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OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Yves Bonnefoy: In Memory of a Great Poet, by Ricardo Nirenberg


Yves Bonnefoy died in Paris on July first, at the age of 93. [The original posting continued with the words: " I believe about two years after having experienced the happiness of becoming a grandfather." Thanks to Berel Lang we know this was not the case. January 25, 2017.] The French Embassy reminds us by e-mail: “At the loss of this deeply perceptive and powerful artist, French president François Hollande remarked that Bonnefoy’s work ‘elevated our language to its supreme degree of precision and beauty.’”  Before his election, as you may remember, Hollande promised to be “un président normal,” and here, for once, in coupling the precision of the French language with its beauty, he acts just as normally French and conventionally Cartesian as any constituent could wish.  Bonnefoy’s attitude toward language and the arts of language was much more complex, needless to say.

Back in the 1980s, when he was visiting at Williams College and giving some memorable readings of his poems there and elsewhere, Bonnefoy would often engage in discussions about the possibilities of poetic language, and he was very firm in maintaining that poets could write successfully only in their mother tongue.  When I expressed my doubts, he challenged me to name a single poet who was great in a language not learned at the cradle.  Rilke’s French poems he would not accept as counterproof.  “No (he said), the poet’s unconscious must speak, and it can only do so in the maternal speech.”  At the time it didn’t occur to me to bring up Charles d’Orléans (“the Duke of Orleans” in Shakespeare’s Henry V), who belongs in any modern history of medieval poetry both in French and in English, the latter of which he learned as an adult.  But perhaps he should not be counted because he lived long before the discovery of the unconscious.

For many poets today it is not merely an academic question.  Besides the ones (including some of the contributors to Offcourse) who write in a latter-learned language, there are those who have more than a single native tongue.  I think of Claude Esteban, who spent some weeks here in Albany NY in 1988, where we met.  His father was Spanish, his mother French, and Claude grew up bilingual, which for him was a source of deep poetic angst, a constant feeling of n’être pas à l’hauteur.  I suspect his admiration for Bonnefoy and respect for the older poet’s opinions had something to do with it; in any case, he had chosen French as his poetic medium, although he would on occasion write a poem in Spanish, and frequently translate from Spanish to French.  It was in vain that I invoked Ennius, “the father of Latin poetry,” who had three native languages — “three hearts,” as he used to say: Greek, Oscan and Latin.  Esteban had a love affair with Virgil’s Georgics, but of Ennius we have only fragments.

Bonnefoy’s attitude toward language was complex, I said, and I should have said: conflicted.  In this he was very much in tune with the French intellectuals of his time: Roland Barthes, who preceded Bonnefoy at the Collège de France, had said in his inaugural lecture or harangue that language is fascism, and Bonnefoy (although, in the public eye, at the antipode of Barthes), felt similarly, with this important difference: for Barthes the resistance to fascism had to be conceptual, i.e. critical, whereas for Bonnefoy it had to be primarily poetical.  Poetry, la fonction poétique, was for our poet the maquis fighting in pockets of resistance against the formidable occupying army of concepts, words, and logic — and this not only in a metaphorical sense: in his collection of 1987, Ce qui fut sans lumière, there is a poem, « Le mot ronce, dis-tu ? », where the poetic word is compared to ronces, meaning, roughly, brambles.  Remember that before 1940 the word maquis meant mainly brushwood or brambles and, by extension, the bandits that lived in those parts.  The valley of brambles, Ronceval or Roncevaux, was the setting for the oldest poetic work in French, La Chanson de Roland.  And if you have the (mis)fortune to be, like Claude Esteban, bilingual, i.e. of forked allegiances, the word is sure to evoke the old Castilian romance: “Mala la hobisteis, franceses / la caza de Roncesvalles.”

Incidentally, in Offcourse #24 (see also #25 and #26), you can find the text, with an English translation, of another poem in Bonnefoy’s collection Ce qui fut sans lumière, « La Branche », my favorite at that time, eleven years ago.  Those poems were inspired, I’ve heard it said, by the snowy woods around Williamstown, MA.

But let us go back to Bonnefoy’s conflicted relation to language.  Concepts, he might have said, are the chains holding us to a sort of Platonic cave, or rather anti-Platonic cave (he wrote this, or something similar, in his response to Christopher Ricks: “Beyond Words,” Times Literary Supplement, August 12, 2005, eleven years ago).  We are held with our back to the truth, and the truth reigns not among concepts, ideas, or Platonic forms (as in Plato’s cave), but rather inside each experience of the single, ephemeral and concrete.  „Es ist eine alte Geschichte“, as Heine used to say: it is the old medieval story of the disputes between Realists and Nominalists, a struggle that has been flaring up now and then ever since, and, most significantly for French poets, in Stéphane Mallarmé’s heart:

« Je dis : une fleur ! et, hors de l’oubli où ma voix relègue aucun contour, en tant que quelque chose d’autre que les calices sus, musicalement se lève, idée même et suave, l’absente de tous bouquets. »
(Avant-dire au Traité du Verbe de René Ghil, 1886; translation taken from the article on Mallarmé in the Poetry Foundation website: “I say: a flower! and, out of the oblivion into which my voice consigns any real shape, as something other than petals known to man, there rises, harmoniously and gently, the ideal flower itself, the one that is absent from all earthly bouquets”.)

Chez Mallarmé this profession of philosophical Platonism was countered by a competing force toward philosophical nominalism: his oeuvre is the visible field of those interacting forces, and I am pretty sure that Bonnefoy situated himself and his own oeuvre in relation to that of Mallarmé.  Paul Valéry was, according to Bonnefoy, a “cursed poet,” cursed by his talent for abstract ideas, which made him unable to love anything but abstractions; Valéry was, of course, the direct poetic disciple of Mallarmé, and it is my surmise that Bonnefoy looked upon himself as Mallarmé’s true heir, that is, the heir to Mallarmé’s good side, the side that could love the ephemeral.  Just as Valéry was cursed, Bonnefoy was blessed — by Mallarmé the patriarch.

If taken to task for importing into these brief comments on French poets notions whose prototype is in the Hebrew Genesis, I will say in my discharge that on this road I follow Bonnefoy, who liberally used Freudian notions in his critical and biographical work.  In Offcourse #47 you can see some examples of that, concerning Jorge Luis Borges, a writer Bonnefoy admired, but who held negative opinions of both Mallarmé and Baudelaire, something Bonnefoy could not countenance.  Even though he always demonized conceptual, hence logical thought, Bonnefoy had serious trouble living with contradiction, he was not good at Keats’ negative capability: his admirations had to be logically consistent with one another – and this contradiction was, perhaps, his secret motor, his prime mover.  There is little that is Hebrew, however, in Bonnefoy’s conflicted attitude toward language, to which we, once more, return.

The 1988 text Une autre époque de l'écriture (published in book form by Mercure de France under the title La vie errante suivi de Une autre époque de l'écriture) is, to my mind, most illuminating about Bonnefoy and language.  Like many of his poetic prose pieces, or récits en rêve, this one takes the form of a Platonic dialogue between the author and a friend.  The friend, « cet ami de là-bas », is from an unnamed country not of this earth, a utopia, and he explains:

« Il fut un temps où nous avions une idée tout autre de l’écriture, à moins que ce ne soit du langage.  Car alors nous ne notions pas les mots avec ces traits au pinceau qui imitent si mal la chose, mais chacun de sons, les phonèmes... »
We translate: There was a time when we had a totally different idea of writing, maybe even of language.  Back then we didn’t denote words by those brush marks which imitate things so poorly, but each sound, each phoneme...

No, impatient reader, it was not something like our own letters that represent sounds:

« Nous, mon ami, nous représentions le son a, disons, par une jarre que nous gardions près de nous, dans l’espace même où l’on nait et où l’on meurt. »
We, my friend, used to represent the sound a, let’s say, by a jar we kept at hand, in the very space where one is born and where one dies.

Somehow, by mental jumps or jerks that are mysterious, the friend from utopia concludes that this old system of denoting sounds by a multitude of household objects filled the terrible gulf between the sign and the thing.  A gulf that for French poets and intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century seems to have replaced, in the obsessive short list of modern man’s calamities and wounds to be dressed, the gruesome broad ditch, or „garstigen breiten Graben“, that Lessing had uncovered in the eighteenth.  Lessing’s ditch, of which Kierkegaard writes at some length in his Unscientific Philosophical Postscript, yawned between practical (historical or ethical) reason and pure or scientific, i.e. mathematical, reason: the former infinitely less persuasive than the latter.  As for the French intellectual’s écart, the gulf between things and signs, it may have taken its first élan from Ferdinand de Saussure’s famous lessons, but we should not miss the Heideggerian twang in Bonnefoy’s friend from là-bas and his a-jar, which remains ready to hand “in the very space where one is born and where one dies.” Heidegger, in the lecture "Das Ding," had already taken a jar as his example of presence, the presence of a thing.

Why should a jar, no matter how familiar or well wrought, be considered more satisfying, more conciliatory than, or in any way superior to, the letters of an alphabet?  Look at Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast: on the table all those Temple jars and rich vessels overturned, and the letters, by the hand of God written on the wall, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin, shining above all. From the National Gallery, London  For the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple, letters are more sacred than jars.  And for me, grandson of Eastern-European Jews who emigrated to Argentina at the beginning of the twentieth century, the space of my birth is definitely not the same space where I’ll soon die.  In those two spaces, languages are different.  A situation in which I’m very much like so many of my contemporaries, and like people of previous and later generations.  And as for jars, the ones I grew up with, the richest ones, had been seized by court officers by the time I reached puberty.  I have forgotten them, but I do remember E = mc², and I do remember “Estas, que fueron pompa y alegría”.  Letters and words travel better than jars.

Thus in Bonnefoy’s utopian dream I could not avoid perceiving, as in Chinese shadows, the threatening gestures of the stone-throwing enemies of déracinement, the Roman Catholics among whom I had grown up in Argentina.  The same threatening shadows bothered me in Bonnefoy’s writings on Baroque art, in his placing inside Saint Peter basilica, more precisely in Bernini’s baldacchino, the omphalos, the center of the world that for medieval Christians used to be the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  Or in his resurrecting, at the very end of his book Rome, 1630, the old palindrome, that “the other name of Roma is Amor.”  Yes, it was the Rome which in the name of love, of amorevolezza, had recently burnt Bruno at the Campo dei Fiori, and was right then condemning Galileo.

And yet, besides those somber reflections, I owe much that is now in myself to Bonnefoy.  His words gave me the energy to look for, and at, the works of Piero, of Poussin, of Giacometti, until I began appropriating them.  He encouraged me, back in the 80s, with my first essays on Lev Shestov and Benjamin Fondane, and it was he who connected me to Emil Cioran.  His own poems were my companions throughout the otherwise lonely trek between mathematics and writing, between logic and expressiveness.  Bonnefoy and Wordsworth are, to my mind, warrantors that the descent into dreams and the vague and ghostly memories of early life can result in at least as great a beauty as the ascent to the azure peaks of precise logical abstraction.  That this is so, but why and how we do not know, has long seemed to me the most proper theme for thought.

We look into the abyss.  Whether it is Lessing’s ditch, or Bonnefoy’s écart between signs and things, or between prose and poetry, or Hölderlin’s Ur-teil, the original cut between subject and object, or, again, the Cartesian chasm between mind and cosmos, it doesn’t matter much, for perhaps, in the end, they, and still others, are all the same.  What’s important is to look into the abyss, and not to go on pretending that ours is nice, level ground.  I am reading a new book by Eva Brann, Doublethink / Doubletalk, where she puts it admirably:

“Generally, the ancients paid the world the compliment of thinking it abysmal, and my contemporaries abrogate its depth by terming it complex.”

In his 2005 essay for the TLS, “Beyond Words,” mentioned above, Bonnefoy boldly connects poetry to the chasm between cosmos and psyche:

“What is poetry?  It is the intuitive, fundamental feeling that representations of the world or of our existence that are a consequence of the conceptual nature of words deprive us of a truly intimate experience of our relation to ourselves, since this relation is made of events in which chance plays the major role: a situation which generalizing thought is absolutely incapable of entering.”

Logical, mathematical thought, which is generalizing by nature, is absolutely incapable of helping us to see our mind with our mind’s eye, says Bonnefoy, and in this, I think, he’s right.  He is also right in connecting poetry to the absolute incapability, although one may object that this conception of poetry is too extensive, or that equating poetry to a feeling, no matter how fundamental and intuitive, may deprive it of the reflective, critical side that is also important.  Leaving aside those relatively minor objections, our poet is right about the abyss, so far.  But then he makes chance play the major role in the digging, and everything goes awry.  Ever since Bonnefoy’s compatriots Pascal and Fermat mathematized the chances in a game of dice, chance has been progressively subjected to logical analysis.  Gauss and his bell curves were a major conquest, and today statistics, dynamical systems, chaos theory, etc., tell quite a different story: yes, chance no doubt plays a major role in our relation to ourselves, as Bonnefoy observes, but so it does in the trajectory of our earth around the sun, and in most if not all physical phenomena.  No, it is not chance that makes the difference between the world outside and our inner world.  The abyss is there, and it is not simply a matter of complexity.

Why would Bonnefoy, who had studied math in his youth and who must have been acquainted with the brilliant French scientific world around him, come up with this moth-eaten, errant concept of chance?  I can only think of the influence on him of Mallarmé and, in particular, of « Un coup de dés », whose last line is:

« Toute pensée émet un coup de dés. »

My reaction to “Beyond Words” is typical of almost all my reactions to Bonnefoy’s critical or theoretical texts: I find them of the first importance, in harmony with my own preoccupations, and then, suddenly and sadly, something goes wrong.  In a way, it reminds me of W. B. Yeats’ account of his first reading Valéry’s « Cimetière marin »: Yeats was reading the poem with growing emotion, until he arrived, well past the middle, at the line:

« Zénon ! Cruel Zénon ! Zénon d’Élée ! »

Upon which his accumulated emotion crumbled.  Valéry was a great thinker, as Bonnefoy was not.  En revanche, Bonnefoy was the greater poet.


R.Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse.

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