Hypnos by René Char Translated by Mark Hutchinson

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Presented in a fresh authoritative English translation by Mark Hutchinson, René Char’s Hypnos (Feuillets d’Hypnos Gallimard 1946) represents the journal Char kept from 1943-44 while active as a leader in the Maquis (French resistance during World War II) in and around Céreste near his home region in Southern France. Composed of 237 generally short entries, Char’s fragmentary texts lucidly drift back and forth from lyrical reverie to direct historical account, even if not always entirely factual due to minor transpositions of certain events and/or persons. 

Called away to Algiers in July 1944 to assist in preparations for the proposed Allied troop offensive, Char hid his notebook in the wall of an abandoned building used as a secret outpost by the Maquis. Recovering the notebook in 1945 he prepared it for publication making slight emendations to the text before burning the original document. While Char’s motivations for pursuing publication are impossible to know, whether as in translator Hutchinson’s view, stemming from a possible “desire to capitalize on the success of his first postwar collection of poetry, Seuls demeurent, published in February 1945 to great acclaim” or to contribute to the ongoing reconciliation of both factional political splintering as well as his own inner spirit in the aftermath of occupation, the end result remains an austere poetic document of the post-World War II period.  

Hypnos also invaluably serves as a primer for entry into the working imagination of the poet. The text demonstrating how daily observation becomes intermingled within larger themes filling out motifs found in Char’s oeuvre. In a letter written to poet Gilbert Lely in 1945 Char discusses his recovery of the notebook and how, “I’m tidying it up, abridging or expanding as the case may be” but clearly asserts that he’s refraining from “that jingoistic, resistance article stuff.” Whether or not Char sought to cash in on any kind of mounting popularity, the writing evades coming across in any sense as browbeating. There is no agenda being pushed other than that demanded by the poet’s insistent vision. 

In a brief preface Char describes how he has given himself over to the work. As larger concerns become thereby only more prominently expressed, his individual personal stake is nil: “The notebook might have belonged to no one at all, so remote is the meaning of a man’s existence from his journeyings in life, and so hard to tell apart from a mimicry at times quite staggering.” Char’s avowal attests that to be a poet is to enact a level of observation that distances one’s self from the very events and actions with which one is most readily engaged. The poet both takes part in and denies the very reality to which the work bears witness, at the greatest possible expense: “The following notes mark the resistance put up by a humanism conscious of its obligations but reluctant to proclaim its virtues, a humanism eager that the inaccessible field be kept free for its suns’ imaginings and determined to pay the price for that.”

Hypnos is the Greek god of sleep. The personal cost of Char’s text is the enactment of semi-ritualistic observations of the shared struggle in which he participates that of necessity only surfaces in secret under the cloak of darkness. Along with fellow members of the Maquis, Char is living a doubled existence surrounded by constant threat of being found out. His personal day-to-day struggles are shared by and alongside those who looked to him as a leader. Char’s self-identification as a poet is illumined by his description of how there is no separating the land from the language of its people fighting in its defense.    


“An officer over from North Africa is surprised that my ‘bloody Maquisards’, as he calls them, speak a language he cannot understand, his ear being hostile to ‘speaking in images’. I point out to him that slang is merely picturesque, whereas the language we are accustomed to using here has its source in the wonder communicated by the creatures and things we live in intimate daily contact with.”

Char’s fragments arise directly from out the context of the resistance. Yet even while reflecting upon the grim realities faced everyday “It is when you are drunk with sorrow that all that remains of sorrow is the crystal” (Fragment 200) the text refuses to locate its frame of reference without the undergirding of a poetic perspective: “Man is capable of doing what he is incapable of imagining. His mind furrows the galaxy of the absurd.” (Fragment 227)  There is only one avenue of sight available to the poet and he dives deeply into it regardless of the transgressions to which he bears witness: “To be stoical is to be in a rut, with the beautiful eyes of Narcissus. We have taken stock, over every inch of our bodies, of the pain the torturer may one day exact; then, with a heavy heart, have gone out to face him.” (Fragment 4) Displaying an introspection that never backs away from the truths it beholds: “The outstanding neither turns the head of its murderer nor moves him to pity. The murderer, alas, has the eyes needed to kill.” (Fragment 232)

Char’s insightful reflections offer a point-of-view that’s as intimate as that within which he was living, engaged with the life-and-death consequences of the operation at hand. The issues contemplated are the very concerns with which he found himself preoccupied.      


“You don’t need to love your fellow men to be of real help to them. All you need is to wish to improve that look in their eyes when they behold someone even more impoverished than themselves, to prolong for a second some agreeable moment in their lives. Once you’ve adopted this approach, treating each root in turn, their breathing becomes more peaceful. Above all, don’t cut out the more arduous paths altogether, for after the effort comes the tearful and fruitful evidence of truth.”

Rene CharIn back of these fragments lies the echoed refrain of ongoing weariness, “If only life could be disappointed sleep . . .” (Fragment 198) to which the embedded fighter’s only response is continual engagement with the immediate present. For, “Memory has no control over what we remember. And what we remember is helpless in the face of memory. Happiness no longer surfaces.” (Fragment 102) Char acknowledges that the only response when faced with daily ongoing struggle is repeated refusal to acquiesce: “Thrust into the unknown, which burrows deep. Force yourself to keep turning.” (Fragment 212) After all, “Clarity of vision is the closest wound to the sun.” (Fragment 169) Even as he acknowledges how broken down his physical body has become “In the past when I went to bed the idea of a temporary death in the arms of sleep was a comfort to me; today I go to sleep just to live for a few hours.” (Fragment 224) He maintains the practice of writing, asserting the unmistakable vision of humanity’s endeavoring will to continue, no matter how mundane any sense of a final beauty remains. 


“What brought me into the world and will usher me out of it only interferes at moments when I am too feeble to resist. An old lady when I was born, an unknown young women when I die.

One and the same passer-by.”

The poet’s work is maintenance of the record by which the rest of us may take stock of our lives. Char’s words are abundantly informed by the actions he undertook. The merits of reading them remain as worthwhile today as ever.       

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). More from this author →