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Variable readings: A throw of the dice will never abolish chance. The spatialization of language.

Altea Grau Vidal - GRA12371777 MA Book Arts. Full Time UNIT 1. Course 2012-2013


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Variable readings: A throw of the dice will never abolish chance. The spatialization of language.

‘Read and meditate on Mallarmé. He offered me the gift of Un coup de Dés and Igitur…The poem obsessed me for 20-25 years, and now that Magritte is dead, to liberate me at least partially I believed it necessary…to redo the roll of the dice on the notion of the image…my aim is to change the signs for the reading of a poem, to show the extent to which the word is carried by the form. Marcel Broodthaers

In this essay I will explore deeply Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolirà le Hasard. Published for first time in 1914 and reinterpreted in 1969 and exhibit by the artist Marcel Broodthaers in the Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp, as part of the exhibition called Exposition littéraire. This presentation changed completely the concept of the language as an artistic material and the reading process itself. Through this study will try to understand Marcel Broodthaers’ motivations to make his own version of the poem through the exploration of different concepts: the space of the page, the silence and the void, the importance of the double-pages and the variable readings. All concepts will move alongside artistic and poetic practise towards an inevitable abstraction of the words, abandoning narration and circumscribing emptiness in the page. Giving a leading role to the reader and relying on his autonomy, will dismantle and discover new interpretations, new approaches to the burgeoning field of the language. Believing in its substrates, in its sediments and in the constellation that it forms.



Variable readings: A throw of the dice will never abolish chance. The spatialization of language.

I was looking at the form and pattern of a thought, placed for the first time in infinite space. Here space itself truly spoke, dreamed, and gave a birth to temporal forms. Expectancy, doubt, consternation, all were visible things… (Valéry in Mallarmé, 1994: 264)

For Stéphane Mallarmé (France, 1842–1898), the book was an instrument to engage with a modern public, he wanted to start a new approach in writing in which new poetics would radically alter everyday life, encouraging readers to take the book as independent and creative agents. The most representative poem of his work is Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolirà le Hasard1, poem that Marcel Broodthaers (Belgium 19241976) fifty years after reinterpreted expanding the paradigms of the writing and highlighting the concepts that Mallarmé was exploring. In this essay I will analyse the influence of this poem in the context of the Exposition littéraire, presented in 1969 in Antwerp (Belgium) by Marcel Broodthaers.

When Stéphane Mallarmé presented in 1914 Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolirà le Hasard (Fig.1 and 3), he conceived this as a way to encourage reader participation, its mobile parts designed to be reconstituted in the mind of the reader. The visual presentation of text not only represented a new poetic form but proposed a radical redefinition of reading and communication. In articulating this crucial shift from a passive admirer to an empowered reader, Mallarmé refers to the book as an instrument, a critical tool for the reader. This expression comes from Mallarmé’s 1895 essay Le                                                                                                               1

The English translation would be: A throw of the dice will never abolish chance. During this essay I will use the French Un Coup de Dés to refer to this work.


livre, instrument spiritual, which has frequently been translated into English as The book, Spiritual Instrument. ‘Spiritual’ refers to one’s wit and mental agility, qualities that the poet claims for all readers, the initiative, whose spark resides within anybody, ‘enables each reader to make connections between dispersed notations’ (Sigrídur Arnar, 2012: 323).

Figure 1: Stéphane Mallarmé, Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolirà le Hasard. Poem, 1914

In Un Coup de Dés, the dice metaphor simultaneously evokes chance and certainty, because no clear outcome of the game can be predicted. Mallarmé introduced a new set of rules to the game of reading, by abandoning the columnar structure of the page as well as narrative sequence. Moreover, the vast emphatic blank space becomes a dynamic element of the text rather than its passive frame, where the silence, the empty zone in which speech is liberated from its social overtones. Roland Barthes, in Writing Degree Zero (1967), dedicates a whole chapter to an analysis of the silence in writing saying, ‘silence is a homogeneous poetic time’ (Barthes, 1967: 75). This manifestation of the silence, the blank page, is more than merely a background for the linguistic information. These concepts will be crucial for contextualizing the artists’ work I will discuss in this essay. There are a series of questions that I will use to explore the notion further:


Was time in poetry what Mallarmé wanted to explore? Did Mallarmé and later Broodthaers anticipate concepts such as space, time, or white as a blank space carrying another meaning on the page? Why did Broodthaers choose Mallarmé? In order to understand these issues in relation to contemporary expressions of space in poetry, the space of the word and the relationship between single and double page spreads, I will analyse and discuss the work of Stéphane Mallarmé and Marcel Broodthaers, who both revolutionized the notion of the book and the concept of the page.

I. Constellations: Space to be read RIEN N’AURA




Mallarmé used a very inspiring metaphor naming the vision of his poem no longer as a “text” but as a ‘constellation’. This ‘constellation’ comprises a group of words and their significant and graphic potential (as above), drawing on the etymological connotation of the word: individual stars that form a group (Mackert in Folie, 2008: 68). This poetic interpretation is what Broodthaers took to create his own version of a poem: he extracted the textual information and substituted it with an art object (Fig.2). With this action, he merely reinforced the fact that the books are objects.


The English translation would be : “Nothing will have taken place but the place, except perhaps a constellation”. Mallarmé’s closing words in capital letters, in Mallarmé, S. (1994). Collected poems. Translated with commentary by Henry Weinfield. California: University of California Press. Pages 143-145


Figure 2. Marcel Broodthaers, Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolirà le Hasard. Image (1969)

In his work he tends to delineate voids, to circumscribe emptiness in the space, to perform an operation of subtraction from that which is given, counted, structured. According to Alain Badiou, ‘the void is always the void of situation’ (Badiou, 2010: 342), and this can be read in the work of Broodthaers in the context of his use of Mallarme’s ideas. Mallarme’s poem, Un Coup de Des, is the very trace of a situation or event: the temporal confusion with an image of a sea captain, ‘from the depths of a shipwreck’ (Mallarme, 1919), grasping a pair of dice. His hesitation in throwing the dice is a desperate attempt to prolong the moment and suspend his inevitable fate on the stormy ocean, which is manifest in the use of the ‘constellation’ in its final words. This almost creates a feeling of being located on the verge, seeing something only for a fraction of a second. Is this ‘constellation’, then, his way of referring to the content or its form? In my opinion, this metaphor is the key to understanding the connections between Mallarmé and Broodthaers, and to understanding the artist’s fascination with Un coup de Dés. It was in this metaphor that Broodthaers determined the innovation of Mallarme’s communicative process and how he avoided direct narrative, celebrating the


point of fracture and the possibility of reading back and fort. He became aware of the interconnections that make up a work of art, the importance in going across disciplinary boundaries, and above all, he was aware that everything had already been written. He knew that writing needed to alter its course radically to redefine itself in order to adapt to a new environment. This is why he was interested in Mallarmé’s ideas about the absolute book, the fragmentation of the text and the detection of meaning, because these ideas opened a completely new dimension.

This is his way of bringing to bear both form and content. Broodthaers’ rearrangement of words shifts the focus of this constellation, and with it, changes the focus of the act of communication in his work. He uses the power of words to generate spaces, as well as the power of the silence accumulated behind each word, because the word is nothing without the silence that precedes and stays after it. ‘Because silence exists, I write’3 (Pizarnik, 2005: 315) notes the Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, describing the essence of this issue. Broodthaers chose the intensity of the existence of the poem, ‘the trace of the poem’, because it ‘opens onto a new present’ (Badiou, 2010: 467). Many artists have used this silence, this quiet, expressed by the void, such as John Cage and Robert Raushenberg, minimizing the visual elements to the maximum: ‘There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound’ (Cage in Sontag, 1967). Cage has described how, even in a soundless chamber, he still heard at least two things: his heartbeat and the coursing of the blood in his head. According to Susan Sontag, in The Aesthetics of Silence, ‘behind the appeals for silence lies the wish for a perceptual and cultural clean slate’ (Sontag, 1967). These artists who experimented with the use of silence in their work, needed to go to such extremes to reinvent the communicative value of their art. What was realised, however, through this work, was that total purity, absolute silence does not actually exist. It cannot exist in a literal sense, because it would mean that without stimulus, the spectator would not be able to respond, and no exchange would exist. An exchange that in both Mallarmé’s and Broodthaers’ work is crucial, because otherwise, how can the spectator understand a blank page?


From Spanish: Porque el silencio existe, por eso escribo. This translation is done by me.


This crucial exchange is also manifest in the rhetorical forms Mallarmé uses in the poem, and his ideas about the space of the page. Using space as an instrument, in order to create a new territory, a new ground to build up on, the page becomes the place for an action. This aspect, this important idea in Mallarmé’s work is the one that has exploded in Broodthaers’ version of the poem. It is what is found when the viewer looks at one of his double pages: a desert of scars, an indefinite place, a broken moment, an absent minute. These internal connections allude to unspoken words.

II. Double pages: Variable readings. In his preface to the work, Mallarmé refers to ‘the way the reading process is spaced out’ (Translated by Weinfield in Mallarmé, 1994:121-5) and how, by ‘dispers[ing]’ poetry’s elements, the blanks, in effect, assume importance. Within this radical page layout, ‘the paper intervenes each time and image (…) ceases, accepting the succession of others, (…) at the instant they appear and for the duration of their concurrence in some exact mental setting…’ (ibid). He was stabling parallels within spaces, dealing with the layout, remarking the material dimension of the book and establishing parallels between pages. In this quote, he expressed the importance of the paper itself, as an essential part of the poem, and how it changes the processing of the visual and verbal information.

Mallarmé’s poem describes the medium of the book and text as different from other manifestations in language. He also was very involved in the nascent mass media of newspapers and the poster, already attempting the radical poetics of engagement in participatory and democratic reading. This is why, in his poetry, the sense of the poem lies, or depends so greatly on the ‘formal aspects of the signifier that it hovers on the border of sense’ (Haidu, 2010: 98). Where, on the one hand, the text evokes a mental, an illusory space arising from an imaginary dimension coming from the power of words, yet on the other hand, he was convinced that the author should be ‘absent from the text’ (Reynolds, 1995: 87), allowing the reader the opportunity to create his own mise en scène4.                                                                                                               4

The English translation would be: “direction”.


Each word stays on the edge of indeterminacy, sounding by itself, performing the ambivalence that is inherent in the enunciation. Each word stands in its precise placement on the page (see Fig. 1 and 3). Other words are formed by their physical junctures with other words, connecting, fusing in groups and forming rhythms, phonetic systems, bonds between the double spread, drawing little images, memory shoots into our head. The groups of letters and words according to their visual resemblances are more linked than those associated by semantic codes. This creates a hierarchy between form and sense, between ephemeral and blunt constructions, ‘an entire network of rebellious structures which constrain and short-circuit the linear sense’ (Bowie in Haidu, 2010: 98).

Figure 3. Stéphane Mallarmé, Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolirà le Hasard. Poem (1919)

But not only the distribution of the words in the page is important, even more dramatic is the enigmatic tool that Mallarmé employed in the central pages of the book. Reversing the usual method of printing technology and typographic resources, during seven consecutives pages in the middle of the poem, he used only italics (Fig. 3). And,


immediately after these seven pages, he introduced upper-case words distributed throughout the text creating a secondary text. In this way, he replaces his previous invisible relations with an explicit analogy. All are very subtle keys, jokes, syntactical anecdotes, because the volatility of the word’s meaning matches the material significance of the poem. He created a book where the resonance and the musicality of the words themselves transport the viewer to look more closely at the ink on the page, on the fold, on the page itself, and reveal, in the words of Jaques Lacan, that ‘before signifying something, language must signify for someone’ (Lacan in Badiou, 2010: 73). Broodthaers found a similar context for his work in the 1960s when language became sculptural through reflections on its materiality. Artists felt the need at this time to change their status, which is why Broodthaers would see language as something other than an instrument. He explored this matter in December 1969, during the Exposition littéraire5 at the Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp. The artist displayed a copy of Mallarmé’s book, a series of metal plates (Fig.4) made of anodised aluminium creating a smooth, hard and minimalis surface, engraved with black impressions, and next to it, a continuous recording of Broodthaers reciting the poem. Besides, another version of the poem printed on transparent paper, where each double-page layout yields the relations between the black bars as the “Image” replica of Mallarmé’s poem. ‘Broothaers’ process transforms Mallarmé’s poem into pure graphics, pure relation, and pure abstraction’ (Haidu, 2010: 71). He demonstrated that it was possible to use language in a place where art is normally the object on display, that is possible to communicate even if the words of the poem are missing, and also that it is possible to read a piece of art rather that look at it: that reading was becoming a different experience.

The words of an entire line are fused in one black block. The width and length of Broodthaers’s bars vary in accordance with Mallarmé’s dynamic typography and the five character sizes (see Fig.2). Even the use of italics in parts of the poem, are matched by slanted ends of the bars. The depth given by the use of fine paper, to show the resonance of each space, of each omitted and silenced sound. He erases the words in favour of graphic gestures, which convey the indifferent sameness of expanded space. They help the reader to focus entirely on the distribution of the elements across the                                                                                                               5

The English translation would be: “The litetary exhibition”


space on the page and on the dimension of the double spread. This radicalizes the liberation of the word from the text and content towards a simultaneous view of the spread. Un Coup de Dés cannot be read without the bookbinding that permits its unfolding, its spreading-out. It is a poem not only dependent on its medium, but also on the reader, who turns the pages throughout, which reveals its object form.

Figure 4.  Marcel  Broodthaers.  Un  Coup  de  dés  jamais  n'abolira  le  hazard.  1969  

But why did Marcel Broodthaers avoid the words of the poem? Agreeing to Jaques Rancière, in his analysis of the poem, “the lines imitate the idea insofar as the word did also, assimilating the imaginary design of the evoked objects to the visible distribution of lines” (Rancière in Folie, 2008: 203). Broodthaers refuses the function of language, and perpetually frustrates the attempts of “reading” the book. He diminishes the visual information in order to expand the spectator’s orientation towards the site considered art, towards abstraction. As outsiders ‘we gain awareness of the site and take and the language becomes estranged from itself’ (Brecht in White, 2006: 216). Avoiding the words is only an excuse, a justification. The process of reading, the abstraction of words, the abolition of the act of writing is what he created: a completely different and independent piece of work. Evoking the word, talking about words, about Mallarmé words, but without using any himself.


Conclusion: There is no absence of meanings

Why Marcel Broodthaers chose Mallarmé? Because Mallarmé was the icon of the new generation of philosophers and theorists, gaining political and cultural authority in Europe. He was considered the symbol of linguistic conceptualism. Un Coup de Dés, and with it, the Exposition Littéraire was placed in the axis: marked the incorporation of external analytical and critical position in Broodthaers’ work. It constituted a very special situation, a context that didn’t exist when other artists many years after Broodthaers made also their Un Coup de Dés’ own version. Artists such as Maranda, Pilcher or Wyn Evans, did very interesting versions, but in my opinion, with an important lack of content, meaning and implications. They are just working about the Broodthaers’s form and pattern, repeating his rhythm, his interpretation.

Presenting the absence of Mallarmé’s poem through several media, Broodthaers also was doing a tribute to the poem and to the artist, because it was one of the Mallarmé’s visions. The poet died imagining his work represented in multiple media simultaneously. In fact, he asked Odilon Redon to do some illustrations for a deluxe edition of the poem. But resulted a frustrated project because he died before Redon completed all the lithographs. He wanted to expand his work, change the form of the book, try new ideas out. Through his poetics and essays, “Mallarmé argued incessantly for the specific materiality of the linguistic signifier and the importance of the book edition for that materiality” (Haidu, 2010: 65). He was anticipating the future of his work, he knew that his work needed to move to other methods and displays. This is another reason why Broodthaers chose Mallarmé’s poem and why he chose this special and particular poem. Broodthaers’ exhibit, translating the poem into various two and three dimensional media, set up new tensions concerning many aspects: the consolidation of language as a valiant and conceptual sign system such as legible, transparent and even immaterial; the qualities of each medium used; and the disappearance of the poem. But above all, through his version of Un Coup de Dés, he established a complex paradox between the poetics and the arts, examining the implications of a formalist tradition in his own moment.


In order to answer last question, Broodthaers chose Un coup de Dés because wanted to commemorate Mallarmé, wanted to resurrect his words, his essence, and put them into a new context. Broodthaers needed to reveal that language was a very rich instrument, not only for the evocation of feelings, sounds, shapes or images through words and text, but also because identifying and recognizing its substrates, determined that language also encoded identity and history.


Word count: 3.061 words



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Broodthaers, M. (1969). Un coup de dés jamais n’aborira le hasard. Image. Antwerpen: Gallerie Wide white Space. Crawford, N & Tyson, I. (1985). A cast of dice never can annul chance. London: Tetrad. Gibbs, M. (2005). All or nothing: an anthology of blank books. Derbyshire: RGAP Mallarmé, S. (1914). Un coup de dés jamais n’aborira le hasard. Poem. Maranda, M. (2008). Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard. Livre. Toronto: Art Metropole. Pichler, M. (2008). Un coup de dés jamais n’aborira le hasard. Scupture. Berlin: Greatest Hits. Wyn Evans, C. (2004). Cerith Wyn Evans. Edited by Daniel Buchholz, Christopher Müller and Nicolaus Schafhausen. New York: Lukas & Sternberg.



Figure 1 Stéphane Mallarmé, (1914). Un coup de Dés Jamais N’abolirá le Hasard. Poem [Online Image]. Available from the World Wide Web: < > [Acceded on 13-03-2013]

Figure 2 Marcel Broodthaers, (1969). Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolirà le Hasard. Image [Online Image]. Available from the World Wide Web: < > [Acceded on 15-03-2013]

Figure 3 Stéphane Mallarmé, (1914). Un coup de Dés Jamais N’abolirá le Hasard . [Online Image]. Available from the World Wide Web: < > [Acceded on 13-03-2013]

Figure 4 Marcel Broodthaers, (1969). Un Coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hazard. [Online Image]. Avalaible from the World Wide Web: /un-coup-jamais/ [Acceded on 15-03-2013]


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