“Joe Bousquet and his Double”
by René Nelli
[Draft Translation]

As previously mentioned, I’ve been trying to translate some Joe Bousquet. Having started on his book Traduit du silence, I quickly felt I’d bitten off more than I could chew, so I have instead gone for something more manageable.

Below is an essay written by René Nelli for issue #303 of Cahiers du Sud, the French literary journal that was a frequent home to surrealists, modernists and philosophers. Issue #303 is a special issue dedicated in large part to Bousquet’s work, featuring excerpts from his notebooks and essays by many of his friends and admirers.

Nelli’s essay, “Joe Bousquet et son double”, was first brought to my attention by a footnote in Gilles Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, following a brief section where he talks about Bousquet, stoicism and develops his ethics of the event. Deleuze is characteristically evasive iand not that you would expect him to, but that he mentions it at all suggests it will be somewhat interesting (his footnotes often feel like great recommendations rather than citations in their own right; he won’t mention something unless it’s worth reading):

With respect to Joe Bousquet’s work, which is in its entirety a meditation on the wound, the event, and language, see two essential articles in Cahiers du Sud (1950), no. 303…

(The first essay mentioned is this one… The second, by Ferdinand Alquié, will follow here in a few days.)

Sure enough, it is a fascinating text and one that complicates not only Deleuze’s position but Bousquet’s own. After all, Deleuze draws on Bousquet for his affirmation of his wounding during the First World War, the paraplegic poet who found himself bedbound but all the more capable of fleeing into his own realism (and out the other side into a true surrealism) as a result. But things are not so simple, as Nelli explains. The true Bousquet is found in the struggle rather than any grand claims to certitude. It is not that Bousquet ultimately made himself worthy of the event that severed his spinal cord, but posthumously speaking, the attempt is, in itself, perhaps enough. It makes for an fascinating, if brief look into one man’s life, death and the eternal war between the two forces governing the two.

Translation note: this is a first attempt, and some sections could likely be improved upon. I’ve also not been so bold as to translate any of the quoted poetry; I’d only butcher it.

Joe Bousquet and his double

Joe Bousquet’s poems, those of the Connaissance du Soir and those that remain unpublished, almost all express, in a remarkably constant way, the invasion of man by his destiny, his effacement before an unknown Double, his replacement by a monster of absence.

…Souvenez-vous par charité
qu’un monstre attend qu’on lui pardonne
l’affreux bonheur d’avoir été…

D’un mal que la vie endure
En s’enfermant dans les pas
Dont elle était l’aventure…

These are not only the glimmerings of a Dialectic of the Imaginary that proceeds by successive abolition or reversal of its image-supports, (the nymph who dresses herself with that which denudes her), but the data of a lived, visceral experience, within which Bousquet aspired, and undoubtedly succeeded, in creating for himself a body of absence that compensated for his absent body. In Hans Bellmer’s drawing of him, he does not stand out against a background of nothingness, but against the background of appearances of which he wanted to be the opaque reverse. And this is indeed how he haunted his own poems.

…L’amour des choses qui dure
au cœur d’un mort qui m’attend…
…Rend leur corps lunaire aux morts que je suis…
…Donne des yeux a l’étoile
Dont ton fantôme est la cœur…
…Et qui vient sans moi demander sa main…
…Dont ta peine est la sœur vermeille
Et l’oubli de toi le miroir…
…Un homme n’est que son frère
Puisque son frère c’est lui…

This theme, tirelessly taken up, (quite similar, moreover, to that of the “Absence-Realising” which Romanticism, and then Surrealism, had put at the forefront of poetic concern) did not only determine – even in the syntax – the pace of Bousquet’s style, it also developed in him a mysticism of destiny whose evolution can be followed from 1925 to 1950, in most of his works, from the study on François-Paul Albert[1], written in 1925, to the Connaissance de Soir and the “Tales”, so original, so wonderfully complex, so mysteriously luminous. In a poet whose fate had taken pleasure in crucifying life, one might have expected to see consoling idealisms emerge, and to bring with them, almost necessarily, a taste for poetic divinations [mancies], fatal meanings, and systems of “coincidences”. Yet it was in a very different direction, and at the very time when he was most energetically safeguarding his wounded freedom, that Bousquet discovered the poetic meaning of all destiny. Magic idealism had certainly tempted him from the years 25-26, especially that of Novalis, which secretly agreed with the aspirations of some surrealists, and appeared at the time as a means of desensitising the universe. But even before the surrealists, in their poetry and painting, had set an example of an immediate and materialistic magic, without Gods and without any other prestiges than those that are inscribed, in filigree, in reality and in words, he showed, in all his writings, as much distance from fideistic reveries as repulsion from easy consolations. Devoted to the spectacle of “illuminating” apparitions, he refrained not from confronting the mystery, but from making the slightest hypothesis about its economy: the awareness of his misfortune turned into a hatred of God, and, combined with Marxism – to which he always remained faithful (only on the social and political levels) – it made him the most atheistic of poets.[2]

All this explains why his theory of Destiny, far from being part of a magical system, was committed to an ethic. All those who knew Bousquet in 1925 were struck by the care he took to forget his illness and to make others forget it. One admired less the courage he had displayed as a lieutenant during the First World War than the heroism he displayed in counteracting the empire that his infirmity might have taken over his mind. The young people who approached him at that time would never have thought, before knowing him, that it was possible to push so far the rebellion against the most unjust of fates. He tried, on all occasions, and especially in front of women, to remain who he would have been if his wound had not deviated, to play the role he would have played if his body had not been broken: in short, not to deserve their pity. In fact, some men in his little town forgot to pity him, and came to envy him. It was a time of fantastic passions, of incredible loves. Each of his admirers, naively, like the peasant girl in Molière’s Don Juan, believed herself to be the exclusive beneficiary of the fervour with which he transfigured the world and its passers-by. Il ne fait pas assez noir, Rendez-vous d’un soir d’hiver, Une passante bleue et blonde, the first “Cahiers Noirs” were an “innumerable declaration of love”. I borrow this word from a famous poetess who added: “You have to be a woman perhaps to hear all that these books say”. No doubt. But I think you have to be a man to recognise, under the melody of these love songs, the challenge to destiny that constitutes their essence, and to measure the abyss of despair from which this cry for revenge against God rose.

Future critics may call the period of Bousquet’s life up to 1936-37 Stoic – or Luciferian. He had not succeeded, whatever he may have said, in overcoming his destiny, since he did not accept it in its horror, and refused to become one with it. He existed only to oppose himself. The real Bousquet, the great one, was born, it seems to me, in 1936, with the Tisane de sarments : Every myth, every symbol in this admirable book tells us that he was henceforth determined to reconquer his equilibrium, his happiness, on Fatality itself, and no longer on the memory of a destroyed past. In the Passeur s’endormi as in the Mal d’enfance, he finally reaches the image of what he is: (a man struck by lightning, a rock, a tree, he sometimes said). The notes in the “Cahier Noir” are very revealing in this respect, especially this one: “Everything that affects us must be experienced in an exemplary way”. It is from this key idea, the beauty of which seems to me inexhaustible, that he was able to rise little by little to the Godless Mysticism of which “Presentism” (in 1930) only half predicted the ultimate direction, and which was to blossom into a kind of logic of the irrational only in the years 1945-50, those directly preceding his death. The essential proposition is well known: the world that appears to us, the events in which we are involved, exist only insofar as they end in us, merge with us, and await us. According to this phenomenology of Destiny, “my wound,” he said, “existed before me: I was born to embody it.”[3] The only eternity he ever wanted to conceive remained that of that unthinkable point from which we can contemplate without ourselves the acts and events that manifest us.[4] But interpreted in the light of this star of eternity, the figurations of his tales, the presences of his poems found their mystical – and agnostic – value in the very absoluteness of their appearance. The Stoic – or Luciferian – pride, so poor, so ineffective, so literary, gave way, in Bousquet’s case, to the most difficult love which consists, for each person, in loving his destiny as if he had chosen it. The unique, the irreplaceable, is the being that we create for ourselves by adhering freely, with dilection, to a privileged event which alone can take our true measure, provided that we ourselves grant it its definitive meaning. There is a kind of brotherhood that radiates from this myth. But there is a risk of seriously misunderstanding its true content: the “fraternal tone” that reigns in Joe Bousquet’s poems has neither the same origin nor the same meaning as that which we perceive in the political poetry of some Marxists. Bousquet remains an individualist even when it comes to ruining individualism. For him, human brotherhood is not a “social” feeling. It results from a quasi-mystical experience of the individual who feels that his own death – which runs alongside him – is exactly the substance of other men, their Double. And who thus substantializes death, he feels himself already living in the “Others”. A magical process which testifies to an unconscious desire to apply the identification procedures of amorous mysticism to the whole of the Thinking Real – and not only to the Feminine.

In 1945 Bousquet professed that Acts came before the Person, that beings and things were only there to fill the expectation of destiny with consciousness. And I leave it to you to imagine all the esoteric aspects of this assertion, which led to a theory similar to that of André Breton’s “Objective Chances” (for which Bousquet has always had the greatest poetic sympathy), but which does not proceed from it. The idea that destiny was a set of lines of force that magnetised, poetically attracting appearances, had imposed itself on the entire Carcassonne Group as early as 1924. Some verified it in Schopenhauer’s “Destiny of the Individual”, others tried to control it by magical practices. But only one of them, Joe Bousquet, had been placed – unfortunately – in the right circumstances to experience it in its reality. I will refrain from reporting here the magic-objective phenomena I witnessed at that time, because they would make fools laugh, or risk, which is more serious, to end up in some suspicious Anthology of “occultism”. But it was necessary to remember that one cannot understand anything about Bousquet’s work if one refuses to enter in any way into the secret of his hermeticism.

The real had become for him a state of emotion. Love was the existential flavour imparted to an image of a woman. And at the expense of the subject. I mean that every image thus revaluated exiled him from the concrete and transformed him into a reflection. At least he experienced this kind of annihilation, thanks to which he made these living visions come to life. These women had fairy-tale names: they were called Nettle, Holly-grass, White-by-love. But we can be sure that he retained only the mysterious figure that he had tried to discover in them, and which linked their adorable everyday figures to adventures of the spirit, infinitely interiorized, that is to say, basically, to omens. Love constantly suspended him between two nothingnesses. I said that he conceived reality only negatively and as a void that would have opened up within him: reality, he said, equalled love; love, substantialized death. This is an illusion that all lovers experience, but one that Bousquet experienced more than any other, because, as a result of his wound, he felt that he existed as a barely embodied image, always on the point of being lost in the darkness. Let us imagine him, training himself relentlessly to confuse dream and wakefulness, to note pell-mell, in his diary, the events of the dream and those of real life, in order to better integrate their being with their original verb, and we will understand that the influx of presentiments, it is understandable that the influx of presentiments, inseparable from the nature of love – but occurring in him with much greater intensity – conjured [développe en mancie] the “Natural Sense of Destiny”, as well as a direct sympathy, sometimes going as far as absolute communion, with the Spirit of Femininity, the source of this prophetic power.

Towards the end of his life, he believed he had found the way to reach the feminine heart from within, not an infra-natural intuition, which made him say that, decidedly, his Double would be feminine. Shortly before his death, a sculptor who knew him only by name had the idea of representing his features as seen through a woman’s face. This was to restore to him his spiritual heredity as a thirteenth-century troubadour. He accepted the homage as an omen of death.

Joe Bousquet always said he was happy. And he wanted to be told so. “My body was broken,” he wrote in one of his notebooks, “I asked myself what I was going to do with all this life that was given back to me: no one can imagine the happiness of the man who no longer belongs to anything and to whom his life belongs.” …He was mistaken, or deceived us: his life did not really belong to him. Wounded in his nervous integrity, he was, moreover, a very sick man whose moral equilibrium was established only at the price of a non-stop struggle. Several times a year, overcome by a painful crisis, he would fall into bed, chattering his teeth under the covers… But “returning to life was sweeter for him than living. I enter my existence, he added, as if I were in the memory of another…”. This ghostly duality which ensured his happiness, and thanks to which he had re-established his vital equilibrium, he felt it to be a dead end on only one level: that of literary creation. He aspired to live in another, but he wanted the man and the writer in him to be one.

He said to me one day: “You see, I have just experienced the deepest joy of my life, the only one that gives the accent of a presentiment to this happiness (of which we had just spoken). Jean Paulhan, to whom I had entrusted my diaries, has published a large part of them. It seems that he threw me into my life and gave me the same soul to live and to be a writer. The one I thought I was and the one I am, since Traduit du silence was published, are one and the same man…”. No one has better assessed the importance that Paulhan’s intervention had in his literary life than Bousquet himself.[5] It was only from Traduit du silence onwards that he recognised the right to be a realist in his own way – or even in the classical way of La Bruyère – that he dared to look at himself as a man-in-the-social, and that he finally held up to society the mirror which until then had reflected only his Double. “I realised,” he noted at the time, “that Realism and Materialism must not be confused. Not to confuse the interests of man with those of truth. The realism of one who accepts that he is only half real. The truth to be put in terms of beauty has taken the place of the man I was…”. From this moment on he will also try not to say “I”. He dreamt of objective poems, of tales in which his person would have disappeared or of which he would have been “the last passer-by”. His poetry will remain faithful to this Double, which still embodied the threat of death that weighed on him, but “truth” and “beauty” now drew him into the larger mirror in which the round of all the living is reflected.

It was, I believe, Jean Paulhan who pushed Bousquet to write regular poems, thus disciplining, most fortunately, the prodigious verbal wealth of the writer (one will notice that Joe Bousquet’s prose uses a vocabulary almost as abundant as that of Rabelais, while his poetic tarot is poorer than that of Racine…). This was the aesthetician’s way of bringing the poet back to the human. No doubt his poetry remains caught up in the meanders, folded in on themselves, which represent the steps and gestures of one who no longer had a body, but it rises, after Paulhan’s lesson, to harmony, purity, perfection, as if, in this paralytic, it had proceeded from a dance. And that was indeed a miracle of language. And so, between 1945 and 1950, it was inevitably the problems of language that took precedence over those of destiny and love for Joe Bousquet.

He meditated on the Fleurs de Tarbes and the Clé de la Poésie, making them his bedside books. The verb having become the place of his coexistences, and the occasion for the future to invent itself in the present, he wrote an article on the Fleurs de Tarbes, which he decided almost immediately to expand into a book… He was divided, at the time, between the two antagonistic doctrines, the one that believes in invention from language and the one that asserts that language can only express the preconceived idea. If he admits, with Paulhan, that “words and thought can sometimes be indifferent in poetry,” he also tries to prove, in his stories, that there are poetic units that are neither words nor ideas, that the deepest poetry corresponds to the Act that embodies beings in their essence of the word. Hence his taste for the mystical philosophies of language. He scrutinised ideograms, the formulas of hermeticism, the poetry of folklore which resides nowhere, neither in the expression nor in the avowed meaning. He dreamed of reconciling Duns Scotus and Descartes, Cornelius Agrippa and Jean Paulhan. If his Essay appears one day – and I hope it will be at the same time as the Tales – we will see that he went further than anyone else in the understanding of Paulhan’s theories, to which he lent unsuspected horizons – but that he also held a part of them – perhaps the essential part – to be a dead letter, because the concern to give back to ontology all that the aesthetician situates in the phenomenon, hid from him its philosophical interest. Between Paulhan and him there was the screen of a gnosis to which Paulhan would probably not have wanted to adhere.

Where the Clé de la Poésie poses only the indifference of signs (the idea being basically only the sign of a sign), Bousquet established an equivalence, an exchange of being. No doubt because his mind animated his words more than he animated his body. For him, words were events as disembodied as others, and if they resulted in semantics, it was that of an inhuman destiny. The real Double into which he was ultimately driven was the Universe of the Word. It is therefore easy to understand why he tried – to no avail, moreover – to reconcile what Cornelius Agrippa calls “the intrinsic verb engendered by thought, the conception by which thought conceives itself, i.e. self-knowledge, and the extrinsic and vocal verb, the giving birth to and manifestation of this verb, the spirit signifying something.” (Magic, 3, 36.) But it was undoubtedly chimerical to want to discover a valid identity between the original purity of Being, which, following Duns Scotus, he sought in the verb (signifying nothing but its infinite subject) and the triple relation (of the word to its practical meaning – of the word to its “power” to create the idea – of the word to its power to signify indifferently) in which it seems to me that Paulhan rightly encloses the delirium of poets.

When one looks closely, one realizes that the astonishing parallelism according to which Bousquet rubs shoulders with Paulhan, without ever joining him, is the expression of a metaphysical divergence, of an infinite disagreement, which only becomes clear when one pushes the notions to the limit. Paulhan wants the indifference of inspiration and calculation to be the poetic mystery, and Bousquet wants this phenomenal indifference to be the symbol – and the mystery – of a substantial equality of All to All[6] (and of this equality, his own spirit, disembodied, foreign to himself, dispossessed by appearances, duplicated in his acts, wanted to be the pledge). The mystery begins for Paulhan where it ends for Bousquet.

It is for having taken the side of the word – the absurd word, the incredible word – that Joe Bousquet’s poetry will live long into the future. Not that I want to underestimate the importance of his mythical thought, one of the most authentic, one of the most profound that has ever been revealed. But it is difficult, discontinuous, disconcerting, and I don’t see that our “civilisation” shows much interest in experiments of this kind which demand of the mind more attention to itself than application to the social. It is his unusual language which, by necessity, will excite the curiosity of men for a long time, will catch it. Her poetry will always bear witness to the fact that there is more mystery in words than in things, and in consciousness than in words. It will disturb those who want to reassure themselves scientifically. This poetic phrase where transparency becomes solid by dint of accumulating on itself, where the volume of the body is reborn – disproportionate – from a thousand interlocking relationships, these images where words “infinite” suddenly open up true, “unforgettable” climates… it is in this second world that we must look for “my brother the shadow”. For there is the Double, the exact resemblance, of this poet who really took up the challenge of being himself what he was not, what Fate had not wanted him to be, what another Fate wanted him to be, in a word: the extraordinary adventure of the disoriented mind, the most beautiful adventure of language.[7]

[1] Booklet published in Nîmes, in 1925, under the pseudonym of Pierre Maugars. It concludes with this sentence, which is somewhat influenced by Unamuno and André Suarès: “It is a new sense that the crossing of the universe lights up in the human mind: the sense that the intelligence of Destiny gives.”

[2] I call the most atheistic of poets the one who, having come closest to God through circumstance, deliberately turns his back on him.

[3] “Everything was in place in the events of my life before I made them mine. And to live them is to find myself tempted to equal them, as if they had to take their best and most perfect qualities from me alone.”

[4] Cf. Paul Eluard:

Des femmes descendent de leur miroir ancien
T’apportent leur jeunesse et leur foi en la tienne
Et l’une sa clarté la voile qui t’entraine
Te fait secrètement voir le monde sans toi

[5] In the notebook from 1945, we read this sentence: 27 May 1942. Here comes again the anniversary of a day that transformed me… Jean Paulhan has passed…

[6] Cf. Cornelius Agrippa: “And all that can be said is only the verb and is called equality, for it has an equal relation to all things, not being one rather than the other giving equally to all things the right to be what they are, neither more nor less” (Magic, 3, 36).

[7] I attribute the fact that Joe Bousquet confessed before his death only to his will to bet, once again, on the omnipotence of language conceived as having to achieve in the “Absurd” the most incredible purifications and the most marvellous metamorphoses. This, if they misunderstand it, will not satisfy either Christians or materialists. What, if they understand it well, will perhaps satisfy the (heretical) Christians more.

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