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René Char 1907-1988

(Full name: René-Emile Char) French poet, essayist, and philosopher.

The following entry presents criticism of Char's poetry from 1948 through 2001.

In his poetry, Char emphasized hope in the face of struggle, rejected compromise, and acknowledged desire as the center of inspiration. Char offered an influential and...

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René Char 1907-1988

(Full name: René-Emile Char) French poet, essayist, and philosopher.

The following entry presents criticism of Char's poetry from 1948 through 2001.

In his poetry, Char emphasized hope in the face of struggle, rejected compromise, and acknowledged desire as the center of inspiration. Char offered an influential and dominant literary voice during the post-World War II era. Although he was by no means a regional poet, Char's native region of Provence provided the backdrop for many of his literary treatments of the universal conflicts of good versus injustice and resistance in the face of oppression.

Biographical Information

Char was born in the town of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on June 14, 1907. His father, a businessman and the local mayor, died when Char was only ten years old. This pivotal event is seen as an influence on his work by many critics, not as the subject of poems, but as a contributing factor to the sense of dispossession and solitude that these critics find as an underlying theme in much of Char's poetry. Although he was well-schooled, Char did not complete his secondary studies with the baccalaureat but chose instead to attend business school in 1925. He fulfilled his military obligation with an artillery unit from 1927 to 1928. During this time he published his first small collection of poems, Les Cloches sur le coeur (1928; “Bells on the Heart”). This was the only work published under his given name, René-Emile Char.

In 1929 Char published a second volume of poetry, Arsenal, and shortly thereafter, he moved to Paris to join the Surrealist literary movement. One of his significant contributions to Surrealist poetry was the volume Ralentir travaux (1930; Slow Under Construction) which was written collectively with prominent French Surrealist writers Paul Éluard and André Breton. Through the early 1930s Char remained closely affiliated with Surrealism, publishing poems in Surrealist reviews and participating in political protests. He also established ties with numerous avant-garde painters of the day, Surrealist and otherwise, establishing foundations for his later collaborations and poetic writings on art.

By 1935, Char was no longer a public participant in the political activities of the Surrealists, though he remained friends with Eluard and others. He had married in 1932, and by mid-decade he returned to his hometown to take over the business affairs of his father's former company. Serious illness caused him to resign in 1937 and he moved to the village of Céreste to recover. Some years later, during World War II, Char would return to this place to form a resistance unit in the fight against Nazism. The last major collection of Char's poetry to appear before the outbreak of World War II was Dehors la nuit est gouvernée (“Outside the Night is Governed”), which was published in May 1938. Although it was not overtly political, the work foreshadowed the darkness that was about to affect all of Europe under Hitler's influence.

Once France entered the war, Char set literary aspirations aside in favor of political and military commitment. He first served his country in a heavy artillery regiment, and later, after the occupation by Germany and the installation of the French Vichy authority, he went underground and became an active participant in the French Resistance movement. He did not publish works during the occupation but he did continue to write. One of his major works of the wartime years was Feuillets d'Hypnos (Leaves of Hypnos), a poetic journal of the war. Written between 1941 and 1944 and published in 1946, this volume established Char as an authentic resistance writer who had, to a greater extent than many of his literary peers, risked his life to stand up to Nazi and Vichy oppression.

During the post war years of 1950 to 1962, Char's reputation as an influential literary figure expanded, and he enjoyed the respect of fellow artists, musicians, and writers, which resulted in collaborative and cooperative works featuring art and music. In the 1960s, Char turned his political energy toward the issue of nuclear missile silos in France and continued to collaborate on creative works for small presses and artistic printers. In 1971 he published Le Nu perdu (“Nakedness Lost”), for which he assembled poems written since 1964. Although this was his last large compendium of works, Char continued to write and publish steadily throughout the mid-1980s, pursuing projects that fed his desire to support creativity as a form of intellectual resistance against the many inhumane and oppressive aspects of the modern age. Char's final volume of original verse was published posthumously, having been submitted to the publisher several months before his death on February 19, 1988.

Major Works

Char wrote and published prolifically from 1928 until just before his death in 1988. Throughout his long career, first in association with the Surrealist movement and later as an active participant in the French Resistance, and still later as a supporter and proponent of artistic expression in the face of economic oppression, Char consistently addressed universal themes such as justice versus injustice and resistance as a moral imperative. When circumstances required, civic action took the place of literary endeavor. From his early works throughout the final volumes of new work that were published after his death, Char embraced the notion that art, literature, and music are reciprocally linked as necessary expressions of resistance—necessary to preserve the humanity of individuals and the morality of society.

Among Char's vast output, three volumes are considered particularly significant. These works raised Char's profile as a vital force in French intellectual and creative circles. The first of these is his war journal, Leaves of Hypnos, which was written during his years of active service on behalf of the French Resistance and published soon after the war's end. Even more influential to his literary career was Fureur et mystère (1948; “Furor and Mystery”), a collection of poetry that offers readers a poetic roadmap of the journey from a prewar sense of impending disaster in the 1930s through the rigors of occupation and resistance in the early 1940s, to the return of life-giving creativity after the destruction of war. Finally, Char's Les Matinaux, published in 1950 (translated to English in 1992 as The Dawn Breakers), confirmed Char's position among the elite of postwar French poets. While Fureur et mystère focuses on the contrasts between love and war and resistance and oppression, The Dawn Breakers decisively depicts the return to peace.

While Char's next large collection, La Parole en archipel (“The Word as Archipelago”), appeared in 1962, the previous years had also seen the publication of numerous smaller volumes; among them was the critically noted La Bibliothèque est en feu (1956). The works of the 1950s and 1960s display Char's use of verbal landscape and his employment of specific geographic settings, particularly his home region of France, to symbolize universal experience. In 1971, Char published Le Nu perdu which was his last major compendium of work, though it was by no means his final volume of new poetry. Even with the 1983 publication of Char's Oeuvres complètes, his writing days were not yet over. In 1985, Char's penultimate collection, Les Voisinages de Van Gogh (“In Van Gogh's Territory”), appeared. Two years later, only months before his death, he submitted another volume of new works to his publisher, but he did not live to see it in print. Although Char's posthumous collection, Eloge d'une Soupçonnée (1988), is brief—containing only thirteen poems—it is considered by critics to be one of the significant works of his career, for it offers a capstone to the poet's life and work. Throughout his life, Char preferred to maintain a separation between his personal life and his professional work, and thus did not welcome or indulge queries about his life. However, observers note that the opening poem of this final collection, “Riche de larmes,” reveals that Char saw his career as a lifelong devotion to poetry.

Critical Reception

Char earned the respect of critics and fellow literary artists throughout his career. Following the poet's death in 1988, Mark Hutchinson wrote that “Char's vision … is at once aristocratic … democratic … and egalitarian.” He further noted that Char was “that rare thing in a country as intellectually sectarian as France, a poet whose work was universally admired.” Through three generations, Char's literary peers and friends included such luminaries as Albert Camus, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Octavio Paz, and William Carlos Williams. In 1952, French novelist Albert Camus, calling Char a “tragic optimist,” hailed him as France's “greatest living poet.” In 1968 critic Paulène Aspel noted that Char had “remained remarkably faithful to his themes” of resistance, rebirth, and reconciliation throughout what was then a forty-year career as a poet. Several years after Char's death, critic Michael Bishop praised the poet as one “who, caught between naming and unnaming, senses the profound mystery of things being in the first place.”

Principal Works

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Les Cloches sur le coeur 1928

Arsenal 1929

Artine 1930

Ralentir Travaux [Slow Under Construction] (with André Breton and Paul Éluard) 1930

Le Tombeau des secrets 1930

Poèmes militants 1932

Le Marteau sans maître 1934; revised 1945

Moulin premier 1936

Placard pour un chemin des écoliers 1937

Dehors la nuit est gouvernée 1938; revised 1949

Le Visage nuptial 1938

Seuls demeurent 1945

Feuillets d'Hypnos [Leaves of Hypnos] 1946

Premières alluvions

Le Poème pulvérisé 1947

Fureur et mystère 1948; revised 1962

Le Soleil des eaux 1949; revised 1951

Les Matinaux [The Dawn Breakers: Les Matinaux] 1950; revised 1964

À une sérénité crispée [To a Tense Serenity] 1951

A la santé du serpent 1954

Poèmes des deux années 1955

Recherche de la Base et du Sommet 1955; revised 1971

La Bibliothèque est en feu 1956

Hypnos Waking (poetry and prose) 1956

En trente-trois morceaux 1956

Jeanne qu'on brula verte 1956

Les Compagnons dans le jardin 1957

Poèmes et prose choisis 1957

Sur la poésie 1958; revised 1974

La Montée de la nuit 1961

La Parole en archipel 1962

Commune présence 1964

L'Age cassant 1965

Retour amont 1966

Les Transparents 1967

Dans la pluie giboyeuse 1968

Le Nu perdu 1971

La Nuit talismanique 1972

Aromates chasseurs 1975

Poems of René Char 1976

Chants de la Balandrane: Poèmes 1977

Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit 1979

Oeuvres complètes 1983

Les Voisinages de Van Gogh 1985

Eloge d'une Soupçonnée 1988

Selected Poems of René Char 1992

This Smoke that Carried Us: Selected Poems of René Char 2004

Correspondance 1935-1970 (with Jean Ballard) (letters) 1993

Kenneth Douglas (essay date fall-winter 1948)

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SOURCE: Douglas, Kenneth. “René Char.” Yale French Studies 1, no. 2 (fall-winter 1948): 79-84.

[In the following essay, Douglas assesses the evolution of Char's reputation in post-World War II France.]

It is time to speak of Char. He has been writing since 1927, and since the Liberation has aroused a fervent interest within France. His novitiate served in the seminaries of Surrealism, and having published jointly with Breton and Eluard, from that dogmatic chaos he emerged gradually (and without apostasy) to affirm his own poetic truth.

For truth is his concern. Not the mirage of yet another imaginary world, not the dexterous patterning of words and echoes. Truth in, through, and about poetry, which thus reflects self, as so often before it has done (traditional invocation of the “Muse,” and compare the like attitude of those who pray that they may be shown how to pray), but sinks itself, too, in other objects—even Narcissus, after all, had to purchase a mirror—for example the poet's relations with others, their relationship to him, the problem of his death, the line of filiation of this momentary and momentous activity, his striving for authentic expression, with the deeds which thereafter he will perform. Or, to put it more concretely, his poetry is not a nostalgia for the past or the impossible, is not exclusively a delighting in the present, but while realising intensely the presence of the present is directed also towards the future. And his fellow-men! Even that wretched creature, the reader, is envisaged—a contrast with Baudelaire's degraded accomplice or butt which he shocks into registering a hit—as a companion possibly in the exploring and making of the real world. “Poetry is creation productive of the real.” “Greetings for him who marches by my side to the end of the poem. Tomorrow he will pass upright beneath the wind.”

Let us question René Char's poetic labors as to their fundamental significance. Patent is the failure of purely objective explanations of the universe and man's place in it, flagrant, the unsubstantial gratuitousness of all subjectivism. Must we choose between this sterile solipsistic play and “the barrenness of the merely correct” (Jaspers), of partial truths? Suffer impalement on the dilemma's one or other horn? The skilled athlete can evade the danger, the razeteur of the sport popular in Char's own Southern region, who running diagonally across the bull's path possesses himself of the cockade which, attached to both horns, had graced the animal's forehead. The poet as razeteur, the prize he has snatched on his oblique course mysteriously pendant from the twin horns of subjectivism and objectivism—such, it may be, is the poet's part, with this aspiration he may shorten the birth-pangs of new meaning in a universe that has lost all meaning, and help to reintegrate therein men become aliens. After the rationalism of René Descartes, after the preoccupation with self of François-René, Viscount of Chateaubriand, the bridge-building or cockade-snatching exploits of René Char? It might be so. To be rené is to be reborn, and possibly, we have suggested, to assist in a new birth.

Lest the misconception arise: Char is not the author of Fin de Satan, of Dieu. Lacking Victor Hugo's megalomania, he does not regard himself as a source of universal and total salvation. What can one man do for another? At most, with a word or gesture, unveil momentarily a possible path, or as briefly retain, between thumb and forefinger, a wriggling, a slippery, a vanished reality: he cannot give eyes or hands. This “most” Char offers. Yet, and thereby he assumes the trappings of omnipotent deity, the means by which he realises his intentions are hard to discover: for while he inhabits a coherent poetic landscape, the barren or intermittently fertile regions of the Midi (the Vaucluse is his birthplace), the pressings of grape and olive have filtered into various receptacles. Dominant in his recent work is the aspect of prose. He has also employed free verse; and the “versicle,” that is to say the deep-lunged, robust Claudelian line; and almost regular rhythms, though with the avoidance of rhyme. This exclusion illustrates his tendency, reaching right up to the supreme cockade of which we have spoken, to base prosody (as does Paul Claudel, in theory and practice), and all else, on the reconciliation of opposites rather than on repetition, on echo. (Sameness and difference, like all antitheses they too reciprocally determine one another; but either may be accentuated.) A poem, with Char, consists on occasion of a short phrase that, like much considerable poetry, will by many be judged “not poetry at all.” He aims at the maximum density, not of imagery alone, but of meaning. A sequence of these self-contained blocks can form nevertheless a larger unit, as discrete rumbles of thunder build a storm. Thunder, maintained Heraclitus, governs all things. Or, when a poem has a greater apparent unity, something other subtends than a logical or narrative sequence, to ensure validity.

These notes constitute the heralding of Char, they are not a thorough study or even an introduction. What follows attempts, mainly, to convey his tone, an entire comprehension may not be attained. It goes with Char as with Heraclitus, whom so greatly he admires: first comes the shock of recognition, cognition lags behind. There is no cult of obscurity, nor technical incompetence—the horseshoe of authentic poetry must of necessity be hammered out of glowing metal. Authentic, essential. If assurance of immediate surface comprehension were the Medean law, only the superficial, discursive, peripheral would have unfailing right of entry. But enough of reflection, here is the reflected in person, the bridge, anvil, wheelbarrow, salvo, iridescence, etc., of Char's poetry.

“Pure eyes in the woods—Search weeping for the inhabitable head.” Found, with a variant which has no equivalent for “weeping,” in two early collections. A Surrealist image and something more: multiple meaning. Instead of the element of fear in Goethe's “The oak tree stood in garb of mist—Towering up a giant there,—Where darkness out of the undergrowth—Looked with its hundred ebon eyes,” there is longing, love, and the hope of that love's satisfaction, a turning to the future as well as immobilization, in the poem, of the present. Union of self and outside world is desired, a union which for Victor Hugo was already consummated: “Oh madman, who believest I am not thou!” Or Char's lines may be regarded as a visual variant of the notion, expressed by Rainer Maria Rilke and many others, that the poet lends his voice to the world and to natural things, which otherwise must remain mute. And Jorge Guillén exclaims “The world invents me!—I am its legend!” With Char the sought and sightless object is the human head, and the eyes belong to the world—already an interpenetration of opposites. Compare (for there is not so much a total newness in recent poetry as the more radical exploitation of age-old spells, and a shunning of the non-poetic), compare the spatially paradoxical exchange and containment of lovers' hearts in the “metaphysical” verse of John Donne. Again, most simply, Char's couplet can be taken to express the desire for that not yet encountered, for the divined and miraculous She. Its few words compete with the expansive resources of a Japanese paper flower (simile adapted from Proust).

Below are brief quotations, most of them presented in the original as relatively independent units, for the most part dealing with poetry and the poet, and taken from the whole range of Char's productivity. It would be tempting to comment further on many things; on his faithfulness to Surrealism (maintaining with a surer judgment than Breton and others the balance even between, more sovereignly fusing the worlds of dream and wakefulness) and his avoidance of its pitfalls; on the doctrine he offers of poetic commitment (my translation of “engagement”), which at the same time rescues the notion from the Gehenna where Breton would plunge it and crashes through the barrier which Sartre rather too summarily has erected between the unescapable commitment of the prose writer and the alleged freedom of the poet to play with words as with pebbles (reflections of Valéry's theories persist, even on waters hostile to him); on Char's own share in armed resistance, and the resultant precipitation in his Feuillets d'Hypnos; on—but Char is entitled to speak for himself.

(1)

The poem is furious ascent; poetry, the sport of barren hillsides.

(2)

The poem is the consummated love of desire which remains desire.

(3)

Sing your iridescent thirst.

(4)

Oh truth, mechanical infanta, remain earth and murmur amidst the impersonal stars!

(5)

The very spirit of the castle

Is the drawbridge.

(6)

Poetry is of all clear waters that which tarries the least at the reflections of its bridges.

Poetry, future life within requalified man.

(7)

The poet is the man of unilateral stability.

(8)

The poet, this torrent with serene mud.

(9)

If we inhabit a lightning flash, it is the heart of the eternal.

(10)

Produce what knowledge wishes to keep secret, knowledge with its hundred passageways.

(11)

The poet, inclined to exaggeration, evolves correctly under torture.

(12)

The poet cannot long remain in the stratosphere of the Word. He must coil himself in fresh tears and push on farther in his realm.

(13)

In poetry, it is only upon the communication and the self-determination of the totality of things among themselves through us that we find ourselves committed and defined, in a position to acquire our original form and our probative qualities.

(14)

The poet must hold the scales even between the physical world of waking and the redoubtable ease of sleep, the lines of the knowledge wherein he lays the poem's subtle body passing without distinction from one to the other of these different conditions of life.

(15)

Sometimes his reality would lack meaning for him did not the poet influence in secret the narration of the exploits of others.

(16)

Escape into one's fellows with immense perspectives of poetry one day perhaps will be possible.

(17)

Set beside fate resistance to fate.

(18)

To every crumbling of the proofs, the poet responds with a salvo of future.

“THRESHOLD”

When man's barrage crumbled, sucked in by the gigantic fissure of the abandonment of the divine, words far away, words which did not want to be lost, tried to withstand the excessive thrust. There the dynasty of their sense was decided.

I have run to the outlet of this diluvian night. Braced in the quivering dawn, my belt filled with seasons, I await you, oh my friends who are going to come. Already I divine you behind the blackness of the horizon. My hearth does not exhaust its good wishes for your dwellings, and my stick of cypress wood laughs with all its heart for you.

Bibliography

Le Tombeau des secrets, Nîmes, A. Larguier, 1930.

Ralentir Travaux, Paris, Editions Surréalistes, 1930. In collaboration with André Breton and Paul Eluard.

Placard pour un chemin des écoliers, Paris, GLM, 1937.

Dehors la nuit est gouvernée, Paris, GLM, 1938.

Le Marteau sans maître suivi de Moulin premier, 1927-1935, Paris, Corti, 1945.

Seuls demeurent, Paris, N.R.F., 1945.

Feuillets d'Hypnos, Paris, N.R.F., 1946.

Premières Alluvions, Paris, Fontaine, 1946. His earliest poems.

Le Poème pulvérisé, Paris, Fontaine, 1947.

Georges Mounier, Avez-vous lu Char?, Paris, N.R.F., 1946.

Gilbert Lély, René Char, Paris, Variété, 1947

Maurice Saillet, “Le Poème pulvérisé,” Le Mercure de France CCCI, No. 1010 (1er oct. 1947), 319-22.

Gaëtan Picon, “René Char et l'avenir de la poésie,” Fontaine II, No. 63 (nov. 1947), 826-34.

Translations in View VI, Nos. 2-3 (March-April 1946), 21, 40.

Wallace Fowlie (essay date 1958)

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SOURCE: Fowlie, Wallace. “Rene Char and the Poet's Vocation.” Yale French Studies, no. 21 (1958): 83-9.

[In the following essay, Fowlie discusses Char's treatment in his poetry of the work and calling of the poet, an endeavor that comes with a disparaging price—“the daily assumption of peril.”]

M. Char has never written in any of the usual ways about his understanding of the poet's vocation. But it becomes more and more clear, as his work continues to grow, and as the significance of this work continues to deepen, that the particular calling of the poet is his major theme. The poet's life unfolds within the limitations of man's mortal nature. Mortality and poetry are so conjugated in the writings of Char that one provides the setting for the other, that one is finally indistinguishable from the other. René Char has moved away from the esoteric place assigned to the poet by Mallarmé in order to stand today in the humanistic center of his close friend Albert Camus. The familiar picture of Char as Resistance leader, with his companions in the maquis of the Basses-Alpes, in Céreste, is still remembered as we read his poetry, not only Feuillets d'Hypnos, composed during the Occupation years, but the subsequent volumes as well, and even the recently published Les Compagnons dans le jardin, of 1957.

Does this mean that M. Char's poetry is an example of the new “engaged” literature advocated by Sartre? Not, certainly, in any literal sense. Poetry, according to Char, does not seem to be committed to any cause unless one calls life itself a cause and a reason for commitment. Poetry is not in the service of an idea or a party or a movement. It is that which is at the very heart of whatever is a human reality, a human problem, a human commitment. In France today, in all countries for that matter, in the midst of overwhelming problems and insurmountable obstacles, the voice of the poet is heard as one of the few voices left, faithful to the truth which man represents and seeks, to the continuing mysteriousness of his dignity, to the belief that man's noblest efforts are salutary for himself and for humanity.

The verses of Char, the aphorisms which abound in his work, and the brief condensed tales which appear in company with the aphorisms, all speak of the nature of poetry. It is that which is lived, for Char, experienced with the penetrating realization of submitting to human destiny. It is a comparatively easy matter to describe a literary work which is about life. But such a definition would not apply to the poetry of Char. This poet looks upon his art as an assault on life and an embracing, an animation of life. He answers, in the writing of his poem, not some outside command, but the uprising surge of his nature and his feelings. No cause which can be defined as such will move him as much as the proportions of his own human nature, with its contradictions and its puzzling enigmas.

The word “risk,” for example, applies to Char's conception of life as well as to his conception of poetry. The outside world in which he lives, almost as a poacher lives invading someone else's forest, is the natural world of constant change, a flowering river of things such as his favorite philosopher Heraclitus had described. But this is the site of risks and provocations. The things he sees there are not poems, but they discover their reality in poems. The poetic act is a finding of a form for things which otherwise would never emerge from their abyss or their silence or their possibility. It is difficult for Char to elaborate on the principles of poetry because for him poetics and poetry are hardly separable. It is unusual for a French poet not to bequeath texts on poetics and technique. Char's answer is his entire existence as poet. The poet, he would say, has no other place to be except within poetry. The risk of poetry is precisely this responsibility of the poet in the action of drawing poetry from the poet's sleep and from his subconscious.

The risk of poetic creation is admirably transcribed in the striking antitheses of so many of M. Char's poems. The new poems, published in 1955, entitled Poèmes des deux années 1953-1954, contain examples of the contrast which Char establishes between solidity and fragility, between a sense of security and a premonition of the evanescence of things. The state of the world is so often established in these terms of contrast by Char that the poems themselves are seen finally to be constructed in a similar tension between strength and weakness. In “Le Bois de l'Epte,” for example, the poet is seen following on foot a valley stream. He comes upon two wild rose bushes bending into the water. The brilliance of a single rose in the water awakens in the poet an awareness of the earth and he sees the wood of Epte beginning just ahead.

Le rauque incarnat d'une rose, en frappant l'eau,
Rétablit la face première du ciel avec l'ivresse des questions,
Eveilla au milieu des paroles amoureuses la terre.

The poem, “La Chambre dans l'Espace,” announces an antithesis in its title. Within the poem, the poet compares himself with a piece of earth calling for a flower.

Je suis un bloc de terre qui réclame sa fleur.

The title, “Le Rempart de Brindilles,” is another antithesis and the poem itself begins in the form of a definition of the function of poetry, but the definition is so highly charged with antithesis that it is the poem. The poet is made sovereign, we read in this important poem, by making himself impersonal and by reaching the fullness of what had only been sketched or deformed by the boasting of a single man. The opposites are thus established of sovereignty and impersonality, of fullness and deformity.

Le dessein de la poésie étant de nous rendre souverains en nous impersonnalisant, nous touchons, grâce au poème, à la plénitude de ce qui n'était qu'esquissé ou déformé par la vantardise de l'individu.

The second verse of the poem is perhaps the supreme antithesis in Char's work. It is the contrast between a poem and death, between incorruptibility and corruptibility. Poems are particles of the incorruptible part of our existence which we hurl into the jaws of death. They fall back into the world which is the name for unity.

Les poèmes sont des bouts d'existence incorruptibles que nous lançons à la gueule répugnante de la mort, mais assez haut pour que, ricochant sur elle, ils tombent dans le monde nominateur de l'unité.

The title of this poem, “Rampart of Twigs,” establishes the fundamental antithesis between the world and poetry, between the fragile and the everlasting, between the mortal and the immortal. Multiple are the bonds this poet discovers existing between himself and nature, but the lesson is harsh to assimilate because it is inevitably a picture of a threatened and perishable nature he perceives.

The purity and the conciseness of Char's language make it appear more primitively faithful to his reactions, to his first responses. He has sustained in his style, which is devoid of the usual poetic rhetoric, something of the secret meaning of his reactions. One remembers easily that his first adherence was to surrealism. And yet in this will to record and explain his reaction to the world and to human experience, he places himself quite centrally within the tradition of French moralists. With his ever-increasing understanding of life, Char the poet and Char the moralist both denounce the vanity of life. Poetry is both a critique of poetics and a critique of illusions. The new poems, like aphorisms, are brief and elliptical. The white spaces around them—like the silences which precede and follow speech—have their own message and their own suggestiveness.

The poet's vocation is felt in its very special insistency, in the need it creates in the poet to write. If what he writes has both fury in it and tragedy, the poet is struck by the silence of the ink on the page. The oxymoron is there at the start: in the silence of the hieroglyphic characters and in the rage of the sentiments expressed. The poet is within a curse, Char writes, in Recherche de la Base et du Sommet. “Il est dans la malédiction.” He could not exist if it were not in accord with some mysterious law of apprehension. There is a price to pay for feeling deeply and for writing as a poet. That price is the daily assumption of peril. The ordinary man is able to fix the source of evil in the world: he traces it back to some event or to some cause. But the poet knows that evil comes from farther back than he can remember, from farther back than he can ever believe. The horrors he encounters in the world he is unable to simplify. That is the function and the activity, again, of the non-poet. But the horrors have simplified the poet. They have made him into a man unable to be anything save the poet.

The strong stylistic and moralist claims made by this new poet designate him as the heir both of symbolism and surrealism. He is surrealist in the way in which he feels an event. He is symbolist in the distance he knows exists between the occurence of the event and its narration. He actually speaks of the enigmas of poetry as often as Mallarmé did, but he defines the actions of the poet as the results of these enigmas.

Les actions du poète ne sont que la conséquence des énigmes de la poésie.

(A une sérénité crispée)

Mallarmé would call the poet the creator of enigmas. Char would agree with Mallarmé in calling a poem a quintessence, but in the straining of Char's language, in the tension of each poem and each aphoristic utterance, he defines the natural movement of poetry as a revolt.

In the tributes written to his friends, René Crevel and Paul Eluard, Char exalts human life in its relativity, in all the attacks man has waged against injustice and deception, in man's love of the sun, and simply in the power he feels in accomplishing an action. He will forego any pleasure to be derived from vengeance or from persecuting others even if this means the resumption of uncertainty in life. Some of the humanistic definitions of man, found in Char's most recent publication, Les Compagnons dans le jardin, complete earlier definitions. He sees man's place as a coalition. He is a flower held down by the earth, cursed by the stars because he is unable to rise to them and solicited by death which is his constant fate.

L'homme n'est qu'une fleur de l'air tenue par la terre, maudite par les astres, respirée par la mort; le souffle et l'ombre de cette coalition, certaines fois, le surélèvent.

Here again is stated, in fresh terms, the prevailing paradox of Char's work: man seen as tenderness in the surge of his spirit and as an Apocalyptic figure in his end. The pessimism of Heraclitus was not difficult to discover in the early work, Feuillets d'Hypnos. The myth of tragedy is man's principal heritage, but it may accompany a lifetime of revolt against this fate. This revolt is the subject matter of some of the greatest prose writers of modern France: Malraux, Saint-Exupéry, Camus. It is not only the subject matter of Char's poetry, it is the poetry itself. The poetry is his life lived as a maquis fighter and as a disciple of the philosopher of Ephesus. Char can no more cut himself off from the action of men, from cohabitation with men, than he can cease meditating on the tragedy of man's fate in a world of change and flux.

Char's vision of the world in which he lives, of the world where all men live, is one of his most fertile themes, but this vision is often cast into the abstract terms of a poet-philosopher. He calls it, in one passage, that which is inconceivable. But it is also that which has luminous points of reference, dazzling signs.

Nous sommes dans l'inconcevable, mais avec des repères éblouissants.

(Recherche de la Base et du Sommet)

Thus, in a single line which is a poem by virtue of its image and power, the world of tragedy is juxtaposed with the burning revolt of man's spirit living that tragedy. The violent contrast is at times softened: In the garden of men exist the future forests.

Dans nos jardins se préparent des forêts.

(Les Compagnons dans le jardin)

In the survival of man there is visible a better survival.

O survie encore, toujours meilleure!

(ibid.)

The walker, the man who is bound to the earth and who walks on its surface, is granted some knowledge of the secret existence of things, secrets of the wind, of trees, of water. At moments in history when total destruction seems inevitable, man is unable to believe that the world, which has always been redeemed in the past, is facing its death in the very presence of man. In the future, Char may be looked upon as the apocalyptic poet of our day, as the poet the most persistently oppressed by the Apocalypse aspect of the mid-century.

The thought of Heraclitus has undoubtedly encouraged Char's philosophy to state that no matter how inherently noble truth is, the picture we have of this truth is tragedy. But there is a relationship between the nobility of truth and the noble character of tragedy. This is the source of what we have been calling the antithesis or the oxymoron in Char's poetry. Man's ever increasing awareness of his fate is equivalent to what Char calls the continuous presence of risk felt by the poet. This risk maintains the poet in a lofty position of attentiveness, of freedom of attitude and action. The risk represented by each poem is best understood by comparing it with the risk each day of living, with the threat involved in each decision of each hour in every man's life.

During the richest years of the surrealist movement in France, 1930-1934, René Char was initiated to poetry and to a search for what the surrealists called “énigmes.” Char, who has never disavowed his debt to surrealism, has undergone since that time many changes. The quest for enigmas, for example, would no longer be applicable to his present discoveries. But there are images in his newer writing which bear strong reminiscences of surrealism. A phrase in A une sérénité crispée describes the dual character of man, which we have seen repeatedly stressed in Char, but in a surrealist coupling of terms.

L'oiseau et l'arbre sont conjoints en nous. L'un va et vient, l'autre maugrée et pousse.

A surrealist habit of looking at the world, of joining seemingly unrelated objects, has helped Char to express some of his deepest convictions on the nature of man and the universe.

As Char's writing has become more and more visibly affected by the events of his time, he has made the effort in his poetical work more and more consciously to transform what he sees and feels. But his age seen in an image is both transformation and interpretation. It is the understanding of the essence of things, an abstraction which, when successful, is the container of opposites. His poet's journal, Feuillets d'Hypnos, clearly states that he is opposed to the static, that if the alternative is the absurd, he will choose that, because thereby he will move closer to the pathos of the world:

Si l'absurde est maître ici-bas, je choisis l'absurde, l'antistatique, celui qui me rapproche le plus des chances pathétiques.

How lucidly the poet's vocation emerges from such a text! He is intransigent and refractory. His work is provocation and defiance. His system is unclassifiable because it contains all the opposites of our nature, all the dimensions of the absurd.

Despite the fact that René Char is a difficult poet in almost every sense, he has today reached an eminent degree of fame. The danger is now that he will be enshrined and not understood. To read Char, a new mechanism of sensibility is necessary. A mere knowledge of Char's commitments and an awareness of his literary affiliations will never reveal his poetic excellence.

The best way to approach Char is a study of those moments in his writings when he is aware of the poet's vocation. They are the moments of natural perception when he greets the world. This poet is essentially an analogist. The experience he relates in his books is not beyond the understanding of anyone who has looked intently and lovingly at the world.

Char initiates his readers first to his vigorous, sensuous life in nature. But from nature he moves quickly to the moral and the intellectual order. The final line of Feuillets d'Hypnos states the ultimate reign of beauty in the world: “Toute la place est pour la Beauté.” There is really no poet, in Char's system, there is only poetry. He is consciously bent on bringing back into poetry the strength of living men.

The vigor of this poet's mind puts him into a separate poetic world. We are moved by the vitality of his thought, but especially by the vitality of his concreteness. The truths of the world as he sees them are constantly demanding his allegiance. (This trait in Char would be more easily understood in a frankly religious poet.) He is a poet characterized by the habit of seeing things charged with meaning—an ordered meaning regarding the relationships between nature and men.

Times Literary Supplement (review date 21 October 1965)

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SOURCE: “Back to the Novice He Once Was.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3,321 (21 October 1965): 941.

[In the following review, Char's Commune présence is considered and praised for the way Char “regroups the poems in a coherent whole so that we can see their underlying unity.”]

All but a few of the poems in this selection have appeared before, but even for those already familiar with the poetry of René Char it will look like a new book. He has chosen them mainly from eight volumes published since 1934, though he has also included the final text of one complete poem (“Lettera Amorosa”, first printed in 1953) and a sprinkling of poems from a new volume, not yet published but presumably in preparation, Retour Amont. The poems are grouped in eight sections, not by the books in which they first appeared but according to their themes and moods. M. Char's most characteristic and telling effects owe much to his careful juxtaposition of images, and the arrangement of the poems he has now chosen as representative of his best work gives the whole body of it a new freshness, a more easily comprehensible unity and a more pointed significance. But let it be said without further ado that, as an aid to understanding what that significance is, Georges Blin's introduction is disappointing. M. Char's poetry is not inaccessible. Its impact is direct and only deadened by explanation. M. Blin's essay lacks illumination and creates as many difficulties as it removes.

If you look up “CHAR, René” in Who's Who in France you will find the entry: “Carrière: toute entière consacrée à la poésie”. This is less than the whole truth. For M. Char, poetry is infinitely more than a literary form and much more than a career. It is hard to believe that he has ever managed to live by it or on it, but there is no doubt that he has always lived with it. Even during the war, as a resistance fighter, he was living a life of poetry in action. But poetry and the poem are not interchangeable terms. Poetry is the poet's inner world, possessing him as much as he possesses it, a way of life of the spirit, a personal ethic, an intimate religion with its own values and ritual. Essentially, the poet is a missionary. His conviction of the reality and validity of his own inner world and his faith, born of humility, that others have their inner world too and can therefore share in his, impel him to communicate what he can of it. The act of communication is the poem.

This conception of poetry was vaguely adumbrated by the Romantics; and if M. Char had been writing a hundred years ago he would have been a Romantic poet. In the twentieth century the stream of poetry has carved new channels for itself and the sacred river now runs through caverns hitherto measureless to man. French poets, to continue the metaphor, were the first to discover this unsuspected network of underground watercourses and to explore and extend it. The “new poetry” has spread far beyond France, but France is still its spiritual and intellectual home. It has, of course, its charlatans and parasites. It has also its dedicated exponents and authentic voices, and René Char is one of these. They use a common language, images, to record and interpret their subterranean voyages, but it is a language with many dialects. Eventually the poet has to return to the surface, and the images he uses are those he finds at the point of time and place where he regains the upper air. He may emerge under the palms of an oasis or through a manhole out of a Parisian sewer. The point where M. Char breaks surface most often is in his own familiar Provence.

More precisely, it is L'Isle-sur-Sorgue in the Vaucluse where he was born fifty-eight years ago. The first poem in the book, “Déclarer son Nom”, establishes his credentials by putting him in his own setting as a child:

J'avais dix ans. La Sorgue m'enchâssait.
Le soleil chantait les heures sur le sage cadran des eaux.

M. Char has a wide range of images. He draws them freely from the glowing but austere provençal landscape, its craggy horizons, its olive trees, its flora and fauna, its birds and reptiles, and sometimes from its curious traditional human figures. Everywhere there is the smell of much loved soil and time-honoured husbandry. The significant images are those which denote rapid movement and instant perception, the lightning flash, the loop of a swift in flight, and, recurrently, water, especially the mountain stream before it swells into a river:

L'eau est lourde à un jour de la source.

The poem cannot be bogged down by the passage of time. It consists essentially of transfixing a moment and snatching it out of time:

Si nous habitons un éclair, il est le coeur de l'éternel.

Poetry being, for M. Char, what it is, a poem can hardly be other than fragmentary. One of the great virtues of the present book is that it regroups the poems in a coherent whole so that we can see their underlying unity. Each section has a central theme. The first evokes the poet's childhood, the last is mainly about death. The sections in between are concerned with love, friendship and the comradeship of like minds. The last one is entitled L'Ecarlate, the vivid colour symbolic of poetry itself. It is a kind of art poétique, though this is basically something that can be said about the whole book. In one way or another, implicitly or explicitly, by imagery or by aphorism, all the poems add up to an unmistakably positive affirmation, a spirited as well as spiritual defence and illustration of poetry as a mystical calling, as a way of life conducive to a state of mind in which the hidden forces of creation and the common ancestry of even the most incongruous things can be perceived and, at least in part, communicated to others. His art poétique is also an art de la vie. Poetry cannot exist without love or without liberty; and both, in poetry, are eternally unassailable. Poetry is truth in its utmost simplicity, reality without the meretricious trappings of appearance:

La poésie est de toutes les eaux claires celle qui
s'attarde le moins aux reflets de ses ponts.

Poetry overcomes death:

La poésie me volera ma mort.

It is central to life itself:

La seule signature au bas de la vie blanche, c'est
la poésie qui la dessine.

It can be said the other way round: René Char lives in his poems. Commune présence, the title of the book, is also the title of an early poem first published in 1934. It is a kind of self-administered lecture on how to be a poet. It is an endearing touch, suggestive of great humanity, that the nearly sexagenarian poet should go back more than thirty years to the novice he once was for a name for so much of his life's work. Commune présence suggests also the common ground between the poet and his public. René Char's presence in his poems can be felt almost palpably, reaching out to his readers. They may not be many in this country, but they will surely be greatly rewarded.

Paulène Aspel (essay date spring 1968)

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SOURCE: Aspel, Paulène. “The Poetry of Rene Char, or Man Reconciled [1968].” World Literature Today 63, no. 2 (spring 1989): 205-08.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1968, Aspel comments on Char's career as a poet, observing how the poet uses certain symbols to portray the “opposite, ambiguous human behaviors.”]

At the age of sixty, with twenty volumes of poetry published, René Char is considered by more and more critics in France as the greatest living French poet. Albert Camus had made such a claim for him as early as 1951, in L'homme révolté, when he greeted him as “poète de notre renaissance,” and in the preface he wrote for Char's Dichtungen, an anthology compiled in Germany in 1959, he declared that no such voice had been heard since the pre-Socratics. In 1962 Char was placed among the constellations whose “feux sont sûrs et durables,” and in 1966 he was awarded the Prix des Critiques for his latest volume of poems, Retour amont. A film was made by the Télévision Suisse de Genève the same year. Last August his prominent position was highlighted by a “Soirée René Char,” an event that took place at the Fondation Maeght's new fine-arts center and museum. Char is now achieving international recognition as well, with translations and critical anthologies published in a dozen European countries, in the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Japan.

The poet's life is spent chiefly between Provence and Paris. Near L'Isle-sur-Sorgue, his birthplace and the cradle of his family, is Les Busclats, a white Provençal house surrounded by a large garden of cosmos, hollyhocks, and lavender. A short distance away, one has a view of the Mont Ventoux, whose summits have a prestigious presence in Char's poetry. Three miles west, at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, where Petrarch lived and wrote, the soaring Sorgue, with its heavy cubelike waters, springs from a vertical rock. The swift river has been for the poet, since his childhood, an infinite source of inspiration.

Although several American universities have invited him to read or discuss his poetry, he has declined. It seems that he wants above all to preserve his freedom and independence. Meanwhile, Les Busclats is becoming a high place, with Char sought out by a growing number of visitors from the world of art and literature. When Heidegger came to France in 1955, the two individuals he wanted to meet first were René Char and Georges Braque.

Today, when we look back over forty years of production, the striking constant we can observe is Char's fidelity. From his early books Arsenal (1929) and Le marteau sans maître (1934), an enigmatic, unoriented, but radiant current which hammered down the author's young beliefs with even more rage than Fureur et mystère of fifteen years later (1948), to his latest volumes Retour amont (see BA 41:1, p. 56) and the 1967 reedition of his plays, Trois coups sous les arbres (see BA 42:2, p. 236), Char has remained remarkably faithful to his themes. If a continuous line of major trends can generally be seen in every great writer, the fact is indeed especially true of Char, who has not zigzagged between political affiliations and would not let himself be enslaved by the most tempting ideologies. He parted from his surrealist bons compagnons de révolte only after five years of comradeship when he found André Breton becoming too dogmatic and, later, his best friend Paul Eluard turning into a hopelessly committed communist. Moreover, two important breaks in Char's life, which could have developed into a complete change of outlook, in the end were not ruptures. Rather, they helped him elaborate and reinforce the themes he had already anticipated in his early works. The first break was in 1936-37, a septicemia followed by a long recovery. The other was la grande épreuve de Céreste (1941-44) when, hemmed in by Vichy police, he organized and directed the Maquis in Basses-Alpes. In each case Char was engaged in a struggle against monsters, disease or oppressor; he went through “l'halucinante expérience de l'homme noué au Mal, de l'homme massacré et pourtant victorieux.” Char's merit was, in the course of a perilous moral itinerary comparable to Camus's of the same time, to have reconciled two opposite, demanding truths: revolt and happiness. It was to wager in favor of man when man everywhere sank, to speak up for beauty when beauty was obscured by darkness. Char was to emerge from the Résistance as a genuine moralist and a greater poet.

His first major works then, Seuls demeurent (1945) and the famous journal of a Résistance fighter, Feuillets d'Hypnos (1946), reveal his important themes. These appear with mixed ethical and poetic concepts, in long poems as well as in simple little ones close to nature and daily life. They are tightly interwoven, sharing their brilliant, challenging images. Poetry, the making of the poem, the poet's function, is regarded by all Char's exegetes as his predominant, richest theme. Char says in “Mirage des aiguilles,” a poem in Retour amont: “Fidèle à son amour comme le ciel l'est au rocher.” Tender loving expressions, such as mon amour, l'Amie, ma martelée, la Rencontrée, apply most often to poetry in this poet's world, and not to woman, as more than one unaware reader has been misled to think. The decisive, magic encounter between poetry and poet had already taken place in childhood: “Tout enfant, j'ai senti, réellement, quelqu'un, qui se tenait à mon côté, invisible—qui n'était pas Dieu.” The theme runs through many different kinds of texts in prose and verse, in poems and even in pamphlets, letters, or homages to other poets, like those in a book which can be said to represent Char's credo: Recherche de la base et du sommet. This theme is also the very topic of special long poems made up of short numbered sequences, which can be read as a series of aphorisms or a continuous poem, such as Partage formel (1945), A une sérénité crispée (1951), A la santé du serpent (1954), L'âge cassant (1965). One characteristic Charian definition in the fifty-five dazzling sentences of Partage formel presents the poem as a free unifying force of ethics and esthetics: “Cette forteresse épanchant la liberté par toutes ses poternes, cette fourche de vapeur qui tient dans l'air un corps d'une envergure prométhéenne que la foudre illumine et évite, c'est le poème, aux caprices exorbitants, qui, dans l'instant, nous obtient puis s'efface.”

In Arrière-histoire du poème pulvérisé, which consists of comments added to a 1947 plaquette called Le poème pulvérisé, Char explains how a poem is born: “J'ai pris ma tête comme on saisit une motte de sel et je l'ai littéralement pulvérisée: de cette illusion atroce est né ‘J'habite une douleur, plus quelque calme. C'est là, je crois, l'un de mes poèmes les plus achevés.” Hence the nature of Charian poems, which indeed bear traces of this pulverization, somehow become fragments scattered over the world, but paradoxically remain solid, resistant entities. These fragments are island-poems, made of small blocks, prose paragraphs, boldly emerging from silence. In fact, the entire work of the poet is in the form of an archipelago. La parole en archipel (see BA 36:4, p. 393) is the title of a book published in 1962, but it had been Char's program long before that date. Moreover, the compact quality of the fragment is all the more striking because so many polyvalent images are condensed in it. The word is taut with poetic charge, or, in Char's terms, “La constellation du solitaire est tendue.” Immense perspectives and opposite metaphors in a short, elliptic sentence constitute the Charian explosive aphorism. In brief, it can be said that the chief theme of Char is a complete monography of the Poem, its genesis, form, function, and aims. A passage written by Maurice Blanchot in La part du feu and often quoted since it was first published in 1946 sums up the poet's originality and work: “L'une des grandeurs de René Char, celle par laquelle il n'a pas d'égal en ce temps, c'est que sa poésie est révélation de la poésie, poésie de la poésie, et comme le dit à peu près Heidegger de Hölderlin, poème de l'essence du poème.”

The second essential theme in Char's poetry is that of rebirth, a theme which has been somewhat neglected by criticism but will demand more and more attention since it has gained more importance in the poet's latest works. Frequently it appears together with hymns to nature and spring life, as in “Le bois de l'Epte,” or it borrows the paths of his ars poetica, as in “La bibliothèque est en feu.” The theme is confirmed and amplified in Retour amont, a book which is, as defined by the author, “a tentative crossing beyond springs,” “vers ce qui permet aux sources de se refaire.” In a central piece, “Le nu perdu,” the instant is revealed when the living, the creators, “those who will bear boughs,” are touched by the down of black night that precedes the lightning flash of illumination.

The theme of rebirth is generally apprehended in its full scope, as the dialectical operation of destruction and renaissance. It is supported, in the tradition of mythology and alchemy, by multiple images of fire. Fire is the one of the four elements which lends itself best to symbolizing opposite, ambiguous human behaviors, a large variety of which can be found in Char's poetry. The word feu achieves indeed a high frequency, which is surpassed only by the word soleil. The terms have many related ones, such as wheels, stars, peacocks, light, dawn, warmth, the famous lightning, et cetera. Numerous references are also made to their opposites, shadow and light. The “feu-chaleur” is associated with the expression of friendship and brotherhood, whereas l'éclair, the quick happening of which lasts a little longer for the privileged poet, brings knowledge, uncovers a brilliant and beloved country, and finally becomes le cœur de l'éternel.

Fire is so precious, however, that we want to preserve, condense it in a form and space as small as possible. What could such a compact dynamic entity be? Bird, of course. A variety of birds, as well as the word oiseau, appear in numerous texts. Above all of them flies the eagle. In a typical taut Charian metaphor, “l'aigle solaire,” encompassing the two main types of fire, represents the thinker Heraclitus, whose “exaltante alliance des contraires” has forever inspired the poet.

Both closely related major themes of regeneration and the essence of the poem are essential in forming the meaning of one of the greatest poems by Char: “La bibliothèque est en feu” in Poèmes et prose choisis (1957). The flawless poème en archipel also combines three other chief Charian themes: the problems of knowledge and time, and especially the beautiful and frail fraternity among men of this earth. The poet dances with his fellow man: “Torche, je ne valse qu'avec lui.” Man, “le bel homme déconcertant et fragile,” has been for Char an object of long-range attention and care. The poet often seems to imply that his preferred friends are “les amis au sol,” his Vauclusian compatriots, who partake of qualities of earth itself, serenity, solidarity, warmth, and who can also understand the language of the Provençal sun. The native soil is rarely used as topic itself for a poem, but it pervades all works, with its mountains, rivers, and fauna contributing their own personalities to that of the poem, the geographic elements being thus transcended and humanized. The pays leads one to other regions, especially the Pays with a capital P, which is poetry land.

Knowledge, with its traditional meaning of a vast, baffling, and misleading endeavor, is also for Char “la connaisance aux cents passages,” a dispenser of vertigo to the one who has climbed it up to its crest and is fascinated by the abyss. Another type of knowledge, however, one which is more specifically Char's, aims at being productive, ultimately resulting in the poem itself. It can be at the same time defined by a strange aspect of unpredictability. Events are always surrounded with mystery, and a few unexpected encounters are truly privileged moments in Char's world. It is, for instance, at the turn of a road, a girl walking on a country trail after picking mimosas during the day: profiled against sunset, her figure appears as a lamp of perfume, (“Congé au vent”); but the apparition could have been poetry herself. Knowledge and poetry are sisters, even if, according to Heidegger, they like to live on separate summits. In “La bibliothèque est en feu,” one day in winter, poetry manifested itself, with another one of its touching ways, as bird down on the windowpane; it announced spring and a life of writing: “Comment me vint l'écriture? Comme un duvet d'oiseau sur ma vitre en hiver.”

Most Charian happenings take place in an absolute present. By the emphasis given to the use of that tense and time in his work, Char reveals himself as a true existential poet. Georges Poulet, who has made a thorough study of Char's time, has stressed the compact, tense, full quality of a “présent essentiel,” that culminates into instant. Things are given very little time “pour faire leur entrée dans le champ de la conscience.” Many metamorphoses, many contradictory events are accomplished in no time at all, in what Char himself calls “raccourci fascinateur.” Hence the continuous trembling of a crowded instant under the pressure of such forces; hence the constantly explosive quality of this poetry.

Among the many polyvalent images, l'éclair, le serpent, la rose, l'oiseau offer probably the richest symbols. Among all birds, unique is the eagle, which can be said to combine and condense the main Charian themes. It is a small, live fragment, endowed with a furious power, that of creation, of the poet himself. He is freedom as well as free encounter of knowledge with all its frailty; but he never means escape. On the contrary, watching is his concern and duty; his view and views are sharp. Proudly flying high, or staying on summits, he is closer to the sun than anyone else; but dwelling in rocks, he draws links between sun and earth, thus symbolizing the dynamic unified man. Finally the eagle is to come, and, like the Nietzschean superman, only in the future will he be ideally realized.

In the past twenty years Char's poetry has challenged the foremost critics to write an ever-increasing number of penetrating analyses; but for all the excellent decoding they have done, Charian studies are only beginning. For instance, no stylistic study has yet been made on the famous aphorism, allegedly inherited from Heraclitus, but which also bears resemblances to those of several French moralists. In numerous homage poems, recently thoroughly classified by the author in Commune présence (1964) and the second edition of Recherche de la base et du sommet (1965), the poet has acknowledged his debt to Heraclitus, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Nietzsche, among others, and also to his great friends of the postwar period, Albert Camus and Georges Braque. Criticism so far has merely repeated these opinions. It has insisted on Heraclitean as well as surrealist influences but has hardly touched the Nietzschean. That influence, however, will undoubtedly be found far greater and more durable than the others. A study should compare Char and the author of Also sprach Zarathustra. Let us remember, for example, the latter's interrogation to the sky after hearing the cry of an animal: “And behold! An eagle was sweeping through the air in wide circles, and from it was hanging a serpent, not like a prey, but like a friend, for it was coiled around the eagle's neck.” “The proudest animal under the sun and the wisest animal under the sun” appear in Char's poetry with similar and even richer implications. Among all known serpents in mythologies and poetries, Char's snake is indeed the most akin to Zarathustra's. The eagle occupies the privileged place we know. Concerning the “unvollständiger Nihilismus,” which is one of the evils confronting our human condition, as also denounced especially by the existentialists, the poet repeatedly challenges us to perform the necessary task of destroying harmful, worn-out values. La parole en archipel echoes Nietzsche's “fragmentary language” which urged us first to reduce the universe to crumbs. Thus numerous tentative questions posed by the philosopher are tentatively answered by the poet. To the madman's burning one, why earth and sun are being tragically divorced, several poems, among them “La bibliothèque est en feu,” do indicate the way to reconciliation. The reconciliation is also symbolized by the eagle of the summits and the terrestrial snake as friends. The poet himself participates as a “liana” of the sun.

This reconciliation, however, goes further than Nietzschean or existential philosophy, by its encompassing and understanding of the unknown. Char does not feel any nostalgia or anxiety about it. Char, “poète du devenir,” praises it as being “l'inconnu équilibrant.” He recommends it, in fact. The “Argument” of Poème pulvérisé begins with these words: “Comment vivre sans inconnu devant soi?” The unknown might well be the region where brilliant rebirth will take place after the darkness of our lives, where miraculous fragments of poems can be collected, love for the fellow man reach its zenith, and man his unity. The firm young voice of the great poet achieves indeed an “Umwertung aller Werte,” the striking change in life which our times demand. His poetry teaches the way to reconciliation: “En poésie, devenir c'est réconcilier.”

Virginia A. LaCharité (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: LaCharité, Virginia A. “Conclusion: 1962-1966: A Poetics of Renewal.” In The Poetics and the Poetry of René Char, pp. 195-206. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, LaCharité develops an interpretation of Char's poetic philosophy and the poet's works from 1962 to 1966.]

René Char's poetics and poetry form an integral whole which reflects the development of his discovery of the cosmic totality which characterizes all existence. His work from Les Cloches sur le coeur to La Parole en archipel elucidates this fusion of opposites through the examination of man, nature, and the role of the poet. In his examination of each subject, Char finds that Poetry contains the solution, that is, Poetry overcomes contradiction and fragmentation. Poetry is the common fact of truth and being; it is the principle of unity, the “commune présence” in which each element and each individual participate.

Char's sixth stage of development dates from 1962 to 1966 and includes only three works: Commune présence (1964), L'Age cassant (1966), and Retour amont (1966). In these three volumes, Char undertakes a profound investigation of his poetics and poetry from 1923 to 1966. His painstaking and rigorous review of his aesthetic journey through life leads him to a renewal of confidence in his discovery that Poetry is the macrocosm of all existence. Char finds that his efforts to reveal this singular truth are attained in his own creative acts. His vision of the fusion of life and poetry is represented by his own being.1 In the study and evolution of René Char, the man and poet, René Char concludes that his course justifies his own existence and that this course is the only one by which each individual may assert his dignity of being.

COMMUNE PRéSENCE

Commune présence (1964) is the most comprehensive presentation of Char's poetics and poetry. This work consists of texts selected from all his collective editions, from Le Marteau sans maître (1934)2 to La Parole en archipel (1961), and it includes 12 texts3 from Retour amont.4 The significance of Commune présence lies in the organization of the texts into eight sections.

Before Commune présence, Char's collective editions were organized according to a pragmatic method which is a common practice among poets. As soon as several small volumes of texts were published, he placed them in a larger and more accessible edition in the order of their publication although the order of the texts within any group was not strictly chronological. The title of each small volume became the section title for each group within the larger edition. This method of organization characterizes Le Marteau sans maître (1934), Fureur et mystère (1948), and La Parole en archipel (1961). Poèmes et prose choisis (1957), Char's major anthology prior to Commune présence, represents the first change in this organizational pattern because the poems are separated from the aphorisms. However, this departure from Char's usual method is not radical, for the texts are still arranged in order of publication. In Commune présence, Char disregards this organizational approach.

Each section of Commune présence is composed of texts selected from previous collective editions, rather than from small volumes,5 and each text is placed according to the relation of its theme to the section title. All indications of the date of composition and that of publication are obscured. Commune présence is not a collective work in the usual sense; it does not merely assemble a number of small volumes. Commune présence is a mosaic composition of diverse pieces which are combined for the formation of an integrated whole. Earlier collective works are disarranged; texts are displaced from their established position and rearranged in a new pattern. Char “pulverises” his original structures and forges a new order with the fragments. The configuration of Commune présence parallels Char's theory of constructive destruction. He risks the unity of his work in order to give concrete evidence of the unity of Poetry: “Essaime ta poussière / Nul ne décèlera votre union.”6

Although the organizational structure of Commune présence is strictly non chronological, the arrangement of the eight sections follows an architectural order which seems chronological. These sections reflect and summarize the evolution of Char's poetry: 1) Cette fumée qui nous portait, 2) Battre tout bas, 3) Haine du peu d'amour, 4) Lettera amorosa (definitive text), 5) L'Amitié se succède, 6) Les Frères de mémoire, 7) L'Ecarlate, and 8) Vallée close.

Cette fumée qui nous portait begins with an evocation of Char's childhood and adolescence in Isle-sur-Sorgue and describes the poet's personal experiences of communion with nature. His early awareness of the possibility of reconciling man with his world leads him to the singular discovery that the human and the elemental participate in a “commune présence” of existence. His desire to communicate this vision of a harmonious universe appears early in his life. The event of war7 precipitates him into participation with men of varying individual traits, yet men who are willing to risk their individuality in the struggle against an immediate danger. In the revolt of fraternal action, the poet discovers that each man has a mystery of being, “une fumée,” which enables him to survive despite the constant threat of destruction. This inexplicable “fumée” causes man to act, and it justifies his existence. He becomes “l'homme debout.”

In Battre tout bas, the poet examines “l'homme debout” and finds that when man fails to risk his being he ceases to communicate with others; he returns to his illusion of isolation and estrangement. The poet must dispel this illusion, “battre tout bas,” and show man the totality offered by poetic truth. The individual has an immediate means with which to end his isolation; through a sexual union with woman, he obtains the strength necessary to act, to accept the risk of exposure which characterizes “l'homme debout.” Moreover, man's union with woman prepares him for an exchange of self-knowledge with others.

The theme of love is continued in Haine du peu d'amour. The cause of man's alienation from the world lies in his past failure to act creatively. The act of love is the human expression of the poetic act. The celebration of exchange in the present, the only time which exists for action, guarantees human continuity because the desire to reexperience the totality of union projects man into the future. The fusion of man and woman is no different from that of poet and the written word; the act of living is synthesized with the act of poetry in Lettera amorosa.

L'Amitié se succède brings together the first four sections by expanding the role of exchange. Union with woman leads to fraternal communion; it also enables man to understand the external world, nature. When man acts constructively toward nature, he finds that the role of exchange and its ensuing vision of totality are equally attainable in the world. Man and nature are mutually dependent for a meaningful existence; man needs nature in which to be threatened to act, and nature needs man to enrich its possibilities. Only creative activity can reconcile the individual with his world.

Creative activity is no longer restricted to the poet; it includes all men who fuse an act of living and an act of poetry. The poetization of man enables each individual to become one of Les Frères de mémoire and participate in artistic immortality. Any expression of art is an expression of Poetry:

L'Art est une route qui finit en sentier, en tremplin, mais dans un champ à nous.8

In Les Frères de mémoire, Char pays hommage to those artists who have accepted the risk of creativity in order to guide man to an understanding of himself and an acceptance of his world. The efforts of these artists endure beyond death. In this section, Char includes not only well known figures (Corot, Courbet, Mozart, Giacometti, and Braque) but also the unknown caveman whose sketches on the walls of the Lascoux grotto defy time. Art, not history, expresses man's heritage of survival; the individual who acts creatively overcomes death, “se réfléchissant … dans le miroir de notre regard, provisoire receveur universel pour les yeux futurs.”9

Because Poetry, that is all forms of artistic expression and representation, offers a guide for man's conduct, the poet's method serves man. L'Ecarlate is a concise summary of the poet's role and responsibility. Although he is aware of the baser side of man, he also knows that man's inner resistance can be channeled into a constructive revolt against his condition. The poet's “épidémie de feu”10 combines apparent contradictions within man and his world into one harmonious reality in which each individual has unlimited possibilities to act, to become, to live creatively, poetically. Poetry gives man self-confidence in his present and hope in his potential:

Porteront rameaux ceux dont l'endurance sait user la nuit noueuse qui précède et suit l'éclair. Leur parole reçoit existence du fruit intermittant qui la propage en se délacérant.11

Poetry not only unifies the cosmos, but also constricts and humanizes it in order that each member of the human community may understand his part in the Vallée close, the oneness of all existence. Poetry demands the risk of activity; man and poet alike must maintain a constant state of response in order to assault the destructive forces and construct a better present:

… à la poursuite de la vie qui ne peut être encore imaginée, il y a des volontés qui frémissent, des murmures qui vont s'affronter et des enfants sains et saufs qui découvrent.12

There can be no respite from the risk of confrontation: “la poésie vit d'insomnie perpétuelle.”13 Man's essential dignity lies in his creative acts of living, which permit him to discover his integral place in the “vallée,” the world. Furthermore, this “vallée” is “close” because “le poète est combinable”;14 he fuses absence and presence, the concrete and the abstract, the past and the future, that which is solid and that which is becoming, object and emotion, being and destruction. Without Poetry, man is isolated, and his existence is fragmented. Through Poetry, his dignity and justification for being are made manifest to him. Because he can fuse an act of living and an act of poetry, he realizes his own possibilities and participation in the unity of the cosmos. Man's reality and cosmic totality form one order of existence; “la poésie, c'est le monde à sa meilleure place.”15

Commune présence demonstrates the unity and continuity of Poetry, the theme of the whole body of Char's work. Each text reveals one aspect of the oneness of Char's poetic universe. However, it is significant that Char's deliberate disregard for chronological organization in Commune présence results in a succinct presentation of the evolution of his poetics and poetry. Each of the eight sections of Commune présence evokes a given stage of thematic concern which characterizes Char's quest for the discovery and communication of poetic truth. Each section contains at least one text or phrase which refers to Char's historical existence.16 Char's poetic evolution is one of resolution, which follows a deliberative course of development. One problem is overcome before another is undertaken, and each problem raised is one that has its foundation in Char's personal experience. The non-chronological structure of Commune présence is paradoxically chronological. Char has constructed an orderly and well-integrated work in which dates of composition and publication are obscured only to affirm the successive stages of his own poetic development.

CHAR'S PRESENT POSITION

Char's subtle confirmation of the stages of development of his poetics and poetry in Commune présence provides the main theme of L'Age cassant (1966) and Retour amont (1966). These two volumes summarize Char's present position. He reviews in detail his aesthetic evolution, previously presented as a successive but integrally unified whole in Commune présence. In this self-examination, Char finds that he has reached a time of poetic maturity, “âge cassant.” The very arrival at this positive time of life imposes upon him the personal demand and the artistic summons that he reaffirm the value of the poet's risk to discover and reveal the fusion of life and poetry. L'Age cassant contains Char's frank admission that a reassessment of his poetry justifies his right to continue his task. Retour amont presents his serious reflections on his own past efforts. This reexamination leads him to a renewal of confidence in his chosen vocation and its possibilities for all men and the immediate future.

A second major characteristic which shows the interrelationship between L'Age cassant and Retour amont and further identifies them with Commune présence is the use of “je.” It becomes increasingly more difficult to distinguish between the “je” of Char the poet and the “je” of Char the man. In L'Age cassant and Retour amont, there seem to be examples which refer to incidents and impressions of a personal or historical nature and others of a more general aspect. Prior to 1962, that is prior to the first publication of texts from Retour amont, Char's use of “je” had evolved to the point where it included every man involved in creative activity. In L'Age cassant and Retour amont, Char goes beyond this fusion of man and poet; indeed, no fusion is necessary. Poet and man were never opposite elements or contradictory forces to be fused into a single entity. On the contrary, Char's retrospective self-study shows that the poet and the man are one and the same. Each experience and insight known by the man are essential to the poet, and each artistic effort and discovery is significant in the growth of the man and his response to his world: “… j'entrai dans l'âge cassant.”17 It is Char who has attained this point in space and time; it is neither Char the man nor Char the poet; it is the harmony of these elements and experiences, personal and aesthetic, which identify René Char. Life and poetry are inseparable; if life determines poetry, Poetry determines life; it is this latter vision which Char emphasizes in these two volumes. If each man will look back upon his past, “retour amont,” he will discover that the same “commune présence,” the same harmony of life and poetry, reside within him. By describing the evolution of his “je,” Char reveals the poet and the role of poetry in each individual.

A third significant trait which links Commune présence to L'Age cassant and Retour amont is found in the dates of composition and arrangement. Although Commune présence is an anthology which covers Char's creative development from 1934 to 1962, it also contains 12 of the 30 texts of Retour amont. This indicates that much of the composition of Retour amont coincided with the preparation of Commune présence. More importantly, it shows that Char had conceived of the need for such a retrospective and cogitative work before 1962, when two texts were published separately with the reference Retour amont inédit. It is probable that as soon as La Parole en archipel (specifically Quitter and Au-Dessus du vent) was completed Char began Retour amont as a concrete demonstration of his poetics of the totality of life. L'Age cassant, although most likely undertaken after the completion of Commune présence, was composed concurrently with Retour amont. In fact, L'Age cassant is the companion work to Retour amont and places the inner experience and reflections of Retour amont in their proper perspective.

L'Age cassant consists of 43 aphorisms which summarize Char's present aesthetic position. In this volume, he affirms the value of his poetry and his poetic direction. The tone of the work is one of authority and decisiveness; it is the voice of one who has made no concessions in his search to justify life and who has succeeded. The quest has been difficult, at times turbulent and seemingly without direction, but the end result is worthwhile.

In L'Age cassant, Char reiterates and reemphasizes previous themes. He warns against complacency: “Confort est crime” (“XIV”). He praises the threat of destruction, the lack of security, and the necessity of crispation: “… nous apprenons à n'être jamais consolés” (“V”). The poet, that is the one who has accepted the writing of poetry as a means to guide man, must make man see that he must not be patronized: “L'histoire des hommes est la longue succession des synonymes d'un même vocable. Y contredire est un devoir” (“XXII”). Life must be continually assaulted and confronted:

“Je me révolte, donc je me ramifie.” Ainsi devraient parler les hommes au bûcher qui élève leur rébellion.

(“XXXIV”)

Man must be in a constant state of action: “Nul homme, à moins d'être un mort-vivant, ne peut se sentir à l'ancre en cette vie” (“XXI”); there is no excuse for inactivity. Moreover, man must not look to the future; he must concentrate on the present:

Ce qui fut n'est plus. Ce qui n'est pas doit devenir. Du labyrinthe aux deux entrées jaillissent deux mains pleines d'ardeur. A défaut d'un esprit, qu'est-ce qui inspire la livide, l'atroce, ou la rougissante dispensatrice?

(“XXIII”)

Acceptance of the risk of being in the knowledge of human fragility and mortality is essential in the construction of a better present.

In addition to a review of the main themes of his poetry, Char reviews his own course of development. He justifies his efforts to liberate poetry and man:

Qui oserait dire que ce que nous avons détruit valait cent fois mieux que ce que nous avions rêvé et transfiguré sans relâche en murmurant aux ruines?

(“XX”)

He evokes his childhood in Isle-sur-Sorgue: “L'aubépine en fleurs fut mon premier alphabet” (“XIII”). Nature and the important lessons she contains are stressed in several aphorisms, notably “Venasque.”

L'Age cassant is Char's poetics of life. In his reaffirmation of the major tenets of the whole body of his work, he demonstrates the compatibility of his life and poetry. He has attained his “âge cassant” historically and aesthetically through a constant assault on life: “J'ai de naissance la respiration agressive” (“VII”). Others can attain this point of maturity and self-justification by accepting his lead:

Se mettre en chemin sur ses deux pieds, et, jusqu'au soir, le presser, le reconnaître, le bien traiter ce chemin qui, en dépit de ses relais haineux, nous montre les fétus souhaits exaucés et la terre croisée des oiseaux.

(“XLIII”)

In L'Age cassant, Char presents a positive and forceful resumé of his poetics. The reason for his absolute confidence in his work is found in Retour amont. The title of this volume reflects the more important aspects of its 30 texts. In the first place, Retour amont means literally the action of returning upstream, that is of movement in the direction of the source. In the second place, it refers to an inner voyage of self-examination.

Char is going back to the original source of poetry, his own formation. He is strongly influenced by his native region of Provence and the specific references to this area are numerous: Luberon, Vaudois, Mérindol, Vaucluse, Thouzon. It was here that he first felt within him the stirrings of poetry and here that he first became aware of the vital lesson of homogeneity that nature holds: “Notre figure terrestre n'est que le second tiers d'une poursuite continue, un point, amont.”18

The term “amont” is taken from the world of nature, a significant factor in all of Char's work. It is from nature that he has learned the constructive role of destruction. When the river Thouzon overflows, it damages the surrounding area; but, when its waters recede, the result is enrichment: “Dans le creux de la ville immergée, la corne de la lune mêlait le dernier sang et le premier limon.”19 From the fig tree described in “Devancier” comes the knowledge of nature's cyclical process: being-nothingness-being. Char poses the rhetorical question: “La terre est quelque chose ou quelqu'un?”20 It is; it exists and daily surrounds man. It is composed of menacing elements and peaceful, beneficent ones; each serves the other. “Retour” means repetition and reciprocity; it refers directly to the process of recurrence in nature.

Man is a part of this homogeneous framework and he must participate fully in this world: “Dans le ciel des hommes, le pain des étoiles me sembla ténébreux et durci, mais dans leurs mains étroites je lus la joute des étoiles; j'en recueillis la sueur dorée, et par moi la terre cessa de mourir.”21 This demand for struggle and action is also inherent in the title, for it is considered more difficult to go upstream than downstream, that is to go in the opposite direction, to contradict the usual course of movement. It is a risk to act in an opposing fashion, but the risk must be accepted as necessary for a meaningful existence: “Qui a creusé le puits et hisse l'eau gisante / Risque son coeur dans l'écart de ses mains.”22 This risk of action must occur in the present: “Lâcher un passé négligeable.”23 The present is man's only time of being for acting:

Le passé retarderait l'éclosion du présent si nos souvenirs érodés n'y sommeillaient sans cesse. Nous nous retournons sur l'un tandis que l'autre marque un élan avant de se jeter sur nous.24

The use of the verb “retourner” indicates that the past has a contributive role. Study of past activity explains certain problems of the present; one of these problems is liberty. Char recalls his participation in “la drôle de guerre” in “Les Parages d'Alsace” and in the maquis in World War II in “Faction du muet.” While there is no immediate and easily identifiable outside threat of destruction, man's tendency towards complacency can undo in the present the successful risks and acts of the past: “… le loriot … / Au lieu de faim, périt d'amour.”25 This symbol of peace and liberty must be vigilantly and actively maintained: “Le vin de la liberté aigrit s'il n'est, à demi bu, rejeté au cep.”26 Man's inactivity can return him to adversity. Moreover, the reason that the present is better than the past is found in the courageous acts of the past. If this present is to be better, man must act now: “Revers des sources: pays d'amont, pays sans biens, hôte pelé, je roule ma chance vers vous.”27

Char's going back in space and time in Retour amont is an additional example of his negation of temporality and spatiality. In his travel backwards, he is actually going forward; it is this very return to an examination of the past that renews his confidence in himself and in his work to challenge the future: “J'ai renversé le dernier mur …”28 In his inner journey he finds that he carries within him the past, that he belongs to the present, but that he is also future; he is a “convergence des multiples” as is his poetry: “Des années de gisant s'éclairèrent soudain sous ce fanal vivant et altéré de nous.”29 In “Célébrer Giacometti,” Char emphasizes the survival of man's creative acts. His poems have hopefully helped man to understand his essential dignity of being: “Tu es une fois encore la bougie où sombrent les ténèbres autour d'un nouvel insurgé.”30

Char's search for the discovery and possession of the knowledge of being unfolds in Retour amont. This serious and careful self-investigation confirms his belief in the whole body of his poetry. Scrutiny of his own formation and the course of his subsequent development justifies his work and his life. Retour amont offers demonstrable proof that his risk and all risk is worthwhile, that man's possibilities of fulfillment lie in his own creative acts, and, most importantly, that life and poetry spring from the same source. From this vantage point, Char acknowledges the truth of his discovery of unity:

Le point fond. Les sources versent. Amont éclate. Et en bas le delta verdit. Le chant des frontières s'étend jusqu'au belvédère d'aval.31

This is the message of Char's poetics and poetry and the meaning of his life.

Notes

  1. Further evidence that this sixth period is one of review and self-examination is found in Char's decision to reassess, revise where necessary, and republish his previous major collections: Fureur et mystère (1962), Le Marteau sans maître suivi de Moulin premier (1964), Les Matinaux (1964), and Recherche de la base et du sommet (1965).

  2. Commune présence contains texts from Le Marteau sans maître, a work not included in any of Char's anthologies, particularly Poèmes et prose choisis (1957), before 1964.

  3. A thirteenth poem, “Effacement du peuplier,” was published in L'Arc (été 1963), p. 48.

  4. Commune présence also contains one text, “Avec Braque, peut-être, on s'était dit …,” which was not previously published; this text is included, however, in the section on Georges Braque in Alliés substantiels in Recherche de la base et du sommet, 1965.

  5. The exception is Retour amont.

  6. “Commune présence,” Cette fumée qui nous portait in Commune présence (Paris, 1964).

  7. In Cette fumée qui nous portait, 15 of the 24 texts refer to World War II.

  8. “Avec Braque, peut-être, on s'était dit …,” Les Frères de mémoire.

  9. “Célébrer Giacometti.”

  10. “La Récolte injuriée,” L'Ecarlate.

  11. “Les Parages d'Alsace.”

  12. “Jacquemard et Julia,” Vallée close.

  13. “Les Dentelles de Montmirail.”

  14. Pierre Berger, “Conversation avec René Char,” La Gazette des lettres (11 juin 1952), p. 13.

  15. Ibid., p. 9.

  16. The most frequent references are: Névons, Sorgue, Moulin du Calavon, Thor, Vosges, Alsace, and “partisan.”

  17. L'Age cassant, I (Paris, 1966).

  18. “Lenteur de l'avenir,” Retour amont (Paris, 1966).

  19. “Chérir Thouzon.”

  20. “Pause au château cloaque.”

  21. “Lutteurs.”

  22. “La Soif hospitalière.”

  23. “Traversée.”

  24. “Pause au château cloaque.”

  25. “Lied du figuier.”

  26. “Pause au château cloaque.”

  27. “Aiguevive.”

  28. “Lenteur de l'avenir.”

  29. “Le Banc d'ocre.”

  30. “Servante.”

  31. “L'Ouest derrière soi perdu.”

Virginia A. LaCharité (essay date spring 1976)

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SOURCE: LaCharité, Virginia A. “Beyond the Poem: René Char's La Nuit talismanique.Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures 30, no. 1 (spring 1976): 14-26.

[In the following essay, LaCharité focuses attention on Char's La Nuit talismanique while exploring the relationship between Char-as-poet and Char-as-painter.]

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,1 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 artist2 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 Braque3 as well as a lengthy essay, Flux de l'aimant (1965), on Joan Miró.4 In addition, Recherche de la base et du sommet (1965) contains a complete section, Alliés substantiels, on practitioners of plastic form.

Because of his writings on artists and, more important, because of his constant references to La Tour and homages to Braque, Char seems to fall into that general category of modern poets who collaborate with painters because of the affinities between the poem and the painting. Certainly, many of Char's works have been illustrated by the leading artists of this century. His first volume of poems, Les Cloches sur le cœur (1928), was illustrated by Louis Serrière-Renoux, and many of his subsequent volumes and plaquettes have been accompanied by drawings by Braque, Giacometti, V. Hugo, Kandinsky, Matisse, Miró, Picabia, Picasso, and others.5 From this point of view, Char does indeed appear as one more in the pantheon of poets whose vision is complemented by plastic representation.

However, René Char is more than vitally interested in painting and its adjuncts. He is himself a practicing painter who has illustrated some of his own poems, such as “L'Une et l'autre” (1957), “Élisabeth petite fille” (1958), “La Faux relevée” (1959), “Traverse” (1959), “Deux poèmes” (1960), “Éros suspendu” (1960), and “L'Issue” (1961). But these “minuscules” with sketches by the author are not readily available, and, until the publication of La Nuit talismanique in 1972, Char as a practicing artist was relatively unknown. And, simultaneously, La Nuit talismanique brings to a head a fundamental critical question: is there a difference between Char the poet and Char the painter? An analysis of the mechanics of meaning in his latest venture into plastic creative activity indicates a previously undetected non-verbal poetics; with La Nuit talismanique, the Char of day and expression in word forms gives way to Char as a poet of night and silence, for Char the painter not only complements the poet but also brings to his multiple poetic forms a new dimension beyond the poem.

The format of La Nuit talismanique6 is curious. In one sense there are three parts: an introduction and two main divisions: Faute de sommeil, l'écorce … (1955-1958) and La Nuit talismanique qui brillait dans son cercle (1972), which is subdivided into two parts.7 Moreover, thirty-seven drawings (a count which includes the picture on the cover) accompany these texts. However, closer examination of the format of the volume reveals the following inner arrangement: the introduction consists of three drawings, a “Frontispice,” an explanatory preface on the personal crisis which occurred in 1955-1958, the reproduction in longhand of an aphorism from Les Compagnons dans le jardin (La Parole en archipel, 1962), and a revised form of the poem “Sur une nuit sans ornement”8 with six paragraphs omitted from the 1954 version and a new one added (and dated 1972 by the author) at the end.

The section, Faute de sommeil, l'écorce … can be viewed in several ways. The simplest one is to say that the section consists of 25 drawings and 4 previously published poems: “L'Inoffensif,” “L'Issue,” “Nous tombons,” and “Éros suspendu” (La Parole en archipel). Moreover, four other poems9 are also reproduced in their entirety but superimposed on drawings; there are a total of twenty-three aphorisms, of which four are reproduced in longhand (just as all eight poems), twelve are in italics, and seven are superimposed on drawings.10 Hence, there seem to be three forms in this section: poem, aphorism, and drawing, as well as an obvious interrelationship between the written word and the illustration. The most striking text in this respect is perhaps “L'Oiseau spirituel,” originally published in Hommage à Georges Braque (1958). The black and light-grey sketch depicts a chain of mountains at the bottom; to the right, and going up the entire side, is an impressionistic rocky crag, cliff, or bush; fully three fourths of the drawing is cloudy sky on which is superimposed in black ink in Char's hand the text—the text becomes the bird and completes the sketch. It is neither the poem nor the picture but the conjunction of the two, wherein the poem receives its actual significance and takes on meaning before it is read. Like a painting, the poem first is grasped as a whole and the details follow this initial experience. The picture is a poem, and the poem a picture.

The same is true of the other three poems superimposed on drawings: “Obéissez à vos porcs qui existent …” (originally published as “Contrevenir”), “Aubépine,”11 and “Je ne suis pas seul …” (whose original title is “La Grille,” one of the “Neuf merci” texts). But the omission of the titles of two of these short poems, “Contrevenir” and “La Grille,”12 gives them the appearance and quality of the aphorism. Instead of maintenance of the usual Char distinction between two formal modes, namely the poem as application of the general truth of theory which is expressed by the aphorism, we find that all previous differentiation between poem and aphorism disappears. Conversely, the same applies to the seven aphorisms which are superimposed on drawings: they emerge as poems. For example, on the top of page 32, there is a colorful drawing of a bird's nest in the branch of a leafy tree; in the nest are several eggs; handwritten, again in black ink, across the drawing is this aphorism from Les Compagnons dans le jardin: “Le réel quelquefois désaltère l'espérance. C'est pourquoi contre toute attente l'espérance survit” (p. 32).

With the effacement of the stylistic distinction between poem and aphorism, attention to the drawings in Faute de sommeil, l'écorce … reveals that not one of the sketches is free from the written word; all of the remaining drawings which do not have writing superimposed on them are accompanied either by an aphoristic statement or a title.13 The drawing attracts attention first, then the words of the title or accompanying statement come into view. The first sketch in Faute de sommeil, l'écorce … (p. 19) is a red and black criss-crossing of lines; it portrays a dense thicket from which there is no relief except for a rosy globule on the left side. The accompanying statement is: “Sortir de l'Histoire se peut. En dynamitant ses souterrains. En ne lui laissant qu'un sentier pour aller.” The explanation of the drawing suddenly seems evident: the dark confusion created by plurality and contradiction can be cleared up through a refusal of historical linearity and a revolt against the condition of determinism through art. Such an interpretation would be consistent with Char's notions of pulverization and crispation. But in this case, the statement, which is a means of grasping the visual drawing, is not complete without the title of the illustration: “Bulle d'air dans l'étang: le poème.” The drawing is not a thicket, but a pond, and the dominant red and black coloration fades before the rosiness (hope and trace) of the poem—but this poem is not a poem in that it is not limited to verbal composition. On the contrary, it is the visual experience of the drawing in interaction with the written word which creates the poem. And, what is more, it is formless—beyond both the written word and its plastic representation.

There is an additional topographical curiosity in Faute de sommeil, l'écorce … which is germane to this discussion of the inner arrangement of the section. There are eight texts which are unaccompanied by illustrations and are written out in longhand: four poems and four aphorisms (to use a simple but no longer virtual distinction). These texts stand by themselves with the visual impact of a drawing, but it is only in retrospect, at the end of the volume, that this distinction between print and script emerges as a significant topographical and typographical characteristic.

The section entitled La Nuit talismanique qui brillait dans son cercle offers several striking contrasts to Faute de sommeil, l'écorce. … In the first place, the number of drawings greatly diminishes; there are a total of nine, seven in the first subsection and only two in the second. Moreover, only three of the nine are in color, as compared to 19 in color in Faute de sommeil, l'écorce. … Although each subsection begins and ends with an illustration, an arrangement which emphasizes somewhat the position of the drawings and underscores their importance, one is struck by the dominance of the printed word.

The first subsection contains one introductory prose text, “Dévalant la rocaille aux plantes écarlates,” and six additional texts, whose form is closer to the aphorism than to the prose poem composed in separate paragraphs. There is inner cohesion from one paragraph or entry to the next, just as there is in Moulin premier, Partage formel, and Rougeur des Matinaux. But unlike previous aphoristic groupings, the six texts of La Nuit I can be read without any point of reference, for even the titles are autonomous entities. To enter these texts is comparable to entering an art gallery; it does not matter which way one begins the tour, in which room or along which side of the wall; any direction will eventually yield the artistic experience. Of course, with the printed text, grammar forces one to follow a prescribed direction: left to right, top to bottom, for unlike a painting the written text reveals its details first and its whole second. But despite the fact that the texts of La Nuit I physically determine our first reading, we remain at the end without a composite whole of any one text. Each detail is in itself a whole, each paragraph is a painting, and each fragment is a complete island of the archipelago of visual experience.

The only statement which accompanies a drawing in either subsection is found in La Nuit I, and it succinctly summarizes the esthetic operation of these texts: “Entre l'exprimé et le décrit, j'offre la fleur de sauge” (p. 66). The illustration, “La Sauge des villages,” is a wax bas-relief of a salvia plant; each of the component parts of the flower is isolated as though it had been taken apart and laid out on a board or table in order to show its actual plurivalent nature. It is not a salvia plant in its usual state and is neither expressed nor described as such. It is evoked, and in its evocation it provokes the viewer into expression and description. The viewer even supplies the color, scarlet, for the bas-relief is reproduced in black and white. In this case, the illustration betrays the usual nature of painting; it does not give the whole first and then the details; rather, it presents the various parts and the whole comes afterwards, just as the printed text functions.

The same pattern occurs in the other six illustrations of La Nuit I. In these remaining drawings, the details strike the observer first, in direct opposition to the “wholeness” of the drawings of Faute de sommeil, l'écorce. … Even the final illustration of the subsection (p. 74) attracts the eye by its details; it is a face on a pebble which in turn is attached to a rock or piece of pipe; the face, particularly the eyes, is the first aspect seen, not the whole which sets the face in relief and gives it its rugged singularity. The reversal of the laws of perspective of plastic art are in turn reversed for those of the printed text.14 Hence, the six texts of La Nuit I should be regarded as paintings which are coming into being, as Char proclaims in the introductory text: “Soudain nous surprend l'ordre de halte et le signal d'obliquer. C'est l'ouvrage” (p. 57). A new direction is indeed indicated: “C'est le peu qui est réellement tout” (p. 62).

La Nuit II consists quite simply of 13 poems in free verse and prose and only two drawings. Here we seem to return in both texts and illustrations to the original distinctions between written and plastic art that precede the publication of La Nuit talismanique. It seems that Char has elected the printed word over plastic form; in a sense he has, in another sense there never was any “choice” to be made; but in his plastic venture, primarily in Faute de sommeil, l'écorce …, he retains the plastic experience that projects the printed form beyond the confines of the page. As Jean Starobinski notes, “la parole poétique cherche à transposer l'apparence visible en une nouvelle essence, puisque parler, nommer les choses tend à prolonger (sinon à achever) l'œuvre de sauvegarde qui dans le regard reste toujours inachevée et précaire.”15 Through “un peu,” a detail, a trace of the whole, Char abolishes all formal distinctions of expression by showing that cause and effect are synonyms—the effect of a painting or text on its viewer is the cause. As the talismanic night prepares for the morning experience of sunlight, the effect of dark is the cause of light and the cause of dark has the effect of light. In the same way, the final illustration in La Nuit II (p. 93) is a talisman which concretely demonstrates the convergence of plastic and written expression. On a jet black background there is a round white pebble on which there are some red tracings and eight small black spots. The cryptic appearance of the pebble immediately leads one to an attempt at decipherment. It is a sign (the title of the illustration is “Signe sur caillou”), but of what? It is silent, as is all matter, and yet one is compelled by its invitation to find a message. Its markings hint at a starry constellation in reverse, the pure essence of the stars being captured in the impurity of stone. Time and its human form, history, are non-existent; so is space; it is impossible to establish its temporal and spatial origins. It is there in its muteness as testimony to the poetic experience which unifies the celestial and the terrestrial: “La poésie qui va nue sur ses pieds de roseau, sur ses pieds de caillou, ne se laisse réduire nulle part.”16

But the volume, La Nuit talismanique, does not end with the mysterious pebble. There is an epigraph in longhand: “Hirondelle, active ménagère de la pointe des herbes, fouiller la rose, vois-tu, serait vanité des vanités” (p. 95). The abrupt reappearance of a text in script recalls the conjunction of text and illustration in Faute de sommeil, l'écorce … in the same way that the “Signe sur caillou” conjoins earth and sky. Type is machine-made and impersonal, while script is human and individual. Through a juxtaposition of illustration, print, italics, and script, Char safeguards and projects man's creative power of magic intervention in his world in order to “écouter le récit de ce qu'il voit” (p. 70). Secondly, the face on a pebble which in turn is on a piece of crystallized gypsum on the cover of the volume provides an additional ending to the work, an ending (effect) which is also the springboard (cause) for the experience of the volume.

A key to this work is found in the dual referentials of night and silence as preparation for speech or communication. As George Steiner observes, two means of transcendence “to make language commensurate with the manifold truths of the experienced world” by which the insensate speaks and man assumes “privileged singularity in the silence of creation” are light and music.17 Steiner goes on to name a third mode of transcendence in which language ceases and borders not on radiance and sound, but on night. This “election of silence” is what Char earlier visualizes in Les Compagnons dans le jardin: “Un poète doit laisser des traces de son passage, non des preuves. Seules les traces font rêver” (p. 84). In La Nuit talismanique, he demonstrates how the traces alone open the way to action: “Nos traces prennent langue” (p. 58). Silence is the anticipatory and necessary prelude to language: “La beauté naît du dialogue, de la rupture du silence et du regain de ce silence. Cette pierre qui t'appelle dans son passé est libre. Cela se lit aux lignes de sa bouche.”18 The mute stone in the first and last illustrations of La Nuit talismanique initiates the poetic dialogue which begins and ends in silence. It may indeed be seen as a talisman whose effect is its cause, whose magical powers enable man to become a poet and intervene in his world.

The pebble as illustration or text acts “comme un filtre qui s'interpose entre nous et la conscience rigide que nous avons du réel, pour que, la magie aboutie, nous soyons la Source aux yeux ouverts.”19 The return to the source of origin, silent matter, is a return to night. In the conversation between a painter (Braque) and a poet (Char), the role of night alone binds together the plastic and written approaches: “Je remonte simplement à leur nuit, à leur nudité premières. Je leur donne désir de lumière, curiosité d'ombre, avidité de construction. Ce qui importe, c'est de fonder un amour nouveau.”20 Night is the cradle of light, and without night light has no meaning. Light is dependent upon contrast with shadows, but night, unlike light, is autonomous: “La nuit ne succède qu'à elle” (p. 16). In contrast to day or light, night is endless, for it is neither limited by horizon, “toute lumière, comme toute limite” (p. 64), nor subject to time: “La lumière a un âge. La nuit n'en a pas” (p. 34). Hence, while light may take the form of a poem, night is beyond form and is poetry.

Char's very desire to insure the prestige of night and its adjunct silence leads him to find an “allié substantiel” in the seventeenth-century painter Georges de La Tour,21 and it is in La Tour's painting, “Le Prisonnier,” that Char clearly exalts silence in its transcendence of language: “Le Verbe de la femme donne naissance à l'inespéré mieux que n'importe quelle aurore. Reconnaissance à Georges de La Tour qui maîtrisa les ténèbres hitlériennes avec un dialogue d'êtres humains.”22 In the anthology, Choix de Poèmes, this painting is reproduced with the following comment by Char: “Cette image est la Poésie même et, mieux qu'aucun manifeste, elle dit.”23 The painting is of a woman, who, with a candle in one hand, is standing and speaking to a bearded unkempt prisoner, who, in contrast, is gaunt in appearance, half-clad, and seated on a stool. The unspoken (and unwritten) words are the ones which the poet hears: “des mots essentiels, des mots qui portent immédiatement secours.”24 Silence, “la signification qui ne s'évalue pas,”25 initiates dialogue, just as night goes towards action: “La couleur noire renferme l'impossible vivant. Son champ mental est le siège de tous les attendus, de tous les paroxysmes. Son prestige escorte les poètes et prépare les hommes d'action.”26

The unspoken dialogue of painting becomes a poetic structure which maintains the beneficence of night. As in the case of two earlier volumes,27 a personal crisis reverses the prestige of night and the poet turns to plastic expression: “Faute de sommeil, l'écorce … date d'un temps où la nuit qui m'avait tant servi se retira de moi … Je sus alors que la nuit … seule abreuve et irrigue, et pour m'assurer contre ce passage difficile, je rassemblai mes précaires outils” (p. 11). Not unlike the primitive man of the Lascaux grotto wall drawings, Char uses unsophisticated materials for plastic expression; he picks up what is more or less on hand, not an easel and palette, but ink, sealing wax, birch bark, feathers, knives, nails, blotters, and his drawings in appearance and texture reflect a primal quality. The dominant color is black—“couleur noire qui renferme l'impossible vivant”—black lends depth and solidarity to the illustrations, and the black script of texts in longhand, either superimposed on illustrations or set apart from them, commands the eye from page to page.

Hence, Char is not the poet of white space, but of black traces across the void. The illustration of the saffron sun (p. 44) which depicts an intensely orange-yellow circle against a background of the same color in a lighter hue is accompanied by a protest against light: “Beauté, est-il encore des mains discrètes pour dérober ton corps tiède à l'infection de ce charnier?” The pen and ink sketch of a black crow (p. 47) as the image of peace further metamorphosizes light into dark (“Corbeau s'exerçant à la paix des colombes”). Faute de sommeil, l'écorce … significantly ends with a text in black script, “Éros suspendu,” and the final phrase of this poem seems to evoke light: “au chant de ma trompette rouge” (p. 51). But this reference is not a contradiction. By the end of Faute de sommeil, l'écorce …, the restorative powers of night have been reconquered through the silent medium of plastic art.28

Thus, in the second half of the volume, La Nuit I and II, the number of illustrations dramatically decreases, as the poet sets aside his “précaires outils” and returns to the text. This return to the medium of the written word remains within the dual referentials of silence and beneficent night. Although the title of this section is La Nuit talismanique qui brillait dans son cercle, which reverses Faute de sommeil, l'écorce …, the title of the volume and of the first illustration (the cover) is La Nuit talismanique, a title which significantly contains no modifying clause which refers to light. Light is known only through night. Char's night, not his day, incarnates freedom (“La liberté naît, la nuit,” p. 59), innocence (“Nuit au corps sans arêtes, toi seule doit être encore innocentée,” p. 78), perseverance (“Riche de nuit je m'obstinais,” p. 89), and the vital element of poetic existence (“Êtreau-monde est une belle œuvre d'art qui plonge ses artisans dans la nuit,” p. 69). It is the silence of the ascendancy of night which is initial, rather than the rising of the morning sun: “Parole de soleil: ‘Signe ce que tu éclaires, non ce que tu assombris.’ Se saurait-il soleil?” (p. 70). Night protects against and prepares for the harshness of day: “Dans la nuit se tiennent nos apprentissages. … Fertile est la fraîcheur de cette gardienne!” (p. 15).

Char's election of silence and night is a recurrent pattern of esthetic practice with regard to his poetry as well as to the plastic arts. As he inverts form, dialogue, and light, he returns to “le cœur de l'éternel”29; it is not a matter of looking upward, of aspiring to the stars, but of looking downward, to earth, in order to negate space and time. The paintings of the caveman of Lascaux and Georges de La Tour reaffirm birth rather than propose completion: “Un autre âge se reconstitue tout autour, et sa plénitude est celle du premier jour, et son oeuvre, la première étincelle dans l'enfance du temps. L'avènement n'a pas de fin.”30

Char does not pretend to raise man to the celestial through some mythological celebration; on the contrary, he seeks our self-sufficiency. The last printed text in La Nuit talismanique is entitled “Sommeil aux Lupercales.” This Roman fertility rite in honor of the rural deity, Lupercus, was a rather licentious celebration, but the key word in the title of the poem, sommeil, indicates that man has no need to honor the gods, for he has the same powers over himself and his world as they are assumed to have. The final strength of the talismanic night is its conquest of determinism in all forms; creative power, the “divine” ability to intervene in the world, is the human privilege of art.

The “geste solitaire” which begins La Nuit talismanique becomes “solidaires,” as the singular je of Faute de sommeil, l'écorce … moves from the aridity of sand and insomnia to the fertile nous of spacelessness and restorative sleep: “Nous nous suffisions, sous le trait de feu de midi, à construire, à souffrir, à copartager, à écouter palpiter notre révolte, nous allons maintenant souffrir, mais souffrir en sursaut, fondre sur la fête et croire durable le succès de ce soulèvement, en dépit de sa rapide extinction” (pp. 92-93).

In one sense, La Nuit talismanique may be considered linear; there is a definite progression from je to nous, insomnia to sleep, isolation to fraternity, reprinted texts to original texts, night to day, artificial to natural light, predominance of illustration to predominance of printed text. However, such a point of view denies the inherent circularity of the volume. The geometrical figure of the circle is the primary shape in the illustrations as well as in the texts. It is to the round pebble of the cover that the reader-viewer returns at the end, and only by this return to the beginning do the illustration on the cover and the volume as a whole gain their full significance. Secondly, Char begins this work encircled by night which has lost its restorative power and is countered only by the small circular light of the “électricité haïssable” (p. 12); he moves to the circle of flame cast by a candle to the full circle of the sun at noon, “feu de midi” (p. 92), which is possible because night reasserts itself as a talisman whose primary attribute is to bring happiness. Moreover, the appearance of the final line of the volume in script recalls the dominance of script over type in Faute de sommeil, l'écorce.

Yet, implicit in the circularity of La Nuit talismanique is its quality of solidity. Char is often described in terms of aerianness, fugacity, and ephemeralness, but these characteristics of his work are structurally contingent upon his usage of terms of hardness, weight, and density, such as rock, mountain, earth, almond, coral, tree. These objects of opaque solidity are actually the base of his poetry, while the ephemeral ones are the summit, just as the efficaciousness of day and light is inextricably dependent upon the beneficence of night. In La Nuit talismanique, circle, opacity, and hardness come together and are visually objectified by the round, hard, dense stone. It might perhaps be argued that the Char image which fuses this base et sommet is dust: “Fils, cette nuit nos travaux de poussière / Seront visibles dans le ciel.”31 However, dust in Char's work ascends in its lightness from its hard and circular base, earth: “Voici que dans le vent brutal nos signes passagers trouvent sous l'humus, la réalité de ces poudreuses enjambées qui lèvent un printemps derrière elles” (La Nuit talismanique, p. 80).

The flash (éclair) which lights up the poet's traces endures through his magical talisman, the poem. These are the traces which “font rêver” in the same way as Hierle's portrait of Char's father transmits “dans le présent de son regard un rêve qui ne lui appartient pas mais dont nous sommes ensemble l'Écoutant” (p. 9). It is not a Proustian “lanterne magique” which lights up the fundamental unity of our reality, but a “buvard magique” (p. 67), which obscures in order that the viewer may listen to the unity he sees. Hence, “Le Serpent” (p. 36) becomes on the blotter a bird in flight. The portrait on the small hard stone on the cover of La Nuit talismanique immediately expresses the durable and solid fusion of man and nature, yet it is undeniably a work of art, a poem. But a poem which must go beyond its own form, just as the mysterious pebble of “Signe sur caillou” leads from earth to sky. To bring the poem and the painting into opposition is to pose the unity of poetry.

Notes

  1. Within Char's three major forms of poetic expression, namely the free verse poem, prose poem, and aphorism, there are considerable differences which further demonstrate the multitude and plenitude of his written form. For example, “Le Nu perdu” (Le Nu perdu, 1971, p. 31) is a short, one-paragraph text in prose, while “Nous avons” (La Parole en archipel, 1962, pp. 143-45), consists of 13 prose sentences, each one forming a separate paragraph so that at first glance the poem appears as a group of aphorisms. The opposite occurs when one first sees “Dans la marche,” which follows “Nous avons” in La Parole en archipel (pp. 146-47); the eight prose paragraphs of “Dans la marche” are aphorisms despite the asterisk division into three parts. The verse poems display a similar variety, from the formal metric patterns of La Sieste blanche (Les Matinaux, 1964, pp. 24-54) to the free verse forms of “Quatre fascinants” (La Parole en archipel, pp. 30-33) and the “calligramme” form of “Dansons aux Baronnies” (Le Nu perdu, p. 27).

  2. I have used the term “artist” to refer to any practitioner of plastic form.

  3. Char has written more on Braque than on any other painter, including Georges de La Tour. Moreover, Braque has illustrated more of Char's work than any other artist.

  4. Due to the number of Char's works which Miró has illustrated and because of the quantity of pages Char has written on him, Miró occupies second place among contemporary artists in Char's work.

  5. Other artists are Charbonnier, Domingo, Fernandez, Grenier, J. Hugo, Lam, Laurens, Reichak, de Silva, Staël, Zao Wou-ki. Some works were republished as special art editions and contain illustrations by artists such as Arp, Ernst, Léger, Sima, and Villon, but these are “ornamental” editions for collectors and friends rather than textual ones. There are also several collaborative works, such as Rêves d'encre (1945). In addition, P. A. Benoît has done the photography for some of Char's work. For an excellent sampling of Char's work as illustrated by others, see Exposition René Char (Paris: Fondation Maeght, 1971).

  6. René Char, La Nuit talismanique (Geneva: Albert Skira, 1972). All references are to this edition unless otherwise stated.

  7. In order to facilitate the discussion, I have used La Nuit I to refer to the first subdivision of the section entitled La Nuit talismanique qui brillait dans son cercle and La Nuit II to refer to the second subdivision.

  8. René Char, La Parole en archipel (Paris: Gallimard, 1962).

  9. Ibid. In the Table of Contents for La Nuit talismanique, only the four poems which are not accompanied by illustrations are listed as texts (“Table des matières,” p. 97); the rest are listed in the “Table des illustrations” (p. 98) as sketches. Such an editorial division, however, does not negate the fact that four other complete poems are republished in La Nuit talismanique.

  10. In counting the aphorisms, I have included the one on page 30, “Le céleste, le tué.” This phrase is used as an aphoristic statement and as part of the title of the sketch on that page; it is taken from “Lèvres incorrigibles,” Recherche de la base et du sommet (Paris: Gallimard, 1965), p. 54. The original sentence, which refers specifically to Braque's painting, “Nature morte au pigeon,” is “Demeure le céleste, le tué.”

  11. The original title of this text in Hommage à Georges Braque (Geneva: Engleberts, 1958) is “Aubépine”; in La Parole en archipel, it appears under the title, “Ligne de foi.”

  12. The sketch for “Obéissez à vos porcs …” is given its original textual title, “Contrevenir.” On the other hand, the textual title of “La Grille” is not restored to the title of the illustration.

  13. A possible exception to this format is found on the bottom of page 20, where the title of the design, “La Pirogue de fruits,” does not appear on the page itself.

  14. The immediacy of the laws of painting is stylistically captured by Char's verbal condensation and brevity. The texts of La Nuit I are particularly elliptical in the suppression of articles and use of the present tense.

  15. Jean Starobinski, L'Œil vivant (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), p. 15.

  16. René Char, XI Sur la poésie (Paris: Gallimard, 1958).

  17. George Steiner, Language and Silence (New York: Atheneum, 1970), pp. 33, 37, 39, 48.

  18. René Char, “Le Bulletin des Baux,” Fureur et mystère (Paris: Gallimard, 1962), p. 195.

  19. René Char, Flux de l'aimant (Paris: Gaston Puel, 1965), pp. 24-25.

  20. René Char, “Sous la verrière,” Recherche de la base et du sommet, p. 51.

  21. Georges de La Tour is first mentioned in Char's work during the war in IX, Partage formel (Fureur et mystère [Paris: Gallimard, 1962], p. 69), where La Tour is coupled with Heraclitus. It is interesting to note that the three artistic sources which Char consistently claims, namely Georges de La Tour, Heraclitus, and Arthur Rimbaud, are linked by a plastic vision. La Tour is the only one of the three who is a painter, but much has been written about Rimbaud's visual imagery (for a discussion of the impact of Rimbaud on Char, see my “The Role of Rimbaud in Char's Poetry,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association of America] 88 [1974]: 57-63). In the preface to Trois contemporains (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), Yves Battistini states: “Héraclite … voit ce qu'il pense: les mots, pour lui, vivent et sont aussi réels que des objets, ils en ont toutes les qualités sensibles” (p. 15); it was for the original edition of Battistini's translation of Heraclitus (Paris: Cahiers d'Art, 1948) that Char wrote “Héraclite d'Ephèse,” Recherche de la base et du sommet, pp. 90-2. Moreover, in Language and Silence, George Steiner credits Heraclitus as the first writer to elect silence (p. 48).

  22. René Char, 178, Feuillet d'Hypnos in Fureur et mystère, p. 139. It is important to note that the earliest illustration in La Nuit talismanique dates from 1944 and is entitled “La Lune d'Hypnos” (p. 57), a clear indication of a relationship between La Nuit talismanique and Char's wartime discovery of the expressivity of nonverbal forms. Certainly, Char was sensitive to plastic art prior to the war; his two earliest poems on painters, “Une Italienne de Corot” and “Courbet: Les Casseurs de cailloux” were published in Dehors la nuit est gouvernée (Paris: G. L. M., 1938), and his first prefaces to art catalogues also appeared before the war years. However, it is not until after 1945 that Char's interest in the plastic arts emerges as a major aspect of his poetics. Art bref (1950) is his first collection of prefaces to art catalogues, which were later grouped with other critically interpretative art commentaries in Alliés substantiels (Recherche de la base et du sommet, 1955 and 1965). His association with Georges Braque began in 1947 with La Conjuration, which along with Le Soleil des eaux (1949), Fête des arbres et du chasseur (1949), Claire (1949), L'Homme qui marchait dans un rayon de soleil (1949), and L'Abominable homme des neiges (1956) represent his experiments with “theater” and more visual forms of expression. During these same years, most of his works are accompanied by sketches, and he also begins to include his own designs; the works published between 1947 and 1960 are particularly rich in the drawings which accompany them.

  23. René Char, Choix de Poèmes (Mendoza, Argentina: D'Accurzio, 1953). La Tour's “Le Prisonnier” is also evoked in the subtitle, “L'Emmuré,” of “Gravité” (Fureur et mystère, pp. 56-7); this subtitle was not added to the text until it was moved from the 1938 Dehors la nuit est gouvernée edition to the 1945 volume of Seuls demeurent, that is, it is related to Char's wartime experience.

  24. René Char, 178, Feuillets d'Hypnos, p. 138.

  25. Char, 16, Feuillets d'Hypnos, p. 95.

  26. Char, 229, Feuillets d'Hypnos, p. 153.

  27. Dehors la nuit est gouvernée and Feuillets d'Hypnos.

  28. The eight poems and over one-third of the aphorisms in Faute de sommeil, l'écorce … are not original to La Nuit talismanique and most can be found in La Parole en archipel. On the other hand, all of the texts of La Nuit I and II are original, including the final epigraph in longhand, which is the only text in script which is original to this volume.

  29. René Char, “A la santé du serpent,” Fureur et mystère, p. 208.

  30. René Char, Flux de l'aimant, p. 11.

  31. René Char, “Courbet: Les Casseurs de cailloux,” Dehors la nuit est gouvernée. See also “Commune présence,” Le Marteau sans maître suivi de Moulin premier (Paris: José Corti, 1963), p. 146: “Essaime ta poussière / Nul ne décèlera votre union.”

Mary Ann Caws (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8843

SOURCE: Caws, Mary Ann. “Poetics and Morality.” In René Char, pp. 13-34. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

[In the following essay, Caws discusses expressions of morality in Char's poetry.]

I LIFE AND EARLY TEXT

In his preface to La Nuit talismanique (Talismanic Night) Char describes the psychological atmosphere of his childhood, presenting an unforgettable picture of his parents: “My father had courteous, shining eyes, good and never possessive. … My mother seemed to touch everything and to reach nothing, at once busy, indolent, and sure of herself. The strong lines of their contrasting natures clashed with each other, their intersection catching fire.” (La Nuit talismanique, p. 9)1 The ten year old saw his father returning more and more exhausted each evening from the family plaster factory: he died after a long illness, in which “a forest of oaks was burned in the fireplace.” From the powerful effect of this page, one gesture stands out: the father laying his hand on the boy's shoulder with a weight which seems to carry into the present. And in one portrait by Hierlé, the father's look seems to show a similar extension into the time of our reading: Char points out “in the present of his gaze a dream which is not his alone, but whose listener we are together” (NT [La Nuit talismanique], 9).

I shall sketch rapidly the few lines of Char's history which are essential, and of which each reader is himself a listener, together now with the poet. Then the poetry takes its own route with its own marked and unmarked points, according to an interior dynamics of its own, in the spirit of Char's definition:

Le poème est l'amour réalisé du désir demeuré désir.
The poem is the fulfilled love of desire as it remains desire.

(Sur la poésie, p. 10)2

For enthusiasts of biographical and geographical anecdote, there is no dearth of detail. For example, the poem “Jouvence des Névons” recounts the poet's childhood in a deserted village where the men are away at war. “The child, a stream, and a rebellious nature converge in one single being, modified according to the years. It shines and fades by turn, according to the event, on the horizon's steps” (Les Matinaux [The Matinals], 1st ed).3 Accompanying the scene, a cricket is still and yet all the more present for its stillness. The tone of that one poem could be considered characteristic of much of Char's writing, whether it deals with childhood, adolescence, manhood, or an advancing age: personal and vaguely mysterious, placed in a distant time and yet informing the moment of writing and all the subsequent moments of reading.

From the next period comes the collection Arsenal, of major importance for the understanding of the poet's future work. A copy of the collection was given to Eluard,4 whose enthusiasm caused him to present Char to the Surrealist group, with which Char was associated from 1930-1934, the period of Artine and the poems in Abondance viendra (Abundance Will Come), among others. From this arsenal, where sufficient weapons for all future skirmishes are stored, we might consider just the poem “Voici” (“Here Is”) as an example of the possible interior linking of life and text.

Voici l'écumeur de mémoire
Le vapeur des flaques mineures
Entouré de linges fumants
Etoile rose et rose blanche
O caresses savantes, ô lèvres inutiles!
Here is memory's plunderer
The mist of minor pools
Surrounded by steaming linen
Rose star and white rose
Oh knowing caresses, oh useless lips!

(Le Marteau sans maître [The Hammer with No Master], p. 30)5

If we compare this text with a far longer one from Le Tombeau des secrets (The Tomb of Secrets) (an early volume, some of whose few poems are taken up and revised in Arsenal), the difference is startling, seemingly indicative of a sharp reduction in sentimentality. This particular development will determine the course of much of Char's writing and of his life, in both of which the containing force of the personality prevents any prolonged lapse into self-pity or any tendency to shed lacrimae rerum either from nostalgia or from a lucid observation of the world around. As is true of Char's method in general—that “enlèvement-embellissement” or removing-in-order-to-beautify of which one could be tempted to say too much, thus ruining the point—the details of the original anecdote drop away, leaving only a condensed remainder, all the more forceful for the brevity of its trace.

Compare these lines from the longer, unpublished first version (twenty-three lines in all), called “Flexibilité de l'oubli” (“Flexibility of Forgetfulness”), which include the starting point for the poem quoted above:

Sans mille bras pour plonger dans les pores
Tâter le suc de la douleur
O souvenir aigu des soirs sans riposte
Sans le claquement d'un adieu
Chargé à blanc de repentir
Sans l'écumeur de mémoire
Avide de ce qu'il ne comprend pas
Vorace de ce qu'il redoute
Boule élastique ce coeur
Percé de flasques mamelles
Poches soudées sans espoir de déséquilibre
Les putains aux portes cochères
Eteignent leurs ombres
Se lancent leurs linges fumants
Etoile rose et rose blanche
Candélâbres en mains les étreignent
En caresses savantes
O lèvres inutiles
Without a thousand arms to dive into the pores
To try the sap of pain
Oh sharp memory of evenings with no retort
Without the slam of a farewell
Loaded with the blanks of repentance
Without the plunderer of memory
Avid for what he does not understand
Voracious for what he fears
Elastic ball this heart
Pierced with breasts aslack
Pockets soldered with no hope of unbalance
The whores at gateways
Extinguish their shadows
Hurl at one another their steaming linen
Rose star and white rose
Candlesticks in hand embrace them
With knowing caresses
Oh useless lips

As the poem continues, a dead woman's body appears at each ring of the doorbell: all these elements, the picturesque (girls squabbling), the sensual (caresses of meadows, of undergarments), and the sentimental (repentance, farewells, nostalgia in the evening) together with grotesque deformations (the rubber ball and the breasts) disappear to leave only the quintessence of the experience. The presentation, marked as such by the self-reflecting title: “Voici,” gives in fact only that which is sufficiently enduring as a résumé of the past moments: the knowing caresses are generalized beyond the grasp of their original donors, and the uselessness now stretches beyond the domain of the lips alone to imply, or so it would appear, the final futility of language itself.

Not just an example of textual condensation, this definitive alteration can also be seen as a model of the poetic and personal development Char manifests throughout his more than fifty years of poetic production. In each period the raw matter of the future text is observed, explored, and condensed.

Artine, a long prose poem on dream, and the densely beautiful prose poems of Abondance viendra date from Char's Surrealist period, when he was particularly close to Breton and to Eluard: the language of these poems somewhat resembles in image and tone many poems of other Surrealists, for instance, the violent refusal of commonplace diction, and the will to attack, which characterize even the title Le Marteau sans maître, relieved by an occasional lyric gentleness. Furthermore, the crystal transparency of Artine, who is also a river, and all the alchemical themes are familiar to the readers of Surrealism. Char's affection and companionship are deep, once he has chosen his friends, and it cannot have been easy for him to make a formal break with some of his Surrealist companions—but individual conscience and conscious individual work had finally to triumph, for him, over collective production, and commitment even over friendship. In a letter of 1963, he explains: “Because what we were seeking was not discoverable by many, because the life of the mind, a single-strand life, contrary to that of the heart, is only fascinated—in a poetic temptation—by an unapproachable object which shatters in fragments when, having overcome the distance, we are about to grasp it” (Recherche de la base et du sommet [Search for the Base and the Summit], p. 45).6

But the “common” or “shared” presence with other poets and other friends which is described in “Commune présence,” the final poem of Le Marteau sans maître, makes it clear that the new urgency is highly individual even though the concern is more general:

Tu es pressé d'écrire
Comme si tu étais en retard sur la vie
S'il en est ainsi fais cortège à tes sources
Hâte-toi
Hâte-toi de transmettre
Ta part de merveilleux de rébellion de bienfaisance
Effectivement tu es en retard sur la vie
La vie inexprimable
La seule en fin de compte à laquelle tu acceptes de t'unir
Celle qui t'est refusée chaque jour par les êtres et par les choses
Dont tu obtiens péniblement de-ci de-là quelques fragments décharnés
Au bout de combats sans merci
You are in a rush to write
As if you were of a slower pace than life
If this be so accompany your sources
Hasten
Hasten to transmit
Your portion of wonder rebellion good-will
In truth you are behind in life
Life inexpressible
The only one you accept at last to join with
Alone refused you every day by beings and by things
Whence you take laboriously here and there a few fleshless fragments
After implacable struggles

(MM [Le Marteau sans maître], 145)

Aware now of his individual task—the neighborly and collective venture of poetry—Char finds even in the center of this common presence, an uncommon singularity: the poet elected both by his peers and by the gods is not unaware of his election.7 The necessity of writing and of acting, the choice and the moral urgency combined can be said to involve the man as poet whose presence is unique as well as dominant.

Now the first part of the poem “Commune présence” begins with an illumination quite different from the hermetic and alchemical gleam of the earlier poems—included in Le Marteau sans maître for example, in Abondance viendra. The light is rather open than veiled; in fact, the sun appears as a messenger heralding the coming day: “Eclaireur comme tu surviens tard” (“Light-bearer how late you come”). This poem, with its sense of urgency of a mission felt and accepted, can be seen to play the same role for what we might call the first period of Char's poetic life as does the poem “A***,” written in 1953, for another period.

The “common presence” of the title indicates not only the now renewed present of the poet in the world, and the presence of the poet in the text he shares with us, into which the record of his life is intricately interwoven, but again the exterior companionship developing coextensively with the inner experience—as if, in fact, exterior and interior presence were to depend on each other. And yet as the poem ends, the reader is conscious that this common presence is not to be fully shared after all, that there will always remain a part of mystery: “Nul ne décelera votre union” (“None will divulge your union”). Suddenly the question arises as to what other sort of presence Char may have had in mind, what other union, whose outline we are only permitted to glimpse. This very strong sense of withdrawal is constant in Char's work, where reticence finally prevails over self-expression. As he phrases it elsewhere, the poem is the only refuge of privacy for his “too exposed face.” Thus a poetry opening onto a space common to all although set apart, closed to any facile gaze, may not reveal the secret “union” of the poet, while nevertheless taking its strength from that union.

II SHARED PRESENCE

A poet's moral position may often seem to bear little relation to his work. Discussions of commitment, of political attitude are of value only in specific cases and rarely insofar as concerns the text itself. It goes without saying, furthermore, that the critic's own position can unconsciously influence his attitude, try as he may to prevent any leakage between personal belief and professional analysis. From an outsider's point of view, the comments may thus invalidate themselves. For example, Michel Carrouges, a devout Catholic, author of one of the best books on Breton and Surrealism,8 was finally attacked by the Surrealists for venturing to speak of them before an audience of Catholic intellectuals: his “prejudice” may not seem obvious in his remarks, but the Surrealists' viewpoint is consistent with their theory. In general, I would heartily disagree with the narrow-minded position that would have only churchgoers speak of Claudel, only Marxists speak of Marx, and only practicing Surrealists speak of Surrealism—to say nothing of only French critics writing on French poets. In the writing on René Char, a greater openness than usual is felt. For example in the large volume devoted to him by Les Cahiers de L'Herne, the testimonies of his fellow résistants in the Vaucluse are found side by side with those of his fellow poets and writers, and an assortment of critics and students of his works, French and non-French,9 of widely differing attitudes.

Poetics is taken here in its widest sense, that of poiein, “to make,” so that the working out of a theory should be valid not just for the writing of poems but for living and acting in general. Much the same extension must be applied to all of Char's statements, which are at once directed toward an individual self—privileged because responsible—and a world of unique beings, themselves chosen by the simple choice they have made to read these formulations and to welcome this kind of poetics. Here, poetry is redefined:

Poésie, la vie future à l'intérieur de l'homme requalifié.
[Poetry, future life within requalified man.]

(SP [Sur la poésie], 10)

In Char's view, a poem is never intended as an ornament to living but is meant to function within its universe. In each successive volume, a few statements on poetry are gathered into a series, so that the definitions accumulate. Elsewhere, we have compared the style of these aphorisms to the éclats or flashes of a luminous whole, furnishing an uneven illumination. What is true of the successive groups of aphorisms on poetry we shall be discussing is true of all the series of brief statements making up what we think of as Char's poetics. Of this aphoristic form compared by Jean Starobinski to the Baudelairean Fusées, spurts of poetic prose,10 Char says that it is like a button suited to a buttonhole: if it fits, it fits exactly. Or that it is like an answer to an emptiness, individual each time; and finally, that it is like a tiny morsel of bread hardened in the pocket: it lasts, and it nourishes, if it responds exactly to the hunger one has. Somehow, the aphorisms in general seem to answer needs both poetic and moral; each statement made for poetics holds also for morality, hence the title of the present chapter.

The aesthetic judgments Char makes are usually in favor of a contemporary version of the golden mean, to be more closely identified with perfect measure than with puritanical restraint: he terms the process, as we have already seen, an aesthetic trimming (“enlèvement-embellissement”) and compares it to a gardener's task, or to that of a tree pruner. The branch removed permits the others a greater range; the limited number of sprigs on a plant augments their chances. Char's own work, as revealed in his manuscripts, makes this process clear and proves the aesthetic point. When reduced in number from their original profusion, the images lose their possibly “precious” tinge to take on a more necessary character. Writing becomes a moral work also, not merely in its message but in its difficult stylistic being.

The first statement of a consistent poetics appears in Moulin premier (First Mill), appended to Le Marteau sans maître, and so entitled perhaps because it is the first harvest of wheat which must then be processed into flour. It is noticeable that the image includes a human construction, whereas the previous Premières alluvions (First Alluvia) had not. Here in Moulin premier, even if under a different metaphor, the alluvia are gathered up once more, and the harvest yields grains of different sizes and usefulness. Of these, three, which can be extracted and compared, are of particular importance to us and should be considered before moving on to the complete series.

LXIII. We are sure that a poem functions when its formula is found to work, and this is so, in spite of the unknown quality of its dependencies.

LXV. That at any demand a poem can efficiently, as a whole as in fragments, throughout its course, be confirmed, that is, match its divagations, proves to me its ineffable reality. …

LXVI. That at any demand a poem must necessarily be proved implies for me the episodic moment of its reality.

So the poem must be seen as coherent: here we think of Char's later statements on the essential order of its parts, whatever their apparent freedom of disposition. Char will call this an “insurgent order.” How does the poem express itself—to the outside, or only to the inner vision? The successive statements answer this only half-rhetorical question by successive clarification and differentiation, since poem and poetics must adapt themselves, as surely as the poet himself, to circumstance. “You must be the man of rain and the child of fine weather” (MM, 140). It is a matter of knowing how to adjust.

In fact, Moulin premier opens with the lines of a long prose-like sentence with the typographical form of verse, on the subject of a “productive knowledge of the Real.” There we can discern the inexorable geological ordering of certain eccentric island-like formations which obscure the voluptuousness of love, and certain skeletons hinting at ancient epochs of species, geographically scattered, which explains the word play on “espaces/espèces.” The latter is reminiscent of other word plays such as the “sleep washing the placers” in the poem “Croesus” in the Poèmes militants of 1932: the original expression “placer” being at once the ore deposits in a stream (which explains the title figure, Croesus, whom we associate with gold) and the Spanish word for pleasure. Thus sleep is regarded as the bringer of riches and the purifier of carnal pleasures.

The serious point in this opening text is that the knowledge must be collectively satisfying; nevertheless, the text ends with the poet's individual invocation of light as the other member, with him, of a couple to be granted the experience of reality. This opening poem joins immediately with the first paragraph of the prose maxims which follow: “An inhabitant of globes. The childish ambition of the poet is to become a living being of space. Backward from his own destination” (MM, 123). This theme, already present in 1934, becomes, or remains, a major element in the subsequent works, wherein Char will compare himself to a meteor falling to earth, then reabsorbed in the atmosphere as a constellation, of Orion or of Orpheus returned to the heavens: the end of Le Nu perdu (Nakedness Lost) predicts the Orion poems of Aromates chasseurs11 for its texts are clearly arranged like the stars in that constellation. As a first step in the poetic operation, it is essential to accept, even to welcome, a certain fragmentation without permitting this separation of parts to destroy one's own personality. On the metaphoric level, the operation is clear: the invasion of space must be submitted to, as traditionally, the logical coherence of the personality can be invaded by moments of inspiration, as a considered series of acts can be penetrated by a spontaneous flash. For a visual equivalent, we might consider Hugo's celebrated image of the beggar's cloak riddled with holes, through which the stars shine. That is, against—or through—the fabric black like night, comes an intermittent illumination, all the more precious for its contrast with the obscure. Thus the regular is made valuable by the irregular, the constant by the inconstant, and dark by light, in a reversal of expectation closely related by its tone and its meaning to Mallarmé's themes of shipwreck, constellation, and poem. The image of the cloak with holes becomes rich or diamantine, as absence changes to presence, so that the metaphor of reversal has a material and a moral component. In Char's maxim, to “suffer” or permit an invasion such as that of space is to take an active role in one's own deconstruction and reconstruction, while, on the other hand, it is to oppose one's own destruction. Thus the initially active desire is altered to a passive acceptance before a final return to a strongly active mode with a warning attached. The dialectical development is manifest even in the grammar: ambition de devenir r subir r “se démanteler sans se détruire” (ambition to become r to suffer r to take oneself apart without destroying oneself).

If I have gone into such lengthy detail over one maxim, unambiguous in appearance, it is for at least two reasons. First, the systematic positive reevaluation of certain functions which might ordinarily be considered negative ones is characteristic of Char's way of seeing; and secondly, as stated above, the theme itself is stressed in Char's future work. A coherent center is implied within these statements in which, as Char points out in the next part of the maxims, “to impose itself all the more, logic takes on the traits of the absurd” (MM, 124).

On the formal level, appropriately, the seventy prose fragments of Moulin premier themselves resemble the taking apart of the self, the white of the page dividing the verbal matter into segments; the separate statements show up as black holes on a white page or then as partial illuminations against an emptiness. The reversal is akin to the one already suggested in affinity with the poetry of Mallarmé: a constellation interpreted one way or the other, page and sky, writing and stars.12 Elsewhere, we read: “La quantité de fragments me déchire” (“The quantity of fragments tears me apart”), and we cannot tell whether the poet or the poem is speaking. In either case this negative is more positive than it might seem.

“L'étincelle dépose” (“The spark deposits”). So reads one of the next fragments. The poet can declare martial law, if he so chooses, electrifying or magnetizing the fields of words, like Breton's and Soupault's Champs magnétiques (Magnetic Fields), as if sending to battle the warring partners, the opposition of substance and space, gleam and emptiness, the dark of ink and the white of the page, reflection and, most important, intuition, which wins out by arousing all the echoes and resonances possible, giving birth to all the possible forms of poetry. The referential background is particularly dense here, even more so than in the later statements on poetry. The “occult properties of phosphorus” and the opaque waters, the “transfusion of the sun” and the coffin's “fecundation,” various male and female images, all these betray the poet's fascination with alchemy, while the image of the phoenix nourished on cinders is related to the traditional fire burning the imagination: “the poet needs more to be ‘passionate’ than to be taught” (MM, 132).

Even after Char's Surrealist period, he will continue to prize the imagination above all else for its total grasp of what may seem only passing but which nevertheless conveys the eternal, as opposed to pedestrian reason and its prudence: “To the despair of reason, the poet never knows how to ‘return home …’” (MM, 133). He dwells often in the moment, as if it were an interior place, and the choice of that place over an external one is not without risk, not only of the miscomprehension of others, but also of his own disappointment. For the moment passes also with all other matter into the mill, to be prepared for the eventual nourishment of the poet and of his companions. Thus the image of the “poème pulvérisé,” the poem ground into powder for a future utilization.

III REFUSAL

In 1942, Char (“le capitaine Alexandre”) was in charge of the Resistance movement in the Basses-Alpes region in southern France. The records and the testimonies of this period reveal the intense courage of the men participating at once in the “furor and mystery” of the epoch, developing throughout a series of experiences often recounted.13 More significantly for us, the poet's wartime notebook, Feuillets d'Hypnos,14 describes the state of mind as well as of the surrounding universe, interior and exterior conditions. The tone is now and again bitter (“infernal duties”), quietly despairing (“We wander near well-rims from which the wells have been removed” [FM, Fureur et mystère, 110]), and vigorously determined (“Belong to the leap. Don't belong to the banquet, its epilogue” [FM, 138]).

Above all, the uncompromising nature of the man stands out, somewhat in the same vein as Breton's “Haughty Confession”: “Absolutely incapable of accepting the fate meted out to me … I am careful not to adapt my own existence to the derisive conditions of all existence here.15 Char's equally firm statements have a double resonance: “I shall write no poem of acquiescence” (FM, 114). The tone carries through to a later text, of a parallel brevity, called “Contrevenir” (“Contravening”): “Nous restons gens d'inclémence” (“We remain men for inclemency.”) (LM [Les Matinaux] 201). Whether it be the inclement weather of the maquis or the vicissitudes of a poet's life lived in large part against the current of the Parisian mainstream, the statement remains a true description of the poet himself: René Char, who claims even now the position of a marginal poet, found in the climate of the Resistance his definitive tone.

The poems of 1938 to 1944, grouped under the title, Seuls demeurent (There Remain Only …) already a title of monumental isolation, show a profound realization of what will from now on be seen as poetic morality. Initially this is developed against the background of a terrible experience suffered through: “On the ridge of our bitterness, the dawn of consciousness advances and lays down its silt” (FM, 19). Spain's tragedy too is part of the bitter acquisition of experience. “Punishment! Punishment!” As the sensibility of a whole generation is developed during these years, so is a companionship based on continuing collective struggle. “I've traveled to exhaustion” (FM, 45), explains Char in “Vivre avec de tels hommes” (“To Live With such Men”), and he speaks not just for his own wartime experience but for what was to come after. Just so, the ending of another prose poem—called by a title which seems to set us at some distance from an understanding of the text: “Ne s'entend pas” (“Unheard”)—applies to much of the future work: “No renunciation” (FM, 42). Such a tone chooses to annihilate, for the time it lasts, the line commonly thought to hold between text and life: this is not a literary statement, but rather, a moral declaration.

But the “Refusal Song” which marks the “Début du partisan,” or the beginning of a committed personality and action, sketches the outline of what appears to be a retreat from that common presence. “The poet has returned for a long span of years into the naught of the father. Do not call him, all you who love him. … He who worked suffering into bread is not visible in his glowing lethargy” (FM, 48). It is impossible to consider the maquis of the Resistance as only a place of political commitment, where necessary action is carried out. How not to see it also as an image of a necessary removal from the too open sight as in the passage already quoted: “You are, poem, the repository of darkness on my too exposed face.” Moreover, it forms a parallel to Char's conception of poetry itself. A place committed and yet apart, where action and concealment depend on one another and where the difficulty of the moment seems to strengthen the entire duration of the work: it would be hard to find a better definition of the poem as Char conceives of it. This is a privileged example of the exterior and interior geography to be discussed later.

As the “Refusal Song” ends, a collective performance is once more envisaged, at the instant of liberation: the poet calls again for a “shared presence,” stressing the term, lest we take it too lightly as a mere physical manifestation. From now on, creative privacy joins awareness of number; individual refusal and choice reinforce general commitment. The opinions of Char the partisan and of Char the poet are mutually strengthening.

Poetry consists of action, as Rimbaud said: it consists of judgment also, for poetry is neither to be bought nor facilitated. Among Char's comrades, all of them men destined to face inclemency, the poet, like his poem, endures at once “solitary and multiple,” keeping his margin about him and yet joining with others. His paradoxical temperament is apparent here as elsewhere, visible in substance and in style: “We are torn between the avidity of knowing and the despair of having known” (FM, 96). Or again, “Wed and do not wed your house” (FM, 94), a statement reminiscent of the tragic poem called “The Swift,” the bird who circles about the house and yet is not identified with it, in a flight mediating between the sky's freedom and the inner intimacy. He is felled, like the human heart, for even the least imprisoned among us may be a prisoner to something, if only to doubt: “Doubt is at the origin of all greatness. Historical injustice wears itself out trying not to mention it. That doubt is genius” (FM, 140). But here the poet is careful to distinguish between the genius of doubt and the weakness of uncertainty, which he defines as a wearing away of the senses. Doubt seems to imply for him strength and youth, whereas uncertainty is on the side of the jaded, of that which lingers too long.

And befitting that viewpoint on the importance of time, the best poem will be brief, as are the excerpts in this journal, for practical reasons which luckily coincide with stylistic ones. “I write briefly. I can scarcely absent myself for long.” Poetry is rapidity of perception—another lesson from Rimbaud—and a complete absence of that paralysis which overtakes the too self-conscious writer. “Poetry is, of all clear waters, the least likely to linger at the reflection of its bridges,” we read in A la santé du serpent (Here's to the Snake). The tone prepares such images as that of the meteor appearing in the “Météore du 13 août” (“Meteor of August 13”) and thereafter throughout Char's work. The path of the meteor has a brilliance and an ephemeral quality which makes it an appropriate representation, in its passing, of the poet's own version of his being: “La voie d'or du météore” (“The meteor's golden path”) can also be read, by a slight shift, as “la voix d'or” (“the golden voice”). The metaphors are of brightness and speed: “At the second when you appeared my heart had the whole sky to brighten it. It was noon by my poem” (FM, 202). Thus, in Feuillets d'Hypnos (Leaves of Hypnos), the poet observes, records, and preserves the “infinite faces of the living,” all the while protesting against injustice and capitulation. Political attitude and poetics are meant to merge. The stance taken is to be Char's most familiar one: obstinate, concerned, standing against a time of mediocrity.

In this period, Partage formel (Formal Division) is a deeply optimistic ars poetica (“The poet answers each crumbling of proofs by a volley of future” [FM, 78]), which balances Feuillets d'Hypnos, the journal of the embattled poet who writes only briefly, because he does not care to “absent himself” for long (FM, 94). In like manner, the inner and the outer works find no definite dividing line but rather a juncture. In René Char's unbending attention to the combined problems of poetics and morality, there dominates, from the beginning, his refusal of an easy renown: to claim a special monumental position because of one's past heroic acts would be as reprehensible as taking a facile road when the other, more arduous, is there for the choosing. The description attached in 1948 to the collection Fureur et mystère (Furor and Mystery) begins with the words “The poet, as we know, combines lack and excess, goal and past history. Whence the insolvency of his poems. He is in malediction, that is to say, he takes on perpetual and renascent perils, just as surely as he refuses, with his eyes open, what others accept with theirs closed: the profit of being a poet” (RBS [Recherche de la base et du sommet] 35). Poems, he continues, cannot exist without provocation, nor poets without watchfulness, both moral and aesthetic. “The poet is the part of a man stubbornly opposed to calculated projects.” He may not even consent to a poetic martyrdom, will not die necessarily “on the barricade chosen for him.”

The drastic metaphor must not blind us to the real position taken here, lest it be thought that we would situate René Char in one stance, reducing poetic ambiguity. This is a tricky point, and a sensitive one, which bears thinking about. For, reading Char's aphorisms, many of which have a lofty resonance, we might be tempted to consider the poet only in his heroic guise, for instance, in the position of a man tied to his past, filled now with exactly the same fury and searching for exactly the same mystery as formerly, devoted to exactly the same combination of the two: we might thus take the Fureur and the Mystère to be eternal entities, in eternally lasting proportions. Witness a critic writing on Char's aphoristic style recently: he lamented the poet's attachment to his past at the price of his present.16 Which is to say that he disregarded—or then found that Char disregarded—the other half of the maxim just quoted about the poet who combines his past with his future goal. We must, of course, permit René Char, insofar as he wishes it, to give the precise weight he chooses to his wartime past. The effect on him was great and the memory has proved ineradicable. Having to abandon all nuance, every shade of hesitation in the face of an actual decision, this necessity changed him forever: “… I want never to forget that I was forced to become—for how long?—a monster of justice and of intolerance, a simplifier, shut off and enclosed, an arctic personage without interest in the fate of anyone who isn't leagued with him to down the dogs of hell” (RBS, 10). But then, afterward, the other seasons replaced that limit-situation, that crisis which, while unforgettable, was not to be resurrected.

“After the conflagration, we believe in effacing its marks, walling up the labyrinth. An exceptional climate cannot be prolonged” (RBS, 15). When Char refused to testify at the trials of war criminals, he proved himself to have mastered that “generosity in spite of oneself” (RBS, 14) that he wanted to acquire. And here he gives us the example of a friend who, the evening after returning from two years in a concentration camp, preferred walking quietly with his dog to denouncing the man who had reported him. This man is plainly one of the few beings the poet would always choose to accompany him, among his multitude of friends, present and absent. And this statement, written as a “Note to Francis Curel,” is of such capital importance for Char's moral position—toward poetry as toward life—that we include it in its entirety here. He considers it, in fact, to be “the most complete statement and comment” upon his poetry, and calls it a letter “in which I have defined, at a crucial moment of my existence, my relation to action, to society, and above all, to poetry, a text furthermore addressed to a man who accompanied my youth, and who survived many years in a German concentration camp” (Letter to author, October 23, 1975).

NOTE TO FRANCIS CUREL (1958)

In the months which followed the Liberation, I tried to put some order into my ways of seeing and feeling which—against my will—a little blood had spotted, and I strove to separate the ashes from the hearthstone of my heart. Like the Ascian, I sought the shade and reinstated that memory which was anterior to me. Refusal to sit in the Court of Justice, to accuse my fellow man in the daily dialogue as it was resumed, a reaffirmed decision to oppose lucidity to well-being, a natural state to honors, those evil mushrooms proliferating in the crevices of drought and in corners tainted after the first spattering of rain. The man who has known and dealt violent death detests the agony of the prisoner. Better by far a certain depth of earth, fallen in the fray. Action, in its preliminaries and its consequences, had taught me that innocence can, mysteriously, pierce through almost everywhere: innocence deluded, innocence unknowing by definition. I am not holding out these attitudes as exemplary. I was simply afraid of being mistaken. Yesterday's fanatics, those creators of a new type of “continuous murderer,” still nauseated me beyond all possibility of punishment. I envisaged only one use for the atomic bomb: eliminating all those, judiciously assembled, who had joined in the exercise of terror, in the application of Nada. Instead, a trial17 and a disturbing qualifier in the texts of repression: genocide. You know all this, having lived for two years behind the barbed wire of Linz, imagining all day long your body scattered into dust; on the evening of your return among us, you chose to walk in the fields of your countryside, with your dog at your heels, rather than answer the summons from the magistrate wanting to expose to your sight the excrement who had denounced you. To excuse yourself, you said this strange thing: “Because I am not dead, he doesn't exist.” In truth, I only know one law which befits the purpose it assigns itself: martial law in the instant of adversity. In spite of your emaciated and other-worldly appearance, you are willing to agree with me. Generosity in spite of oneself, that was our secret wish, measured by the exact timekeeper of our conscience.

There is a meshing of circumstances which must be intercepted at whatever cost: we must practice a cheerless clairvoyance before it becomes the underhanded consequence of impure alliances and compromise. If in 1944 we had, as a general rule, punished rigorously, we would not blush at meeting every day those dishonored beings, ironic wretches not in the slightest discomfited, while a colorless crowd fills the prisons. Someone may object that the nature of the misdeed has changed, since a merely political frontier always lets evil slip by. But we cannot revive the dead whose tortured bodies were reduced to mud. The man shot by the occupant and his helpers will not awaken in the land next to the one where his head was blown to bits. The truth is that compromise with duplicity has been considerably reinforced among the governing class. Those barnacles are laying in provisions. Does the enigma of tomorrow call for so many precautions? We do not think so. But take care lest the pardoned, those who had chosen to side with crime, should become our tormentors once more, thanks to our levity and a culpable oblivion. They would find a way, over time, to slip Hitlerism into a tradition, to make it legitimate, agreeable even!

After the conflagration, we believe in effacing its marks, in walling up the labyrinth. An exceptional climate cannot be prolonged. After the conflagration, we believe in effacing its marks, walling up the labyrinth, and renewing the sense of civic responsibility. The strategists are not in favor of that. The strategists are the scourge of this world, its evil-smelling breath. In order to foresee, to act, and to correct, they need an arsenal which, lined up, would stretch several times around the globe. Prosecuting the past and securing full power for the future are their sole preoccupations. They are the doctors of agony, the boll-weevils of birth and death. They call science of History the warped conscience permitting them to decimate the joy of a forest in order to set up a subtle work camp, projecting the darkness of their chaos as if it were the light of Knowledge. They will new crops of enemies to rise before them, lest their scythe rust and their enterprising intelligence become paralyzed. Deliberately they exaggerate the fault and underestimate the crime. They destroy harmless opinions and replace them with implacable rules. They accuse the mind of their fellow man of sheltering a cancer analogous to the one they harbor in the vanity of their hearts. They are the whitewashers of putrefaction. Such are the strategists who keep watch in the camps and manipulate the mysterious levers of our lives.

The sight of a bunch of little animals demanding the slaughter of a prey they had not hunted, the consuming artifice of a macabre demagogy, the occasional imitation by our men of the enemy's mentality in his comfortable moments, all that led me to reflect. Premeditation was transmitted. Salvation—how precarious!—seemed to lie only in the feeling of supposed good and outdistanced evil. I then moved up a notch in order to mark the distinctions clearly.

For my lack of enthusiasm in vengeance, a sort of warm frenzy was substituted, that of not losing one essential minute, of giving its full value, at once, to the prodigy of human life in all its relativity. Yes, to restore to their natural fall the thousands of streams that refresh men, dissipating their fever. I wandered untiringly on the edges of this belief, I rediscovered little by little the duration of things, I bettered my seasons imperceptibly, I dominated my just gall, I became daily once again.

I did not forget the crushed visage of the martyrs whose look led me to the Dictator and his Council, his outgrowths and their sequel. Always Him, always them, united in their lie and the cadence of their salvoes! Next came some unpardonable wretches whom we should have afflicted in their exile, resolutely, since the shameful luck of the game had smiled at them. Justice invariably loses out, given the conjunction of circumstances.

When a few sectarian spirits proclaim their infallibility, subjugating the greater number and hitching it to their own destiny to perfect the latter, the Pythia is condemned to disappear. Thus do great misfortunes begin. Our tissues scarcely hold. We live on the slope of a mortal inversion, that of matter complicated infinitely to the detriment of a savoir-vivre, or a natural behavior, both monstrously simplified. The wood of the bush contains little heat, and the bush is chopped down. How preferable an active patience would be! Our own role is to have an influence such that the vein of freshness and of fertility may not be turned away from its land toward the definitive abyss. It is not incompatible, in the same instant, to resume one's relation to beauty, to suffer in oneself, and to be struck, to return the blows and to vanish.

One who possesses some human experience, who has chosen to side with the essential, to the extreme, at least once in his life, is occasionally inclined to express himself in terms borrowed from a teaching of legitimate defense and of self-preservation. His diligence, his distrust are relaxed with difficulty, even when his discretion or his own weakness makes him disapprove this unpleasant leaning. Is it known that beyond his fear and his concern, he aspires to an unseemly vacation for his soul?

So Char returned to peacetime existence, readjusting to a daily cycle, understanding its worth: like the narrator in the prose poem “L'Inoffensif” (“The Inoffensive One”), he learned to control his righteous indignation and to accept the turning of the seasons and the change they inevitably bring, as opposed to the one single moment of crisis. Here we think of the harvest poem, “Redonnez-leur …” (“Restore To Them …”), at once a poem of the tragic acceptance of failure and of a sure triumph. “I bettered my seasons”: the cycle assures continuity and a profound awareness.

IV THE MOUNTAIN

Char is, with a few others, one of those who have “chosen the essential, to the extreme …” (RBS, 17). That expression conveys his deepest sense of morality, manifest in his style. Even the terms “essential” and “extreme,” chosen rather than some diluting formula such as “in some measure” or “often,” reveal Char's absolute and unequivocal, unmodified position. As for the metaphors of morality, he speaks usually of mountains, of climbing and rigor, of the ascent in self-denial necessary to an eventual perspective from the peaks. There is a strong correlation between the elevated sparseness of the setting—the upland bareness so often recurring, particularly in Le Nu perdu18—and this moral refusal of facile accumulation so that the poor and dry land is made equivalent to a rigorous self-discipline. As the climber divests himself of all his heavy belongings before the final ascent, so the poet is seen to have, or at least to acquire, the nature of an ascetic as well as that of a lover of the earth.

The balance of sparse and abundant, of dry and flowing texts, is quite as marked as that between darker and lighter shades, as, for instance, in La Nuit talismanique (Talismanic Night), where the talismanic notion suggests no less mystery than the obscurity of night itself, as opposed to, or rather complementary to, the idea of Les Matinaux (The Matinals) in all its illumination and in its hope of an always new beginning. At last, the moral fervor itself is sufficient to do away with even the metaphors privileged to describe it. Speaking of the volume that includes most of this prose and of its title, which is at the basis of the present discussion—Recherche de la base et du sommet (Search for the Base and the Summit)—Char explains: “Base and summit, provided that men bestir themselves and diverge, crumble rapidly. But there is the tension of the search. …” Now that tension and that search, in their unceasing moral concern, are sensed as the essential elements in the metaphor, and, as we have seen, Char opts for those elements in their most extreme form. Even the metaphor of the mountain parallels the concern and the extreme choice and reinforces their effect. We shall see its profile rising throughout Char's work, standing out literally against the sky of the Vaucluse, but also figuratively, in the effort and in the bareness sought, in the space of a life and of a work.

V INVOLVEMENT

“I am concerned about what is accomplished on this earth, in the laziness of its nights, under its sun we have forsaken” (RBS, 8). As opposed to history, which “ruins our existence with its veils,” the poet chooses the most active contemporaneity. Char in fact appears to identify poetry with presence itself. Thus the duty of the poet is more human than sublime, more present than transcendental: “The poet has no mission; on the whole, he has a task. I have never proposed to build up anything which, once the euphoria had passed, was likely to crash” (RBS, 152).

Which is certainly not to say that poetry operates in forgetfulness of the past. Many texts deal with events of the moment and are meant to consecrate them to memory: for example, such poems as “Par la bouche de l'engoulevent” (“Through the Mouth of the Whippoorwill”): “Children who riddled with olives the sun sunken in the wood of the sea, children, oh wheaten fronds, the foreigner turns away from you, from your martyred blood, turns away from this water too pure, children with eyes of silt, children who made the salt sing in your hearing, how can we resign ourselves to no longer being dazzled by your friendship?” (FM, 44). Or again, the poem “L'Eclairage du pénitencier” (“Lighting of the Penitentiary” [FM, 46]) or, in particular, “Le Bouge de l'historien” (“The Hovel of the Historian”), whose titles are significant in relation to our discussion about the past and remind us of “L'Historienne” in Le Marteau sans maître. The latter poem reads in part: “The pyramid of martyrs obsesses the earth. … Last, in order to love still more what your hands of former days had only brushed lightly under the olive tree too young” (FM, 47). The effect of many of these poems, where the poet's indignation at injustice is combined with a gentle lyricism, is based on certain recurring patterns such as “water too pure,” “olive tree too young”: these elements too extreme, untouched as yet by suffering, therefore innocent as to the ways of grief—the opposite of the furrowed valley of suffering—make up a typical setting in which innocence is threatened and finally defeated. “Mirror of the mureno! / Mirror of yellow fever! Manure of a flat fire held out by the enemy!” (FM, 47). The violence of Char's language is also evident throughout these poems, as in his moral condemnations of an epoch, seen in “Mirage des Aiguilles” (“Mirage of the Peaks”):

They take for clarity the jaundiced laughter of shadows. They weigh in their hands death's remains and exclaim: “This is not for us.” No precious viaticum embellishes the mouth of their uncoiled snakes. Their wife betrays them, their children rob them, their friends mock them. They see none of it, through hatred of darkness. Does creation's diamond cast oblique fires? Quickly a decoy to shroud it. They thrust in their oven, they place in the smooth dough of their bread just a small pinch of wheaten despair. They have settled and they prosper in the cradle of a sea where glaciers have been mastered. Be warned.

(NP [Le Nu perdu], 17)

The language stands out sharply against that of the lighter poems, for instance, those of Les Matinaux, which are traced by only a slight rosy wound, a tinge of suffering, whereas these more violent poems permit no nuance.

The fervent belief in poetry as a moral stance lends a special significance to the tone of Char's poems and to his poetics—whose general outline only we have sketched so far and to which we shall return in the following pages. Few writers have taken greater care to situate their attitude in relation to moral matters: it is perhaps in this care above all that his importance for the majority of readers lies. Char speaks for the poet in general, whose moral purpose we might come to share.

Notes

  1. NT—La Nuit talismanique.

  2. SP—Sur la poésie.

  3. LM—Les Matinaux. Annotation in Doucet library.

  4. A—Arsenal.

  5. In the Fonds René Char-Yvonne Zervos of the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet. MM—Le Marteau sans maître.

  6. RBS—Recherche de la base et du sommet.

  7. As Hölderlin puts it, the gods choose to hurl their lightning toward the being they privilege. See the later discussions on Hölderlin and the gods' election of the poet, in chapter 2 and passim. The information on Hölderlin comes principally from Friedrich Hölderlin, Poems and Fragments (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967), ed. and tr. Michael Hamburger.

  8. Michel Carrouges, André Breton et les données fondamentales du surréalisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1950).

  9. Cahiers de l'Herne, no. René Char, 1971. For instance, among the most valuable and touching comments are those by William Carlos Williams, who also contributes a poem.

  10. Jean Starobinski, “René Char et la définition du poème,” Courrier du Centre International d'Etudes poétiques, 66, Maison Internationale de la poésie, Brussels. Reprinted as the preface to Ritorno sopramonte, Vittorio Sereni's translations of Char's poems under the title Retour amont (Lo Specchio: Mondadori, 1973).

  11. AC—Aromates chasseurs. (Not yet translated.)

  12. In The Presence of René Char we discussed at some length the transposition of Char's “Parole en archipel” (“word as archipelago”) to its reverse image in the nighttime sky.

  13. FM—Fureur et mystère. Originally the title of this volume, perhaps Char's best-known work, was to be translated as Rage and Mystery, but it was decided, by the poet, that fureur has more properly the sense of fury or of furor.

  14. Translated as Leaves of Hypnos by Jackson Matthews in Hypnos Waking (New York: Random House, 1956).

  15. André Breton, Les Pas perdus (Paris: Gallimard, 1924), pp. 7-8.

  16. Pierre de Missac, “Situation de l'aphorisme,” Critique, no. 323 (April, 1974).

  17. The Nuremberg trials. The extent of the crime renders the crime unthinkable, but its science perceptible. To evaluate it is to admit the hypothesis of the criminal's irresponsibility. Yet any man, fortuitously or not, can be hanged. This equality is intolerable. [René Char's footnote.] (RBS, 13-18)

  18. NP—Le Nu perdu.

Mary Ann Caws (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9783

SOURCE: Caws, Mary Ann. “From Fury to Recollection.” In René Char, pp. 35-57. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

[In the following essay, Caws traces relationships between life experience and literary expression in the works of Char.]

I MATINAL LIGHT

Throughout the course of Char's work, the poet's personal involvements find their texts, grave or joyous, quiet in tone or more ringing, as reflections of his own moral commitment: they mirror the changing perception of the work undertaken, are determined or depressed, according to the mood of the speaker. Of his Resistance poems—“resistance” taken in all its senses—Char says:

“Il te fut prêté de dire une fois … les chants matinaux de la rébellion. Métal rallumé sans cesse de ton chagrin, ils me parvenaient humides d'inclémence et d'amour.

Once it was granted to you to recount the matinal songs of rebellion. Metal ceaselessly relit from your sorrow, they came to me damp with inclemency and love.

(AC [Aromates Chasseurs], 43)

As for later “events”—those occurrences supposed to be marked in capital letters in one's life and in one's biography—after 1944 and the end of wartime, their external profile would have to include Char's reactions to the postwar political trials1 and his praise of the Resistants, his friendship with poets and philosophers and artists,2 his defense of various positions concerning natural preservation,—all of which are consistent with his general outlook of a “marginal” thinker. As an example in his later years, he has participated in, and led, a movement whose focus was both political and ecological, protesting atomic installations on the plain of Albion in the Vaucluse (see “La Provence Point Oméga”) and endeavoring in general to save whatever sites mark a rich heritage.

This is perhaps after all the point: that a poet's protests and involvement count for all of us, that his considered and passionate positions matter for the vigor of their intention, in spite of their local interest and their apparent practical “uselessness.” In the long run, the fact that old Catharist sites like Thouzon are vandalized or that trucks can literally carry away the stones forming the old bories—those prehistoric stone dwellings found on the land near the poet's home—represents a larger concern.

René Char himself mentions a dividing line in his life at the moment when he was forced to kill another human, becoming “a monster of justice and intolerance, a simplifier …” (RBS [Recherche de la base et du sommet] 10). The fury of those years is unforgettable, even if the poet refuses all acts of revenge, and it lies unceasingly at the heart of all his perception in the same way as the “absent brother” in the poem of the same name resides like a crucible burning “at the center of unity.” Impatience is frequently sensed in the man as in the writing: to what extent it originates in the war experience we would not hazard a guess. But the incontrovertible evidence remains, in the text as in the life: an extreme tenderness alternates with irritation, a tragic and benevolent perception is balanced by anger. The inner outline and the outer continue to correspond.

A. ROUGEUR DES MATINAUX (REDNESS OF MATINALS)

Now Char takes up again the image of the meteor, glimpsed this time in a negative light: “I have fallen from my brilliance …” (LM [Les Matinaux], 81). Or perhaps it is simply that the dawn's redness has subsided. Nevertheless, in spite of such moments (which he refers to elsewhere as the “low cycle”), the characteristics of Char's meteor remain unchanged: first, its intensity with its accompanying mystery. “Intensity is silent. Its image is not. (I am fond of what dazzles me, then accentuates the obscurity inside me)” (LM, 76). Here we think of Tristan Tzara's statement of 1917, in a “Note on Poetry”: “Obscurity is productive if it is a light so white and pure that our neighbors are blinded by it.”3 And second, even more important, the uncompromising uniqueness of the passage in which each profile is preserved as distinct from all others: Char warns us again against a too great resembling, grouping our uniqueness with the crowd's similarity: “Wisdom is not to conglomerate, but, in the creation and the nature common to us, to find our number, our reciprocity, our differences, our passage, our truth, and this bit of despair which is its goad and its moving mist” (LM, 76). We might compare the image of the mountain peaks, separate in the morning crimson, with the poet's acerbic statements against a town in which the least folds have been smoothed out, and all citizens conform. In such a “ville sans plis,” only a coward would choose to live. (See also the poem “Mirage des aiguilles,” in which Char attacks the idea of a civilization free of enigma, where even the snakes lose their mysterious coils.) The meteor—or “the cock's enemy”—remains mysterious; a useful mystery, as Valéry might say.4

B. LA BIBLIOTHèQUE EST EN FEU (THE LIBRARY IS AFIRE)

The poet wills himself sufficiently alone to preserve his space, his freedom, and his passage: he should leave traces of his passing, Char says, but no proofs. The insistence on the obscure remains constant. “Free birds do not permit us to observe them,” he remarks, and, in another text bearing witness to the same spirit: “Birds do not sing in a bush of questions.” Poets leave a margin about them, that demanded by Hölderlin's Empedocles who dismisses Pausanias, by Rimbaud as he “requires everything of us,” and even that we take leave of him (“Tu as bien fait de partir, Arthur Rimbaud”; “You did well to leave”), and by Gide, dismissing his reader (“Et maintenant, Nathanaël, jette mon livre”; “And now, Nathaniel, cast my book away”). It is finally of all of us that the poet will require this necessary distance.

From meteor to constellation, the solitariness of the poetic work persists as essential. Here we read a statement which will recur in the series of poetic aphorisms called Sur la poésie (On Poetry). “The constellation of the Solitary is taut” ([JG], LM, 146). The image of the constellation is that of the poet, singular in his setting and yet collective, an object of general perception and nevertheless unique, solitary like a diamond, or like a star, even when extended against the heavens. We think of the constellation of the hunter Orion as we see it first suggested in the poem “Seuil” (“Threshold”)—“I have run to the outcome of this diluvian night. Standing firm in the quavering daybreak, my belt full of seasons … [JG]” (where the belt of Orion might be seen) and then, less obviously, in La Nuit talismanique.

The same vision links the poems of the recent Aromates chasseurs, where the myth of Orion blinded by Diana (as in Poussin's famous canvas, Orion aveuglé) and turned to a constellation, forms the background, and occasionally the foreground, for the entire work. A meteor and the king of the bees, Orion (in “Réception d'Orion”) makes his honey of the earth and then ascends once more to the heavens, so that the myth of blinding and radiance, or descent and ascent, merges with the celestial and mysterious figure of the meteor and the useful animal presence of the bee, whose buzzing is felt here in a poem of the morning, intense and strident like a red color.

Equal attention is given to the actual art of writing. A meditation on the advantages of error, of ambiguity, leads to a eulogy of multiplicity: for the greatest diversity of interpretation depends on an initial imprecision, which poetry will not try to eliminate. And then, on the other side of the paradox, Char insists that his work is one of precision, of the point and the prow: his intricate, often ambiguous, and yet essentially clear poetry confirms this. Once the library of ancient works is set afire, as in the title, we can start over in our recreation of literature, as in our re-reading it.

C. LE NU PERDU (NAKEDNESS LOST)

The first text of poetic aphorisms in this volume opens with space or pause like that suggested in its title “Pause au château cloaque,” with another consideration of time, a fascination at the very heart of the volume, which treats returning upland as a temporal climb, in which the past unobtrusively supports us. The determination to throw off useless baggage which might weigh us down for our final climb toward bareness does not entail the absolute exclusion of memory; it only insists on jettisoning a useless nostalgia: “The past would retard the blossoming of the present if our eroded memories did not sleep there ceaselessly. We turn back to one while the other has a fresh spurt of energy before leaping on us” (NP [Le Nu perdu], 22). The climb is clearly marked, even in this pause near the beginning: “Race. First mountain pass: clay weathered away” (NP, 22). Others have been here before, using up the earth, on this rise which is also interior for each of us. We remember Char's frequent descriptions of the poet as mountain climber, to whom there is granted an exceptionally aggressive breathing. The ascent leads finally to the tomb dug in the air, that “dry house” built again, further up, like the dwelling constructed further upstream in “Recours au ruisseau.” The profound series called “Lenteur de l'avenir” (“Slowness of the Future”) begins with a climb characterized as both mental and physical by its juxtaposition of nouns: “You have to scale many dogmas and a mountain of ice.” Next, verbs of triumphant action: “I have demolished the last wall,” echoed a few poems later by the definitive motion out of the confines of a dwelling: “Without ceremony, I step across this walled-up world” (NP, 46), and concludes with another statement concerning the three ages of past, present, and future, arranged vertically: “Our terrestrial figure is only the second third of a continuous pursuit, a point, upland” (NP, 38). The climb represented by the retour amont is slow, lasting a lifetime. But at the lookout points along the way—these pauses like the “Pause au château cloaque”—the bare upland is seen as illuminated: “amont éclate” (“upland breaks forth”). In his notes to the Italian version of the volume, Ritorno sopramonte, Vittorio Sereni comments that a reddish brightness is always seen above the peaks toward which the movement leads. He reminds us of Char's expression: “un brisant de rougeur” (“a breaker of redness”), a presence of light which is, in fact, felt throughout the darkest of visions.

The climb which the poetry represents is not intended only for the poet alone, and not only for one season; it takes place, no matter what the conditions (“we remain men for inclemency”): “Where shall we spend our days at present? … Let us stay in the quarried rain and join to it our breathing” (NP, 51). The aggressive respiration of the mountain climber joins the animal breathing of those continually exposed to downpour, snow, and sun: “we shall hold together under the storm become forever familiar” (NP, 51). Sereni points out a passage in which the poet identifies himself with the plant and animal life in answer to the alienation of contemporary affections. “Aliénés” begins: “From the shadow where we were …” (NP, 110). Thus in the following poem whose title we have already commented upon, “Buveuse” (“Drinker”), the plant absorbing endless water is allied also to the poet who has been discouraged with the devastation of nature by the warlike installations of men: “why should we still liberate the words of the future of the self now that every speech soaring upward is the mouth of a yammering rocket, now that the heart of every breathing thing is a stinking cascade?” (NP, 53).

In “Le Terme épars” (“The Scattered Term”), each of whose flashes is brief or sparse, Char reminds himself, and us, of our commitment to generosity and forgiving, on this upward path which is also that of the mind: “Give always more than you can take back. And forget. Such is the sacred path” (NP, 55). “The evening frees itself from the hammer, man stays chained to his heart” (NP, 55). Compare another text from Le Nu perdu: “Generosity is a facile prey. Nothing is more frequently attacked, confused, defamed. Generosity creates our future executioners, our retrenchments, dreams written in chalk, but also the warmth which receives once and gives twice” (NP, 91). The text ends on a streak of red light in the distance, representing the future, a silence free from our present doubt and misgivings as they are tied to our words: “How uncurious truth would be bloodless if there were not this breaker of redness in the distance where the doubt and the saying of the present are not engraved. We advance, abandoning all speech in promising ourselves that sight” (NP, 56). The profound silence is, like the space the poet demands about him, a denial of everyday triviality at the final height. Significantly, the next series of fusées has to do with both silence and motion: “we would have only liked to answer mute questions, preparations for movement” (NP, 58). In the title the poet includes Maurice Blanchot, a well-known critic whose advocacy of silence and the poetic mystery are closely associated with Char's own. Char speaks for them both, then, in this ascent at once temporal, spatial, and moral: “The time is near where only that which could remain unexplained will be able to summon us” (NP, 58). That ideal bareness we cannot really recreate is akin to silence and to mystery: all three converge in the poetry and the “irresolute and misunderstood infinite” which is said to surround it (NP, 58).

As we look in succession at the texts of Le Nu perdu, the distance up the mountain seems measured out like the “Tide Ratio” of Les Matinaux; here the flux is no longer only that of water, but also of space and time. From the “Pause” and the “Slowness” we arrive at the “Tables of Longevity,” where we read, still in relation to the infinite, a future couched in a present tense: “When there is less and less space between the infinite and us, between the libertarian sun and the prosecutor sun, we are aground on night” ([JG] NP, 61). But it is some time before the “bell of pure departure” will signal the triumphant end of the battle upland: “True victories are only won over a long time, our forehead against the night” (NP, 65). The struggle is again that of upstream as well as upland and is openly marked as being so. A beautiful series of aphorisms called “La Scie rêveuse” (“The Dreaming Saw”) moves from an initial line of understatement and blossoming (“To be sure of one's own murmurs and to lead action as far as its word in flower”) through an invocation to the river to whose modest murmur we were listening (“Law of the river …, of losses compensated but of torn sides, when the ambitious house of the mind crumbled, we recognized you and found you good” (NP, 69) to the final statement of persistence in spite of difficulty, toward the recapturing of a true identity (“Alone among the stones, the stone of the torrent has the reverie-like contour of the face finally restored”) (NP, 70).

This text comes from the collection Dans la Pluie giboyeuse (In the Quarried Rain), from whose heavy and nourishing fall the torrent was created, to whose animal intensity the poet hunter or the poet as his own prey has joined his breathing and his fate: that hunter who is associated with the flower called Orion's dart, with the unicorn in “L'anneau de la licorne” (“Ring of the Unicorn”), as well as the poem “Seuil” (“Threshold”), as we have seen, will later appear in a “mute game,” then at last in his own constellation before redescending to earth in Aromates chasseurs as Orion Iroquois. The path upland leads through all the texts, for in the constellation glimpsed within the poem “Possessions extérieures” (“Exterior Possessions”) traces of many myths might be seen to merge, for example, Orion the hunter, changed to a dove, a bee, and then a star, and Orion blinded—as in Poussin's canvas Orion aveuglé, already mentioned, which telescopes two legends5—but by his own radiance. The blinding or the self-blinding ray resembles the single horn of the animal in “The Ring of the Unicorn,” in La Nuit talismanique. Here Orion, not named but no less present, chews a leaf of a virgin flower, a hunter never satisfied with his prey: “He had felt jostled and lonely at the border of his constellation, only a little town shivering in tempered space. To the questioner: ‘Have you finally met her? Are you happy at last?’ he did not deign to reply, and tore a leaf of guelder-rose” (NT [La nuit talismanique], 83). But this Orion remains as tragic as he is lucid; “The more he understands, the more he suffers. The more he knows, the more he is torn. But his lucidity has the measure of his pain and his tenacity, that of his despair” (NP, 89).

Orion will reappear, assuming in himself all the rising of a return upland and the falling of a meteor, all the scattered brilliance of La Parole en archipel (The Word as Archipelago) and the clustered radiance of his own constellation, bridging the heavens and the earthly streams for both senses of the return upland, human as well as mythic. To the path of the return, a mystery is still assigned. “The roads which do not promise the country of their destination are the roads most loved” (NP, 91). Upland in all its bareness must remain open to interpretation; it will never be reduced to one landscape, neither that of the Vaucluse nor that of the heavens. Similarly, to join the figure of Orion, already the convergence of so much legend and of so many myths, there now comes another hero, Hölderlin's Hyperion—“The best son of the old solar disk and the nearest to his celestial slowness” (NP, 95).6 Hölderlin himself, stricken with madness by the gods as if by a lightning bolt, and thus singled out as a poet, is a chosen figure of René Char. Heidegger's essay on Hölderlin (“Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry”) comes close to the spirit of Char's poetics, as do many of Heidegger's writings, with their emphasis on being-toward-death and its relation to being-in-this world. (Some of Char's most moving prose has to do with his friendship with Heidegger, which can be called poetic as well as philosophic.)

The breaker of redness has now become a crepuscular light, itself said to be bare like older times, magnified like a torrent swollen with rain, and as peremptory as the lightning which apparently chooses the poet. These terms are used by Char to describe his night of fire, resembling Pascal's terrible night to whose brief, jagged, and unforgettable “mémorial” Char's most intense passages now bear such a strong likeness.7 These texts have about them a suddenness and yet a gravity which set them apart. The very violence of that night marks the culmination of the path upward toward what is no longer a simple line of daybreak, magnetic in its attraction, but a passionate light of conflict, where even the word brisant becomes active rather than descriptive, changing from a noun (“the breaker”) to a verb: “se brisant de toutes ses artères contre nous” (“breaking with all its arteries against us”) (NP, 97).

That passionate vision prepares a quieter illumination. After the breaking down of walls and the scaling of heights, the poet goes once more inside, having acknowledged all along that the path of returning was interior, as the summit is finally an invisible one: “I have lived outside, exposed to all sorts of inclemencies. The hour has come for me to return, oh laughter of slate! into a book or into death” (NP, 106).

II OUTLOOK: RECHERCHE DE LA BASE ET DU SOMMET (SEARCH FOR THE BASE AND THE SUMMIT)

Often, as we know, a poet's theory is most clearly seen in his essays on other writers or artists—more clearly, indeed, than in his essays centering on his own poetics. Char's recently published volume of commentary on the major artists whose world he values—Le Monde de l'art n'est pas le monde du pardon (The World of Art is not the World of Pardon)—shows a range of writings from diverse epochs and concerning equally diverse creations. His comments, for instance, on Georges de La Tour, Mirò, Braque, de Staël, Vieira da Silva, as well as on Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Nietzsche, together with his conversations with Heidegger and his remarks on Camus, indicate the ways and depth of his thought. Even the intonation can prepare us for Char's own poetry. For instance, in describing Mirò's achievement, Char finds the evocative phrase: “the taste of springs and of their flight,” (RBS, 83), a formulation applicable to many of his own poems. The elements of water and air, the motions of beginning and soaring, the suggestion of an entire cycle—all are complete in that one line. Mirò, says Char, indicates, without spelling out or proclaiming: that is also a good description of the essential concern characteristic of his own work in the graver moments. “We recognize the painter's gesture by that gravitation toward the sources which, as they appear, turn the images aside from their end. As if breathed in by the movement seizing them, they contract” (RBS, 83). The description might well be that of the intense expectation and occasional massing of Char's own images, under the sometimes hidden weight of an idea, felt to press even on the movement of the poem itself.

Or a passage on Nicolas de Staël, which by chance serves as a useful reference point for Char's own play on the abominable snowman. Char, in discussing the illustrations of de Staël for some of his poems, writes that they “appear for the first time on a field of virgin snow that the sunlight … will try to melt” (RBS, 93). De Staël and he are not, he says, abominable snowmen, “but we sometimes come nearer to the unknown than is permissible, and to the empire of stars.” Like that of Char, de Staël's art is the contrary of long-winded; it is rather, like his, of a lapidary simplicity and shows a natural ellipsis. Of all the artists with whom Char has been allied, de Staël seems—to this reader—the closest to him, along with Braque.

Concerning theory, the latter seems of the closest temperament:8 we have only to read their conversations, as Char relates them here, or to consider the similar humanity of their characters. Indisputably, André Breton's writings on and his admiration of Picasso or Matta reveal Breton's way of thinking as nothing else can, for instance, Breton's essays in Le Surréalisme et la peinture on Picasso's venture across the abyss or on his juxtaposing of objects, and on Matta's reshaping the entire universe to fit his own vision and to make way for chance. Just so, Char's writings on Braque further our understanding of the poet as much as of the artist. To take an example corresponding to the one just related from Breton and Picasso, Char says of Braque the following: “Children and geniuses know that there is no bridge, only the water allowing itself to be crossed. Thus in Braque's work the spring is inseparable from the rock, the fruit from the soil, the cloud from its fate …” (RBS, 57-58).

Char describes in his work the “incessant going and coming from solitude to being and from being to solitude”: this sure convergence of the natural, the human, and the universal on one hand and of this alteration from the one being to the being-in-the-world is constant in Char's writing. We have only to think of his essay on the artist Sima, in which he discusses the junction of the four elements and the situation of man-in-the-world: “I am not separated; I am among” (Se Rencontrer paysage avec Joseph Sima).9 Braque knows how to “judge an enigma, how to revive for us its fortune and its benumbed brilliance” (“son éclat engourdi”) (RBS, 67). When the poet despairs, as in the phrase already quoted: “Je suis tombé de mon éclat …,” the artist, above all others, can render to him his inspiration. For he symbolizes continuity: Braque's work of one day, maintains Char, if it were to be suspended over the abyss in the evening, would carry over like a projection toward the morrow's work. Char finally likens these germs of the next day's work—“a multiplier in the expectation of its multiplicand” (RBS, 87)—to a threatened candle which the sun would soon replace. In La Nuit talismanique, the poet warns us not to substitute for the flickering chiaroscuro of candlelight, its flame rich in imaginative possibilities and ambiguities (that “éclat nourri de sa flamme”), the steady brightness of day.10

Braque, like Char, “recreates his candle” every evening, never sacrificing the indispensable mystery in favor of what is at best only clear. The candle in several of La Tour's canvases around which the other masses are grouped,11 makes a fitting image for an observation as quiet as the flame: “Action is blind, it is poetry that sees.” Similarly, we might observe the lighting in Char's major poems as an example of poetic interiority. These two kinds of light serve to nourish one another, like Breton's image of the communicating vessels of day and night; for Char, poetry and action will be the interdependent “vases communicants.” So the contemplation of the flame and the daytime motion (“Emerge on your surface …,” RBS, 168) are joined.

Among the philosophers whose poetics are close to Char's own, Heraclitus seems one of the nearest. The fragments which have survived from his writing are like poems, each chosen by chance to endure above all that has been submerged. For Char, convinced that our only certainty for the future is an ultimate pessimism (“the accomplished form of the secret where we come to refresh ourselves, to renew our watchfulness and to sleep,” RBS, 117), Heraclitus represents a solar eagle. He is a profound predecessor, and an uncompromising one: “He knew that truth was noble and that the image revealing it is tragedy.” Likewise, Char's own poetry is not sad; it is exhilarating, complicated, forceful, and often tragic.

Two other poets—for Heraclitus is, for Char, as much a poet as a philosopher—lend a psychological strength and a nourishing unrest to his language: Baudelaire and Nietzsche are Char's “water-carriers,” sources of his poetry and of his disquiet. He defines poetry now as “the wound that shines where the sentence effaces itself” (RBS, 139) and finds Nietzsche's “seismic anguish” close to his own.

Rimbaud is a significant predecessor as many critics have pointed out. “But if I knew what Rimbaud meant for me, I would know what poetry is before me, and I would no longer have to write it …” (RBS, 130). One of Char's numerous commentaries on Rimbaud indicates sufficiently his particular importance: “we must consider Rimbaud in the single perspective of poetry. Is that so scandalous? His work and his life are thus revealed to be of an unequaled coherence, neither because of, nor in spite of, their originality. … We are fully aware, outside of poetry, that between our foot and the stone it weighs upon, between our gaze and the field traversed, the world is null. Real life … is only found in the body of poetry” (RBS, 127). Poetry has, for Rimbaud, for Char, possibly for all true poets, no other reason for being than being. Rimbaud's famous statement quoted by Char is infinitely applicable to the latter's own poetry: “I meant to say what it says, literally and in all senses” (RBS, 127).12 Rimbaud was, like Char, a lover of nature, seen as a luminous force, joining with the language of the poem for a lasting creation. His spirit pervades Char's notion of the three ages, recurring in the title of Le Nu perdu and in a text of Aromates chasseurs, which are, respectively, the story of simplicity and unfeigned spiritual nakedness—that is, the golden age—as they are lost in an industrial age, and that of a middle time we must find again, by retaining the value of the past and predicting the future. “Rimbaud escaping13 locates his golden age in the past and in the future. He does not settle down. He has another epoch come forth, either in the mode of nostalgia or in that of desire, only in order to fell it instantly and to return to the present, that target with the center always hungry for projectiles, that natural port for all departures.” This spatial description of past and future and present serves to map the three ages, already mentioned; Rimbaud's rhythm, many of his conceptions, and his dynamics are Char's also: “In the motion of an ultrarapid dialectic, so perfect it does not arouse panic, but rather a whirlwind, fitting and precise, he pulls us along, he dominates us, carrying everything with him … as we consent” (RBS, 131). Not only is there to be no settling down in comfort for poetry, but no permanent attachment to what we have most loved: “The urgency of his word and its scope espouse and blanket a surface that language before him had never attained nor occupied.” In fact, Rimbaud is perhaps best known, in Char's works, for his uncompromising departure, to which we have already referred. Char defines poetry as “the song of departure”: how, he asks, could such a poet as Rimbaud have been satisfied with less than complete separation? For “poetry is the distanceless solitude among everyone's bustling, that is, a solitude which has the means of expressing itself.” Our aloneness, even our loneliness should be as refreshing for us as the fountain nourishing the brutality of a poet: “To drink shivering, to be brutal, restores” (NP, 82).

III NIGHT AND REFLECTION

The volumes now to be discussed are turned towards an inner realm: towards a “talismanic night,” a gathering of reflections about the deepest aspects of poetry, and, finally, a constellation.

A. LA NUIT TALISMANIQUE (TALISMANIC NIGHT)

These texts are each a witness to solitude and to a contemplation both cosmic and minute. Some add or strengthen aspects which we had not clearly seen before: for instance, concerning the importance of the small and the minimal, less as a plea for modesty than as an insistence on our perception and on our reordering of values. In line with this attitude, Char praises the man who takes care of his working instruments, in full knowledge of their value. We must assign the proper place to things and gather about us all we might use, in time of drought. (The importance of water in the austere landscape of the Vaucluse can hardly be overstated: thus the chosen images of scarcity and aridity.) This volume is turned toward the interior, as a kind of challenge to the mind. Since no movement in Char's work is entirely simple, there will be an extension outward subsequent to this introspective stage: “The night brings nourishment, the sun refines the nourished part” (NT, 15). Just so, this talismanic night provides the temporary halt and the renewing source for later works.

Again we hear the plea for space to be created about the poet: “The obligation, without pausing to breathe, to rarify, to hierarchize beings and things intruding on us” (NT, 72). The multilated giant who will finally take on the traits of Orion is subject to laws outside himself over which he has no intellectual command, but here he controls the space of his own contemplation, choosing its light and “inventing” his own sleep. He concentrates on the flickering of one candle, on its circular dance, triumphing over the partitioning of days (as in the “divided” time or “cloisons” of an earlier poem, “Faction du muet”): “As night asserted itself, my first task was to destroy the calendar viper knot where the start of each day sprang to sight. The aboutface of a candleflame prevented me. From it I learned to stoop over and to straighten quickly in the constant line of the horizon bordering my land, to see, nearing, a shadow giving birth to a shadow through the slant of a luminous shaft, and to scrutinize it” (NT, 87). The text is called “Éclore en hiver” (“To Blossom in Winter”), and the deepest meditation in its inward flowering is encouraged by just this close scrutiny of a minimal event, requiring careful attention.

One of the more interesting lights to cast on this volume is a light of difference, in a comparison of these texts with the brief opaque splendor of Mallarmé's Igitur, built around the expectation of one gesture, the breath which will extinguish a candle at midnight. The consequence of that annihilation of being by the breath is ambiguously positive: the creation of shadow and the union of word and act. For here the breath which has served in speech serves then as destruction; the observation is of especial interest for us, in view of the wide scope and extraordinary frequency of the images of breathing in Char's writing, from the earliest volumes. The complex awareness of certain extremes (“the presence of Midnight,” the absolute presence of things) and of absolute emptiness (a “vacant sonority,” “reciprocal nothingness”) is echoed by another violent contrast shared in the common space of the two poets. The poles of dark (“shadows disappeared in obscurity”) and of a flame, of chance and necessity, of ancestral apparitions hanging over the quiet yet lucid meditation of an open book on a table surrounded by mystery, all these find their place within the shadows of Char's talismanic night.14 Both texts depend on a temporary suspension of breath before the candle is extinguished, with the extinction of the text as its necessary corollary. Even the old gods storming outside the room where the poet plagued by insomnia keeps watch over the candle and the page remind us of Mallarmé's “dieux antiques.” It is as if René Char had assembled his writing and drawing instruments on the table where Igitur's book is open, in a space no less haunted by presences: “Another hand protects the oval flame,” and the presence is as mysterious as that other presence of midnight. “The heart of night was not to be set afire. The obscure should have been the master where the dawn's dew is chiseled” (NT, 16). Valéry points out “The usefulness of mystery.” “The best work is the one that keeps its secret longest.”15

The volume bears witness to the “desert sand” of insomnia, where the waters of night nourish like the redemption by water in “Le Visage nuptial” (“The Nuptial Countenance”). Igitur closes the book and blows out the candle “with his breath that contained chance,” while the poet stands fast in his nocturnal quiet, until the daybreak described earlier in the poem “Seuil,” where the figure of Orion may be seen to make his appearance against the horizon. Yet that interior meditation retains the hospitality of the hearth:

J'ai couru jusqu'à l'issue de cette nuit diluvienne. Planté dans le flageolant petit jour, ma ceinture pleine de saisons, je vous attends, ô mes amis qui allez venir. Déjà je vous devine derrière la noirceur de l'horizon. Mon âtre ne tarit pas de voeux pour vos maisons. Et mon bâton de cyprès rit de tout son coeur pour vous.

I have run to the outcome of this diluvian night. Taking my stand in the trembling dawn, with my belt full of seasons, I am waiting for you, my friends who will come. Already I divine you behind the black of the horizon. My hearth's good wishes for your homes never dry up. And my cypress walking-stick laughs with its whole heart for you.

([JG] FM [Fureur et mystère], 181)

Char's nocturnal meditation accommodates all of the landscape outside, taking within its range harvest, sun, the wind of the mistral, the river, and the land beyond. From the candle he watches, this “sedentary flame” itself containing the household gods propitious to our contemplation, he moves to an observation of the stars, of the human sky as it is matched to the universe beyond man. Thus the talisman, whether held by the poet's hand or that of another, serves as a guide to whatever is beyond the contemplation of any one night or any series of texts with its single or multiple source.

B. SUR LA POéSIE (ON POETRY)

In Sur la poésie Char collects several previous statements on poetics written between 1936 and 1974. The statements will be referred to according to their proper order, so as not to falsify the evolution once chosen, which is then reexamined by the poet in his reprinting of these texts. They begin by an echo of Moulin premier: “I admit that intuition reasons and gives orders from the moment that, as a bearer of keys, it does not forget to set the embryonic forms of poetry in motion, crossing through the high cages where the echoes are sleeping, those elect precursors of miracle which, as the forms pass by, steel and fecundate them” (SP [Sur la poésie] 71). As in the text En trente-trois morceaux (In Thirty-three Pieces), the fragments chosen and reassembled, taking on a different order, find a new coherence; the definitions of poetry itself may appear differently lit in this rereading of poetry as the realized “love of desire remaining desire” or as the future life of “requalified man.” Now the previous image of wool strands extended (“laines prolongées”) joins with that of a spiderweb on the same page, form replying to like form, as well as with the other images of making and of long enduring, through a dialectic of presence and passing: “The vitality of the poet is not a vitality of the beyond but an actual diamantine point of transcendent presence and pilgrim storms” (SP, 13).

And this dialectic is balanced by another, that of the torment and the happiness of the poet as they are always intransitive, the poet drawing “unhappiness from his own abyss” (SP, 17). It is important here to make a distinction between the writer in general and the poet in particular, for Char's morality and poetics are specifically fitted to the “métier du poète,” his chosen location in space and time to the “logement du poète,” his passion for life to the “vitalité du poète.” For example, the following statements do not start, and could never have done so, in Char's universe, with the words “Être écrivain” (“To be a writer”), but rather, with the words “Être poète.” Near the outset Char reconsiders the poet's own place (“The poet cannot remain for a long time in the stratosphere of the Word”) (SP, 8) and his mission (“The poet, keeper of the infinite faces of the living”) (SP, 9). “To be a poet is to have an appetite for an unease whose consummation, among the whirlwinds of the totality of things existent and intimated, provokes happiness just at the moment of conclusion” (SP, 13). The poetic function actively liberates, at its source, the only wealth found valuable: the verb tourmenter carries perfectly in both languages the double sense of a creative disturbance strong enough to arouse and of an inspiration sufficient to realize all that was only potential. In short, it indicates a troubling activity, both positive and negative: “The poet torments with the help of immeasurable secrets the form and the voice of his fountains” (SP, 14). It will be noticed that even the source is individual, not general.

Above all, these statements manifest a vivid faith in continuity, even when the poet leaves whatever he might consider as the base of his too prosaic safety for the risk implied in this conception of the poetic. He does not choose to remain untouched by his involvements: “Lean over, lean over more,” he reminds himself—and us (SP, 15). Typically, rather than merely speaking the “truth,” he maintains that he must live it (SP, 19). Now he takes advantage of the miraculous enduring of the smallest things, like the poor man profiting from an olive's eternity, as he phrases it elsewhere. Or again, at every disappointment in the expected—for in a “profession of risk,” nothing can really be counted on but the certainty of that risk—this “magician of insecurity” (SP, 18) responds with a confidence whose foundation is often far from evident to us, and all the more affecting: “To each crumbling of proofs, the poet replies by a salvo of futures.” And later: “Poetry will steal my death from me” (SP, 20).

The situation of the mind turned-toward-the-future is closely allied to the metaphors of climbing toward a height from which the poet, called a “summit of breath in the unknown” (SP, 16), can see forward and around at a great distance, leaving behind him the feats already accomplished of which he is no longer a simple reflection. He is no longer to be compared to others since he fits neither their norms nor their hopes, neither is he tied down to possessions. He thus occupies a perfect position for superior or future action. “The serene town, the unperforated village is before him” (SP, 16). The statements surrounding this one are noticeably full of increase and of upward growth. Everywhere the relation of the exterior or the physical to the moral and mental is clear, as in our chapter title “exterior and interior architecture.” The text directly following the one just quoted begins with a simultaneous description of the poem and of its poet: “Standing erect, increasing throughout its course, the poem …” (SP, 17). The initiator of verbal action is also the arranger, not of a placid still life, but of an “insurgent order” which is inscribed in the future, rebellious to past tranquillity and even to past truth. “You cannot begin a poem without a parcel of error about yourself and the world …” (SP, 21). So the spirit of contradiction or at least of ambivalence remains. Many of Char's more profound statements are structured along those lines: for example, “poetry is the fruit we hold, ripened, joyously in our hand, at the same moment it appears to us on the frosted stem, within the flower's chalice, of an uncertain future” (SP, 21). Living amid truth makes one a liar, claims Char (SP, 19), and exactly that spirit of ambivalence and dialectic moves us beyond individual pettiness and pride to a certain impersonality. There is, however, no coldness to the term, rather a feeling like that in the poem “The Extravagant One,” in which a frost grazes the surface of the wanderer's forehead, “without seeming personal” (FM, 182).

The perception of contrasts is often a matter of outlook and of patience in examining detail: “… il est permis enfin de rapprocher les choses de soi avec une libre minutie …” (“… we are finally permitted to bring objects near us with a free exactness …”) (En trente-trois morceaux, April 8, 1956).

By a paradoxical twist, just as the aphoristic generalizations which we discuss here under the heading of morality may seem to have a particular application, so the observation of the smallest objects, the juxtaposition of which composes the universe of Char's daily observation, may appear to find the widest scope. To give only one example of the rapid expansion of perspective, let us take, in La Nuit talismanique, the line: “Fourche couchée, perfection de la mélancolie” (“Pitchfork laid down, perfection in melancholy”). The eye, and with it the mind, travels from the object to its announced position, to the representation of the mood or its emotional effect, and then to an implicit question as to situation. Why the halt? Will the work halted continue? The answer is, in all probability, positive, and the reason, temporal: “Successives enveloppes! Du corps levant au jour désintégré, … nous restons constamment encerclés, avec l'énergie de rompre” (“Wrappings, one after the other! From the rising body to the day disintegrated … we remain constantly surrounded, with the energy to break off”) (NT, 65). The phenomenon is somewhat reminiscent of Pascal's celebrated statement on the meeting of extremes: Char's contrasting wide and narrow focus are equally important for our understanding of his overall perspective. We might compare this stretching of the imagination to other mental exercises: first to one of Char's own observations on vertical extremes, already quoted, applicable to these roughly horizontal extremes of focus: “Base and summit … crumble rapidly. But there is the tension of the search. …” Here the value is placed on an effort surely as much moral as physical, in this “Recherche de la base et du sommet.” The ability to take in the distance between two extreme points and to juxtapose them nevertheless, to grasp the complex relation between them, all that is essential for poetic understanding. Moreover, we might see in the extraordinary proliferation of all varieties of contrasts the same mental athletics required of the reader, if he would follow the work with any fidelity.

Now the balance of opposing terms requires a movement between the components of the individual statements which can properly be called dialectic, in that the statement itself serves as the final term. In turn, a series of statements can be seen as moments in the temporal advance toward an integral statement on poetry, necessary movements in themselves, whose individually contradictory and yet eventually resolved terms accumulate in a balance sensed as delicate and complete.

We saw above an example of the relation of one moment to the next, where a description of the poet as the “summit of breath in the unknown,” whose being cannot be tied down or measured, led to the expression: “Standing erect, increasing throughout its course …” by way of the metaphors of height and increase, and an earlier example, where the “prolonged wool strands” into which the poet transforms each potentially dying object led to the image of a spiderweb hung in the sky—or with its concentric circles reaching from line to line. Such relations can often be traced through a few moments in succession, each adding to the preceding information without altering its own dialectical progress. For example, a series of three statements on death makes up a whole, evidently related to other statements and yet still sufficient unto itself. Each statement shows its own obvious exterior and interior contradiction and subsequently, its own more subtle resolution; it should be noted, parenthetically, that we are still following Char's own order for these aphorisms, so that the sequence of discussion is first of all controlled by his arrangement of texts.

To make a poem is to take possession of a nuptial beyond, which is found well within this life, closely attached to it and nevertheless in near proximity to the urns of death.

Poetry, unique ascension of men, which the sun of the dead cannot obscure in the perfect and burlesque infinite, perfected and ludicrous.

Poetry is at once speech and the silent, desperate provocation of our being, exigent as it is (“être-exigeant”) for the advent of a reality which will be without rival. It is incorruptible—imperishable, no, for it is exposed to common dangers. But the only one which visibly triumphs over material death.

(SP, 24-25)

The moments are not only joined together in theme—what conquers death and gives value to life?—but also, in form. The construction is strong, or, to use a musical description, the opening attack is vigorous. The set of three terms is joined to the subsequent fragment by implication of the death theme: “The only signature at the bottom of the blank sheet of life is traced by poetry” (SP, 26), and to the preceding parts by such definitions as the following: “Poems are incorruptible bits of existence which we hurl toward death's repugnant muzzle, but high enough so that, ricocheting onto it, they fall into the nominative world of unity“(SP, 22). (This concept is closely related to Heideggerian thought.)

Since poetry is necessarily a situation of disquiet, value attaches not to calm but to unrest, to the rebellious intellect, “refractory to calculated projects.” For, “Poetry lives on perpetual insomnia” (SP, 26). The contradictory attitude itself corresponds perfectly to that state of unease and nonprogression which it magnifies. It is genuinely an exciting venture: not a pseudoheroic escapade, but rather one to be taken seriously, or not attempted at all. “In poetry, you only dwell in the place you leave, you only create the work you are detached from, you only obtain duration by destroying time” (SP, 28). Again, on the next page: “The act of writing, poignant and profound when anguish raises itself on one elbow to observe and when our happiness thrusts itself uncovered into the wind of the path” (SP, 29). The play of one concept against another, while it allows both stability and flexibility, prevents stagnation.

In the most recent part of the book, some previously unpublished statements are gathered under the dedication: A Faulx contente (To Your Scythe's Content). We think, in reading this title, of the opposite melancholy of the pitchfork laid to rest at evening in La Nuit talismanique. The image of the scythe serves as a metonymy for the ideal of pruning and trimming, for the sacrifice of what is unessential; it is therefore, unlike the pitchfork, not laid to rest.

We are still following a marked path along Sur la poésie, that of the contradictory and finally resolved terms of much of Char's writing, exemplified in another image of anguish: a path chosen by the poet leads, he says, only “to one's own bloodied heart, the source and the sepulcher of the poem” (SP, 33). Above all, the point of a poem, its beginning and end, is not exterior representation, which Char would associate with prose. The poet is of a sensitivity such that the extremes touch within each text, occasionally far inside: sometimes his writing expresses a quiet ambivalence, sometimes the clash of opposing forces. The next to the last statement reads: “the poem lays us in a postponed grief, making no distinction between the cold and the ardent” (SP, 34). The adjectival terms even in their opposition show a slight unbalance, for we would expect either frigid/ardent or cold/hot. But “ardent” is precisely the term which matters here, for a multiplicity of reasons. A poem is, for Char, ardor expressed or suggested, intuition at its highest point; yet it is at the same time the product of a clearheaded and rational process; it thus represents emotional weight and imaginative spirit.

The complexities and ambivalencies of the opposing terms are seen with some of their prolongations in the final statement of the volume, where the role of the poet now assumes the functions of freeing and joining: “The poet bursts the bonds imprisoning what he touches; he does not teach the end of linking,” reads the last statement in the book (SP, 35). The linking of element to element can be perceived in a form identical with the essential and traditional double nature of all profound relationships. The relations of poetic elements will not be simple, and therefore continue despite the conclusion of each poem, or of each series of statements, each slight imbalance encouraging the extension of thought.

From each twist of the “prolonged strand” of the poet's thought, there comes another possible one, joining a literal to a figurative, a physical to an emotional term. The same bifurcation can be seen in many words: for an example, the French word source has an extension far beyond its English usage, as seen in the double definition: “source and sepulcher of the poem.” For the source is equally the liquid origin and the inspirational spring, at once figurative and geographic, moral and actual. Thus the specific word “source” renews itself, in one more prolongation, by its own ambivalence, through all the endless links a poem creates. We read, in a retrospective extension from “A Faulx contente,” the title of the poem “La Faux relevée (“Scythe Lifted Again”): “Fontaine, qui tremblez dans votre étroit réduit, / Mon gain, aux soifs des champs, vous le prodiguerez” (“Fountain, trembling within your narrow nook, / My gain you'll spread bounteous to fields athirst”) (LM, 184), as if this were also a source, a spring of poetic ambivalence and abundance, of poetic enduring, in correspondence with the poetics which always underlies it. Finally, all Char's meditations, whether on aesthetic or moral matters, could be entitled: Sur la poésie.

C. AROMATES CHASSEURS (AROMATICS HUNTERS)

These poems follow an inward path, made up of meditations on political and moral problems, on poetry and survival in the present world, and yet the path remains in direct and strongly sensed correspondence with one constellation in the sky, that of Orion. The volume takes up and expands the brief texts from Le Nu perdu on the relation between poet and destiny, expressed by the image of stars against blackness, with the play of bright and dark fully as complex as that of Baroque poetry. The architecture, with its columns leading from earth to sky—four corresponding texts of Orion—will be referred to again in the chapter on “The Elements of the Poem,” since each has its own element. This architecture seems particularly close to that of Mallarmé.

The four great Orion poems which form the pillars of the volume are inserted in the constellation, at once the archipelago from which Orion descends because of a thirst for earth in the initial poem, “Evadé d'archipel” (“Escaped from the Archipelago”), and the sky to which he finally returns, garbed in an “infinity” of luminous points. They are set in the series of radiant islands as a structure—visible and implied—to whose light each bears a brief witness. The volume itself joins all the elements, as the aromatic smoke returns the hero to his heaven, to build there the giant pontoon bridges under which we can pass safely, after our swim “in the icy waters” connected to the earth. Orion Iroquois, a builder in steel and at great heights, is the figure corresponding to the hunter Orion blinded and received on high (“Réception d'Orion”), these two figures forming the two central pillars or columns of the book, the first and last poems of Part II. Just so, the first and last poems of the volume correspond, for in “Evadé d'archipel,” Orion has put down his arrow and his sickle, and in his meteoric fall, his traits are blackened with crude celestial ore, like those of the laborer in the early poem “Fréquence” or those of the maquisards in the Resistance poems, all in Fureur et mystère. And the last poem, “Eloquence d'Orion,” will answer this one, by its own resistance songs: “les chants matinaux de la rébellion. Métal rallumé sans cesse de ton chagrin, ils me parvenaient humides d'inclémence et d'amour” (“matinal songs of rebellion. Metal relit ceaselessly from your pain, they came to me damp with inclemency and with love”) (AC, 43). The suffering and the fire are implicit, merged with the morally unforgiving nature: we remember the earlier refrain: “We remain men for inclemency” from “Contrevenir.” In this last moment of eloquence, Orion would choose to be, in all simplicity, by a river and in a poem, before his departure:

Tu t'établirais dans ta page, sur les bords d'un ruisseau, comme l'ambre gris sur le varech échoué; puis, la nuit monté, tu t'éloignerais des habitants insatisfaits, pour un oubli servant d'étoile. Tu n'entendrais plus geindre tes souliers entrouverts.

You would settle in your page, on the bank of a river, like ambergris on the seaweed adrift; then when night had risen, you would depart from the unsatisfied inhabitants for a forgetfulness serving as a star. You would no longer hear your half-open shoes complaining.

(AC, 43)

Notes

  1. See the “Note to Francis Curel” in Chapter One.

  2. For example, see the large volume of original works by his friends the artists and the accompanying texts: Le Monde de l'Art n'est pas le monde du pardon (Paris: Maeght, 1975). Preface by Jacques Dupin.

  3. Tristan Tzara, “Note sur la poésie,” in Sept manifestes Dada, suivis de lampisteries (Paris: Pauvert, 1963).

  4. Paul Valéry, Oeuvres, vol. I, Pléiade edition (Paris: Gallimard, 1957), p. 862.

  5. Ibid.

  6. E. H. Gombrich, “The Subject of Poussin's Orion,” in Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Phaidon, 1972), in particular, pp. 121-22. See also Claude Simon, Orion aveuglé (Geneva: Skira, 1970).

  7. See Sereni, (Chapter One, note 10). All the notes in this book are invaluable.

  8. Thomas Hines, “L'Ouvrage de tous les temps, admiré: Lettera amorosa/René Char and Georges Braque,” Bulletin du Bibliophile, no. 1, 1973.

  9. Se rencontrer paysage avec Joseph Sima, exhibition Château de Ratilly, June 23 to September 16, 1973.

  10. Mallarmé's Igitur, referred to above in the same connection, is an excellent example of the shadowy play of ambiguity. The comparison with the table and its open book, the candle about to be snuffed out, and the atmosphere of midnight is worth considering. “Cest le rêve pur d'un Minuit, en soi disparu, et dont la Clarté reconnue, qui seule demeure au sein de son accomplissement plongé dans l'ombre, résume sa stérilité sur la pâleur d'un livre ouvert que présente la table …” (Pléiade edition, p. 435). In Char and in Mallarmé, the figures of the unicorn and the ancient gods, and in both breath and life play against the dark, as speech against silence and chance against necessity: “Il ferme le livre—souffle la bougie—de son souffle qui contenait le hasard …” (Ibid., p. 442).

  11. Sereni, p. 217: “Le Tricheur à l'as de carreau,” “Rixe de musiciens,” “La Diseuse de bonne aventure,” “Le Vielleur,” are the four works of Georges de La Tour to which Char refers here. “For the oppositions and on the cohabitation of a ‘diurnal’ painter and a ‘nocturnal’ one (two times, two manners and thus two languages) the scheme of distinctions essential in the art of Georges de La Tour …,” Sereni refers us to the catalog of the La Tour exhibition in the Orangerie (May 10 - September 25, 1972).

  12. This statement is a response to and consolation for any translator or critic about to lose one of the meanings of a poem: Char uses it in just that way.

  13. See “Evadé d'archipel” in Aromates chasseurs, in which Orion represents the figure of the poet, who escapes eventually both from his constellation and from our earth; he is essential, and not to be pinned down to one locality.

  14. See note eight above.

  15. Valéry, p. 562.

Paulène Aspel (review date spring 1980)

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SOURCE: Aspel, Paulène. Review of Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit. World Literature Today 54, no. 2 (spring 1980): 250-51.

[In the following review, Aspel provides an overview of Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit.]

“Le Temps” (“Time”) bears a capital T six times. From his early poems on, René Char (see WLT [World Literature Today] 51:3, pp. 349-403) has often capitalized the first letter of key words for the purpose of conjuring or praising. The uppercase T in “Dormant Windows and Door onto the Roof” must and will exorcise time, for the latter is “bloody”; it only holds power and secure position. The poet also calls it “recidivist.” “Do not glance at it. Ignore it,” he warns. “It must not be seen, or felt, still less measured. Time, however, can be defied by the poet's will and stubbornness: “I banged against it with my flash, my fear, among ruins where my obstinacy is still grating.”

Poetry intervenes, bold and brave, though modest. It “dares to say what no other voice dares to confess to bloody Time.” Called a number of affectionate names, as in previous books, a “fervent worker,” the “ravishing,” a rose whose wound “equals that of the poet,” the she-wolf worrying about her cub leaping ahead, this “magnifying poetry,” master of all absurds, is sized up, defended, commended in many texts, especially in the two longest poems, “Faire du chemin avec …” (“To Share the Way with …”) and “Tous partis” (“All Gone”). We are reminded that poetry itself is the main theme in Char's works. In two other long poems, “Vieira de Silva, chère voisine, multiple et une …” (“Vieira da Silva, Dear Neighbor, Manifold and One …”) and “Se rencontrer paysage avec Joseph Sima” (“To Become Landscape on Meeting Joseph Sima”), words, phrases continue to contribute an analysis of poetry. Words exchange their past for our present. They consent or resist: “Somewhere a word suffers with all its meaning within us.” Thus confirmed once more is the significant fact that the long prose poem is the locus of poetry par excellence, that it is a trademark of René Char.

First published in 1976, “To Share the Way with” bears striking similarities to “The Library Is on Fire,” its elder by twenty years. It is the same length, thirty-eight and thirty-seven diversified paragraphs separated by large blanks, where we “bounce from fragment to fragment”; it has the same vibrant, firm aphoristic style, sometimes becoming proverb-like sentences cast in alexandrines: “on se vide de vie, on s'emplit de pardon” (emptied of life, filled with forgiveness). Two major themes of Char emerge: that of poetry, and that of the fellowman, the brother, the same: “How many are infatuated with mankind, not man! To elevate the former, they lower the latter.” With man, la vie, “the grace of going each time farther” is celebrated, as well as the life given by poetry versus death: “I shall know how to go to the Fate Sisters with the necessary leap which severs regret, neglecting survival, staying with life.” “The Matinals would live even if night, if morning no longer existed.” But this life is threatened, and “To Share the Way with” engages into a bitter, jagged criticism of twentieth-century utopias and totalitarianisms. Little windows open on certain landmarks of the poet's oeuvre. The mention of Les matinaux, a book published in 1950, is one. The allusion to the concepts of explosions and fragments cuts out a second window: “Before being pulverized, each thing gets ready and meets our senses,” which echoes the “Why ‘pulverized poem’?” of “The Library Is on Fire.” Inserting a picture in a picture, a device often used by painters in their “Studios,” is a way for the poet to emphasize important aspects of his esthetics. Painters? Char reasserts his delight in encountering them or watching them paint in section two of the book, appropriately called “A Whole Day Without Debate.” Seven of the nine artists mentioned have been lauded in other books. A long, elaborate text is devoted to Picasso on the occasion of his death. Char also quotes insights into him as told by Braque, the poet's close friend of many years.

Other old acquaintances are present. Twelve birds add a background of color and wisdom. Oriole, nightingale, the firebird were met before. The angry hoopoe, the sedge warbler are newcomers. The latter is depicted on a familiar “reed shaken by the wind.” We remember the birds who, like men, entrust their frailty “to a shock of reeds” in “The Library Is on Fire.” Thanks to the same poem, we also know that birds and windows are secretly linked, because writing came to Char “like bird's down on [his] windowpane in winter.” In the fourth section of Fenêtres dormantes the poet “listens by the pane,” through his muted memory, to his first, shy “song of the frost.”

So those dormant windows are not really asleep after all. A fixed fanlight, a dormant—the poet playing on the word—yields even more life. A lot of it is passing through, back and forth. A pane also leads to a stone in the wall beyond, thus participating in the quiet history of a home: “At the end of the whirling steps, the door has no lock: here is the roof. … My pain is no longer employed.” The poet has stated it clearly in the first poem of the book: he has not committed the “crime of upland.” On the contrary, he will continue to go, to go up, to climb, to hoist himself despite the difficulty. A voice against iniquity speaks stronger. And finally, a joy, a plain if frail joy emanates from the sixteen moving poems which comprise the part titled “Effilage du sac de jute” (Fraying the Jute Sack; 1978-79). These are portraits of a man “walking without foulness,” “dressed in jute,” a “grinning flame,” the poet. Death is being envisaged more and more weightlessly. The wounded rose, in “Libera II,” offers the poet “une mort apparentée” (a kindred death).

James R. Lawler (review date spring 1984)

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SOURCE: Lawler, James R. “‘Not to Renounce’: René Char's Oeuvres complètes.World Literature Today 58, no. 2 (spring 1984): 222-24.

[In the following review, Lawler lauds the publication of René Char's Oeuvres complètes, explaining how the poet’s work “is not of easy access and demands the reader's active participation. The poem is this enigma that does not narrate or confide.”]

The Pléiade René Char [Oeuvres complètes] is without any doubt a major literary event.1 The edition, elegant in form and composition, shows the guiding hand of the poet himself. It brings together the fruit of his many collections that have appeared since 1926; presents pieces hitherto unpublished, including several written in the last few years; contains an admirable new dialogue on the practice of poetry. For a good number of texts there are useful, at times precious notes that explain an allusion by adducing a complementary passage or original version or set of variants. In addition, a few friends offer their recollections of René Char as they came to know him in his thirties—his relationship to his native Vaucluse, his service in the maquis—while half a dozen critics of the same generation as Char (Jean Beaufret, Maurice Blanchot and Georges Blin, among others) contribute fragments of previously known and now classical essays. As for the introduction, it is a discriminating commentary by Jean Roudaut, to whom we owe vigorous studies of baroque and modern French literature. The volume is, then, an indispensable resource for our enjoyment of René Char; but, above all, it allows us for the first time to gauge in moving detail the full range of one of the great voices of our century.

“We who write in order to live …”: passionate urgency infuses the work from one end to the other. The chronological order demonstrates a continuing inventiveness of songs, proverbs, aphorisms, free verse, plays, prose. René Char's most typical mode is the prose poem adopted first and foremost from Rimbaud, who showed its huge imaginative potential; but Char develops the genre in ways that Rimbaud's earlier followers have not approached, not even the stylistically subtle Claudel of Connaissance de l'Est. His structures can possess the brevity of “Congé au vent,” the spaciousness of “Sur une nuit sans ornement,” the rigor of “Allégeance,” the anaphoric insistence of “Jacquemard et Julia,” the binary patterns of Contre une maison sèche, the implicit musical line of Lettera amorosa. Yet whatever the chosen form, the poetic energy gives a unique tonus or dyne (as Char might say) to this work of fifty years. No poetry more than his creates a forward movement which, if it can never reach its goal of total integration, “furiously,” “inclemently” strives toward it. The opening poem of the first collection bears the significant title “La Torche du prodigue,” which is the firebrand that burns all barriers in its haste to go beyond; and the final one, from the most recent collection dated 1982 (“A qui s'informe d'une impasse”), is the exorcism of stagnation.

Roulements, jurons, désunion!
Dans la ville nouvelle tout s'accourcit sans rite,
Notre-Dame du Lac voit ses pierres soustraites;
Ne révoquant pas le passé,
La bougie s'affaisse et meurt.
Lors que la beauté naît détruite
Dans le blâme des yeux ouverts,
Faites-vous l'otage du givre,
Le jamais las du bien de vivre.
(Rumblings, oaths, disunion!
In the new city all is shortened without ritual,
Our Lady of the Lake sees her stones carried off;
Because it does not revoke the past,
The candle sinks and dies.
When beauty is born already destroyed
In the blame of unclosed eyes,
Become the hostage of hoarfrost,
Never tired of life's sweetness.)

The conflict, external and internal, is the furor provoked by our time (ce siècle épouvantable): in a single exclamation the first three words designate turmoil, violence, isolation. The old harmony is lost; poetry is out of joint; the candle is spent. Men have chosen to live without due commitment, despoiling sacred places, obeying lifeless precedents. But a rhythm is heard that takes up the octosyllabic measures of the title and the first line: the meter that had served to point to error articulates in the second quatrain a principle of conduct so that an ultimate rhyme is achieved rather than imposed. Among the ruins of a cruel age that would betray the imperatives of love and awe, the poet counsels a bond with nature, a dependency with regard to the humblest of images. To submit to hoarfrost is to give oneself to an ardent expectancy. Submission becomes the way to the poem no less than to a vital discipline, like that of René Char's artist of the ice-age caverns who makes of hoarfrost his home and point of departure: “que deviendrai-je m'est d'une chaleur presque infinie” (what shall I become is for me almost infinitely warm). The metaphrastic function is inseparable from a moral statement; and the idea of beauty—“La Beauté, la Beauté hauturière, apparue dès les premiers temps de notre cœur. …” (Beauty, noble Beauty of the high seas, that appeared from the earliest times of our heart)—involves the quest for ontological wholeness.

Yet can this intention be expressed other than by indirections? René Char's language is not of easy access and demands the reader's active participation. The poem is this enigma that does not narrate or confide. We are at furthest remove from confessional or descriptive literature, equally far from didacticism: “Supprimer l'éloignement tue. Les dieux ne meurent que d'être parmi nous” (To suppress distance is to kill. The gods die only from being among us). The words are a discontinuity by virtue of which the poem is first and foremost a mystery for the poet himself. They come with their evident rhythm and tone, yet their sense lies in paradoxes that hold reason at bay: “Remarquez que je ne brûle pas les relais, mais que je les élude” (Note that I do not rush through the halts but rather I avoid them). By a sequence of ellipses, at the end of an oblique course, the moment of Orphic recognition occurs—“une prairie irriguée un soir d'été,” “le campanile percé par l'orgie du vent” (a field irrigated on a summer evening, a campanile traversed by the wind's orgy). A conversation with France Huser dated 1980 and published in the Pléiade edition for the first time treats in lyrical manner the art of composition, “a game full of ruses and invention,” like an act of seduction. The title Sous ma casquette amarante refers to René Char's dark red cap but also to the autumn flower which, in the way of the poem, “does not wither.” Fire and water, moon and sun, beauty and truth conjoin in the substance of the text whose culminating figure is the woman, a shimmering Diana sensual and transparent, who was loved with the eyes of a Provençal adolescent, and loved and loved again under other names as poetry itself: “Je venais d'avoir quatorze ans et Diane n'avait que l'âge du désir qu'elle suscitait” (I had just turned fourteen and Diana was only as old as the desire she awakened).

Vaucluse was, and has remained, the living source of René Char's lyricism—a landscape of arid heat, mistral, spring waters; of aromatics, wheat, vines. Char does not depict it as such but, rather, its code of concrete wisdom, its alliance of sensuous charm and symbolic meaning. His verse echoes deeply in us like that of few other poets: “Je suis épris de ce morceau tendre de paysage”. …”; “Comme tendrement rit la terre. …”; “Rivière trop tôt partie, d'une traite, sans compagnon. …”; “O le blé vert dans une terre. …”; “Pures pluies, femmes attendues. …” It is plain that nature in the later collections takes on a particular spareness: no less central, it is graver, less jubilant: “La douleur est le dernier fruit, lui immortel, de la jeunesse” (Pain is the last fruit—an immortal one—of youth). On the other hand, the will is still as strong to turn to its refreshment, which is identified with consolation and reborn desire. “Se réchauffer l'ardeur” was written in December 1981.

Dans le froid, le vent, lancées vers vos montagnes,
Se confiant à leur rougeur,
Point d'ailes comme les vôtres, mes grives en décembre;
Moi je baisse la tête et j'amarre à la rive,
Coureur des eaux vertes originairement;
Oui, nous sommes pareils lorsque la peur nous crible
De son savoir jamais usé.
Le soleil disparut sur sa palette étroite
Taisant son lendemain fatal.
Nous ouvrîmes de guerre lasse
Sur la terre enfantine l'écluse d'un bref sommeil.
(In the cold, the wind, darting toward your mountains,
Confident in their redness,
No wings like yours, my December thrushes;
I lower my head and moor by the bank,
Originally a runner of green waters;
Yes, we are alike when fear fills us
With its ever powerful knowledge.
The sun disappeared on its narrow palette
Concealing its fatal tomorrow.
Wearily we opened
Over the earth of childhood the sluice of a short sleep.)

The irregular rhythm moves to an alexandrine balance, then to a series of even-syllabled lines, predominantly octosyllabic; and this evolution corresponds to a change from the forceful description of a December flock of birds whose redness is promise to a sober return to the self. By daring grammatical inversion the energy of the thrushes is caught in the first three lines, which contrasts with the subsequent pause of the boatsman who from experience knows the risks, and deceptions, and deadly lures. Yet his halt is not surrender but necessary respite, and the sluice waters of sleep offer a renewal secretly parallel to sunrise. Nature is this ever efficacious land of childhood: the heart has not lost its ability to find joy in birds, stream, sun, which it transforms into spiritual vitality like Rimbaud's “Million d'oiseaux d'or.”

Nevertheless, if this poetry is attached to its native earth, it is also nurtured by age-old languages to which it pays large tribute. Few books are as generous as Recherche de la base et du sommet (originally published in 1955 and, since, much augmented) in the naming of poets, painters, friends—Substantial Allies, Grand Compellers; and the recent La Planche de Vivre (1982), a series of English, American, Spanish, Italian and Russian poems translated by René Char in collaboration with Tina Jolas, is further proof of his openness. But these encounters are not stylistic, or thematic, but ontological: the game of poetry is a perilous one and the stakes are high. “Je vous écris en cours de chute” (I write to you in free fall), he says; again, speaking of the poet: “Ne te plains pas de vivre plus près de la mort que les mortels” (Do not complain that you live closer to death than mortals); again, of the poem that is at once the sudden vision of tree and harp: “Contrepoint du vide auquel je crois” (Counterpoint of the emptiness in which I believe). It is this integrity of thought and feeling, this combination of disabusement and beauty, that gives his work such power, for it assumes past and present while remaining faithful to threatened hopes. We think of René Char's interpretation of “La Bête innommable” in the Lascaux frieze as the eternal mother—“Wisdom with tear-filled eyes”—misunderstood, compassionate like the poem; we think too of the latest of all the texts included in the Pléiade volume, which is an untitled prose poem dated August 1982.

Comme les larmes viennent aux yeux puis naissent et se pressent les mots font de même. Nous devons seulement les empêcher de s'écraser comme les larmes ou de refouler au plus profond.

Un lit en premier les accueille: les mots rayonnent. Un poème va bientôt se former, il pourra, par les nuits étoilées, courir le monde, ou consoler les yeux rougis. Mais pas renoncer.

(As tears well up to our eyes, then appear and hurry forth, so do words. We must only prevent them from being crushed or repressing innermost depths.

A bed welcomes them first of all: the words are radiant. Soon a poem will be formed that will, on starry nights, be able to race across the world or to console reddened eyes. But not to renounce.)

Other poets have compared tears to poetic language; thus, Valéry comes to mind when he writes in one of his notebooks: “Et comme viennent les larmes aux yeux de l'ému, ainsi les paroles divines et plus qu'exactes du poète. …” (And as tears come to the eyes of an emotional man, so do the divine and more than accurate words of the poet). Yet in René Char the development goes, beyond a reference to the immediate sensibility, to an act of will, an act of love, a dynamic effect. The involuntary event is a prelude to the poet's husbanding care: the words find a familiar place, are brought to a bed of intimacy. Now a new conception and birth takes place which is the poem whose action in the world is multiple, its accompanying stars like crystalline tears; it traverses space as unfettered being, or—here the text comes full circle—brings comfort to tear-stained eyes. The piece might end here, but, in a manner typical of René Char, we find an unexpected conclusion. The three words, “Mais pas renoncer,” are a sign of the courage that is infused in his language as he escapes from formal and thematic symmetry. Like the tear, indeed like the collection of poetry as a whole, his poem is a statement whose ultimate veracity lies in its moral resoluteness, leaner today but no less exigent than in his early years. As he promised us four decades ago: “I shall not write a poem of consent.”

Note

  1. René Char. Oeuvres complètes. Jean Roudaut, intro. Paris. Gallimard (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade). 1983. lxxxvii + 1,364 pages. $45. On Char see also WLT 51:3, pp. 349-403.

John Porter Houston (essay date September 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8229

SOURCE: Houston, John Porter. “Modes of Symbolism in René Char's Poetry.” French Forum 10, no. 3 (September 1985): 339-54.

[In the following essay, Houston examines themes, images, and symbols in selected works of René Char.]

The three most helpful books on Char's work are concerned with tracing the evolution of his poetics, themes, and images.1 I intend to focus here on poetic structures, how symbols inform them, and the attendant problems in reading. The poems discussed all date from Fureur et mystère (1948) on and are mostly prose poems. I have left aside the aphorisms and do not attempt to fit the poems into any historical pattern, although a careful reader of Char can readily sense the existence of one. Since the Orion myth in Char has received much attention, I have not concerned myself with it. On the other hand, I have tried to discuss as many difficult texts as seemed feasible. The publication of the Pléiade edition of the Oeuvres complètes in 1983 (ed. Jean Roudaut [Paris: Gallimard]) has provided readers with some new material in its notes and variants, which I have made use of. For those who wish to refer to the poems in other editions, I have indicated the source for each piece: FM (Fureur et mystère, 1948), LM (Les Matinaux, 1950), PA (La Parole en archipel, 1962), NP (Le Nu perdu, 1971).

A useful preliminary approach to Char's symbolism is to analyze his use of female figures, for they are abundant in Char's poetry and their significance and mode of being vary considerably. In some poems, we encounter a woman in her ordinary human and sexual identity. Such is the case of “Léonides” (FM), where the repeated phrase “Es-tu ma femme” suggests the basic natural relation of the couple. At first she is sleeping; her “hypnose du phénix” implies she will reawaken, as does the ivy (a symbol of the recurrence of life, as well as of the feminine need for protection), with which the stone or sleep of time has surrounded her. She is told of the poet's progress: combat and the rose of his violence (with the positive sense of revolt it often has in Char) have yielded them their land, where bees and “pain naïf” denote plenty and creativity; a “Fête” awaits them (which the shooting stars of the title would seem to allude to). Amid all this symbolism, much of it familiar and recurrent in Char's poetry, “ma femme faite pour atteindre la rencontre du présent” keeps her human and material quality. She is simply the poet's authentic companion, whereas his conquests are metaphorical. Likewise, in “Biens égaux” (FM) the poet's garden of poetry differs distinctly from the woman he meets, who has pointedly “emerged” from a hymn or imaginative plane into reality, the concreteness of the latter being stressed by the explicit reference to sexual intercourse, after which the poet meditates, in regard to the woman's unresponsiveness, on disunity and unity.

The balance between the impression Char creates of a literal woman (though not, of course, necessarily of any one specific woman in real life) is sometimes a matter of detail. In “La Minutieuse” (PA) the poet walks through a flooded landscape with “Toi et cette Autre qui était Toi.” We learn shortly that one of the figures stays behind in a village and represents the woman's childhood, but to obviate any suggestion of abstraction, the poet holds in his hands both women's breasts, which seem not so much to imply spiritual nourishment as to sexualize the figures. The trees of memory are finally reached, and the temporal symbolism of the flood, which appears to threaten no one, becomes clear. But when the poet asks the remaining figure her “eternal name,” she replies “la Minutieuse,” a term which suggests the method of the poem with its largely paratactic succession of details. Thus the identification of woman and poem extends to the kind of imagination involved, not merely to the basic subject matter.

A woman's imagination explicitly envelops the poet in “Envoûtement à La Renardière” (FM), where she makes the blue-ringed eye of the air blink at her light, although no one has ever seen her face before except the poet at this moment when the wheel of life's alternations reaches a stopping point in its phases (“classes”). The abundance of symbolic expression is countered finally by words susceptible of a more concrete reading: the poet's memory has since known the “monsters,” a word Char uses almost exclusively to designate the enemy in World War II, and he has also “survived” the woman of this “Chant de Vous” and taken on a new role (“sosie”). Of course, we could allegorize the poem in the most abstract way and say that Char records here his giving up poetry during his Resistance years, but that seems a bit crudely reductive. However, the connotations of the female figure do go far beyond the human and sexual. In a very short poem, “Maison doyenne” (FM), the face which is seen in the winter “water flowers of the grass” and in the forest achieves a perfect ambiguity between the memory of a woman and an inner force associated with summer. “Mon amour” in the long, symbolic “Les Trois Sœurs” (FM) is connected with victory (the poem dates from the drôle de guerre) and, naturally, because of her sex, with the demonic child who is born in this time of upheaval. Nevertheless, like the woman in “Chaume des Vosges” (LM), written in the same circumstances, she need not be seen as a cause in any abstract sense.

The use of allegory in Char's poetry encompasses the range from poems in which abstract or thematic words or even statements provide an element of interpretive commentary, to those in which an action must be worked out solely in terms of narrative configurations or traditional symbols. A curious example of both kinds of poems in one is “Faim rouge” (NP), which in its first version had an epigraph designating the dead woman as revolution. In the poem's definitive form, it is something of an enigma: a woman associated with the poet dies, yet follows him, and a man who once slept with her contentedly dines. The earlier version, by the words “boulevard extérieur,” also made clear that the woman was a prostitute. While “Faim rouge,” as it is printed today, makes almost impossible demands on our powers of reading, “Congé au vent” (FM), with only the vaguest suggestion of self-contained commentary, employs classic symbols which, by extension, are easily interpreted. In the absence of wind (that is, change, process) a girl comes from the mimosa harvest. Crops often suggest poetry in Char, and yellow mimosa corresponds to the sun in its meaning of eternal life. Walking away from the setting sun, she appears to be approaching a previously mentioned village. The poet finds it would be “sacrilegious” to speak to her; she is like a lamp with a “halo.” The question which concludes the poem suggests, in condensed form, everything that is antithetical to the girl and field: “Peut-être aurez-vous la chance de distinguer sur ses lèvres la chimère de l'humidité de la Nuit?” Village and night betoken society, rest, sexuality, and above all mortality. The question is whether there is a connection between the poetic vision, for which Char uses Christian symbolism like so many post-Christian poets, and man's ordinary life or the poet seen in his purely human capacities. Char's themes work by implication and sometimes antithesis: poetry implies a poet, who is usually seen as one with his art, but here a gap is sensed between the mode of existence of poetry and that of the poet. If it is not quite a thorough-going antithesis, the disparity still generates wonder and uncertainty.

At times our reading may legitimately hesitate between the symbolic and the literal. The brief “Dot de Maubergeonne” (NP) speaks of a bride, the traditional symbolic herbs she has received, and the “rejoicing of roads” before her nuptial chamber. The speaker wishes a windy day for her when she emerges. The association among roads, moving onward like the wind, and imagination is frequent in Char's work, but should the bride be seen as a symbol or as a woman for whom a rich future is hoped? We have here a real crux. If “La Dot de Maubergeonne” is, however, too slight a piece to merit much concern, the remarkable “Eclairage du pénitencier” (FM), placed among war and Resistance poems in Fureur et mystère, presents a more complex problem. The poem is initially addressed to a toi, whose night the poet has wished to be short, in order to deceive “ta marâtre taciturne.” Day—by virtue of the title—and nature—with its unwanted cyclic alternations—could be referred to, but the poet's subsequent dreaming of himself “à ton côté” suggests more that toi is a woman, for whom he would be an “être fugitif harmonieux,” an escapee from the prison and associated with roads. As daylight dwindles, other expressions consonant with the figure of the poet are used. Although he is “exclu” and a prisoner, he is also “comblé” by a vision of “beauté planeuse,” which he addresses as vous. Usually, Char distinguishes vous and tu not by number or degree of intimacy, but to make clear that different persons or things are being spoken to. “Beauté” can either be abstract or designate a woman—or even something else. Perhaps here it means evening light, real or imagined like a woman. In any case, the poet feels contentment, although he realizes that his imprisonment is not yet at its worst: there is a poetic wind blowing over his yoke and lightening the sensation of it, as opposed to what will come later. The prison could have a social, political, or even psychological meaning, yet this does not disturb one so much as the fact that the antithesis to prison is rendered with complete ambiguity. In a symbolic convention in which women give off light and light represents the outside world where women are, we can scarcely eliminate polysemous readings, especially given the further frequent association of women with poetry and of poetry with the natural world.

I have spoken of antitheses as representing either complementaries or antagonisms in Char's poetic discourse. If man and woman are often complementary, man as poet is opposed to non-poets, and these may include women. A rather unusual modification of Char's familiar patterns occurs in “La Passe de Lyon” (PA), which tells of the poet's meeting a prostitute, “dans le répit des filatures,” in the Place Bellecour. She has unexpected associations with imagination: her eyes “voyagent,” her light is exchanged for that of meteors. Whether this is an ironic description of her allurements or a parody of Char's gallant manner is hard to say, but the poet characterizes himself with seeming seriousness: “Avec mes songes, avec ma guerre, avec mon baiser, sous le mûrier ressuscité. …” The poet is interested in “isolating” his “conquest” from her previous encounters with men and scarcely cares how many men she will have sex with afterward, provided that his experience becomes a “chef-d'œuvre”—poetic or otherwise, it is not clear. The conclusion consists of an apostrophe to his sexual desires, which function almost autonomously, with little regard for him as a whole. This woman is clearly incidental to the poetic vocation.

In “Joue et dors” (LM), which contains a characteristic kind of social allegory of good-humored oppressors driving a couple into a desert, thereby reducing their love to a purely “mortal” good fortune, the poet opposes his thirst for the tokens of imagination (aromatic herbs, clouds over the sea) to the necessity of not exposing his companion to danger by escaping with her. Woman as hindrance is most elegantly conveyed in “Le Gaucher” (NP), whose speaker regrets that an “odorante main” in his does not keep him from ravines, thorns, social pressures and other unpleasant sides of life, but does take away from him the “consolation” of contemplating evening light and sunset. The crepuscular image, fairly unusual in Char's work, may suggest more precisely a consolation for aging and death. (The fact that being left-handed, unable to hold another's hand properly, is a lifelong condition may be only an irrelevant association.) Finally, in “Les Lichens” (LM) the road, so often indicative of imagination, becomes a road of life in a wasteland, where a couple separates à l'amiable. We reach again the point where the female figure does not cause, represent, or participate in visionary experience, but is merely his opposite in one aspect of the poet's life.

The handling of feminine figures suggests some of the gamut of effects in Char's poetry. One particular device we have seen that Char exploits in poems which contain no overt commentary or abstract, thematic words is contrast. Antithesis in expression or bipartition in structure tend to generate meaning, even if they are too schematic to constitute an articulated argument in the traditional fashion. For example, the speaker of “Cur secessisti?” (FM) has withdrawn to a stone dungeon, where he addresses the winter sun and tells it of his sons on the hills: “mes fils qui sont incendiaires, mes fils qu'on tue sans leur fermer les yeux, s'augmentent de votre puissance.” The parent-child relation summons up the analogy of poet-poem, and, unlike Char's usual poet figures, this one is not free, but has channeled his liberty into his work, so that he and his progeny stand in an antithetical relationship. Combativeness and incendiary violence are indeed more often the property of poems than of their authors, to whom these attributes are given by hypallage, as elsewhere in Char's work. However, the title of this poem is not answered; we do not know why the poet has withdrawn, a piece of information which would have perhaps raised the antithesis to an argument.

In “Mirage des Aiguilles” (NP), which is longer, the antithesis is more elaborate. A substantial collective portrait opens the poem, in which we see cheerful, self-contented men who do not care to be aware that they are systematically robbed and deceived by those around them. Moreover, the images of their inadequately seasoned bread and of the hastily concealed “diamond of creation” indicate that these are inferior poets. The discouraged novice of the second part of the poem faces a plain of sinister fire, unlike the inviting, open spaces drawing other poet figures in Char's work. The present is a “massacre d'archers,” and thus the red plain is also a “trésor de boucher, sanglante à un croc.” The power of the poem lies partly in the very imperfection and, therefore, unexpectedness of the antithesis as far as imagery goes. If the thematic content offers exact opposition, a vision of red scarcely corresponds to the preceding portrait in the manner of light to darkness or of other imagistic counterparts. Interestingly enough, however, the two sections are in syntactic contrast: there is only one main finite verb in the rather nominal second part, whereas the first consists almost entirely of normal whole sentences.

There is only one poet, but two kinds of poetry in “Aiguevive” (NP). A carefully protected spring has been sending its water, marked with a “provident” face, to the garden of the poet's enemies. He resolves to abandon his usual inviting water poetry and seek his inspiration in the dry and austere back country: “La faute est levée.” This brief moral and esthetic allegory relies on a familiar symbol and its antithesis, but the running water of “L'Abri rudoyé” (NP) is said to share the poet's affection with grass, “qu'une charge de pierres arrête comme un revers obscur met fin à la pensée.” If this is an opposition of free movement to patient growth, it suggests Char's two symbols of creativity, movement into the distance and dogged work, but the final simile evokes more the contrast of life and death. Traditional symbolism does not dispel the ambiguity, as it does, for example, in Char's bestiary poems, where one can usually detect, even with little commentary, which qualities of the animal and its enemy are relevant.2 Thus in “Le Vipereau” (PA) the snake's role as outsider relates him to the poet. “La Rainette” (NP) preserves herself in water while the wind whips the bushes against the sky in its “aberration.” Of course, as we approach such emblematic descriptions, we move into a realm where we are obliged to make a self-conscious exegesis; we are using a different mode of reading from that we employ when merely perceiving the imagistic oppositions of poetry which lacks a literal level of meaning. It is idle to debate the merits of the two kinds of allegory, but in the one the tension between literalism and symbolism forces us into intellectual reflection of a kind that encourages unnecessary ingenuity and risks making the commentary too imposing for the poem.

Char's range of stylistic techniques is vast, and in some poems the presence of distinctions is more readily felt than easily demonstrated, so intricate is the language. In “Permanent invisible” (NP), for example, we know, reading back from the end, that a “double jardin,” two distinct, yet related things, is covered by the title phrase, and we can roughly perceive them as poetry and sexuality. “Invisible” is not always a literal term in Char: it implies enduringness (and so the title is slightly redundant), as well as a higher mode of being or feeling than that of routine pleasures. The difficulty in reading lies in the metaphoric overlay of references to hunting. “Chasse,” of course, is so ordinary a figurative term as not to cause a problem, but “gibier” is more precise: “boire frileusement” suggests something one might do while literally hunting, and “être brutal répare” could also fit the allusion. On the other hand, “Proche, proche invisible et si proche à mes doigts” suits poetic creation, and “novice corps à corps” strongly evokes the sexual (as might “boire” and “être brutal” as well). In between the references to “proche invisible” and the “corps à corps” occurs the phrase “distant gibier.” It is very difficult in this context of shifting, slithery connotations to point out exactly at what point in the poem the distinction is found between poetry and sexuality, for, while assimilated to each other to a considerable degree by the title, they also constitute separate “gardens.” (The variants, in this case, suggest some modification in the speaker's attitude in the course of reworking, but do not constitute a necessarily clearer version.)

Another uncommon structural pattern occurs in “Fenaison” (FM), where, as in much of Breton's poetry, the sentence forms are plain, with only modest hypotaxis, but a new image is introduced in each one, so that we are constantly confronted with problems of relation and sequence. A general narrative configuration can be perceived: the speaker, who has had only the “appearance” of a night of felicity after the death of the evil and deceiving “faneur,” goes through a struggle, defined in terms of work, and concludes that he is of too late and decadent an age to succeed in his undertaking. After lamenting that he is unable to “translate” his Sister from childhood into a galaxy, he recognizes that a strong companion will lead him to the end of the poem and triumphantly march off the next day. The words pertaining to night (“félicité,” “oiseaux,” “désir,” “Sœur”), to work (“pelle,” “sueurs,” “chantourne sa langue”), and to the poet's heritage (the Pythian or prophetic knighthood) are suitable for poetic activity, and the poem alludes to itself at its end. Nevertheless, the harvest or “fenaison” does not seem to have its usual sense of achievement, and the “Faneur” who has led the poet to this point in a cursed journey, appears to be not so much a reaper as a witherer or destroyer, in accordance with the other sense of the verb faner. Some details are clear, such as the poet's desire to huddle anonymously on the ship of life, an act of renunciation. The Sister from “les temps purs” is not at all sexualized, and the companion is perhaps another self or part of the self. Still, a number of words and phrases resist commentary (“mon front aux moulinets d'une lampe d'anémone”), and the poem seems much closer than most of Char's mature work to the Surrealist esthetic of his youth, where the desire for surprise and discontinuity is stronger than the concern for coherent symbolism. Mystery and intermittent clarity join.

The fondness for bipartition largely replaced the Surrealist kind of image sequence in Char, but the relation between the two parts of a poem is not necessarily antithetical. In “Fréquence” (FM), for example, Char links a distorted image of forging (the smith hammers the ground and extracts metal) to that of the smith cooling his arm in water and reaching for the deep “cold bell” of water plants. (An anecdote in the notes to the Pléiade edition clarifies the relation of forging to the traditional barrel of cooling water and to the river.) The images represent two aspects of poetic creation which tend to be separated elsewhere in Char: repeated labor (whence “fréquence”) and the quest.

“Fréquence” brings us closer to unitary imagery, and certain poems embody it even more fully. The brief “Tracé sur le gouffre” (NP) presents someone or something as suffering, turning into a river, then a road, and crossing through death. Since “it” has a secret, I presume, the poet's life is the relevant analogue, but with no defining, contrastive image, the poem is rather elusive. The figure in “L'Absent” (FM) was opposed to society's lies and confusion; he has vanished, but remains the “fourneau” or burning center of “unity,” apparently the unity of the speaker's world or being. The poet's former self (with whom violence and other traits of “l'absent” are connected in certain retrospective poems) would seem to be an acceptable answer to the implicit enigma of the piece. The twin beggar-roses of “Le Jugement d'octobre” (NP) have become a slight puzzle by the omission of material included in the variants, but the banality of the symbolism (late roses and hope) is not likely to detain the reader. A far greater example of a poem centered on one figure demands our attention.

If a unitary subject is unsupported by symbolic conventions, traditional or peculiar to the poet, it can, according to the degree of literalness of the language, give rise to a poem of monolithic difficulty. One of what I think are Char's two finest poems pertaining to the Resistance is cast in a form of expression which, had Char not briefly indicated elsewhere its subject, would risk making it all but incomprehensible. “L'Extravagant” (FM) is not an allegory in the ordinary sense of using metonymic or analogical terms; rather, tone and turn of phrase veil the horrifying episode described, about which Char would say only that it was a “marche au supplice,” evidently the execution of one of his fellow résistants.3

Something is amiss or idiosyncratic about the idiom of the poem right from the beginning: “Il ne déplaçait pas d'ombre en avançant. …” This fussy circumlocution evidently means that the figure is walking erect and not swaying from side to side, even though “son pas fût assez vulgaire,” a rather supercilious observation quite in keeping with the tone of the almost précieux speaker. It is next suggested that those who get up after little sleep may be “tentés par les similitudes.” We do not know for sure if the speaker is one of those who are up at an unaccustomed hour—his speech is too indirect for such a blunt statement—but he proceeds immediately into metaphor, including this periphrasis for snow: “cristaux à prétention fabuleuse que la morne démarche du quotidien sécrète, aux lieux de son choix, avec des attouchements de suaire.” This flower of rhetoric, in which we see a penchant for abstractions and verbal nouns suggestive of both Neoclassical and late 19th-century “decadent” styles, leads us to a negative comparison, here an idle-seeming embellishment: “Tel n'était pas ce marcheur. …” We begin to see that the economy of movement of the walking figure stands in contrast to the lavish phrase-making of the speaker, who is “l'extravagant,” overflowing with rhetorical invention.

By a kind of transference or hypallage, the icy wind whipping the figure's face is said to be “impersonal,” but of course it is the condemned man who is losing his person and identity. Beneath the flowery idiom we can sometimes distinguish meanings other than the surface one: the night is clean, that is, the snow untrodden, because the night “était commune à la généralité des habitants de l'univers qui ne la pénétraient pas.” Other men have abandoned the doomed figure or refuse to be aware of him. His detachment from life is insisted on in an ambiguous phrase: “Il avait perdu tout lien avec le volume ancien des sources propices aux interrogations.” The “sources” can be springs, symbolic of the future in Char, which one may question about one's own life, or else a figurative book of matters about which his tormentors have interrogated their prisoner under pressure. He has also lost touch “avec les corps heureux qu'il s'était plu à animer auprès du sien lorsqu'il pouvait encore assigner une cime à son plaisir, une neige à son talent.” “Corps heureux” follows the Buffonesque model of using a very general term and adding an ennobling adjective; the generality of “animer” in turn permits it to apply both to sex (“plaisir”) and to social relations (“talent,” in a somewhat old-fashioned absolute sense). “Neige” is an elegant variation for “cime.” Somewhat strained idiom continues: “La terre avait faussé sa persuasion,” that is, lost its charm. The fact that the man was not necessary to anyone else's life becomes “l'utile ne l'avait pas assisté, ne l'avait pas dessiné en entier aux regards des autres.” This “comédien,” who like all actors is detached from his personal life while performing, finally “tourne à jamais le dos au printemps qui n'existe pas,” the most eloquent phrase in the poem. His death is a final act of indifference to life.

The language of “L'Extravagant” is at times distant, almost as if the speaker did not know what was happening. The insipidity of his idiom, which is “literary” in the most pejorative sense, heightens the horror of what is being narrated. At the same time, the attenuating periphrases seem to render the gradual psychological emptying and vanishing of the actor's individuality. The intentional choice of a tone and style that are not, by ordinary criteria, suitable to the matter presented can be a rare and covertly eloquent device, making a virtue of that disparity between expression and subject which we normally associate with inept writers. It was part of Voltaire's array of mordant resources, and Baudelaire also used it in prose, notably in “Le Mauvais Vitrier.” There are a few other places where Char uses special styles as an integral part of his design, but in contrasting patterns. Thus “L'Inoffensif” (PA) presents two poets' descriptions of sunset and the disappearance of a loved one: the first is an unctuous, luxuriantly “poetic” evocation of the clichés of evening melancholy; the second is a terse, violent, authentic rendering of the same material. Style takes on moral as well as psychological and esthetic values. In “Bienvenue” (NP) glorious visions of the poet's afterlife sound like a parody of some of Char's more exultant poems, while the conclusion bluntly points out that an engraved stone, that is, silence and the written word, are what the poet will be reduced to. The images and aphorisms of “Contre une maison sèche” (NP) are arranged in pairs so that the style of the second often corrects and comments on the first.

Stylistic indirection is also marked in Char's allusions to religion. Aside from one overt reference to Christ's inadequacy in the events of the war (“Carte du 8 novembre” [FM]), these are generally somewhat veiled and ambiguous, despite genuine vehemence. The simplest, because of its use of traditional imagery, is to be found in “Violences” (FM). The allegory begins with the poet's lantern, his quest, which leads him to a prison courtyard, where eel fishermen come nightly to gather the few sparse herbs the place has to offer to bait their lines with. The symbolism is rich: fishing for eels, a treacherous, devious prey, is a perversion of the Christian pursuit of the wholesome fish or ichthys (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”) in the lifegiving sea, a contrast marked in the phrase “pègre des écumes,” applied to the eel-fishers. The speaker disdains a life spent with these nighttime prisoners and enters the garden of the dead. Its flowers, however, are “servile” traitors, the “companions of men,” but also the “ears” of a remote, forbidding Creator, with whom communication goes only one way.

Elsewhere the symbolism is less overt, and we are aware primarily that there is some sinister force which cannot be clearly ascribed to the social or political domain. In “Calendrier” (FM) a turbulent sequence of images includes references not only to a beneficent female presence, “spacious force,” rising movement, moral consolidation, and the disarming of equinoctial storms, but also to an enslavement to the oracle, which the poet is now free of. “J'éprouve ou non la grâce” is his ironic comment—grace in his sense, but not in that of others. The beach which winter had strewn with “légendes régressives” and thorny sibyls is now cleared and smoothed over. Char's fondness for terms from métiers unexpectedly shows up at the end of the poem: “Je sais que la conscience qui se risque n'a rien à redouter de la plane.” The poem's language is like a kind of symbolic shorthand in its dense use of brief allusions to imagery and themes developed elsewhere in Char's work; however, all the varied positive images are clearly grouped against a single coherent strain of negative references (oracle, backward legends, and sibyls), which, under a classical guise, designate Christianity. Much more cryptic is the allusion in “Note sibérienne” (NP), where, in a “Nordic” land remote from Char's usual settings, a new, hostile kind of snow has been falling and the suffering inhabitants repeat in protest that “nous sommes une étincelle à l'origine inconnue qui incendions toujours plus en avant.” The divine origin and immortality of the soul is alleged in the face of a world gone wrong, but the soul eludes all proof of its existence: we cannot even hear it “râler et crier” at the moment of our death.

With “Les Inventeurs” (LM), we find a perfectly clear and elegant narrative about a people who irrigate, plow, and build in contentment, while “les forestiers de l'autre versant,” who come to warn them of a cyclonic storm predicted by their ancestors, thrive rather on a crude life dominated by terror and superstition. The allusion to religion seems to me fairly evident, and a somewhat similar poem, “Les Seigneurs de Maussane” (LM), has a comparable suggestion. These poems are very different from the ones where dark political forces threaten, but there is one piece which seems to combine the idea of the supernatural and the political. In “Fossile sanguinaire” (NP) the conquering enemy brings torments “dont il n'était ni l'auteur ni l'inventeur.” The enemy is merely the agent of a “supplice dont la décision provenait on ne sait d'où.” The point of the poem is perhaps that the surviving (“demeurant”) old speaker resists the invasion, as do the “providential” young, but the mysterious origins of the evil descended upon the land have an analogy in certain conceptions of original sin.

Finally, “Dyne” (NP), a very difficult text, appears to me to refer to Christ in “l'homme transpercé,” whom the poet passes by in order to find his own “Verbe” and faith. The poet's paradise turns out to be an austere desert, but one of his own making, in contrast to the “sites immémoriaux” graced by “la lyre fugitive du père.” The “Verbe” is more specifically referred to in “Seuil” (FM). When mankind's dam breaks because of the “abandon du divin,” words try to rescue themselves. “Là se décida la dynastie de leur sens.” This would seem to allude to the fact that a post-Christian poet like Char necessarily uses a vocabulary rich in Christian resonances, even though it has been purged of any theological reference. Roads, morning, springs, and other symbols derive from centuries of Christian figurative use, just as Christian expression drew, in its origins, on antecedent imagery. In a characteristic shift, the words become “friends” in the second part of the poem—there is bipartition without antithesis—and they are welcomed by the poet's “laughing” cypress staff, which rejoices over being freed from the cemetery, where traditional usage kept the cypress.

Not only are Char's references to religion infrequent, but also, as a result, they employ language which does not form part of his usual symbolic vocabulary. In a number of other poems we find, in addition to familiar categories of imagery, expressions which seem cryptic or terms whose customary figurative associations are altered. For example, in “Affres, détonation, silence” (FM), the memorial poem for Roger Bernard, the phrase “la foudre au visage d'écolier” alludes at once to death and poetry, since Bernard was a poet; “visage d'écolier” is not so much an odd iconographic conception of death as a reference to the fact that Bernard was still quite young when he was killed. In “Le Banc d'ocre” (NP) the glowworm symbolizes death beckoning, in ghostlike fashion, to the aging couple. The ash tree in “Sous le feuillage” (NP) is the poet's proper shelter because ash trees cannot be burned or destroyed by lightning, and foudre is what emanates from him (“frapper du regard” is a figurative thunderbolt). “L'Ouest derrière soi perdu” (NP) alludes to the old association between the west and the darkness of death; in winter the west has disappeared, but returns in spring as an ordinary landscape. “Pénombre” (FM) suggests the symbol of the center or place outside banal space and containing an essential, almost magic reality; the distant stars appear hostile because they represent the laws and fate of the ordinary world. The “non lumineux” of “Mutilateurs” (NP) is the revolt which did not take place, as a result of which the fountain of poetry and the future is defaced and life (called “time” by metonymy) limps. The “vitrail” of “Force clémente” (FM) represents poetry, and the elliptical absolute construction means “I create poetry if. …” The “Fête” of “Grège” (LM) seems at first to betoken love or life; however, the death with which it is contrasted is figurative, lying both before and after the fête (cf. “retour à la mort”). Actually, the fête appears to be creativity, of which love is but one aspect, and must be abandoned triumphantly before the poet's powers wane and his aspirations become “irréalisables.”

Two poems are built around terms which seem to shift in meaning in the course of them. “Mon amour” in “Allégeance” (FM) is not a woman, but the poet's love, a part of him personified, which is not clear until the end of the poem, where we learn that his love was once loved, an expression which explains the title. A somewhat misleading line also opens “Le Mortel Partenaire” (PA), which is an allegory based on boxing. The first words are “Il la défiait.” Despite the feminine pronoun, this is not some banal “battle of the sexes” or much less “bed,” as one commentator puts it. Char is very careful that we do not form some kinky image of a couple in boxing gloves and trunks. The second boxer becomes “l'adversaire,” then “le second” and then “celui-ci.” While the masculine noun adversaire can be used of women, it is unidiomatic to make sustained reference to a woman with masculine nouns and pronouns. In spite of the feminine suggestion of “une virginité agréable,” Char is blurring and shifting his imagery, the technique we have noted in “Permanent invisible.” The second boxer ultimately kills the first, and we are still uncertain about the detail and sense of the piece. The early pronoun la, ringing ambiguously in our memory, is finally caught up in the commentary on the allegory, where we encounter the feminine noun vie. Certain men try to get to the secret of life: “elle les tue.” Life is often personified in the feminine (life is a bitch; quelle chienne de vie), but with no particular iconographic associations, so that Char's peculiar allegory exploits ambiguities of image and gender.

The symbols I have just discussed are of the occasional type, but Char's customary arsenal of images should not be conceived of as functioning like the words in an elementary language textbook, which have only one meaning and are used in only limited ways. Char's symbols are more like the words in the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] or the “big” Robert, where whole columns are needed to chart their vagaries of sense and use. The normal associations of Char's symbols are subject to being recombined for new effect. Sometimes this is fairly unobtrusive, as in “La Compagne du vannier” (FM), where the basketmaker is not settled in a workplace like “Louis Curel de la Sorgue” (FM), but moves steadily onward (“Aller me suffit”) in contrast to people who have “round” or circumscribed imaginations. His “compagne” is appropriately described in terms of outward nature and vast inner spaces (“ton domaine”), to which a kiss on the mouth (“chiffre”) gives access. The speaker's métier serves primarily to motivate the image of controlling or enclosing despair in the space of a small wicker basket or poem, like the dark one immediately proceding, “Violences.”

Whether love is a part of imagination or imagination part of love in Char's poetry is a nice question, and the relation of the two can perhaps best be defined only in regard to individual poems. If “désir” is associated with poetry in “Force clémente” (FM) and “Fenaison” (FM), the lovers of “Les Premiers Instants” (FM) are borne by one of Char's floods (the symbolism of which varies considerably) on the “arc tout-puissant de son imagination,” where the couple is, further, “poncé jusqu'à l'invisible,” just like a poem—or just like poetry and sexuality taken together in “Permanent invisible.” There is ambiguity in “Vermillon” (PA), where something which could be a woman, poetry or water is summoned up; it scarcely matters here, because the point of the poem, expressed in colloquial rhythms after the alexandrines of the invocation, is that, whatever is being called on, it does not come. If more terms in “Vermillon” seem appropriate to a woman than to poetry or water, the same group of associations in “Médaillon” (FM) is perhaps dominated by poetry, because “foudre” begins the poem and “électricité du voyage” closes it.

Combined references to poetry and to unpleasant social or political realities appear to be more frequent in Char's later work. The dying poet of “Chérir Thouzon” (NP) has become mute as a flood recedes, opening an “ère rigoureuse” of “audace nouvelle,” both expressions being highly pejorative in this context. The character of the flood is suggested by the fact that it leaves behind it not only mud, but also traces of blood. In an entirely different vein, “Le Requin et la mouette” (FM) joins the seemingly incompatible images of a perfect moment (“ni éternel ni temporel,” as Char entitles another poem about a moment) with the imagery of indefinite movement forward. A simple juxtaposition suffices to connect “un jour de pur dans l'année,” when shark and gull communicate in nature's noontide unity, with the “fiévreux en-avant” of a ship for whom all ends are new departures.

If Char's associations of images or themes present problems only when one begins to reflect on them, his disassociation of things that frequently go together are sometimes startling in the general context of his œuvre. The poets of “Le Nu perdu” (NP) collectively endure existence before and after the moment of illumination (“éclair,” “fruit,” “entaille,” “signe”) and hoist from its well the “jarre du ralliement.” Solitude or a society of two is the normal condition of the poet in Char, and mankind at large is usually his antagonist rather than the object of “ralliement.” Even more surprising is the disassociation in “Front de la rose” (PA). The poem first evokes a room in which the scent of a rose, the memory of a woman, cannot be dissipated, and the poet experiences it with desire, as if for the first time. This languorous note is unusual in Char, who employs the word rose often enough elsewhere, but without the suggestion of heady, enervating odor. The second part of the poem represents a man marching soldier-like through rain and hostile parts, with the warning that “s'il s'arrête et se recueille, malheur à lui … il vole en cendres, archer repris par la beauté.” Marching is disengaged from its usual sense of a poetic quest in which beauty would normally play a role. Evidently the point is to distinguish a certain form of beauty, perhaps a certain aspect of women, from the rigor and austerity of the poet's calling and achievement. The freshwater poetry and the wasteland poetry distinguished in “Aiguevive” offer an analogy.

Differing kinds of poetry are again suggested by “Eclore en hiver” (NP). Summer, sun, and outdoor spaces are common correlatives of poetic creation in Char, but night, winter, and a room with a candle here produce the “ouvrage,” which paradoxically is full of “force intacte et clairvoyance spacieuse.” The poet epitomizes the sunny day which dawns and his own nighttime work as “Brocante dans le ciel: oppression terrestre.” As he had earlier referred to the sun's divine harness, the superficial meaning of “brocante” is worn mythological trappings, but by extension it refers to all clichés and insubstantial glitter. Poems like this one take on their full force in the whole context of Char's poetry, where a piece on the sun like “Force clémente” (FM) is an exact contrary. Char is an aphorist as much as a poet, and the art of the aphorist presupposes nuance, contrast, and discontinuity, as opposed to the smoothness, consistency, articulation, and development of systematic exposition.

One of the normally unfissile unities in Char's thematics is that among the esthetic, the moral, and the physical. Thus we find complexes such as poetic vision in the esthetic domain, freedom in the moral realm, and open spaces or eroticism in the physical order. In “L'épi de cristal égrène dans les herbes sa moisson transparente” (FM), however, we find what looks at first like the poet stripped of his concern with poetry—only the word chant, used in the metaphoric sense, belongs in any precise way to the field of poetry. The rather sexual-sounding title anticipates the union of a woman with the “donneur de liberté,” an expression which is exceptionally repeated, as if to underscore the dominant aspect of this figure. The woman is, at first, “son amour,” then merely dative “lui,” or included in “ils”; she has only the most shadowy existence in contrast to her lover. After telling her of his legendary exploits, the latter vanishes to “se confondre avec d'autres naissances, une nouvelle fois.” The words “alchimie du désir,” “leur mère” (suggestive of “matrice,” “matière mère”), and “naissances” (in the alchemical sense) confer a distinctly allegorical character on the sexual act, as do the “moisson transparente” of the title and the simile “semblable à … la création d'un fluide par le jour.” The obtaining of freedom by a moral act seems to be the sense towards which alchemy and sexual union (which are symbolic equivalents) point, and we find the same notion, accompanied by legend-like imagery, in “Ne s'entend pas” (FM): “nous nous faisions libres tous deux. Je tirai d'une morale compatible les secours nécessaires.” This removal of freedom from the practical domain to invest it with the unassailable character of a state like grace is characteristic of Char's ethical attitudes.

I earlier referred to the way Char at times uses something like a symbolic shorthand. This aspect of his language is notable in certain poems which are not in themselves symbolic structures, or at least not in the same sense as most of the poems I have been discussing. There are some pieces which are recollections, contrasting the past to the present, such as “Rémanence” (NP), “Sommeil aux Lupercales” (NP), and “Vétérance” (NP); at least one reflective monologue, “J'habite une douleur” (FM); narratives like “Anoukis et plus tard Jeanne”; and brief epitomes or reminiscences of the drôle de guerre and Resistance. In all of these poems we observe that Char deploys images similar to those of his allegories: “Voici que dans le vent brutal nos signes passagers trouvent, sous l'humus, la réalité de ces poudreuses enjambées qui lèvent un printemps derrière elles” (“Vétérance”). In this remarkable sentence we find references to present poems, past youth, oppressive physical or social conditions, and life as a quest. The non-symbolic poems often demand the same care in reading as texts like “Calendrier” or “Médaillon.”

In Char's poetry we encounter virtually all the techniques (and consequent problems) relevant to allegory or dense symbolism: ambiguity of symbols, intermittent literalness, reliability or uncertainty of thematic words or statements, personification, enigma, implication as opposed to overtness, imperfect antithesis, non-traditional or occasional symbols, and symbols in isolation. Moreover, the associative groupings of symbols contain widely divergent images or ideas. To take only the major symbolic grouping in Char, that pertaining to poet, creation, and poetry, we find its constituents vary in frequency of use and stability of sense. Besides space, roads, voyages, and freedom, there are the notions of sunlight, morning, and invisibility. Water appears as ocean, river, stream, spring, or fountain. Combat, violence, and revolt are easily related, but work, harvest and bread seem heterogeneous to them, although, curiously enough, Char manages to link the ideas of battle and repetitive labor in “Louis Curel de la Sorgue” (FM). Lightning, fire, and storms are logical opposites of certain symbols of the same grouping. A tremendously subtle, and varied imagination produces from all this heteroclite material a symbolic language which is coherent and readable, but more like a living tongue in its shadings and occasional surprises than like an abstract or entirely rational system.

The coherence of Char's language is related to another very distinctive aspect of his œuvre subsequent to the surrealist phase. His work frequently reminds us of the old genres that used to be called didactic: not only allegory, but also allegoria, or a shorter statement in an image, often used in proverbs (“Tant va la cruche à l'eau qu'enfin elle se casse”); maxims or aphorisms; the bestiary; the emblem or enigma; the fable even or parable (such as “Masque funèbre,” “Aliénés,” “Recours au ruisseau,” or “Chanson du velours à côtes”); finally, the moral portrait (“Yvonne” is a good example). A whole literature that to taste formed by the lyric appeared foreign to poetry is reflected, with greater or lesser fidelity, in Char's work. This is one respect in which he differs notably from other abundant users of symbols.

Finally, Char's symbolism stands out for the distinctive way in which it often suggests and sometimes even demands readings that encompass the esthetic, ethical, sexual, social, physical, and political domains. My comments on his poems have not done justice to the multivalent character of his symbology, since I was concerned with more rudimentary problems in interpretation, but this aspect of his work separates him from those poets who, if we are to believe their critics, write about nothing but the imagination. Char is decidedly not in that category.

Notes

  1. Mary Ann Caws, The Presence of René Char (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976); Virginia A. La Charité, The Poetics and the Poetry of René Char (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1968); and James R. Lawler, René Char: The Myth and the Poem (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1978).

  2. I have not commented on the most famous bestiary poems, those of “La Paroi et la prairie,” in La Parole en Archipel, because James R. Lawler has made a detailed study of them, pp. 51-107.

  3. “Le sujet de ce poème est une affreuse circonstance que je ne veux pas décrire, une marche au supplice. Hypnos rompit le rêve et découvrit le cauchemar.” René Char, Arrière-histoire du poème pulvérisé (Paris: Jean Hughes, 1953), p. 31. Curiously enough, a commentator in 1976 wrote about this poem: “And the poet hunter, extravagant in the strictest sense of wandering outside (extra-vaguer) founds his anguished wisdom here on a cold and lucid solitude, striding along under the luminous veil of these aromatic colors that will guide his final ascent to the place, no longer that of the Minotaur, but of Orion …” (Caws, p. 206).

Virginia A. LaCharité (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: LaCharité, Virginia A. “The Conflicts of Art: René Char's Placard pour un chemin des écoliers.” In Rewriting the Good Fight: Critical Essays on the Literature of the Spanish Civil War, edited by Frieda S. Brown, Malcolm Alan Compitello, Victor M. Howard, Robert A. Martin, pp. 185-97. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, LaCharité discusses the effects of war on the evolution of Char's early poetic development.]

Poetry … goes forward in order to indicate the movable road.(1)

The Spanish Civil War is the artistic and historical event that definitively marks the end of René Char's affiliation with Surrealism and the beginning of his adoption of a poetics of response. Char's identification with the events in Spain in 1936 and early 1937 is both personal and aesthetic. Among Char's close friends in the Surrealist group were the Spanish painters Picasso, Miró, and Dali,2 and he had visited Spain three times, twice in 1931 with the poet Paul Eluard and again in 1932 with his childhood friend, Francis Curel. Familiarity with Spain, admiration for the Spanish avant-garde, a growing awareness of the ominous political events in Europe, and a life-threatening case of blood poisoning came together for Char the man with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and confronted Char the poet with the conflicts of art.

As an active member of the second generation of Surrealists, Char participated enthusiastically in their artistic and political activities in the early 1930s in order to place Surrealism “at the Service of the Revolution.” His own work during these years, collected in the volume Le Marteau sans maître (1934), is characterized by an aggressive language, provocative images, a hatred of absurdity in the world, hostility toward all forms of authority, explosive phrases, even violence. Nevertheless, Le Marteau sans maître is a disturbing work, for underlying the tone of insolence and rage, especially in the section Poèmes militants, there is the suggestion that the Surrealist demand for revolution is not a synonym for action but is rather the embracing of an attitude which separates action from art, an attitude which exalts scandal, insists on an aesthetic of emotionalism, ignores the social response value of language, denies common sense, and favors total revolt—the utopian dream of a world in which anything and everything is potentially marvelous and the pleasure principle reigns supreme. While the Surrealists were avowedly against external authority in all forms (anti-fascist, anti-religious, anti-bourgeois)—stances which led them to celebrate the establishment of the Spanish Republic in 1931 and then later, in 1936, to identify with the anarchists (the POUM and FAI factions)—during the 1930s they gradually abandoned their original attitude of revolt as insubmission and moved closer and closer to a somewhat mythical concept of the self: revolt in the name of absolute freedom, disorder, and fulfillment of desire. Marx's “transform the world” and Rimbaud's “change life,” the two basic tenets of Surrealism, nearly cease to be constructive rallying cries in the Surrealists' efforts to effect their “revolution” through political commitment. In fact, they were openly viewed as dilettantes by the very political group they sought to join and “serve.” The basic Surrealist love of the irrational borders on nihilism and is astutely analyzed by Albert Camus in his Actuelles I and L'Homme révolté.3

As the Surrealists themselves disagreed over how to accomplish their own revolution, they found themselves electing Rimbaud over Marx, choosing to defend an attitude of all or nothing and refusing in the process a historical response to the human condition. While André Breton always insisted that love was the value and the moral, that the freedom of the individual would somehow lead to that of all of society, he, nonetheless, viewed art as the expression of man's inner self and desires, not as a response that confronts reality in the name of mankind. The problem of the Surrealist “personal self” in opposition to the non-Surrealist “collective self” is a leitmotif in René Char's Moulin premier (1936), a group of seventy aphorisms and two poems which subvert the Surrealist aesthetic of separating art from action, history from revolt. Throughout this work, Char begins to view poetry as a possible response to history: “Earth, becomingness of my abyss, you are my bathtub for reflection” (OC [Oeuvres complètes], 62).

Moulin premier is marked by a vocabulary and phraseology of reflection, control, rationalism, responsibility, and lucid protest. Char refuses total revolt or revolt for the sake of revolt; instead, he indicates that language can correct the world, lead to order, even alleviate moral suffering; the poet has the responsibility not to confront a real which is a construction of the mind but to classify the real and refuse to accept its arbitrary conditions: “The Poet precedes the man of action, and when he encounters him, declares war on him. the parvenu had at least promised to be present in his perilous fights!” (OC, 67).

Char's aesthetic and personal movement away from Surrealism evolves gradually and naturally. He never had an outright break with Breton or with the group. Yet, his selection of the title of his first theoretical writings on the role of poetry in the contemporary world, Moulin premier, strongly suggests by the numerical term first that he has already passed beyond Surrealism although he has not yet identified a second mill for his writing. At this moment of artistic transition, Char was taken dramatically ill with a nearly fatal case of blood poisoning. The illness brought Char the man face to face with his own mortality and made him intimately aware of death as an inalienable historical aspect of the human condition.

During the months of his recovery, he corrected the proofs for Moulin premier, which offered him a review of his Surrealist adventure, and he read Nietzsche, whose nihilism and lack of a human value system repudiated Char's admiration for the Heraclitean theory of flux and becomingness. At the invitation of René Roux, an aspiring young poet and painter who was the schoolmaster at the Collège de L'Ile-sur-Sorgue, Char's native town, Char spent the month of August 1936 in Céreste, “a village lost in the hills of Provence” in Haute-Provence (OC, 1116). René Roux had three younger brothers, “small schoolboys from 12 to 14 years old” (OC, 1116), who accompanied Char every afternoon on long walks in the area. Describing at length the youths' joys at spending so much time with Char, Georges-Louis Roux testifies to Char's interest in children and adolescents, the marvelous stories he related, and how the summer of 1936 must have been for Char a “moment of relaxing and of happiness, a fleeting respite” (OC, 1122). It was shortly after this period of respite and reflection that Char undertook Placard pour un chemin des écoliers, which he dedicated to the children of Spain and had illustrated by Valentine Hugo.4 The effects of his recognition that he had evolved aesthetically away from Surrealism and his personal period of recuperation, of contact with nature and the Roux family children in Céreste, undeniably form the underpinnings of Placard.5

The theme of childhood which characterizes much of Char's work does not emerge as one of his major subjects until the publication of Placard in 1937. Prior to this work, Char tends to treat childhood in a typical Surrealist fashion: the child is not yet tainted by societal inhibitions and prejudices, the child enjoys using freely his imagination and intuition, the child believes that creations of the mind are real. With Placard, and, indeed, since 1937, the child for Char represents innocence, health, happiness, and human potential for rising above man's terrestrial circumstances. Like the poet, the child precedes the man of action—a form of matinal light and a source of illumination.

Written during the winter of 1936-37,6Placard consists of an introductory prose text, “Dedication,” and seven verse poems which are written in a language and style that directly oppose Char's former Surrealist practice. The texts of Placard are basically conventional in form and share a sense of anguish and social protest against suffering. Throughout the small volume, the tone is one of a melodic continuum, which consistently expresses a poetic belief in the potential of the text to respond to objective reality. In many ways, Placard reflects the moral and spiritual crisis experienced by Char the man and Char the poet in 1936. In a letter written to André Breton, explaining why he cannot participate in the Surrealist exhibition in 1947, Char observes that “I am not the one who simplified things, but horrible things made me simple” (OC, 660).

Awareness of the horrors wrought by the events of the Spanish Civil War is summarized for Char in the suffering of the children of Spain, and yet these very same children offer him insight into man's refusal to be reduced to his historical circumstances. In an introduction written in 1949 to the second edition of Placard pour un chemin des écoliers suivi de Dehors la nuit est gouvernée, Char expresses his personal and aesthetic agitation over the events in Spain that foreshadowed World War II and its atrocities: “I ran” (OC, 85). Indeed, the highly personal tone of this 1949 text dramatizes Char's awareness of the importance of the inner crisis he experienced in 1936. And this 1936 crisis, which was physical, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual, continues to resurface throughout his work. In 1956, for example, his preamble to En trente-trois morceaux recalls Placard as one of four capital poetic turning points in his work (OC, 772). In 1979, his attack on nuclear weapons echoes the events that triggered Placard: “How many [people] fall in love with humanity and not with man!” (OC, 578). Telescoping the human tragedy of the Spanish Civil War into an evocation of the children in only seven texts in Placard becomes a preferred Char structure of condensation in his poetry, as the fragment bears witness to the whole: “Since the operation of totalitarianisms we are no longer tied to our personal self but to a collective self assassin, assassinated” (OC, 579).

The shift to an optic beyond the self and the recognition of the need to become involved responsibly with the outer world are expressed by the word placard of the title: a written opinion publicly posted to make a specific announcement. The phrase, “a road for schoolboys,” is typical of Char's post-Surreal period. While the Surrealists frequently and humorously used proverbs and clichés in their effort to purify language and return it to its original source, Char's adoption of common phrases and terms goes beyond the confines of the page to create new exchanges between words, lines, poems, and the experience of poetry. On the literal level, the phrase evokes a roadway frequented by schoolboys, not unlike the path taken each afternoon in Céreste in the summer of 1936 by Char and the Roux children. The warm, fraternal, and innocent image of a peaceful scene is not disrupted by the public posting of a sign along this particular road. But, écolier in French does not refer only to a pupil or schoolboy; it also refers to anyone who is not skilled in his profession, a learner, one who is at the beginning of a given experience. The very choice of the word écolier takes the title and the volume beyond the confines of a single event and opens up the volume to a more universal level of meaning. On the figurative level, the French expression for the longest road is “le chemin des écoliers” [“the road for schoolboys”], and, with this reading, the title takes on its ultimate significance. It is an announcement that reality is harsh, history limits human activity, and the poet must protest against his time, give it form, and bear witness to the future. The title is a conscious declaration to revolt against all limitations, but it also recognizes that such an action will not be without its hardships, struggles, setbacks, and sacrifices. The nature of that revolt is not clearly outlined in Placard, but the reasons for that revolt are the subject of the volume.

The “Dedication,” written in March 1937, is provocative in its use of capital letters to describe the children of Spain as victims of the war around them: “RED.” They are dead, thrown into a common ditch and covered with mud, in contrast to the poet's memories of his bucolic childhood, which was marked by World War I. But that war took place on the frontiers and in distant battle zones; it did not disrupt and overturn his everyday existence. By contrast, the Spanish Civil War affects the daily lives of children, whose “école buissonnière,” or playing hooky, is a school of death, not of life. The “Dedication” ends with a second address to the “Children of Spain” and a salute to their “matinal eyes,” which is the earliest appearance of the term matinal in Char's work. Char the man begs for their forgiveness; Char the poet cries out that he has written the work “With my last reserve of hope.”

The discovery of hope in the atrocities suffered by children ties together the seven poems that make up Placard. Each poem bears witness to love as the only possible means for dealing with the oppressiveness of daily horror. Daytime is evoked as bitter, a time of schism, deception, distress, and anguish, while night is seen as a time of peace, renewal, unity, and promise. The historical determinism of day is countered by the affirmative reconciliation of night. The nihilism of Nietzsche is already giving way to Char's postwar predilection for Heidegger and a poetics of pulverization and crispation. The “loyal adversaries” of Char the man and Char the poet emerge in their first form in the seven texts of Placard.

In a very real sense, Placard is a volume of a poetry of circumstances, inspired by a specific external event and written to deal with the particular circumstances of that event. But, as an examination of the title alone shows, Placard is not circumstantial in its attitude of response. Throughout Char's subsequent work, Placard reemerges in different forms, as Char the man and Char the poet accept the world as it is and find in it values worthy of admiration and expression. To the redemptive quality of love, which is perhaps the most important carryover from his Surrealist days, Char will later add the redemptive quality of courage (Feuillets d'Hypnos, 1946). Still, in Placard there come together for the first time in his work the two ends of his poetic bow: “obsession with the harvest” takes the form of the value of mankind as represented by the children of Spain, and “indifference to history” is affirmed in commitment to the artistic value of creation. Placard refutes the agony of the historical circumstances in a blunt declaration that hope is possible only through poetic action: “my last store of hope.”

The question that continues to confront the reader of Char's work in general and Placard in particular is: why Spain? Why did the Spanish Civil War serve as such a catalyst for Char the man and Char the poet? The answer does not lie in Char's trips to Spain nor in his deep friendships with Spanish painters, but it is clearly articulated by Camus in Actuelles I, which is dedicated to Char: “The first weapons of the totalitarian war were soaked in Spanish blood. … We delivered to Franco, on Hitler's order, Spanish Republicans … who raised his voice? No one. … We are responsible” (244-46). Char's physical condition prevented him from directly participating in that war, but among his Surrealist contemporaries only one, Benjamin Péret, actually took up arms in an effort to prevent the Nationalists from delivering Spain to an oppressive dictatorship. The French Surrealists were notably absent from the war despite their admiration for the Republican cause. Writing in L'Amour fou in 1937, Breton expresses regret that he did not join Péret and participate in the war because he was waiting for the birth of his daughter: “I did not have the courage.”7 Yet, reason, not the irrational, demanded a response in 1936. It may very well be that the Surrealist movement lost its momentum because of the Spanish Civil War, that the breakup of the group, which occurred in 1940 and 1941 at the onset of World War II, was already underway in 1936. Certainly, those Surrealists who remained in France and joined the Resistance were never able again to embrace the Surrealist election of the pleasure principle over reality. In point of fact, those who did not go into exile had aesthetically moved beyond the Surrealist attitude by the mid-1930s. It may even be speculated that without World War II the events of the Spanish Civil War would have sufficed to trigger in Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos, and others what Louis Aragon had already determined and what René Char would later describe as the discovery that “It must be admitted that poetry is not sovereign everywhere. … The poet, susceptible to exaggeration, evaluates correctly in agony” (OC, 207, 212).

In Placard, the text becomes for Char a dialectic between “a subjective assessment” and “an objective choice” (OC, 162). The poem is no longer situated in inner space, “intimate space in which our imagination and our feelings play,” but it is instead situated in time, what Char describes as circular space, “that of the concrete world” (OC, 509). What was lacking aesthetically in the texts of Le Marteau sans maître, time or circular space, becomes the structuring principle of Placard pour un chemin des écoliers: “Terror surrounds us and an artistic anti-life takes possession” (OC, 700). Poetry must “indicate the mobile road” (OC, 734).

While the image of chemin pervades Char's work, nowhere does it more fully bring together a volume of poems than in Placard. The word chemin indicates the process of artistic creation, the promise of “the next” vista, turn, a very human form of Char's notion of the immediate future. A road suggests motion, the probable encounter with others, a common concrete space that exists in human terms. A road occupies space, yet it denies the limitations and restrictions of that space, actually contradicts the confines of that area in its invitation to advance, continue, all the while never abandoning the notion of redistributing those limits. A road is an element of life, not death, and offers the possibilities of better pursuits. A road summons up human values in space and in time and the creative process beyond all time and place: circular space. A road bears witness to man's refusal to die, to his lucid revolt against fixity in the name of freedom and opportunity to travel, seek happiness, and respond to a need to continue to live. A road is a corrective to a given terrestrial condition.

The road in Placard is an apt image for the poet's physical, mental, spiritual, and artistic journey. Each text contributes to his discovery that historical terror, suffering, and injustice may be effectively opposed through artistic counteraction. The poet should not serve history, but refuse it. Hence, in Placard, Char's obsession with the harvest, a filtered and refined Surrealist pattern, encounters on the road of his own inner turmoil and conscience the need for becoming indifferent to the limitations of history.

Placard pour un chemin des écoliers is by no means representative of a mature René Char, nor can the work be considered one of his major volumes of poetry. However, in looking at all of Char's writing, the volume is pivotal for an understanding of his self-distancing from Surrealism and the adoption of a poetics that will risk its very existence and expression in order to be provocative in its refusal to acquiesce. In Placard, the Char poem is not pulverized, crisped, or matinal. It is not a double that tautly balances “fury and mystery,” hope and anguish, the immediate and the essential, word and silence, fragmentation and unity, prose and poetry, “the child of beautiful weather and the man of rainy weather” (OC, 76). The tension between incompatibilities, which characterizes the mature Char text, is almost jarringly absent in Placard, perhaps explaining why most Char studies tend to overlook the work, causing the volume to fall unfortunately into the misleading and rather pejorative category of circumstantial poetry. Yet, examination of the work reveals that it is in tone, subject, and aspiration pure Char—it simply is not written in what we have come to identify as the indisputable Char text of the archipelagic structure in language and form. Placard is not a work of poetic traces; it cannot even be described as a work of proaction, for the texts are firmly rooted in personal and poetic reactions. But all of Char's texts are in some way a form of reaction and protest; all of his poems combine elements of the man and the poet, elements which provide the basic tension in his poetry from Le Marteau sans maître to the present, especially La Nuit talismanique (1972).8 It is in the recovery of these elements, recognition of the inner crisis in which Char the man and Char the poet confront each other for the first time, that the reader grasps just how pivotal to Char studies and to contemporary French poetry in general these seven texts and their introductory poem are.

In L'Homme révolté, Camus pays homage to Char as the “Poet of our rebirth” (127). As the twentieth century begins to draw to a close, it becomes increasingly evident that René Char towers over contemporary French poetry. The clues to how and why Char is the poet of man's renaissance are in Placard, the work which places Surrealism in a finished perspective—poetic activity and reaction—and opens the way to matinal poetic action and proaction in his World War II resistance participation and the texts of Fureur et mystère (1948), leading eventually to La Parole en archipel (1961), in which the mature Char poem holds together apparent contradictions by creating a new totality in the present, what “We have” (OC, 409-10). The humanly alive poetry that marks Char's work is not descriptive, but evocative and provocative—the fragments or word clusters that result create the text of maximum reader freedom and response in a “formal sharing.” On every page, there is a road to follow, a path that links extreme reference points, and on that road is a warning sign that risk lies in the adventure. It is never a safe, secure, complacent journey. It is always a difficult poetic quest, a non-ending search for contact. The Char text is a process to evoke response, a “common presence,” never a procedure to manufacture a given product.

Accordingly, Char's language is elemental, drawn from the familiar outer world of people, places, and things, especially nature. His structures repress transitions, as he rejects traditional discursive elements of language. The text sets relationships, enacts them, and gives the reader a new way of participating in the world. Encounter and exchange take the form of union through words: word with word, poet with poem, man with woman, man with men, reader with text. To think is to feel, to share is to participate in the direct comprehension of absolute reality. The base is the summit, as Char links together the concrete and the abstract, the solid and the emerging, the object and the emotion. The impossible is possible. As the flower justifies the plant, poetry justifies man's existence in its affirmation that man's nobility is discovered in art, not in history. Poetry as creative action can determine the quality of life.

A major key to the Char text, thematically and stylistically, is love: love on the erotic level, love of mankind, love of nature, love of written expression in all forms, love of plastic art. While love as beauty, freedom, and truth may have its roots in Surrealism, love, for Char, is not limited to the expression of individual desire. Rather, it is an action that conjoins opposites, brings about an order, and unifies the whole of human experience. Love is not restricted to the individual level, but is the principle of human and aesthetic cohesion. Love is life, and the Char text is always a lived poetry, lived in the present, the eternal moment experienced along the road.

Love is the principal theme in Placard. The ugly reality of the historical events of the Spanish Civil War, vividly evoked in the “Dedication,” are effectively juxtaposed, nearly contradicted, by the poetic discovery that love offers hope—hope for all. Love ends isolation, brings about a sense of immediate fulfillment, makes the intolerable present acceptable, and cannot be limited by time, space, or history. Love is not a state of being, but an action which links together contradictions and opposes all restrictions. Love will not be denied, not even by brutality and cruelty. Love is the concrete world at its best, circular space. Love testifies to man that he is alive and that his life is worth living. Art confers value and offers assurances of “a fervent dawn” (OC, 92).

The seven texts end on the word “resistance,” which only the act of love is able to posit in a world in which children suffer, bleed, and die. The schoolgirl of “Schoolgirl's Company” denies her father's fears; she is confident that her lover's eyes hold “the promise / Which I made to myself / I am mad I am new” (OC, 99). The queen in “The Queen's Bearing” recognizes how only “the couple entwined with the word heart” refuses to acknowledge a bleak and hostile environment and time. Even in “Exploit of the Steam Cylinder” and “The Sea Urchins of Pégomas,” love is viewed as a “valid revolt” (OC, 97). In the text “The Confidant's Alley,” Char finds that “Daring little girls, / It's good to be imprudent / But for love” (OC, 93), while “Four Ages” expresses sadness over the isolation of the individual when he lacks love.

The final text, “Provisions for the Return,” completes the “Dedication” in its demonstration of how the love act during the darkness of night prepares for the bitterness of day and prefigures the beneficent role of night in Dehors la nuit est gouvernée (1938). Love renews, revitalizes, and inspires; it strengthens through its moment of union for the coming diurnal struggle, the longest road of living through a historical catastrophe, all the while offering dignity and nobility to those who must travel that road.

Throughout Placard, language takes the form of a social response. The emotional is social in that the indignant tone of the “Dedication” gives way to the confident declaration at the end. Hope is transmogrified into resistance, as action and art fuse. To write is to act and to requalify the reader. Faith in man to resist his historical circumstances, belief in the text to discover, reveal, and communicate value, and confidence in poetry to justify man's existence in a continual process constitute the ultimate testimony of Placard pour un chemin des écoliers. The exchange of energy between the terms hope and resistance takes place only under the aegis of Poetry, as Char the man and Char the poet resolve their conflicts and merge into the master architect of twentieth-century man's renaissance: “Art ignores History but makes use of its terror” (OC, 651).

Notes

  1. René Char, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1983), 743. All Char quotations are taken from this edition, identified in the text as OC. The translations are my own.

  2. Picasso illustrated Char's Dépendance de l'adieu in 1936, “Enfants qui cribliez d'olives” in 1939, and the second edition of Le Marteau sans maître in 1945. Dali illustrated Artine in 1930, while Miró has illustrated nearly a dozen of Char's works.

  3. Albert Camus, Actuelles I (Paris: Gallimard, 1950); L'Homme révolté (Paris: Gallimard, 1951); quotations from these editions are identified in the text. The translations are my own.

  4. Valentine Hugo was a member of the inner circle of Surrealists from 1930 to 1940; best known for her black and white illustrated visions, she visited Spain in 1928 and is described by Char as able to capture “fire under the snow.”

  5. For a detailed account of this episode in Céreste in 1936, see Georges-Louis Roux, “René Char, Guest in Céreste,” in OC, 1115-31.

  6. It must be remembered that Char wrote Placard before the bombing of Guernica and the incarceration of the poet Machado, events which deeply disturbed the French avant-garde.

  7. André Breton, L'Amour fou (Paris: Gallimard, 1937), 137.

  8. La Nuit talismanique was also triggered by a personal crisis and posited for Char the man and Char the poet another series of conflicts of art. See my “Beyond the Poem: René Char's La Nuit talismanique,Symposium30 (1976): 14-26.

Charles D. Minahen (essay date fall-winter 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2761

SOURCE: Minahen, Charles D. “Disclosures of Being in René Char's ‘Riche de larmes.’” Dalhouse French Studies: De Duras et Robbe-Grillet à Cixous et Deguy 17 (fall-winter 1989): 55-61.

[In the following essay, Minahen examines the opening poem of Char's Eloge d'une soupçonnée,.]

Char's description of Vincent as “sans abord réel1—the phrase is underscored by a change of type in the title-poem of Les Voisinages de Van Gogh2—echoes unmistakably (and no doubt intentionally) the difficulty of access encountered in any attempt to apprehend the phenomenon of being. Vincent's tableaux, like Char's poems, record such attempts and prove the point that the artist must do violence to conventional modes of perception in order to break through numbing clichés of the real, i.e., the experience of everyday things (res), to dis-cover being in the fullness of its presentation to consciousness. These explosions of being, experienced as overwhelming and all-consuming presences, have little in common, beyond a superficial resemblance, with the world of recognizable referents, which are too ordinary and familiar and thus deprived of the wonder suddenly restored when the visionary artist or poet fractures and reforms the vehicle of apprehension (the graphics of the painting or poem), catalyzing conditions that allow the disclosure of being to occur.

But even though our familiarity with things has rendered them inconspicuous, they are the objects of consciousness that enable it to be conscious, since, as the phenomenologists insist, consciousness is consciousness of something. No wonder that modern poets have affirmed the importance of things, even taken the side of things, since in our contempt for the familiar we are all too likely to overlook not only the thing but also the being that it attests. For the poet, like Char or Ponge, the thing is the “point de départ” and the “point culminant” of the poetic utterance, which often requires an escape from the real into the surreal in order to gain a perspective on things by getting outside of them. The mode of the surreal, free of the restrictions of conventional concepts of space, time, grammar, syntax and other such offspring of the logos, conduces to the unrestricted apperception of being, seized in the full free play of possibilities, as in dreams, where meanings emerge, converge and connect spontaneously and polysemously to reveal being in all its plenitude and complexity.

The thirteen texts of Eloge d'une soupçonnée, the last work Char delivered to his publisher before his death on February 19, 1988, are in all cases the disclosures of being that Heidegger associates with aletheia (in Greek “truth”), which connotes literally “unhiddenness”, a dis-covery of what was covered up, an “unforgetting” or retrieval of meaning from oblivion. The opening poem, “Riche de larmes”, is a particularly eloquent attempt at such disclosure. Comprising thirty sections, divided into two parts, it is a microcosm of Char's ars poetica, containing twenty-six prose strophes and four verse strophes3 that together evince a veritable panoply of prevalent and even obsessive Charian themes, techniques and images.

The first part opens Genesis-like with an evocation of dark and light, although the sequence is reversed, as the poet envisions an imminent envelopment of the self in night, an approaching death, which prompts the despondent query, “A quoi bon s'éclairer, riche de larmes?” This despair occurs in the context of a realization of achievement (“s'achève”) in the French sense of completion, but not a full or altogether satisfying completion, since death interrupts our course on the “chemin qui conduit du bas jusqu'au sommet et que nous n'avons pas le temps ni la force de parcourir en entier” (16). We are too weak and our lives too short for us to realize the full expectations of our desire, and our accomplishments are all the less significant since they are made in the obscurity of private, individual lives, “à l'insu de notre âge” (1). The bitter fact is that “La Passante-Servante, tantôt frêle tantôt forte” (2), Char's metaphor perhaps for the fleeting passage of life and of a poet's intermittently strong and frail service to an ideal of enlightenment of being through art, can only hope to “perce[r] l'ombre”, sparkle briefly in a flash of brilliance before fading back into the vast oblivion of the dark.

Not only do we find ourselves caught between opposing postulations, symbolized here and ubiquitously in Char by light and dark and the mountain's summit and base, but our movement through time is frustrated by a nostalgia for the past (an impossible desire to return to the source) and a fear of the future's only certain promise, death, or, as the poet puts it in strophe 3, “nous nous tenons, notre existence durant, à mi-chemin du berceau séduisant et de la terre douteuse”. Moreover, the self itself is divided (“nous nous tenons”), and the human dilemma of living on “l'entrouvert” (OC [Oeuvres complètes] 411)4 between antinomous forces of the exterior world is further aggravated by an inner dichotomy and estrangement, since “Je” indeed “est un autre”.

But there was a primordial epoch, the poet suggests in the closing strophe of part one, when divisions were not merely antagonistic and man was wondrously one with himself and the world, like Lascaux's hunter-artist wedded to the beasts he stalked through the intimacy of mortal combat and sacred symbols of reverential awe:

Merveilleux moment que celui où l'homme n'avait nul besoin de silex, de brandons pour appeler le feu à lui mais où le feu surgissait sur ses pas, faisant de cet homme une lumière de toujours et une torche interrogative.

(4)

Modern humanity, alienated from production by the very instruments of technology meant to ease the burdens of survival, can only marvel at this enigma of synthesis and fulfillment. Contact with nature was not mediated, like flint to the production of the flame. Fire, Heraclitus' primary element, was in and of man, inseparable from the Logos; matter and spirit emanated brilliantly and harmoniously in this magnificant creature so innocent and authentic in his curiosity about the world. That golden age has passed, irretrievably, a paradise lost never to be regained.

As if to sublimate his sense of loss and recuperate it through the sonorous beauty of the lyric, Char opens the second part of “Riche de larmes” with two verse strophes that transform the poetic vision articulated in the first part into pure symbol and sound. In one of the strophes, a dialectic of “Dépliement” and “Repli” is evoked in the image of a branch from which the cracked bark (“this mortal coil”) seems on the verge of being blown off by the wind. In the other, the opposition is incorporated in the juxtaposed images of wet dew and parching salt:

Lacrymale la rosée;
Vespéral le sel.

(6)

The antithetical structure of the couplet is underscored by the contrasting feminine and masculine grammatical modes, but the water of the dew combines with the salt to produce the synthetic admixture of tears shed in the vesperal twilight of a waning life. Nonetheless, the richness of the sonorities, brimming with assonance and alliteration, embues the lament with the plaintive beauty of a requiem (“Lacrimosa dies illa”).

These and all the ensuing strophes are marked by a preoccupation with dialectical antithesis and synthesis, always typical of Char, but presented here with an unrelenting sense of urgency. The fragmented, aphoristic nature of the discrete utterances, replete with oxymorons, also casts them in a decidedly Heraclitean mold. If one theme predominates, it is the motif of “souffrance” intimated in the poem's title, hinted at in part one and now thematicized overtly in strophes 6-10, from the evocation of lachrymal dew through allusions to suffering associated with time: “cette souffrance a duré toute ma vie” (7). In all cases, the suffering is related to a fragmenting and frustrating disunity, involving self (“à mon corps et à mon esprit défendant”), otherness (“à l'écoute de l'interlocuteur”) or the experience of time:

Nous sommes désunis dans nos mille motifs.
Demain ne nous suffit pas,
Demain devrait suffire.
Douloureux sera demain,
Tel hier.

(8)

In this indictment of sheer endurance without satisfaction, underscored by the three repetitions of demain (“tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow …”) with the drumbeat of repeated d's sounding a dirge, the poet situates human being at the juncture of two infinities, past and future, the one receding irretrievably, the other approaching relentlessly and uncertainly and always “before its time” (3). No mention of the present, for it, like the consciousness that inhabits it, is merely a site, continuously occupied and abandoned, a catch-all of becoming ineluctably wedged between intangible and uncontrollable extremes. Strophe 14 very pithily sums up the poet's cynical opinion of “la condition humaine”:

L'homme n'est-il que la poche fourre-tout d'un inconnu postnommé dieu? Pressenti, jamais touché? Tyran et capricieux?

If, in its pitiful state, humanity harbors intimations of immortality and an absolute divinity, such a whimsical tyrant, the poet implies, is neither knowable nor worth being known.

In Char's Heraclitean cosmos of flux and contradiction, however, the dialectic must produce occasional, if fleeting, expressions of the one. In fact the poet celebrates, in an earlier work, the presocratic philosopher's “exaltante alliance des contraires”, adding that

Il voit en premier lieu en eux la condition parfaite et le moteur indispensable à produire l'harmonie … Le poète peut alors voir les contraires—ces mirages ponctuels et tumultueux—aboutir, leur lignée immanente se personnifier, poésie et vérité, comme nous savons, étant synonymes.

(“Partage formel”, OC 159)

In “Riche de larmes”, the outlook is much less enthusiastic and optimistic. The exalting alliance personified as truth in the poem has become “La brusque alliance de l'âme avec des mots en butte à leurs ennemis” (10). When soul and words come together to produce the poem's burst of harmony, the alliance is “brusque”, that is, rude, brutal, unexpected, the product of toil, suffering and an all-too-fickle muse. It does provide a release from the prison of contradictions and from all the obstacles that block and frustrate the creative act, but “Cette levée d'écrou n'est qu'un passage” (10). Poetry for Char has always been a deliverance (“La seule liberté, le seul état de liberté que j'ai éprouvé sans réserve, c'est dans la poésie que je l'ai atteint” [19]), but it is the brevity of the reprieve that the poet emphasizes in this late work.

Consider the following two strophes:

L'art est fait d'oppression, de tragédie, criblées discontinûment par l'irruption d'une joie qui inonde son site, puis repart.

(17)

Laissons l'énergie et retournons à l'énergie. La mesure du Temps? L'étincelle sous les traits de laquelle nous apparaissons et redisparaissons dans la fable.

(18)

In Char's pessimistic presentation of the human plight, lack of freedom (“oppression”) and inescapable fatality (“tragédie”) are the givens that are ironically “riddled” by scattered and spontaneous invasions of quickly dissipating joy. So it is with human being, caught in the cycle of inviolable natural laws like “the conservation of energy”, a fully determined process in which lives are mere sparks of electricity flashing and fading in an electromagnetic field of constant kilowattage. And it is the poet's painful awareness of his own waning, cracking, deteriorating self—“le front souffrant, strié, comme un tableau noir d'école communale”—that gives urgency to his desire to create, even in the face of impending doom: “Vite, il faut semer, vite, il faut greffer, tel le réclame cette grande Bringue, la Nature; écoeuré, même harassé, il me faut semer” (9). Time presses, is running out (“Un sablier trop belliqueux se coule” [30]), but seed once sown still needs time to germinate, take root, mature. Production of the text, moreover, is arduous (“La zone d'écriture si difficile d'accès” [20]), an “unending combat” between the referent and the sign, reality and its representation (“le nom sans la chose” [24]); and the poetic consciousness, a nothingness (“Je suis cet absent”) seeking being, inhabits that gulf, a threshold of relentless present becoming, where future meets past and the idea the thing, to spark the poem's sudden illumination of being.

It is not surprising, then, that the aging poet, for whom “le deuil est à peu près constant” (29) and whose paranoia amid hostile forces has made him feel “entouré d'ennemis” (25) and thus suspicious of others, turns inward (“Je me suis immergé” [23]), seeking solace in sleep: “Terre arable, sommeil intelligent et prodigue jusqu'au sang, s'il désire s'échapper” (22). This sleep, though, evinced repeatedly in the closing strophes, proves not to be an escape, but rather a slow and steady surrender to extinction, as death indifferently and inexorably takes hold. The poet, helpless and yet painfully conscious, can only wait and watch nervously, suspiciously, as the body clings to life, slipping in and out of sleep, until it finally fails to awaken: “J'endure lorsque j'étouffe et que tu rentres au sommeil. Epiage” (27). This penultimate moment is symbolized (in the penultimate strophe) by one last allusion to fire, which contrasts markedly with the earlier celebration of ancient man's enlightening torch: “la bougie s'écoeure de vivre” (29). It's not enough that the flame must flicker and die unwillingly before its term, but consciousness must also witness the decline and the body suffer through the agony of its undoing, until a point of utter disgust with living is reached that yields astonishingly, if inevitably, to a pain-relieving thanatos.

“Riche de larmes” thus involves not only disclosures of being but, in particular, of being-toward-death and of its concomitant anxiety. Although one of Char's darker introspections, it does illuminate the decline toward death, the poet valliantly transmuting his own raw experience into an essence-revealing epiphany. It is in this sense a testament, not only to the tragedy of human entrapment in time and bewildering uncertainty, but also to the tenacity of the creative will that turns adversity into verses and finds richness in tears.

Notes

  1. René Char, Les Voisinages de Van Gogh (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), p. 39. Numbers appearing in parentheses not preceded by a siglum are to the thirty strophes of René Char's “Riche de larmes”, Eloge d'une soupçonnée (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), pp. 7-11. The other works cited in this article are identified by sigla. OC: René Char, Oeuvres complètes, Ed. Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1983); V: Jean Voellmy, “Comment lire René Char”, in three parts, Les Lettres romanes 34, 1 and 2-3 (février, mai-août 1980): 3-191.

  2. Michael Bishop's study of this volume, “Ce peu qui nous tient éveillés: Les Voisinages de Van Gogh”, Europe 66, 705-06 (janvier-février 1988): 112-19, is highly recommended. This issue features several other interesting pieces devoted to Char, including Daniel Leuwers' “Repères chronologiques” (120-24), which updates the poet's life and works to 1987. Another recent and important contribution to Char studies is the special issue of Sud, “Actes du colloque de Tours” (1985), which joins the well-known special numbers of L'Arc (1963), Liberté (1968), Cahiers de l'Herne (1971) and World Literature Today (1977). In addition to the established studies of Char by Blanchot, Bataille, Rau, Richard, La Charité, Caws, Lawler, Cranston, et al., the following are some notable recent analyses: Nancy Piore, Lightning: The Poetry of René Char (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981); Jean Voellmy's article cited in the previous note; Jean-Claude Mathieu, La Poésie de René Char ou le sel de la splendeur, 2 vols. (Paris: Corti, 1985), which contains an excellent bibliography; Roger Payet-Burin, René Char, poète de la poésie (Paris: Nizet, 1985).

  3. Since the text is a hybrid of verse and prose poetry, a problem of vocabulary arises concerning the appropriate term to describe the individual sections. The term “paragraph” is obviously inadequate, since there are versified stanzas, and even the French “aliéna” (“aliena” in English would seem to be the obvious neologism for it), although certainly preferable to “paragraph” for the description of the indented units of a prose poem, is not appropriate for the non-indented verses. For lack of a more adequate general term, I shall use “strophe”, which stresses the poetic nature of the divisions. Prose poetry since Rimbaud is decidedly more poetic than prosaic, as Voellmy affirms in his description of modern poetry as “antiprose”: “Il y a belle lurette que nous savons que tout ce qui n'est point prose est vers, et tout ce qui n'est point vers est prose. Mais le fait que la poésie moderne est l'antiprose, un discours où le code de la langue est violé pour fonder un nouvel ordre linguistique sur les ruines de l'ancien, n'est pas encore entré dans tous les esprits” (V 8).

  4. In “Dans la marche” the poet writes: “Nous ne pouvons vivre que dans l'entrouvert, exactement sur la ligne hermétique de partage de l'ombre et de la lumière”.

Michael Worton (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11201

SOURCE: Worton, Michael. Introduction to The Dawn Breakers Les Matinaux, pp. 11-45. Newcastle Upon Tyne, England: Bloodaxe Books, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Worton offers a thematic commentary and introduction to his translation of Char's Les Matinaux.]

René Char (1907-88) is often described as a poet of nostalgia who is essentially concerned with his own childhood in Provence and with the pre-industrial and pre-nuclear world. His poems have also often been described as hermetic, as “difficult” or “intellectual”. Internationally recognised as one of the most important French poets since the Surrealists, perhaps even since Paul Valéry, he is respected as a poet-philosopher but he has never become a popular poet. This says much about what many modern, urban readers expect from contemporary poetry: they want to encounter both familiar, “relevant” images and a language which corresponds to what they know and speak, hence the commercial success of such different poets as Prévert, Brel, Betjeman and Larkin.

Char does not seek to please his readers but to make them more aware of their own lives, and this he does by capturing and crystallising brief moments of existence which may aid readers to understand their own experiences. However, his imagery is drawn from a direct and sustained contact with Nature in Provence, a region which most of his readers will not know at all or will know only as tourists rushing from one celebrated site to another. And yet when we discover in the poetry reference to Vaucluse villages or sites such as Le Thor, Maussane, Thouzon, Les Dentelles de Montmirail, the Fontaine de Vaucluse, these names do not exclude us but resonate in a magical way—and even those who know the Vaucluse well must recognise that the poet has transformed a specific, physical geography into a universal, mythic geography. Char's sense of place is both acute and emotional: the topography of this land can be verified and has an intense physical presence but, more importantly, it is a world traversed by the enigmatic Transparents or Clear-seeing Ones who remind us of a time when our relationship with Nature was intimate, a world inhabited by the Matinaux or Dawn Breakers who live in and between night and day. Like Michaux's poetry, Char's work has an extraordinary visual force, an ‘evidence’. But whereas Michaux creates imaginary countries in order to comment on the nature of reality, Char chooses to present his native region in order to reveal the truth that lies within reality.

Throughout his life, from his lonely childhood days until his last years when he chose to lead a secluded life near his birth-place L'Isle-sur-Sorgue and far from the literary and political feudings of Paris, Char found his inspiration in his long walks through the Vaucluse countryside and in his quiet, questioning observation of plants, animals, birds, rivers and meteorological changes. Many of his finest poems result from his determination to see fully in order to understand, to see in solitude in order to offer others the possibility of finding their own vision: for him, seeing authentically is a necessary first step towards the establishment of a sense of what I shall for the moment call ‘being-in-the-world’.

However, in Char's poetry Nature is not a mere pretext for some late-come Romantic poetry. When Char looks at flowers, he uses his vision in a different way than did Wordsworth coming upon his ‘crowd or host of golden daffodils’. When he writes of the river Sorgue which rises at the Fontaine de Vaucluse and runs through his home town, he is not imitating Petrarch who, fascinated by the isolated and enclosed Fontaine de Vaucluse, composed there many of his poems on Laura. Nor is he following Lamartine who gazed in narcissistic melancholy on his celebrated lake. The natural world around him provides no excuse for projection of his own moods and anxieties or for pathetic fallacy. Rather, he seeks to see fully, to receive the natural world and thence to discover oneness in difference always maintained as difference.

The focusing on individual objects is a feature of much modern French poetry. Yves Bonnefoy, for example, repeatedly portrays a salamander in order to meditate on presence and absence, and Francis Ponge writes sequences of poems on a pebble or a block of soap in order to offer a post-Cubist image of their quiddity or “thingness”. Char's procedure is somewhat different—he seeks to show that no single object, be it animate or inanimate, can or should be perceived and interpreted in isolation but must be recognised as part of some vaster plan. For instance, in ‘Complainte du lézard amoureux’/‘Lament of a lovesick lizard’ in Les Matinaux/The Dawn Breakers, the lizard is presented as a commentator, as a mediator who ‘sees everything from his low wall’ and can therefore ‘tell the secrets of the earth’. For Char it is essential that we realise that all things, all beings have an autonomous existence and also function as revelatory images. His readers may well live in an environment in which there are no lizards or vipers, no crickets or cicadas, no Mistral winds, no high jagged mountains, no saxifrage or lavender, but the images hit home because they are offered as examples, as paradigms. Char should not be seen as a regional poet, but as a poet-thinker who universalises what he knows and sees personally, as a ‘tragic optimist’ who seeks to remind us that the past is always with and within us. In La parole en archipel/The Word as Archipelago (1962), there is a sequence of four poems inspired by the prehistoric Lascaux cave-paintings. Each text refers us to an individual painting, yet the poetic act consists not in giving a verbal equivalent but in offering an interpretation of past images that we need to think about if we are to avoid simply admiring them as tourists. When writing of the painting of a young horse, Char marries his memory of this one image to references to African cults of the White Woman (a goddess of maternity) and to Georges de la Tour's paintings of Mary Magdalene (a symbol of repentance, death—and hope). The Lascaux painting is evoked but, more importantly, it is made the site of interpretation and appropriation. And the past, like the specific location of the Vaucluse, is shown to be both specific in its otherness or distance and universal in its present emotional and metaphysical value for us.

All of Char's poems articulate the experiences of a man confronting the physical world in a state of heightened emotion, be it as a lover, as a Resistance fighter, as a walker through the Provence landscape, as a ‘Green’ militant against nuclear power stations and the industrial polluting of rivers, as a spectator of paintings or as a reader of past writings. In many ways Char's poetic position is very close to that of the Thirties poet and critic Christopher Caudwell who stated that ‘poetry is an adaptation to external reality. It is an emotional attitude to the world’. All Char's poems are highly personal (in Fureur et mystère/Furor and Mystery, 1948, he affirms that ‘The poem is always married to someone’), but they never seek to impose a purely subjective truth. Rather, they use language and images to urge readers into a sense of wonderment at, and a questioning of, the essence of existence.

Char's work should not, however, be seen as ontological or metaphysical in the sense that only scholars or philosophers can understand it. He himself said in an interview in 1948: ‘I have my own personal critic. He's a poacher. When I've written something, I read it to him, and I can't help but laugh when people say that I'm hermetic, because he immediately understands, and says “Yes, you've got that right” or “You should change that word, and this one”.’ Another revelatory anecdote relates to Char's work in the Resistance. An officer sent from de Gaulle's headquarters in Algiers found it difficult to follow the imagistic language of Char's men. The poet explained that while slang is merely picturesque, the language shared by the Provençal Resistance fighters was metaphorical because of their intimate, direct contact with Nature, and he added that he used images in his dealings with them because ‘when an image once strikes home, it is never ever forgotten’.

Char's poetry is extraordinarily visual even, as I say, for those who have never climbed the Provençal mountains or walked along the River Sorgue, but it also testifies to an almost mystical belief in the power of language. Words are our companions, our supports and our adversaries as we live out our lives, so we must be careful with them: as Char said in 1968, ‘My love of words is so great that I cannot bear to squander them.’ Char's poems are characterised by crispness and tension, but the individual terms employed are neither crisp nor fixed: each poem is like a limpid pool into which words have been dropped like pebbles, radiating out circles of connotations which never come completely to rest: in this poetry, words do not have single denotational meanings nor even “mere” ambiguity; they have etymological and connotational resonances and ultimately function as echoes of the lost language of a violent harmony.

For Char, poetry should not be categorical or didactic; it should lead readers to a state of lucidity in which they can perceive for themselves the meaning of the contradictions which fill and define the world. Yet no poet has full control over organised language and even less over individual words—which will always mean something different to different readers each of whom brings to their readings a personal (and often anxious) response to terms such as ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘love’, and ‘home’. Char is aware of this phenomenon, which, in a sense, is at the heart of his poetic project.

In his first collection Les cloches sur le cœur/Bells on the heart (1928), he used an imagery reminiscent of that of earlier French poets such as Laforgue and Apollinaire, an urban imagery of taxis, show-girls and electricity, but he later repudiated this volume and bought up and destroyed most of the 153 copies. While more than 50 years later the poet was to incorporate and rewrite fragments from this volume in some of his last works, this act of self-censorship, of what one might call poetic self-mutilation, is important for an understanding of Char's development. As he himself recognised, this volume is the work of a poet who is in search of his own voice—and who has not yet liberated himself from the influence of near-contemporaries or from the demands of formal poetic structures. Furthermore many of the texts are haunted, even scarred by his anguish at the deaths of his father and grandmother. They speak of a very private universe, of a childhood that could not be properly incorporated intohis poetry until he had exorcised the ghosts and found a voice which was both individual and universal. Hence the repudiation of the volume.

The poems in Les cloches sur le cœur/Bells on the heart were written between 1922 and 1926, the year in which Paul Éluard published Capitale de la douleur/Capital of suffering. Char's discovery of this volume was to be decisive for his poetic career. He found there a contemporary voice which married the personal and the universal, the simple and the complicated, violence and harmony, love and disappointment (even anger). It was a book that ceased to look to the past for models and inspired Char to explore new ways of writing. In 1929 and at his own expense he published Arsenal/Arsenal, a collection which heralds the true Charrian voice. Here there is much violence but most of the images are now drawn from Nature and the poet has discovered the complex virtue of simplicity, as in this poem:

“L'AMOUR”

Être
Le premier venu

“LOVE”

Being
The first to come along

Char sent a copy of Arsenal to Éluard who immediately went to L'Isle-sur-Sorgue to meet the young poet and to invite him to Paris to meet other Surrealists such as Breton and Aragon. Char consequently joined the Surrealist group at the same time as Dalí and Buñuel and in 1930 published Ralentir travaux/Slow down men at work, a text written collectively with Éluard and Breton. For the next five years he was an important member of the group, co-signing many tracts and open letters. More importantly, he began to read such major Surrealist precursors as Rimbaud, Lautréamont, the pre-Socratic philosophers and the great alchemists. He also engaged actively, and occasionally belligerently—with his fists—in their political battles. These were times of friendship (notably with Éluard, a surrogate elder brother), times of reading and self-examination, but Char was already more concerned with poetry as a way of dealing with the world than with Parisian and international quarrels about details of political ideology. During his membership of the Surrealist group, he above all explored different ways of being free, yet he could never fully accept that the unconscious should be privileged over the conscious, as the Surrealists as a whole did. The most important lesson that Char learned from Surrealism was that poetry can and must violate the comfortable rules of society and syntax. A consequence of this is that aggression can be poeticised in such a way that neither subject nor object is destroyed. Both are maintained in a state of creative, prospective suffering. Formal logic has no place in this thinking; what is privileged is lived experience and an often aggressive engagement with the Other, by which I mean anything outside of himself. While Char is primordially committed to writing about the Other, his poems testify to an aggression toward the object, be it an image or a poem he has created, a woman he loves, the reader, the text, language generally—or even himself. His poetry is profoundly sadomasochistic in its play with aggression and passivity. But he seeks not to destroy either subject or object but to maintain both in a state of suffering and heightened awareness. Char's exploration and presentation of the subject-object relationship as an interaction, as a dialogue, distinguishes him from the other Surrealists whose work is often generated by narcissism, by an obsessive need to define and describe everything in terms of their own fantasies and political positions. Char rejects this (willed) identification of subject and object which characterises most Surrealist poetry, especially that of André Breton, preferring to articulate his own sense of aggression in order to establish a new sense of (warring) harmony. Even in his love poems where he inevitably speaks of himself, we find an expansive rather than a retracted narcissism, that is to say he expresses his own deeply personal emotions in order to engage fully with some absolutely other—who is always both the beloved and the unknown reader.

Much later, in À une sérénité crispée/Towards a tense serenity (1952), he explicitly confronted the problem of narcissism, writing: ‘You should have drunk of the water, Narcissus, and not looked at yourself’. Narcissus, as mythic figure and as psychic structure, is finally perceived as culpable. By preferring his self-image to the nourishing and ever-changing transparency of the water, he has risked more than narcissistic imprisonment: he has denied freedom and even immortality both to the self and to the Other. In his love poem ‘Lettera amorosa’ (1953, definitive version 1964), Char most fully reveals how he has learned to incorporate images of violence and fantasies of death and resurrection into a tender but brutally honest text. This long poem warns against the dual temptations of idealisation and aggressiveness and proposes that reflection must be more than a narcissistic gazing at the self: we must both see our uniqueness and allow the world and other people to become part of ourselves and of our self-images.

All of Char's later poetry bears the traces of his contact with the Surrealist group, notably in his creation of juxtapositional images, but even during his period of allegiance to Surrealism he was seeking to write with moral seriousness and with simplicity (he rarely indulged in the linguistic firework-displays dear to Breton, Desnos and Queneau). Furthermore he always insisted on the creative control of the conscious: all of his poetry is firmly tied to the world and communicates a commitment to lucidity as the touchstone of existence. This is what led to his official break with the movement in December 1935 when he wrote in a public letter that ‘Surrealism has committed itself to a course which is bound to lead it to the Retirement Home for Belles-Lettres and Violence’. Angry, cruel words—generated by his disappointment with colleagues who had in his view betrayed the ideal of fraternity and poetry. Although Char was reluctant to speak about his Surrealist period, whenever he did he would express his irritation with those who ‘did in fact rather bore me’. But at the same time he would also insist on the importance of the lessons he had learned and especially the life-long friendships he had formed, notably with Éluard, Braque and Picasso.

In 1936, history—both social and personal—coincided with a literature of violence when the Spanish Civil War broke out and the poet contracted an acute case of septicaemia which almost led to his death. His rage against the senseless killing of children led to Placard pour un chemin des écoliers/Sign towards the long way round (1937) in which he re-enacts his own childhood, now perceived in the context both of the Spanish child-victims and of his narrow escape from death. Yet already here we find his refusal to write poems which are too closely tied to individual events: for Char, if we are to be fully human, we must constantly engage in acts of resistance but we must also look beyond the specific aspects of individual events and atrocities in order to perceive their universality. Only then can we realise that oppression is always with us. In 1952 he wrote, ‘Our most insidious enemy is what is happening today’, by which he means that the defeat of a Hitler, a Franco or a Saddam Hussein is never enough: there will always be other—less obvious—oppressors, such as the State, the Church, even the education system. So, he insists, we must never at any moment allow ourselves to relax into thinking that human liberty has been assured once and for all.

The 1930s were a crucial decade in Char's moral, political and poetic development. He rejected Surrealism and what he called its ‘clever but artificial’ obsession with alchemy and Rimbaud's notion of verbal alchemy (which for some Surrealists merely meant language-games). He came close to death and was outraged by the atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War. Later, he made a personal discovery of the horror of the Nazi persecution of Jews and ‘communists’: his first wife, Georgette Goldstein, was a Jewess and he was officially declared to be a Communist in 1941. These various factors lead him to join the Resistance forces and, known as ‘le capitaine Alexandre’, he initially masterminded sabotage attacks on the occupying Italian army and against the Nazis and then took charge of the SAP (Section Atterrissage Parachutage/landing-parachuting organisation) in Southern France. During his struggle against the occupying forces, he continued to write, although he did not show to his comrades his brief, passionate notes—which he agreed to publish only after the war. These Feuillets d'Hypnos/Leaves of Hypnos (1946) are a precious historical, moral as well as poetic document. They say much about how Resistance activity aided men to find themselves, about how deaths can be witnessed impotently, from a distance, and yet ultimately be perceived as a means of understanding life and what it should be. Many of these texts blaze with rage, especially when Char talks of intimate friends who were executed or sent to concentration camps and when he writes of his angry refusal of any and every tyranny. Yet scattered throughout these 237 notes are many highly moral, self-controlling, almost religious exhortations to go beyond rage, fury and hatred in order to continue effectively the struggle against oppression and to prepare for the future creation of a better world. In this respect, it is important to note that after the Liberation Char spent much time helping to establish dossiers which proved that his Resistance comrades had been true ‘maquisards’, but that he refused to participate in the shameful witch-hunt of alleged collaborators which he considered to be nothing more than ‘a copy of what our enemy did when it was in power’. ‘We must triumph over our rage and our disgust …’ he wrote, ‘in order to make both our actions and our morality nobler and more far-reaching.’

However, the demands of warfare and leading a Resistance group led Char to make difficult decisions which were to haunt him for the rest of his life. In 1946, he wrote a darkly mysterious poem ‘L'extravagant’/‘The act of madness,’ published in Le poème pulvérisé/The pulverised poem (1947), which ends with the statement that ‘Spring does not exist’. Of all his texts, this was the one which for years he refused to discuss. ‘You are forbidden to touch this poem—it's mine and mine alone,’ he stormed at one critic and friend when pressed for an explanation. This refusal is a surprise when one remembers the poet's usual insistence that no text ‘belongs’ to its author once it is published. But in this case his reasons were understandable in that the poem does not speak of an extravagant or mad person but of an excessive act. In 1983 he finally explained to Paul Veyne that ‘L'extravagant’/‘The act of madness’ was born out of his anguished decision to execute two young traitors, one of whom had betrayed forty-five of his comrades to the Gestapo who then shot them; the other was a dangerous collaborator. While Char has said that individual lives cannot have the same value in wartime as they do in peacetime, he was haunted by these executions, especially in the immediate post-war years when he was nauseated by the way in which both the Right and the Left in France were exploiting the Liberation. The actual poem makes no explicit reference to the executions, but this very silence is revelatory: it reminds us that poetry must always be about transformation—whatever details we may glean of its genesis, the text itself should remain as a trace of lived experience and, more importantly, as a metamorphosis of that experience.

Through his contact with the Surrealists, Char had discovered the communicational possibilities of a language which bypassed the rational, the conscious, the socially-determined; his experiences in the Resistance, when revolt had to be expressed in deeds rather than in words, taught him to beware of the temptation of merely playing with language. In his war notebooks he repeatedly articulates his awareness that words—and even poetry—become marginal when events demand active commitment, yet he also could not but continue to write, in secret, when not engaged in Resistance work. As he says in a revelatory note: ‘I write briefly. I cannot be absent for any length of time. Saying all I wanted to say would become obsessive. The adoration of the shepherds no longer makes any sense for our planet.’ By this he means that we cannot today permit ourselves either to indulge in self-centred expression or to be naïve, passive worshippers at any shrine: we need to be aggressive and even violent. So the problem of the place of poetry in the modern world was posed for him in a much more urgent way than for Hölderlin or even for Heidegger. In moments of danger, actions must take precedence over words, he recognises—but only words can both maintain and interrogate the memory of these events in and for future years.

All of Char's later work is shaped by his war-time experiences with language and silence, but it is also marked and enriched by an event which gave an anxious reality to the Surrealists' mystical, utopian view of language as magical. During his Resistance activity the code-word for one of the parachute drops was ‘La bibliothèque est en feu’ (The library is on fire). One of the containers exploded and set fire to the forest, illuminating the horizon, with the result that Char's group only just escaped with the other containers before the Gestapo arrived. Char's reaction was immediate: he contacted London to demand that the code be changed because ‘I believe in the magic and in the authority of words’—since paper is made from wood, the code fatally determined that the forest should burn. Whatever we may individually wonder about such beliefs in the prophetic power of language, it is certain that Char was convinced that words can have a direct effect on the material world. This conviction can be traced back beyond his Surrealist period to the folklore of his childhood. For instance, he was familiar with the Provençal custom of setting out a glass of water in order to placate the ‘returning spirits’ and stated that he believed in ghosts even though he had never actually seen one. In both his Surrealist and his post-war periods, he wrote texts which tell of encounters which appear to be supernatural. This belief in a world beyond the physically verifiable links Char to pre-Christian thinking. His opposition to all religions that name their gods arose out of a deep mistrust of organised Christianity yet he nonetheless always retained a sense of the real possibility of transcendence. He might insist that ‘It is fatal to abolish distance. The gods die only when they live amongst us’; yet his work is haunted by references to Christian figures and to Provençal and Classical mythologies. The latter may be familiar but for many readers the Provençal allusions are problematic.

One example from Les Matinaux is the use of calendes in ‘Fête des arbres et du chasseur’/‘Celebration of the trees and the hunter.’ For many years I assumed that this referred to the Calends, the first day of any month in the Roman calendar and consequently I had problems understanding the full significance of the verse. French dictionaries and encyclopaedias were of no help, and none of the French writers I consulted could shed any light: I was left puzzling over why Char had used the term. Then, purely by chance, when chatting one day with a friend in Avignon, I discovered that in Provençal calendes means New Year (and in popular folklore is associated with the return of the dead). The meaning of the verse was suddenly clear, but this discovery was more than just a problem solved. It helped me to understand that when Char uses unfamiliar or archaic words, he does not intend to confuse or deter his readers. Rather he is reminding us that words mean different things in different contexts and that they often have a hidden history. Convinced that we increasingly need today to learn from the past which is all too swiftly disappearing from our ken, Char offers us enigmas to solve—in order to oblige us to construct a new and personal sense of presence. …

.....

THE RELATIVITY OF POETRY

Full of merit, yet poetically
Man dwells on this earth

Friedrich Hölderlin

Merit in poets is as boring as merit in people

Wallace Stevens

All poetry is about a passionate, if sometimes despairing, relationship with the world. In Char's case, this relationship is one of anger as well as one of hope. If he often castigates humankind for its cowardice and lack of commitment to others, he also repeatedly uses images of growth (the chrysalis which will become a butterfly or the seed which will become a plant, the flower which will become a fruit). He loves his fellow-beings, without pity, without any illusions or delusions … and always determinedly. As I have said, he lives and writes in a state of ‘tragic optimism’, in a state where pessimism and optimism are not so much at war as succeeding each other in a cycle that moves him and us on towards the creation of a world which will finally recognise its inherent transcendence. Yet the poet is always writing for someone else, for the unknown reader. Therein lies his grandeur—and his solitude.

Traditionally the love poem is seen as the celebration of a relationship, whether this relationship be consummated or not, real or imaginary. In his love poems Char hymns sexual and emotional complicity (‘L'amoureuse en secret’/‘Loving him secretly’ and ‘Recours au ruisseau’/‘Recourse to the river’), laments absence (‘Le carreau’/‘The window-pane’), warns against jealousy (‘Corail’/‘Coral’); he speaks of the necessity of sharing the experience of a fleeting love with others, be they friends or readers (‘Anoukis et plus tard Jeanne’/‘Anoukis and later Jeanne’); he challenges the narcissism which is at the heart of much loving and much poetry (‘À la désespérade’/‘At the Désespérade’). All this was lived by the poet; all this has much in common with the work of such major French love poets as Ronsard, Baudelaire and Éluard. However in Charrian love poetry the beloved is never the sole focus or pretext for his thinking and writing but is always part of his desire to understand and describe existence in its manifold differences. From his childhood discovery of the beautiful whiteness of his Italian nanny's breast until his death, Char loved and was loved by many women—indeed one of his friends has written that la sua lista was longer than Casanova's! Loved and loving women were essential to the poet's personal life and well-being, but in his writing they become poetic figures whose function is similar to that of animals, rivers, plants and trees: they remind the reader that all aspects of our lives are intertwined, that every relationship is ultimately about our indwelling.

While Char loved often and passionately, his poetic presentation of Woman is marked by a certain male chauvinism. Le Visage nuptial/The Nuptial Countenance (1938) ends thus: ‘This is the sand dead, this the body saved: / Woman breathes, Man stands upright’. Like the field in ‘Louis Curel de la Sorgue’, the body is saved and the male lover is upright, while the female lover ‘breathes’, is horizontal and passive. There can be no doubt that Char considered women to be inferior, his sexism being as calm and assured as it was absolute. He saw himself as the liberator of all those he loved, giving them the freedom of poetry as well as the freedom of eroticism, and above all freeing them from the constraints of society's rules and expectations. When Char writes of love, it is always about desire which must remain desire and not slide into repetition, fidelity, marriage, and certainly not into parenthood: like Baudelaire and Sade, he cannot love woman's procreative potential, and indeed his conception of desire is an essentially male one. For him as for many of the Surrealists, encounters are best when fleeting—like a lightning-flash: therein lies their intensity and their permanence. ‘The friend who stays,’ he writes, ‘is no better than the friend who leaves. Fidelity is a usurped territory.’ There are echoes here of the parable of the Prodigal Son but above all a sense that sexual fidelity is irrelevant, whereas fidelity to moral principles is paramount.

‘Anoukis et plus tard Jeanne’/‘Anoukis and later Jeanne’is one of Char's most beautiful and resonant love poems and one of his most revelatory. A celebration of love, ‘Anoukis’ is traditional in that it sings the praises of a beloved whom the poet wants to share ‘poetically’ with others. It is typically Charrian in its insistence that love leads to a coincidence with Nature and with folklore. In Provençal mythology, Anoukis is both the goddess who watches over river-bends and a figure of destiny who kills her victims by embracing them. The poem's full force, however, can be realised only when one knows a little of its source. In conversations with Char, Paul Veyne discovered that Char did indeed have a chance with an Anoukis figure (Jeanne) and that he swiftly passed to a sexual relationship with her. More worryingly, Veyne gives some details of the end of this encounter. One of Char's painter friends saw her and made the following request: ‘René, give her to me, I love her too much’. Char ‘gave’ her to him!

Poetic sharing is admirable; actual sharing of women by “giving” them to friends is problematic or, rather, shameful, in that it pre-supposes that men actually have proprietorial power over women and can dispose of them as they will. The anecdotal basis of the text is disturbing to anyone committed to sexual equality, and many of us will be shocked by the fact that Veyne has no information to offer about the woman's reactions. However, the poem itself articulates a transcendance of individual experiences. Anoukis is Jeanne, his best friend's sister, a goddess, his destiny, all women in one, an incarnation of women. She can be loved and hymned in a poem only because she can be, has been, discarded—and has been made into a figure, a symbol. All too often, Char's love poems, like those of Baudelaire, have been (mis-)interpreted as being for and about individual women, but a close attention to his work reveals that his first and last beloved is poetry—which transforms the anecdotal or biographical into the archetypal and the mythic. At the heart of his poetic, intellectual and erotic thinking lies his conviction that ‘the poem is the consummation of a love which maintains desire as desire’.

Poetry, Beauty, Nature, love, desire, justice: these are the forces which structure Char's universe. And each of them involves violence. The poet experienced violence from the moment he could see and relate to the world: the emotional violence of his mother, the physical bullying of his elder brother, the necessary violence of the ploughman ‘wounding’ the earth, the regretful violence of the hunter who kills birds ‘to keep the tree for himself’, the natural violence of snakes, animals, birds and insects, of sun, storm and snow. The natural world is full of predators and preys whose warrings are necessary to the balance of nature. This Char discovered as a child who initially identified with the role of victim. However his reading of the pre-Socratic philosophers, notably Heraclitus and Empedocles, led him to recognise that conflict is a cosmic force and ultimately a moral force. Heraclitus declares that the universe consists of a struggle, that justice is a conflict and that all existence is determined by discord. He insists on the creativity which springs from a balanced strife between opposites. If conflict is natural and inevitable, Man/the poet must always respond by an act of resistance: ‘I will never write a poem of acquiescence’ (Fureur et mystère/Furor and Mystery).

Char's angry revolt is directed outward at a world in which innocent children are killed, oppressors torture and tyrannise, and past traditions and beliefs are replaced by the selfishness of materialism. At times we must withdraw temporarily in order to find our strength, we must ‘desert’ as he urges in ‘Conseil de la sentinelle’/‘The Guard's advice,’ in other words, reject the entire system of oppression until we have rebuilt our ability to rebel. In this, there is no cowardice, rather a recognition that vulnerability is inherent in us all and that it can be creative and progressive only when it is allied to an active aggressivity.

The poet himself is both aggressor and aggressed—as is his poetry. And given the fact that his poetry is driven by an erotic desire for violent union with Woman, with Nature and with Poetry, we may go so far as to describe his poetry as sadomasochistic. Char's godmother Louise Roze was a descendant of the Marquis de Sade's lawyer and as an adolescent Char discovered in her library some autograph letters of the ‘divine marquis’ (or the ‘violet man’ as he calls him). This led him to read Sade's work and to discover not the social philosopher that many praise today, but a champion of erotic desire as violent, multiple and often self-contradictory who had an almost nihilistic conception of Nature as the victim of man's ferocity. While the Sadean obsession with orifices, real or created, finds no place in Char's writing, the presentation of eroticism as a reversible process of cruelty haunts several of his early poems. After his Surrealist period he abandoned much Sadean thinking, perceiving both harmony and the potential for rebirth in both love and Nature, but the concept of reversibility was to inform all of his mature work.

Like his Surrealist friends in the 1930s, he became fascinated by the work of Freud which offered a theoretical validation of the mobility both of his poetry and of his emotional and intellectual positions. For Char, the poet must assign himself an object which is both victim and ‘dangerous’. This is why I describe his work as sadomasochistic—not because of any writing about sexual ‘perversion’ but because of the way in which it functions as poetry. For Freud, activity and passivity are universal characteristics of sexual life and the libido dictates all of our actions and decisions. If Char can exalt the love-making of praying mantises, in which the female bites off her partner's head at the moment of full consummation, he must see himself as the ‘active’ male and also as the ‘passive’ victim of erotic violence. However the Freudian active/passive opposition is used by the poet mainly as a theoretical model for a poetry in which meaning emerges from the tension which always exists in language as in life: in all of Char's work, there is a creative struggle between fraternal duty and individual desires, between the erotic and the moral, between the emotional and the intellectual, between the realistic and the metaphysical.

Violence and delicacy work together and against each other in his texts and slowly the poetic Word, the logos, reveals itself as an ardent force. For Char, the sun is a source of violence, burning, evaporating, killing; but, more importantly, it is a noble counter-aggression liberating the persecuted from the ‘plague of false knowledge’. Since this ‘false knowledge’ is monovalent certainty, humans need liberation, not liberty. Like Gide and Sartre, albeit in a different way, Char believes that freedom is a process, never a fixed state won and retained once and forever.

Paradoxically perhaps, liberation comes from an active acceptance of difference rather than from a single conviction of what is right and just. In the universe described in Les Matinaux/The Dawn Breakers, birds illuminate our world and are killed, trees provide a warming shade and are set alight by the hunter's cartridge (‘Fête des arbres et du chasseur’/‘Celebration of the trees and the hunter’); dogs are faithful and tormented (‘Les Transparents’/‘The Clearseeing’); windows are openings and mirrors (‘Le carreau’/‘The window-pane’); mountains are hostile and generous, rivers hide and reveal, are sterile and productive, but their violence is always magical (‘Cet amour à tous retiré’/‘This love lost to all’). In an open letter to Georges Bataille in 1950, Char asserted that the modern world will never rediscover ‘a relative harmony, its burning diversity’ until the ‘problem of incompatibilities’ is seriously posed. Earlier in a brief essay on Heraclitus, he speaks of ‘the exhilarating union of opposites’ which is ‘the indispensable creative foundation of harmony’. This abiding concern with opposites, with dialectics, although reinforced by his reading of Heraclitus, Sade, Hegel, Freud and Heidegger, has its roots in Char's childhood observations of the natural world.

Nowhere is this better seen than in ‘Fête’/‘Celebration,’ composed for four Catalan ‘maquisards’ or Resistance fighters who could not return to Spain after the Liberation of France. Stylistically simple so that these modern-day troubadours could easily remember and sing it, the poem presents a series of images that underline the warring contradictions of Nature, and—crucially—the figure of humankind. The ‘melancholy hunter’ inadvertently destroys the forest that he loves and that is the habitat of his prey. While the poem has often been interpreted as an indictment of human interference in Nature, ‘Fête’/‘Celebration’ says and does something more: a characteristically Charrian allegory, it speaks as much of poetic creation as of the violence and the killing which mark so much animal and human behaviour. The hunter is melancholy not because he intends to kill in order ‘to keep for himself the tree and its long-suffering gloom’ but rather because he dares to take no truly decisive action and so release the creativity inherent in all existence.

When he finally fires, his cartridge accidentally sets fire to the forest. Yet the blaze, though consuming, is above all illuminating. Like the gnomic utterances of the Clear-seeing Ones, this allegory refuses and challenges the rigidity of traditional allegory, offering a transcendence of received logic. Like Goethe's butterfly which dies and is transfigured in the candle-flame, Char's poetry transforms matter into blazing light and destroys the world in order to recreate it in a more beautiful form. Throughout his work we find this central image of the blaze, whether it be the fire in the father's room which suddenly blazes up and inspires him to write, the lightning-flash which is simultaneously ephemeral and eternal and lights up our darkness, the forest-fire which by illuminating defers death, or the burning of the harvested fields which ensures a new and stronger growth. In À une sérénité crispée/Towards a tense serenity, he affirms: ‘Beauty sets fire to everything in our sheaf of darkness which must be set alight’; in ‘Note sibérienne’/‘Siberian note’ (Aromates chasseurs/Hunting herbs, 1975), he asks: ‘Why then this repetition: we are a spark of unknown origin and always set fire ahead. This fire, do we hear it wheeze and cry out at the very moment when we are consumed? Nothing, except that we were suffering, so much that in its centre the vast silence was splitting’; in Le poème pulvérisé/The pulverised poem, he hymns the ‘Nomadic spark which dies in its fire’. Life and death are not perceived as a simple cycle: while Char's imagery is drawn from Nature, he is never satisfied with the life-death-resurrection cycle that Western culture has installed as the most optimistic description of existence. If his poetry and thinking are radical, this is because he sees that existence is not—or at least should not always be—bound by the tyranny of Time. From the past, we must retain only moments of transcendance and transfiguration, recognising that the Christian tradition tells us that Christ's Transfiguration not only reveals his divinity but prefigures his mortal death. Memory is ‘death's great ally’, for it prevents us from looking onward performatively to moments when sequential time may be crossed by vertical, eternal time, when the world is ablaze with illumination. This is the form of harmony which Char finds, advocates and creates in his poetry, hence his insistence on such images as the plateau which is a continuous summit not a temporary high point or the lightning-flash which reveals the permanence of illumination in the split-second of its occurrence.

In ‘La Sorgue’/‘The Sorgue: a song for Yvonne’ (from La fontaine narrative/The narrative fountain of 1947), he hymns the ‘River where the lightning ends and my house rises / Rolling to the steps of oblivion the rubble of my reason’. Running from the Fontaine de Vaucluse and encircling L'Isle-sur-Sorgue on three sides, the Sorgue is both a reality and a mythic figure but above all it is a constant presence which reminds the poet that all things are multiple and that we must maintain a position of simultaneous revolt and fraternity. For centuries the Sorgue supported the entire town which lived from fishing but it was later punished by the industrial pollution of a paper-making factory; its waters are still astonishingly transparent but are now dangerous; it is a symbol of death and survival. The poem ends with an invocation to the Sorgue which resumes Char's moral attitude: ‘Keep me violent and the friend of the bees on the horizon’.

Poetic language is the most challenging and disquieting of all languages, in that it both juxtaposes differing stances and self-consciously explores and proclaims its own silences, inadequacies, redundancies and possibilities. At the same time, it is always inscribing itself inescapably but voluntarily into a history of previous thinking. Modern French poetry is perhaps more explicitly intertextual than any since the Renaissance, in that the past is woven into the present with both gratitude and a certain aggression, as poets seek to delineate their own space. Char's implacable stance occasionally led him to attack poets who had in his view slipped into mere word-play. For him, poetry should be essential, that is to say, central to our lives rather than a marginal decoration. For this reason, he insists on repositioning poetry in contemporary culture by urging us to read differently and so to relearn the lessons of past moral thinkers. If there is one statement which illuminates Char's attitude to our shared heritage, it is his favourite fragment by Heraclitus which prefigures much of Heidegger's thinking on sameness and difference: ‘You never step twice into the same river.’ Each experience we have, be it of love, Nature or poetry, is always a repetition yet always an innovation.

Hölderlin's crucial question, brilliantly considered by Heidegger in his oracular 1946 lecture on Rilke, ‘Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit’ (What are poets for in a destitute time?) is an anxious question that Char repeatedly poses both to himself and to his readers. Like Hölderlin, he thought of the poet as ‘the priest of the invisible’; like Heidegger, he conceived of poetry as a renovation of experience and as the site of truth or, more accurately, of aletheia (unveiling or unconcealedness). However, while the sacred is ever-present in his work and while he too merits the appellation given by Heidegger to Hölderlin of the poet of the Time Between, Char's insistence on the value of poets and on our need for them has a political edge. Poets must unveil truth and in so doing must challenge all the systems of oppression which shape the world in which they live and write. The poet is someone who must have moral courage, integrity (and indeed ferocity) and must consequently judge. Yet this social merit must also be traversed by moments of illumination, by colourful play with the lexicon and with folklore. Char essentially agrees with Hölderlin's view of the difference between merit and poetry, but he is also close to Wallace Stevens' position, believing that authentic merit is not propriety but must be splashed through by vivid personal experiences. This is one reason why he so admires such artists as Picasso, Braque and Arpad Szenes, in that their paintings marry intellectuality to emotion, graphism to colour. Above all, poetry must use its potential to disquiet. As he says in the last statement of ‘Rougeur des Matinaux’/‘Redness of the Dawn Breakers’: ‘In short, if you do destroy, let it be with nuptial tools’.

Seamed through by references to past works and past thinking, Char's poetry demands a reading that includes but also goes beyond local, personal knowledge, a reading that accepts that we can understand fully only if we attend to what has been prepared for us. In ‘Cet amour à tous retiré’/‘This love lost to all’ from Les Matinaux we find the following stanza:

The violence was magical;
A man sometimes died,
But as death seized him,
A trace of amber would seal his eyes.

Violence, death, magical transformation: these Charrian thematic constants are presented here, simply, in one stanza that poses no interpretative difficulty for the reader. Except … why the amber? Most of us vaguely recognise its ritual importance, yet Char's usage is calculated to activate its multiple cultural resonances. Since Thales in 600 b.c., we know that amber (electron in Greek) has magnetic properties—it absorbs excess electrical charges from the person rubbing it. The tears of amber shed by Apollo when expelled from Mount Olympus symbolise his nostalgia for a lost paradise and the promise of Elysium. Prehistoric insects have been preserved (and made beautiful) in amber, hence the Egyptians' use of amber in their embalming processes. Both the Celts and Christians saw amber as a symbol of spirituality and sanctity. Like so many of the symbols that Char uses, amber is plurivalent and intercultural. This means that readers can never fix on one single meaning and will in each successive reading privilege one or other of the possible connotations. Such a dismantling of the notion of textual authority is characteristic of Char's work in that he both accepts that the reader is the co-creator of his poems and also wishes to push the reader into an exploration of his or her own responses to superficially simple texts which are in fact creatively unstable. Although Char disliked the term aphorism, preferring the neutral ‘short text’, his poetic utterances do have the contestatory force of pre-Socratic aphorisms in that they juxtapose the explicit and the implicit, continuity and discontinuity. His writings therefore demand that readers accept that they are both the victims and the operators of a ‘nuptial’ violence (and create problems for any translator!).

If Char's imagery is often taken from his native Provence, his thinking is far from Eurocentric, largely perhaps because of his encounters with France-based painters from other continents, such as Wilfredo Lam and Zao Wou-Ki. With someone as widely read as Char, it is always difficult to know exactly whom he had or had not read, but it is interesting that his poetics, like his philosophical thinking, is very similar to that of Octavio Paz, who wrote in The Bow and the Lyre:

Poetic creation begins as violence to language. The first act in this operation is the uprooting of words. The poet wrests them from their habitual connections and occupations: separated from the formless world of speech, words become unique, as if they had just been born. The second action is the return of the word: the poem becomes an object of participation. Two opposing forces inhabit the poem: one of elevation or uprooting, which pulls the word from language; the other of gravity which makes it return. The poem is an original and unique creation, but it is also reading and recitation: participation. The poet creates it; the people, by recitation, re-create it. Poet and reader are two moments of a single reality. Alternating in a manner that may aptly be called cyclical, their rotation engenders the spark: poetry.

Char's poetry begins in violence—in his just anger at all betrayals of freedom and in his determination to release language from the straitjacket of conventional usage. It ends in the (never-ending) work of reading which necessarily recognises that the universe exists as multiple by virtue of division and oppositions.

THE COMPLICATIONS OF SIMPLICITY

Art is the only thing that can go on
mattering once it has stopped hurting.

Elizabeth Bowen

Life may change, but it may fly not;
Hope may vanish, but can die not;
Truth be veiled, but still it burneth
Love repulsed,—but it returneth!

Shelley

If Char's relationship with himself and his subjects may be defined as sadomasochistic, the workings of his texts are no less violent, albeit in a different way. Thematically, his work is dominated by suffering, woundings, deaths, all of which are for him potentially creative, a source of transformatory radiance—as all farmers, fisherfolk and hunters intuitively know. A child of the Vaucluse countryside, Char realised this from an early age and wrote of what he saw. And he wrote as he saw, hence his definition of the poet as ‘a man of simplicity’. However, his vision or inseeing is not, as I have suggested, that of modern urban, industrialised man; although his poacher friend could immediately grasp the meaning of his poems, most modern Europeans have lost the ability to see the world around them. So poetry must be more than a mirror of reality and must re-open our eyes.

The twentieth century is above all the age of the image, of the spectacle, yet the barrage of images which daily assails us has had the effect of blinding us to the fact that true seeing is an act of active engagement and interpretation rather than one of passive reception. When in 1938 Char sent to his friend Christian Zervos, the editor of Cahiers d'art, two poems he had composed on paintings by Courbet and Corot, he spoke in his covering letter of ‘the complications of poetry … the simplicity of painting’. His thinking then, as throughout his life, was not determined by Platonic or Hegelian hierarchies but by a belief that language has a duty to be ‘complicated’ in order to lead us on toward a new vision—like that of Rimbaud who wished to reinvent language so that we could once more see authentically. His was no intellectual project, as was that of Valéry whose difficulty is a strategy to ensure concentration on the workings of his poetry—Char frequently proclaimed that he was not an intellectual but ‘a man of desire’. Rather, his poetry works to remind us that language must speak again of our primal roots. But the poet can achieve this only be reminding us that language, though the prism through which we can (hope to) apprehend reality, is necessarily also the vehicle of centuries of cultural accretion; consequently the poet must work both with and against history. If Wordsworth can write of ‘intimations of immortality’, Char cannot but write of ‘intimations of origin’. However, sentimental nostalgia must be resolutely refused and the origin must constantly be made present as the future towards which we strain: ‘To live is to obliterate a memory’, as Char said in an interview. The past is consequently not to be rewritten or recuperated in purely personal terms; it is to be discovered, new and different, as a ‘shared presence’.

The project is idealistic, but it is also problematic in that even today reading is still a somewhat elitist activity: what is shared? how much knowledge is needed? why bother? and should we bother? One answer offered by Char is the distinction between the poem and poetry which he established during the Resistance: ‘The poem is a furious ascension; poetry, the play of arid riverbanks’ (Feuillets d'Hypnos/Leaves of Hypnos). In other words, we must attend to each individual text and not to a culturally approved mode of writing. A further answer is proposed in another wartime statement: ‘If the absurd reigns here on earth, I choose the absurd, the antistatic, or whatever brings me close to the possibilities of pathos and empathy. I am a man of the riverbanks—of erosion and swelling—since I cannot always be a man of the roaring stream.’ These two statements articulate important thoughts on poetry, but they use the same image of the riverbanks (berges) to express radically different ideas. This does not mean that Char's poetics is incoherent or contradictory, but that he is committed to rethinking his position constantly, to maintaining it in a state of creative flux.

Char describes Heraclitus as ‘this proud, stable and anxious genius who sees truth as noble and the image which reveals truth as tragic’. All that Char admires in Heraclitus is to be found in his own poetry, notably the anxiety about how one can possibly express or, more accurately, unveil the beauty of truth. The truth, however, for both these thinkers is neither serene not stable: like existence itself, it is a becoming, a discovery of harmony through and in discord, through and in struggle. Heraclitus asserts that the fundamental principle of existence is Strife (also translated as Hate or War) which is an external force and that Love is a unifying force within the world. These two forces are engaged in an eternal struggle which is the foundation of all becoming. The notion of struggle is crucial, in that it is a question not of a simple cycle in which Hate and Love succeed each other. It is a question of a creative co-existence of opposites: a process which, to paraphrase Char, involves both a straining towards the future and a remembering of the past.

The Ancient Greek idea of existence as flux had particular resonance for those who had experienced World Wars and had come to recognise that unity of thought is a fantasy created by the particular society in which we live. Furthermore, and crucially, the thoughts of Heraclitus, Empedocles and Parmenides have been left to us in fragmented form. Char is fascinated by the concept of fragmentation. For him, both life and poetry are tragically (though potentially creatively) structured and defined by splitting, by lack of coherence, by a principle of difference and constant differing, hence his insistent privileging of the individual poem over poetry. His own texts are usually brief and may appear to be separate, autonomous entities, yet there is in his work as a whole a continual interweaving of terms whereby ideas and images are re-presented and rethought. His preferred image for fragmentation is the archipelago. One of his volumes is called La parole en archipel/The Word as archipelago and all his poems and images relate to each other as do the islands in an archipelago, which, though apparently, superficially distinct, are linked each to the other by a hidden submarine landmass. The reader thus becomes an explorer who must both scan the sea-surface of the poems and plumb the depths of the waters which separate the various texts in order to establish some kind of map of Char's work.

The archipelago is a central notion for Char, but he also uses another significant metaphor as the title for one of the poems in Les Matinaux, that of the cento. In Latin, a cento is a patchwork garment made of scraps of material, but the term has come to mean a poetic composition made up of passages selected from the work of great poets of the past. Most of the fragments which make up this poem were in fact written by the poet himself. However, what is most important is that they have the aphoristic quality of much Ancient Greek writing and could have been written by Heraclitus or Empedocles—with the difference that statements of moral philosophy are here made subjectively, in the first person. While Char is a highly individual poet, his work constantly refers back to past writers and especially to past conceptions of harmony—in order to make us think creatively about the destructively fragmented present in which we live today.

Char is sometimes described as a ‘precious’ poet in that he occasionally uses both unusual or highly specific words and syntactic structures that are ‘old fashioned’ or ‘pedantic’. But he is also radically modern, even ‘postmodern’ in his insistent poetic use of fragmentation, collage and incorporation of references to the past. He is also above all an archaeologist of language who reminds us that words have a history, whether we know it or not, and that these words need to be found again, dug up, uncovered, resurrected … This concern with the past is not nostalgic, or at least not simply so: Char is preoccupied by the problems of absence and presence, both of these being bound up into a meditation upon time and history, and all of his work may be seen as an interrogation of the very movements and constructs that are nostalgia's. If he frequently returns to the notion that we still hold the ‘old gods’ within us, this does not mean that he is advocating a return to paganism or even pantheism. Rather, he is aware that the past is simultaneously gone and present, albeit in a fragmented and often unrecognised form. Hence for example his insistence on transcribing the language of the Provençal Transparents in order to remind us that even today there are those whose discourse ambiguously conjoins the metaphysical and the concrete.

For Char, poetry is necessary, central, in that only poetry can (dare to) speak truth. This truth is, however, not an absolute, immutable truth, but an aletheia. In his 1956 essay on Rimbaud, Char states categorically that ‘without poetry […] the world is and means nothing. True life, that unimpeachable colossus, finds its meaning only in the flanks of poetry.’ While it is interesting that here as elsewhere he conceives of poetry as feminine (flanks) and of true life as masculine (colossus), what is crucial is that truth can be found only in an acceptance of difference and interaction, in the warring harmonies offered by poetry. Each individual poem is part of a patchwork, a fragment of an eternal and universal discourse that is half-lost to us—and so as readers we must engage in a kind of archeological activity. Char's occasional use of archaic syntax and of unfamiliar words taken from Provençal is neither elitist nor exclusive; rather it serves to remind us that we must seek to refind the original meaning of words in order to reposition ourselves fully in the present. Yes, many of us may sometimes need to use dictionaries or encyclopaedias when reading his poems, but this is part of the poet's committed strategy to make us reconsider the past so that we may re-encounter and rethink the complex simplicity of vision of our predecessors, be they pre-Socratic philosophers, clear-seeing wanderers, fisherfolk, farmers or poachers—or poets.

In his 1985 volume Les voisinages de Van Gogh/In Van Gogh's territory, which in its subtle and erudite allusions to Provence offers an interesting counterpoint to Les Matinaux/The Dawn Breakers, the vocabulary is more recondite and the references more problematic for the uninitiated reader, but the concern with the past's relation to the present is just as dominant. The first, programmatic text is called ‘L'avant-Glanum’/‘Before Glanum’, referring to the quarry where Van Gogh was painting when he had his first serious fit of madness. But Char's allusion is more complex in that the Roman ruins for which Glanum is now famous were not discovered until the 1921 excavations, that is to say more than 30 years after Van Gogh's death. What matters for Char is that although Van Gogh could not possibly know of the subterranean ruins, his eye was that of the in-seeing artist who intuitively senses the past in the present—and so his painting created a link between the mountain's natural arch and the hidden town which would later be uncovered.

It is this complex web of past, present and future which underpins all of Char's poetry wherein origins lie not only in the past but also as future destinations. Through art we can uncover the truth of existence, the simple truth that all is complicated, that there are links between all things.

THE SOVEREIGN CONVERSATION

Echo answers echo; everything reverberates.

Georges Braque

Char's poetry is profoundly aware of the past which is our shared heritage, the ‘common wealth’ that in ‘Anoukis and later Jeanne’ permits him to understand that all experiences are repetitions. This is especially true of experiences of love which, though often presented as singular, as unique, have their full meaning because they are commemorations which rewrite the past in order to promise a new harmony in the future. This poetry is undoubtedly difficult in its moral and philosophical speculations and affirmations, but it also has a vigorous immediacy, precisely because it speaks of the problems and conflicts which have preoccupied human beings since time immemorial. Char is firmly, even aggressively, explicit on issues of social justice. He is however questioningly suggestive when writing about his individual emotional experiences which he perceives as simultaneously deeply personal and characteristic of all human behaviour. Our passions are not simply the product of our own psyches and libidos: they are always partially determined by the culture in which we live, hence Char's conscious and unconscious dialogue with past and present writings, paintings and music.

If the creation of poetry is necessarily a solitary and individualistic activity, the reading of poetry is collaborative. We each bring to texts our own thoughts, hopes and especially our memories. We try out our own histories against those of the poet, and the marvellous miracle occurs: we recognise that what poets say reveals more about ourselves than it does about them.

When Char wrote, it was always alone, whether in the necessary solitude of every poet or in the brief ‘absence’ of the Resistance fighter, yet in all of his moments of creation he was accompanied by other artists with whom he silently dialogued, notably Heraclitus, Sade, Hölderlin, Rimbaud, Éluard, Heidegger, Braque, Picasso—and Georges de la Tour. Throughout the War he kept pinned to his wall a colour print of de la Tour's The Prisoner which depicts a woman speaking to a captive. All of de la Tour's luminescently candle-lit paintings fascinated Char but The Prisoner had a particular significance for him during the War because, as he says, this representation of a dialogue between human beings ‘defeated and brought under control the manifold darkness of Hitlerism’ (Fureur et mystère/Furor and Mystery). This is one of the rare examples where Char privileges the decoding of content over emotional response. Usually he strives to transcribe and to generate an experience of happening. This happening is a form of aletheia whereby we discover that we both belong to the past and are different from it. In his essays on artists, he often insists on his sense of belonging (in an ambivalent way) to a tradition, and his choice of epigraphs from writers as diverse as Heraclitus, Empedocles, Shakespeare, Monteverdi, Blake and Melville further underlines his anti-historical commitment to discovery of the past as a recognition but also as a becoming, a moving-onwards. The Tradition is for Char what Paz has called a tradition of discontinuity. This explains his reluctance to write fully-argued theoretical essays, preferring to offer short aphoristic texts which allow his readers space to interpret, to reposition themselves in time—and above all to create their own meanings.

Throughout the work of this tragic optimist, of this darkly luminous poet burns one constant light: the beacon of hope in our individual and collective capacity to surmount oppression. All of the Dawn Breakers, be they human or animal, are therefore to be respected and cherished, for they are our models in a world of moral poverty. Char's work may point up the gloom which shrouds contemporary existence, yet always there is a sense that progress will be made. In his 1979 volume Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit/Sleeping windows and door on the roof, he restates unequivocally this belief that informs all the poems in Les Matinaux: ‘The Dawn Breakers would go on living, even if there were no more evening, no more morning.’

Jean Starobinski (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6019

SOURCE: Starobinski, Jean. “René Char and the Definition of the Poem.” In Figuring Things: Char, Ponge, and Poetry in the Twentieth Century, edited and translated by Charles D. Minahen, pp. 113-27. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, Starobinski discusses the poetics and aesthetics of Char's writings.]

There is no poem, no line of René Char that does not give us a feeling of opening. An increased space appears before us, lights up within us. This space offers itself to our open eyes. It does not have the facile qualities of the dream: it is the harsh and expanding volume of our earthly sojourn, the instant of our present breath, revealed to their fullest extent. Something immense, intense, announces itself imperiously. We are made sensitive to its fullness through a fit of emotion which will not be felt distinct from great, natural energies: we recognize the advent of the “matière-émotion instantanément reine” [“matter-emotion instantaneously queen”]. But the feeling of opening that we experience when reading René Char comes not only from this devastating increase of the present site and instant. The poem, so neatly traced before our gaze, makes us feel its two shores of silence; it develops between a past and a future, it tears itself away from an original space, it is pointed toward a distance that can only be sensed and that is destined to remain inaccessible. The poetic word surrounds itself with a here and a there which are neither attained nor named, but which the energy of the poem never ceases to designate. The feeling of opening, more than just resulting from the expanse offered to the domination of our gaze, stems from the way René Char, in giving the present and presence their full force, safeguards the integrity of the distant and the absent. The great alchemy of the poem consists of implicating in the present tense of language, in the present movement of the word, a vigilant relationship with that which lets itself neither possess nor name, which announces itself and slips away in the absolute interval. To the admirable definition “le poème est l'amour réalisé du désir”1 [“the poem is the realized love of desire”] can be added these more recent words: “Supprimer l'éloignement tue. Les dieux ne meurent que d'être parmi nous” (767) [“Removing the distance kills. The gods only die from being among us”].

The opening, we see, does not limit itself to the positive conquest of a vast horizon offered for contemplation. It apprehends negatively that which is taken from us. It arises from the dramatic contrast between a here and an elsewhere, between present dazzlement and unreachable ground against which it stands out. The function of poetry, as Char never ceases to repeat, is to maintain this confrontation of opposites, to reap its suffering and its fruit: the poet can thus appear to us in the double role of wounded one and conciliator.

The aphorisms of René Char offer the perfect example of the amorous and bellicose commerce that contraries maintain. These texts of extreme awakening are not written in a different ink than the rest of his work. These are poems that rush to declare the universal; in them, as Maurice Blanchot so well puts it, “poetry is revelation of poetry … poem of the essence of the poem … poetry faced with itself and rendered visible in its essence through the words that seek it out.”2 In their so strong and imperious writing, the aphorisms seem at first to close upon a definition, to circumscribe a truth, to enclose a precept. But let us give them our full attention: little by little we will see the answer turn interrogative; absence, future, distance take their places at the heart of this apparently closed form and crack its shell; the definition put into service of the undefinable, and the precept enjoining only to set free. Having chosen, among all the modes of expression, the one that supposes the greatest constraint, Char makes from it the key of a liberation. The contraction of the word engenders the expansion of its sense. The aphorism authoritatively enunciates the order of the world, but, according to Char's own very beautiful expression, it is an “ordre insurgé” [“insurgent order”].

Le poète transforme indifféremment la défaite en victoire, la victoire en défaite, empereur prénatal seulement soucieux du recueil de l'azur.

(155)

[The poet transforms indifferently defeat into victory, victory into defeat, prenatal emperor concerned only with gathering the azure.]

Magicien de l'insécurité, le poète n'a que des satisfactions adoptives. Cendre toujours inachevée.

(156)

[Magician of insecurity, the poet only has adopted satisfactions. Ash always incomplete.]

These texts, to which the Baudelairean term “rockets” would so well apply, carry their own reserve of supplemental energy, the very principle of their bursting in the illuminated heights. The formal contraction of the aphorism is in a relation of opposition to an unlimited space which is foreign to it only in order to become more perfectly complementary to it. “L'intensité est silencieuse. Son image ne l'est pas. (J'aime qui m'éblouit puis accentue l'obscur à l'intérieur de moi)” (330) [“The intensity is silent. Its image is not. (I like what dazzles me then accentuates the obscure within me)”]. The instant flashes; it rends the silence and the night of waiting. Then the night recomposes itself. This is but one image among many of the surging of the poetic event: the poet is the master of designating as he pleases (and according to the grace that grants him the world) this instant that will remain like an overwhelming trace. And what borders this instant, on the two shores of past and present, is too elusive not to call the play of the most varied images. Whence is the poem born? To what horizon is it destined? The poem implicates this origin and this end in its internal tensions and its liveliest assertions. The image of the night, without fail, recurs insistently, associated with the image of humus, of the rock, of winter, of anguish. One should reread above all the admirable poem entitled “Sur une nuit sans ornement” (392-93) [“On a night without ornament”]. Numerous are the other poems where an obscure depth lets itself be seen, a dolorous anxiety “beneath the text.” Let us just as soon add that it is a fought anxiety, an anxiety become fecund because it feeds the impulse that repudiates it. We feel strongly the tenebrous silence from which many a poem tears itself; and we also perceive the silence that after having been accomplished each sentence leaves behind, a silence comparable to a stagnant, black water, where burgeoning life ferments.

But René Char is not a poet of nostalgia. He is not fascinated by the origin and temptation of the retrospective look. If he evokes the nocturnal places of the beginning, it is because they belong “basically” to movement which uproots itself. The work of Char, in its most general character, manifests itself as an uprising that, leaving behind a nocturnal region, points across the sharp clarity of the day toward an ulterior risk. But the poetic event does not assure continuity of duration: it is not the transition point where the past flows lazily towards the future. Temporality manifests itself there in the form of rupture, disjunction.

An uprising of the word. Uprising, in its multiple meanings, is indeed the appropriate term here. It applies first to the images of climbing, so numerous in Char's poetry; it indicates the movement of that which raises itself—the surging of a volcanic archipelago, the shock of the wave, the leap of the heart, the ascending flight of the eagle; it also denotes the elevation of language to its full sense, to its dominating height, region in the breast of which the entire literality of words is revealed to be compatible with their widest metaphorical aptitude (in the exchange of powers between the abstract and the concrete). The poetry of René Char is once again uprising, in the sense of insurrection, seditious impulse, revolted energy. The image of uprising permits us therefore to see the cardinal virtues of René Char's poetry: anguish mobilized, heights attained, the adversary defied. These are the virtues of a living person at the same time as those of a work. Here the poet is the exact contemporary of his word: if one could have said, with regard to Char, that the poet is given birth by the poem, one would just as soon have to add that the poem is the peril consented to, into which a man disappears to be reborn a poet. There is someone at the origin of the uprising, who will not be the same on the “crest of knowledge” where his movement takes him. This is to say that the poetic act is inseparable from a confrontation: anguish, height, adversary, René Char has felt them all to their most intense degree, in the concrete struggle as well as the imaginary dimension. Height is the glorious attribute of the poem and is at the same time the region where the double sun of love shines (“chemin de parélie,” 341 [“parhelion way”]); as for anguish, it is in facing the worst, in defying in the maquis the most monstrous of real adversaries, that the poet has answered for his rebellious word.

I have just evoked the secret region that one senses at the origin of the poem, its prenatal space: night, earth, anguish, rock. But an antagonistic principle is immediately at work; it is a principle carrying concentrated energy and capable of opposing, sometimes by patient effort, sometimes in a sudden way. Char communicates to us evidence of it through images of a significant diversity: the seed in the earth, the source in the rock, the lightning bolt in the night, the sparkling of stars against a tenebrous background. (In a way that really reveals the always extreme demands of René Char, the image of the constellation or of the swarm of meteors manifests the opposition of the luminous flash and the darkness, in terms of a multiple flash struggling with the monotonous uniformity of the night sky; the contrast of light and night redoubles, so to speak, in that of plurality and unity.) The movement, henceforth irrepressible, issues from a shock of bellicose and amorous adversaries, whose theater is neither the “exterior” world nor the isolated “conscious,” but their common belonging. For whoever knows how to listen, there is, behind many a poem of Char, a fecund couple, a play of antagonists or even incompatibles, who lend mutual support in view of a tearing, a springing, a forwardness that henceforth will no longer be able to stop before having spent all the motor energy that the commotion of their origin has charged them with. In the beautiful, luminous poem “Déclarer son nom” [“Declaring One's Name”], where Char evokes his childhood, the generating couple are insouciance and pain. As soon as these two terms are evoked, an acceleration is produced.

J'avais dix ans. La Sorgue m'enchâssait. Le soleil chantait les heures sur le sage cadran des eaux. L'insouciance et la douleur avaient scellé le coq de fer sur le toit des maisons et se supportaient ensemble. Mais quelle roue dans le cœur de l'enfant aux aguets tournait plus fort, tournait plus vite que celle du moulin dans son incendie blanc.

(401)

[I was ten. The Sorgue was enshrining me. The sun was singing the hours on the wise clockface of the waters. Insouciance and pain had sealed the iron cock on the roof of houses and were supporting (suffering) one another. But what wheel in the heart of the watchful child was turning more forcefully, turning more quickly than that of the mill in its white fire.]

One perceives at the beginning of this poem, the slowing typical of images of memory, and particularly memories of childhood. Elsewhere, a rapid and quasi-instantaneous movement carries the poem from its origin to its peak, from its initial surging to its “point diamenté actuel” [“immediate diamond point”] where the precarious and sharp-edged present illuminates us. And often, as we have seen, the multiple instant, the bouquet of sparks, the cluster and the swarm—plural figures where the unity of the present shatters in pieces—are, in René Char, privileged themes. But one would be hard pressed to name a poet as free as Char in obsessively repeating a course and a dynamic scheme. How many poems, in this work, do not speak to us of flight delayed, of patience, of endurance in the heart of a hostile element (nocturnal duration, inclement and unjust time), an element rendered fertile by the vigil that inhabits it and awaits its issue? “Porteront rameaux ceux dont l'endurance sait user la nuit noueuse qui précède et suit l'éclair” (431). [“Those whose endurance knows how to use up the gnarled night that precedes and follows the lightning will carry branches.”] And in the uprising of the word, it is not only the origin and the summit that count for the poetic experience: René Char knows the entire cost that must be accorded to the threshold, the edge, the border, the breach—to all the places where the decisive outcome is accomplished, between the dark origin and the unformulated term. The poet, he tells us, is a “passer of justice,” a “passant appliqué à passer” (334) [“passer-by determined to pass”]. Now if he is among the number of “early risers,” it is not only because he is there at first light, but also because he knew, in the middle of night, to watch for the reddening of the dawn. The point of passage is not one where conflict nullifies itself: the opposites remain faced off, the tragedy of opposition rests complete, but an impulse is produced, to which the poet acquiesces:

L'état d'esprit du soleil levant est allégresse malgré le jour cruel et le souvenir de la nuit. La teinte du caillot devient la rougeur de l'aurore.

(329)

[The state of mind of the rising sun is cheerfulness despite the cruel day and the memory of the night. The tint of the clot becomes the redness of the dawn.]

Nous ne pouvons vivre que dans l'entrouvert, exactement sur la ligne hermétique de partage de l'ombre et de la lumière. Mais nous sommes irrésistiblement jetés en avant. Toute notre personne prête aide et vertige à cette poussée.

(411)

[We can live only in the half-opened, exactly on the hermetic line of sharing of the shadow and the light. But we are irresistibly thrown forward. Our whole person lends aid and dizziness to this push.]

All surging crosses a limit, clears an obstacle, risks itself in an unforeseen space: the first instants of the poem, of love, or of the river are linked together by powerful analogies. They carry within them the revelation of the passage. And if there are privileged places and objects—let's say even sacred—in Char's universe, they are those where the trace of passage is inscribed: the stone of the threshold, the gorge that a conquering force traverses, the rock of the Fontaine de Vaucluse, or that ambiguous carreau (310) [window pane], which unites and separates and where the outside and the inside mark their joint border.

At the extreme limit of poetic uprising, we find a new but forbidden threshold, which cannot be crossed. The summit is not a goal conquered and possessed. Should the poem leap to its highest altitude—and it happens that it does with dazzling speed—it finds itself less rich for its acquisition than thirsty for what it lacks and slips away again. The summit is but an instant, where unknown, future, silence manifest themselves by their very withdrawal:

Après l'ultime distorsion, nous sommes parvenus sur la crête de la connaissance. Voici la minute du considérable danger: l'extase devant le vide, l'extase neuve devant le vide frais. (753)

[After the ultimate distortion, we have arrived at the crest of knowledge. Here is the minute of considerable danger: the ecstasy before the void, the new ecstasy before the fresh void.]

Whatever the image the poet proposes to us for the term attained—height of pleasure, delta of the river, crest of the wave, zenith of the arrow or the star—victory inverts itself gloriously in defeat. In this way, instructed as to his limits, but obstinately refusing to submit to them, the poet finds himself driven back to the limitless night of his origins, to the source of his springing forth.

The high point, in René Char, excludes possessive accumulation. Between an abolished past and an “unpredicted future,” the most lively crest of the present—where vigilance, transport, emotion, thought, vertigo join—is not the place for a possible stay. The dynamics of the poetic act, for René Char, do not allow finding rest on the heights: “Notre arche à tous, la très parfaite, naufrage à l'instant de son pavois. Dans ses débris et sa poussière, l'homme à tête de nouveau-né réapparaît. Déjà mi-liquide, mi-fleur” (344) [“The ark of us all, the very perfect one, shipwreck at the instant of its flag. In its debris and dust, man with a newborn's face reappears. Already half liquid, half flower”]. When he was enduring the night, the poet was watching for the instant of passing; but the word, at the extreme point of its trajectory, is forbidden to stay. “La poésie vit d'insomnie perpétuelle” (413) [“Poetry lives by perpetual insomnia”]. The poet faces the unknown. “Comment vivre sans inconnu devant soi” (247) [“How can one live without the unknown before one”]. This aphorism from Char, to which Maurice Blanchot has dedicated an admirable commentary,3 situates life—thus poetry—on the front line of a confrontation. The unknown: that which I am not master of, that whose call does not cease to keep me awake, that which surrounds and provokes me, the adverse part that besieges me, the inaccessible horizon where my destiny foments. But the unknown does not stay neutral and faceless any more than the poet remains inactive. It is going to reveal itself to us in the event which has just broken the immobile watch. From the heart of the unknown, the occurrence surges, and the poet has the duty to retort. Destiny produces itself, and the poet must produce in response “l'inextinguible réel incréé” (155) [“the inextinguishable uncreated real”]. From the still unqualified horizon, where the reserve of the unknown stays intact, here come the delegates of the unknown: misfortune and risk—or luck. An attack—or a gift. The tormentors and the monsters—or unhoped-for beauty, always awaited. The poet proceeds to meet them, with the appropriate response.

Everywhere in Char's work, we find the scansion, the two times of a provocation of the world and a response of the poet. Unless in reverse order the human act precedes the world's reply: the hunter shoots, the forest blazes (281-88); in “Le Soleil des eaux” [“The Sun of the Waters”], the fishermen blow up the barricade, “puis l'eau s'échappe en bouillonnant, l'eau que l'explosion a délivrée, l'eau encore dans les secrets de sa source” (1053) [“then water escapes bubbling, water that the explosion set free, water again in the secrets of its source”]. The violent instant, the brief syllable of the explosion is followed by a long syllable, the tumultuous reply of nature delivered to the punctual and pure act of human revolt.

Matched with the unknown, the poet is thus dedicated to the duel and must adjust his response to the provocation of the world. When history is burdened with too many crimes, the just response is in the muffling of the voice, in the “sleep” of poetry. Man then moves on to acts and lets poetry occupy a marginal position, where the essential is preserved. The Feuillets d'Hypnos [Leaves of Hypnos], of which “un feu d'herbes sèches eût aussi bien été [l']éditeur” [“a fire of dry herbs might also have been (the) editor”], serve as witness: the poet saves the truth of poetry by taking it back as close as possible to silence, by gritting his teeth before spilled blood. “J'ai répliqué aux coups” (144) [“I replied to the blows”], he will write. The texts from the period of the maquis are traces of the absence and hibernation of the poet, required by his “infernal duties.” But they are at the same time the guarantors of a “shared presence,” promised in the future, and already anticipated in the ordeal. It would not have been appropriate to sing out loud. Only, at that moment, is muteness capable of giving the right measure of hope; muteness, or these notes close to silence, that bespeak the waiting and watching in the darkness.

To live a vocation of opposing in so generous, so truthful, so intransigent a way is possible only for a man capable of experiencing in himself the power of opposition. The unknown, the adversary, are present in him in his relationship with language, in his duel with poetry: “Au centre de la poésie, un contradicteur t'attend. C'est ton souverain. Lutte loyalement contre lui” (754) [“At the center of poetry, a contradictor awaits you. He's your sovereign. Fight loyally against him”]. “Que le risque soit ta clarté” (756) [“Let risk be your clarity”], says René Char again. We are at the point where risk turns and shows its other face, which is luck; where, consequently, retort must take the name of welcoming and defiance change into confidence. The possibility of the poem, it too, is an event, that is to say, a presence come to us from the depths of the unknown. Thus it is that the unknown itself is present in the response the poet gives to the unknown: “Comment me vint l'écriture? Comme un duvet d'oiseau sur ma vitre, en hiver. Aussitôt s'éleva dans l'âtre une bataille de tisons qui n'a pas, encore à présent, pris fin” (377) [“How did writing come to me? Like a bird's down on my window, in winter. Just as soon there rose in the hearth a battle of brands which has not yet presently ended”]. Declaration of an astonishing richness, where opposites lend support to one another; the outside and the inside, the cold of winter and the warmth of the hearth, the softness of the feather and the violence of battle. On the temporal level, the antagonism is that of the instantaneous apparition on the window and of the interminable battle—brief syllable and long syllable.

One ordinarily sees in Char a poet of violent energy and conflict. But one too often omits to add that it is precisely that which enables him to be a love poet. Violence and tenderness, far from being mutually exclusive, must ally themselves to respond to the unknown when it comes to us in the miraculous form of luck and favor. Luck announces itself in people, in the living, in faces: it is no longer a neutral horizon, it is a being offered in its carnal singularity: “Le poème est toujours marié à quelqu'un” (159) [“The poem is always wed to someone”]:

Il n'y a que mon semblable, la compagne ou le compagnon, qui puisse m'éveiller de ma torpeur, déclencher la poésie, me lancer contre les limites du vieux désert afin que j'en triomphe. Aucun autre. Ni cieux, ni terre privilégiée, ni choses dont on tressaille.

Torche, je ne valse qu'avec lui.

(378)

[There is only my likeness, the female or male companion, who can awaken me from my torpor, release the poetry, hurl me against the limits of the old desert so that I triumph over it. No other. Not skies, nor privileged earth, nor things one thrills about.

Torch, I only waltz with it.]

The answer is thus one of fraternity or love, not without the mixing in of at least the semblance of violence. Isn't the happiness of the couple “guérilla sans reproche” (343) [“guerilla warfare without reproach”]? For the female companion, the loved one, is always mandated by the unknown: she is luck born of the mysterious depths of the world. She arouses our grateful impulse, but she does not allow herself to be captured. “Saisir” [“seizing”] the beloved head can only be a “convoitise comique” (346) [“comic coveting”]. The unity of love is not accomplished in the fusion of likenesses, but in the asymmetrical relationship where our desire faces the part of the unknown and of absence that, in the chance offered, never ceases to slip away from us. No matter how close he may be to his likeness, to his companion, the poet remains the man of “unilateral stability.” The interval must be safeguarded; we must welcome our luck, our beloved adversary, with all the regards due to a foreign guest. One could not emphasize enough the fact that the intensity of the encounter, in René Char, is linked to respect for an irreducible distance. The proof is found most clearly manifested in an illustrious poem, “Congé au vent” (130) [“Leave to the Wind”]; but one could find it in many an other poem. Hence, in “Le Bois de l'Epte” (371) [“Epte Wood”], the sudden apparition of “deux rosiers sauvages,” “venus du mur d'angle d'une ruine laissée jadis par l'incendie” [“two wild rosebushes,” “sprung from the corner wall of a ruin left long ago by fire”]: the encounter is the signal of an upsetting awakening; but it is in retracing one's steps, “sur le talon du demi-tour” [“on the heel of an about-turn”], that the poet conforms to the exigencies of poetry.

Two wild rosebushes: the dual relationship of the poet and the world, here the world offers him the redoubled image of it: “Il s'y devinait comme un commerce d'êtres disparus, à la veille de s'annoncer encore” [“One divined there a kind of commerce of vanished beings, on the verge of appearing again”]. The double vegetal presence repeats, in the moving evidence of a sensitive allegory, the couple that the poet forms with the unknown. “Lettera amorosa,” poem of the absent loved one, ends with the image of “deux iris jaunes dans l'eau verte de la Sorgue” [“two yellow irises in the green water of the Sorgue”]. In “Le Jugement d'Octobre” [“October Judgment”], “deux gueuses dans leur détresse roidie” [“two wretched women in their stiffened distress,”] two late-season roses, erect an emblem of loving perseverance:

Une nuit, le jour bas, tout le risque, deux roses,
Comme la flamme sous l'abri, joue contre joue avec qui la tue.

(434)

[A night, the day low, all the risk, two roses,
Like the flame under cover, cheek to cheek with who is killing it.]

In fact, the true couple is not the one the rose forms with her too similar sister, but the one she forms with the mortal cold and the imminent night. This fundamental assymetry of love is still more evident if one passes from the plant universe to the admirable bestiary of René Char. The animal does not make a couple with its likeness: in “Complainte du lézard amoureux” (294) [“Complaint of the Amorous Lizard”], it is the goldfinch that the lizard is in love with; and it is with the seagull that the shark communicates on the day of the “neuve innocence” (259) [“new innocence”]. An even closer link matches the animal with what threatens and kills it. The swift is stalked by “un mince fusil” (276) [“a thin rifle”]; the solar bull dies “cerné de ténèbres qui crient” (353) [“surrounded by shadows that shout”] beneath the sword of its ritual murderer; the lark, “extrême braise du ciel et première ardeur du jour” (354) [“extreme ember of the sky and first ardor of the day”], finds death in the mirror that amazes it; the beast of Lascaux loses its entrails beside the hunter who has perished for its capture (351). Pushed to the limit, the love-agony relationship is the one that links the living thing to the space that surrounds it—space offered to flight, but inhabited by peril. René Char's bestiary is the burgeoning symbol of the freedom of the heart and its essential risk. The animals that fascinate him are creatures that know no master: they live in the pure intimacy of the elements—like “La Truite” (353-54) [“The Trout”] in its river, or the slow worm in the earth, or again the vanished wolves with which the poet feels fraternally conjoined. Free, noble, they are altogether “incorruptible” and vulnerable—exposed to death by the very fact of their sovereignty.

That this bestiary, these olive trees, and these reeds are from a particular region of Provence; that the forests, mountains, villages (whose names often appear in the very titles of Char's poems) can be located on the map in the vicinity of L'Isle sur Sorgue, clearly indicate a fidelity to the native land, but it is, once again, from the perspective of the union of contraries that the acknowledged links must be understood. For no other poet is, on the other hand, as free of any dependence, more resolved to assert himself in a today without past, without hereafter, and without lineage. Between this belonging to every trial, and great freedom without limit, a vehement dialogue remains engaged: fidelity and freedom accentuate their difference in order to fortify each other mutually, like the “base” and the “summit,” like downstream and upstream. The poet is from the latter place, in order better to face what is from no place. He is not from this land, from this “closed valley,” to live there separated, immobile, but to experience there movement and passage:

Se mettre en chemin sur ses deux pieds, et, jusqu'au soir, le presser, le reconnaître, le bien traiter ce chemin qui, en dépit de ses relais haineux, nous montre les fétus des souhaits exaucés et la terre croisée des oiseaux.

(768)

[To take to the road on one's own two feet, and, until evening, press it, recognize it, treat it well this road which, in spite of its hateful stages, shows us the wisps of wishes fulfilled and the earth crossed by birds.]

The “earth crossed by birds,” the walk on the immutable road, or again: the course of the river. There are so many exemplary images, sensitive precepts that teach alliance between fixity and movement, rootedness and flux. The poet finds in the world great figures which mirror back to him his destiny of quartered victim and conciliator, and whose poem will have to duplicate the tracing. Deciphering the world will be, to a large extent, disclosing the events that carry in themselves the analogy of the poem—so that telling the world, proferring the poem and telling the essence of poetry (that is, elevating the spoken word to the poem of the poem) will be but one and the same gesture.

Thus, in one poem, the effacing of the poplar will tell the effacing of the poet himself: a marvelous way of repeating that “en poésie, on n'habite que le lieu que l'on quitte, on ne crée que l'œuvre dont on se détache, on n'obtient la durée qu'en détruisant le temps” (733) [“in poetry, one inhabits only the place one leaves, one creates only the work one detaches oneself from, one obtains duration only by destroying time”]. Let's reread “Effacement du Peuplier” (423) [“Effacing of the Poplar”], that so laconic and spacious text, where not only the four elements find their place, but again truth and lure, violence and tenderness, nature and man unite:

L'ouragon dégarnit les bois.
J'endors, moi, la foudre aux yeux tendres.
Laissez le grand vent où je tremble
S'unir à la terre où je croîs
Son souffle affile ma vigie.
Qu'il est trouble le creux du leurre
De la source aux couches salies!
Une clé sera ma demeure,
Feinte d'un feu que le cœur certifie;
Et l'air qui la tint dans ses serres.
[The hurricane strips the woods,
I lull to sleep the lightning with tender eyes.
Let the great wind where I shake
Unite with the earth where I grow
Its breath sharpens my lookout.
How turbid the hollow of the lure
From the source to the soiled strata!
A key will be my abode,
Pretense of a fire that the heart certifies;
And the air which held it in its claws.]

The hurricane is freedom unleashed, with the inexhaustible flow of wind and the burning of lightning. But the enduring tree, in its obstinate growth, lulls to sleep the lightning: it is named “the lightning with tender eyes,” gentleness mixes with violence. If we listen to the injunction of the tree, the moving fury of the hurricane will unite with the immobile earth. The tree belongs at once to the air and the earth. The conflict of the elements inflicts on it its passion, but it is at the same time its conciliator. It is standing, moored to stable ground, and it shakes at the whim of the hurricane. Its quivering is an indication of its double belonging. For shaking is a static movement, where obedience to the earth and obedience to the wind are expressed simultaneously. Thus the poplar participates in the vagabond flow and remains prisoner of its site. In its agitated verticality, by its top raised up in the heart of the aerial tumult, the poplar refuses the idle destiny of the source: the sign of altitude wide-awake (“the lookout”) opposes itself to the image of a turgid origin mixed with humus. (The figure of the tree raised up in the tumultuous air connects with other figures of freedom: notably that of the oar in the ocean.)

“A key will be my abode.” The word spoken by the tree here becomes the poet's. For the poet is the man of opening, the one who refuses to establish himself. “A key will be my abode”: this utterance may seem enigmatic; Char's terseness rejoins the emblem and the motto; the word does not immediately allow its singular side or universal reach to be deciphered. It only awaits, though, patience and support from our gaze to be illuminated. And one discovers that it defines the place of poetry and that it makes an appeal, once again, to the union of opposites. Char tells us emphatically that the only abode of the poet is the instrument of passage, this means by which a threshold can be crossed. (“Epouse et n'épouse pas ta maison,” 183 [“Marry and do not marry your house”], he says elsewhere.) The poem is this key—a key that liberates us readers—while the poet remains assigned to his watch. Now the key has taken the form “of a fire that the heart certifies,” and, then again, it also belongs to the sovereign force of the wind (“which held it in its claws”). What better way to say that the poem, feigned thing, imaginary object, has for guarantor of its truth the interior fire of man and the exterior royalty of the wind? That thus, under this double auspice, the poetic word cannot lead us astray, however far it may take us from our idle lodgings? The poem, slender and strong key, gives us an ampler abode under the common sky; it makes us accede to this instantaneous home “où la beauté, après s'être longtemps fait attendre, surgit des choses communes, traverse notre champ radieux, lie tout ce qui peut être lié, allume tout ce qui doit être allumé de notre gerbe de ténèbres” (757) [“where beauty, after having made itself long awaited, rises out of common things, crosses our radiant field, links all that can be linked, lights up all that must be lit from our sheaf of shadows”].

Notes

  1. René Char, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard “Pléiade,” 1983), 162. Page numbers in parentheses refer to this volume.

  2. Maurice Blanchot, La Part du feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), 105.

  3. “René Char et la pensée du neutre,” L'Arc 22 (Summer 1963), 9-14.

Michael Bishop (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Bishop, Michael. “Char's Mysticism.” In Figuring Things: Char, Ponge, and Poetry in the Twentieth Century, edited and translated by Charles D. Minahen, pp. 175-89. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, Bishop offers a thematic analysis of mysticism in Char's work.]

Laissons l'énergie et retournons à l'énergie.

(ES [Eloge d'une Soupçonnée] 7)1

DIFFICULTY, REBELLION, AND INNOCENCE

In a poet whose work has to such a compelling degree stressed actuality and engagement, the difficulties and divisions of history, and the need for ethical, even political intervention à ras de terre, it may seem more than paradoxical to invite consideration of his œuvre as an “act and place” of what I have termed mysticism. Certainly, like Rimbaud—I am thinking of his brouillon from Une Saison en enfer, “Bonr”—Char can swiftly dismiss, as he does in “Eaux-mères” from Le Marteau sans maître, a certain concept of the mystical: “Il n'y a rien de miraculeux dans le retour à la vie de cet enfant,” he writes; “Je méprise les esprits religieux et leurs interprétations mystiques” (OC [Oeuvres complètes] 52). And, of course, behind Char's entire poetic project there lies an important sense of individual difference, heroic resistance and “sovereign” action and telluric re-creation, faced as he is/we are with the “subordination” and “terrors” of those many “totalitarianisms” and other bloodinesses threatening our collective, planetary existence (cf. AC [Aromates chausseurs] 20). His refusals and high revolt seem not, perhaps, to allow readily for some ultimate recuperation by the esotericism and serene contemplation we may imagine pertinent to mystical states and endeavors.2

There is, however, from the outset in Char a level of perception of not only possible modes of being but, much more crucially and immediately, quotidian experience that permits an influx, into this model of radical existential problem and struggle, of factors that significantly shift emphasis away from the kind of one-dimensional morality and philosophy that a strictly and conventionally binary logic of good and evil can generate. Already, in Seuls demeurent, Char thus speaks of “une innocence où l'homme qui rêve ne peut vieillir” (OC 132), an innocence of being and action liberating the mind and the emotions from seemingly rigid existential grills and cumbersome sociological transformations, opening the self to what only appears to be utterly withdrawn but which, in effect, already enjoys a certain status of reality within consciousness. Thus is it that, in “Qu'il vive,” from Les Matinaux (OC 305), Char not only perceives—the initial perception remains part of the unidimensionality evoked, arguably—the earth as a “countertomb,” but brings tumbling down his own edifice of terror, abomination, and “disaster” by insisting, once again, upon the latter's essential lack of malignancy: the inner intentionality, despite external evidence to the contrary and despite our own efforts to act upon such evidence—the inner intentionality of being is not predicated upon some intrinsic mal, but upon—one might presume, based upon other texts of Char—principles of improbable benignity, harmlessness, even love. Does not La Parole en archipel speak of “un mystère plus fort que leur malédiction innocentant leur cœur”? (OC 410). Such a sense of ontic innocence, I should argue, sets Char's poetics at some important remove from platitudinous verification of personal and collective trauma and the inevitable resistance we may seek to apply to such trauma.

KNOWING AND FORGETTING

Should Char turn out to be, in any conceivable sense of the term, a mystic, it seems reasonable to maintain that he would have to be engaged in some process of (self-)initiation. Now, if it is clear that such a search or mental movement in no way propels him towards religious forms and rites—even oriental: I shall return to this—it is equally clear that his work depicts a powerful and generalized impulsion towards what he terms in Moulin premier “la connaissance productive du Réel” (OC 61), towards an encounter with what he has elsewhere called le grand réel (OC 665): being in all its modes, sensory to psychic, phenomena as apparently separate as soupspoons, wind upon wheatfields, dream, feeling, intuition: reality as actuality, felt possibility, achieved creation. The human being, in this process of endless (self-)initiation into what is at once everything and “merely” our individual traversal of something, thus becomes “[cette] lampe de toujours et [cette] torche interrogative” of which he speaks in Eloge d'une Soupçonnée (7). Thus does Char's both pragmatic and cosmically attuned “mysticism” imply a moving, unfixed and unfixing initiation into the known and the given, the received and the imposed. Such mysticism demonstrably demystifies at a certain level, while recognizing the power of myth and symbol at another—and fully appreciating that the entire process of knowing and (self-)initiation remains linked to what, in Chants de la Balandrane, Char emphasizes as a crucial optic according to which specific, systematized search—science, he declares in Le Nu perdu, is no more than “un phare aveugle” (OC 467)—may be distinguished from other modes of consciousness (cf. “Sans chercher à savoir,” CB [Chants de la Balandrane] 67).3

It is here that we can see to what degree Char's (self-)initiatory gesture merges with a certain skepticism or soupçon—“ma réserve,” he succinctly calls it in Dehors la nuit est gouvernée (OC 111)—which renders Char's writings, despite their aphoristic and apophthegmatic high-mindedness, delightfully open, fresh, unpretentious. “Soyons avares de crédulité,” he writes in the same collection, “comment se montrer aux autres et à soi autrement que hardi, modeste et mortel?” (OC 85). The impulse to know, to discover, to live in that light emanating both from within and without, thus remains delicately articulated, anchored in a belief in the virtues of “[les] chemins muletiers,” as Char characteristically puts it in Chants de la Balandrane (72): rocky, rugged, plural paths of knowing, earthy and meandering: paths for all seasons, reversible, unassuming. That said, however, Char never loses sight of the relativity of the real, its malleability, the consequent need for availability in order to distinguish, in what we may think of too hastily as the opaqueness of being, those teeming “births” or creations that, in effect, constitute it (cf. AC 34)—and which, without our precise “seeking to know” (cf. CB 67), constantly found our knowing, constantly initiate. No doubt this accounts for Char's, and our, “faithfulness” in the midst of “excessive vulnerability” (cf. OC 215), the kind of “tacit consent” to what is, to what surges forth, unknown, knowable, of which he speaks in Les Matinaux (OC 311). Such sought/unsought knowledge or initiation into le grand réel is visceral, intuitive, brought about by some “ardor of soul,” as he suggests in Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit (84). This does not mean that effort is excluded: “Il faut souffler sur quelques lueurs,” he suggests in “Rougeur des matinaux,” from Les Matinaux, “pour faire de la bonne lumière” (OC 331); but it does mean that cause-effect thinking is not banally privileged (cf. OC 159) and that some “faith” is given, beyond reservation, to what Char terms, in Fureur et mystère, “une lampe inconnue de nous, inaccessible à nous, à la pointe du monde” (OC 147). Knowing, for Char, is thus always caught up in meaning beyond reductive evaluation: it involves “l'intelligence avec l'ange, notre primordial souci,” as he says in Feuillets d'Hypnos (OC 179). Such (self-)initiatory knowledge and (inner) sensing cannot, of course, result, despite all appearances in Char, in a writing predicated upon absolute truth or revelation. Writing, for him, is rather the blossoming of some exquisite but ephemeral convolvulus, “liseron élevé audessus d'une vie enfin jointe, liseron non invoqué en preuve” (CB 30). Does not Char, already in Seuls demeurent, delightfully deem poetry to be “un point diamanté actuel de présences transcendantes et d'orages pèlerins”? (OC 154): an act and place now, yet both plunged into the movingness of our “pilgrimage” and beyond blatant presence. A “sacred way” of ontic dépense à la Bataille, an initiation into (self-)knowledge predicated upon giving and receiving—and letting go, moving on, “forgetting” so as to remain available to the swarming “births” of (our) being: “Donne toujours plus que tu ne peux reprendre,” Char writes in Le Nu perdu, “et oublie. Telle est la voie sacrée” (OC 446).

HINGING AND EQUILIBRIUM

The late volumes of Char often strike us for their suddenly surging signs of a deep love of life in this “gueux de siècle, ventre et jambes arrachés” (CB 13) and thus seem to apply an apt poetic closure to an œuvre whose beginnings, too, operate endless and precarious equilibrium, shifts, changes, and paradoxical convergence of optics we might think relatively immutable: Le Marteau sans maître speaks from its outset of “l'homme massacré et pourtant victorieux” (OC 3) and evokes that Charian—yet universal—“hésitation” experienced between “l'imprécation du supplice et le magnifique amour” (OC 3). Now, while such complementarity may be readily appreciated at a conceptual level, it is more difficult to live. There can however be little doubt, I should argue, that this early and continuing sense, in Char, of paradox, and the deep meaning of paradox, explains the great and delicate appeal of his work and constitutes a plain but yet subtle further mark of what I am terming Char's mysticism. The phenomenon of wedding “praise” to “mockery” (FD [Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit] 73), éloge to soupçon, or perceiving in the coffin—as in the 1933 “Eaux-mères”—”cet objet creux destiné à être longuement fécondé” (OC 51, Char's italics) may be a phenomenon we all know at some level, but it is also a phenomenon few persist in exploring as a deeply meaningful ontic complementarity, central to our purpose and to our spiritual possibility.

“Evidence mutable,” Char writes in Dehors la nuit est gouvernée (OC 116): being's signs pointing in many directions, always through us, our own individual and collective mutations, infinite in time and in space; being's signs rooted in our thought and emotion (I shall return to this), our sense of fureur, of immanent involvement both political and private, and our sense of mystère, of depth and transcendence albeit in “presence” and “pilgrimage.” And, given the Charian logic of complementarity, slippage, interpenetration, even fury acquires its mysteriousness: exile and fulfilment—“Je suis l'exclu et le comblé,” Char declares in Seuls demeurent (OC 145)—become reciprocally pertinent, caught up in that love of “twin mysteries” he confesses in Les Matinaux (OC 310). The compelling consciousness of death will thus not drown out a sense of equilibrium and equivalence Char can term, after Baudelaire, unity (cf. OC 359), any more than his alertness to hasard and accident will swamp his abiding intuition of life's indefinable meanfulness (cf. OC 228). Such a hinging of absurdity to the resilient (il)logic of love—which we see explicitly in, say, the Chants de la Balandrane—creates a fragile but sure “order” of global completeness, of psychic—and real—“alliance” (cf. CB 23). Sarcasm and “inner fright” do not, in consequence, unhinge a critical residual sentiment of “grace,” as he calls it in Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit (43). Equilibrium, continuity, imbrication, and oneness are never discarded as sadly irrelevant. A mysticism of—an unknowing but intuitive (self-)initiation into—what Bonnefoy might term l'improbable, never ceases to inform Char's thinking and feeling. Reality may be distressing fact, but it is also both improbable enchantment and beset by its intrinsic ontic implications, the very mystery of the being of what may distress or enchant. Existential frailty, ephemeralness, and mortality are underpinned by what I have called elsewhere, “ce qui nous tient éveillé/e/s.” “La Voie où nous étouffons,” as he writes in Les Voisinages de Van Gogh (9), remains a Way, a place of unique, inimitable going through a nearness and an invisibility that, as Char suggests in Le Nu perdu, may well be coincident (cf. OC 459). Such a sense of being merges that persistent demand for the splendors of what, in its broadest perspective, we can call le surréel, and that much admired Reverdyan urge for justesse: distance and proximity, l'intelligence de l'ange and immanence, deep ontic and psychic obscurity flickeringly illuminated and the simple light of ethical consciousness.

FALLING AND BUOYANCY

In the 1979 Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit Char tells us in fairly plain terms that “je vous écris en cours de chute. C'est ainsi que j'éprouve l'état d'être au monde” (52): being or being-in-the-world entails not only what we might be tempted to think of as a classic nineteenth-century obsession—one thinks of poets as divergent as Vigny, Baudelaire, Hugo, and Rimbaud—with original fall and its consequent multicolored ethico-spiritual tensions, but, further, a more radical sensation of unattachment, uprootedness and free fall “down” through the very onticity that, nevertheless, allows Char to speak, in the first place, of being in the world. The sensation, then, is one of undoubted slippage, comparable to the sense of horizontal, temporal movement; it implies an experience, presumably physical and not just psychical—and certainly not purely conceptual, as it turns out was Sartre's “experience” of nausée—of abyss, of hollowness, of crumbling and insecurity. Yet, paradoxically, such falling takes place, is felt as taking place, within something—experience of being-in-the-world—which possibilizes the sensation of falling. And, indeed, falling is feasible only because depth is understood both conceptually and experientially.

Beyond even the ontic spaciousness and depth through which falling occurs, there is in Char's poetics a further critically compensating factor which involves his sense of the buoyancy of being, of those myriad but perhaps synonymous forces that render possible human—and phenomenal—going and doing, feeling and thinking. Buoyancy is the endless, teeming, imbricated surging forth—jaillissement, Jacques Dupin terms it—of being's phenomena, of our consciousness thereof. Buoyancy possesses an implicit and intuitive logic of non-void, of filling, of “birth,” of creation. Buoyancy suggests that absence is purely notional, “replacement” or “filling” being actual. “Il n'y a pas d'absence irremplaçable,” Char writes in Poèmes militants (OC 35); “l'inextinguible réel incréé” constantly flooding in where void might have been thought feasible, imaginable (cf. OC 155)—a logic applicable to all domains, moreover, material, moral, emotional, intellectual, or psychical. Buoyancy ensures a seamless continuity, a possibility where probability may have induced thoughts of rupture, finality, separation. “Cette fumée qui nous portait,” which Char evokes in Les Loyaux Adversaires, from Fureur et mystère (OC 241), seems to be an easily dispelled presence, but rather does it bear up, barely visible in itself, a presence which, intrinsically, it is not—or rather does not seem to be. Like the si peu of “Te devinant éveillé pour si peu” (VVG [Les Voisinages de Van Gogh] 27), Char's fumée is at once mortality and eternity, it is that which constantly and infinitely floods into being, inflating and buoying its possibility and its actuality. It is, therefore, not just the action of “Vert sur noir” that Char so exquisitely conjures up in Aromates chasseurs (39-20); it is, too, that “Haute fontaine” of Chants de la Balandrane (53-54), that source and action of vital onticity ceaselessly spurting forth, emanating from depth and, yet, what we can call abyss, but meeting the “fall” of being, shoring it up, allowing it to float upon its creative possibilizing impulse, letting it be-in-the-world. Buoyancy is, indeed, a force well known to the poet Char. Does he not speak so tellingly in Seuls demeurent of “le glissement des abîmes qui portent de façon si anti-physique le poème”? (OC 159). And does he not call up within himself, both as poet and man, in Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit, that power of fullness of being ever available to him—no matter how the world may be characterized, believed to be: “Si le monde est ce vide, eh bien! je suis ce plein”? (FD 54). And there is, too, that remarkable account of something akin to an out-of-body experience, where, in the midst of a serious accident, Char's entire being, physical and psychical, is caught by that very ontic buoyancy at issue, so that “everything happened outside of me” (OC 211), as being seemingly displaced, absent, yet utterly present, utterly supportive.

GOD, GODS

“Dieu faute de Dieu n'enjambe plus nos murs soupçonneux,” Char declares in Le Nu perdu (OC 466): an individual and collective skepticism—that Char espouses, as we have seen—which shuts off the banalities and the terrors of dogma and fanaticism, and which shuts out, too, the absolutism, the dispossessing monolithism of some reductive and imposable structure of the Divine. Before and after “Dieu l'accrêté,” Char argues more recently, our being was and is (cf. CB 30): the kind of “miracle” or ontic buoyancy referred to in Abondance viendra (OC 52)—his own accident just evoked (cf. OC 211) is equally pertinent—does not need a religiously restrictive grill placed upon it for us to appreciate the delicate workings of grace and marvel at play in being. Any sense of life's divineness may, and should, arise within the self, where it can be honored and meditated in freedom. “[Les] dieux puissants et fantasques qui habitent le poète,” as Char writes in Seuls demeurent (OC 165) are thus neither pure fiction, metaphorical rhetoric, nor elves, dryads, kobolds. They are the recognized energies and modes of being and (self-)creation Char chooses to celebrate, energies he can project—fancifully but purposely, imaginatively but really—into some dreamed world “ému par le zèle de quelques dieux, aux abords des femmes” (OC 186). In this personalized sense of the divine, language's very origins may be deemed to bathe in an energy and a spirituality (cf. OC 255) that, certainly, somehow is locked into his perception of poiesis and whose dispersal writers like Bernard Noël or Yves Bonnefoy or Michel Deguy varyingly denounce. If“les dieux sont dans la métaphore,” as Char says in A Faulx contente (OC 783)—with the metaphor's logic of unity within difference, com-parution, as Deguy would say, compassion, love, and so on—then we should not imagine that Char feels coming immediately a new age of poetico-spiritual (self-)transformation, even though Aromates chasseurs seeks to usher in something of this kind. The “gods,” rather, are retiring, “withdrawing” from our cyclically atrophied grasp, he suggests in Le Nu perdu (OC 467), and those that are fully incarnate, like, for Char, Baudelaire, Melville, Van Gogh, or Mandelstam, retain a “hagard” look about them (cf. FD 17).

For all that, with the “failure” of God, the “gods” of Char remain a “tonic” presence, as he emphasizes in the same “Faire du chemin avec …,” from Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit (18). No doubt this is, in part because Char, the poet of intervention, commitment, and self-assumption, views divineness less as some exteriorized force and not at all as a force utterly removed from the self's collaboration: “Nuls dieux à l'extérieur de nous,” he goes so far as to assert in Aromates chasseurs (25): the self thus becomes the essential locus for all and any divinity upon the earth's human way, for, as Char already writes in La Nuit talismanique qui brillait dans son cercle, such gods as we know, as traverse us, as we are, are the “least opaque expression of ourselves” (cf. OC 502)—though perhaps the expression most difficult to formulate. This does not mean that Char denies the divineness of what Bonnefoy terms “les choses du simple”: “Grimpereau, charmeur des soupçonnée,” he notes in Les Voisinages de Van Gogh, where the notion of charm may be read according to its fullest range of significance; and, in Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit, he speaks of “mes dieux à tête de groseille [qui] ne me démentiront pas, eux qui n'ont figure qu'une fois l'an” (66). Rather may we see divineness as always to be assumed within the self, privately, intimately, simply, unpretentiously; as something to be recognized as crucial to the consciousness of our and all being, but within that center of being—the self—whose esotericism should not concern, but, rather, delight us, confirming our staggering uniqueness of perception of the divine—and thereby multiplying, infinitely, the latter. In “Gammes de l'accordeur,” from Chants de la Balandrane, Char quotes from Hilarion de Modène: “Les dieux, habitez-nous! / Derrière la cloison, / Nul ne veut plus de vous” (58). Char's own text proper goes beyond this deliberately echoed call for our collective assumption of what lies divine within all of being: his further, passing, symbolic call urges upon us a state and action wherein humanity and divinity remain in balance within the optic of what he feels is our brief telluric “apprenticeship” (cf. CB 59). To forget the divineness buried deep in our humanness; to forget our human depths in the light of the remembrance of our divinity: two contradictions, but held in equilibrium by the fact of our merged learning of twinned lessons in the simplicity of our incarnated movement.

GOING, CONTINUITY

Char, poet of presence, as has often been said, and rightly so; poet of “la gloire navigable des saisons” (FD 17), of the sufficiency of going, of this traversal of being and going: “Aller me suffit,” he declares in “La Compagne du vannier,” from Seuls demeurent (OC 131), and it would not be outrageous to articulate a Charian mysticism of immanence, somewhat Hugolian or Nervalian in its root implications but Bonnefidian in its contemporary bareness, its level of understatement. Such a mysticism would reside in the sufficiency of givenness and the self's givingness, the inimitable appropriateness of our—perhaps any: we would return to the earlier logic of innocence—existential traversal. Such a “going” is caught, however, inevitably—it is inherent in the poetics of all movement—between the Charian logic of quest, chasse, rebellion, and desire, which may imply conceptual exceeding of the immanent, and that of strictest adherence to the going at hand and refusal of the prestige of what, in Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit, Char calls, “devant nous, haut dressé, le fertile point qu'il faut se garder de questionner ou d'abattre” (19). The consciousness of our going may thus be immediately focused or it may widen to an intuition still essentially part of this immediacy yet conceptually overflowing it, or even to pure speculation, an avenue rarely appealing to Char. One's going, however, is inevitably seen in the context of origin and end, and is inescapably framed by notions of purpose and absurdity, choice and blockage, temporality and eternity. Going, for Char, clearly fuses these seemingly competing perspectives, as he characteristically indicates in Seuls demeurent: “J'ai, captif, épousé le ralenti du lierre à l'assaut de la pierre de l'éternité” (OC 137): any mysticism here, of course, merges transcendence with immanence and suggests that the interlocking is not merely temporal, linear, sequential, but predicated, too, on factors of equivalence and simultaneity. Thus is it that persistence hic et nunc is synonymous with a movement “beyond” the latter; going is both traversal of, and immersion in, itself, and implicitly, movement towards what such traversal and immersion are not.

In effect, Char's work is shot through with a sense of the continuity of being beyond what we might term life or death. “Mourir,” he writes in La Nuit talismanique, “c'est passer à travers le chas de l'aiguille après de multiples feuillaisons. Il faut aller à travers la mort pour émerger devant la vie, dans l'état de modestie souveraine” (OC 496). The earthly form of our presence would seem, then, to be caught up in the buoyancy of some larger going and presence. In Le Nu perdu, Char similarly argues this more cosmically attuned continuity of being, “notre figure terrestre n'[étant] que le second tiers d'une poursuite continue, un point, amont” (OC 435)—a movement, or so our spatio-temporal imagination would have us believe, always showing us at once the exquisite specificity of ephemeral experience and “la chose qui continuait, / Opposée à la vie mourante, / [Qui] à l'infini s'élaborait,” as Char writes in Les Matinaux (OC 324). Little wonder that he can remind us, as he has also with respect to our fused divineness and humanity, that humankind is to be deemed “neither eternal nor temporal” (cf. OC 460): the privileging of either dimension risks breaking that magic spell that holds us intact—and keeps us on course, in a going for and beyond itself. If Char's sense of being “loin de nos cendres”—a phrase apparently meditated for most of his life (cf. OC 807-18)—seems, then, to plunge his consciousness deeply back into the passingness of présence, it aptly evokes more transcendent modes of being: states and actualities where humankind's eternal “common language” may be perhaps spoken (cf. OC 105); where, as he writes in Seuls demeurent, from Fureur et mystère, “l'évasion dans son semblable, avec d'immenses perspectives de poésie, sera peut-être un jour possible” (OC 169); where some new “visibility” beyond the mere optimism of philosophy may be feasible (cf. OC 269); where “ce qui sut demeurer inexplicable pourra seul nous requérir” (OC 447). For Char's going offers both a lived essentialness of the passing, the endeavored, and the felt essentialness of the unaccomplished (cf. AC 23).

BEING

To speak, as Char does in Seuls demeurent, of “l'éternité d'une olive” (OC 167), is to oblige us to rethink the very structure and quality of (our) being, which, in effect, assumes a “spacious strength” we can often too readily deny it (cf. OC 133). To realize the fullness of our (place of) being, the streaming timelessness that floods through its very ephemeralness, its apparently mere ontic flash or éclair (cf. OC 266), it is helpful to begin with the most modest of steps, allowing us to sense both difference and the non-emptiness, the depth, of what is: “cesse de prendre la branche pour le tronc,” he suggests in Les Matinaux, “et la racine pour le vide. C'est un petit commencement” (OC 331). Our being may be of unknown origin and of unknown end—perhaps absolutely synonymous with going, with an incessant creation-now—but this being of fire is also a being of light, as Char writes in Aromates chasseurs (34), a consumption that is an arising, a passing equally, coincident with, an emergence. Moreover, partly for these reasons but also because our individuality or difference of being is always experienced in situ, being, for Char, is never a being-in-separation: “Je suis parmi,” he affirms in Fenêtres dormantes et portes sur le toit (26). And, in the same volume, he goes even further in articulating the swarming ontic multitudinousness of what might only appear singular, unidimensional: “Cent existences dans la nôtre enflamment la chair de tatouages qui n'apparaîtront pas” (63).

Such elliptical, often decontextualized, yet firm declarations constantly point to a conception—an on-going meditation—of being that is complex, intuitive, visionary in a post-Rimbaldian sense, caught in respected obscurity, yet pushing relentlessly towards (self-)illumination. Certainly, for Char, being exceeds mortality, as we have seen, death offering access, he even suggests in Aromates chasseurs, to a “space” perhaps our primordial locus of being (cf.AC 21). Evocations of Tibetan mystics—and activists—such as Milarepa and Marpa (cf. OC 815-16; FD 32), or of our constant immersion in ontic energy, regardless of our state of being—“laissons l'énergie et retournons à l'énergie,” he writes in the posthumous Eloge d'une Soupçonnée—such evocations prepare us well, as we tack back and forth in our contemplation of Char's mystical proclivities, for the kind of exquisite ontological conundrum we find for example, in Le Nu perdu: “Sois bien, tu n'es pas” (OC 436). Being seems, thus, at once relative and absolute, achieved and unachieved, livable, experienceable, and yet ever future, ever more fully “to be.” Présence seems, thus, at once inviolate, utterly authentic, yet rethinkable as part of existential or ontic dimensions we are, at times, with Char, conscious of, though incompletely. “Les plus pures récoltes,” he notes in Feuillets d'Hypnos, “sont semées dans un sol qui n'existe pas” (OC 195): in a framework or présence that is no doubt a psychic or psychological structure or gestalt. Thus is it that poetry has “nothing in it,” as he argues in Le Poème pulvérisé, “that doesn't exist elsewhere” (OC 247): like life itself, poetry is creation of being: all corresponds to the infinity and depth available in being; all is, and this mysterious isness is at once irreplaceable and imbricated with structures and modes of being seemingly belonging to the realms of pure emotion, pure thought, pure imagination, pure fiction. Thus is it that fiction and reality merge, equal, equivalent, same, in Char's wider perception of being's “spaciousness.” Thus is it, too, that, though life and poetry may be deemed “absurd” (cf. FD 63), being doubly recuperates them: both in the many ways we have seen Char elaborate, but in that mathematics that would have two negatives yield being by virtue of their mysterious and teeming multiplication together.

MYSTERY, EMOTION, THOUGHT

Poetry, Char tells us in Dehors la nuit est gouvernée, is “une marche forcée dans l'indicible, avec, pour viatique, les provisions hasardeuses du langage et la manne de l'observation et des pressentiments” (OC 85): it thus moves through the ineffable, riding upon those multiple mysteries of which we are barely conscious as such: effort, utterance, sensory and mental, especially intuitive, perception. Poetry may, indeed, as already in Le Marteau sans maître Char would stress, not “traffic in sacredness,” to the extent that poetry eschews the pretensions of religious dogma and tendentiousness, seeking its pathos rather within the open attachments of the self; yet it clearly engages “furiously” with “mystery” and its indicible manifestly plunges it into the most secret recesses of (one's) being and the most visionary gestures of (self-)initiation. The mystery of being, for Char, is ever “new” and “sings in your bones”: it is good reason for him to urge us to “develop [our] legitimate strangeness” (cf. OC 160), or, as he puts it in “Encore eux,” from Loin de nos cendres, “make, barefoot, a mystery of [ourselves]” (cf. OC 816). Mystery, meaning, function, and purpose lie deep within, buried in materiality, in geneticity, but available, too, via their assumption within us, by virtue of the further mystery of consciousness, choice, emotion. To “feel awakening the obscure plantation” within, as Char writes in Seuls demeurent (OC 152), is to accept a sacredness, a divineness, without name or creed, rites or conceptual fixity other than those the self might obscurely articulate. “J'aime qui m'éblouit puis accentue l'obscur à l'intérieur de moi,” we read in Les Matinaux (OC 330), and certainly essential to any appreciation of Char's poetics is the persistent desire to develop insight concomitantly with an intense reverence for the obscureness, the mysteriousness, of all manifestations of being. Life is secret (cf. OC 363) and the private though joined (the logic of being-amongst never dissolves) world of the self is infinitely, inimitably deep (cf.AC 43), psychologically, emotionally, intentionally.

Char, I should argue, is one of those rare writers who, caught between naming and unnaming, senses the profound mystery of things being in the first place. Emotions and thoughts, in effect, are not simply remarkable in their diversity or in that flowingness, paradoxicalness, and balance of which I spoke earlier; they are mysterious in themselves, in the very fact of their being (cf. OC 188). Char's “mysticism,” here, may be said to revolve about his, and our, belief in consciousness, impulse, intuition, obscure but lived “truth(s).” Central remains a sense of meaning—sens, going, ontic orientation—not of meaning as specifiable, reducible fact or mechanism, but rather as an inalienable sense—the sense(s) we inalienably have, at once fleshy and psychical—of some infinite project, individual and collective, that buoys us up and constitutes our being. Such a feeling and thinking of the world—and the word, for the poet—may embrace the “meaning” of love and the “meaning” of doubt or skepticism or atheism, for it would imply the essential mysteria of all experience, the lived, at once revealed and undivulged, nature of our being. In this sense, the mysteria of existence are self-generated; whether lived “negatively” or “affirmatively,” all is (self-)creation, (self-)affirmation. “Tu tiens de toi tes chemins,” Char writes in Chants de la Balandrane (78), and mystery, “mysticism”—with any accompanying skepticism or hesitation—arise upon, as, these paths of blinding/illuminated being: emotions, thoughts, well up within us as our sense/sens, our felt and mentally projected goingness. They are the guides, the creators, and the definers of our going; they are our entry to “[le] grand réel”; they can sense and think our meaning, our sens, our sufficiency of going (cf. OC 131). And they are predicated upon a never-closing of themselves, for Char's “mysticism” widens, opens, seeks ever to, as he writes in the liminal 1938 “Argument” of Fureur et mystère, “déborder l'économie de la création, agrandir le sang des gestes, [comme] devoir de toute lumière” (OC 129). Such a self-initiatory seeing, as he emphasizes in Feuillets d'Hypnos, is, if not implacably then crucially, psychological and affective: “Si l'homme parfois ne fermait pas souverainement les yeux, il finirait par ne plus voir ce qui vaut d'être regardé” (OC 189). The mystery of being may be everywhere, but it is nowhere if not within.

Notes

  1. The following abbreviations are used in reference to Char's work: ES: Eloge d'une Soupçonnée (Paris: Gallimard, 1988); OC: Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard “Pléiade,” 1983); AC: Aromates chasseurs (Paris: Gallimard, 1975); CB: Chants de la Balandrane (Paris: Gallimard, 1977); FD: Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit (Paris: Gallimard, 1979); VVG: Les Voisinages de Van Gogh (Paris: Gallimard, 1985).

  2. Of the recent major Char criticism—I am thinking of: Mary Ann Caws, The Presence of René Char (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981); Mary Ann Caws, L'Œuvre filante de René Char (Paris: Nizet, 1981); Christine Dupouy, René Char (Paris: Belfond, 1987); Danièle Leclair, Lecture de René Char: Aromates chasseurs et Chants de la Balandrane (Paris: Lettres Modernes, 1988); Daniel Leuwers, ed., René Char, Sud (1984); Jean-Claude Mathieu, La Poésie de René Char ou le sel de la splendeur, 2 vols. (Paris: Corti, 1984); Tineke Kingma-Eijgendaal and Paul J. Smith, ed., Lectures de René Char (Amsterdam: Rodopi, CRIN, 1990); Serge Velay, René Char: qui êtes vous? (Lyon: La Manufacture, 1987); Paul Veyne, René Char en ses poèmes (Paris: Gallimard, 1990); Michael Bishop, René Char: les dernières années (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990); Jean Voellmy, René Char ou le mystère partagé (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 1989); Eric Marty, René Char (Paris: Seuil, 1990); Philippe Castellin, René Char, traces (Paris: Evidant, 1989); René Char, special issue of Europe (1988); Daniel Leuwers, René Char, dit-elle, la mort (Bourges: Amor Fati, 1989)—few texts broach in a direct manner the issues of Char's “mysticism,” though many implicitly wrestle with elements pertinent to my argument. In particular, I would note Hughes Labrusse's essay in Leuwers (1984), various sections of Marty (1990), as of Velay (1987) and Voellmy (1989).

  3. For an analysis of “Sans chercher à savoir,” see Bishop (1990), 56-57.

Van Kelly (essay date winter 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4904

SOURCE: Kelly, Van. “The Elegiac Temptation in Char's Poetry.” L'Esprit Créateur 35, no. 4 (winter 1995): 59-70.

[In the following essay, Kelly addresses the tension in some of Char's poems between past and future in perspective and focus.]

Laissons l'énergie et retournons à l'énergie. La mesure du Temps? L'étincelle sous les traits de laquelle nous apparaissons et redisparaissons dans la fable.

—René Char, “Riche de larmes”

Life and death vie fiercely in Fureur et mystère (1948), especially in the section subtitled Le poème pulvérisé, which contains a number of texts written from the Munich crisis through the Purge.1 Virginia A. La Charité notes that a paradox informs this era in Char's creation: “To live is to act, but every act appears menaced by the flux and destruction of the world.”2 The poems “Les Trois Soeurs,” “Donnerbach Mühle,” and “Seuil” manifest Char's labor to make his poetry adequate to the dialectic which endangerment and death entertain with life forces. A text from Feuillets d'Hypnos (1946) expresses the model concisely: “Nous voici abordant la seconde où la mort est la plus violente et la vie la mieux définie” (fr. 90).3

Exceptionally, the poem “Affres, détonation, silence,” also from Le poème pulvérisé, exhibits a traditional elegiac stance: the word is not an inspiring confrontation with danger, it is a memorial of past association and intimacy. Char incorporates the present in his discourse only to instill perspective on bygone tragedy. The focus on mortality renders the poem melancholy.4 This conflict—between an elegiac, retrospective linkage of life and death, and an ecstatic economy where the two sustain a manichean but invigorating battle—remains acute in Char's later poetry, although differently than in the 1930s and 1940s, and as such furnishes a criterion for evaluating shifts in his artistic profile.5 In “Riche de larmes,” the opening poem in Char's last collection, Eloge d'une soupçonnée, the poet eschews the enthusiasm of poems like “Les Trois Sœurs,” yet he refuses to furnish an unmitigated elegiac retrospective on his life as it wanes.

“Affres, détonation, silence” explicitly accepts elegiac conventions. The poet laments the demise of the resistance fighter Roger Bernard, executed by the SS near the village of Céreste in the Luberon, where Char commanded a group of partisans.6 Menace and death assume mythopoetic guise: “Roger Bernard: l'horizon des monstres était trop proche de sa terre.” The poet creates a lack and a deathlike quietness in the landscape: “A leur tour les présages se sont assoupis dans le silence des fleurs.” The future (“les présages”) is abolished, so that we may meditate on the past. In a prose eulogy, “Roger Bernard” (Recherche de la base et du sommet), Char recounts his protégé's execution: “C'est durant un aller au P. C. de Céreste, chargé d'une mission de liaison, qu'il tombe aux mains des Allemands, le 22 juin 1944”; “Il est fusillé peu après sur la route, ayant refusé de répondre aux questions qui lui sont posées” (646). Char witnessed Bernard's execution from afar but decided not to intervene, fearing Nazi reprisals against the nearby village harboring his group (Feuillets d'Hypnos, fr. 138). According to Paul Veyne, the poet carried his conscious abstention heavily: “Après la Libération, René se présenta à la veuve de Bernard pour lui rendre des comptes, qu'elle admit.”7 Char's several texts on Bernard attest how difficult it was to resolve the grief.8

In Feuillets d'Hypnos, Char has begun crafting Bernard's death scene: “Il est tombé comme s'il ne distinguait pas ses bourreaux et si léger, il m'a semblé, que le moindre souffle de vent eût dû le soulever de terre” (fr. 138, emphasis added). “Affres, détonation, silence” amplifies this mingling of body with environs, and, in order to accomplish this, Char raises an empathetic description of the event to the level of intense poetic metamorphosis and formal elegy. Bernard, a breeze among canyons, is changed into storm cloud, then into naïve lightning, unslaked yearning, echoes of friendship, a mourning that cannot be put to rest: “Ne cherchez pas dans la montagne; mais si, à quelques kilomètres de là, dans les gorges d'Oppedette, vous rencontrez la foudre au visage d'écolier, allez à elle, oh, allez à elle et souriez-lui car elle doit avoir faim, faim d'amitié.”

Bernard's shade induces Char to celebrate and perpetuate the loyalty and solidarity which his friend and others incarnated: “Pour qui œuvrent les martyrs? La grandeur réside dans le départ qui oblige. Les êtres exemplaires sont de vapeur et de vent” (Feuillets d'Hypnos, fr. 228). Roger Chaudon, another maquisard, exemplifies an elegiac construction where heady perseverance against the catastrophes of history is validated: “Peu de jours avant son supplice, Roger Chaudon me disait: ‘Sur cette terre, on est un peu dessus, beaucoup dessous. L'ordre des époques ne peut être inversé. C'est, au fond, ce qui me tranquillise, malgré la joie de vivre qui me secoue comme un tonnerre …’” (Feuillets d'Hypnos, fr. 231). Death conjures its twin, “la joie de vivre,” the latter powerful like thunder, but intermittent and often submerged by the greater course of oppression (“on est un peu dessus, beaucoup dessous”). Emile Cavagni, “tué dans une embuscade à Forcalquier,” “mon meilleur frère d'action,” exemplifies élan vital that thrives in crisis and inspires commitment and solidarity: “Il portait ses quarante-cinq ans verticalement, tel un arbre de la liberté. Je l'aimais sans effusion, sans pesanteur inutile. Inébranlablement” (Feuillets d'Hypnos, fr. 157).

These figures of life despite death sign the countryside, they are poetic landmarks inscribed as reminiscences in the earth—Cavagni freedom tree, Chaudon joyous thunder, Bernard schoolboy lightning. Epithets configure Bernard, Chaudon, and Cavagni into the verbal landscape as artifacts and echoes that endure beyond the death of individuals: “La parole soulève plus de terre que le fossoyeur ne le peut” (“Trois respirations,” Recherche, 652). A well-wrought poetic sign relies on the multiplication of converging traces and intangible symbolic associations to evoke its referent, yet similar to death it markedly places its object, the referent, at a distance, thus affording a very effective and moving representation of grief.9

Char, in “Affres, détonation, silence,” creates a nexus of ethical tensions that enables us to relive the meaning of Bernard, whose bivouac was a world of joyous violence and excess: “Le Moulin du Calavon. Deux années durant, une ferme de cigales, un château de martinets. Ici tout parlait torrent, tantôt par le rire, tantôt par les poings de la jeunesse.” The poetic detonation is at least a dual trace of the past—the sounds of camaraderie and loyal combat as much as the report of the executioner's weapon. Silence after the tragedy honors Bernard yet makes him fragile and tremulous like life—he is a fitful wind in the canyon, across lavender fields. “Affres, détonation, silence” represents life forces that drove Bernard, but it also depicts a stillness that translates the difficulty of working through absence. The poem conforms easily to the elegiac canon.

“Affres, détonation, silence” lingers, a flashback and sad remembrance. Char's ecstatic poetry, typified in “Donnerbach Mühle,” “Les Trois Sœurs,” and “Seuil,” is by contrast a flash-forward and a severance from the past. These three Dionysian poems, which share a scenario of imminent, unregretful confrontation with death, are psychologically innovative. They accept, even celebrate, the burning of former emotional sites, after which they move on expeditiously. They contrast with the vaporous ambiance of the Roger Bernard cycle, in that they furnish through their own forward motion a therapeutic against melancholy and depression. Char places us right on the line of passage from mourning into a renewed future, and the exhilaration that courses through these ecstatic poems does not truly satisfy elegiac expectations.

In “Les Trois Sœurs,” the limit between catastrophe and exhilaration is born. Love produces a child who is projected into a field of contraries, hope and despair, life and death. The prologue recounts the primal love, both the height of passion (“Mon amour à la robe de phare bleu, / je baise la fièvre de ton visage”) and postcoital melancholy (“Hors de toi, que ma chair devienne la voile / qui répugne au vent”). The rest of the poem consists of three scenes, the first of which portrays the conception of the mythical, elemental child (“Dans l'urne des temps secondaires / L'enfant à naître était de craie”) as well as his birth (“la fleur apparue”).

The following scene places the child, now a “chasseur,” under the governance of the second of the three Fates, as Veyne suggests (272):

La seconde crie et s'évade
De l'abeille ambiante et du tilleul vermeil.
Elle est un jour de vent perpétuel,
Le dé bleu du combat, le guetteur qui sourit
Quand sa lyre profère: “Ce que je veux, sera.”

The tutelary goddess animates this world, reveals its contours, and allows momentarily for harmonious interaction between young inhabitant and habitat. Moreover, the second Fate who cries out in her flight represents time, both brevity and duration: she is the instant (“la seconde”), which, multiplied, becomes “un jour de vent perpétuel.” She decrees the moment when one should strengthen oneself against the pull of an uncertain future that approaches too quickly:

C'est l'heure de se taire
De devenir la tour
Que l'avenir convoite.

The hunter and friendly prey (“Son gibier le suit n'ayant plus peur”), to the contrary, abandon their vigilance. Naïvely confident in their surroundings and in each other, they take the bucolic world at face value, unaware that their inadequate language dulls perception of the tensions that striate nature and endanger them:

Leur clarté est si haute, leur santé si nouvelle,
Que ces deux qui s'en vont sans rien signifier
Ne sentent pas les sœurs les ramener à elles
D'un long bâillon de cendre aux forêts blanches.

In the third scene, the child's language (“la parole qui découvre”) cannot rescue his unique gifts (his “yeux singuliers”) from the catastrophe which engulfs this world. A prophetic voice tries to ward off disaster:

Cet enfant sur ton épaule
Est ta chance et ton fardeau.
Terre en quoi l'orchidée brûle,
Ne le fatiguez pas de vous.

The interlocutors, the earth excepted, are difficult to specify Perhaps the third Fate addresses the poet, who is urged to foster and defend his talents (“ta chance et ton fardeau”) despite a hostile universe. The conditions of communication might be reversed, too: it could be the poet who apostrophizes Fate (second person singular) not to abandon the child to a bad destiny, after which he confides the child to Gaia, the earth mother. Although the child is a chance for the future (a short-lived orchid), circumstances may waste its intense bouquet; therefore, the poet implores the earth (“vous”) to remain “fleur et frontière,” but also “manne et serpent”—a diversity within which the child may flourish, challenging multiple limits.

The prophetic warning, perhaps because it addresses a split audience, tu and vous, proves ineffectual. Events surpass this enigmatic voice from the desert. The shoulder upon which the child perches breaks to reveal death whose threat puts life into high relief. The child's life narrative shifts abruptly into devastating, unlinked image bursts that dislocate adjective and noun, verb and subject—“Violente l'épaule s'entrouvre,” “Muet apparaît le volcan.” Syntax in the last stanza cannot be properly characterized as paratactic. It is elliptical, and even the relation between clauses is questionable. The earth is described and directly addressed, then, as if simultaneously, its vaporization is expedited and confirmed without lingering regret: “Terre sur quoi l'olivier brille, / Tout s'évanouit en passage.”

This last scene institutes a conflict of interpretation that cannot be resolved, because the two processes, life and death, sustain each other antagonistically in the present, between unavoidable destruction and brilliance, immediate poetry and crisis. Char's language evolves in both vivid and catastrophic registers. In the first stanza of this last scene, the orchid burns (“Terre en quoi l'orchidée brûle”): imminent peril for beauty and language, cataclysmic earth. In the final stanza, to the contrary, an olive tree ignited by the lava burns brightly, “brille”: this is only partially a nihilistic fire, to the point that Veyne (276-78) understands the conclusion as a biographical representation of Char's mixed feelings of contentment and solitude, once he had completed a poem and abandoned it to the reader. The child, mortally wounded, produces a burst or flash of poetry amid disaster. The urn has become volcano. Poetry, which is an allegory of life, issues from the crucible and is seized in an image which cries out like fate, then flees like time, “crie et s'évade.” Veyne rightly considers this third scene a representation of poetry, which tends to “s'abolir triomphalement dans sa propre naissance” (267).

The poet initially retained classical evocations of death and of life's brevity (the Fate who, as instant, evades our grasp), but the images in the conclusion express their own paroxysmal, instant autonomy. The child has disappeared, displaced by the poet who thrives now amid the debacle, He revels in the power of his apocalyptic language: it ignites self-contained, gratuitous images in the present, and it destroys memories of primal origins (“l'urne des temps secondaires”) and of pastoral utopias.

The line between life and death acquires a less enigmatic sense in “Donnerbach Mühle,” which Char began while stationed in Alsace. Nathan Bracher has analyzed the “bombardement qui est évoqué en filigrane d'un bout à l'autre du texte,” from the presence of the German “donner,” in the title, to its translation and incineration in “tonnerre” at poem's end.10 From the start, Char adopts an elegiac tempo: “Novembre de brumes, entends sous le bois la cloche du dernier sentier franchir le soir et disparaître. …” Wistfully, autumn trails into winter during the drôle de guerre. Beneath nostalgia for the dying season, other borders are infringed. The cliché of seasonal change has been rerouted into a conflict of limits between sound, echo, and final silence: “[entends] le vœu lointain du vent séparer le retour dans les fers de l'absence qui passe.”11 The major boundary transgressed is historical, since the bell tolls for a world whose time has expired and whose pleasant symbols (“animaux pacifiques,” “filles sans méchanceté”) historical change is annulling (“j'entends les monstres qui piétinent sur une terre sans sourire”). The metallic resonance of the bell evokes cannons on the front (Bracher 431), but this funereal “glas” doubles as a call to arms, and we might see it, finally, as a revocation of elegy.

Despite death's shadow—the lake becomes a bier (“un lit de profondes cendres”) for summer's “doux feu végétal”—the seasonal cycle persists, and the poet suddenly awakes, reborn to an ecstatic world that parellels the volcano burst in “Les Trois Sœurs”:

Tracée par le canon,
—vivre, limite immense—
la maison dans la forêt s'est allumée:
Tonnerre, ruisseau, moulin.

The poet, in this last stanza, abruptly discovers the poem's hidden unity: his former sites, his loci amoeni, are burning in the fires of history.

The sentence “la maison dans la forêt s'est allumée” is a striking equivocation. The poem takes its title from a place which Char visited to relieve the frustration of the Phony War:

alors qu'artilleur dans le Bas-Rhin, je me morfondais derrière des canons mal utilisés, chacun de mes loisirs, de préférence la nuit, me conduisait avec un camarade au lac de Donnerbach Mühle, à trois kilomètres de Struth, à la maison forestière, où nous prenions un frugal mais combien délicieux repas, servi par le couple de forestiers.12

Prosaically, night falls and the people in the house light lamps. Poetically, the house in the forest, which is struck by enemy cannon fire, or perhaps illuminated by nearby cannon which are firing at the enemy, combusts, and the silvan image releases its symbolic energy: the elegy for a dying world has become a paean to diffident, combative values. This paradoxical limit is too immense for one habitat. The experience of precariousness, of being on the verge of an irremediable transgression of limits between past and present, peace and war, life and death, imparts breath to this closure and expands the site beyond its forest confines. The sentence that carries the illuminated-incinerated house arrests breathtakingly to designate the limit it is crossing: “—vivre, limite immense—. …” Past and present are equally excessive. The old world was “trop aimé,” the new one demands high rage: “Ma sœur vermeille est en sueur. Ma sœur furieuse appelle aux armes.” Poised on a demarcation line, however, the poet chooses to reject nostalgia, and he accepts the coming struggle.

The renewal of poetry, with history or despite it, is implicit in Char's recurrent accentuation of the limit between life and death. The structure of “Seuil” centers on the breaking of nocturnal dams, on the infringement of inhibitions. The poet participates in an apocalypse, where forceful poetic language is revealed.13 “Seuil,” replicating the pattern in “Donnerbach Mühle,” portrays a time that moves in infinite bursts beyond a tensile limit:

Quand s'ébranla le barrage de l'homme, aspiré par la faille géante de l'abandon du divin, des mots dans le lointain, des mots qui ne voulaient pas se perdre, tentèrent de résister à l'exorbitante poussée. Là se décida la dynastie de leur sens.

The poet senses in the maelstrom the fabrication of renewed words: “je vous attends, ô mes amis qui allez venir. Déjà je vous devine derrière la noirceur de l'horizon.” The confrontation with disaster produces a dynasty of new expressions which the poet greets as he would his intimates: “Mon âtre ne tarit pas de vœux pour vos maisons.” Beyond the flood imagery that first establishes the poem's tenor (“barrage,” for example), pyrotechnics reminiscent of “Les Trois Sœurs” and “Donnerbach Mühle” reappear in “Seuil” as this hearth (“âtre”), which leads the poem to its conclusion. Beside the hearth, the poet places a piece of cypress, crafted semantically into an odd, captivating personification: “Et mon bâton de cyprès rit de tout son cœur pour vous.” This stick of cypress is not wholly a death's-head, since it embodies enthusiasm for the new poetry that is being generated in the crisis. The wooden image traces our border with death, but it does so in order to redefine our sense of life, just as the destruction of the old dynasty restructured language away from divine transcendence. Char has situated us within several figures of the limit—“le barrage de l'homme,” “faille géante,” “nuit diluvienne”—but the “bâton de cyprès” is perhaps the most universal and exemplary of them all. Char could not have stated more forcefully than with this cypress cane that death imparts urgent tension to the experience poetry affords us within language, and conversely that life for the poet and his readers ecstatically transgresses the limits with which death surrounds them. The life-and-death struggle polarizes the poet's image fields and gives his language a “sprung,” highly stressed quality.14

This tensed frontier between life and death recurs in a paradoxical mode at the end of “Riche de larmes,” the opening poem of Eloge d'une Soupçonnée: “A présent que la bougie s'écœure de vivre, l'écoute rougeoie aux fenêtres / Un sablier trop belliqueux se coule dans un Temps ancien et non sans retour” (11). The time flow is reversible (“non sans retour”), since the poet recuperates it in a new dawn; but the hourglass, despite its reversibility, empties itself too quickly—it is “trop belliqueux”—and the candle in the room expires. To understand this paradox, we need to review its prior construction. The poem consists of a variable horizon line, arrayed into two questions and an answer of sorts.

“Riche de larmes,” like “Donnerbach Mühle,” begins with a wistful nightfall. The poet then asks for the lesson behind the image of night: “Quand s'achève au vrai la classe que nous continuons de fréquenter à l'insu de notre âge, il fait nuit sur soi. A quoi bon s'éclairer, riche de larmes?” (7). The incendiary anticipation of “Les Trois Sœurs,” “Donnerbach Mühle,” and “Seuil” becomes a futile, utopian longing in the first moments of “Riche de larmes”: “Merveilleux moment que celui où l'homme n'avait nul besoin de silex, de brandons pour appeler le feu à lui, mais où le feu surgissait sur ses pas, faisant de cet homme une lumière de toujours et une torche interrogative” (7). Time since that ideal moment—Lascaux or youth—has become monotonous, it has lost its ecstatic qualities: “Douloureux sera demain, / Tel hier” (8).

In the middle of the poem, Time is again questioned, but the poet no longer can distinguish east from west: “Le secret, serait-ce le lendemain non ramené à soi? Ce qui grandit semble s'unir de plus en plus étroitement pour une nuit inspirée tout autant que pour un jour façonné” (9). The uncertain horizon may reveal “lacrymale la rosée” or “vespéral le sel” (8), so chiastically are the limits of life and death, dawn and vespers linked. Nevertheless, time manages, in this instance, to escape mundane duration and to become productive. The poet crafts death into eulogies to Nicolas de Staël and Ossip Mandelstam, in order to reach a higher plateau that indeed recalls the poet's ecstatic site in “Seuil”: “L'art est fait d'oppression, de tragédie, criblées discontinûment par l'irruption d'une joie qui inonde son site, puis repart” (10). The poet's “brusque alliance” with language—that is, his inexplicable seizure of the combination of words that properly evoke an image—allows him to formulate a vivid definition of artistic creation as discontinuity and rupture, as a “lendemain non ramené à soi.” Poetry represents the possibility of an escape from duration and self-pity.

At the end of this itinerary, however, the poet appears to fall back into depression. Such reversal is perhaps inevitable in a poetics where elation plays a preponderant role. Edouard Morot-Sir, discussing Char, asserts that “poetry cannot avoid the fact of language slowing down … and breaking the stream of writing.”15 The temptation of elegy pulls the image stream back toward death and melancholy. While Char, in an undeniably elegiac gesture, has just designated poetry and love as his only consolations in life—“le seul état de liberté que j'ai éprouvé sans réserve, c'est dans la poésie que je l'ai atteint, dans ses larmes et dans l'éclat de quelques êtres venus à moi de trois lointains, l'amour me multipliant” (10)—he then moves toward his conclusion by mitigating the degree of solace that they offer: “Il faut savoir que le deuil est à peu près constant sitôt la fête mise bas, démâtée” (11). We have returned to the lesson of darkness which opened the poem, that is, the lesson of ongoing grief.16

The poet, in the penultimate line of “Riche de larmes,” defiantly reorients us by resurrecting a classical topos of the aubade: the candlelight fades in dawn's first light. Char's candle dies in the moment when it becomes a personification: it loses the heart to live (“s'écœure de vivre …”) as it pales from sight. The poet's accompanying image of rebirth is also a complex figural exchange. Sight, implied by the candle, is replaced by hearing, “l'écoute.” It would be more exact to say that sight and hearing fuse while the candlelight dies: “la bougie s'écœure de vivre, l'écoute rougeoie aux fenêtres” (my emphasis). One process is incited while the other wanes. Beyond synesthesia of sight and hearing, the force of the image derives, too, from the concurrent use of hypallage: the act of tinting the windowpanes is not attributed to the real agent, the rising sun, but to the concentrated attention, or “écoute,” that the poet pays to dawn, which has just paled the candle. The hypallage places us on both sides of the windowpane and expands our consciousness of the scene. This intricate figural array underscores the interdependency of candle's waning and sun's rebirth, but the poet also shows here his sensitivity to the rivalry between elegiac and ecstatic modes, since the poem becomes a dawn song, or the hint that such a revival is still possible. Char has momentarily reinvigorated the younger archetype of the fire that burns the forest house in pure expenditure. We would ask if this furnishes an answer to Time's enigma, but at least for a brief second the delicate image of the poet between candle and sun seems to resolve, through its own example, the paradox of a “Temps ancien” which nevertheless is “non sans retour.”

In “Riche de larmes” Char produces, in a sense, his own eulogy. By imagining a new dawn, the poet exhibits the force or conflagration that inspired his best poetry. The rising sun burns off some of the vapors and regretful mists which darkened much that preceded. The poem becomes a last resistance against the elegiac temptation, a final effort to work through grief and against melancholy. The concluding sunrise defers the plaintive questions we found at the beginning and midpoint of the poem, metaphysical questions which were not merely rhetorical but, of course, unanswerable.

The final scene in “Riche de larmes” is a victory of sorts, stubborn even if it is tenuous. As Char writes in “A une sérénité crispée,” “Je suis l'imbécile des cendres bien froides mais qui croit à un tison quelque part survivant” (Recherche, 761). In “Riche de larmes,” he admits that his resistance against the passage of time is “trop belliqueux,” that his dawn is more than a little obstreperous and out of place. Nevertheless, through this closure, which eschews the explosive awakening to immensity of “Les Trois Sœurs,” “Donnerbach Mühle,” and “Seuil,” Char relights and softly thrives in the poetic values of brinksmanship that he battled throughout his career to establish. The poet cannot accept unreservedly the death mask of elegy proper, even at the time of his own waning. Instead he chooses to offer us, at the last instant, this sunrise.

Notes

  1. I quote Char's texts as published in Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard-Pléiade, 1983). Page numbers, and fragment numbers of Feuillets d'Hypnos, refer to that edition, except for “Riche de larmes,” where references are to Eloge d'une Soupçonnée (Paris: Gallimard-NRF, 1988).

  2. The Poetics and the Poetry of René Char (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 77.

  3. See Jean-Claude Mathieu, La Poésie de René Char ou le sel de la splendeur (Paris: José Corti, 1984-1985), 2: 263, 282-85, and Louis Bourgeois, Poètes de l'au-delà d'Eluard à René Char (Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1984), 12-37.

  4. S. F. Fogle, “Elegy,” Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. A. Preminger et al., 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1974): “A lyric, usually formal in tone and diction, suggested either by the death of an actual person or by the poet's contemplation of the tragic aspects of life. In either case, the emotion, originally expressed as a lament, finds consolation in the contemplation of some permanent principle.” The author distinguishes elegy proper (“lament for the dead”) and elegiac tone (“meditative and reflective verse”). Henri Bénac, “Elégie,” Vocabulaire de la dissertation (Paris: Hachette, 1949), gives this definition: “Poème triste qui peu à peu s'enrichira de toute la philosophie romantique: Ex. Le Lac de Lamartine. De nos jours, l'élégie est avant tout un poème qui exprime la mélancolie.”

  5. Strains of Char's elegiac voice are certainly audible prior to Fureur et mystère, in Placard pour un chemin des écoliers, for instance. Elegiac and eulogistic tones, if not elegy proper, permeate several postwar poems—“Le pas ouvert de René Crevel” (399), “Rémanence” (457), “Excursion au village” (514), “Ibrim” (619), for example. Recherche de la base et du sommet contains many eulogistic texts, among them “Dominique Corti,” “Antonin Artaud,” “René Crevel,” “A la mort d'Eluard,” and “Au revoir, Mademoiselle.”

  6. For the historical and biographical context of this poem, see Mathieu 2: 199-220.

  7. René Char en ses poèmes (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), 206.

  8. Bernard was also a poet, Char's metaphysical double (Recherche, 646). The text “Roger Bernard” prefaces the postwar edition of Bernard's poetry, Ma faim noire Déjà (Cahiers d'art, 1946; Seghers, 1976), while “Affres, détonation, silence” is its envoi. Mathieu (2: 240) remarks Char's insistent rewriting of this death scene.

  9. On mourning and melancholy in Feuillets d'Hypnos and “Affres, détonation, silence,” see Mathieu's perspicacious remarks (2: 217-18, 240-41).

  10. Nathan Bracher, “Au-delà du mot: métaphore et métonymie dans ‘Donnerbach Mühle’ de René Char,” French Review 64 (1991): 429, but the article throughout delves into the title of the poem. For Bracher, the alternation of past and present, “jouissance et dépérissement,” relates to problems of trace and absence (435; see also 430).

  11. See Bracher: “ … ‘séparer le retour’ signifie que le bruit du vent empêche la propagation de l'écho” (432).

  12. René Char, “Arrière-histoire du Poème pulvérisé” as quoted in Oeuvres complètes 1247, notes to “Donnerbach Mühle.”

  13. See Eric Marty, René Char (Paris: Seuil, 1990), 213-14.

  14. In a similar vein, see Georges Poulet, “René Char: De la constriction à la dissémination,” L'Arc 22 (1963): 40-42.

  15. Edouard Morot-Sir, The Imagination of Reference: Meditating the Linguistic Condition (Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida, 1993), 153.

  16. See Daniel Leuwers, L'Accompagnateur: Essais sur la poésie contemporaine (Marseille: Sud, 1989), 18-19; Michael Bishop, René Char, les dernières années (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990), 101.

Van Kelly (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6770

SOURCE: Kelly, Van. “Suffering and Expenditure: Baudelaire and Nietsche in Char's Poetic Territory.” In Baudelaire and the Poetics of Modernity, edited by Patricia A. Ward, pp. 172-86. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Kelly analyzes Char's poem, “Baudelaire mécontente Nietzsche.”]

René Char's poem “Baudelaire mécontente Nietzsche” (“Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche”), which appeared in the 1972 collection La Nuit talismanique, begins with a contrast:

C'est Baudelaire qui postdate et voit juste de sa barque de souffrance, lorsqu'il nous désigne tels que nous sommes. Nietzsche, perpétuellement séismal, cadastre tout notre territoire agonistique. Mes deux porteurs d'eau.

(Char OC [Oeuvres complètes] 495-96)

[Baudelaire from his boat of suffering postdates and sees things with justice when he describes us as we truly are. Nietzsche, ceaselessly earthshaking, maps out all our strife-ridden land. My two water-bearers.]1

Paulène Aspel noted in 1968 that Char had devoted pieces to Rimbaud, Camus, Heraclitus, and others, but not to Nietzsche, with whom the poet seemed to “entertain, to prolong an intimacy” (1968, 166).2 “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche” thus fills gaps in a longstanding chronology of influences.

Other texts imply that Char's two “water-bearers,” or provisioners, flank and complement Rimbaud at the confluence that defines modernity.3 The essay “In 1871” clarifies Rimbaud's middle position in this series of partial intersections. Char associates Rimbaud's poetic revolution with the fall of the Second Empire: “A contemporary of the Commune, and with a similar vengefulness, he punctures like a bullet the horizon of poetry and of sensibility” (Char OC 727). Rimbaud breaks the dam standing against modernity, while Baudelaire and Nietzsche inhabit opposite sides of the divide: “Romanticism has dozed off and dreams aloud: Baudelaire, the entire Baudelaire, has just died after he moaned with true pain. … Nietzsche readies himself, but he will have to return each day a bit more lacerated from his sublime ascensions” (726). In “1871,” Baudelaire lingers behind, straddling the divide between Romanticism and modernity, whereas Nietzsche, yet to arrive, represents futurity. “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche,” by contrast, asserts that Baudelaire “postdates” rather than just completes a dying era.4 In this version, he survives Romanticism's catastrophe and accompanies Nietzsche into the future.

Char's temporal perspective on Baudelaire and Nietzsche is thus paradoxical, as is the case for Rimbaud. There is a “before” life and an “after” life through philosophy or poetry. Char states enigmatically that “Nietzsche détruit avant forme la galère cosmique” (“Nietzsche, destroyed prior, forms the cosmic galley” [“Page d'ascendants pour l'an 1964,” Char OC 711]). If Baudelaire postdates, Rimbaud is “ahead of the wave.” He is temporally unfinished, “the first poet of a civilization yet to materialize” and cannot be defined precisely, but he is crucial to Char's poetic vein: “If I knew exactly what Rimbaud meant to me, I would know what poetry remains ahead of me, and I would no longer need to write it” (732). Char's characterization of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Nietzsche as radically forward-looking responds to what de Man sees as the prototype of modernity: “Modernity exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at last a point that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure.”5 Commenting specifically on Baudelaire's essay The Painter of Modern Life, de Man notes that modernity has a predilection for ideas and representations that “illustrate the heroic ability to ignore or to forget that this present contains the prospective self-knowledge of its end” (158-59). This general propensity is quite evident in Char's poetry—“Action is virgin, even when repeated,” (Feuillets d'Hypnos, no. 46, in OC 186)—but his grands astreignants (great models who include, significantly, Heraclitus and Georges de La Tour) also tend to annul duration and deny the erosion of newness within his own works, through the mechanism of an artistic, philosophical, and poetic community situated paradoxically as if it were entirely in the present, despite the passage of time. De Man argues his definition of modernity along similar lines: “This combined interplay of deliberate forgetting with an action that is also a new origin reaches the full power of the idea of modernity” (162).

Unlike de Man, Char incorporates Baudelaire hesitantly into his modern continuum, as the title “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche” implies. The displeasure or irritation signals a conflict, yet the qualities that Char attaches to Baudelaire and Nietzsche in the opening stanza of the poem seem complementary rather than mutually exclusive: lucidity amid suffering does not necessarily annul a vigorous struggle to conquer adversity. Char deepens the enigma when he mentions explicitly neither Baudelaire nor Nietzsche in the rest of the poem, creating thereby a gap that our interpretation of the poem must bridge: the title implies a conflict of influences, but the opening stanza implies their compatibility. This opening gambit or paradox creates more problems than it solves, but it conceals, too, the defense of a position on modernity which the rest of the poem plays out stylistically and allegorically.6 What does Baudelaire's skiff of suffering, and Nietzsche's seismic mapping or registry, represent for Char?

SKIFF OF SUFFERING

Claude Pichois depicts Baudelaire as “plagued throughout his life by what he called his guignon—the evil spirit of misfortune and disaster,” and Baudelaire is certainly an icon of personal misfortune in Char's view (Pichois and Ziegler 1989, xi). This offers the basic outline for an interpretation, yet the skiff of suffering which postdates and sees things with justice leads to a rich zone of Baudelairean imagery. Cargo's concordance to Les Fleurs du Mal lists no use of the word barque (“bark,” as in Charon's bark or ferry), whereas vaisseau/vaisseaux (vessel/vessels) occurs nine times, navire (ship) four times, and the synecdoche mâts (masts) five times. The various usage of boat images form a neat dichotomy as well. In one set of Baudelairean poems, woman is represented as a ship on a trip toward pleasant, idyllic countries as in “La Chevelure,” where the lover's hair, at first a “noir océan” (black ocean), becomes a “pavillon de ténèbres tendues” (shadow-filled sail), or in “Le Serpent qui danse,” where she is compared to “un fin vaissseau / Qui roule bord sur bord” [a gossamer ship, / Swayed by ocean swell] (OC 1:26-27, 29). “L'Invitation au voyage” and “Parfum exotique” prolong this idyllic utopia. By contrast, the vessel, like woman in Baudelaire's world, has strong contrastive associations, and they are more pertinent to Char's “barque de souffrance.” “L'Héautontimorouménos” pointedly echoes the line from “Le Beau Navire,” where desire, “[like] a beautiful … vessel putting out to sea,” finds not an idyllic land but the victim or self-torturer's experience (OC 1:78). This establishes the double, antithetical register of the ship: symbol of pleasurable exoticism or hellish journey.7 “Le Voyage” refers insistently to the suffering that inner enemies or complexes inflict. The soul, “un trois-mâts cherchant son Icarie” [a three-master seeking its utopia], encounters at home and abroad “le spectacle ennuyeux de l'immortel péché” [the monotonous spectacle of immortal sin].8 Baudelaire concludes: “Amer savoir, celui qu'on tire du voyage” [Journey's bitter fruit], but he departs in Death's ship, heedless of good or evil. Suffering does not postpone the trip.

The elements associating vessel and suffering coalesce in Baudelaire's “La Musique,” where the figure of the poet becomes a ship:

Je sens vibrer en moi toutes les passions
                                                  D'un vaisseau qui souffre,
Le bon vent, la tempête et ses convulsions
                                                  Sur l'immense gouffre
Me bercent. D'autres fois, calme plat, grand miroir
                                                  De mon désespoir.

(OC 1:68, emphasis added)

[I feel tensed within me, like passion, all the lurch and tremblings of a ship that suffers, the downwind, the storm and its convulsions lull me over the vast abyss. In other moments, flat seas, endless mirror for my despair.]

Other poems drift from ideal toward spleen. In “L'Irrémédiable,” all sense of adventure has disappeared from the image of the ship: “Un navire pris dans le pôle, / Comme en un piège de cristal” [A ship immobilized in polar ice, / As in a crystal trap] (OC 1:75). Char states, by contrast, that Baudelaire sees things justly despite suffering (“voit juste de sa barque de souffrance,” emphasis added): in this sense his vessel encounters despair but elation, too, in a less fatal mix of spleen and ideal than in “L'Irrémédiable,” something closer to the melancholic if harsh adventure in “La Musique” and “Le Voyage.”

Char strongly connects creation and suffering. Poets of all eras, from his perspective, have purveyed harsh truths and have been persecuted (before and after 1857):

Think about the suspicion and torture to which Villon, Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, Mandelstam, or Maria Tsvetaeva were subjected … Do not forget that poets have always received fireworks in the chest, their internal and external enemies having placed them in a target zone.

(Sous ma casquette amarante, in Char OC 856)

For Char, poetry is conspiratorial yet triumphant: “From the Inquisition to modern times, temporal evil clearly did not get the better of Theresa of Avila nor of Boris Pasternak … The statute of limitations has expired there where poetry flares up, resides …” (“Arthur Rimbaud,” OC 727-28).

When Char comments on the image of suffering offered by Baudelaire—“I am the wound and the knife, / The victim and the executioner”—he infers the lesson that “at such a degree of suffering and flight, the poet is brother to all the earth and its misfortune” (OC 858). Poetry espouses a lucid violence that resists all compromise with oppressors: (“One of the noble aspects of violence … is its ability to pay off the victim's debt and deliver him from that plague: false knowledge, the nursemaid of shipwrecks, of capitulations,” OC 857.) Char echoes this ethical reading of “L'Héautontimorouménos” with a stylistic one. Competing moments of lucidity and frenzy inform poetry. Char finds the “ardent Nuance” (his own aesthetic ideal) in Baudelaire's poetry, too:

Nuances and violence are in close combat. Through their mediation, the conflicts and tempers slowly but steadily counterbalance, and through them poetry disseminates, like water through limestone … Nuance and ardor raise and lower the horizon line, morning and evening, stimulating the spectrum.

(OC 857)

Nuance is another form of violence, because it battles ardor to form poetry: “Poetry likes that double, mad violence and its double taste which listens at the doors of language” (OC 858), a violence in which Baudelaire's poetry shares. Char, significantly, interprets “L'Héautontimorouménos” not as a depiction of Baudelaire's psyche but as an allegory of poetry itself and of the poet's role in history.

The positive meaning of the skiff of suffering in “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche” becomes clearer: struggle is a necessary ingredient of self-accomplishment, and the good struggle (to write the poem or to resist oppression) elates the poet. Char associates the ship or the boat with the exhilarating struggle in his poem “Faction du muet,” where the word barque confirms but diversifies the Baudelairean images of suffering. The shift from Baudelaire's vaisseau, navire and mâts to Char's bark may be explained partly by the effort to translate a marine image, reminiscent of Baudelaire's journey to the Indian Ocean, into a fluvial world centered around representations of the Sorgue, the river that flows through Char's native town. A barque is a smallish vessel, used on inland waterways or employed in seaports to unload merchandise from a larger ship. In “Faction du muet” (Le Nu perdu, 1971), the poet, reminiscent of his counterpart in Baudelaire's “La Musique,” becomes a skiff gliding over the transparent riverbed of human experience. The journey enriches poetry, sometimes violently through the shock of life's contradictions, at other times sympathetically through identification with human foibles and tragedies: “Je me suis uni au courage de quelques êtres, j'ai vécu violemment, sans vieillir, mon mystère au milieu d'eux, j'ai frissonné de l'existence de tous les autres, comme une barque incontinente au-dessus des fonds cloisonnés” [I allied myself with the courage of some people, I have violently lived out my mystery among them, never aging, I have trembled to the existence of all others, like a boat shifting above the cloisonné of a riverbed] (OC 429, emphasis added). The experience of the Other stimulates the poet and energizes him. This kind of ecstasy contrasts with the desperation of Baudelaire's leave-taking in “Le Voyage”—“Pionger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu'importe?” [Plunge to the bottom of the abyss, whether it is Hell or Heaven]. Suffering often appears in Char's poems, but a mysterious exhilaration usually gives it tone. Something resembling exhilaration fills the poet's sails in Baudelaire's “La Musique” (“I feel tensed within me, like passion, all the lurch and tremblings / Of a ship that suffers”), though there is only partial satisfaction: Baudelaire's “good winds” die to reveal the “calm mirror” of his despair. Char and Baudelaire become allegorical vessels of Poetry, each “shivers” or “suffers” in the wind, but each to different effect.

Differing attitudes toward despair, self-doubt, regret, and remorse furnish Char's rationale for placing Baudelaire on the near side of modernity, as its precursor, rather than at its point of origin:

Baudelaire is the most humane genius of all Christian civilization. His song incarnates that civilization in its conscience, in its glory, in its remorse, in its malediction, at the moment of its beheading, of its loathing, of its apocalypse. “Poets,” writes Hölderlin, “are usually revealed at the beginning or the end of an era.9

This remark occurs in the essay “Arthur Rimbaud,” but it is crucial to Char's view on poetic modernity, and it attaches a caveat to the reception of Baudelaire's work: Baudelaire brings a premodern era of poetry to its end and represents an apogee prior to modernity's clean slate and new inscription. What survives the tabula rasa is Baudelaire's empathy with human suffering, less sin and remorse which are foreign to Char, who would certainly be irritated by the sense of guilt and self-deprecation in the conclusion of “Un voyage à Cythère”: “—Ah! Seigneur! donnez-moi la force et le courage / De contempler mon cœur et mon corps sans dégoût!” [Oh Lord! Give me the force and courage / to consider my heart and body without disgust!”] (OC 1:119). In moments of suffering, Char does not feel remorseful but anxious, as in “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche”: “What is, our greatest cause of suffering? Worry” (OC 496); in other words, our anxiety lacks a religious, eschatological foundation in God's redemptive or damning gaze. Personal instinct or difference, rather than belief, founds resistance to the world's weight, to its thrusts and currents: “We are born in the same torrent, but we roll differently amid frenetic stones. Worry? Follow instinct” (496). Char sees suffering not as an apocalypse that reveals or subverts godhead, but as a self-affirmation and instinctive resistance to phenomenal change.

Baudelaire's sense of suffering as Char portrays it in “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche” implies a religious sense, even if that sense manifests itself as Cain's revolt against God. Char rejects the postlapsarian aspect of Baudelairean suffering, and through this rejection the figure of Baudelaire begins to migrate through the poem, after the initial stanza introducing the two precursors. Humanity is part of a purely materialistic universe: “Sons of nothing and destined to nothing. … What we hear during sleep is our heartbeat and not the outbursts of our soul at leisure” (496). The only redemption and rebirth is in the poet's work. “The work, unique, in the form of a broken shutter” is the sole agent of “the sense of its own renewal” (496).10 Suffering pervades the house of poetry with its broken shutter, yet this results not in divine transcendence but only in the renewal of our participation in a world that is either a chaos or an impersonal determinism: “Whether we defy order or chaos, we obey laws we have not intellectually ratified. We approach with the step of a mutilated giant” (496). We struggle violently, as if Titans, against the assault of senseless material forces—this is one of the lessons that underlies Char's fragmentary style—but here mythology evacuates theology and relegates it to the realm of metaphor for the blind forces of nature.11 Char's poetry, which cultivates rupture and discontinuity, cannot assimilate Baudelaire's “ardent sanglot qui roule d'âge en âge” [ardent sob that rolls from age to age] and which dies—futilely or with redemption—at the feet of God's eternity (“Les Phares,” OC 1:14).

Char willfully effaces the divine, but his fragmentary style also saps the poetic conventions of wholeness and unity that typify Baudelairean verse (the open-ended succession of quatrains and artists of “Les Phares,” for instance, or the interweaving typical of the sonnet and pantoum). “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche” typifies Char's fragmentary style. The poem consists of eight prose stanzas, and the links from one to the next are “eluded” if not “burned,” to use Char's own terms for describing transitions.12 His poetry points through its form to the lack of an overarching principle, immanent to the universe and to language, which would make the movement from moment to moment and stanza to stanza self-evident. The poet presents fragments without apparent coherence, or with a unity that the poet senses incompletely, and the reader must join in this search beyond catastrophe for renewed wholeness. Char confirms the idea that poetic modernity, in the lineage of Rimbaud, is joined to the annulment of theology, since poetry is “toujours en chemin vers le point qui signe sa justification et clôt son existence, à l'écart, en avant de l'existence du mot Dieu” [always in transit toward the point that signs its verdict and closes its existence, well ahead of the existence of the word God].13 Deprived of religious finalities, the poem crafts and imposes an immanent linguistic justification upon the surrounding chaos or oppressive order of things. Char's poetry, by its form, indicts the coherence of a universe it confronts and intends to conquer.

Char's version of poetic modernism is founded on the death of god, or, as Virginia La Charité says, “Poetry has the position that religion assigns to God” (1974, 57). Char suggests this again, but elliptically, in “Faire du chemin avec …” (Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit, 1979): “Baudelaire, Melville, Van Gogh are haggard gods, not readings of gods” (OC 580)—that is, Baudelaire's poetry of misfortune and resistance to spleen inspires Char, but he rejects the detour through religious finality that Les Fleurs du Mal implies. Baudelaire survives the collapse of Romanticism but in a secular, de-Christianized form: “Baudelaire forges the wounds of the heart's intelligence into a pain that rivals the soul” (“Page d'ascendants pour l'an 1964,” OC 711).

THE SEISMIC REGISTRY: NIETZSCHE

What then does Nietzsche carry on Char's journey? Nietzsche, too, signals the existence of oppression and suffering, since he plots Char's “territoire agonistique,” but pain derives in this case from a voluntary struggle and from the swords of battle. Commenting on “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche,” Paul Veyne interprets the “séisme nietzschéen” as the destruction of social conformity, or “valeurs établies,” and this includes conformist institutions and conventional language.14 Critics have also pointed out that Char appropriates Zarathustra's eagle to symbolize the poetic summit, sovereign independence, and human overcoming without the aid of God or gods (Aspel 1968, 180-81; Mathieu 1984-85, 1:121 n. 75). Char adopts Nietzsche partially because of the latter's rejection of the divine: “Creation—that is the great redemption from suffering, and life's growing light”; “Away from God and gods this has lured me; what could one create if gods existed?” says Zarathustra (Nietzsche 1968, 199), echoing the madman in The Gay Science: “Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” (Nietzsche 1974, 181). Char's journey, too, is an ascension instead of the sea voyage that informs his interaction with Baudelaire. The ascension of man involves the annulment of God—“God, the arranger, could not but fail,” Char declares—yet this lays the ground for a modern humanism, namely the cultivation of the “intermittent gods” who “pervade our mortal amalgam without ever going beyond us.”15 Char uses the philosopher-poet Nietzsche against the poet-philosopher Baudelaire, because in Nietzsche the philosophical and poetic project replaces religious teleology.16

As Aspel remarks, Char's “open attitude toward chance” echoes Zarathustra's claim that he has liberated the world from “the slavery of goals or ends.”17 Otherworldly redemption, or even blasphemy, gives way to an affirmation of the intrinsic value of the world and of the individual's path through it: “Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth,” says Zarathustra, although it could just as well have been Char, so close are the thought and instinct (Nietzsche 1968, 125, author's emphasis). Although he praises Baudelaire and has more indulgence for pity than does Nietzsche, Char's version of self-renewal closely emulates Zarathustra's praise of going under in order to overcome adversity:

Man, says Zarathustra, is a rope tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under. I love those who do not know how to live, except by going under.18

In “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche,” Char likewise denies otherworldly redemption while he espouses renewal through strictly human creativity. The human condition demands neither faith nor salvation but self-reliance. Char emphasizes renovation and a despiritualized transcendence, where the beginning point is the self and the culmination a self refashioned through its agonistic contact with this world: “To die is to go through the eye of the needle after several burgeonings. One must traverse death in order to emerge in front of life,” but “in a state of sovereign modesty” as an individual self-sufficient, content to live without the self-importance imparted by notions of divine providence or of revolt against divinity (OC 496). Ascension toward personal sovereignty and elation also entails a plunge into the deepness of the world. Nietzsche's dialectic of overture and going under harmonizes with Char's supreme indifference to the divine, unless divinity is redefined as the vitality of nature, the ceaseless shock and metamorphosis of contraries without any transcendence beyond process.

Nietzsche's depiction of secular agony differs fundamentally from Baudelaire's striving between spleen and ideal. For Char, as for Nietzsche, risk and endangerment are fundamental categories. Life is a dangerous crossing over the abyss. Poems from the collection Fureur et mystère, published in 1948 but written from roughly the Munich crisis onward, grant an important place to these ideas and explain why Nietzsche, for Char, is “perpétuellement séïsmal.” The idea that going under may result in destruction and not rebirth is accentuated in the poem “Les trois sœurs,” where the poet beseeches the earth to safeguard “that child on your shoulder,” whose allegorical sense is not yet clear—endangered innocence? human vulnerability? Disaster strikes, however, and a volcanic eruption engulfs the child, yet the child is poetry and the cataclysm only ignites the olive tree on the slope, here a symbol of the poetic image itself and its renewal through creativity (OC 250-51). In “Seuil” (“The Edge”), the Nietzschean denunciation of metaphysics and the images of cataclysm conjoin. The human figure in the poem confronts “the gigantic fault line of the abandonment of the divine,” which has broken down the “dam of humanity.” The reaction to catastrophe is not a political philosophy, or a philosophy of the will, but a language: “distant words, words that did not wish to be lost, mounted a resistance to the exorbitant thrust” (OC 255). Paul Veyne interprets this as a rejection of the Nietzschean overman in favor of the poet who sees in language, and not in metaphysics, the only valid project (316-17), but the ecstatic, wide view of “Seuil” suggests a reform of the ontological environment: when the downfall of God threatens humankind, the poet steps forth to await new words but also to remake the universe out of the surrounding chaos. Being, and not just language, is at risk here, though language, to be sure, is the agent of salvation. The dawn after the catastrophe signals the birth of a new poetic language, but the consequences surpass language and poetry alone, indeed this enriched threshold alludes to all of life—“life, immense limit,” as Char asserts (“Donnerbach Mühle,” OC 252). The world is not an expiation for the sin of existence (“le châtiment du devenir,” in the terms Bianquis uses in 1938 to translate Nietzsche's evaluation of Anaximander). It is, rather, “la justification de l'être” (Nietzsche's synthesis of Heraclitus: the sanctification of being), an apt description of Char's poet in “Seuil,” who, his belt “full of seasons,” stands before the flood to welcome the rebirth of poetry after the quake, amid change.19 As Aspel says, “Char's poetry sings reality, ‘noble’ reality, and seeks to attain it beyond the very idea of the unknown, and one may accurately call this exaltation Dionysiac” (172; see also 182).

Char's poetry in general, takes noble endangerment as its unspoken ground.20 From violent risk issue words with the hard edge and urgency that contemplation of death imparts, and this is the sense of the characterization in “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche”: “Nietzsche, always earthshaking, maps out all our strife-ridden land” (OC 495-96). The devastated site, traversed by flood, volcanic eruptions, and tremors, produces, through struggle against the tragic sense of life, poetry at its most intense and its most exhilarating.21 Against this background, and with reference to Baudelaire's remorseful apocalypse, Char espouses a Nietzschean “gaspillage sans frein,” a relentless going under in order to overcome the world's resistance to poetry, philosophy, and justice.

THE ANAGOGICAL SENSE: BAUDELAIRE'S RETURN

The end of “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche,” however, should cause hesitation. Baudelaire is not easily repressed; he returns despite Nietzsche's displeasure.22 Once Char rehearses his two provisioners' itinerary, he suddenly cannot choose between the two. Poetic language trembles in the confrontation:

Qui appelle encore? Mais la réponse n'est point donnée.
Qui appelle encore pour un gaspillage sans frein? Le trésor entrouvert des nuages qui escortèrent notre vie.

(OC 496)

[Who calls out once more? But no answer is given.
Who calls out once more for a relentless expenditure? The open treasure of the clouds that escorted our life.]

“Relentless expenditure” is the Nietzschean release of the poet's and Zarathustra's “wild dogs” (1968, 155), of his Dionysian urges toward fusion, toward the testing of limits, and toward devastated orders and sites. The closing sentence of “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche,” however, could be read as an allusion to Baudelaire's prose poem “L'Etranger” (Le Spleen de Paris): “Well then, what do you like, extraordinary stranger?—I like the clouds that are passing! down there! down there! the marvelous clouds” (OC 1:231).23 Char opposes this “open treasure” to “relentless expenditure,” not as retention opposes prodigality, since the treasure, too, is opened up/“entrouvert,” but as serene contemplation and recollection contrast with, and nuance, an ecstatic and tragic vision of life—in other words, as Apollonian serenity tempers Dionysian frenzy in Nietzsche's early works on the origins of philosophy and tragedy (one of Char's early contacts with Nietzsche's work).24

Char's “open treasure of the clouds” echoes the interplay of distance and intimacy that marks not just “L'Etranger,” but Baudelaire's “Harmonie du soir,” too, with its concluding metaphor of the sunset and a memory:

Un cœur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir,
Du passé lumineux recueille tout vestige!
Le soleil s'est noyé dans son sang qui se fige …
Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir!

(OC 1:47)

[A tender heart, that hates the vast black nothingness, / from the shining past collects all remainder! / The sun has drowned in its clotted blood … / Your memory glints in me as if a gilded monstrance!]

By contrast, a Dionysian sunset—one that insists on violence and expenditure rather than on retention and nostalgia—marks Char's “Le Visage nuptial”: “The eagle's claw funnels high the blood” (OC 151), an aggressive painting of the crepuscule that clashes with the more serene, contained violence of “Harmonie du soir,” where the clotted sun of the penultimate line is held by coming darkness just as the poet captures the ray of memory.25 The union of disparate parts, and an inner distance or serenity essential to contemplation, are even more evident in “Correspondances,” where the mix of elements moves toward unity, not toward clash and disintegration. A number of Baudelaire's poems do focus on dissolution (“Une charogne,” “Le Masque,” “La Destruction”) or Orphic mutilation (“L'Albatros,” “L'Héautontimorouménos”), but poems that accent disruption often occur against a background of calmness, as in “Harmonie du soir” and similar poems that convey Baudelaire's predilection for a simultaneous picture of spleen and ideal. “La Cloche fêlée” establishes the poet's flaw through such counterpoint: the soul's broken moaning (“râle épais”) punctuates an Apollonian vastness (“faraway memories” and bells that sing through the mist). In “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche,” Char's own conclusion among the “open treasure of the clouds,” however, accentuates what suffering could not annul in Baudelaire's poetic vision, namely serenity and contemplation as in “Recueillement”: “Ma Douleur, donne-moi la main … / … Vois se pencher les défuntes Années, / Sur les balcons du ciel …” [My Pain, give me your hand … / … See the dead Years lean over / The balconies of the sky …], a serenity set against (and despite) the frenetic search for pleasure taking place in the city streets below.

At the end of “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche,” when Char evokes both the philosopher's “relentless expenditure” and the poet's “open treasure of the clouds,” he reaffirms his need for a contrast between ecstatic violence and serene contemplation, distance and fusion. Char refuses to exclude from modernity either Nietzsche or Baudelaire, furor or mystery, fusion or distance, dismemberment or order. This poem is not a Nietzschean monologue. Baudelaire postdates Nietzsche: he remains a valid marker and companion on Char's poetic journey through the desert or through the archipelago, and he is not brutally annulled. Instead Baudelaire contests, by his ennui and pessimism, but also through his sense of passive contemplation, Nietzsche's harsh yet enthusiastic going under. Baudelaire is put under erasure but returns in Char's poetry as the supplement of suffering that maintains pity on the horizon, though this does not lead Char to remorse or to condemnation of the self's deep urges.

I have left for last the second strophe of “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche,” because we must seek the true rather than the apparent place of each of Char's stanzas within the heterodox and fragmented order of his poem. This stanza demonstrates, too, Char's inclination to adopt a worldview more fundamentally Nietzschean than Baudelairean, though the Nietzschean element never governs uncontested. Encounter, conflict, and influence renew poetic language and assure its continuity: “Duty, before one takes another breath, to rarify and hierarchize people and things that impinge on us.” Pollen, deprived of a future, “smashes into the rocky partition.” Char allows Baudelaire and Nietzsche, suffering and untold generous expenditure, to inflect his poetry. Pollen, or the word, is thus triple—Baudelaire and Nietzsche interact with Char, constrain him momentarily with their own original limits, pollinate his poetry, open it to change and growth beyond his solitude. Char's praise for his provisioners is not funerary rhetoric or banquet praise—it is not eulogistic or elegiac properly speaking—so much as it is a creative stimulus for further poetry. Nietzsche justifies, in similar terms, his own search for models of thought and life among the Presocratics. “Let us leave the tombs in peace, but make ours whatever is eternally lively. Humanity grows only when it venerates what is rare and great.” “Adopter un style de rêve ou de légende,” says Nietzsche in a French version which Char had read (Nietzsche 1985, 168, 171; Mathieu 1984-85, 2:90 n. 4). The poet has taken this advice and crafted a dialectic of Baudelairean clouds and Nietzschean dam breaking, but within the hidden design of a Nietzschean genealogy of influences.26 Char's choice of clouds to symbolize Baudelairean poetics should be read as an allusion both to strophic poems such as “Harmonie du soir” (where the pantoum relies on the obsessive return of sentences and images in order to evoke the memory of lost love) and to the prose poems like “L'Etranger,” freed from rhyme and strophic measure. In Le Spleen de Paris, Baudelaire attains a modernity and a freedom from convention that tie more directly to Char's vein of formal experimentation.27

In Char's poetry, Baudelairean stasis, ambiguity, and suffering contest alternative moments of vertigo, frenzy, and empowerment. Baudelaire remains a veiled reference in Char, although Nietzsche retains preponderance as the more modern one, less attached to a past morality and style. “Dans la marche” (La Parole en archipel) anticipates “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche” and illustrates the bind: “We can only live in what is opened up, precisely on the hermetic dividing line of shadow and light,” says Char. This is stasis, penumbra, calm before dawn or dusk. “But we are irresistibly thrown ahead. All our person aids and spins this thrust” (OC 411). Expenditure indicts stasis but cannot avoid its moment.

Notes

  1. Subsequent references to Char OC are to his Oeuvres complètes, 1995. No further page references will be given for “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche.”

  2. Char, in successive editions of his Recherche de la base et du sommet, first published in 1955, systematically developed the cult of his “grands astreignants.” “Pages d'ascendants pour l'an 1964” contains a later list of “astreignants” and of “alliés,” the latter term reserved for the beaux-arts (OC 711-12).

  3. Prose texts in Recherche de la base et du sommet make it clear how central Rimbaud is to Char's view of the modern. See Char, “In 1871,” “Réponses interrogatives à une question de Martin Heidegger,” but especially “Arthur Rimbaud,” an essay which originally served as Char's preface to the edition of Rimbaud published in the 1956 by the Club de l'Honnête Homme (OC 726-36). For a thorough analysis of Char's writings on and attitude toward Rimbaud, see La Charité, “The Role of Rimbaud.”

  4. Char states this banally in his response to a poll of contemporary poets (“Pour ou contre Baudelaire,” Les Nouvelles littéraires): “Baudelaire's place in contemporary knowledge and sensibility is that of a very great poet whose genius and meaning have not stopped growing in the last one hundred years. Only today can we measure the degree of his undeniable sovereignty and universality.”

  5. Blindness and Insight, 148. For Char, Rimbaud remains unique, nevertheless, in that he represents life's supremacy over poetry (see Char's poem “Tu as bien fait de partir, Arthur Rimbaud,” in Fureur et mystère). De Man ties the possibility of surpassing or abandoning literature to the concept of modernity: the “continuous appeal of modernity, the desire to break out of literature, toward the reality of the moment” is how the writer shows that literature exists in history, within time, instead of in the contradiction of endless newness (1983, 162).

  6. For two more recent views on Baudelaire's modernity, see Compagnon 1990, 7-78, 177-80, and Meschonnic 1995, 469-82.

  7. See Compagnon 1996 on Baudelaire's images of the good and bad seas.

  8. The expressions “trois-mâts barque” and “la barque de Charon” are noted in Heath's Standard French and English Dictionary, 2 vols. (London: D. C. Heath, 1959).

  9. OC 731-32, author's emphasis. The idea of a Baudelaire still enmeshed in Christianity corresponds to Breton's views in the 1930 Second manifeste du surréalisme, which Char signed. Char also clearly shares Breton's rejection of Claudel's Christian reading of Illuminations (without following Breton's shift toward a rejection of Rimbaud on the grounds, more or less, of religious ambiguities; see Breton 1988, 782-87). On Baudelaire and religion, see Ruff 1955, especially 281-366; L'Année Baudelairie 2 (1996), devoted to death and spirituality, but especially, in that issue, Milner, “Le paradis se gagne-t-il?,” who critiques Ruff's Jansenist thesis; Lawler, Poetry and Moral Dialectic, who offers a balanced view of the place of the crucial section “Révolte” in Les Fleurs du Mal (16-25, 153-57, 182-88).

  10. The broken shutter also appears in the poem “Le Ramier” (Le Nu perdu 1971): “Nous rallions nos pareils / Pour éteindre la dette / D'un volet qui battait / Généreux, généreux” (OC 448). On Char's linkage of creativity and transcendence, see Marty 1990, 159-228.

  11. Char's mutilated giant also refers to another “grand astreignant,” Poussin, through the figure of Orion, who is the protagonist of Char's 1975 Aromates chasseurs (OC 507-28).

  12. “[J]e ne brûle pas les relais, mais je les élude,” referring to his own remarks to the interviewer, but very pertinent to his poetry (OC 854-55). On Nietzsche and Char's aphorisms, see Aspel 1968, 168-70, 173.

  13. “Réponses interrogatives à une question de Martin Heidegger,” OC 734. See also Char's “A la question: ‘Pourquoi ne croyez-vous point en Dieu?’” (“To the Question: ‘Why do you not believe in God?’”): “If by some rare chance death did not end it all, we would probably find ourselves in front of something other than this God invented by men, in their image and adjusted for better or worse to their contradictions. Imagining a square of white linen, traversed by a sun ray, is nostalgically childish” (OC 658).

  14. Veyne 1990, 318, and see for further comment his entire chapter, entitled “Héraclite, Heidegger et Nietzsche” (302-32).

  15. “Faire du chemin avec …,” Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit, in OC 580; “Peu à peu, et puis un vin silcieux,” La Nuit talismanique, in OC 494. On Char's secular and metaphorical use of imagery of the gods, see Starobinski 1992.

  16. Plouvier (1997) compares Nietzsche and Char as to their common rejection of history in favor of art.

  17. Aspel 1968, 174, see also 179, on the “nécessité bienfaisante du hasard” in Nietzsche and Char. The article appeared before the publication of “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche” but is still very useful.

  18. Nietzsche 1968, 126-27, author's emphasis. See also Zarathustra's speeches against suffering and pity in Nietzsche 1968, 143, 287.

  19. Nietzsche 1985, 44. The English translations of the French are my own. See also Plouvier, who remarks on Nietzsche and Char's common sense of “lightness” and “marvel” in their confrontation with the world (1997, 218, 221-22).

  20. See “Riche de larmes” (Rich with tears), one of Char's last poems: “Art is made of oppression and tragedy, themselves punctured occasionally by the onslaught of a joy which floods art's site, then leaves again” (Eloge d'une soupçonnée, OC 841).

  21. See Char's “Nous avons” (La Parole en archipel, 1962), where a volcanic cataclysm kindles the poetic image and instills tension within freshness: “Notre parole, en archipel, vous offre, après la douleur et le désastre, des fraises qu'elle rapporte des landes de la mort, ainsi que ses doigts chauds de les avoir cherchées” [Our word, in the form of an archipelago, offers you, after pain and disaster, strawberries that it brings back from the moors of death, fingers still warm from the picking] (OC 409).

  22. Historically, Nietzsche approved of Baudelaire in a way, as his letter to Peter Gast, dated 26 February 1888, makes clear in the context of the public reception of Wagner's music: “Wagner himself … surpasses a thousand times the understanding and the comprehension of the Germans. Does he surpass that of the French as well?” Nietzsche had often mused that the Frenchman most likely to appreciate Wagner “was that bizarre, three-quarters lunatic Baudelaire, the poet of Les Fleurs du Mal. It had disappointed me that this kindred spirit of Wagner's had not during his lifetime discovered him; I have underlined the passages in his poems in which there is a sort of Wagnerian sensibility which has found no form anywhere else in poetry (Baudelaire is a libertine, mystical, ‘satanic,’ but, above all, Wagnerian)” (author's emphases). Nietzsche then tells Gast of his discovery of the existence of a letter from Wagner to Baudelaire (see Nietzsche 1996, 286-88). See Delesalle, who refers in passing to this letter (“Eugène Crépet,” 8 n. 16). Char seems unaware of these documents, but the thrust of “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche” goes to other issues.

  23. Contrast “L'Etranger” with another poem in Le Spleen de Paris, “La Soupe et les nuages” (OC 1:298), where the poet becomes a useless “marchand de nuages” (cloud merchant). Remorse and self-deprecation return, like obsessions, to line the clouds.

  24. See Veyne 1990, 313; Mathieu 1984-85, 1:121 n. 75, 2:90 n. 4. See also Nietzsche 1992, 63, among many other passages on the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

  25. See La Charité on the crucial interplay of night and day in the collection La Nuit talismanique: “While light imagery may indeed tend to dominate Char's work, the creation of the active diurnal text is dependent on the order and prestige of night” (1973, 278). Some of the poems in the original edition of La Nuit talismanique were illustrated by Char, though not “Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche.” On the relation of image to text in this collection, see La Charité (1976), “Beyond the Poem.”

  26. We find an aesthetic pantheon in “Les Phares,” but the notion of verse as sacrifice or defiance laid at God's feet goes against Char's impulse.

  27. See de Man 1983, “Lyric and Modernity,” 184.

Further Reading

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CRITICISM

Baker, Peter. “Postmodern Poetics of Community: Perse and Char.” In Obdurate Brilliance: Exteriority and the Modern Long Poem, pp. 65-75. Gainesville, Fla.: University of Florida, 1991.

Comparison of works of Saint-John Perse and René Char.

Bracher, Nathan. “History, Violence, and Poetics: Saint-John Perse and René Char.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 15, no. 2 (summer 1991): 317-34.

Similarities and differences in the works of Perse and Char.

Caws, Mary Ann. The Presence of René Char, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976,

Thematic and aesthetic overview of the works of Char.

LaCharité, Virginia A. “René Char and the Ascendancy of Night.” French Forum 1, no. 3 (September 1976): 269-80.

Examines the motif of light in Char's works.

Lawler, James R. René Char: The Myth and the Poem, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978,

Critical analysis of Char's poetry.

Noland, Carrie Jaurès. “The Performance of Solitude: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and the Resistance Poetry of René Char.” The French Review 70, no. 4 (March 1997): 562-74.

Char's adoption of the poetics of solitude and resistance.

———. “Messages personnels: Radio Cryptography, and the Resistance Poetry of René Char.” In Poetry at Stake: Lyric Aesthetics and the Challenge of Technology, pp. 141-62. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Exploration of the influence of wartime communication technology on the aesthetics of Char's poetry of resistance.

Additional coverage of Char's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 32; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 124; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 9, 11, 14, 55; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 258; Discovering Authors Modules—Poets; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Guide to French Literature, Vol. 1789 to the Present; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3.

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