The Number and the Siren – Quentin Meillassoux
“Thus, modernity triumphed and we did not know it.”
A meticulous literary study, a detective story à la Edgar Allan Poe, a treasure hunt worthy of an adventure novel – such are the registers in which will be deciphered the hidden secrets of a poem like no other. Quentin Meillassoux continues his innovative philosophical interrogation of the concepts of chance, contingency, infinity and eternity through a concentrated study of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard, patiently deciphering its enigmatic meaning on the basis of a dazzlingly simple and lucid insight with regard to ‘the unique Number that cannot be another’.
The Coup de dés constitutes perhaps the most radical break in the history of modern poetry: the fractured lines spanning the double page; the typographical play borrowed from the poster form; the multiple interpolations disrupting reading. But the intrigue of this poem is still stranger and has always resisted full elucidation. We encounter a shipwreck, and a Master, himself almost submerged, who clasps in his hand the dice that, confronted by the furious waves, he hesitates to throw. The hero expects this throw, if it takes place, to be extraordinarily important: a Number said to be ‘unique’ and which ‘cannot be any other’.
The decisive point of the investigation proposed by Meillassoux comes with a discovery, unsettling and yet as simple as a child’s game: All the dimensions of the Number, understood progressively, articulate between them but a sole condition – that this Number should ultimately be delivered to us by a secret code, hidden in the Coup de dés, like a key that finally unlocks every one of its poetic devices. Thus is also unveiled the meaning of the siren that emerges for a lightning flash among the debris of the shipwreck: as the living heart of a drama that is still unfolding.
With this bold new interpretation of Mallarmé’s work, The Number and the Siren offers provocative insights into modernity, poetics, secularism and religion, and opens a new chapter in Meillassoux’s philosophy of radical contingency.
Quentin Meillassoux teaches philosophy at the École Normale Supérieur in Paris. He is the author of After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency.
What to say about this book? But then, what was there or is there still to say about Mallarmé’s Coup de dés? Such a famously “undecipherable book” is here deciphered by a philosopher who writes on finitude, contingency, and chance – and the throw of the dice is surely also about chance, so the fit is fine. You may or may not be convinced of the secret code Quentin Meillassoux claims to have discovered in the poem, but be assured that this is a brave new interpretation of that throw and that chance.
Mary Ann Caws
Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature
Graduate Center, City University of New York
Part One: Encrypting the Number
The Poem; The Unique Number; The Aporia of Igitur; The Incomparable
Meter; The Vortex of the Code; 707; In Sum; Cosmopolis; Provisional
Part Two: Fixing the Infinite
An Idle Chance?; Presentation, Representation, Diffusion; Message in a
Bottle; To Be Chance; A Quavering Number?; Clues; The Veiled Letter;
The Siren; At a Stroke; Final Remarks
Appendix 1: The Poems
A Throw of Dice; Toast/Salvation; ‘Beneath the Oppressive Cloud Stilled...’;
Sonnet in -x
Appendix 2: The Count