Ferdinand Alquié
ftom The Philosophy of Surrealism
translated by Keith Waldrop

from Postscript and Notes on Joë Bousquet

The Unity of Joë Bousquet

Since I am here in a personal account and on the borderlines of emotion and of confidences, I cannot end this book without mentioning the room in Carcassonne where Joë Bousquet, bedridden since 1917 as a result of his wound, received his friends, most of whom were also mine. I recall seeing there Claude Estève, Pierre Sire, Franz Molino, René Nelli, Maria Sire, Henri Féraud, Jean Ballard who often came from Marseille, Max Ernst who sometimes came from Paris, Carlo Suarès, and many besides. It was there I first discovered surrealism. The walls of the room were covered with paintings by Tanguy, Ernst, Masson, Dali, Miro, and the appearance of each number of the Revolution surréaliste came to fulfill an expectation and seemed to bear a message. Can Bousquet be called a surrealist? He realized, in any case, that sort of unity of man that in many respects surrealism sought; in him dream and perception were truly identical. Moreover, from that identity there resulted a great obscurity in his writings; the language, ceaselessly turning back upon itself, left the reader before pure opacity. This is what I noted, for example, with regard to Rendezvous d'un soir d'hiver."1 The author," I wrote, "wants to attain by love to a mystical knowledge of the world. But his book differs from the mystical works to which we are accustomed in that, first of all, it disconcerts and seems to mask a failure. Could that come from the fact that the loved woman, being here the end of all seeking and yet remaining woman and yet loved, hinders the lover with all her exteriority from attaining the unity toward which he tends? Nothing of the kind. Annie's reality is that of the world and there is no dualism. But while the mystics conduct us in general only to the borders of their experience and claim that it is unspeakable, Bousquet attempts to communicate his. Now this enterprise is, strictly, unrealizable, since language, by essence discursive, cannot express the unity of an intuition. So in Bousquet's book there are contradictions, phrases that fall away, and as if set toward obscurity. Language in fact must there negate itself at each step, so that what it has separated can be united. But let one abandon oneself to these contradictions that deliver us from the various, and he will perceive that the world of love is at hand: it is the real world, the world of matter—from which we are absent—where things have taken the place of their names."

I again affirmed this unity of Bousquet in a note I wrote in 1947 for the Journal des poètes,2 in which Bousquet told me he recognized himself completely. I evoke there our first interview:

"I was eighteen when I first met Joë Bousquet. The day before I was still afraid of the encounter that I was told was necessary. Uneasy adolescent, dissatisfied with myself, I was protesting a fate that seemed to me encountered from without. But I detested in others this way of not being oneself, which nevertheless made up my life. And what could that man be whom the course of the world had so strictly cut off from itself? I imagined him still occupied with his foiled plans, perhaps rebelling, perhaps escaping himself, perhaps finally resigned and asking from willpower the self-harmony that an accident had broken. Any solution for him seemed to me noncoincidental or of a constructed coincidence.

"I have known Bousquet for more than twenty years. And it is always of him I think when I want to persuade myself that nothing is unjust and that the unity of man is possible. Bousquet is undivided being. It must not be concealed that, by that fact itself, he irritates. But not by his faults—it is in perceiving that the friendship one bears him is itself impure. Because in dominating we always love, what we cherish in our friends is their vulnerability. Their faults, I mean to the extent they are open to us, permit us that community of weakness that is called conscious communication. Here we are consoling, compassionate, desirous of healing, avid to render the other still more miserable.

"Bousquet discourages these impure games. This does not make him easy to like. He has no destiny, for he is his destiny. He has not been injured, for he is his injury. I do not call him stoic, wanting what he is, but one, being what he is. Nothing is more laughable than the opinion that he is 'a modern author.' For no one is less than he of this idiotic age, where men are constructed by concepts, take for their real drama that of their thoughts and go from reflection to life. The essential obscurity of Bousquet's texts is not the fabricated obscurity nowadays fashionable. And nothing is more vain than wanting to explicate these texts by going behind what is obvious in them to find the concepts from which they were born. For they are not offspring of consciousness, but of nature. Bousquet has no system. The system is born from seeking in objects a unity that the self does not discover in itself. Bousquet is one; his wound has made him invulnerable, incomprehensible. It has conferred on him the beauty of those forces which we record without having to think, for they are of the order of being and not of the order of spirit.

"Bousquet does not construct himself, does not express himself; he is manifested. Before knowing him I feared that the separation within oneself that in man we call consciousness would have in him the aspect of a wound, rather than an opening onto the world. In fact Bousquet is not open to the world, but it is because he is not separated from himself. His body takes the place of consciousness. His richness is in it; he is himself a world, he is absolute creator. He has taught me everything and has taught me nothing. I owe him no idea; I owe him knowing what without him I would never have known: his admirable words, closed, perfect, reveal to me that he is the being for which all consciousness longs. No doubt he will never know completely what he was for me and for all those who had the unique chance to see and hear him."

Bousquet, even so, had to evolve. Toward the end of his life, Jean Paulhan became almost his sole master. Paulhan persuaded him that he should substitute in his preoccupations the problem of language for that of being. But the character of Bousquet was such that, from this new point of view, he found again, in another style, his unity. He intended to coincide, this time, with the events of his life, considered as a sort of language and, if I may put it so, as the absolute of the problem. And his past work itself would be illuminated with a new light. I tried, after Joë Bousquet's death, to understand him as, in his last days, he wanted to be understood. I reproduce here, to end this book, the last lines that I wrote on my friend. One will find in them, I think, the theme of the identity of man and his fate that we have so often encountered in surrealism. But the negation of transcendence seems to me more striking yet in Joë Bousquet than in Breton. Bousquet tries to reduce himself entirely to events.3 Breton considers "that what I take for objective manifestations of my existence ... are only what happens in the limits of this life of an activity whose true field is totally unknown to me .... " 4
He seems then to appeal to the transcendence that elsewhere he denies. And I believe that this implicit appeal to transcendence is what distinguishes Breton most profoundly from those who left surrealism, whether, like Aragon or Eluard, for political action or, like Leiris, Queneau, and Bousquet, for the concern with pure language. Whether he evokes against the latter the unknown that our life merely expresses or, meeting the former, judges history according to the vertical dimension of ethics and refuses to justify the means by the end, Breton always recovers the truth of metaphysics. And this is why, engaged in paths that are not his, I have been able in this book to recognize in Andre Breton one of my thinking-masters.

Joë Bousquet and the Ethic of Language 5

No idea has cast more of a shadow over the creations of the spirit than that of vocation. It masks the relation between men and their lives; it leads to the supposition that the poet or the philosopher has a sort of message anterior to his existence, expressing itself without regard to 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 there was more richness in his dream than in his history. It is always closing ones eyes.

Joë Bousquet's eyes were open. "The only morality I retain," he writes, "is that which ... imposes on us, as sole principle of entire existence, the fact that comes to us, whatever it is, holds that event alone is real, it being our part to accomplish its perfection and splendor."5 Those who knew Bousquet know how scrupulously he followed this rule, his only rule. If his life was beautiful and to this extent seductive, it was because, far from wanting to make it his work, he found his basis in it.

Without the accident of his wound, Bousquet would doubtless never have written. We cannot therefore speak of an innate mission, a first intuition of the World and of man. But, wounded, Bousquet considered his wound as a sort of birth, annulling his birth in the flesh. "I escaped," he says, "from the mortal consequences of a shock, to render doubtful the dispositions my birth had given me. By untiring labor I substituted for me a cultured being." 6 So, mortally wounded, he seemed to us no longer mortal. He had ceased to be a child of Nature to become one of events. Of all future events, he seemed to us then to have to remain the consciousness and the echo.

And such was the sense of his work. With anyone else literary concerns would have been evasion, compensation. One can forget a misfortune in the exercise of an art with borrowed forms and in the pleasures of vanity the exercise provides. Bousquet's genius was, on the contrary, to understand that by the effects of his wound separation had become his essence. His wound had made him a poet; he was to consecrate his poetry, not to forgetting it but to deepening it. "I put all my strength into naturalizing the accident that victimized my youth. I wanted it to cease to be outside me." 7

Bousquet followed out the rigor of such a project, which led him to an ethic of language. In expressing it he placed the value with the expressed, leaving the inwardness to dissolve in the visible and the experienced sadness in the light of the object. "I know," he says, "that death and unhappiness are images." 8 The poems of Bousquet, Rene Nelli writes, "express all the reduction of oneself to the event." 9 Here is the key to these obscure texts that always seem to close upon themselves. To learn to read them, we must understand to what point the reduction Nelli speaks of was imposed by the necessity of a fate that Bousquet wanted to accept, to the extent of becoming it.

Each man must choose between the search for a paradise lost, which seems to him like his being, and the difficult effort by which he identifies with the object, with history, that is to say, with the truth of a discourse. Bousquet thus opposes knowledge and existence: "The apotheosis of knowledge excludes existence." 10 And if he complains of writing with difficulty, it is not in order to deplore some crudeness, but to signify that the act of writing engages his life, separating it from its being. "What dominates this close of the year," we read in his diary, "is the crushing conviction that I understand nothing of my art. I do not know how to write." 11 This apparently banal uneasiness soon reveals its depths: "I am not the author of what I have done passably well. One could say that the effort expended in expressing myself aggravates the misunderstanding between my thought and me."

And Bousquet certainly expresses here a difficulty common to all writers. But instead of deploring the insufficiency of words and taking refuge by a facile movement in some ineffable experience, he prefers language to himself and, with language, the objective tissue of his life: "It displeases me to feel more real than the thought to which I long to submit." 12 He knows that thought, being discourse, is closer to event than to being; events may be spoken, their nature is that of words. Here Bousquet accepts, consents, "I sought for all the facts that made me fall under the domination of my words." 13

This ethic of language explains, I think, how at the end of his life Bousquet occupied himself almost exclusively with the work of Jean Paulhan. I believe also that his reserves with regard to Cartesian thought had their deeper source there. He did not fall into the error of those who see in that thought only the transparency of clear ideas; rather, he was disquieted to see Descartes accord being to thought. Of the "I think, therefore I am" he once wrote me, "What will you answer if I tell you that off and on I sense, to the point of madness, that I am being thought?" "I feel the idea of self nourish itself on the things that happen to me .... " And elsewhere: "I do not think of describing objects. I put myself in front of them, until I am not regarding them, but they see me and invent in my eyes their own image which would put me to sleep at their feet."

So in this age in which existentialists and linguistic philosophers violently disagree, Bousquet was able 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 hermit who had voluntarily forsaken the world, but of a lover whom the world ha·d forsaken  and who could find the world again only by preferring it to himself, searching only in the splendor of things for the essence of his sorrows. Nothing is farther from this authentic quest of being by the word than the artificial creation of works from concepts so common in our day. This is where Bousquet was like no one else. He was not of those who go from reflection to life and take for their drama that of their thoughts. He had rather find, with the aid of images and words, his lost life and avoid sterile revolt by preferring what he saw and what he said to what he was. So he was always consoling, not by the illusion of some promise, but by the truth of reconciliation. In the cemetery of Villalier, where we accompanied him on a morning of rain and sunshine, he seemed to welcome us, to have taken the form and the colors of a landscape he had loved more than he loved himself. And I would be faithful to him in no longer seeking the truth of his voice but in those I still hear, or the exactitude of his thoughts but in the World's visage.


1. In a note on Le Rendez-vous d'un soir d'hiver by Joë Bousquet (René Debresse), which appeared in the August
number of the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 1934, p. 305.

2. This text appeared in the Journal des poètes (Brussels), Jan. 1948.

3. It is in this sense that Marie-Josèphe Rustan rightly remarks that for Bousquet the absolute is "at once woof and horizon of things." See Cahiers du Sud, no. 320, p. 165.

4. Nadja, pp. 7-8.

5. This article appeared in the Cahiers du Sud, no. 303, pp. 187 ff.

6. "Confession spirituelle," in Journal des poètes (Brussels), Jan. 1948.

7. Le Meneur de lune, Janin, p. 14..

8. Traduit du silence, Gallimard, p. 9

9. "Confession spirituelle," in Journal des poètes (Brussels), Jan. 1948.

10. Le Poete de la connaissance du soir, ibid.

11. Le Meneur de lune, p. 179.

12. Traduit du silence, p. 13.

13. Le Meneur de lune, p. 15.

14. Le Passeur s' est endormi, Denoël, p. 120.