Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478
Albert Camus once wrote that René Char’s poetry was both ancient and new, subtle and simple, carrying both daytime and night: “In the brilliant landscape where Char was born, the sun . . . is something dark.” Camus thus identified one of the predominant characteristics of Char’s poetic method: the...
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Albert Camus once wrote that René Char’s poetry was both ancient and new, subtle and simple, carrying both daytime and night: “In the brilliant landscape where Char was born, the sun . . . is something dark.” Camus thus identified one of the predominant characteristics of Char’s poetic method: the juxtaposition of opposites. According to critic Robert W. Greene, Char has rejected one of the fundamental concepts of Western thought: the Aristotelian principle that a thing cannot be anything other than what it is at one moment in time. Any poem working within different principles seems as obscure and vaporous as Eastern religions which deny the reality of the world. Char, however, deeply admires the fragments of Heraclitus—who believed in the unity of opposites—and sets up oppositions throughout his poetry. Similar concepts can be found in earlier poetry influenced by Eastern thought, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Brahma,” in which the slayer is simultaneously the one who is slain. Char’s rejection of the identity principle, however, has different implications in its twentieth century context. It reflects the linguistic, subjective philosophies developing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and though Char has a tendency toward the fragmentary aphorism (possibly influenced by the fragments of Heraclitus), he grapples with modern problems in a specific way. Thus, as Camus rightly observed, Char’s poetry is both “ancient and new.”
The concluding lines of Char’s important early poem “Commune présence” are characteristic in their conjunction of opposites: “You have been created for extraordinary moments . . . Adjust yourself and disperse without regret.” Here, a near-heroic proclamation of identity is immediately followed by a line advising assimilation. The following line, “According to a soft hardness,” embodies yet another contradiction and illustrates Char’s technique of opposing semantic units. It furthermore conveys Char’s fundamental view of a world of unsynthesized opposites. Life is simultaneously total resistance and total acceptance. One is reminded of the existentialist assertions that whatever a person does is completely absurd, yet that it is necessary to act as if each moment had meaning. The final two lines of the poem contain a command: “Swarm the dust/ No one will decelerate your union.” The penultimate line is a contradiction because a swarm of bees is similar to a cloud of dust only in appearance. Dust moves at random, each mote in its own direction; bees move in rough unison. Dust dissipates into nothingness; bees have a vital purpose. The final line promises that nothing can oppose the eventual union, however—the union that comes from an initial scattering. In political terms, one sees the allusion to humankind as a collection of individual, meaningless units (like dust), which can gain new meaning by union (like a swarm). All those meaningless units (bees, motes, people), added together, become meaning. Metaphorically, darkness becomes the sun.