It is apparent in the history of most art forms that there is an illicit attraction at the heart of fatality which, at times, renders the artist nearly deaf to other subjects. Themes of death, the void, and general absence emerge in different ways in literature and poetry–and not always through the words themselves, but in the negative spaces those words attempt to delineate. Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Maurice Blanchot are three writers who, in their accelerating gravitation towards these themes, found themselves approaching them from angles now thought to be revolutionary or uniquely poignant. Baudelaire’s insistent wallowing in his own misery draped a heavy cloud of his desire for nothingness and absence over many of his poems, effectively producing a repetitious but intoxicating thematic consistency. And while Baudelaire’s work enacted the ambiance of death weighing down upon him in the content of his work, Mallarmé arguably created a more revolutionary way of pleading with his obsessions through the form of his magnum opus “Un Coup de Dés”, which plays with absence and the void physically through the empty space on the page itself. Blanchot takes a more direct philosophical approach to his own infatuation with death, comparing distinct perspectives on suicide, art and the nature of death in his essay “Death as Possibility”. While all three writers had a consuming preoccupation with death and exhibited it in different ways, they all had a method of illuminating death and absence not always by addressing it directly, but by way of averted vision: mapping the boundaries of it with their language in order to inhabit a liminality that offered them a heightened state of wakefulness to both death and life.
In Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal there is a poem called “The Taste for Nothing” (The Flowers of Evil, p. 102) which illustrates the craft of Baudelaire’s ethereal language as well as his unclenching fascination with absence. In “The Taste for Nothing” he writes of being abandoned by hope and love, and the ever-present yearning for absence emerges–as it does in many of Baudelaire’s other poems. What is perhaps most common across Baudelaire’s exploration of absence in his work is his full longing for sleep and numbness. He writes, “Resign yourself, my heart; sleep your brutish sleep.” It is well known that Baudelaire (along with many others of his time) was an opiate user and an alcoholic, and his apparent resignation to what could be called the transient voids of sleep and anesthetizing agents should come as no surprise as a theme in his work. There seems to be a dominant motif of wanting time to pass without having to experience it–to exist not as a participant of time (which, to Baudelaire, was at times nothing but an involuntary exercise in suffering), nor even as an observer of it, but as one who wholly denied it. In the same poem, Baudelaire writes, “And Time, minute by minute engulfs me, like heavy snow around a stiffening body…” Sleep and drugs were perhaps Baudelaire’s best attempts at becoming immaterial enough for an artificial unity with true absence, a way of averting his painful experience with time and space while not permanently abandoning them in real resignation. Not unexpectedly, then, does Baudelaire’s diction in much of his work mimic his longing for ethereality.
In contrast to Baudelaire’s diction invoking absence is Mallarmé’s poem “Un Coup de Dés”, which labors the theme not only in the words chosen, but in the disparate placement of those words on the page. A highly experimental piece considering its time, “Un Coup de Dés” acts almost as a frame, born of language, to border the concept of absence, void, or, in Mallarmé’s term, “the Abyss”. He describes it as “blanched/spread/furious/beneath and incline/desperately plane…” (Collected Poems, p. 128). But it is not only (or even primarily) the words chosen here to describe Mallarmé’s Abyss that enact a sense of peering into it–it is their arrangement on the page. The words themselves effect the qualities they project in that they leave a surfeit of empty space beneath them as they decline in a layered movement across the page. While this sequence is more linearly organized than some of the other sequences in “Un Coup de Dés”, it is also undeniably disorienting through the not-so-logical progression of its actual content. Mallarmé invented a kind of topographical formation in “Un Coup de Dés” through different sized text that necessitates the reciprocal invention of a new way of reading. In this sense, he invokes the Abyss (the unutterable) by breaching one’s trust in traditional ways of reading and forcing them into a liminal experience with words on the border between sense and nonsense. This silent exchange between the form and the content of “Un Coup de Dés” is a stunning development in the interest of absence in poetics, as both of them delineate the space not of what they are able to fill and possess, but of what they are unable to fill and possess.
What, then, are we to make of the idea that hovers incessantly around Baudelaire’s and Mallarmé’s attempts to enact the possession of that which cannot be possessed? The question that dogs Baudelaire’s work (and Mallarmé’s to a lesser extent) most of all is that of suicide. Why not, if one finds it such an unshakeable desire to embrace nothingness? In Blanchot’s essay “Death as Possibility” he meditates at length on the question of suicide and the possession of the nothingness and the void that Baudelaire and Mallarmé agonized over in the their poetry. It could be argued that Baudelaire and Mallarmé sought to possess their own negation through the industry of their art. Blanchot, however, might find that a useless endeavor. He writes, “Whoever dwells with negation cannot use it. Whoever belongs to it can no longer, in this belonging, take leave of himself, for he belongs to the neutrality of absence in which already he is not himself anymore” (The Work as Death’s Space, p. 103). Thus the attempt to possess negation is, in fact, an act of being dispossessed by that which one longs for most. Blanchot also points out the powerful contradiction implicit in the act of suicide: that it is, in fact, an act in pursuit of inaction. By attempting to grasp death, one is denying the maxim behind which they exert themselves in the first place.
While Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Blanchot certainly branched their bodies of work into distinct meditations on death, void and absence, they would likely all agree that death has no horizon: it is always in such immediacy to the artist that to ignore it requires a great effort. If it were otherwise, one may suffer from a fiercely domesticated consciousness that avoids even the thought of it. At some point, all of these writers must have realized poignantly that they had been given a body predetermined to dissolve, and that this fact posed to them the ultimate question: “Shall I pursue my death in an attempt to understand it, or shall I flee from it?” Death then begins its long exposure, accreting in the works of art that pierced them. Baudelaire died in a terrible way, trapped in his body which, in his final months, must have been a particularly excruciating experience with time. He lay paralyzed in bed due to (according to Waldrop’s introduction) “complications” (The Flowers of Evil, p. xxvii), only able to utter the singular expletive “Crénom!”. He had spent his life lamenting his life, but in doing so offered to us affecting artistic meditations on death and the void for which he yearned. Blanchot and Mallarmé presumably died in less tragic circumstances, but nonetheless had their own experiences with philosophical voids intense enough to precipitate the words they set down for posterity. The space to which these artists belonged is not altogether certain–it seems they were intent on having one part of themselves present in the material world which they attempted to illuminate with novel uses of language, and another part floating in a void that language could only point at. In any case, their experiences on the borders between the expressible and the inexpressible–between life and death–supplied them perspectives that fundamentally shifted the artistic capacity of language and heightened our sensitivity to the negative spaces they attempted to grasp.