Mallarmé & the Evolution of the Act of Reading

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When I first discovered the poetry and prose of French symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, I was immediately inspired by the relationship I saw between his use of language and other artistic fields, including music, design, and dance. As someone who often thinks in images and movement rather than in words, I was particularly drawn to this quality in his writing. So much so, in fact, that I made it the subject of my BFA thesis.


Mallarmé’s eminent work Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard in particular led me to consider my experience of reading: chasing words and sentences from left to right, snaking in an uninterrupted line from the top of the page and winding within well-defined margins down to the bottom: verso, recto, and turn to the next spread. It is a kinetic experience—a series of small gestures strung together and repeated, a cognitive and physical act that in its repetition has become reflexive.

Un coup de dés is striking in its nonlinear read and its immensity of whitespace. In the lacunae, the intervals of blankness, there is a rhythm in the tumbling text: prosodic, visual, and even kinetic. The blank page is no longer merely background—the text activates and enlivens it. Reading becomes a spatial exploration. More than a poem, Un coup de dés is movement and texture in the context of the page. The form allows for a certain near-physical presence or dimensionality that pushes it beyond the bounds of language.

So now, more than a century later, how has the kinetic aspect of reading developed with the evolution of digital technology? In what new ways is information communicated and absorbed in an incorporeal reading space? The nonlinearity and dimensionality that makes Un coup de dés so unique are prominent qualities of digital media, but on-screen reading often feels like a passive experience. How can digital reading become an active, exploratory endeavor? I think it’s a discussion worth having.


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