Literature: Life, Death and Thought in Interwar and Occupation-Era France: René Char, Georges Bataille & Pierre Drieu la Rochelle

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1 Literature: Life, Death and Thought in Interwar and Occupation-Era France: René Char, Georges Bataille & Pierre Drieu la Rochelle Rowan G. Tepper December 2011 I. While the much celebrated debate concerning literature engagée came most prominently to the fore in the post-war period, following the (not unassisted) success of the résistance and the post-war épaurations, this debate has its roots principally in the tumultuous inter-war years of the Third French Republic, and even in times before. Indeed, Julien Benda, in his 1927 La Trahison des Clercs, decried the ever-increasing politicization of intellectual and literary activity. While the three principal figures and works under consideration in this essay, René Char, Georges Bataille and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, were not without political engagement the first in the résistance, the last as a collaborateur (subsequent to the events of February 1934), if unreliable and subversive in his actual activities, and with ends ostensibly purely literary and cultural, while Bataille's political commitments and activities are well-known, if poorly-understood; to cite one example, his activities in alliance with André Breton in Contre-Attaque were instrumental in supporting the electoral victory of the Front Populaire, led by Léon Blum (incidentally, the first Jewish prime minister of France), in 1936, an election in which Sartre had not even bothered to cast a vote 1 they were concerned principally with literary activity in a 1 Additionally, Bataille's literary patron, the pre- and post-war editor of La Nouvelle Revue Française, Jean Paulhan, won election to a mayorality, which he retained until the outbreak of the war and whose public works remain to this day. Furthermore, in 1996, Maurice Blanchot disclosed that he had felt it necessary to prevent Bataille from becoming a signatory to the Declaration of the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War, If Georges Bataille did not sign (against his will), it was at my request: he was already very sick then, and we knew that we were all heading for hard times... What would have made his 'case' particularly unfair is that his daughter Laurence was already in prison... her father, who was not in on the secret then, would have been mixed up with a dreadful intrigue, from which it was our 1

2 specific relationship to thought, as such, connected perhaps to culture, certainly to philosophy, but only indirectly with the political as such. Literature and thought, while necessarily political in some fashion, according to Bataille's 1950 letter to René Char, follows a NON SERVIAM [which] is said to be the devil's motto [thus] then literature is diabolical... To be a writer is nothing less than the possession of the inner ability to add another line to the drawing of that disconcerting vision which fills us with wonder while it terrifies,-it is man's incessant vision of himself. 2 You re really late for life Unutterable life The only thing in the end you agree to join That s denied you every day by beings and things From whom you wrest a few meager scraps here and there (René Char, Common Presence ) II. ` In the preface to L'impossible (1962), the last of Bataille's writings to appear in print prior to his death a few months later a re-introduction to a fictional/poetic triptych originally written during the occupation years of and published in 1945 and 1947 of the relationship of literature to both thought and to life, as a mode of thought, a mode of relation to the real that evades the impression of a mistake to which literary realism, the realist novel, falls prey, that is the verbal reflection of the world of utility. Concluding this preface and extending the insights contained within the third panel of the triptych, L'Orestie (1945), he writes: Humanity is faced with a double perspective: in one direction, violent pleasure, horror, and duty to keep him at a distance. (Maurice Blanchot, Political Writings, For Friendship, 138). 2 Georges Bataille, Letter to René Char on the Incompatibilities of the Writer, Trans. Christopher Carsten, Yale French Studies, No. 78, On Bataille (1990), ,37. 2

3 death precisely the perspective of poetry 3 and in the opposite direction, that of science or the real world of utility. Only the useful, the real, have a serious character. We are never within our rights in preferring seduction: truth has rights over us. Indeed, it has every right. And yet we can, and indeed we must, respond to something which, not being God is stronger than every right, that impossible to which we accede only by forgetting the truth of all these rights, only by accepting disappearance. G.B. 4 In short, it can be said that the proper role of literature, poetry and the literary use of language, is to give voice to the thought of unutterable life [which is] the only thing in the end you agree to join / [All] that s denied you every day by beings and things (Char). That is to say, to all that which is declaimed as useless, false, seductive, frivolous, in life, which is, in fact, that part of life which makes life live and thought vital. The modern writer can maintain a relation with productive society only by requiring from that society a protected reserve where, in place of the principle of utility, there reigns openly the denial of "signification," the non-meaning of what is first given to the mind as a finished coherence, an appeal to sensibility without discernible content, to emotion so vivid that it leaves to explication only a contemptible share...the non-meaning of modern literature is more profound than that of stones, for being non-meaning itself, it is the only conceivable meaning that man can still give to the imaginary object of his desire (Bataille, Letter, 42-3). L'Orestie (1945, Éditions des Quatres Vents), later published as the first section of La Haine de la Poésie (1947, Éditions de Minuit) with Histoire de Rats and Dianus (written )) and as the last of L'Impossible (1962, Éditions de Minuit), is principally a poetic work, interspersed with more prose-like passages and concluding with a theoretical meditation upon the problematic of the 3 Here, as where elsewhere concerned with Bataille's writings, the poetic will be construed as indistinguishable from the properly literary. 4 Georges Bataille, The Impossible, Trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights, 1991), 10. 3

4 literary/poetic use of language, vis-a-vis desire and truth in opposition to the discursive-logical use of language as the origanon of 'thought, for logic on its death bed gave birth to mad riches. But the possible that's evoked is only unreal, the death of the logical world is unreal... Poetry reveals a power of the unknown. But the unknown is only an insignificant void if it is not the object of a desire. Poetry is a middle term, it conceals the known within the unknown (163-4). Furthermore, this text represents the culmination of a series of texts on the margins of literature and philosophy; philosophy in a literary mode, as it were, written in the voice of a pseudonym who is later a character in the narratives of L'impossible, the narrator of Histoire de Rats Dianus, the first of which was published at the outbreak of war in 1940 and was later incorporated into the first part of Le Coupable (1944; also in the voice of Dianus, with Bataille contributing a brief 'editorial note' as a preface). The concluding fragment of L'Amitié (the title of the first publication and the first chapter of Le Coupable) Bataille writes of the relationship between writing, thought and reality. That is, literary writing presents that which cannot be grasped by discourse and propositional thought: Writing is never more than a game played with ungraspable reality. No one has ever been able to enclose the universe in satisfying propositions: I don' t even want to try. I wanted to make it accessible to the living those pleased with the pleasures of this world and miscreants the transports that seemed most distant from them... If no one sought pleasure (or joy); if only repose (satisfaction), equilibrium counted, the present that I bear would be vain. The present is ecstasy, the play of lightning... 5 Moreover, friendship, immanence and the possibility of community, of genuine communication come to the fore. The writer, the poet, being one who supposes his role to show the way, to reveal the path: You were created for rare occasions Change disappear without regret 5 Georges Bataille, Guilty, Trans. Stuart Kendall (Albany: SUNY Press, 2011), 41. 4

5 At the will of the suave rigor District after district the liquidation of the world goes on Without interruption Without distraction Let the dust swarm None will reveal your union. (René Char, Common Presence ) None but the poet. none but the writer. III. Pierre Drieu la Rochelle's 1931 novel Le Feu Follet is not even a roman à clef: with La valise vide (published in 1923 in the Nouvelle Revue Française) and the posthumously published Adieu à Gonzague (included as a postscript to the 1963 re-edition of Le Feu Follet, published on the occasion of the production of a film adaptation by Louis Malle). The tragic anti-hero of Le Feu Follet, Alain, is, like Gonzague in the other two pieces, explicitly a depiction of Drieu's friend Jacques Rigault, a member of the early Dadaist circles in which Drieu participated, who became addicted to heroin and committed suicide in While written prior to Drieu's decision to throw his political lot in with quasi-fascist elements (it must be noted that his collaboration and efforts at alliance/piece were motivated by a desire to preserve the privileged political and cultural position of France in the dramatically changed geopolitical régime that emerged following the first World War, with the rise of the US and the Soviet Union as major powers hemming in Europe), there is nevertheless a preoccupation with decadence, with the liquidation of the world, and with the addict as the figure of 6 Rigault published little, frequently ruminating upon suicide in a comical voice. His most extended and well-known work is Lord Patchogue. 5

6 decline. Drug addicts are the mystics of a materialist age who, no longer having the strength to animate things and sublimate them into symbols, undertake the inverted task of reducing them, wearing them down and eating them away until they reach a core of nothingness. They sacrifice to a symbolism of darkness to combat a sun-fetishism which they hate because it hurts their tired eyes. 7 And yet, a possibility of redemption remains. Alain, like Rigault, is also a the figure of the abortive writer. For Drieu, like Bataille and Char, the role of writing and literature is to forge a connection with reality, with the world, with life, with others. A connection denied by the ideologies of transcendence characteristic of modernity: isolation, atomization, the cult of individuality, the fragmentation of experience. For a brief moment, in an episode early in the narrative of Le Feu Follet, at the end of the penultimate day of Alain's life. A life which he had been unable to affirm by any action other than ending it. For a moment, it could have been otherwise, through one principal role of literary activity: In all his life, Alain had never made a gesture which marked such a' prolonged pursuit of the same end. And immediately a virtue emanated from this sheet of paper upon which the gesture was fixed. For a long instant there was something in his life, and was going to build everything up again round this thing. To hang on, rebuild, hang on... He picked up his pen, hesitated, grew bolder, touched the paper, made a mark on it. A moving instant: Alain was approaching life... Since he felt its unexpected benefit, he might have been able to conceive of the function of writing which is to arrange the world to allow it to live (Drieu, 49-51). But such an arrangement must be ordered by thought, some drive toward truth, whether conceived 7 Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Will O The Wisp, Trans. Martin Robinson (London & New York: Marion Boyars, 1998), 69. 6

7 discursively or in Bataille's terms, as that truth which eludes lucid speech and knowledge, which is its necessary complement. Such a truth is as much truth of life as of death, and yet Alain's sole truth is his drive toward inevitable death. He has no thoughts, properly speaking. His language signifies nothing, for the aforementioned core of nothingness has worn down the possibility of signification without leaving the strength for the reversal operated by Bataille, whereby the absence of signification leads to an evocative richness that communicates the plenitude of immanence, the raw stuff of thought. Decadence is of no concern, for as Bataille wrote to Char, i we give first priority to literature, we must at the same time admit how little the increase of society's resources concerns us (Bataille, Letter, 39). And yet, all three, Bataille, Char, and Drieu, doubtless agree with the sentiment expressed in Drieu' s posthumous apostrophe to Alain/Gonzague/Rigault, that: if one has to write, then one writes when one has something in one's heart (Drieu, 144). It is out of friendship, for friendship, that one writes: Friendship. A falsehood which by itself is worth all the others. You did not have the opportunity to show all the friendship you were capable of (Drieu, 143), it is thoughts of friendship, not only those of the past, those gone, those to whom Drieu writes, but thoughts of future friendship, of community that nourish literary activity. For Drieu: There is a good undertaker's mute in every man of letters: It is neither the first nor the last time that I am spilling ink on a friend's grave... I lived on you, I fed on you, I have not finished my meal. My friends will nourish me until the centuries' end. I am haunted, inhabited by my friends, they do not leave me for a moment (Drieu, ). For Bataille: Nakedness reveals itself to someone enclosed in a hostile solitude. This is the hardest test, the most liberating: a state of profound friendship demands that a man be abandoned by all his friends, free friendship is detached from narrow ties. Far beyond the failings of friends or readers I am close to, I am now seeking friends and readers that a dead man might meet and, in 7

8 advance, I see them as faithful, innumerable, silent: stars in the sky! My laughter, my madness reveals you and my death will join you. (1944) This vital role of literature to reveal that truth of which lucid discursive reason, scientific knowledge, is the necessary complement is very much in the spirit of one of Paul Valéry's reflections on literature and poetry:...the attempt to represent, or to restore, by means of articulated language those things, or that thing, which cries, tears, caresses, kisses, sighs, etc., try obscurely to express, and which object seem to want to express in all that is lifelike in them or appears to have design... Thought is hidden in verse like the nutritive value in fruit... Poetry is only literature reduced to the essence of its active principle. It has been purged of idols of every sort and realistic illusions: of any possible ambiguity between the language of 'truth' and the language of 'creation.' 8 For Bataille, in L'Orestie, Poetry was simply a detour: through it I escaped the world of discourse, which had become the natural world for me. (163) Literature is not to become the l'art pour l'art or automatism of Surrealism. Even Surrealism in time became political, became engaged in the real world. All three of our writers, Char, Bataille and Drieu were at one time or another associated with the Surrealist and Dadaist circles. All had their various political engagements, commitments, which were philosophical, theoretical, at their core. Intellectual honesty and the awareness of the complementary role of literary activity and its mode of thought with activity in the world of utility, science and its lucid, if perverse, systems of thought (which pass under the aegis of reason in its enlightened guise). Even Drieu's final decision to accept (an exaggerated degree of) responsibility for his wartime activities and follow his protagonist Alain, his 8 Paul Valéry, Literature, Trans. Louise Varèse, Selected Writings of Paul Valéry (New York: New Directions, 1950),

9 friend Jacques Rigaut, in committing suicide on March 15 th can be viewed through the lens of a form of engagement between literature, thought and the world that far outstrips the simplistic injunctions of Sartrean litterature engagée. Drieu's Secret Journal concludes: In 1944 I did not want to pay a debt I had contracted in While, in 1942 and 1943, I had gradually regained my independence, my detachment, my solitude, I now rejected the recurrence of everything that I had been casting off, deliberately, progressively, incessantly. I overcame the fear of dying. In Geneva I resisted the temptation to live secure and sheltered. I resisted it after contemplating it lucidly and at length, knowing exactly where I was going Upon receiving a summons to appear in court for his collaborationist activities. As the épauration sauvage had subsided and the degree of Drieu's collaboration was rather innocuous (he assumed war-time editorship of the Nouvelle Revue Française after Paulhan refused to continue under the Occupation and had soured upon the occupation regime to such a degree that by 1943 many of his articles were being rejected by the German censors), he would certainly not have been sentenced to death. Speculation tends toward a consensus that he would have received a maximum punishment of a prison sentence of less than 10 years. He was 53 at the time of his death. 10 Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Secret Journal, Trans. Alastair Hamilton (New York: Howard Fertig, 1973),

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