Resistance in Every Way
In my country, we say thank you.
I am writing here as one of the numerous persons to whom René Char has given a reason for so many things, moral, psychological, and creative. For at least thirty-five years now, I have lived in the Vaucluse every summer, originally because of him. And I live there surrounded by the books, postcards and photographs that he has given to my old field house or cabanon. My children used to send him their drawings, and he kept their photographs in his glassed-in bookshelves. In the winter, at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where I teach, we speak a great deal about his texts and his life. But what I remember is rather his presence in the Vaucluse or at my cabanon in Mormoiron, which reminded him, he said, as he sat on a wine crate so as not to break our canvas chair, of the maquis. Or then at his house in L’Isle-sur-Sorgue, aux Busclats, where we would discuss the poems I was translating, or the book I was writing on him. I am retranslating some of them here, for a publication next year with the Black Widow Press in Boston, that Nancy Kline and I are editing: Furor and Mystery and Other Texts by René Char.
And it’s of his life as a résistant that I’d like to write just a few words. He was not only a resistance fighter in the war—to which the Leaves of Hypnos bears witness—but a fighter all along on the moral plane, his whole life long. The combats in which he was involved, though the most famous were certainly those about which he wrote those texts, were not to be reduced to those, which is my point here. To be sure, this gravity of speech, these sudden bursts of knowledge traversed by lightning flashes as in all his aphoristic work, are unequaled. But what he learned there, and teaches us here and always in his texts he left—as in the conversations we had with him over the years—was to sustain his writing and thinking throughout his lifetime (and, by extension, those of his friends and commentators throughout theirs). These historic and exterior events left their traces on the inside. I remember his telling me about first having to kill—how it haunted him. How great was his respect for Louis Curel de la Sorgue, striding out on his land and refusing to bear witness against those he knew who had collaborated with the enemies. This was the first text he insisted I translate of which I had not thought.
And how his moral combats continued. We have only to think of his manifestations against the pollution of the Sorgue River, against the factories who were dumping their chemicals into the water and killing the fish...about which he wrote a play, and about which he spoke at length. And his protest, with Picasso, on the heights of the Mont Ventoux against the nuclear installations, against everything the heartless modern world represented for him, and against which many of his texts stand so firmly. These are the real combats, as he used to say: “Ceci est le vrai.”
What he taught me, among so many other things over the years, was the way you always have to fight against everything morally hateful, whether that is major or minor. It’s the principle that we maintain, he used to say, and not the public aspect of it. The present and not just the historic truth, so much more obvious.
To manifest this in its truest costume, he chose the literary form we know as the aphorism from long ago, the form most suited to the moral dictum: La Rochefoucauld, and on and on. Now even this form is a rebellion against rules, as if, exactly as if, he had chosen it as a refusal of what might have seemed the most logical, for instance, a poem, long or short, or an essay. I maintain that choosing this form indicates something for his poetic path. It already indicates a revolt against literary and social norms. For the aphorism is often coloured by the idea of moralising, of indications on the way we should live.
Now, re-reading these aphorisms, I see nothing sermonizing about them, rather a condensation of form and thought, a struggle against more used forms—a struggle for the life of the spirit as it is allied with the life of form itself.
Of course, no one ever exploded a train station with an aphorism. No, but the appeal issued by this form in all its tension becomes dangerous for those whom Rimbaud called “les assis,” the comfortably seated ones in their smug ease. An incitation to act in a way that has no polite equivalent.
Let’s take some characteristics of the aphorism: brevity, which you feel from the beginning, a certain tension, a close-up view, and a feeling of the imperative. In René Char’s aphorisms, there is a luminosity which affects all the rest of his texts—like a kind of humanism gathered up in an impregnable pearl. The aphorism knows how to localise thought, and so is perfectly adapted to Char’s texts so often based on localities he loved which we may or may not know. Localising is a fight against this neutralising globalism, so frequently responsible for statements somewhat given to blah-dom, which are so beloved of our politicians. For Char, “Le poème est toujours marié à quelqu’un.” “The poem is always married to someone.”
What I have found in re-reading these aphorisms Char wrote during the length of his life is that they change, according to their time of writing, far less than his other texts. I think there is perhaps in them a kind of wisdom that isn’t vulnerable to events.
Let me underline a few of the conversations we had over the years about the word “souffle” and “respiration” or breath. He had been tempted to call the volume now entitled “Fureur et mystère,” “Trois Respirations” or “Three Breaths,” a title he would then have liked me to use as the title of one of my books on his work. Somehow in English it didn’t seem to work to me, one of the great trials of all of us who spend much of our lives translating those poets we have loved. “Never,” says the poet Yves Bonnefoy, “never translate a poet you do not love.” And indeed, I have not done so, nor shall I.
The impression of gravity, of deep sadness that you could feel in him from time to time is explained in this small text from “L’Age cassant,” a collection from the years 1963-65.
Je suis né comme le rocher, avec mes blessures.
. . .
J’ai de naissance la respiration agressive
I was born like the rock, with my wounds.
. . .
From birth I have had an agressive breathing.
Which marks the fact that it isn’t experience only that has taught him to suffer, breath, grow, but that he comes to all that by his very nature. He was born René Char; he did not just become that name. And I have been wondering recently to what extent the aphorism is and is not linked with the legend. Both affirm things you cannot prove, but which have a kind of statute of probability larger than life. “Larger than life,” like the stature of René Char, whom William Carlos Williams compared to a mountain. Outside of the norm, to be sure, on all fronts.
I have taken great pleasure in translating many of his aphorisms, especially those in series. And an even great joy in meditating on their wise concision. They never say too much. Take number 42 of Partage formel :
Etre poète, c’est avoir de l’appétit pour un malaise dont la consommation, parmi les tourbillons de la totalité des choses existantes et pressenties, provoque, au moment de se clore, la félicité.
To be a poet is to have an appetite for a discomfort whose consummation, among the whirlwinds of totality of things existing and foreseen, provokes, at the moment of closure, happiness.
While waiting for this final word “félicité,” we notice, as almost everywhere in his aphorisms, the two contraries which are finally resolved. Here, the unquiet and the tornadoes lead, at the last moment, to a supreme happiness.
Aphoristic condensation is such that thought is resolved only under tension…while in a poem or an essay the tension can drag itself out at greater length. Here is another, based on contraries:
obéissez à vos cochons qui existent;
j’obéis à mes dieux qui n’existent point.
obey your pigs who exist;
I obey my gods who do not.
To this imperative, we readers are obliged to do or not do something…. Here are things close up : not to be judged from far off. So, the poet recommends :
Penchez-vous, penchez-vous davantage. Il ne sort pas toujours indemne de sa page, mais comme le pauvre il sait tirer parti de l’éternité d’une olive. (1945)
Lean over, lean over further. He won’t always emerge unscathed form his page, but like the poor man, he knows how to use the eternity of an olive.
Here’s one of the texts Char gave me to stick on my walls of my cabanon:
Ce qui vient au monde pour ne rien troubler ne mérite ni égards ni patience. (1947)
What comes into the world to disturb nothing deserves neither attention or patience.
This comes from the aphoristic series which itself leans over and so closely the animal kingdom to which Char always felt himself so close: “A la santé du serpent.” “Here’s to the Snake.” It’s certainly true that he, René Char, came into his and our world to upset things, to disquiet, to undo what was too simple, in the surroundings and in the persons surrounded by any landscape whatsoever, not just that of the Vaucluse. A good conscience was never his , would never have been his, and should never have been—nor has it ever been—ours. In 1983, he continued to express, in a paradoxical fashion, about this disturbance he spread everywhere :
Le poète fait éclater les liens de ce qu’il touche. Il n’enseigne pas la fin des liens.
The poet bursts the bonds of what he touches. He does not teach the end of the bonds.
Finally, this dry house against which he would have us all lean, the only shelter we could or should afford ourselves, had nothing comforting about it. It had everything of the uncomfortable, the explosive, the miraculous, like this wall of stones erected without cement, so long ago, and which sustains us, which will have no end.
(text written for the celebration of Char in Avignon, August, 2007)
René Char (1907-88) is one of the most important modern French poets. Admired by Heidegger for the profundity of his poetic philosophy, he was also a hero of the French Resistance and in the 1960s a militant anti-nuclear protester. Associated with the Surrealist movement for several years and a close friend of many painters—notably Braque, Giacometti and Picasso—he wrote poetry which miraculously, often challengingly, confronts the major 20th century moral, political and artistic concerns with a simplicity of vision and expression that owes much to the poet-philosophers of ancient Greece.
ContributorMary Ann Caws
MARY ANN CAWS is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.