“Joe Bousquet and the Morality of Language”
by Ferdinand Alquié
[Draft Translation]

Another essay referenced by Gilles Deleuze in Logic of Sense, on the work of Joe Bousquet. Following the previous essay by René Nelli, this shorter tract is by one of Deleuze’s former teachers, Ferdinand Alquié.

Alquié is interesting as a staunch Cartesian who spent decades in a protracted debate with his Spinozist contemporary Martial Gueroult. There has been some English scholarship, notably from Knox Peden, on where Deleuze himself fell between these two positions; intriguingly, the anti-Spinozist Alquié supervised Deleuze’s thesis on Spinoza and “expressionism in philosophy”. How this Cartesian-Spinozist dialectic reflects on Deleuze’s more specific (if still seemingly passing) interest in Bousquet is more interesting still. The essay below opens the door on this only a crack, but the light that comes through, for me at least, is vibrant.

Translation note: I am less satisfied with this than I was with the Nelli essay, but again, only a draft, as my main desire at this stage is just being able to read these texts for myself.

Joe Bousquet and the Morality of Language

No idea has cast a greater shadow over the creations of the mind than that of vocation. It obscures the relationship between men and their lives; it leads to the assumption that the poet or philosopher has a kind of message prior to his existence, expressing himself in spite of daily difficulties, and as if in spite of them. To speak of vocation is always to take the side of revolt, to prefer a man to his life, to believe that there was more richness in his dream than in his history. It is always closing our eyes to him.

Joe Bousquet’s eyes were open. “The only morality I retain,” he wrote, “is that which … imposes on us, as the only principle of our entire existence, the fact that happens to us, whatever it may be; holds that this event alone is real and that it is up to us to accomplish its perfection and brilliance.”[1] Those who knew Bousquet know how scrupulously he followed this rule, his only rule. If his life was so beautiful, and so seductive, it is because, far from wanting to make it his own, he accepted to find his principle within it.

Without the accident of his injury, Bousquet would probably never have written. We cannot, therefore, speak here of an innate mission, of a first intuition of the world and of man. But, wounded, Bousquet considered his wound as a kind of birth, cancelling out his birth of flesh: “I escaped,” he says, “the mortal consequences of a shock in order to render doubtful the dispositions that my birth had given me. By tireless work, I substituted a being of culture”.[2] So, wounded to death, he no longer seemed mortal. He had ceased to be the son of Nature to become the son of the Event. Of all future events, he seemed to us to have to remain the conscience and the echo.

And such was the meaning of his work. In anyone else, the literary concern would have been to escape, to compensate: one can, in fact, forget one’s sorrow in the exercise of an art with borrowed forms, and in the pleasures of vanity that this exercise provides. Bousquet’s genius was, on the contrary, to understand that, through the effect of his wound, the separation had become his essence; his wound had made him a poet; it was up to him to devote his poetry, not to forgetting it, but to deepening it. “I would have put all my strength into naturalizing the accident of which my youth was the victim. I wanted it to cease to remain external to me.”[3]

Bousquet wanted to follow the rigour of such a project to the end, which led him to an ethics of language. To the expressing, he granted the value of the expressed, he allowed interiority to dissolve into the visible, and the pain experienced into the light of the object. “I know,” he said, “that death and unhappiness are images”.[4] Bousquet’s poems, wrote René Nelli, “all translate the reduction of the self to the event”.[5] This is the key to these obscure texts, which always seem to close in on themselves. To learn to read them, one must understand to what extent the reduction Nelli speaks of was imposed by the necessity of a destiny that Bousquet wanted to accept to the point of becoming one.

Every man must choose between the search for a lost paradise, which appears to him as his being, and the difficult effort by which he equates himself to the object, to history, that is to say, to the truth of a discourse. Bousquet thus opposes knowledge and existence: “The apotheosis of knowledge excludes existence”.[6] And if he likes to write with difficulty, it is not to deplore some clumsiness, but to signify that the act of writing engages his life by separating it from his being. “What dominates this end of the year,” we read in his diary, “is the overwhelming conviction that I hear nothing of my art. I don’t know how to write.”[7] This seemingly banal concern immediately reveals its depth: “I am not the author of what I have done that is passable. It seems that the effort made to express myself aggravates the misunderstanding between my thoughts and myself.”

And no doubt Bousquet is expressing in this a difficulty common to writers. But instead of deploring the inadequacy of all words, and taking refuge in some ineffable experience, he prefers language and, with it, the objective fabric of his life: “I don’t like to feel more real than the thought to which I long to submit”.[8] For he knows that thought, being discourse, is closer to the event than to the being: the event can be said, its nature is that of words. Here Bousquet accepts, consents: “I was looking for all the facts that made me fall under the domination of my word”.[9]

This ethics of language explains, I think, why at the end of his life Bousquet paid almost exclusive attention to the work of Jean Paulhan. I also believe that the reservations he had about Cartesian thought had their deepest source there. He did not fall into the error of those who see in this thought only the transparency of clear ideas: rather, he was concerned to see Descartes grant being to thought. On the subject of “I think, therefore I am”, he wrote to me one day. “What will you say to me if I tell you that, at times, I feel to the point of delirium that I am thought?” … “The idea of me, I feel it being nourished by the things that happen to me” … And elsewhere: “I do not think about describing an object. I put myself in front of it until it is not me who looks at it, but it is him who sees me, who invents in my eyes the image of him sleeping at his feet”.

Thus, at a time when philosophers of existence and philosophers of discourse were in sharp opposition, Bousquet knew how to find in the objective event, and in the language that describes it, the reason for his very existence. His asceticism was not that of a loner who had voluntarily left the world, but that of a lover whom the world had left, and who could only rejoin it by preferring it to himself, by seeking the essence of his pain only in the brilliance of things. Nothing is further from this authentic quest for being through words than the artificial creation of works from concepts, which is so common nowadays. It is in this that Bousquet was like no one else. He was not one of those who go from reflection to life, and take for their drama that of their thoughts: he had rather to recover, by the help of images and words, his lost life, to avoid sterile revolt by preferring what he saw, what he said, to what he was. So he always consoled, not with the illusion of some promise, but with the truth of reconciliation. At the cemetery in Villalier, where we accompanied him on a morning of rain and sunshine, he seemed to have taken on the shape and colours of a landscape he had loved more than he had loved himself. And I believe that I am faithful to him by no longer seeking the truth of his voice except in those I still hear, and the accuracy of his thoughts except on the face of the World.

[1] Confession spirituelle, in : Journal des Poètes, janvier 1948.

[2] Le Meneur de Lune, p. 14.

[3] Traduit du silence, p. 9.

[4] Confession spirituelle, in : Journal des Poètes, janvier 1948.

[5] Le poète de la connaissance du soit : ibid.

[6] Le Meneur de Lune, p. 179.

[7] Traduit du Silence, p. 13.

[8] Le Meneur de Lune, p. 15.

[9] Le passeur s’est endormi, p. 120.

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