Although René Char's distinctive voice has brought him to the forefront of contemporary French writers; his complex poetry has remained virtually inaccessible to the general reader. In this book an eminent authority on French literature describes Char's evolution and, through close readings, offers a clear and rewarding introduction to the poet's œuvre.
James Lawler first traces Char's growth by delineating the myth that has guided his poetry for forty years. While the Surrealists exerted an early influence on the writer, his work diverged from theirs as he gave voice to a more personal attitude toward nature and art, to a refashioned poetics and thought. The author shows how Char's development culminates in the visionary symbolism of La Paroi et la Prairie, in which wall and prairie epitomize the unresolved tension of his mature writings.
Throughout his readings, Professor Lawler supplements close textual analysis with consideration of thematic, mythological, and moral elements of the poetry, discussing each aspect as it illuminates the nature of Char's sensibility. "The ten short poems [of La Paroi et la Prairie] are typical of their author," he writes, "and paradigmatic of a work that is a summit of French poetry since Valéry and Apollinaire."
Originally published in 1978.
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The Myth and the Poem
By James R. Lawler
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Published in 1976, Aromates chasseurs treats the paradox of herb and hunter, that which is sought and that which seeks, the ambrosial and the kinetic. The two dozen texts are warm with thyme and sage, yet their richness is not sufficient unto itself but the sign of a way beyond. Char indicates what he calls a third space vital for him amid ruinous assaults on being. As he has written: "J'ai cherché dans mon encre ce qui ne pouvait etre quêté: la tache pure au delà de l'écriture souillée."
In taking up themes that have accompanied a long career, the collection proposes Orion as the central image. Without a linear anecdote the mythical figure gives substance to disparate forms. Its sense is plurivalent, weaving a dialogue with its object of desire in a manner that recalls Rimbaud's gospel of Genius; nevertheless Char does not proclaim a demiurgic poet or any other single creator but an idea of beauty, a vision by which he can live and act — "comme une barque incontinente au-dessus des fonds cloisonnés." Violence, tenderness, death and transmutation characterize the poems just as they mark the fable of Orion, who suffered blindness and defeat despite his strength yet who, in death, shines with stellar splendor.
The antipoles of height and depth are tokens of the dramatic tension. All of us, says Char, are in a free fall; we are in the process of being unmade as surely as we were made, as precipitately as Lucifer fell from heaven. Yet in this fall there is a point of rest, a depth that at last is reached: "Après la chute interminable, nous gisons écrasés sur le sol." Now can appear — "Haute est sa nuit" — a salvational guide. Orion reveals the brilliance of nature ("Il tend son arc et chaque bête brille ..."), the dowry of love ("... la renouée des chemins devant sa chambre nuptiale ..."), the marvelous invigoration of art like Rodin's bourgeois of Calais ("Aujourd'hui la lyre à six cordes du désespoir que ces hommes formaient, s'est mis à chanter dans le jardin empli de brouillard ..."), the bridges of thought he anxiously wishes to build for himself and his fellow men ("Il faut deux rivages à la vérité: l'un pour notre aller, l'autre pour son retour ..."). Thus may Orion be resurrected and time's tyranny overcome. The myth relates to a period that builds with steel no less than to the Golden Age, its universality as broad as the title of one of the most resonant poems of the series, "Orion iroquois"; for Char is drawn by the knowledge that in the cosmology of the Iroquois the date of the Midwinter ceremonial was set by observing the Pleiades, with which the constellation of Orion is associated. Across cultures, and across apparently hermetic eras, an encounter occurs that causes him to ask: "Devant l'horloge abattue de nos millénaries, pourquoi serionsnous souffrants? Une certaine superstition n'ennoblit-elle pas?"
The book of poems also contains the image of the lark celebrating the harvest and, at the same time, the climax of youth. Joy is at its fullest, the moment intoxicating; yet death is at hand as autumn follows summer, as mirror and gun make ready to kill the bird that resembles some mortal god:
Tandis que la moisson achevait de se graver sur le cuivre du soleil, une alouette chantait dans la faille du grand vent sa jeunesse qui allait prendre fin. L'aube d'automne parée de ses miroirs déchirés de coups de feu, dans trois mois, retentirait.
Char expresses no pathos but the enactment of a drama destined to take place and, as clearly, to begin again. We are led to set aside the view of his work as fragmentary and to find instead a concrete logic, a unitary imagination. Certainly a first reading of Aromates chasseurs would appear to belie this: the reader is confronted with seemingly discrete passages that elude narrative order; but we discern in the fragments —" brefs éclairs qui ressemblent à des orgasmes" — constant tension with a code that not only interanimates this plaquette but reveals in retrospect, as I wish to show, the implicit mythopoeic convergence of the whole. I shall first examine the role of nature, which is of directly personal significance; then love; then art; and, finally, the underpinning philosophical stance instinct with tragic awareness. Surrealism served as a point of departure but his poetry finds a compelling focus of its own, an intense commitment to moral issues, a hope born of despair. He affirms the enduring sense of a viaticum, to which today he gives the name of Orion. He can follow the hunter, his fall halted, his task incomplete, as he designates again the third space of insurrectionary desire.
Aromates chasseurs speaks to us, then, with freshness. In particular, title and imagery recall the landscape of Vaucluse, where Char has spent practically all his life. One has seen the fields by his home purple with lavender; in similar fashion, Vaucluse gives his collection a summer radiance — a quality not unique to Aromates chasseurs but here vigorously achieved.
In reading him from his origins, we grow familiar with the "closed valley" (vallis clausa), a good number of whose place-names occur throughout his work. The river Sorgue, the wood of the Epte, Venasque, the Thor, Buoux, the Luberon, the summits of Montmirail, the Ventoux: these are features of a countryside with which he has communed. He associates them first and foremost with his childhood in L'Isle-sur-Sorgue when nature was a refuge from early apprehensions: "J'avais dix ans. La Sorgue m'enchassait. Le soleil chantait les heures sur le sage cadran des eaux."
Yet it is not only field and rock he attends to, but a multifarious animal life. "Le peuple des prés m'enchante. Sa beauté frêle et dépourvue de venin, je ne me lasse pas de me la réciter." Vaucluse is the region of lark and swift, snake and cricket, and he introduces them into his poetry. He also refers no less frequently to grass, flowers, trees, harvest. Established in his youth, a correspondence between a lively nature and the self still prevails, so that the one can seem to be the mirrored reflection of the other:
Champs, vous vous mirez dans mes quatre moissons. Je tonne, vous tournez.
When we look back to his beginnings as a poet, however, we see a nature of small consistence. The evocations in his first collection Les Cloches sur le cur were caught in a screen of literary models, and the murmur of reality was distant. His starting-point is not the real but a heady mixture of anxiety and irony. An uninvolved moon presides; the heart is inescapably gauche; and the self seeks escape — "Clown musical" — in Laforguian masks. In the next several years allusions to nature were even less precise when he "came up" to Paris, turned to Surrealism, and gave himself to the exploration of dreams. Le Marteau sans maître of 1934 brings together the main compositions of this period and shows how far he had traveled along the dim byways of fantasy and pathos ("la fausse aurore dallée de fossiles célestes et de bissacs de larmes"), with what ardor he had sought self-knowledge. But the years 1935 and 1936 were a watershed that removed him further and further from André Breton's position. He observed what he took to be the abortive procedures of Surrealism, gauged their debility at a time of Europe's moral collapse. And nature — an illness having forced him to return to Vaucluse — became a domain to be reconquered. The Proveçal landscape, its mountains and meadows, had to be learnt afresh. A major step in this relearning is consigned in a fragment of 1936 that he chose twenty years later as the epigraph of a volume of poetry and prose:
Les poings serrés
Les dents brisées
Les larmes aux yeux
M'apostrophant me bousculant et ricanant
Moi épi avancé des moissons d'août
Je distingue dans la corolle du soleil
Je m'abreuve de son urine
That he should give such prominence to these lines emphasizes their importance: nature was no longer a thing to be discerned darkly, but now a generative force. Moreover, the words he uses implicitly echo the myth of Orion whose conception as formulated in Greek popular etymology was by way of the urine of the gods. The concreteness of the images, the combined violence and sensuality, the energetic rhythms turn Char in a different direction from that of his Surrealist years. On the one hand, he indicates the sufferings and snares of a life thirty years old; on the other, his appetency is full-blooded in a way that Surrealism did not permit. The ear of corn would yet ripen; Orion would lead the hunt.
The history of his subsequent writings can in one sense be described as his increasing awareness of nature, the realization of its symbolic truths. A detail is never merely a picturesque object but is both emblem and teaching. "Ce pays," he writes, "n'est qu'un vceu de l'esprit, un contresépulcre"; again, in Parnassian style:
Et qui sait voir la terre aboutir à des fruits,
Point ne l'émeut l'échec quoiqu'il ait tout perdu.
The reader is not slow to recognize the nourishing power henceforth inscribed in his work. Man, beast, plant, earth enjoy a "common presence" that allows erotic convergences: rock calls to figtree ("Figuier, pénètre-moi: I Mon apparence est un défi, ma profondeur une amitié"), lizard to goldfinch ("Léger gentil roi des cieux, / Que n'asru ton nid dans ma pierre!"). There is also — no longer a poem of Vaucluse but of southern Provence, where Char stayed in 1946 with Henri Matisse — the admirable "Le Requin et la Mouette." As its first paragraph shows, it is an illuminated conceit, the nuptials of shark and gull, the discovery of a hidden music:
Je vois enfin la mer dans sa triple harmonie, la mer
qui tranche de son croissant la dynastie des douleurs
absurdes, la grande volière sauvage, la mer crédule
comme un liseron.
Out of the imagined meeting of bird and fish comes not one, nor two, but a magical three: the poem follows a ternary development in its paragraphing as well as in its triple naming of the elements of harmony that resemble the spectra obtained by diffraction. No attempt is made to compose a representational portrayal like that of Matisse in his series of drawings on the same theme; instead, the poet "sees" with his imagination and his lucid desire. In the first lines he postulates a junction of redemptive powers: the sea despatches darkness, imposes wildness, affirms itself as innocence, loyalty, trust; it is scimitar, bird, convolvulus; at one and the same time sovereign violence, savagery, submission. The second paragraph, however, changes this triad into a personal deliverance: "j'ai levé la lot, j'ai franchi la morale, j'ai maillé le cur." Corresponding to each of the initial terms, Char's words offer an abstract reading of the same images — fatal law has been rejected, inert codes transgressed, irresponsibility tamed. The poet is thereby released from his past as on the first day of creation, fortified by resources he can presently tap. Now, yet again, a triadic formula is developed: "Ainsi, il y a un jour de pur dans l'année, un jour qui creuse sa galerie merveilleuse dans l'écume de la mer, un jour qui monte aux yeux pour couronner midi". Adding to the renewal previously affirmed the new images denote purity, marvel, crowning brightness, each lit with the clarity of an instant illumination. But the poem ends on quite a different note: a prayer is addressed to the vision of shark and gull in the hope that it may serve as a loadstar: "Faites que toute fin supposée soit une neuve innocence, un fiévreux en avant pour ceux qui trébuchent dans la matinale lourdeur". We observe a triad complementary to those already evoked which recalls the curved sword, the simple plant, the intense myriad of birds, yet here seen less as a triumphant discovery of what has already taken place than as an accomplishment never realized once and for all. The nuptials the poet speaks of quicken his energy, his moral sense, his imagination, but under pain of death they remain of necessity ideal.
Thus, in moments of insight, Char finds nature to be an efficacious talisman. Orion cannot content himself with his prize but must advance, opening a path; so animals and prairie engage in a dance of desire — bird with bird ("oiseaux chasseurs d'autres oiseaux"), flower with herb ("Un aromate de pays / Prolongeait la fleur disparue"); and the poet too, both hunter and prey, participates in the round. A flower can find him unguarded, its beauty suddenly redounding to his strength:
La fleur des talus,
Le dard d'Orion
It is, however, not easy to determine where love begins and nature ends. Each is bound to each, the arrow of beauty inseparable from sensuous delight.
L'été et notre vie étions d'un seul tenant
La campagne mangeait la couleur de ta jupe odorante
Love is desire as innocent as eating and breathing, the experience of intimate collusion between a couple and the elements.
C'était au début d'adorables années
La terre nous aimait un peu je me souviens
In the absence of a divine being the milieu proffers its sign of election, so that to look back on such a moment when it has passed is to feel no nostalgia, but gratitude. Nevertheless, unlike nature, whose importance for Char grew dramatically after 1935, love is at the center of his Surrealist period as of the later work. In the anthology of his writings published in 1964 he included three poems from Le Marteau sans maître in the section "Haine du peu d'amour." The first two, "Tu ouvres les yeux ..." and "Void," are short hymns to sexual love ("O ma diaphane digitale!" "O caresses savantes, ô lèvres inutiles!"), the third, a coolly precise epigram on the name of Sade ("Comme gel sous Teau noire, sommeil fatal, crapaud"). We are sensitive to the lapidary character of these pieces which eschew the personal for the general; yet, however clear the vision, poetic power is realized at the expense of the moral distance of his maturity. A fourth text even more revealing of the early poet is "Artine." The name suggests a connection between woman and art, which the dedication underlines: "Au silence de celle qui laisse rêveur." Written when Char was twenty-three, it expresses in clear prose a sexual and spiritual thirst and the answer to thirst. In the eyes of the poet-rider who pursues the ideal, Artine is both "sécheresse monumentale" and "transparence absolue" — a glass of water, an inexhaustible freshness, a calm. Adopting the language of religious paradox, Char evokes flame without smoke, shadow without darkness, motion without mobility: "édredon en flammes précipité dans l'insondable gouffre de ténèbres en perpétuel mouvement" but also "sans fumée, présence en soi et immobilité vibrante." At the end of the text the poet kills his model but the idea survives, since Artine is of mystical essence and sacred force, the genesis and goal of poetry.
I take "Artine" to be significant for Char's later development in that it discovers by means of an elusive love the unassailable mystery of art; it will continue to be for him throughout his long career, as he wrote to Yvonne Zervos concerning L'Action de la justice est éteinte, "ce lointain bucher toujours renaissant" ("this far-off funeral-pyre ever rekindled") — the imperious, constantly invigorating statute of eroticism. The mode is allegorical, the language verging on disembodiment, but Char will continue to treat his theme in other forms and with greater sensuousness. He had, however, first to go to the limits of Surrealist explorations, completing an excursus that absorbed several years. When he would wish to go no further, it was the offices of love that ensured his return and brought a rejuvenated creation. Implicit in Le Marteau sans maître, the crisis attains its grand articulation in "Le Visage nuptial" of 1938.
The poem is composed of fifty-nine verses, or "versets," divided into twelve sections that Char patently elaborated with exceptional care. The first movement comprises four groups of verses, a second six, a third two, and these establish a pattern of their own (5, 6, 5, 6; 4, 7, 5, 6, 7, 4; 6, 2). A discipline is found whereby the paragraphs modify one another, control the flow of emotion, force self-awareness. The vocabulary is rich in terms taken from nature, particularly images of space ("jour," "del," "azur," "étoile," "espace," "horizon"), that are placed alongside a gamut of abstract words among which predominate the -ance and -ence suffixes denoting present continuity ("renaissance," "assistance," "Présence," "dissidence," "conscience," "permanence," "survivance"). So we find on the surface level of language a dual recourse to nature and abstraction which creates a verbal tension such as Char nowhere developed in his Surrealist poems. More striking still is the syntax: all is directed toward intensity by the use of the second person singular and plural, nine imperatives and half a dozen virtual imperatives, a multitude of vocatives, enumerations, parallelisms. We hear — or rather overhear — a struggle of factions within the self, the excitement of a gradual liberation.
Excerpted from René Char by James R. Lawler. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- Frontmatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. vii
- Preface, pg. xi
- The Myth, pg. 1
- The Poem, pg. 49
- Selected Bibliography, pg. 109
- Index, pg. 111
- List of Titles in Princeton Essays in Literature, pg. 115