on Yves Bonnefoy
‘A way among the words’: intimacy, desire and communication in the poetics and poetry of Yves Bonnefoy
Une façon de dire, qui ferait
OF THE GENERATION of poets who began to write in the France and Belgium of the 1950s, Yves Bonnefoy, then in his thirties, is now perhaps the most widely celebrated. His early poetry exhibits a flair and savagery of image which earned him the approbation of the Surrealists, with whom he associated for a time; but thread for thread, the violence and eroticism of this poetry was matched by the philosophical questions he made his own from very early in his career. His first book-length publication, Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve (1953), recently translated in the Bloodaxe Contemporary French Poets series as On the motion and immobility of Douve (1992) by Galway Kinnell, begins abruptly with the image of a lover ambiguously fleeing from death and running exultant through the country of her death:
Je te voyais courir sur des terrasses,
I saw you running on the terraces,
The linguistic closure of the poetic image in relation to the real and its abolition of being as presence are perennial concerns of the poet. In a lecture titled ‘Sur la fonction du poème’ (On the function of the poem)[See note [ii]], Bonnefoy explored the question which underlies this first and subsequent books of poetry and his numerous critical works: the possibility of maintaining in poetic language an openness toward presence. The work of poetry is to cultivate that openness through what he has elsewhere referred to as its ‘work on desire’. Ideally, poetry would work to unravel the desires of reader and writer alike for the realization and recognition of their own subjectivities in language, in order to allow what is conceived of as a simpler, or, in Bonnefoy’s terms, second desire to emerge. The ‘second desire’ attaches the subject to others in a relationship of ‘communication’. For Bonnefoy, communication is the site of our intimate and mutual recognition of the relation of human existence, the existence of each of us, to death and the loss of presence.
After gesture, verbal language is the means by which we formulate demands and requests to others for the fulfilment of our needs and desires. It is indispensible in the establishment of intimate relations with the other.
Presence and communication
‘When I expressed the principle of losing one’s grip (glissement ) – as the presiding law of communication –’ writes Bataille, ‘I believed I had got to the bottom of the matter’[See note [xii]]. There is a certain common understanding in the work of Bataille and Bonnefoy regarding this philosophical notion of communication, which has little in common with the everyday notion of the transference of a message. A word such as ‘empathy’ might perhaps render it more closely; or the image of the joined chemical vessels the French call ‘les vases communicants’, in which the fluctuations of pressure in one vessel are always balanced by a change of fluid level in the other.
Parée pour une fête dans le vide
Adorned for a festival in the void,
In Bataille’s L’histoire de l’érotisme (History of eroticism), fête – feast or festival – is the transgression of a relation to being (être ) represented by simple absorption in physical sensation.[See note [xiv]]Ethnographically, fête is also a form of communication effected through a deliberate and exuberant dissemination of wealth, a symbolic display of indifference to the daily means by which life is sustained: thus it is the celebration accompanying sacrifice.[See note [xv]]Douve appears earlier in this sequence as ecstatically seeking her own sacrifice: ‘toute/ En quête de la mort sur les tambours exultants de [s]es gestes’ (‘all/ Bent on death on the exulting drums of [her] gestures’)[See note [xvi]]. In the lines quoted above, it is through the mediation of Douve that the speaker experiences the anguish which is the upsurge of death in the present. It is this implication of the other in one’s own experience of being which Bataille calls ‘communication’. L’amour is the relation in which communication – a form of découverte , or disclosure – takes place: love reveals ‘cette qualité d’être que chacun doit à la présence de l’autre’, (‘that quality of being that each owes to the presence of the other’).[See note [xvii]]
Tue cette voix qui criait à ma face
Silenced that voice which shouted to my face
Douve responds, remarking that it is her own voice – which is a kind of silence, the silence of alterity – that inspires the speaker’s cry of affirmation:[See note [xx]]
Pourtant ce cri sur moi vient de moi,
And yet the cry comes from myself,
Much of the force of Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve is captured by the subjunctive modality of Douve’s eventual invocation: ‘Que le froid par ma mort se lève et prenne un sens’ (‘Let the cold by my death arise and take on meaning’)[See note [xxi]]. Douve desires that ‘the cold’ become meaningful for the observer: yet the observer does not produce that meaning: ‘Que le froid par ma mort se lève... ’. The cold she refers to is the revelation of subjectivity as néant , as unfounded, when all that remains is the enigma of being. It is a stage in the development of Douve’s death, which is marked by the speaker’s assertion in relation to Douve: ‘Je te tiens froide à une profondeur où les images ne prennent plus’ (‘I hold you cold at a depth where images will not take’)[See note [xxii]]. But the sense of enigma induced by the cold is not insurmountable. That it is to be understood as a ‘stage’ is confirmed by Douve’s desire that it ‘take on meaning’ – but only through the mediation of her death, and not by a turning away from death.
Au premier jour du froid notre tête s’évade
On the first day of cold the head escapes
(Bonnefoy 1992b.: 64)
The affirmation of presence
Douve may thus be read as the mise-en-scène of a ‘dialogue of anguish and desire’ (the title of the final section in the third book of poems, Pierre écrite [See note [xxiv]]). The speaker of the poems, desiring the presence of Douve, undergoes a trial (épreuve ) in which he is witness to the upsurge of her death in the form of the insistence of matter and her body’s gradual decay – an alterity of matter which threatens to disperse subjectivity itself. As the poems unfold, it is clear that the experience of anguish must be undergone as a precursor to affirming a renewed relation to being, symbolized by the repeated and mute illuminations of Douve’s abrupt gestures: ‘Le bras que tu soulèves, soudain, sur une porte, m’illumine à travers les âges.’ (‘The arm you lift, suddenly, at a doorway, lights me across the ages’)[See note [xxv]]. The gestures of Douve are neither vague nor obscure; rather, they are the source of a certainty (évidence) retained by the speaker after the event. They reveal the experience of presence as that of a paradoxical appearance which disappears, or disappearance which appears, as Blanchot, too, conceived it: ‘Village de braise, à chaque instant je te vois na”tre, Douve,/ À chaque instant mourir.’ (Village of embers, each instant I see you being born, Douve,/ Each instant dying.’)[See note [xxvi]].
Secouant ta chevelure ou cendre de Phénix,
Shaking your hair or Phoenix’s ashes,
The experience of disincarnation
For Bonnefoy, poetry is a source to which the poet returns, inquiring of presence, where it is to be found again... Blanchot writes of poetic language that ‘the word becomes desire , trusting to desire to bring it back to its source.’ Or, as René Char (quoted by Blanchot) proposed: ‘The poem is the realized love of desire still desiring.’[See note [xxviii]]
Se jette en criant celui qui
He launches himself with a cry,
The space of the poem is the unfolding and closing down again of the impossible motion in which the hope of maintaining a presence in language seems for an instant accomplished, ‘the origin blossoming into a beginning’[See note [xxx]].
Mais non, toujours
But no, as always,
The sites in a poem where significations coagulate are paradoxically, the places at which presence is at once most close to expression, and the most intense site of its loss, ‘[b]lessure inguérissable’ (‘incurable wound’)[See note [xxxii]]:
Le ciel brille pourtant des mêmes signes,
Yet the sky glitters with these signs,
The river crossed by the boatman is the motion of finitude. It is a metaphor for the idea of ‘the true place’ that Bonnefoy proposes in the essay ‘L’acte et le lieu de la poésie’, in which finitude would cease to be experienced as an enigma: ‘The true place is a fragment of time enveloped by eternity... in the true place chance loses its enigmatic character’[See note [xxxiii]].
L’orage qui s’attarde, le lit défait,
The storm that will not break, the rumpled bed,
The windows flutter in the quiet space between inside and out, subject and other, the curved back and blood of the poet and the aridity of the image, from which the blood of presence is always already lost. Shutters vibrate in an atmosphere of immobility, a figure which returns us to the opening of the poem:[See note [xxxv]]
A nouveau ce bruit d’un ailleurs, proche, lointain;
Again that noise of another place, close and far away;
The writer seeks to recover the body of the lover, dispersed through and by the poem:[See note [xxxvi]]
La main proche à son rêve, la cheville
Hand close to her dream, her heel
The dissolution of being is the fatal end of writing; for language will, of necessity, ‘carry the storm there and be done’.
Je murmure: C’est donc ce que tu veux,
I murmur: So this is what you want,
This is an intimacy established with what must remain obscure, distant and uncertain, the presence of another; indeed, the other’s presence is maintained through and by means of that distance. The poet can only desire ‘[q]ue les lointains ne se séparent pas/ Une nouvelle fois du proche...’ (‘that those in the distance do not separate themselves/ Again from the one who draws near...’ )[See note [xl]].
[i] Yves Bonnefoy, ‘Le Tout, Le Rien’/‘The Whole, The Nothingness’, trans. John Naughton and Richard Stamelman, in New and selected poems , ed. John Naughton and Anthony Rudolf, (Chicago, 1995), 185–187. Translations from the French are my own if not otherwise indicated in the initial reference.
[ii] Bonnefoy, Le Nuage Rouge , (Paris, 1992), 285–300.
[iii] J. Libertson, Proximity: Levinas, Blanchot, Bataille and Communication , (The Hague, 1982).
[iv] Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti , (Paris, 1991).
[v] F. de Lussy, Yves Bonnefoy , exhibition catalogue, Bibliothèque Nationale, (Paris, 1992).
[vi] Maurice Blanchot, ‘Le grand refus’, La Nouvelle Revue Française , (1er octobre, 1959); ‘Comment découvrir l’obscur?’, La Nouvelle Revue Française , (1er novembre, 1959).
[vii] Bonnefoy, L’improbable et autres essais , (Paris, 1980).
[viii] Bonnefoy, ‘Critics, French and English, and the Distance between Them’, Encounter , (London, no. 58, 1958), 44.
[ix] Translated into English by Ann Smock as The space of literature , (Lincoln, 1982).
[x] Blanchot, (1982), 198.
[xi] Blanchot, The infinite conversation , trans. S. Hanson, (Minneapolis, 1993), 47.
[xii] Bataille, ‘L’expérience intérieure’, in Œuvres complètes, vol. 5, (Paris, 1973), 115.
[xiii] Bonnefoy, On the motion and immobility of Douve/ Du mouvement et de l’immobility de Douve , trans. Galway Kinnell, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1992), 56.
[xiv] Bataille, ‘L’histoire de l’érotisme’, in Œuvres complètes , vol. 8, (Paris, 1976a).
[xvi] Bonnefoy, (1992), 48.
[xvii] ibid, 49.
[xviii] Bataille, ‘L’expérience intérieure’, in Œuvres complètes, vol. 5, (Paris, 1973), 112.
[xix] Bonnefoy (1992), 84.
[xx] ibid, 90.
[xxi] ibid, 100.
[xxii] ibid, 58.
[xxiii] ibid, 64.
[xxiv] Bonnefoy, Pierre écrite , in Poèmes , preface by Jean Starobinski, (Paris, 1982). Pierre écrite was first published in 1965.
[xxv] Bonnefoy, (1992), 49.
[xxvii] ibid, 94.
[xxviii] Blanchot, (1982), 187.
[xxix] Bonnefoy, Dans le leurre du seuil , in Poèmes , preface by Jean Starobinski, (Paris, 1982), 265. Dans le leurre du seuil was first published in 1975.
[xxx] Blanchot, (1982), 205.
[xxxi] Bonnefoy, (1982), 253.
[xxxii] ibid, 254.
[xxxiii] Bonnefoy, (1980), 130.
[xxxiv] Bonnefoy, (1982), 275.
[xxxv] ibid, 253.
[xxxvi] ibid, 275.
[xxxviii] ibid, 276.
[xxxix] ibid, 277.
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