Char, René 1907–
Considered by many to be France's greatest living poet, Char celebrates life while acknowledging its pain and chaos. Involvement with World War II shaped his major themes, and his early association with the surrealists fed his imagination and colored his imagery. Char's poetry has been labeled "hermetic," for it often suggests the poet as prophet and poetry as a kind of religion. His work has been illustrated by such notable contemporaries as Braque and Picasso, and set to music by Pierre Boulez. (See also CLC, Vols. 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
With few exceptions, René Char's poems start out at a high pitch of intensity, which they rarely relax and in fact usually increase. Char, moreover, maintains his extremely tense, vigorous style at least as consistently in his prose poetry as he does in his verse poems. That this should be so is quite remarkable given the inherently discursive, muting tendency of prose as compared with the more paratactic possibilities of verse, hence its greater potential for dramatic, polarized juxtaposition. Because of the tension that obtains between the eruptive texture of his poems and the smooth prose vehicle that he often elects to use, Char seems both more impressive and more authentically himself as a prose poet than as a poet in verse. In either form, however, his unfailing capacity to energize to the utmost degree the individual words and phrases of what are in the end thoroughly organized structures suggests that a convulsive paradox throbs at the heart of his poetry, that in Char the forces of total anarchy, if not utter destruction, are constantly at war with those of complete control, absolute order.
The striking incongruity between texture and structure in Char, while it is doubtless responsible for the almost palpable vitality that his texts possess, also reflects the poet's abiding commitment to the principle of contradiction. Char rejects one of the fundamental premises of Western thought, Aristotle's principle of identity (a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else), in favour of the belief in the identity of opposites espoused by Heraclitus, whom Char admires enormously. Nevertheless, despite the convergence of views between the two men in this basic area and despite Char's growing predilection over the years for a Sibylline, Heraclitus-like aphorism, the unique qualities of his poetry, especially his prose poetry, would scarcely emerge from a comparison of that poetry with the pre-Socratic's fragments. On the other hand, because of their philosophical affinity, linking the two men's names does constitute a useful point of departure.
Char's adherence to Heraclitean contradiction is felt throughout his oeuvre, from titles of collections through poetic technique to the deepest level of vision. The title of one of his recent plaquettes, for example, joins two semantically opposed but phonically similar nouns, L'Effroi la joie …, a coupling that sums up Char's whole quickened, apparently ambivalent and yet ultimately affirmative response to life. 'Commune présence', a poem of major importance for Char and a relatively early text (1936), comprises a number of paired contraries that shed light on both his technique and his vision. Its last eight lines are particularly significant in this regard:
Tu as été créé pour des moments peu communs
Modifie-toi disparais sans regret
Au gré de la rigueur suave
Quartier suivant quartier la liquidation du monde se poúrsuit
Essaime la poussière
Nul ne décèlera votre union.
In tone and substance the first two lines contradict each other. After a gentle exhortation in which the poet informs someone, doubtless himself, that he must be ready to rise to exceptional occasions, he then says, in effect, 'Adjust and fade away without a murmur'. Line three completes the sense of line two and resolves or at least recognizes the conflict between that line and the first. The key phrase here, virtually a contradiction in terms, is 'rigueur suave', ['harsh softness'] whose first word captures the essence of line one, while 'suave' picks up line two. Like the title L'Effroi la joie, the phrase 'rigueur suave' exemplifies one of Char's basic techniques, that of juxtaposing semantically incompatible words for a specific effect. The phrase also conveys, in its context, Char's attitude towards life, which seems to be an unsynthesized combination of total resistance and total acceptance. The surface tension he creates by lining up mutually exclusive terms is thus mirrored at the poem's depth, where Char's fundamental, paradoxical stance is adumbrated.
The next three lines also contain a contradiction, if in a slightly less obvious way than the first three lines. The fourth and fifth lines quickly present the entropic view of the world's destiny that haunts so many twentieth-century writers (Beckett being perhaps the most overtly obsessed by it). But Char's variation on this deeply pessimistic theme comes with line six, which both parallels line five and diverges from it drastically. The final decline of all and everything into formlessness is already in progress and it is relentless, but that does not or at least should not create égarement, inner disorder. The inevitability of cosmic chaos need not undo spiritual order. The lines 'Sans interruption/Sans égarement' [without interruption/without mistake'] thus embody a contradiction that is not unlike those contained in the phrases 'rigueur suave' and 'fright joy'.
The last two lines of 'Commune présence' are set off from the rest, and rightly so because they contain a climactic command—'Essaime la poussière' ['Swarm the dust']—and its reward if heeded—'Nul ne décelera votre union' ['No one will decelerate your union']. With the first of these lines we have yet another contradiction in terms; a swarm of bees and a cloud of dust are only visually analogous (just as l'effroi and la joie are only phonically similar). In essence they are contraries, the one suggesting fragments vitalized, unified, about to move up and away, and the other connoting destructive explosion followed by drift into ever greater dispersion and eventual nothingness. The...
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Though it never took the form of a whole-hearted commitment, René Char's participation in the surrealist movement is, nevertheless, a fact of literary history, a fact which, furthermore, played a decisive role in the development of the poet and the man. (p. 2)
During his brief surrealist apprenticeship, Char gained, I believe, two important insights: (1) the realization that the existing socio-political order was in need of re-examination and with it the consecrated canons of art, and (2) the certainty that violence and destruction would not solve the problems faced by his generation…. The investigation of the outer world had to lead [the] poet back to a re-examination of his inner universe. There René Char sought the answer to the apparent contradictions of a world shared by partisan and poet, violence and magic. (pp. 2-3)
The key-notes of Char's poetry of 1930–1934 are given by words such as attentat, barbare, brutal, cadavre, carvan, cataclysme, catastrophe, coup, couteau, crasse, crénau, crever, crime, cruel, égorger, fer, gratter, matraque, meutre, offensant, pourriture, rage, résistance, révolution, rude, saigner, sang, sauvage, scandale, sévère, suicide, tomber, trancher, tuer, viol, violence, violent….
A poem from L'Action de la Justice est éteinte [a volume dedicated to Breton], "Les soleils chanteurs", mentions the kinds of violence—natural catastrophies, accidents, suicide, sickness, crime—which, to the mind of the young surrealist poet, must be called upon to revitalize poetry…. (p. 3)
Another text from the same collection, titled simply "Poème" … adds to the previous list "le crime passionnel, le viol, l'attentat à la pudeur, sources authentiques de la poésie" ["the passionate crime, rape, outrage on decency, authentic sources of poetry"]…. It is believed, at this time, that poetry may best be accomplished in a "climat de chasse" ["climate of the hunt"] that will favor the "Meurtres productifs" ["productive murders"] of the poet…. Crime is not only honorable, but desirable, if it can lead to new conceptions of art….
This new poetry requires a new language. Gone is the melancholy tone of "Ce Soir" (Char's first published poem, written at school), gone the hesitant efforts of the young Char to establish a dialogue with the world around him. Words now are like hammers that can kill…. (p. 4)
In the best surrealist tradition (and following Lautréamont, whom he read at this time), Char speaks of revolt against the order of nature, against the established order of society, and against the ethic and aesthetic codes imposed by man upon both. Hence references to sickness, suicide, fratricide, matricide, regicide, and to the generally unaccepted forms of love….
Char finds his most suitable metaphors for the alliance of violence and magic in the world of the mineral. (p. 5)
References to chemicals, metal and machinery are … "in the air" during the early years of surrealism, used by the surrealists and modernistas in their praise or condemnation of our 20th-century environment. In the poetry of René Char, they represent a farewell to romantic verse and its endless hymns to nature…. (pp. 5-6)
In Char's post-surrealist poetry, references to metals and chemicals are rare. There are the notable exceptions of the "coq de fer" in La Parole en archipel …, and the "abeille de fer" of "Apparition d'Aerea", first published in 1962. Both of these are symbols of war. However, evocations—or rather, provocations—of violence of any type diminish in Char's poetry after 1938. At least, violence and aggression are no longer seen in the same light. It is no longer the poem or the poet that is "offensant d'agression", but the world around them. (p. 6)
The songs and fables of Placard pour un chemin des écoliers are among the most haunting poetry Char ever wrote, and one would have to go back all the way to the Spanish romances of the 15th and 16th centuries to find a poem that would equal the mysterious beauty of such poems as, for...
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Any examination of the whole body of Char's work reveals a variety of written modes: regular verse poems (sonnet, ballade), free verse texts, prose poems, aphorisms, diary notations, prefaces, essays, introductions to art catalogues, radio scenarios, theater, and ballet. One aspect which these multiple forms of written expression have in common is Char's interest in the plastic arts, for some mention of an artist is found in all of his writings. In fact, in his aphorisms and poems Char acclaims Georges de La Tour as one of his major sources. Moreover, besides the many contemporary artists mentioned in his work, Char has written numerous verse and prose poems on Georges Braque as well as a lengthy essay, Flux de...
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René Char's poetry arises from pain, and exists because of it. His creativity confronts it, opposing to the pain of Chants de la Balandrane, which is often the thought of death, things that, if they cannot remove it, can harden it, and transform it into an energy. He takes a purchase on places around where he lives in southern France, like the farm of the title, situated on a wooded plateau "where the ruins of numerous abandoned wells still stand". He celebrates hard things in nature, especially the enduring earth, like certain naked winter fields that, in a typically dense cluster of metaphors, are seen as "daughters of the hoarfrost" and "stars" that "finish the crumbs of their nocturnal food on the table of...
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