12 February 2013

The bull as solar personification figures in a crucial poem of the late 40's by René Char, when he was emerging from his Liberation digs in Céreste, the mountain town 59 km east of his birthplace where he was known as Capitaine Alexandre, and began again to publish his work:


It is never night when you die,
Circled by shrieking shadows,
Sun with two like points.

Beast of love, sword's truth,
Murderous duo unique before all.
tr: James Lawler

Francis Picabia, Corrida-Transparence, 1930

Bullfighting was part of Char's everyday life growing up, where, as Ford Madox Ford wrote in 1935 "In Provence.. the bullfight continues still in its triumphant progress at the sword-ends of actors.. its essentials are swiftness and skill in wielding a thin spike of steel against a furious and alert monster.. In every village of Provence there is a bull-ring and on every Sunday of the year when the days are warm enough, all the young men of courage face, without arms, the wild bulls of the Camargue.." René's grandfather, a foundling named Charlemagne, walked to L'Isle-sur-Sorgue, 29 km east of Avignon, becoming a plaster merchant and building up the family business to where his son, Emile, would become mayor and have the square between the town center and the train station named after him, containing one of the town's ten remaining watermills upon the arms of the river Sorgue which powered the silk factories of its industrial boom:

"I was ten. The Sorgue enshrined me. The sun sang the hours upon the wise dial of the waters. Both sorrow and insouciance had sealed the weathercock onto the roof of the houses where, together, they stood propped. What wheel, though, in the heart of a watchful child turns swifter, more powerfully, than that of the mill with its white fire?" ("Announcing One's Name," tr: Gustaf Sobin)

Char's use of the bull as solar personification is without direct reference to the labyrinth myth, which entered France by way of Provence.  The Parisian belief of Baudelare and Surrealists that myths had to emanate from the modern gave way to Char's Provençal belief that myths emanated from nature, as his "Orion iroquois" found validation in the Iroquois' ceremony which coincided with the position of the constellation, before Breton, who referenced Oceanic myths late in his life, would use the labyrinth image to compliment Miró's constellations. The author of the line "fauve d'amour/ beast of love" was friends not only with Masson and Picasso, painters of bulls, and Bataille ("THE UNIVERSAL resembles a bull"), but also with Matisse years after his paintings like "Joie de Vivre" had him labeled a Fauvist.  Around this time Char and his friends were developing an interest in Lascaux and the neighboring caves, and after Henri Breuil described an animal in the main chamber (right) in his 1952 book as "The Unicorn," Char described it in a poem as "La Bête Inncommable/ The Unnamable Beast." Char was at one time friends with both Breton and Heidegger, entertaining the disparate strands of romanticism.

Piri' Miri Muli' readers recall Paz' commentary on Rilke's Eight Elegy: "The 'open' is where contraries are reconciled, where light and shadow are fused. This conception restores death's original meaning: death and life are opposites that compliment each other. Both are halves of a sphere that we, subjects of time and space, can only glimpse.. This recognition can only take place through detachment: he must renounce his temporal life and his nostalgia for limbo, for the animal world. He must open himself out to death if he wishes to open himself out to life. Then he will be 'like the angels.'" For Antoine Bloyé, the Nantes railroad manager of Paul Nizan's 1933 novel of the same name, "Death was in him.. without images.. without ideas.. not imaginable.. his nothingness would not be represented."

Bataille's essay from the Picasso issue of Documents notes "the human tendency to distinguish two suns": the sun "one obstinately focuses on" and the sun not stared at directly "of mathematical serenity and spiritual elevation." The Icarus myth "splits the sun in two - the one that was shining at the moment of Icarus' elevation, and the one that melted the wax.." Georg Trakl's poem "The Sun" similarly names two suns tied to human perception, "When night comes,/ The wanderer gently lifts the heavy eyelids.." after the daytime sun allows the natural world to "rise.. glide.." and "ripen."

Char as a pre-teen read Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Petrarch, and the title of "Le Soleil des eaux", composed around the same time as "The Bull," may like the watermill's "fire" have recalled Baudelaire's "les soleils marins" phrase from "La Vie antérieure," channeling a previous life when his slaves were assigned the sole task of interpreting the hidden cause of his sorrow, or Rimbaud's "sea gone with the sun." Petrarch lived the next town over in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, "mostly visited by those who have never heard of the poet whose sylvan haunt it once was, 'happy to have the Muses for his companions and the song of the birds and the murmur of the stream for his serenade.'" Petrarch, seeing the source of the Sorgue there at age 9 "spoke my boyish thoughts to myself: Here is the place which best suits with my temper, and which, if ever I have the chance, I will prefer before great cities." André Thirion in 1972 had "recently reread (Char's) 'Artine': 'Despite animals and cyclones Artine maintained an inexhaustible freshness. When strolling, she was absolute transparency.' Wasn't she coming straight from La Fontaine-de-Vaucluse?"

At 22, around the same time "The Bull" was written, Pierre Boulez would set Char's "Le Soleil des eaux" to music, at first wanting to present his poems a capella, then mixing Webern and Asian music in anticipation of using Char's Surrealist poems for Le marteau sans maître a few years later, which Boulez and Stravinsky agreed was his seminal early work. "The Bull"'s compression is what Boulez noticed: "what attracted me to Char was not, as many have written, his love of nature, his love of Provence, or his deep understanding of men. Rather was it his extraordinary power to gather together, in an extremely concise way, a whole universe." Soleil was originally a long poem documenting the Resistance, but Boulez used only a dramatic monologue of a lizard who fancies himself an omniscient prophet and tragically falls in love with a goldfinch ("who but a lizard in love to tell the secrets of the earth") followed by a tribute to the Sorgue. It could seem, at first, daunting for Char to compose a poem about a river frequently described in Petrarch's Canzionere as in 208 "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak," but Petrarch's much too fixated* on the married Laura of whom "we have no reason to suppose.. ever bestowed one favor on Petrarch beyond a pleasant look.." for him to give the river the extended treatment Char gave it:

Solar imagery would be related to his Resistance experience: In "Freedom" "..it came, a swan on the wound, along this white line.. that might signify dawn's emergence as well as dusk's candlestick", "Penumbra": "I was in one of those forests where the sun has no access, but where stars penetrate by night. The place could exist only because the inquisition of the state had overlooked it.." (tr: Mary Ann Caws)

* Char's aphorism "Le poème est l'amour réalisé du désir demeuré désir" could be commentary on Petrarch's legacy.

Anselm Kiefer, Fur René

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