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  • René Char's Fragmented Feuillets d'Hypnos:Holding Memories of the Resistance in Reserve
  • Allan MacVicar

In the period immediately following the Second World War in France, contradictory interpretations of the Occupation, and particularly of the Resistance, competed for legitimacy. René Char, a poet and active résistant, responded to the various accounts of the war politicians and intellectuals were promoting by publishing his wartime journal, Feuillets d'Hypnos. In the summer of 1945, he writes in a letter to Raymond Queneau that he wanted to present "l'humanisme de la résistance" to the French people because it seemed to him that they were becoming confused about what had actually happened in Occupied France.1 In other words, they had already begun to forget what it meant to be human during a period of inhumanity. Char's concerns became urgent, and in the fall of that same year he wrote to the publisher, hoping to have the Feuillets published before the October elections. His book, however, did not appear until April 20, 1946, at which point Char writes that it was "déjà bien tard pour un livre dont l'actualité est dépassée."2 In spite of its apparent belatedness, however, Char's fragmented text has become part of the memory of the lived experiences of the Resistance. Within this context, then, I propose reading the Feuillets both for the experiences being forgotten as well as for the ways in which Char attempts to maintain a connection to these experiences through poetry.

In the fragments of the Feuillets I will discuss in this essay, Char reflects on France's need to heal from its stark internal divisions, and he writes against the rapid, postwar repression of memory in France. Forgetting as repression, however, represents only one aspect of forgetting found in the Feuillets. Char's fragments also demonstrate that forgetting extends to the act of writing. He discovers that as he writes [End Page 119] against forgetting the Resistance, he necessarily forgets details of his experiences, which leads him to realize that forgetting is inherent to writing. This paper, therefore, will examine the ways in which Char's Feuillets present these two forms of forgetting: the first is related to writing, that is, to a kind of forgetting that writing makes possible, a forgetting that, as I will show, becomes productive for remembering; the second is a politically expedient, destructive forgetting of the events of the Occupation. I will argue that even as Char countered the push to forget and repress this moment of history, his text reveals what Anne Whitehead calls "a mode of forgetting which holds the past in reserve," a mode that is "not only possible ('allowed'), but also desirable."3 For both Whitehead and Char, this kind of forgetting is "desirable" because it allows one to move forward after experiences of trauma without entirely leaving those experiences behind.

In her recent book on memory, Whitehead concludes that forgetting has become "a crucial if not essential element in the future trajectory and direction of 'memory' studies."4 She bases her argument for this mode of forgetting on Paul Ricoeur's concept of an "oubli de réserve," which he defines as "le caractère inaperçu de la perseverance du souvenir, sa soustraction à la vigilance de la conscience."5 In his analysis, based on his reading of Heidegger, he argues that whether forgetting functions as destruction or preservation can be determined by the "meaning attached to the idea of the past." He explains that if the past is considered as "being-no-longer," as expired, then forgetting destroys our memories of the past. Ricoeur notes, however, that if the past is considered as "having been," then forgetting can function positively to preserve the past in our memory, and make what has been forgotten available to remembering.6 I contend that this positive aspect of forgetting can be seen in Char's presentation of the act of writing a poem. Having been, a present perfect, denotes the continuation of past being into the present, whereas being-no-longer refers to the expiration of past being in the past, the termination of being in the past...


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pp. 119-134
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