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10/22/96

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Conference on French poet Mallarmé at Stanford

STANFORD -- Stéphane Mallarmé, the French poet and essayist who was the leading figure of the 19th-century symbolist movement, is the subject of a conference on the Stanford campus Oct. 25-27. The "Mallarmé Festival" is free and open to the public.

"The period in which he lived could easily be called the Mallarmé century," said Robert Greer Cohn, professor emeritus of French and Italian, who is organizing the conference. "A glance at the festival program tells you that he influenced music, the visual arts, dance, theater ­ all of modern thought."

Born in Paris in 1842, Mallarmé earned his living teaching English at provincial lycées and also wrote several books about the resonance of English words. A close friend of the artist Manet, Mallarmé was intrigued by impressionist art. From 1880 until his death in 1898, he hosted Tuesday evening salons (les mardis) at his apartment in Paris, where painters and the young French writers Gide, Valéry and Proust gathered to discuss art. Once dubbed the "master of obscurity" by contemporary critics who thought his poetry was convoluted and eccentric, Mallarmé came to be regarded as the master of symbolism by later generations.

"Symbolists historically had the lyric power of late Romantics, and Mallarmé combined that with a strong classic element," Cohn said. "Only a handful of geniuses, like Dante and Goethe, had that capacity."

Cohn, who began reading Mallarmé's poems at the age of 15 and devoted much of his academic career to the French poet's work, said that Mallarmé "represented a stage beyond Hegel" and his work "is reflected in all of modern French thought."

"The critic George Steiner wrote that Mallarmé was the pivotal figure of modern literature and thought," Cohn added. "He said his impact was greater than World Wars I and II combined.

"All of the major French critics ­ Sartre, Barthes, Foucault ­ assigned him that same position."

In addition to the scholarly papers that will be presented, a musical program on the afternoon of Oct. 26 will feature soprano Presocia Mirkil singing four Debussy settings of a Mallarmé text, and baritone Kenneth Goodson singing a Ravel setting. Flutist Alexandra Hawley and pianist Naomi Sparrow will perform additional Debussy settings.

"In the late 19th century all of the arts were aspiring to the condition of music," Cohn said. "It was their great challenge.

"Language had a certain handicap because words and letters were not directly connected with the artistic impression, whereas music was more malleable and flexible. But Mallarmé thought poets could achieve something like music, and he did that by opening up language and emphasizing the overtones of words. He brought in a harmonic dimension, and the effect was that each word was like a star in a constellation. It related to the many words around it in a globular, rather than linear, way."

Speakers at the conference include the French poet Michel Deguy; Albert Cook, professor emeritus from Brown University; Mary Ann Caws, past president of the Modern Language Association; and Judd Hubert, professor emeritus from the University of California-Irvine. The French critic Julia Kristeva, who will be unable to attend the conference for health reasons, will contribute a paper.

Stanford participants are Professors Jean-Marie Apostolides, French and Italian; John Felstiner, English; Kenneth Fields, English; Gerald Gillespie, German; Robert Harrison, French and Italian; Charles Lyons, drama; and Michael Predmore, Spanish and Portuguese.

Through Oct. 27, a Mallarméana exhibit is on display in the lobby of Green Library.

The conference is sponsored by the Department of French and Italian, with assistance from the departments of art, English, history and music; the dance division; the Humanities Center; and the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages. For program information, call the Department of French and Italian at 723-0773.

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