The Afternoon of a Faun

The Afternoon of a Faun1

L’Après-midi d’un Favne: eglogve2

~ by Stéphan Mallarmé

A translation (see foot notes) by Kent H. Dixon

(with Sarah Louppe Petchet: see Translator’s Note2)

 

EXT.  STEAMY WOODS, A BOG  — AFTERNOON

In a steamy woods comes a sudden commotion, as of predator and prey—a brash  frantic scramble through the brush and snapping limbs. Startling. Loud and close.

Two NYMPHS in a tumble with a rank FAUN—there is a splash; there was a splash that spooked the dream, and then all grows dark again, and then…

EXT. COPSE, BESIDE A STREAM — DAY

In a copse, near a stream, the faun wakes, blinks…

FAUN

(to the branches above him)

These nymphs…  I want… I would

perpetuate them. Immortalize…with

a throbbing pen:

He pushes himself onto to his elbows, looks down his length, then sits up.

FAUN, CONT.

(half-composing)

‘So bright their rosy flesh that it floats in

the air still… ’

(he yawns)

‘This logy air, laden with wooly sleep….’

His head nods, weighted by a noseful of sleep, then jerks awake.

FAUN, CONT.

Did I just love a dream?

He is unsure, and that one doubt lingering from last night’s heap of putrid dreams, grows tendrils that branch and branch again ever finer, creeping forth out into the real woods, which are muggy with options.

Which goes to prove, he thinks, that he was just now giving himself to a phantom, a rosy pink salty phantom. A dry rape, if a damp dream.

FAUN, CONT.

Let’s think about this.

He thinks several beats, until his horns begin to itch.

FAUN, CONT.

(in the middle of his thought)

… or, whether the women you are thus

explicating represent a wink from your

mythy mind, eh?

Faun, your illusion bursts from the blue eyes of the chaste one, cold as a virgin spring in May.

FAUN

But the other girl was in our way, flabby

with sighs.

You think she contrasts with the first, what, as if a warm breeze fluttering your fleece?

FAUN

(fingering his panpipes)

I do not! Would it were so simple. These

murmurs, you hear? You hear them through

this swoon? This…  tor - por…

An eerie MUSIC, Debussy meets Rapture Synthesizer. Oh, swoon that has this morning by the very throat—on this we agree. But this is no murmur from a flute, that sprays these woods with chords.

EXT.   SICILIAN BOG  — DAY

MUSIC and MONTAGE mingle—a coastline, a butterfly, CU of Faun’s wrist as sparse raindrops wetten it, and then in ECU evaporate, as the faun:

FAUN, V.O.

What is it then?

STAGE DIRECTION is becoming an active VOICE, remarkably close to the Faun’s, as montage gives ripples on the water, then becoming a steamy surface from the warm rain, through next exchange.

VOICE, V.O

The ripples on the horizon—if not from wind,

then think you it’s the blow of pipes so deft as

to suck away the melody into the drone of an

arid rain?

FAUN, V.O.

(determined, even earnest)

God, man, whether that or not that, it is, on

your lame unruffled horizon . . .

EXT.  BOG — SAME

Faun drops any attitude and is most sincere, because his loss is universal:

FAUN

. . . it is the palpable, the stately, the

unnatural sigh of inspiration, seeping

back to heaven.

(beat)

Look, can’t you see a coast of faunland? Sicily,

O, brink! Brink of calm Sicilian bog, which I

plunder, vying with the sun . . .

(coy, behind his hand)

That’s my vanity.

He wets his lips and runs his fingers through his pinguid hair.

FAUN, CONT.

Bog, mute beneath little galaxies of flowers . . .

Wake yourself up and tell it:

That I was carving here some hollow reeds to serve these lips of mine,

when set off against the greeny gold of leaf and wandering vine

thirsting for the springs about—then there, like a wave this white-like form

turning in her sleep: and that to the languid prelude from these pipes was born

a burst of startled swan…

‘Swan,’ faun? In feathery flight?

FAUN

(growling)

No, not swans. A flight of flesh—two

stampeding nymphs, plunging out of sight.

Pretty flat.  Everything withers, singeing in this feral hour: he tries too hard. The bombast baffles the finer art that  — poof!  — makes disappear the glut of hymen sought by him who really only seeks the la.

FAUN

Solfeggios, not Sodoms. Then I’ll wake up.

Then he’ll wake to the first fervor, hard and alone, and soaked, under an ancient flood of light—, O, my dear Lily! Under one of you and—umph—under your heft of girlishness.

FAUN

Besides the sweet nothings from her spread

lips, wasn’t there a kiss? So soft it could have

been a lie. And yet, what’s this:

On his chest, a pristine proof, by god: testimony to a mysterious bite—some promising tooth was here.

FAUN

Basta! A secret like this gets whispered

only into my big double reed, and plays out

against a sheer blue sky.

Which SKY, amusing itself within his cheeks, dreams forth a long solo of seduction. Beauty all around, succumbs, fooled by false confusions between herself and a satyr’s wistful song. He may sing, his love may soar, he may squint at the dream of a back or flash of thigh—these dissolve into an empty…

FAUN

(interjecting)

…sonorous…

…and monotonous line.

FAUN

(addressing his pipes)

Ok, then let’s try a memory: naughty Syrinx,

won’t you come to flower once again, on the

shore where you escaped me…

Turned into a clump of reeds she did, rather than be mounted by a goat.

FAUN

…waiting for me still, should I choose to

carve another reed. Sing for me now, pulp lips,

while I, no tyro at such murmurs, will speak to

you at length of goddesses.

(beat)

I’ll compose a tone poem of divinity—oh,

to be admired!—and then strip it of its girdle!

Thus, having sucked the bouquet from the

grapes...

(…in order to banish his regret which his ploy could only stall, but this done languidly, as thighs might at first resist, then relent, then finally open)

He laughs, and toasts the heavens with the cluster of grapes.

FAUN

I raise the empty husk to the summer sky! And

shall we, eager for our high, inflate the wrinkled

skin just so? Peer through it comme ça? Leer and

peep and keep on prying till night falls?

He holds a grape skin to one eye and scans the edge of woods. He exaggerates, as if performing, and now attempts to inflate a flattened grape skin with his expert air stream.

FAUN

Little darlings… O, Demigoddess One and Two…

Shall we swell again some sundry memories…?

Hell brands! it went like this: My gaze boring

into the reeds, darted after a white nape of neck

which doused its heat in the flurry of the splash…

so I, then, with-heaved a huge HARROUGH!

A mighty cry of rage to the forest sky: panic in the canopy.\

FAUN, CONT.

Thus that splendid splurge of gold white hair

camouflaged itself to glitterings and shimmerings—

O, damn this elusive pair, O, my darling precious

jewels—    O, my aching stones!

So up I rush: when there at my feet, tangled in each

other’s arms, legs entwined: would you believe these

two—totally zonked.

Stunned no doubt by even just the hint that they cannot be one?

FAUN

(with gestures)

Hoist them up, still tangled, haul them

off to this clump of woods—no darkling

grotto, I can tell you—

Indeed, brittle thicket scorned by the frivolous shade, a grove of roses whose sweet scent pales, all but exhausted by the sun…

FAUN

…where our little frolic be like this self-

consuming day.

One must indeed be charmed by the anger of virgins… an exquisite, a fierce delight what with their fright and flight even as he bears them off writhing pink and white, even as the song escapes his lips—escape in both senses, both virgins…

SHEET LIGHTNING flickers in the distance, as if on cue.

FAUN

(taking up the song)

. . . escapes my lips, escapes my art, escapes each

of them the secret terror of the flesh retreating to,

shall we say, to an interest? Terrified and . . . is this

also curiosity quivering here, from the extended toe

of the one hussy to the quick of the shy one? Her

innocence washed away in tears—she’s all moist in

wild tears . . . or . . .

(beat, beat)

. . . all moist period, at least.

My only crime is that I, contented beast

for conquering their giddy fears,                        

split apart the kissy tangle of these queers

that the gods’d seen fit to mingle,

and with one finger in her sister’s dingle,

to sympathetically stir a tingle in the other,       

in her folds, even as she, too naïve to even blush

broke free—my goat-hood for the moment, mush—

while she, my prey, ungrateful bitch, sans pity even for the sob

I sucked, delicious gasp —  Behold, your sob-besotted slob.

Tough shit! I’ll find others for leading me to bliss . . .

by their braids, knotted round my forehead’s horns.

You know, Purple Passion, how the pomegranate swells,

past ripe, lewd, then bursts to the buzz of bees; just so

our blood, drawn by whatever fantasy, rises to the swarm

of lusts unending.

A pretty figure! But look out upon the waste of fallen leaves there: now when these woods dress up in gold and ashen dusk, is there not a feast at hand? See? Weep?

FAUN

Etna! Across your slopes Venus lopes—

God, her sweet and naked feet!

Just subtract volcano and what remains, when thunder rumbles sleepily and flames wink mutely out?

FAUN

Then I have the queen!

(beat)

And certain punishment.

Not precisely, more like the marrow of empty words, plus your tired heavy body sinking, poor faun, beneath the proud, vast silence of noon.

FAUN

That would be enough. Yes, enough.

(he sighs, lies back)

Must sleep now, in the shade of my blasphemy.

(closes eyes)

Here lies faun, on the lying sand, and, as is his

wont and pleasure…         

(opens his mouth wide)

He can’t quite smile, mouth open to the sky, which is his medicine, the stars. The heady wine of stars.

FAUN

Girls, adieu. We’ll see you in — you

know . . . in our dream.

[   ]

Note 1: This is a somewhat free translation of Stéphan Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un Favne: eglogve, though not any ‘freer,’ i.e., further from the original, I would say, than are different translations at variance with one another. Call it proportional and respectful then, but modernized significantly, with a bent toward clarifying (an un-Mallarméan impulse, to be sure), and with a preference for story over ambiguity, but still with an ear for sound and suggestion and even a nose for theory, and finally with a long regard for the generations of fauns that have come and come again, since this one’s coming of age in 1876.

Fauns evolve, after all, of no less a contentious dialectic than poetic form or aesthetic desire. An interview elucidating these concerns further for Playboy Magazine with this particular faun is available with this translation.

Note 2: An eglogve, as Mallarmé’s original is subtitled, is, in Virgil’s Eclogues at least, a short pastoral poem built around two shepherds conversing; hence, a dialogue; here, a faun’s colloquy with himself on whether he has just had a nymph, or has only dreamed he had—plus overtones and under things.

To be read after the poem:

Translator’s Note: When you get your French up enough to read a section of the Favne without your eyebeams getting so tangled around each other that your head hurts, you can distinguish several voices in the poem. I felt strongly that there were at least three, just for starters: the Faun, talking to himself; the Faun, answering himself; and a third sort of suspended ‘voice’ or presence, that descended from the clouds of French Symbolism, l’idéal and all that—Mallarmé’s theories about poetry and his ability to infuse them through his difficult language into whatever drama or narrative he’s laying out. “There must always be enigma in poetry,” he says in an interview, “and the goal of literature—there is no other—is to evoke objects.” His evoked faun is a very complex creature, and so is his surroundings.

So you get this layer, or coloring, that’s outside the Faun, yet sympathetic with, though sometimes harsh to, the Faun. It hit me the way ‘voice,’ with a ballsy screenwriter, can creep into the stage directions of a screenplay—and bingo, the idea strikes: what about L’Après-midi d’un Faune as a screen play?

[Or a graphic novel (eh, Kevin?)]

Then, another French trick—that Proust discovered in Flaubert—called le style indirect libre, where, while you’re in third person mode, you yet bias your objective ‘stage direction’ toward the voice of your main character. Not all the time: that’s the fun of it: you slide in and out of this ‘objective’ yet biased pov. So when it’s turned on, the objective language picks up the personality, attitudes, vocabulary even, of the focal character. I let that happen, and it wasn’t long before I found that voice actually addressing the faun—so in sum, he’s musing, thinking, dialoguing aloud with himself, composing, merging in and out with his surroundings, and occasionally defending himself against them. Still woozy with sleep, he’s one busy little satyr!

I won’t propose such a far-(and-wide)-fetched translation as great Mallarmé. Way too many liberties: I tend to become the poet I’m translating anyway (cf. the Sappho herein), but here I became the Faun., or his overvoice. But I think my rendering would make a terrific primer for someone about to tackle the fleshy/ethereal French faun himselves: then you’d hear all those contending and overlapping voices and be able to make apportioned sense out of them. Mine would let you see through the willfully obscure language and muggy pastoral trappings into the heart of the poet’s ‘enigma.’

This was published in the on-line journal run by students at St. Mary’s College of California, in Mary: A Journal of New Writing, 2012. Archived at:

https://maryajournalofnewwriting.wordpress.com/about/kent-h-dixon/

I recommend a browsing there! The magazine is beautifully done, and somehow can rope in the likes of Pico Iyre and Denise Duhamel and Michael Pollard—just a few I stumbled across. Also, lo and behold, there at the bottom of my Faun, is my translation of Rilke’s “The Corpse Washers,” Die Leichen-Wäsche—The Corpse-Washers. I’d forgotten where that was, or even if it was somewhere.

Finally, this Mallarmé translation should have a co-billing, as I’ve provided at the top. A lovely young Parisian, visiting her Ohio in-laws, was gracious enough to meet with me a couple of times a week at our local Mike & Rosey’s deli. We’d each do the same section and then compare and argue and debate and explore—man, it was like living in Paris again! Sarah, you are simply a permanent part of my French now. So, to Sarah Louppe Petchet, Merci mille fois, bonne amie, petits bissous, et j’espère que tu prospères, tu vas bien.  [does espérer require a subjunctive in the que clause?]  

Entre-temps . . .    (Meanwhile…)

EXT. COPSE, BESIDE A STREAM — DAY

In a copse, near a stream, the faun wakes, blinks…

FAUN

(to the branches above him)

These nymphs…  I want… I would

perpetuate them. Immortalize those babies…

with a throbbing pen:

He pushes himself onto to his elbows, looks down his length, then sits up.

FAUN, CONT.

(half-composing)

‘So bright their rosy flesh that it floats in

the air still… ‘

(he yawns)

‘This logy air, laden with wooly sleep….’

Manet’s drawing for his friend Debussy’s tone poem inspired by Mallarmé’s rather long, unnecessarily difficult poem. (Cherchez la nymphe.)