Individual Work
Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard

A radical experiment in design and typography, Stéphane Mallarmé's poem Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance) (1897) privileges form over content—or rather, form as content, such that blank space, varied typography and the material folds of the book augment and even transform the semantics of the text. As Mallarmé writes in his preface to the first issue of the poem,

    The paper intervenes every time an image on its own, ceases or retires within the page, accepting the succession of the others, and it is not a question, unlike the usual state of affairs, of regular sound effects or verses—rather of prismatic subdivisions of the idea, the instant when they appear and during which their cooperation lasts, in some exact mental setting. The text imposes itself in various places, near or far from the latent guiding thread, according to what seems to be the probable sense. [1]

This unusual use of the book's architecture leaves the reader, rather than the writer, to cull and combine these scattered fragments of text through multimodal acts of association. Thus the reader—Mallarmé prefers the word "operator," etymologically linked to "work," oeuvre, from the Latin opus—becomes an active participant in the poem's construction.

Although Un coup de dés is now known primarily for its innovative use of the book's openings, it originally appeared on a single page in the magazine Cosmopolis. Early plans for the art dealer Ambroise Vollard to publish the poem in codex form, with illustrations by Odilon Redon and printing by Didot, were slow to produce a text, despite—or perhaps because of—the detailed instructions on spacing and typography left by Mallarmé.[2] Seventeen years (and the author himself) passed before the poem was published as a book, printed in a 60-copy issue. This later edition by Gallimard has become the basis for most subsequent critical interpretations.

Un coup de dés has not suffered from lack of critical attention. Its multiple reading pathways have made it an obvious forerunner to hypertext literature, as cited by Jerome McGann, Chris Funkhouser and Timothy Druckrey. Likewise, its programmatic structure—emphasized in Marcel Broodthaers' pioneering artist's book of the same name, which replaces each word with a corresponding black strip [3]—contributed to the conceptual foundation for later work in concrete, generative and aleatoric poetry. Although it is perhaps ironic that a poem so rooted in the book as a medium is now seen as anticipating electronic literature, Mallarmé's awareness of the materiality of his text continues to inspire experimentation at the intersection of art and technology.


[1] Stéphane Mallarmé, "Preface," Selected Poetry and Prose, trans. Mary Ann Caws (New York: New Direction Books, 1982), p. 105. A scan of one of the original Vollard/Didot page proofs is available here:
[2] Bertrand Marchal, "Mallarmé's 'Coup de dés'," in Largesse (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1997).
[3] For an image from Broodthaer's book, see the MoMA site on his work: