Sunday, October 16, 2011

M & M and Cigars

The title to this posting is deceiving, as it has nothing to do with candy. Rather it has to do with an artist and a poet, with Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) and the painting of Mallarmé by impressionist painter Édouard Manet (1832-83). Mallarmé is a famous fin de siècle French poet whose poetic works were frequently put to music. For example, Mallarmé's poem, L'après-midi d'un faune (or The Afternoon of a Faun) was wonderfully put to music by the impressionist Claude Deubssy in the orchestral work Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. This would be a wonderful piece to listen to while smoking a cigar by oneself.

Mallarmé had a great affinity for cigars, and it shows up not only in one of his poems, but it shows up in Manet's portrait of Mallarmé painted in 1876. I have thus conveniently combined Mallarmé's poem and Manet's portrait of Mallarmé in one posting which yields the clever title M & M and cigars, for which I pat myself on the back.

First the picture:

Edouard Manet's portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé
1876. Oil on canvas, H. 27.5; W. 36 cm © RMN (Musée d'Orsay)

Now, the poem:

Toute l’âme résumée
by the cigar-smoking Stéphane Mallarmé

(in original French)

Toute l’âme résumée
Quand lente nous l’expirons
Dans plusieurs ronds de fumée
Abolis en autres ronds

Atteste quelque cigare
Brûlant savamment pour peu
Que la cendre se sépare
De son clair baiser de feu

Ainsi le chœur des romances
A la lèvre vole-t-il
Exclus-en si tu commences
Le réel parce que vil

Le sens trop précis rature
Ta vague littérature.

(in English translation)

The whole soul encircled
In our slow exhalings
Plural rings of smoke
Vanishing in other rings

They attest to some cigar
Burning wisely while
The cinders keep apart
From the clear kiss of fire

As the choir of romance
Flies up to your smile
Keep out if you come to
The real for it's vile

To clear a sense erases
Your vague literature.


The poem seems typically impressionistic, concerned more with feelings and less with reality, calling reality vile, and something from which one ought to separate oneself, just like one ought to separate one's impressionistic lips and smoke, from the reality of the cigar's fire. When reality gets too close to the emotion it impresses, the impressionist runs scared, for the impression is more important that the reality, which, based upon Kantian philosophy, cannot be known. Only impressions can be known, the ding an sich, the reality in itself, is unknowable. Better vague musings and impressions than hard reality.

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