To situate means here first of all to point out the proper place or site of something. Secondly it means, to heed that place or site. These two methods, placing and heeding, are both preliminaries to a topology. And yet it will require all our daring to take no more than these preliminary steps in what follows. The topology, as befits a path of thought, ends in a question. That question asks for the location of the site.
— Martin Heidegger
We want to situate Char’s poetry. Neither the poet himself nor the literary critic raises the question of the site. To situate a script, that is, a way of writing determined by an understanding of being, one has to give some thought to the locus out of which the poet speaks and writes. Where do poets like René Char and Saint John Perse or, also, novelists like Peter Handke stand if their script and speech hint at an experience with language that seems already somehow familiar to us and yet still foreign, strange, too “avant-garde”? To situate a work of prose or poetry is to raise the question of its beginning: where is the place from which the script originates? Although such an elucidation cannot be the explicit preoccupation of the poet himself, this does not deny him any reflective knowledge of his own undertakings; he is not the dumb mouth of destiny. Rather his experience with language is probably more immediate than the philosopher’s — so immediate that the question of the origin of the poetic script will finally throw us back upon the humble, historically conditioned, always over-determined experience with our mother-tongue.
To situate René Char’s poetry, to question the place or site from which it arises, requires a historical framework. Even within contemporary literature, a post-war poet cannot write any longer as did Rimbaud, or a post-war novelist as did Musil: in half a century our experience with language has mutated. In poetry René Char is among those today whose script manifests the threshold between a former (“modern” and therefore still metaphysical or representational) experience of language and a present or perhaps imminent (“postmodern,” beyond metaphysical, non-representational) experience of language and being. The historical framework of this topology of René Char’s poetry will remain somehow implicit; it is that of the history of metaphysics. Char’s script is localized in relation to this history and to its end.
“The Shark and the Gull”
Here is one of Char’s best known poems, “Le requin et la mouette” (“The Shark and the Gull”), not previously translated into English:1
Je vois enfin la mer dans sa triple harmonie, la mer qui tranche de son croissant la dynastie des douleurs absurdes, la grande voilère sauvage, la mer crédule comme un liseron.
Quand je dis: j’ai levé la loi, j’ai franchi la morale, j’ai maillé le coeur, ce n’est pas pour me donner raison devant ce pèse-néant dont la rumeur étend sa palme au delà de ma persuasion. Mais rien de ce qui m’a vu vivre et agir jusqu’ici n’est témoin alentour. Mon épaule peut bien sommeiller, ma jeunesse accourir. C’est de cela seul qu’il faut tirer richesse immédiate et opérante. 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. Hier la noblesse était déserte, le rameau était distant de ses bourgeons. Le requin et la mouette ne communiquaient pas.
O Vous, arc-en-ciel de ce rivage polisseur, approchez le navire de son espérance. Faites que toute fin supposée soit une neuve innocence, un fiévreux en avant pour ceux qui trébuchent dans la matinale lourdeur. (FM, 197)2
(At last I see the triple harmony of the sea, whose crescent cuts the dynasty of absurd sufferings, the great wild aviary, the sea, credulous as a bindweed.
When I say: I overcame the law, I transgressed morality, I unfurled the heart, it is not to justify myself before this weigher of nothingness whose murmur extends its victory palm beyond my persuasion. But nothing that has seen me live and act hitherto is witness here. My shoulder may well sleep, my youth come running. From these alone immediate and operative riches must be drawn. Thus there is one day of purity in the year, a day that hollows its marvelous gallery into the sea-foam, a day that mounts into the eyes to crown the noon. Yesterday nobility was desert, the branch was distant from its swelling buds. The shark and the gull did not communicate.
Oh You, rainbow of this polishing shore, bring the ship closer to its hope. Make every supposed end be a new innocence, a feverish advance for those who stumble in the morning heaviness.)
A first group of images speaks of the sea which appears triply immense: by the thickness of its water, the width of its front, and the depth of the horizon. The “crescent” of the sea cuts suffering: it traces a bulging line like a woman before childbirth. The sea is the “great wild aviary,” it encloses life. Here everything is heavy. The water attracts the stroller and invites him to plunge. Gravitation makes his sufferings fall. At the same time the water is soft. It offers no resistance. It is “credulous as a bindweed.” These little winding lilies with slender, twining stems bend and yield to the wind, and when the breeze is strong they even roll themselves up. Thus the sea. Its waves follow the impulses of the atmosphere. The sea is straight horizontality, the continuous shelter, the volume of one piece whose docility welcomes living beings as a refuge. This insistence on the weightiness in which life originates and is regenerated does not go beyond traditional figures of aquatic symbolism. In Char it is inspired by the sight of the Mediterranean.3 We shall see that the entire oceanic symbolism is here a pre-text before the real text.
This first type of imagery is opposed by another. “I overcame the law. . . .” This sentence is printed in italics. To overcome, to transgress, to unfurl: these verbs break the oceanic horizontality. They indicate a rebellion. The law overcome, morality transgressed: thus the maternal order represented by the sea is broken. Aquatic symbols are ambiguous, since the water gives life and purifies but also drowns and kills. Char calls the sea the “weigher of nothingness.” No shelter resembles the matrix more than the tomb. “I unfurled the heart”: against the seductive rumor the “I” stands up as if about to leap. In René Char the “heart” represents precisely this sudden rise and affirmation. Another poem, “The Swift,” begins thus: “Martinet aux ailes trop larges, qui vire et crie sa joie autour de la maison. Tel est le coeur” (FM, 223). (Swift with wings too wide, who turns and cries his joy around the house. Such is the heart.) The bird that turns and cries is opposed to stability, to the established order of the house. The heart bears the impulse to destroy all cycles. Impromptu, it becomes infatuated. As such, Char praises a woman: “Seins pourris par ton coeur” (NP, 40) (breasts rotten by your heart). Any repose, anything that rests and stays put, every familiarity, threatens the heart. “Qui a creusé le puits et hisse l’eau gisante/ Risque son coeur dans l’écart de ses mains” (NP, 30). (Whoever has dug a well and raises the resting waters/ Risks his heart in the spread of his hands.) When fingers spread and imitate the formless waters, the danger of drowsiness becomes most alarming. The timeless protection that the water recalls and offers must be broken by a mutinous heart. Into all systems of security, the poem seems to say, man introduces discontinuity.
These are the two dimensions within which Char’s poetry speaks: gravity and transgression. The arrival at the seashore is one of those moments in which they may unite. “Nothing that has seen me live and act hitherto is witness here.” Yesterday’s dullness is forgotten. No one is there to recall torpidities. The past is no longer. The extended time, the time that lingers, is the last fabric to be torn. Duration is the most captivating of all dwellings, the narrowest of all prisons. Its dismissal is forcefully urged. Char cherishes the dawns. The early morning, the moment without precedent, makes the world rise anew, immaculate. The moment of waking is much more than the rediscovery of things familiar. It makes the world begin, absolutely. “Nous sommes une fois encore sans expérience antérieure, nouveaux venus, épris” (PA, 48). (We are once again without previous experience, newcomers, infatuated.) The arrival upon the seashore has something of the morning insurrection: once again we begin. It is fatal to settle down, any establishment sacrifices the instant to duration. “La sagesse est de ne pas s’agglomérer” (PP, 237). (Wisdom is not to agglomerate.) Erosion and degradation threaten the freshness of the heart. Even the reverie on the waterfront is perilous if it lasts. In “The Word in Archipelago,” Char says, “Ne regardez qu’une fois la vague jeter l’ancre dans la mer” (PA, 152). (Give but a quick look on the wave casting its anchor in the sea.) Everything that stablizes itself diminishes.
The symbols of the shoulder and of youth, curiously associated in the poem, signify the same departure. “My shoulder may well sleep, my youth come running.” They belong together. The shoulder, the angle of the torso, points upwards as a volcano does, says the “Pulverized Poem”: “Violente l’épaule s’entr’ouvre;/ Muet apparaît le volcan” (FM, 178). (With violence the shoulder opens partway;/ the volcano appears, mute.) To be a child, to be constantly on the edge of a departure, is Char’s “privilege.” In a commentary on the “Pulverized Poem” he writes: “Moi qui jouis du privilège de sentir tout ensemble accablement et confiance, défection et courage, je n’ai retenu personne sinon l’angle fusant d’une Recontre” (A-H, 20). (I enjoy the privilege of feeling all together dejection and confidence, defection and courage; still I have never retained anyone except the spurting angle of an Encounter [italics added].) Rare are the lives that resemble an eruption, new at each moment; rare is the resolution of duration into the instant. “There is one day of purity in the year.”
The key to this poem is the opposition between duration and instant, massive horizontality and vertical takeoff. Actually it is a poem about poetry. The one pure day “hollows its marvelous gallery into the sea-foam, a day that mounts into the eyes to crown the noon.” This rare day, this instant, reconciles weight and lightness, submission and transgression, the dive and the flight, or again the oceanic spread and man’s freedom. The docile sea and man in revolt belong to each other in the poem. The entire poem hastens the union of the two dimensions. It is a call to fuse sedentary life and departure, to establish oneself on the road. “Epouse et n’épouse pas ta maison” (FM, 99). (Espouse and do not espouse your home.)
The Now of the poem abolishes yesterday’s dispersions and separations. “Yesterday . . . the shark and the gull did not communicate.” In the now of the poem the shark and the gull do communicate at last. The gull is constant leaving, vertical flight, whereas the shark settles in the depth, gravity is its shelter. The gull has no refuge. When both communicate, the rainbow appears, offspring of the light and water drops. The sky and the ocean mingle. The poem aspires to the union of the two opposite dimensions down to the prayer that concludes it: “Make every supposed end be a new innocence, a feverish advance for those who stumble in the morning heaviness.” The morning heaviness — this is the supreme paradox which translates Char’s dream of unity. The morning is the hour of rising, of innocent beginning, of the gull. Heaviness is of the impenetrable sea, of the house, of the shark. As if a lightning flash, the poem makes me a unifier. Reality is antinomic, but the heart, man, or the poet unites. The language of the poem is the multiple matter in which things diverse and opposite enter into relation.
Not One Origin, Two
We now possess a first element for a topology of Char’s poetry. We asked: where is the place from which it speaks? Where is its origin? The answer is clearer now: the origin lies somehow within the poem itself. Only when and insofar as the poem is spoken or understood do the dimensions of the shark and the gull communicate. The realm of the poem begins with its utterance. For a brief moment a world is opened in which the opposite is one — even more: in which the world is “world,” that is, there for man. In Char’s poetry an experience comes to language which is properly an experience of the origin. However, this origin is not distinct from the script of the poem itself. In or with the poem the world begins. Char’s language is originary in the sense that it is itself the origin of what the poem achieves. We take the word “origin” literally: oriri, to rise, to appear, to come forth. Thus we say that language here gives rise to poetry which in turn gives rise to a world unified. Yet to claim that Char’s script is originary implies no reference to anything mythical; the origin is not the inception of some process or history. Rather, when the poem is said and understood, the world just begins. But its world lasts as briefly as the poem itself. “La vitalité du poète n’est pas une vitalité de l’au-delà mais un point diamenté actuel de présences transcendantes et d’orages pèlerins” (FM, 78). (The vitality of the poet is not a vitality of the beyond, but an actual diamond point of transcending presences and migrating storms.) Thus this poetry is entirely of the earth; it has no other ground, no mythical foundation: it refers to language alone as its provenance; it founds a world which is inseparable from its speech. To understand Char is to see that this passionate celebration of the pure “there is” and this violent exclusion of any “it was” constitute the very structure of his script. If poetry still remains mysterious, if the presence is still called “transcending,” this points solely towards the unspeakable subject-matter of poems such as “The Shark and the Gull,” namely the mere presence of what is present. The subject-matter here is the visibility of the visible. “Quoique affaire terrestre, comme la vie dont elle est l’endroit victorieux du temps, claire ou opaque, la poésie reste un mystère en acte” (A-H, 11). (Although it is a matter of the earth, just as life whose right side, victorious over time, it is, poetry, whether clear or opaque, remains a mystery in act.)
Two notions of the origin appear to be phenomenologically defensible: the origin as the presence of what is present, and the origin as cause. The first may be described as nuptial: Char’s poem announces the nuptials of the shark and the gull. The second may be called natal: cosmogonies speak of the cause or nascency of the world. Both notions imply an event, but nuptials occur in the present whereas nascency is a happening of the past, of the beginning of an era. It should be understood that Char’s situation — the origin is not remote but is the presence of the present — disrupts the epistemological continuity that, in the eyes of theoreticians of symbolic forms, links poetic to mythological language. This kind of epistemological continuity may still characterize modern poetry, but it becomes undone already with Rimbaud. A myth relates events that occurred in illo tempore. The ritual by which the myth is celebrated revives these events for today so that history begins again: incipit vita nova. The important point is that in the innumerable manifestations of the sacred, the origin addresses man according to either temporal mode: the myth recalls and thus calls upon its believer. This double temporality belongs to the essence of any myth, at least to its basic forms, which are cosmogonie and soteriological. On the one hand such a myth remembers: “In the beginning there was . . .”; on the other hand it exhorts: “This is the day. . . .” The myth’s double temporality, recalling and calling, is due to its essentially etiological intent. Recollection instates a duration, namely the time since those early days when the gods made or visited or saved the earth. Exhortation yields a presence, a renewed existence. Birth and rebirth, the origin as nascency and as nuptials, constitute properly the mythological time-structure. The word “religion,” whether understood as re-legere or as re-ligare, suggests this link between present and past. All forms of the sacred draw their energy from the conjunction of these two modes in which the origin shows itself: the preservation of a message from the past and the exigency of a new hearing and a new existence in the present.
Thus, phenomenologically, “origin” designates two events. Char is so important to us because his poetry excludes violently any such amphibology. He rejects mythical or religious etiologies and turns deliberately to the actual happening in language of the presence of things present. His script reflects a particular understanding of time. The divine is no more; duration, which tied man back to his beginnings, is expunged from time. “Quand s’ébranla le barrage de l’homme, aspiré par la faille géante de l’abandon du divin, des mots dans le lointain, des mots qui ne voulaient pas se perdre, tentèrent de résister à l’exorbitante poussée” (A-H, 29). (When man’s dam was shaken, sucked in by the giant rift of the desertion of the divine, words afar, words that did not want to get lost, tried to resist the exorbitant thrust.) The words of poetry have thus come to be simple words of the earth, words of today. Cut off from their numinous roots they have no glorious history to extol but only that glory which human eyes can see. The poet fulfills his task of manifesting the visible with “l’effort, le courage et l’amour” (A-H, 29) (with effort, courage and love). However, he is not the only one to bring the visible to speech. The fullness of language is not entrusted to him alone. He is only one of “les rescapés en si petit nombre” (A-H, 29) (the rescued in so small a number). Who are the others, his companions? Those who know how to converse. Language is primarily dialogue. In an era deprived of the divine, language manifests its essence in the discourse between humans. The rescued ones (from the collapse of religious creed into technological dogma) experience the unique sense of “mystery” or “transcendence” that remains in Char’s poetry: the simple presence of one dialogue partner to the other. This presence, as that of the shark to the gull, although it occurs in language, is irreducible to the words exchanged in dialogue.
The difference between the presence and what is present does not construct a new afterworld, a new beyond; and yet, the unity that language establishes between the shark and the gull or between two speakers is not simply the sum of the beings that it brings together. Char’s language is mundane, it is deprived of otherworldly roots, but it is not one-dimensional. It operates a communication that is not limited to man. A poem is a “mystère qui intronise” (FM, 83) (a mystery that enthrones). Perhaps we are to understand poetry in a very large sense here: “Tu es dans ton essence constamment poète” (A-H, 47). (You are in your essence constantly a poet.) In the collection Formal Divide, many sentences begin with “In poetry . . . ,” as if poetry were some separate domain of language. But elsewhere Char simply says, “Man. . . .” “Il y a un homme à présent debout, un homme dans un champ de seigle, un champ pareil à un choeur mitraillé, un champs sauvé” (FM, 40). (There is man now, standing, a man in a field of rye, a field similar to a choir peppered with gunfire, a field that is saved.) The man who saves the field here is evidently the poet. But not necessarily the professional versemaker: any word that gathers together (in German dichten, to poetize, suggests dicht, intense, together, concentrated) is poetic. Language is at home in the now that gathers together. In “The Shark and the Gull,” this gathering is symbolized by the “marvelous gallery” hollowed in sea-foam. Other texts suggest that here again the symbol is meant to evoke the poem itself: Char calls the poem “le tunnel dérobé,” “la chambre d’harmonie,” “la piste captieuse” (the hidden tunnel, the chamber of harmony, the captious track) and the poet “dans la chambre devenue légère, le donneur de liberté” (FM, 37) (the giver of freedom in the chamber now turned light). In that sense any human whose speech is responsible deserves the epitaph written for a poet: “Enlevé par l’oiseu à l’éparse douleur,/ Et laissé aux forêts pour un travail d’amour” (PA, 92). (Taken away by the bird from the scattered suffering/ And left to the forests for a work of love.)
The poem thus realizes the unity of the world that it signifies. It does not only press for a new existence. If man constantly poetizes, his speech brings together the dimensions of the world, the lightness of the bird and the gravity of the forest. But the poem realizes the unity that it signifies only for the moment of its articulation. Its world springs up and founders immediately. Success here does not abolish desire: “le poème est l’amour réalisé du désir demeuré désir” (FM, 76). (The poem is the realized love of desire remaining desire.) By its nature the poem is an ephemeral victory over dispersion and dislocation.
In the poem all things just begin. “Le poète, grand Commenceur” (FM, 83) (the poet, great Beginner), says Char. Again, this beginning is neither mythical nor religious. The presence that it inaugurates neither founds anything nor even lasts. The poem only lends a voice to the presence of things, it is the elocution of their pure presence. It opens for them a space where they belong to each other. The poem lets them be. It lets be whatever is. Thus it operates the identity of the non-identical. “Le poète peut alors voir les contraires. . . aboutir, poésie et vérité, comme nous savons, étant synonymes” (FM, 72). (The poet can then see things contrary come to their end . . . poetry and truth, as we know, being synonymous.)
The truth of things, their instantaneous blooming, does not last in a poetry whose origin is nothing divine but only language itself. Truth realizes itself “sometimes”: “L’homme n’est qu’une fleur de l’air tenue par la terre . . . ; le souffle et l’ombre de cette coalition, certaines fois, le surélèvent” (PA, 81). (Man is only a flower of the air held by the earth . . . ; the breath and the shadow of this coalition sometimes elevate him.) Hardly achieved, this presence is already regretted: “Oiseaux qui confiez votre gracilité, votre sommeil périlleux à un ramas de roseaux, le froid venu, comme nous nous ressemblons!” (NT, 43). (You, bird, who entrust your frailty, your perilous sleep to a heep of reeds, when the cold has come how we resemble one another!)
The Hymn to the Rhine
With René Char the origin of poetic script lies in the mere present: the poet, “great Beginner,” discloses a meaning which is always new. The origin appears as nuptials. Char spells “Beginner” with a capital letter: the poet’s ministry is to establish an order. In the poem, the shark and the gull are present, belong at last to each other. When silence comes back, chaos rules again: “Le poète ne retient pas ce qu’il découvre; l’ayant transcrit, il le perd aussitôt. En cela réside sa nouveauté” (PA, 73). (The poet does not retain what he discloses; as soon as he has transcribed it he loses it. In that lies his novelty.) The Beginning is to be understood as instantaneous novelty. It is to this sudden nakedness of the world that Char dedicates his effort. “Great Beginner” is a polemic title: Char’s battle is delivered against mythological origins, against any reference to ancestral incipiencies. It is on this decisive understanding of the origin that Char differs radically from another poet, Hölderlin, whom he otherwise resembles in many respects. Char and Hölderlin know of only one subject-matter of poetry, poetry itself. They share the same predilection for rivers. But running waters as a symbol of the poem do not mean the same thing in one and the other. The situation of Hölderlin is not the same as Char’s.
“Quand on a mission d’éveiller, on commence par faire sa toilette dans la rivière” (PP, 237). (When one has the mission to rouse, one begins with washing in the river.) The rouser begins, and so does the river. No one enters twice the same river, Heraclitus is reported to have said. The running water is at every moment young. Each dive is like a dive into a fountain of youth: the coolness begins, as violent as a child. The same is true for the poet. The communion that he institutes appears suddenly and immediately dissolves. “La poésie est de toutes les eaux claires celle qui s’attarde le moins aux reflets de ses ponts” (PP, 94). (Poetry is of all clear waters the one that lingers the least with the reflections of its bridges.) The poet dwells in white waters, as the trout. He settles in unhabitable elements. “L’éclair me dure” (PA, 72). (Lightning makes me last.) Char calls the Sorgue River of his native Vaucluse “rivière où l’éclair finit et où commence ma maison” (FM, 218) (the river where lightning ends and where my house begins). He wants all humans to dare to choose the unstable. “Donne aux enfants de mon pays le visage de ta passion” (FM, 218). (Give the children of my country the face of your passion.) The Sorgue River operates a departure, everything it touches becomes effulgence. Even the earth splinters into thousands of particles and movements: “Rivière, en toi terre est frisson” (FM, 218). (River, in you the earth is shiver.) The praise of the Sorgue ends with this request: “Rivière au coeur jamais détruit dans ce monde fou de prisons,/ Garde-nous violent et ami des abeilles de l’horizon” (FM, 219). (You, river, whose heart is never destroyed in this world mad with prisons, keep us violent and friends of the bees on the horizon.) Only an indestructible heart can will the anti-compact, the explosive fever of a swarm of bees. And such a heart alone can ally a pulverized systole with a sedentary, earthy diastole. Such a heart is made to the image of the river: violent in the fragmentations that it operates and nevertheless constant in its run. Such is also the paradox of poetic language: “obscurité prénatale et lumière” (PA, 73) (prenatal obscurity as well as light).
Let us now listen to Hölderlin. In 1801 he finished the hymn entitled “The Rhine.” Here are its first lines:
Im dunkeln Efeu sass ich, an der Pforte
Des Waldes, eben, da der goldene Mittag,
Den Quell besuchend, herunterkam
Von Treppen des Alpengebirges,
Das mir die göttlichgebaute,
Die Burg der Himmlischen heisst
Nach alter Meinung, wo aber
Geheim noch manches entschieden
Zu Menschen gelanget; von da
Vernahm ich ohne Vermuten
Ein Schicksal. . . .
Jetzt aber, drin im Gebirg,
Tief unter den silbernen Gipfeln
Und unter fröhlichem Grün,
Wo die Wälder schauernd zu ihm
Und der Felsen Häupter übereinander
Hinabschaun, taglang, dort
Im kältesten Abgrund hört’
Ich um Erlösung jammern
Den Jüngling, es hörten ihn, wie er tobt’,
Und die Mutter Erd ‘anklagt’
Und den Donnerer, der ihn gezeuget,
Erbarmend die Eltern, doch
Die Sterblichen flohn von dem Ort,
Denn furchtbar war, da lichtlos er
In den Fesseln sich wälzte,
Das Rasen des Halbgotts.
Die Stimme wars des edelsten der Ströme,
Des freigeborenen Rheins. . . .4
(I sat among dark ivy at the forest’s gate just as golden noon, to visit the source, descended from the steps of the Alpine ranges, for me the divinely-built, the castle of the Heavenly, following old opinion, whence even yet many a secred decree reaches men; and thus I unsuspectingly received a destiny. . . . Amidst the mountains, deep down below the snowy summits and under the jubilant green, where the shuddering forests and, craning over each other, the crags look down upon him all day long, I now heard in the coldest abyss the youth wail for release; there, as he raged, accusing Mother Earth and the Thunderer who begot him, his pitying parents heard him, too; but the mortals fled from the place, for as he writhed without light in his fetters, terrible was the demi-god’s raving. It was the voice of the noblest of rivers, the free-born Rhine.)
The hymn begins with a description of the Alps. According to the myth, they are the fortress of the gods, of heavenly architecture. From these heights the gods still send decrees whose destiny or “mittance” (Schicksal, from schicken, to send) the poet, “I,” receives and grasps (So vernahm ich ohne Vermuthen ein Schicksal). These decrees are rough; within the desolate scenery of rocks a youth, son of the Earth and the Thunderer, writhes in his chains. It is the Rhine who fights furiously his way through the rocky masses. Hölderlin calls him the “noblest of rivers,” a demi-god. In Hölderlin as in Char, the river symbolizes the poem; in both cases also it unites duration and instant, the solid and the light or the lightning. The son of the gods is “saxifragous,” the rock breaker. Char dedicated a poem to Hölderlin entitled “Pour un Prométhée saxifrage. En touchant la main éolienne de Hölderlin” (PA, 125) (“For a Saxifragous Prometheus. Touching the Eolian Hand of Hölderlin”). It begins thus: “La réalité sans l’énergie disloquante de la poésie, qu’est-ce?” (Reality without the dislocating energy of poetry, what would that be?) The violence of the young and raving Rhine symbolizes the violent rise of the poetic word. Char probably also has Hölderlin in mind when he writes in Formal Divide: “Fureur et mystère tour à le séduisirent et le consumèrent. Puis vint l’année qui acheva son agonie de saxifrage” (FM, 70). (Furor and mystery seduced and consumed him by turns. Then came the year that concluded his saxifragous agony.) It was fatal for Hölderlin to unite lightning and the earth, furor and mystery. Five years after he had finished “The Rhine” he fell into madness. One has even the impression that Char paraphrases the first lines of the hymn: “Nous regardions couler devant nous l’eau grandissante. Elle effaçait d’un coup la montagne, se chassant de ses flancs maternels. Ce n’était pas un torrent qui s’offrait à son destin mais une bête ineffable dont nous devenions la parole et la substance” (FM, 222). (We watched the growing water flow before us. It wiped out the mountain in a single blow, breaking forth from its motherly womb. It was not a torrent that offered itself to its destiny, but an ineffable beast whose word and substance we became.)
If examined more closely, however, the difference between Char’s and Hölderlin’s use of the river symbol, and therefore the difference between their ways to understand the poem, is radical. All along its current the Rhine is seen by Hölderlin close to its source. The poet’s mediation remains near the origin of the divine decrees: “Ein Rätsel ist Reinentsprungenes. Auch/ Der Gesang kaum darf es enthüllen” (Werke, 315). (A riddle is what is of pure origin, song itself may hardly disclose it.) Wherever the Rhine passes, it is “pure origin.” The poet’s utterances remain thoroughly faithful to the “heavenly” messages which, “beyond question,” reach mankind by his mediation. “Ein Rätsel ist Reinentsprungenes” — this means something different now from “poète, grand Commenceur,” the poet, great Beginner. If Char’s ministry consists merely in lending a voice to what is present in as much as present, Hölderlin’s hermeneutic function is one of translating and transmitting. The origin that addresses man in Hölderlin’s poetry is sacred, arises from elsewhere. Whereas Char announces the nuptials of what is visible, Hölderlin turns back towards the invisible nascency of which he is the servant and the herald. The entire hymn exalts this presence of the natal, not yet nuptial origin; it is a hymn to man’s wandering identity with his birth.
Und schön ists, wie er drauf,
Nachdem er die Berge verlassen,
Stillwandelnd sich im deutschen Lande
Begnügt. . . .
Doch nimmer, nimmer vergisst ers.
Denn eher muss die Wohnung vergehn,
Und die Satzung und zum Unbild werden
Der Tag der Menschen, ehe vergessen
Ein solcher dürfte den Ursprung
Und die reine Stimme der Jugend. (Werke, 316-7)
(How fair is the way he now, after leaving the mountains, glides onward in calm content. . . . But he never, never forgets. For sooner the dwelling shall perish, and the laws, and the day of men become a calamity, than such as he forget the origin and the pure voice of youth.)
These lines express Hölderlin’s human ideal: the nearness of the past inception and the memory of the pure voice of our early years. The poem speaks of the ideal itself as much as of its loss. Hölderlin’s time, our time, is the one where the gods seem to be no more. Rivers have become factors of calculus in the navigation business and cheap means of industrial evacuation and refrigeration. This is the age of the night to which Hölderlin opposes the age of the day, that is, early Greece.
Aber weh! es wandelt in Nacht, es wohnt, wie im Orkus,
Ohne Göttliches unser Geschlecht. Ans eigene Treiben
Sind sie geschmiedet allein, und sich in der tosenden Werkstatt
Höret jeglicher nur. . . . (Werke, 290)
(But alas! today’s mankind errs through the night, it dwells as though in hades, deprived of the divine. They all are solely enchained to their own agitation, and in the middle of the boisterous workshop everyone hears only himself.)
An age such as ours must again learn how to listen. Hence the sanctity of Hölderlin’s mediations. A human being close to the source, the poet, does what the river does. He transmits the life-giving decrees of the gods to the mortal inhabitants of the valleys. At each step he remembers his early beginnings. He remains impetuous. He is the mediator who consumes himself in his task. When Hölderlin feels madness imminent, he compares himself to the demi-god Tantalus “who received from the gods more than he could digest.” To be a poet is not a matter of talent. The poem succeeds when the natal origin, the mystery of birth, becomes language. The saying of the poem is the arrival of the gods. As a demi-god, the poet experiences the lasting nearness of the arché. Only when the gods grant their presence do his stammerings become a poem. The hymn “Patmos” says: “Nah ist/ Und schwer zu fassen der Gott” (Werke, 328). (Near, and yet hard to grasp, is the god.) In fact, the poet does not seize. Rather he is seized, “struck by Apollo.”
Hölderlin’s poems thus preserve a certain past; they enunciate both the ancientness and the nearness of our provenance: the ancient glory of language as incantation is the terrible privilege of those who dare remember. The origin is here understood as proximity of the divine, forgotten though it is in needy times. The man of this proximity is necessarily a stranger. Only in that condition can he, “like the god of wine, render intelligible to the heart the language of the purest ones,” that is, of the gods (Werke, 318). The poem is divine speech, the only one that we still possess. By such an elevation of everyday words into hymnic song, language comes into its own.
Hölderlin’s situation is that of the end of metaphysics: the divine ground holds no more, the foundations appear shaken. What used to be the most powerful presence, the divine, has fallen into oblivion. Only the poet remembers. What, then, is Char’s situation? In his poetry there is no regretfulness of sacred decrees, no recollection. The site from which he speaks is nothing mythical, not “a stronghold of the Heavenly,” no “sacred Alps,” but man’s own language in its humble event. Char’s situation is properly postmodern, perhaps beyond metaphysics altogether. It may be that Char says less than Hölderlin: no holy injunctions are transmitted. It may be that he says also less than Nietzsche: no madman cries after God. But in saying apparently less, does he not speak from another locus, still too novel to think of, a place beyond representations and beyond that threshold where the overcoming of metaphysics is still the dominant problem? In that case Hölderlin would have experienced the decline of the truth of being, and particularly the decline of the truth of the supreme being. Since the very quest for certainty, security, and salvation has become meaningless in his situation, Char points more decidedly towards a new beginning. Yet Char’s project has nothing to do with the simplifying label “atheism,” but very much with a new thought of being. The truth of being lies no more in the principle of reason and in logic, but in the princeps, the beginning, which the logos as poetic speech is itself.
Both Hölderlin and Char poetize the origin. But in Char the dimensions of the visible communicate due to his script; his poem exists when the visibility of the visible alone becomes language. In Hölderlin a restoration occurs; the natal origin — in the mythical sense, as he states explicitly — addresses a mortal race that has forgotten its own essence. The task of Hölderlin’s hymn is to recall the divine as one calls back a fugitive. “The Rhine” ends precisely with the wedding between the mortals and the immortals:
Dann feiern das Brautfest Menschen und Götter,
Es feiern die Lebenden all,
Und ausgeglichen ist eine Weile das Schicksal. (Werke, 319)
(Then gods and men celebrate their nuptials, all the
living celebrate, and Destiny becomes equal for a while.)
For the time of the poem the difference between mortal and immortal is abolished. It is not by chance that Hölderlin composes “hymns,” whereas Char renounces any kind of praise or acclamation. Hymnos, in Greek, designates primitively the “hymen” songs that were accompanied by flutes and lyres. The songs are started off by the friends that guide the young couple to the bridegroom’s house. Hölderlin’s hymns are hymeneals of the mortal and the immortal. In contrast, the only wedding Char admits of is that of the dimensions of the earth, of the shark and the gull, but never of heaven and earth. Char’s ontological situation lies above — or underneath — whatever might resemble “une vitalité de l’au-delà” (FM, 78) (a vitality of the beyond).
In Hölderlin’s view a double giving takes place in poetry. On the one hand the poet assists the mortals, to whom he points out the originary road to follow:
Nachdem er lächelnd auch
Der Menschen geschäftiges Leben
Das odemarme, wie Segel
Mit seinen Lüften gelenkt hat. . . . (Werke, 319)
(He steers the busy life of men, short-breathed as it is,
like sails, with his own inexhaustible breezes.)
But on the other hand, as a mediator, the poet also gives to the gods. The wedding that he calls for also profits the immortals: to the “most-blessed” he offers his fragility. This fulfills their only need:
Bedürfen die Himmlischen eines Dings,
So sind’s . . . Sterbliche. Dann
Muss wohl, wenn solches zu sagen
Erlaubt ist, in der Götter Namen
Teilnehmend fühlen ein andrer,
Den brauchen sie. . . . (Werke, 317)
“If one need remains to the Celestials, that need is for mortals.” Gods are impassible, suffering is unknown to them. Therefore, “if to say such a thing is permitted, another must be compassionate and feel on their behalf.” In need of mortals, the gods use, brauchen, the poet. To bear such usage and such usury he has only his endurance to count upon. His happiness is of the weightiest kind.
Nur hat ein jeder sein Mass.
Denn schwer ist zu tragen
Das Unglück, aber schwerer das Glück. (Werke, 319)
(Each has his measure. For hard though to bear is
unhappiness, still harder is happiness.)
Around him men breathlessly render the night more comfortable. But the poet “knows God.” He has been measured with the double gauge of divine and human needs. He remains the wailing youth, guardian of the source and guarded by it. As the hermeneuts, the priests at Delphi, he goes back and forth between the oracle and the people’s square. His sayings are essentially interpretative.
Denn schonend rührt des Masses allzeit kundig
Nur einen Augenblick die Wohnungen der Menschen
Ein Gott an (Werke, 308)
(A god, always heedful of measure, touches as a guard in
a single moment upon the dwellings of man.)
Man’s dwelling, language, which is thus “touched” by the divine, is the poem.
Hölderlin’s concept of origin is both mythical (mainly in the hymns) and historical (in his translations and aesthetic writings). In either case, though, what he recalls is early Greece. The contrast with Char is evident. There is no sacred dimension of existence or of history that speaks through Char’s poems and whose recollection would be entrusted to the poet. What does speak in Char’s verse is the ephemeral harmony of mortal speech which for an unsettled existence builds and unbuilds instantaneous dwellings.
“There Is” in the Poem
It is not enough to say that in Hölderlin’s poetry the origin appears as mythical and remote, and in Char’s as actual and present. Nor have we understood the situation of Char once his script has been labeled post-metaphysical. The event of language by which the origin manifests itself in his poetry needs to be questioned for its own sake. Hölderlin thinks the era of Western history and tries to renew its early vitality, its divine infancy. In this sense his poetry is a memorial. As a recollection and as a revival it opens the space of a second beginning. Char seems to retain only the contemporaneous part of the essentially ambivalent language of the origin, smothering its romantic overtones. Only the present instant remains: “La lumière a un âge. La nuit n’en a pas. Mais quel fut l’instant de cette source entière?” (NT, 34). (Light has an age. The night has none. But which was the instant of that integral source?)
In the poem there is the sea; there are the Sorgue River and the Rhine; there is the shark communicating with the gull. But prior to all this there is in the poem the “there is” itself. Since Rimbaud, the poem has said: whatever is, is. Sometimes it takes a more pressing tone, when it says: whatever is, may that be. But this wish that it formulates is fulfilled right away. What is at stake in the poem is the presence of everything to everything. Only the presence. Not an intention, but the intonation alone. Rimbaud is the poet of poetry when he writes in his Illuminations:
There is a clock that does not ring.
There is a quagmire with a nest of white birds.
There is a cathedral. . . .
There is a small car. . . . 5
The same celebration of what is purely present is found in Apollinaire’s Calligraphies:
There is a vessel that has taken away my beloved.
There are six sausages in the sky. . . .
There is an enemy submarine. . . .
and so on, for twenty-four “there is’s.”6
Is all this to say that poems such as these and Char’s eliminate any difference from language? Is their verse content with the beautiful sequences of auditory and visual elements? Against theories of structural linguists, it is clear that the “there is” introduces by itself a difference, a mystery, if that is the word, which neither turns our eyes away (as it does in Hölderlin) from the purely visible and audible nor keeps them rivited to the order of words and things that make up the poem (as, for instance, in Roman Jakobson’s theory). Thus the question of the situation of René Char’s poetry, the question of how the origin has to be understood in his script, becomes the question of identity and difference in the “there is.” We may even be entitled to go a step beyond Char, to risk the defoliation of our anthologies, and to concentrate our attention not upon the things shown, but upon the showing itself. When the poem is said, things are present, reconciled, called together by its speech. This recognition of their being-there is probably common to all poetry we know of. But being-there is not the being that is there. The present is different from the thing present, as the visibility of the thing shown is different from the shark and the gull that the poem makes visible.
The poem is the burning articulation of a desire: may all things be there. May pure presence be. Even more, it announces and already realizes what it desires. The dimensions of the earth communicate, but this communication is not the water and the sky, or gravity and transgression. The poem is the tangible sign, offered to our eyes, our ears, our lips, that all is one, that mere presence is. The poem is the color of hereness, its fulgor and its splendor. The difference that the “there is” introduces into the poem is the difference between the presence and the things present or the visibility and what is rendered visible.
The German idiomatic expression es gibt, “there is,” means literally “it gives.” “Among dark ivy at the forest’s gate” there is the river. Hölderlin thinks the es gibt literally when he continues: “A riddle is what is of pure origin.” One may ask: what is it that gives? The Alps give the Rhine. The gods give destiny. However, that which gives cannot be properly named. But out of that region, we are told, “secretly much, beyond question, still reaches man.” That which gives is the origin of presence. It gives presence. When the poem calls all things together, they are mysteriously granted to us, bestowed by That which gives. In order to understand the essence of poetry, solely the provenance of this giving deserves to be questioned. Heidegger sees in this idiomatic turn es gibt the possibility of a new examination of ontology: “the memorable is what gives food for thought. . . . The memorable grants.”7 The source of a river is memorable, it remains so down to the estuary. “As you began you remain” (“The Rhine”). Heidegger comments: “We try to carry our sight towards that which gives and towards its giving, and we spell the ‘It’with a capital letter.”8 That which gives is different from what it gives.
There are thus three semantic layers that we have to distinguish carefully: the things present (the shark and the gull), their presence (the poetic speech or script), and the event of the presencing (the essence of poetic language). In the vocabulary of Heidegger’s writings of the 1930’s: beings, beingness, and Being. Or in the vocabulary of On Time and Being: das Anwesende, das Anwesen lassen, das Anwesenlassen. Based upon the difference that the German expression “there is” suggests, this threefold layer gives an answer to any inquiry into the way things and words are present in a poem. Both Hölderlin and Heidegger give witness to this Germanic way of speaking and therefore of thinking.
Superficially the “es gibt” of Heidegger (commenting on Hölderlin) resembles Rimbaud’s “il y a” and the English “there is.” But the similarity is deceptive, as the kinship between Hölderlin and Char is deceptive. “Es gibt” and “there is” belong to two different worlds. Both the English “there is” and the French “il y a” eliminate any mythical reminiscence from the poem. This is not so with “es gibt,” particularly when spelled with a capital letter. Hence the danger of misunderstanding some of Heidegger’s latest writings. The invitation to silence before the mystery of That which gives, as well as Heidegger’s reference to Hölderlin, may easily mislead the reader. Even in his texts about the event of presencing, it is still the visibility of the visible that is thought of. Thus he is closer to the way of thinking that says “there is” or “il y a” than to Hölderlin’s hymn “The Rhine” and the recollection into divine mittances as implied by “es gibt.” If Heidegger still speaks of the sacred and of the mystery, this must be understood in Char’s way: the communication of the dimensions of the earth is sacred; the presencing of the essence of language that renders things present is mysterious. “There is” and “il y a” tell more humbly the proximity of being than Heidegger’s own mother-language.
Char’s poetry is far from any celebration of non-human grantings, from any grace or giving. It expresses nothing more than the spectacle of what is. Hölderlin’s poetry, or the “Es gibt,” implies a stretched-out temporality, a return to the beginnings. Char’s poetry, or the “il y a” and the “there is,” in the purely vertical temporality of the instant, consumes horizontal history as the lightning consumes the day. On this point some of Char’s titles may lead to confusion: “Retour amont,” or “Le nu perdu” (“Return Upstream,” “Nudity Lost”). But in no way does Char display the nostalgia for a lost paradisaic nudity, and the return upstream is not an ascent to the causes. Rather, “amont éclate” (NP, 48) (upstream bursts). The only path that Char traces for us leads to the being-there of what is there.
Char’s situation is beyond metaphysics insofar as the pure “there is” to which he gives voice destroys causal scaffoldings. Thus the armistices concluded both by Hölderlin and by Char are of opposite terms. Hölderlin’s hymns are the script of an Absent. They are the presence of this Absent qua absent. That which grants Hölderlin’s poems to be the locus of reconciliation between man and his origin arises from elsewhere. Hölderlin’s poetry settles a momentary armistice between man and the sacred. In Char the armistice is between a carnivorous beast, the shark, and the light-feathered gull, both of which are there in his poetry, belonging to each other and appropriating each other. In Hölderlin the cities founded by the legislating stream are from elsewhere, from the gods. “Then man and gods celebrate their nuptials.” Heidegger’s interpretation of this line refers again to the Absent which, through the text, becomes present. These weddings, he writes, celebrate “the encounter of those among men and gods who give birth to the mediators between men and gods and who endure this intermediacy.”9 In other words, out of this wedlock the poet is born. The offspring carries the mark of what is absent into the present.
Poetry is that section of language in which being lets itself be explicitly experienced as event and as appropriation. But each native tongue prepares for this event and this appropriation a dwelling which is particular to it. The German “es gibt” comprises a difference between what is shown and its origin; this language lives from such a reference to what is absent, or from the manifestation of the non-manifest. It is a metaphysical language. The German language experiences the appropriating event as the intrusion of a distinct and forgotten origin into the customary proximity. The poet’s saying is here understood as a translation: he translates to our ears the anonymous gift by which the poem lets whatever is be present. The poet is the guard of this gift, and inversely this gift guards (schont, hütet) him.
The French and English languages stay among what they show — but radically. “Il y a” and “there is” open a difference between what is and its presence. The poem makes the purity of the there be seen. It is as mysterious as the sun at noon, which is the sun “and” which is there. Without involving any double, any invisible afterworld, Char’s poetry and the tongue in which it is written live within this difference, between things of the earth and their being-there. Char is the poet of the visible mystery for whom and by whom presence is different from things present but not other than they, hence also identical with them.
As for the English language, one nuance is striking in this context: “there is” applies in English both to human existence (Dasein, être-là) and to the more general presence of beings (Es gibt, Il y a). The lack of this distinction in English reveals perhaps another kind of ontology which would have to be worked out from contemporary poetry in that language.
New School for Social Research
1 All translations which follow the original texts in parentheses are mine.
2 In the references to René Char’s works, the following abbreviations are used:
PP Poèmes et Prose choisis. Paris: Gallimard, NR F, 1957.
FM Fureur et Mystère. Paris: Gallimard, NRF, 1962.
PA La Parole en archipel. Paris: Gallimard, NRF, 1962.
NP Le nu perdu. Paris: Gallimard, NRF, 1971.
A-H Arrière-Histoire du Poème pulvérisé. Paris: Jean Hugues, 1972.
NT La Nuit talismanique. Genève: A. Skira, 1972.
3 Char writes about this poem: “It was at Trayas on the border of the Mediterranean in the winter of 1946 that the theme of “The Shark and the Gull” imposed itself on me. I went to see Henri Matisse at Vence, and we spoke of it. That perfect wedding haunted him. — This poem has fulfilled itself by the foaming charm that it has procured me long after its flight, like a cock’s crowing: brutal to the soul, and master of the silence that follows” (A-H, 40).
4 Friedrich Hölderlin, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Paul Stapf (Berlin und Darmstadt: Tempel, 1958), p. 314 f., hereafter referred to as Werke. Franz Mayer, ‘René Char et Hölderlin,” Cahiers de l’Herne 15 (1971), 81-88, has attempted a comparison between the two poets. He sees the function of modern and postmodern poetry in the anticipation of a historical reality to come: “L’avenir est ainsi, pour Char comme pour Hölderlin . . . une réalité historique” (p. 88). It seems to me that the kinship between the two poets lies, on the contrary, in the attention that both give to an origin that arises within the poem, neither before nor after. For both Hölderlin and Char the future is advenir, a present event, rather than à venir, to come. Virginia La Charité, The Poetics and the Poetry of René Char, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), sees the time-structure of Char’s poetry also as derived from an attitude of hope, turned towards the future; according to her interpretation “the great Beginner” would mean hope “for a better future” (p. 93). This line of interpretation was first that of Maurice Blanchot, “René Char,” La part du feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), p. 17. Read in such a way, poetry would again found some kind of duration, a new era, whereas for Char and Hölderlin no inception occurs in the poem, but only its own rise and death in the present now.
5 Arthur Rimbaud, Oeuvres (Paris: Gamier, 1960), pp. 256-7:
Au bois il y a un oiseau, son chant vous arrête et vous fait rougir.
II y a une horloge qui ne sonne pas.
II y a une fondrière avec un nid de bêtes blanches.
II y a une cathédrale qui descent et un lac qui monte.
II y a une petite voiture abandonnée dans le taillis,
ou qui descend le sentier en courant, enrubannée.
II y a une troupe de petits comédiens en costumes,
aperçus sur la route à travers la lisière du bois.
II y a enfin, quand l’on a faim et soif, quelqu’un qui vous chasse.
6 Guillaume Apollinaire, Oeuvres poétiques complètes (Paris: Pléiade, 1969), p. 817:
II y a un vaisseau qui a emporté ma bien-aimée.
II y a dans le ciel six saucisses. . . .
II y a un sous-marin ennemi. . . .
7 “Das Bedenkliche ist das, was zu denken gibt. . . . Das Bedenkliche gibt.” Martin Heidegger, Vorträge und Aufsätze (Pfullingen: Neske, 1954), p. 132.
8 “Wir versuchen, das Es und sein Geben in die Sicht zu bringen und schreiben das ‘Es’ gross.” Martin Heidegger, Zur Sache des Denkens (Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 1969), p. 5.
9 “Das Brautfest ist das Begegnen jener Menschen und Götter, dem die Geburt derjenigen entstammt, die zwischen den Menschen und den Göttern stehen und dieses ‘Zwischen’ ausstehen.” Martin Heidegger, Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung (Frankfurt: V. Klostermann, 1963), p. 98.
*”J’adressais, au mois de mai 1946, à Henri Matisse, à Vence, le manuscrit du poème ‘Le requin et la mouette’ composé quelques semaines auparavant au Trayas. Au cours de la visite que j’avais faite au grand peintre il n’avait pas été question d’un poème plutôt que d’un autre. Je m’étais persuadé que Matisse allait bien, que ses trésors continuaient à s’élaborer avec la même somptueuse régularité qu’à l’ordinaire. De retour à l’Isle-sur-Sorgue je lui adressais donc le manuscrit de mon poème (J’aime Matisse et sa bonté discrète: ce poème pour le remercier d’un acte précis). Il me répondit qu’il avait dans une série de dessins récents découvert le même thème. Voici l’un de ces dessins.” The drawing and the accompanying lines are reproduced from: Cahiers d’Art, Paris 1945/46, p. 77. By permission of the editors of the Cahiers d’Art.