November 7th, 2005


no ptyx

― for Eric Gans
    In 1887, Stéphane Mallarmé published a sonnet composed in the form of an allegory of itself. Its outer parts, the first quatrain and the second tercet, comprised a frame that contained the inner parts, the second quatrain and the first tercet. Their relation represented the way whereby the literal subject matter of the poem, a window reflected in the mirror in a darkened room, contained the nighttime sky. To complicate his task further, the poet chose to alternate in the quatrains the masculine rhymes in ‘ix’ and ‘yx’ that ended with a consonant, with feminine rhymes in ‘ore’ that ended in a silent e, inverting their genders to feminine ‘ixe’ and ‘yxe’ alternated with masculine ‘or’ in the tercets. The French vocabulary is ill suited to supplying rhymes in ‘ix/yx’. In response to this deficiency, Mallarmé invested the word ptyx with a novel meaning. His usage seemed at first a hapax legomenon within French literature, a term thitherto unexpressed in its language. But in ancient and modern Greek, πτύξ stood for a layer, a plate, a fold, or a writing tablet. In particular, it designated a special kind of a fold, such as may be found in a seashell. In fact, Victor Hugo already had drawn his inspiration from this term to employ Ptyx as a proper name in La Légende des siècles. Mallarmé had something very different in mind. His ptyx was not any given being, place, or thing, but a special kind of object. Its very nature inhered in its absence:
Ses purs ongles très haut dédiant leur onyx,
LAngoisse, ce minuit, soutient, lampadophore,
Maint rêve vespéral brûlé par le Phénix
Que ne recueille pas de cinéraire amphore
Her pure nails sprung up exalting their onyx,
Anxiety, this midnight, bearing light, sustains,
In twilight many dreams burnt up by the Phoenix
Whose smoky ashes no sepulchral urn contains
Sur les crédences, au salon vide : nul ptyx
Aboli bibelot dinanité sonore,
(Car le Maître est allé puiser des pleurs au Styx
Avec ce seul objet dont le Néant shonore.)
Atop the sideboards, in the empty room: no ptyx,
That voided toy of vibrant nonsense, left inside,
(Because the Master’s gone to draw the tears from Styx
With that exclusive object wherein Naught takes pride.)
Mais proche la croisée au nord vacante, un or
Agonise selon peut-être le décor
Des licornes ruant du feu contre une nixe,
In vacant north seen through the casement frames, a gold
May agonize at times, within the setting, to behold
Fire-breathing unicorns arrayed against a nix,
Elle, défunte nue en le miroir, encor
Que, dans loubli fermé par le cadre, se fixe
De scintillations sitôt le septuor.
She, lifeless naked mirror image, repetition
Whom in the twinkling framed forgetting, is to fix
Through sparkling timed in septet, composition.
― Stéphane Mallarmé, Œuvres complètes, édition présentée, établie et annotée par Bertrand Marchal, tome I, Gallimard: Bibliothéque de la Pléiade, 1998 (MOC I), pp. 37-38, cf. p. 98 ― translated by MZ
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