The False Temptation of the Infinite in Mallarmé’s “The Windows”

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Stéphane Mallarmé’s “The Windows” depicts a quest for “the Infinite” (“The Windows” 28), represented in the “deep azure” of the sky encased by the glass of window panes (9). Yet while Mallarmé describes this Infinite in Christian religious terms and separates it from both the physicality of the human body (excluding the sense of vision) and the artificial human construction of clock time, he also suggests that the Infinite constitutes a false temptation for the speaker. Despite its allure as an ostensibly pure place of spiritual knowledge, it in fact is accessed only through sin; the speaker’s search for the Infinite ends not in transcendence, but in his or her own corruption and fall from grace.

The Infinite, as constructed in “The Windows,” is defined by its religious imagery: the speaker perceives it as a “chaste” (28) gateway to a “previous heaven where Beauty flowered great” (30), and the dying man in the hospital views it as a dazzling “horizon of light” (16). The poem’s eponymous windows similarly gain spiritual power, “bles[sing]…in their glass” those who watch the azure (27). Under the influence of the Infinite, the speaker wishes to be “reborn” as an “angel” (31), perhaps evoking rebirth as a believer in Christianity and continued existence in the afterlife, while the dying man dreams of purifying himself and returning to his “virgin skin of long ago” (11). In accordance with this Christian vision, the Infinite seems to promise eternal life and transcendence of the physical body to the twin figures of the speaker and the dying man. The dying man “[s]ees” lavish, “golden” landscapes unfurl through the window (17), forsaking the tactile nature of “holy oils” (13), the gustatory element of “cordials” (14), and a body-wracking “cough” (15) in favor of vision alone; the speaker similarly “peer[s] and see[s]” (29) a “gilded” (28) vision of the Infinite in the azure. In addition to transcending the physical body, providing a space of pure vision, the Infinite escapes the confines of manmade clock time and becomes “eternal” (27), blurring the present with a “long ago” past (11) and transforming daytime’s “sunshine on the stones” into “evening bleed[ing] along the tiles” (15). The implication is that the Infinite offers the same sort of eternal life as religion itself.

Although this description appears to construct the Infinite as a religious paradise, Mallarmé instead suggests that accessing this space is far from a divine endeavor. Both the dying man and the speaker are corrupted by their efforts to access the Infinite: the dying man quite literally turns his back on Christianity and ignores what he considers a “great bored crucifix” (4), and his desire for the azure of the Infinite is “fevered” and “greedy” (9). Indeed, his devotional act of kissing the glass – an act that he hopes will restore the “virgin skin” of his youth – “befouls” the window (11), sullying the purity of this spiritual space with “bitter[ness]” (12).

The overwhelming presence of the self also upends any notions of spiritual transcendence. In “Crisis in Poetry,” Mallarmé remarks that “[t]he pure work implies the disappearance of the poet as speaker, yielding his initiative to words” – privileging intangible, nonphysical entities over the self (“Crisis in Poetry” 75). The speaker of “The Windows” uses the Infinite not to transcend his or her own self, but to be more grounded in it. At what should be the peak moment of spirituality, when the speaker has been “blest” (“The Windows” 27) and “gilded by the Infinite” (28), he or she instead repeats the word “I”: “I peer and see myself an angel! I die, I long” (29). Later, he or she refers to the self as a sort of deity and replacement for God, using the invocation “oh Self” to beg for assistance from a higher power (37). Although the speaker blames the witchcraft-like “spell” of the “World Below” for his or her inability to fully transcend the physical senses (33), the reference to the “Self who knows gall stings” (37) connects the speaker to the dying man with his “bitter” kiss (12) suggest that the speaker’s self, like the dying man’s, is the chief source of corruption. Much like Lucifer in Paradise Lost, the speaker is doomed to “fall through eternal skies,” exiled from this religious paradise of the Infinite that he or she attempts to reach only through corruption (40).

–MS

Word Count: 725

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