René Char and Poetry as Dissidence

Explore the gravest questions of our condition, whose very proposition seems buried in our time, through the work of the remarkable French poet

Caught up in a prison I can’t escape—my times—I often find myself wondering if there is any possibility of real subversion left to us, what it would be like should it exist, and what do the arts have to say about the matter. “The subversive”, as pretty much anything else in our experience, has been hijacked by an omnivorous culture that nullifies our thoughts, dreams and actions by turning them into imitations of life, mock-realities, and therefore the only possible way to live a human life would be, it seems to me, by remaining defiantly out of culture.

The problem is that it isn’t possible. The artist would have to be mute, a tragic paradox: human communication sacrificed to the struggle to remain human. The dilemma is wrought with pain and, often, impotence. Still, I prefer to talk about a dilemma rather than renunciation, because something in me still believes in an unyielding part of our spirit that can speak outside, above, beyond the language of our times.

Recently I was involved in a transatlantic conversation about poetry in the face of atrocity with Mexican poet David Huerta, who knows much about the matter in his own flesh and voice—he was in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco during the 1968 massacre orchestrated by the Mexican government to supress the students’ movement; he’d later commit to poetry an experience he considers himself lucky to have survived. More recently, his desolate and yet vehemently tender poem “Ayotzinapa”, written in 2014 after the disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, spontaneously became an anthem of national grief, and of humanity, visibly present in demonstrations and swiftly traversing the world in several languages. His poems raise the question whether if such a cry for a torn, bloodied land can be considered too a cry of hope, and if so, hope for what?

When I mentioned Paul Celan, David reminded me of René Char’s poetry as testimony of his experience (under the name of Capitaine Alexandre) in the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation. I have been reading since Fureur et mystère, and I must say that If there is something we can call subversive poetry, this is it—its insubordinate force probably multiplied if lifted against the mirror of the human spirit in this our shattered, and yet complacent, 21st Century. By refusing to abandon the lucidity of poetry, by sharpening the moral blade of his words and still aiming at the poetic illumination rather than yielding to the recognizable language of politics, Char gave evidence of death’s powerlessness when it comes to silencing the human voice. (And so did Celan, his translator into German—hence the intensity of their profound, though not always easy, conversation.)

Char believed in action. Had a true poet any other choice during the Nazi occupation? Is this a coherent question? For the balance in the binomial poetry-action can be reversed to ask whether if a poet whose parents had died in Nazi hands and had been imprisoned himself in a labour camp, like Celan, had any other option than turning his experience into poems. A dangerous crack is opened here, which might have us consider action on one side of reality and poetry on the other. Char, though refusing to publish poetry during the war, proves this to be a false disjunctive.

Throughout the apocalypse, and while engaged in the sombre duties of the Resistance, he wrote—singeing words to inscribe on the skin of human memory the rage and despair before the organised extermination of human beings; the reflective sadness too. His aren’t the words of a learnt credo, let alone of revenge, but rather those of what he’d call the “ineffable knowledge of the desperate diamond (life)”. This knowledge is never far from the praise of nature (its purity and simplicity as counter-terror), from love, tenderness and the capacity to dream. “Let every supposed end be a new innocence”, he’d write, and, “My desire is infinite. Nothing obsesses me but life”.

This from a poet, and a man who, much to his horror, had killed.

Of horror he wrote, its scars for life, the awful inner transformation, the vacuum of impenetrable silence it left around. However, the violence of emotion, the bitterness, the pessimistic recount of what humans had become, rather than belonging to his “poetry of war-time”, are interwoven with his integral understanding of poetry as a way of seeing and acting indivisible from life. He speaks of the hideousness of a specific moment, the moral dilemma that his generation had to face as aspects of reality that demand a committed response just as nature does, or love, fraternity, the inscrutable mystery of existence, the glimpses of which are constantly dazzling us like lightning. This man who has witnessed murder and torture, who has killed and is haunted by the deed is still a man-poet who marvels at the inherent sacredness of what is; he writes and acts to preserve that world in its humbleness. (His commitment to that act of protection wasn’t limited to his time in the Maquis; after the war he continued defending the threatened world he loved).

Sentimentality doesn’t belong in Char’s work. He’s a poet of violence and sharpened language, often astringent in his moral questioning and denunciation (where the aphorism is an apt form), but he’s also a poet of tenderness and awe, constantly returning to the truth of innocence and of beauty as transcendence. There is no cynicism in him either. In fact, hope is a constant, even in his war writings.

Let’s look at “The Oaken Rose”:

Each of the letters that compose your name, oh Beauty, on the honor roll of tortures, espouses the even simplicity of the sun, inscribes itself in the giant phrase that crosses the sky, and joins with man determined to elude his destiny by means of its indomitable contrary: hope.

I wonder again what hope means in poetry born amidst brutality. Char, in the act of writing, makes us suspect hope is poetry itself—with an edge. Though fighting the identified enemy (namely, Nazism), he refuses to lower his discourse by adapting it to consensus. He’s always forcing our gaze beyond the immediate circumstance to embrace the whole, the vast enigma of living.

Char tells us that it is vital for the survival of poetry to refuse any sort of reductionism, even in the face of terror and genocide. This unyielding word is the reflection of an unyielding spirit:

Despite a thirst to disappear, I was prodigal in waiting, in valiant faith. No renouncing**.

When our presumed best intentions as a culture are dangerously close to becoming impositions ready to suffocate precisely that which they’re purportedly defending, it is urgent to read poets who, like Char, remind us that to be truly human we need the courage to challenge not only injustice, but also mindless discourse, and to resist cynicism, that deadly scab of survival, with steadfast perseverance:

At all the meals we take in common, we invite freedom to sit down. The chair remains empty, but the place continues to be set***.