance of its result (i.e., not the desired 12, or the banal outcomes of everyday life).  The result can also be true, when an improbable coincidence occurs, such as when 12 helps me win the game (e.g, a fantastic poem is written), which can make it look like there is a higher purpose at work, something like Providence.

13. However, if one does not believe in Providence, the 12 is equally an effect of chance.  So whether chance appears in the everyday course of things, or is denied by the apparent necessity of a glorious outcome, it always governs geniuses and their work: “Contingency or coincidence, chance is thus indeed infinite in the precise sense that it contains by the same token that which displays it in all its dismal evidence and that which denies it in the luminous appearance of a Meaning” (31).  Mallarmé takes a banal idea, “all is chance,” and turns it into an inversion of Hegelian infinity. It is not the process of Spirit taking everything into itself, but the process of Nothingness including that which seems to be an exception to it.

14. This is the problem that the young Mallarmé came across: if chance is infinite, then both mediocre and perfect verse are equally senseless.  When writing Igitur, he had two different solutions in mind.  First, Igitur shakes the dice without throwing them, and then “lies down upon the ashes of his ancestors,” an abandonment of literature. Second, Igitur could throw the dice and get a 12.  Faced with the fury of the wind and his ancestors, he could bravely uphold this act as a gesture of defiance against a world “in which the project of writing is gripped by the acute consciousness of its absence of foundation” (32).  Here, poetry continues, but acknowledging that it is not God, but Nothingness which governs poetry. With this problem, Mallarmé is well ahead of Maurice Blanchot and Jean-Paul Sartre, who each took a side of this problem in the twentieth century.  Blanchot took the side of the literature of the exhaustion of literature, and Sartre took the side of the voluntarist literature of the absurd. Mallarmé, however, was unsatisfied with either alternative, and this is why Igitur remained unfinished.  He saw that chance equalizes all options, and it is vain to choose.  As Mallarmé writes in another poem:

Because a bit of roast was done to a turn,

because the paper reported a rape […]

some simpleton plants his cold dry wife beneath

him […]

and because those two creatures couple in their sleep

one night with no storm and no bluster,

O Shakespeare, and ah Dante, a poet may be born!

15. Hence, if the unique number of the Coup de dés was 12, he would be arbitrarily choosing one of the solutions he had already rejected.  And remember the poem’s claim: “A throw of dice will never abolish chance.”  This presents a basic problem for every attempt to find a determinate number that fits the Master’s definition; it seems there can be no number which would be unique and necessary.  It seems that the Master’s inference, that a unique Number is being prepared, is false.  The unique Number is a dream that cannot be realized.  As the poem says, “even if it was the Number, it would be Chance”—even if the unique Number did appear through the throw of dice, it would still be an effect of chance.

16. This resigned reading has its own problems.  It is not clear what would have made the Master renounce his original inference; it was from the insanity of the storm that he inferred the Number, not the illusion of harmony.  His circumstances did not change, so why would he change his inference? How could this disaster produce the inference of a superior metrical necessity?

17. The insufficiency of the two interpretations (a coded 12 vs resigned failure) brings out the main problem: the title of the poem itself contradicts the Master’s inference, and we cannot decide which is correct.  So Meillassoux declares, “In truth, there remains only one way to go: it consists in asking ourselves on what condition both propositions could be true at the same time” (38).  This is the solution the poem itself indicates, because it never explicitly denies either assertion.  We can actually see evidence for this in the poem’s apparent assertion of the unavoidability of chance: “mute laugh if it was the number it would be chance.”

18. The resigned reading interprets this statement as if it meant, “Even if it were the number, it would be an effect of chance,” but this is not what is written.  It actually says, “if it was the number, then the number would be chance,” chance itself, not an effect of chance.

19. He says, “In other words, if we obtain the Number that can be identified with Chance, it would possess the unalterable eternity of contingency itself, indifferent to the individual aleas that proceed from it.  Chance alone being necessary and infinite, a Number that succeeded in joining with it would be suffused with the same destiny” (39).  This gives us two obvious problems: how can a Number be chance itself, rather than one of its effects?

20. We can skip over the actual counting and arguments for the code and go straight to the conclusion: for reasons of theme, typography, and word count, the unique Number that cannot be another is 707.  

Part 2: Fixing the Infinite

21. To understand the significance of the Number, we need to return to Mallarmé’s motivations for provisionally abandoning the Book.  The first consideration is political.  Mallarmé was hostile not to the French Republic itself, but to its secularism.  He thought any society required a strong symbolic bond, “capable of founding a civic religion and engendering a profound adhesion of individuals to the ends of the community” (106-107).  Religion had to be something public, rather than private; there must a “common elevation.” There were already two possibilities for this elevation. First, there was “royalty surrounded with its military prestige,” a symbol which belong to the pre-Revolutionary era.  The second was the “ceremonial of our psychic exaltations” presided over by the clergy, but this “has weakened.” Neither option was viable anymore: “Neither monarchy nor church are fit to respond to the challenge of a collective religion at once postrevolutionary and free of the old Christian belief in a beyond.  The poet is thus convinced—a common idea in his epoch—that art must make up for the default of the old religions by offering a cult capable of satisfying the modern spirit” (107).

22. The Bayreuth pilgrimage, a yearly festival surrounding Richard Wagner’s grand operas, was the most obvious nineteenth century attempt to turn art into a new religion.  Mallarmé thought Wagner’s project had a crippling flaw: it was too focused on trying to reenact the ancient Greek mix of theatre and politics:

“To figure upon a scene the relation of humans and their gods, to render visible to the masses the principle of their communion with the aid of a narrative embellished with song—in short, to represent to a people its own mystery: such is for Mallarmé the Greek heritage upon which art, including Wagnerian art, continues to feed.  But, according to the poet, it is precisely representation that art must break with if it would claim to go beyond Christianity. (108)

23. The desire to be Greek is a desire to recapture a perfect mix of art, science and politics.  This desire is pointless, not because it is an origin lost to history, but because it is not actually the origin of modernity.  Rather, “our true lost origin” is the Latin Middle Ages. The Greeks gathered themselves around tragic dramas, but we cannot repeat this.  This is “Because Christianity has handed down to us a ritual superior in power to those of paganism—namely the real convocation of a real drama” (108-109).  This drama is the Passion of Christ, taken as historical by Christians, and which the Mass does not represent as a piece of theatre, “but of which it claims to produce the true, effective Presence, to the point where the host is absorbed by the faithful” (109).

24. Wagner’s dramas cannot offer that, since it was only a mix of Greek and Nordic legends.  Wagner’s idea of “total art” could not replace the Mass, because this substitution would have to desperately ignore a profound lack, the loss of a collective communion around a real event that could be presented and incorporated like the communion wafer.  The Catholic ritual has a force of truth because it redeploys the real presence of a historical event, rather than a tragic representation.

25. Mallarmé thought Catholicism would not die until people learn how to appropriate the “treasure” hidden in the Eucharist.  The Mass presents this as God, but Mallarmé thought divinity “[…] is never anything but Oneself.” This elevated self had to be reinstated with a new ceremony, one without transcendence. We need to understand this “Presence” Mallarmé wants poetry to reinstate, and that means making a distinction between Eucharist and Parousia.  Parousia is the presentation of God, the return of Christ in the end times.  The Eucharist, while a real presence, is not that absolute presentation, which remains hoped-for by the faithful.  He explains:

“The Eucharist is thus a paradoxical mode of ‘presence in absence’: The divine is there, among the elect, in the very host—but is not yet returned.  It gives itself according to a sufficiently withdrawn mode of reality to leave room for both remembrance (the Passion) and expectation (of Salvation).  It is a presence that is not in the present, but in the past and in the future. To take up Mallarmé’s vocabulary—and his evocation of ‘God […] there, diffuse’—we should speak, to signify the Eucharistic mode of presence, whether or not it is transcendent, of a diffusion of the divine, as opposed to its representation (the Greek scene), or its presentation (Christian Parousia).” (111-112)

26. The thrust of Mallarmé’s poetics is a quest for the “diffusion of the absolute” apart from any representation and parousia: “The Eucharistic mode of presence is no longer anticipative but becomes the supreme regime of divine being-there” (112).  And this it wants to do through the convocation of a human drama which is both real and universal.

27. This presents an obvious problem: how could poetry, without the use of representation or meaningful fiction, produce the presence of a real event, especially one with an infinite significance?  It looks like this difficulty was the reason behind the abandonment of the Book. In the notes for the Book, all we can see are stories—representations. The problem of diffusion seemed insoluble, but the Coup de dés is designed to overcome this.

28. We have reason to believe that Coup de dés was in part inspired by an Alfred de Vigny poem from 1854, Message in a Bottle.  This poem describes a shipwreck and a drowning captain throwing a message in a bottle containing his “solitary calculations” of constellations that might one day be found. Mallarmé does not just repeat this story: he actually throws such a message.  The coding of the Number makes the poem an act: it becomes the act of wagering that it describes. “The Number is thrown, beyond Mallarmé’s death, into the chaotic seas of historical reception, and delivered to the fortunes of its possible decipherment” (116).  And unlike Vigny’s captain, this throw is not entrusted to an all-powerful God, but to infinite Chance.

29. Mallarmé encrypted the code in such a way as to introduce a quality of unforeseeability, so that one could only discover it by chance.  No level of expertise in Mallarmé’s work would give one the key to the code.  He entrusted the number to Chance because of his notion of diffusion; “Now we see that Mallarmé had indeed made sure that a real drama—namely his own—should be revealed one day through the Coup de dés.  Because it is indeed a Passion that is at play here: a logic of ‘sacrifice’ aiming at the final ‘consecration’ of the Poem” (121). So: a writer secretly places a key into one of his poems which can only be discovered through chance, and in doing so, took the risk that his ultimate poetic decision might never be revealed.  This sacrifice had to take place for the poem to acquire the power of a Passion; “This sacrifice is not that of the individual body—as in Christ’s Passion—but that of the work’s meaning.  A sacrifice of spiritual life, not of carnal life. . . . Mallarmé accepted the possible destruction of the meaning of his Labor upon the altar of a Chance that represented, for him, the equivalent of Destiny” (122).

30. He even took the risk twice: He was ready to “sacrifice even his sacrifice itself,” which would be “A sacrifice ‘squared’, prepared to annul itself before posterity, to hide itself in the face of universal judgement, and one that allows the poet to rival the absolute devotion of the old Christ” (122-123).  Jesus gave his body up for execution; Mallarmé faced the sacrifice of his work, and then even the sacrifice of the sacrifice itself. Just as only God could attest to the divinity of Jesus, only infinite Chance could reveal the truth of Mallarmé’s act. This is why the discovery had to be a happy accident, not the result of expert reading.  Further, if the code was discovered, it could be laughed off as a cute parlour trick, thus discrediting his “spiritual body,” the Mallarmé of posterity who lives in our memory.

31. In the poem, he speaks of this as a “bequest to someone ambiguous.”  This not only means that the future reader might never exist, but also that the reader may be hostile.  The fact that the secret is a simple word count creates an ironic version of his esoteric reputation. We could interpret this as him knowing that any reader would be skeptical of this, and so indicated his own ironic distance from the project. We cannot interpret the poem this way, however, because if the wager had been done in a desperate, self-derisive way, it would not have engendered a modern form of the Passion.  Overcoming the Mass and Wagnerian total art requires more than ironic modernity: “It requires a divine dimension of suffering that would give it is universal purport” (126). This does appear in the poem, since it is Chance, the Infinite God of the moderns, that allows his gesture to be unveiled. This divinity is still lacking in Mallarmé himself:

“He has not proved that he is, himself, not only a man, but also a god, and thus Chance.  If the poet intended to make of his trial a trajectory at once christic and destructive of ancient transcendences, he would have to participate effectively in the only true eternity.  In other words, and however strange this may appear, for his Passion to be effective and his wager successful, we should have to be able to say of the Poet (of the Passion), it would be Chance—or rather: he would be Chance.  For the wager to be won, Mallarmé would have to prove to us that he had finally succeeded, at the end of his life, in the exploit that, as a young many writing Igitur, he had failed to bring to completion: to be Chance, to make himself Infinite, to divinize his silent gesture.” (127)

32. These two sacrifices have only been carried out by a finite man.  If he wanted to surpass the christic Drama, he would have needed to confer an element of infinity upon the risk.  Infinity, for modernity, is no longer God, but Chance, that which dominates both eternity and insignificant realities.  To acquire this eternal dimension, he would himself have to participate in the infinite structure that allows Chance to be all the possibilities of a dice throw, both successes and failures. This was the basic failure of Igitur: Igitur was finite because he had to choose between possibilities.  Whatever Igitur choose to do, it would be no more necessary than any other alternative.  The only way to escape contingency would be to become as necessary as contingency itself.  This would involve being, oneself, all the options of a throw: “How to incorporate the dialectical structure of Chance, which, like the speculative Infinite, contains in itself the contradictory totality of alternative possibilities?  How to be also that which one is not, thereby prohibiting oneself the possibility of change (since, already being other, one could not become other) and thus acceding to eternity?” (128)

33. The most common reading of the poem might give us an answer.  The poem does not explicitly tell us the Master’s decision, so commentators generally say that the throw is undecidable.  So rather than Igitur’s two opposite endings, the Coup de dés is an ambiguous situation virtually containing both possibilities. Hence, it might be that the Master would be all the options, and so become equal to the infinite of Chance.  This is not the answer, because the Master would be none of the options: “His ‘logical singularity would be negative (he would have succeeded in giving the lie to the principle of the excluded middle by being neither thrower nor nonthrower) rather than positive (giving the lie to the principle of noncontradiction by being at once both thrower and nonthrower)” (131).  For an entity to be two terms at once, both terms must have already been determined.  This is not the case with the poem, because we do not know which number the throw would have produced; everything remains vague, and is annulled rather than infinitized.

34. Even if we allow this, and say that the Master succeeded in virtually containing all possibilities, the “Master” who is both thrower and nonthrower would only be a representation of the Master.  He would be a fiction created by the Poem, and it is this fictional status which allows him to be all things.  This would not be the real diffusion of a real drama. It has to be the gesture of Mallarmé himself which is infinitized: his throw of the Number in the performative count, an act rather than a representation.

35. Mallarmé, throughout his work, wanted to “assimilate the infinite structure of Chance to a hesitation become essential” (132-133).  There is a similarity between Chance and uncertainty—for both, there is a virtual contradiction which escapes becoming. Chance does not produce actual contradictions.  It does not produce throws of the dice that are also nonthrows, just as Hamlet does not commit a murder which is also not a murder.  However, in both cases, there is a latent contradiction that infuses all options with absurdity. Chance’s meaninglessness dominates both successful and failed throws.  Both options are equivalent.

36. On the other hand, hesitation does not “meld perfectly” with the infinity of Chance: “This infinity, as Mallarmé conceives it, is characterized by three properties.  It is real (Chance rules effectively the finite and alternative events of our world), determinate (its opposite results are always this or that concrete result) and eternal (Chance remains equal to itself, always in act, whether its productions are insignificant or full of meaning)” (134).  

37. The question is, how could hesitation combine these properties and allow its bearer to “meld with immutable Contingency?” This appears to be a dead end.  Either hesitation is real, carried out by a real person, in which case it cannot be eternal, or it is fictional, and so perennial in an ideal sense, but not a real drama. A real hesitation supports determinate but virtual contraries.  It is always between precise choices, so it involves determinacy and reality. However, it cannot be eternal, since it always ends with a particular choice, and even no choice is a choice, so real hesitation seems bound to the finite.

38. The final step in Meillassoux’s argument is to show that the Number of the Coup actually succeeded in producing an infinite hesitation, a perfect hybrid of reality and fiction.  This summary is already overlong, so here are the cliffnotes: Meillassoux, after all this, points to an uncertainty in his code-count.  It is not certain that Mallarmé coded the poem. Hence, the “eternal hesitation” that Igitur lacked belongs to the author of the Coup de dés, the capacity to have all options within oneself, of throwing and not throwing.  The uncertainty of the Number would “reflux” into the act of the Master, which is also the author’s act as he decides whether or not to code the poem.

39. This would bring together all three properties of chance.  It would contain two determinate possibilities (707 and another number), it would be eternal, in that the uncertainty would always be in the poem, and it would be real, since it also refers to the (possible) coding of the poem.

40. A real hesitation can only be finite; eventually, even a non-choice must be made.  Hence, Meillassoux is not arguing that the real individual Mallarmé succeeded in becoming infinite.  Rather, he became a “bifid being,” a double individual of reality and ideality, of history and fiction, without there being a precise limit between them.  The poet did participate in the infinite through the fusion of the historical being and the ideal signatory of the poem. This “cloud of alternative possibilities” forms a part of the infinity of the poet, “blended in our memories with the furious Chance encrypted in his testament” (149).

41. To recapitulate, we know that he wanted a poetry capable of a real Presence to compete with the Mass.  The literary diffusion of the divine was to replace the Eucharistic diffusion. We cannot be sure whether the “real Mallarmé” knew more than us about the code, but we do know something about the “ideal Mallarmé” that the real Mallarmé did not: that he succeeded in the wager.  The code was discovered, and if we can show that the counting has a slight uncertainty, then we will have shown that Mallarmé and the Number have been infinitized.  The real Mallarmé could have known nothing of this success.

“Consequently, we find ourselves in the Presence of an ideal Mallarmé of which Mallarmé could never have known: the Presence of a Poet whose image has been transmitted to us with the aid of an autorevelation of Chance—a revelation, by chance, of the code and of its uncertainty, which has produced for us the fusion of a man and Chance.  The Presence of the infinite hypothetical act that we absorb like an intelligible host, and in which we participate in remembering the Name engendered by the Work.”  (NS, 150)

42. We know his infinity will have been effective, better than he knew it during his life.


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