René Char: Poetry in/as resistance

si nul n’est bon volontairement, nul n’est esclave du Bien.

Emmanuel Levinas, Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence

In old days men were absorbed in wars, filling all their existence with marches, raids, victories, but now all that is a thing of the past, leaving behind it a great void which there is so far nothing to fill: humanity is searching for it passionately, and of course will find it. Ah, if only it could be quickly! [a pause] If, don’t you know, hard work were united with education and education with hard work. . . [Looks at his watch] But, really, it’s time for me to go. . . .

Vershinin, from The Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov

The illusion of Chekhov’s character lies perhaps in the belief that the void can or should be filled, the very illusion that ultimately feeds war. Power is such an illusion. It is a force that seeks to fill the emptiness that underlies, that is present in, all that we are. And perhaps a step can be taken in the direction of freeing ourselves from this illusion by living in this emptiness, or what the poet René Char describes in these words: “We belong to no one except the golden point of light from that lamp unknown to us, inaccessible to us that keeps awake courage and silence.” (Leaves of Hypnos)

Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, writes of war as a joust of wills and victory “as the onrush of a conquering force” that is “like the bursting of pent-up waters into a chasm a thousand fathoms deep”.

Power abhors a vacuum.

If wars then are our tragic fate, their mere acceptance as something to be strategically and tactically thought through or as something to be hunted to extinction by moralism and law, is both absurd and obscene. The question is rather how we are to face this reality, ethically.

There is a long tradition of human reflection on the ethics of war (and we are not here speaking of just war theory or the laws of war), on how the seemingly inevitable engagement with it, can possibly push beyond it.

We share a selection of passages from René Char’s notes of resistance of 1943-44, the Leaves of Hypnos.

Leaves of Hypnos

René Char

Translated by Nancy Kline


To Albert Camus.

Hypnos seized hold of winter and clothed it in granite. Winter turned into sleep and Hypnos became fire. What happened next belongs to men.

These notes owe nothing to self-love, to the short story, the maxim, or the novel. A fire of dry herbs might just as well have been their editor. The sight of blood tortured led once to losing the thread, reduced their importance to nothing. They were written under stress, in anger, fear, emulation, disgust, guile, furtive meditation, the illusion of the future, friendship, love. Which is to say how much they are shaped by the event. Afterwards more often skimmed than reread.

This notebook could have belonged to no one, so deep does the meaning of a man’s life lie beneath his wanderings, so hard is it to tell apart from a sometimes remarkable mimesis. Proclivities like these, however, were withstood.

These notes record the resistance of a humanism conscious of its duties, cautious of its virtues, wanting to keep the inaccessible open to the imagination of its suns, and determined to pay the price for that.


As much as possible, teach how to become effective, only as far as the goal and no farther. Farther is smoke. Where there is smoke there is unpredictability.


Do not linger in the rut of results.


Guide the real into action like a flower slipped into the tart mouths of infants. Ineffable knowledge of the desperate diamond (life).


To be stoic is to congeal, with the beautiful gaze of Narcissus. We calculated every suffering the torturer could possibly extract from every inch of our bodies; then, sick at heart, we went and faced him.


We belong to no one except the golden point of light from that lamp unknown to us, inaccessible to us that keeps awake courage and silence.


After initial fumblings, Crazy Arthur [Arthur le Fol] now participates with the full force of his resolute nature in our games of chance. His keen appetite for action must be satisfied with the precise task I assign him. He obeys and controls himself, for fear of being scolded! Without that, God only knows in what final hornets’ nest his bravery would land him! Loyal Arthur, like a soldier in ancient times!


My brother The Pruner, of whom I have no news, used jokingly to call himself a cousin to the cats of Pompeii. By the time we learned of this generous creature’s deportation, his prison could no longer open; chains defied his courage, Austria had him in its clutches.



I am quite convinced, after two conclusive tests, that the thug who slipped into our midst, without our knowledge, is irredeemable. A bully (he boasts of it), malicious as vermin, flinching before the enemy, wallowing in reports of horror like a pig in mud; nothing to be hoped-for, except the gravest trouble, from this unscrupulous scoundrel. Liable, in addition, to infiltrate a fluid villainy here.

I’ll do the thing myself.


Keep for later the imaginary part, which is, itself too, capable of action.


The poet cannot remain for long in the stratosphere of the Word. He must coil up in new tears and push farther in his own order.


I think about that army of deserters with an appetite for dictatorship whom the survivors of this era of accursed algebra may well see in power again, in this forgetful country.


Bitter future, bitter future, dancing amidst the rosebushes…


TO THE PRUDENT: It is snowing on the maquis, and hunting us down is perpetually in season. You whose house does not weep, within whom greed is crushing love, in the succession of these hot days your fire is nothing but a sick-nurse. Too late. Your cancer has spoken. The native land has lost its powers.


This crenelated present…


There exists one kind of man who is always ahead on his excrements.


A man without shortcomings is a mountain without crevasses. He doesn’t interest me.

(Dowser’s rule of thumb, and worrier’s.)


Redbreast, my friend, who used to arrive when the grounds were deserted, this fall your song sets off a landslide of memories that the ogres would very much like to hear.


Marry and do not marry your house.


You will be one part of the fruit’s flavor.


Between the two shots that decided his destiny, he had time to call a fly “Madame.”


The act is virgin, even repeated.


I am not afraid. I am only dizzy. I must reduce the distance between the enemy and me. Confront him horizontally.


In the face of everything, ALL THAT, a Colt, promise of the rising sun!


The poem is furious ascension; poetry, the play of arid riverbanks.


Flood with sunlight the imagination of those who stammer instead of speaking, who blush in the instant of assertion. They are steadfast partisans.


I thank chance, which has granted that the poachers of Provence are fighting in our camp. The memory of the woods that these primitives possess, their aptitude for calculation, their sharp sense of smell in any weather—I would be surprised at any failing in this quarter. I will see to it that they are shod like gods!


The poet, keeper of the infinite faces of the living.


How can you hear me? I’m speaking from so faraway…


The plane swerves down. Invisible pilots discharge their nocturnal garden, then press a brief light under the wing to signal that it’s finished. All that remains is to gather in the scattered treasure. Just so, the poet…


A meter of guts to measure our chances.


Only the eyes are still capable of crying out.


The mind, back and forth, like that insect who as soon as the light goes out scratches in the kitchen, jostles the silence, crunches up filth.


Hellish duties.


You do not offer tears a bed as you would a passing guest.


I will write no poem of acquiescence.


The baker had not yet unfastened the metal curtains of his shop when already the village was besieged, gagged, hypnotized, suspended in utter immobility. Two SS companies and a detachment of militia held it beneath the muzzles of their machineguns and their mortars. Then the ordeal began.

The inhabitants were thrown out of their houses and ordered to assemble in the central square. Keys in all the locks. One old man, hard of hearing, who didn’t respond quickly enough to the order, saw the four walls and roof of his barn shattered by a bomb. For four hours I had been awake. Marcelle had come to whisper the alert through my shutters. I’d immediately recognized the futility of trying to get past the cordon of survellance to reach the countryside. Quickly I changed dwellings. The uninhabited house where I took refuge would make effective armed resistance possible, in my last moments. Through the window I could follow, from behind yellowed curtains, the nervous comings and goings of the occupiers. None of my people were present in the village. This thought cheered me. Several kilometers away, they would follow my instructions and remain under cover. The sound of blows reached me, punctuated by curses. The SS had caught a young mason as he returned from setting traps. His fright destined him for their torture. A voice leaned screaming over the swollen body: ‘Where is he? Take us,’ followed by silence. And kicks and rifle butts rained down. An insane rage took hold of me, banished my anguish. My hands communicated their clenched sweat to my weapon, exalted its controlled power. I calculated that the poor fellow would be quiet for five more minutes, then, inevitably, he would talk. It shamed me to wish for his death before the payoff. At that moment there appeared, gushing from every street, the tide of women, children, old people, who were reporting to the assembly point, according to an agreed-upon plan. They hurried without haste, literally streaming over the SS, paralyzing them, ‘with the best of intentions.’ The mason was left for dead. Furious, the patrol cut a path through the crowd and moved on. Now, with infinite prudence, eyes anxious and good looked in my direction, passed over my window like a stream of light. I half-showed myself and a smile stood out against my pallor. I was attached to these beings by a thousand trusting threads, not one of which had broken.

I loved my fellow men ferociously that day, far beyond the sacrifice.*

[Char’s footnote:] *Was it not chance that had chosen me prince, rather than the heart, grown ripe for me, of this village? (1945)


We are like those toads who in the austere night of the marshes call each other and do not see each other, bending to their love cry all the fatality of the universe.


Out of the refuse of mountains I have constructed men who will briefly perfume the glaciers.


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


Horrible day! I was present, some hundred meters away, at B’s execution. I had only to pull the trigger on the machinegun and he was saved! We were on the heights overlooking Céreste, with weapons enough to break the bushes and equal in number to the SS. They unaware of the fact that we were there. To the eyes everywhere around me that begged for the signal to open fire I responded no with a shake of the head…The June sun slid a polar cold into my bones.

He fell as though he didn’t even see his executioners, and so light, it seemed to me, that the least puff of wind must have lifted him off the earth.

I did not give the signal because this village had to be spared at any price. What is a village? A village like any other? Did he perhaps know, in that last instant?


The counter-terror is this valley little by little brimmed with mist, it is the fleeting buzz of the leaves like a swarm of torpid Roman candles, it is this heaviness dispersed, this muffled movement of animals and insects etching a thousand marks into the tender bark of the night, it is this grain of alfalfa in the dimple of a face caressed, this fire on the moon which will never catch fire, it is a miniscule day-after whose intentions are unknown to us, it is the brightly-colored bust that bowed smiling, it is the shadow a few feet away of a brief companion who bends over, worrying that the leather of his belt is going to give… Of what importance then the hour and the place the devil has fixed for our appointment!


Era of enraged mountains and fantastic friendship.


Answer “Absent” for yourself, otherwise you risk not being understood.


Sing your iridescent thirst.


Ketty, the dog, enjoys taking delivery as much as we do. She goes from one to the other without barking, in fearless knowledge of the thing. The work done, she stretches out happily on the dune of parachutes and goes to sleep.


Resistance is only hope. Like the moon of Hypnos, full tonight in all its quarters, tomorrow vision over the passage of poems.


Lucidity is the wound closest to the sun.


The population of the meadows enchants me. I never tire of reciting to myself its frail beauty, bereft of venom. The field-vole, the mole, somber children lost in the chimera of the grass, the blind-worm, offspring of glass, the cricket, as imitative as they come, the grasshopper who flaps and counts its linen, the butterfly who play-acts drunkenness and irritates the flowers with its silent hiccups, the ants taught wisdom by the vast verdant expanse, and, immediately above, the meteoric swallows…

Meadow, you are the day’s neatly divided case.


Heal the bread. Seat the wine at table.


If I make it through, I know I’ll have to break with the aroma of these essential years, silently push faraway from me (not repress) my treasure, guide myself back to the principle of the most indigent behavior, as in that time when I was looking for myself without achieving prowess, in naked dissatisfaction, scarcely-glimpsed knowledge, and inquisitive humility.


There are two ages for the poet: the age when poetry, in every respect, mistreats him, and the other, when she allows herself to be madly embraced. But neither is clearly defined. And the second is not supreme.


It is when you are drunk with pain that you feel no more pain than the crystal.


Oliver the Black [Olivier le Noir] asked me for a basin of water to clean his revolver. I suggested gun oil. But water was exactly what was called-for. The blood on the sides of the washbowl exceeded my imagination. What good would it have done to dwell on the shameful silhouette, the gun in his ear, slumped in his viscid coil? A just man was back, his work done, like one who having scrupulously broken up his earth would scrape his spade clean, before smiling into the blaze of the vineshoots.


My vixen, rest your head on my knees. I am not happy, and yet you are enough. Candlestick or meteor, there is no full heart or future left on earth. The steps of dusk reveal your murmur, lair of mint and rosemary, whispered secret between autumn’s russets and your ethereal dress. You are the soul of the mountain with its deep flanks, its rocks hushed behind lips of clay. How the wings of your nose tremble. How your hand secures the path and draws the curtain of the trees closer. My vixen, in the presence of the two stars, frost and wind, I place in you every broken hope, for a victorious thistle of rapacious solitude.


Man is capable of doing what he is incapable of imagining. His head tills the galaxy of the absurd.


In our shadows, there is not one space alone for Beauty. The whole space is for Beauty.


(From The Brooklyn Rail, 12/2007)

For more on René Char, among so much that can be read, see René Char – Resistance in Every Way and Résistance de René Char.



Enfants qui cribliez d’olives le soleil enfoncé dans le bois de la mer, enfants, ô frondes de froment, de vous l’étranger se détourne, se détourne de votre sang martyrisé, se détourne de cette eau trop pure, enfants aux yeux de limon, enfants qui faisiez chanter le sel à votre oreille, comment se résoudre à ne plus s’éblouir de votre amitié ? Le ciel dont vous disiez le duvet, la Femme dont vous trahissiez le désir, la foudre les a glacés.
Châtiments ! Châtiments !

René Char, 1939 Par la bouche de l’engoulevent

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