A throw of the dice

Odilon Redon (1840-1916) - Un coup de dés ... (illustration du poème de Mallarmé réalisée entre 1897 et 1898) ; album Ambroise Vollard (projet d'édition qui ne vit pas le jour).

Odilon Redon (1840-1916) - Un coup de dés ... (illustration du poème de Mallarmé réalisée entre 1897 et 1898) ; album Ambroise Vollard (projet d'édition qui ne vit pas le jour).

A throw of the dice by Stéphane Mallarmé, by Éric Marty

In 1897, a year before his death, Mallarmé – having given a very young Paul Valéry the chance to enjoy the challenge of his final piece of work A throw of the dice will never abolish chance – said: “Don’t you think that it is an act of madness?”.

In his A throw of the Dice, Stéphane Mallarmé revolutionised poetry just as Picasso did with painting ten years later with his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Young ladies of Avignon): the linearity of perception explodes, the poem decentres into constellations of words, scattered in a disorderly fashion in the four corners, edges and even in the folds of eleven large double pages on which this poem sprawls like an archipelago in some kind of typological game of capitals, italics and bold lettering that prevents a cursive and purely rational reading of the work. A kind of fixed-explosion to echo the phrase by André Breton to describe modern beauty. No more neatly arranged stanzas, no more alexandrines and predictable rhymes. The latter are actually there but hidden in this explosion of words or verbal shipwreck. A shipwreck that, moreover, constitutes the theme of the poem, one in which both poet and poetry drown: no verse, no throw of the dice, can ever succeed in attesting that beauty is something other than fortuitous, other than the fruit of chance… and this is the drama that Mallarmé is laying out before us.

This shipwreck is obviously a sublime shipwreck close to Arthur Rimbaud’s Drunken boat in which the genius, originality and audacity of the piece refute the pessimism inherent in the message being delivered. If “Every Thought emits a roll of the Dice”, then this means that every throw of the dice is a crazy (yet awesome) attempt to beat this hazardous contingency. And this one, far from taking us for a ride, incites us to keep throwing the dice again and again to infinity without ever giving up, the two dice containing, according to the poet, “the unique Number […] it cannot be another.” That’s why the work of art is undoubtedly, for Mallarmé, the space in which desire reaches its peak and where, to use René Char’s phrase on poetry, the latter is “desire remaining desire”.

Seen as inhabiting a hall of mirrors, the piece of work delivers itself of its risky character: the title “A throw of dice will never abolish chance” is a mirror because the word chance – al-zhar in Arabic – means a throw of the dice. There is mirroring at the beginning and at the end because the first and last words of the poem are the same: “A Throw of the Dice”. There is mirroring in the middle, where the central fold of the double page is crossed by diagonal type that opens and closes with the same two words “AS IF”. Mirroring occurs where the dislocation of verse, stanza and rhyme and meaning navigate to a new listening of the world, a new readability, hoisted on the scale of the Cosmos.

A typographical and cosmological poem rolled into one, The Throw of the Dice is a real “act of madness”, the rich nature of which is evident in the dogged character of this wager on imminent meaning – as in every great work of art.


Éric Marty is a writer and professor of contemporary French literature at Paris VII – Diderot university ; he also is the editor/publisher of the complete works of Roland Barthes.