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  • René Char and the Matter of Language
  • Scott Shinabargar

There is in the poetry of René Char a distinct sense of conscience—the dual faculties, conveyed by this single word in French, of awareness and moral imperative. An unwavering lucidity checks the tendency of poetic expression to sublimate and transcend circumstances of the real ("Malgré la soif de disparaître, je fus prodigue dans l'attente, la foi vaillante. Sans renoncer" 142). While this quality is most famously associated with the work written during Char's involvement in the Resistance—his Feuillets d'Hypnos—it is nowhere more pronounced, in the strongest sense of this term, than in the writing that directly precedes that period. In contrast to the laconic reserve that will be necessary to the maquisard, the poetic voice here recurringly erupts in condemnation. The collection Placard pour un chemin des écoliers, for instance, dedicated to children killed in the Spanish Civil War, opens with the imprecation: "Incomparables bouchers! Honte! Honte! Honte!" (89). In Dehors la nuit est gouvernée, the following collection, such enunciations recur even more frequently, and in a very specific discourse—the proclivity for accumulation and attachment to things and ideas, inherent in human nature, is repeatedly decried by the poet in figures of excess matter, most often connoted with filth and decomposition: "La vieillesse caresse les cartels de ce monde d'aubaines / En souille les paniers" (106); "tu berçais lumière égoïstement ta crasse" (110); "L'aventure du repos n'est plus martelée de sueurs des irrésistibles gourmandises d'ordures" (104); "Collecteur de la retentissante pourriture cyclique / Ses ressources le dégradent" (116).1 This single motif allows the poet to wage war, through poetic discourse, on several fronts—political, ethical, artistic, and even "intra-muros" (i.e. within his own mind and creative process) (Char 176). Upon further analysis, however, one observes that the continual elaboration of this motif becomes the source of a production of excess [End Page 81] within the writing process itself—a virus that reproduces itself for the sake of expressive intensity, despite the austerity imposed, ostensibly, on the poet's own production of linguistic "matter."

This study responds to a prevailing tendency that, in lionizing Char as an historical figure, often glosses over the structural details of the work produced by the poet (recent publications by Bellec and the Bibliothèque nationale, for instance, have focused on biographical circumstances, interspersing passages of text—including reproductions of original manuscripts—with numerous photographs).2 The goal of the present study is not simply to call into question a production of myth that has diverted attention from close reading, in order to identify inconsistencies within the writing of an often overlooked text, however (for critical perspectives on such issues, see the iconoclastic statements of Crouzet and Prigent, and the more recent, nuanced analyses of Née and Van Rogger Andreucci). But by situating the poems of Dehors in relation to those that follow—the first poems of the collection Seuls demeurent, published in Fureur et mystère, the collection for which Char is first recognized as a major poet—we can learn a great deal about how the earlier work evolved into the mature voice of the post-war period.

While the sequence of these works marks a clear, if not dramatic transition in Char's writing for the majority of readers, a number of whom have written on this period,3 no one has sufficiently analyzed this significant moment in the development of the poet's distinct voice—down to its very prosodic and phonetic texture—as a self-reflexive evolution within the textual process. Close readings of key texts in both phases reveal that the poet, after undergoing a transformative internal experience, has gained a degree of distance—not only from a past state of subject-hood, but from a particular relation to language inherent in that state. The "irrésistibles gourmandises d'ordures" that he himself had become guilty of, in savoring his invectives against the forces of oppression and illness, are brought under control within the process of composition itself.4 If the issue of "matter" is still a central concern in...


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