LES FLEURYS, APRIL 8 1950
What attracted us to the P.C. at first was the revolt
against the living conditions made for humans, the
taste of virtue and the thirst of devotion to a cause
grandiose enough. After that it was the disgust of sor-
did protections, of humanitarian bleatings, of socialist
verbosity and compromise (S.F.I.O.).
The sentiment as to the exactions of capitalism
should be opposed by methods at once energetic and
supple, realistically, without illusions. We found, or
believed to have found this in the Bolsheviks. The
freeing of a serious sort, they seemed to us (set free to a
short beard) (that of Lenin’s).
The means of art… (in view of perfection).
We thought that the Marxist critique gave the key
to explaining history past and present.
We found wonderful examples of virtue, of devo-
tion, of enthusiasm and of the capacity of work, of effi-
ciency, of disinterestedness, of being set free, in the
branches and the individuals of the party. The coldness
and ruthless critique also attracted us. Like the sac-
rifices asked of taste and sentiment, even of individual
intelligence. The a posteriori critique of intelligent
conclusions and of our own “texts“ strongly enticed
us. It appeared to resemble the critique of texts by
Time. This is only one viewpoint of the artist that we
are. (The artist does not refuse a single critical view-
But we came to find many things: that the ad
hominem critique (economistic critique) is worth no
more than the psychological critique, that it engen-
ders a grotesque and criminal pretension, that it stifles
instinct, the intelligence of the heart.
1. Killing, desire, impulse.
2. Creating a dried-out pretension, a ridiculous
and trying rigorism.
• • •
DECLARATION, CONDITION, AND FATE OF
LES FLEURYS, APRIL 14 1950
New conceptions of the artist as before the fur-
nishing of weapons, proverbs (gratuitous proverbs,
of the eternal) (Expression of Blin’s regarding Artaud:
II. This idea of the artist is new.
It follows from the progress of the sciences (theory
of relativity), of functionalization (Kafka), new social
revolutions (communism, technocracy), new ethno-
logic discoveries (African, primal civilizations),
—from the myth of the new human: from the
notion of human relativity (Surrealism, Marxism,
Freudism). The human is an animal as any other is.
Their proper function
—from the death of God.
The artist sums up science, abolishes it, brings life
back to the surface, expresses the total world.
Rejoices, recreates the human. Effect of catastro-
phies and upheavals: wars, atrocities, new barbarism.
TRANSLATED BY JONATHAN LARSON
THE SONG CAVE 2018
From December 12, 1947, to February 9, 1948, Francis Ponge lived in Algeria, at Sidi-Madani, a cultural centre for artists and writers. A commission for a travel book from the Swiss editor Henri-Louis Mermod had assured him some income during his stay at Sidi-Madani; the project did not bear fruit, but a number of important texts grew out of the visit, among them “My Creative Method” (presented here in a slightly excerpted form).
“My Creative Method”—the title is in English in the original—is Ponge’s ars poetica. From the very first sentence, there is an echo of Valéry, who had written in La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste: “la bétise n’est pas mon fort”—“stupidity is not my strong point.” The possibilities of the journal form Ponge adopted are lucidly explored; the manuscript shows that Ponge was not content to scribble notes as he went along but worked towards an artfully composed effect of artlessness and spontaneity. As much as it is a corrective statement of principles aimed at misinterpretations of his work, “My Creative Method” is also a prose poem about language, treated as an object, and thus an extension of the prose poems in The Defense of Things as well as an explanation or commentary upon them.
These principles deserve painstaking examination. Written at a time when the Sartrean ideal of writerly engagement and the political conception of literature were the rule, Ponge’s essay tranquilly affirmed the autonomy of art. Today, more than fifty years after its composition, that message still concerns us directly. With a world in crisis and with background murmurs of war, writers are once more being called upon to take sides in the conflicts that fill the news. A group of Italian novelists, for example, has recently stirred heated debate by publishing Writing on the Western Front (Scrivere sul fronte occidentale), the minutes of a literary meeting which took place shortly after September 11 of last year. These writers felt compelled to meet and ask themselves if the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon must change what they are writing. The question itself suggests the context of our times: once more, literature is being summoned to renounce its pretended futility and to respond directly to events. Ponge’s calm demand for politically and ideologically independent thought achieves new relevance in this light.
But the merit of this text is not timeliness. Ponge’s admirable prose, deeply rooted in the rich soil of the French language (translated by Beverley Bie Brahic), is “inactual” in the Nietzschean sense. In other words, it is perpetually present.
THURSDAY 18 DECEMBER 1947
No doubt I am not very intelligent: in any case ideas are not my strong point. I’ve always been disappointed by them. The most well-founded opinions, the most harmonious philosophical systems (the best constituted) have always seemed to me utterly fragile, caused a certain revulsion, a sense of the emptiness at the heart of things, a painful feeling of inconsistency. I do not feel in the least assured of the propositions that I sometimes have occasion to put forth in the course of a discussion. The opposing arguments almost always appear just as valid; let’s say, for the sake of exactness, neither more nor less valid. I am easily convinced, easily put down. And when I say I am convinced: it is, if not of some truth, at least of the fragility of my own opinion. Furthermore, the value of ideas appears to me most often in inverse proportion to the enthusiasm with which they are expressed. A tone of conviction (and even of sincerity) is adopted, it seems to me, as much in order to convince oneself as to convince one’s interlocutor, and even more, perhaps, to replace conviction. To replace, so to speak, the truth which is absent from the propositions put forth. This is something I feel very strongly.
Hence, ideas as such seem to me to be the thing I am least capable of, and they are of little interest to me. You will no doubt object that this in itself is an idea (an opinion), but: ideas, opinions seem to me controlled in each individual by something completely other than free will, or judgment. Nothing appears to me more subjective, more epiphenomenal. I really cannot understand why people boast of them. I would find it unbearable should someone try to impose them on us. Wanting to give one’s opinion as objectively valid, or in the absolute, seems to me as absurd as to state, for example, that curly blonde hair is truer than sleek black hair, the song of the nightingale closer to the truth than the neighing of a horse. (On the other hand I am quite given to formulation and may even have a certain gift in this direction. “This is what you mean . . .” and generally the speaker agrees with my formulation. Is this a writer’s gift? Perhaps.)
It is somewhat different for what I shall call observations; or shall we say experimental ideas. It has always seemed desirable to me to agree, if not about opinions, at least about well-established facts, and if this still seems pretentious, at least on some solid definitions.
It was perhaps natural that with such a disposition (disgust for ideas, a taste for definitions) I should devote myself to recording and defining the objects of the world around us, and particularly those which constitute the familiar universe of our society, in our time. And why, it will be objected, do something over which has been done several times already, and firmly established in dictionaries and encyclopedias?—But, I shall reply, why and wherefore is it that several dictionaries and encyclopedias co-exist in a given language, and for the same objects their definitions fail to correspond? Why, above all, why do they seem more concerned with the definition of words than with the definition of things? Where do I get this impression, which is all in all quite preposterous? What causes the difference, this inconceivable gap between the definition of a word and the description of the thing designated by the word? Why is it that dictionary definitions seem so lamentably lacking in concreteness, and that descriptions (in novels and poems, for example) seem so incomplete (or too particular and detailed, on the contrary), so arbitrary, so random? Could one not imagine a sort of writing (new) which, situating itself more or less between the two genres (definition and description), would take from the first its infallibility, its indubitability, its brevity also, from the second its respect for the sensory aspect of things …
SATURDAY 27 DECEMBER 1947
If ideas disappoint me, don’t agree with me, it is because I too willingly agree with them, since that’s what they want, what they are made for. Ideas demand my assent, insist on it and it’s too easy for me to give in: this gift, this agreeableness, gives me no pleasure, but rather a certain revulsion, nausea. Objects, landscapes, events, people around give me a great deal of pleasure on the other hand. They convince me. By the very fact they don’t need to. Their presence, their obvious solidity, their thickness, their three dimensions, their palpability, indubitability, their existence of which I am far more certain than of my own, their: “that’s not something you invent (but discover)” side, their: “it’s beautiful because I couldn’t have invented it, I would have been quite incapable of inventing it” side, all that is my sole reason to exist, my pretext, so to speak; and the variety of things is in reality what makes me what I am. That’s what I want to say: their variety makes me, gives me permission to exist in silence even. As the place around which they exist. But in relation to a single one of them, in relation to each one of them in particular, if I consider only one of them, I disappear: it annihilates me. And, if it is only my pretext, my raison d’être, if it is therefore necessary that I exist, from it, it will only be, it can only be by a certain creation of my own with it as subject.
What creation? The text.
And, to start off, how do I imagine it, how could I have imagined it, how do I conceive of it?
Through works of art (literary).
SATURDAY 27 DECEMBER 1947 (3)
I began (really*) by saying that I would never be able to explain myself. How is it that I no longer keep to this (to this position)?
[*First line of the first text of my first volume (Douze Petits Ecrits, N.R.F. 1926).]
For no, truly, now, I do not believe it at all impossible, nor the least dishonourable, silly, false or grotesque (vain) to attempt to explain myself.
On the contrary I find it very pleasant (when someone asks me to or suggests it) and I should now find it somewhat ridiculous to respond with a proud refusal on principle. That is what would appear silly, false and grotesque to me. It is less silly to risk ridicule than to refuse it obstinately on principle. Hard to avoid … !
So what is it then that has changed?
What has changed is my existence with respect to others, it is that a work exists, and has been talked about. That it has been set forth, has compelled recognition as a distinct existence, and my “personality” somewhat as well. Thus these things: my literary work, my personality, I can now consider as distinct from me, and listen to (respond to) the a minima call of their objections to certain interpretations that have been given of them. I need to correct the false interpretations (or definitions).
In general the explications of my work and of myself are of a philosophical (metaphysical) nature, and not so much aesthetic or strictly speaking literary (technical). It is this philosophical status that I would gladly take a few pokes at, to begin with.
Nothing more astonishing (for me) than my appeal to philosophers: because truly I am not intelligent, ideas are not my thing, etc. But, after all …
SATURDAY 27 DECEMBER 1947 (4)
… I am lazy, and look, even for this text, I am persuaded that I don’t really have to feed it plumped-up new and original ideas, march them out in serried ranks, varied and coherent, etc. (hosts of them).
I am convinced, for it to be good, it will suffice that I not get too hot and bothered about the topic. I must especially (rather) not write too much, a very small amount each day and more or less as it comes, without fatigue, the flowers of the field. Then, manage to make of that a somewhat original literary object, different from the rest, amusingly lit up, awkward in my manner, which has a life of its own (there aren’t umpteen ways of accomplishing this: you have to cut out the explanations).
And that’s it, that will do the trick. It will be a stylish little thing.
Right! Let’s stop there for today.
SUNDAY 28 DECEMBER 1947
What is this about? Well, if you’ve been following me, about creating literary objects in such a way as to give them the best possible chance, I don’t say of living, but of holding their own for generations, of keeping their interest (as the outside objects themselves will keep their interest), remain at the disposition of future generations’ desire and taste for the concrete, as (mute) opposable evidence, as representative (or presentative).
They are human objects, things made and set down especially for man (and by man), but which achieve an exteriority and complexity, and at the same time the presence and evidence of natural objects. But which may be more touching, if possible, than natural objects, because human; more decisive, more apt to be approved by us.
And for that is it necessary—as some would have us believe—that they be abstract rather than concrete? That is the question. . . . (Totally exhausted by the prefect’s visit, I was incapable of going further …)
MONDAY 29 DECEMBER 1947
(Today it’s the lack of the mail and our worrying because of it that kept me from. … So I decided to call Paris on radio, and now, everything’s fine! )
It is therefore descriptions-definitions-literary-artistic-objects that I mean to formulate, that is, definitions which, instead of referring (for such and such a plant, for example) to this or that pre-established (agreed upon) classification and in sum to some supposedly known (and generally unknown) human science, refer, if not to complete and utter ignorance, at least to a fairly common, habitual and elementary order of knowledge, establish unexpected correspondences, which upset the usual classifications, and thus present themselves in a more striking, sensible and also more pleasing manner.
At the same time, the characteristic of such or such an object we choose to enlarge upon will preferably be those which have not previously been remarked. If in this way we manage to give our authentic impression and naïve, childish classification of things, we will have renewed the world of objects (of the subjects of literary works of art). And as it is likely that, however subjective and original it may be, our childish impression is nonetheless akin to that of several contemporary or future minds or sensibilities, we shall be heard and thanked, admired.
But must we, so as to render them more striking and susceptible to approval, tend towards the abstraction of these qualities? There, again, is the rub. Well, here, to an important degree, the answer seems to be yes. (Develop this point.)
Let us glance, also, at the dictionaries available to us.
On the one hand, there’s the Larousse (or Encyclopedia).
On the other, Littré.
Their difference is significant. And our preference for one over the other, the fact that we use one rather than the other will also be significant.
(Here treat the vocabulary question in detail.)
As for syntax, prosodic forms and rhetoric in general, here again their renewal will be instinctive, and unembarrassed (prudent, nonetheless, and taking only the result, the efficacy into account).
But before all that, it should be noted that our experience of recent successes (and failures) in the matter of literary glory has been most instructive (Mallarmé, Rimbaud).
We have noted that in such matters boldness paid.
In sum, here’s the important point: THE DEFENSE OF THINGS equalsPAYING ATTENTION TO WORDS.
Certain texts will have more Defense in their alloy, others will tend more to Words … no matter. In any case, there must be both. Otherwise, nothing will have been accomplished.
(This is only one of the headings:)
“Start from words and go towards things.” (Rolland de Renéville): well, that’s wrong.
We shall be reproached in some quarters with getting our ideas from words (from the dictionary, puns, rhymes, and what-have-you . . . ): but yes, we admit it, this is a necessary procedure, one must respect the raw material, foresee how it will age, etc. (Cf. the Propos Métatechniques, already.) We shall, however, respond that this is not exclusive and that we also expect an unprejudiced contemplation and kind of cynicism, an unembarrassed frankness of relations, to provide us with them too.
Chosen genre: esthetically and rhetorically adequate definition-descriptions.
Limits of this genre: its extension. From the formula (or concrete maxim) to a Moby Dick sort of novel, for example.
Here we can explain that these days we have pretty much lost the habit of considering things from a somewhat eternal point of view, serene, sirien (from Sirius) that …
MONDAY 5 JANUARY 1948 (1)
Let’s get straight to the point. Or, if you prefer, let’s try to get caught red-handed, in the act of creation. Here we are in Algeria, trying to render the colours of the Sahel (seen across the Mitidja, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains). It is, therefore, a sort of expressive task.
After much trial and error, we come up with the idea of pinks that are a little sacripant [braggart]. A priori the word satisfies us. Nevertheless, we consult the dictionary. It refers us almost immediately from Sacripant to Rodomont (these are two characters in Ariosto): now Rodomont means Red-Mountain and he was king of Algeria. Which is to say, Nothing could be more appropriate.
Lessons to be drawn from this:
a) We can use sacripant as an adjective of colour. It is even advisable.
b) We can modify rodomont by using it in much softened form: “la douce rodomontade.” In any case, we are going to be able to work with this.
MONDAY 5 JANUARY 1948 (2)
Finally, let me say—for little by little one realizes that I am beginning by the end—let me say then to begin: any old pebble, for example, this one, that I picked up the other day in the bed of the Chiffa wadi, seems to me the occasion for new statements of the greatest interest. And when I say this oneand of the greatest interest, here’s what I mean: this stone, since I conceive of it as one of a kind, gives me a particular feeling, or perhaps more a complex of particular feelings. The first thing to realize is this. At which, you shrug and deny such exercises have any sort of interest, for, you say, that is nothing to do with men. And what does it have to do with then? But it is man but unknown hitherto by man. A quality, a series of qualities, a compound of qualities not yet written about, unformulated. That’s what makes it so interesting. It concerns the man of the future. What could be more interesting? It enthralls me. Why does it so enthrall me? Because I believe I can succeed at this. On what condition? On condition I stick to it, and obey it. That I am not easily satisfied (or go too far). That I say nothing except what is suitable to it alone. It is not so much a question of saying all there is to say: that would be impossible. But only what is appropriate to it alone, only what is true. In fact: it is only a question of saying one true thing. That is largely enough.
So here I am with my pebble, which intrigues me, touches unknown springs in me. With my pebble that I respect. With my pebble for which I want to substitute an adequate logical (verbal) formula.
Fortunately 1st it lasts, 2nd my feeling at the sight of it lasts, 3rd the Littré is not far off: I have a feeling that the right words can be found in it. If they are not there, after all, I shall have to create them. But in such a way that they communicate, that they conduct thoughts (as one says conduct heat or electricity). After all I have the syllables, the onomatopoeias, I have the letters. I’ll figure something out!
And I really think that the words will suffice …
This pebble was victorious (won the victory of existence, individual, concrete, the victory of catching my eye and being born into words) because it is more interesting than the sky. Not completely black, more dark grey, as big as half a rabbit liver (but no rabbit is needed here), fitting the palm of my hand. In practice my right hand, with a hollow into which the right side (facing me) of the tip of my middle finger comfortably fits …
SATURDAY 10 JANUARY 1948
“Speaking to poets,” Socrates says, “I took those of their poems which seemed to be crafted with the greatest care; I asked them what they had intended to say, for I wished to be instructed by them. I am ashamed, Athenians, to tell you the truth; nonetheless I must tell you. Of all those there present, there was scarcely anyone who wasn’t able to give a better account of these poems than those who had written them. I quickly realised therefore that it is not reason which directs the poet, but a sort of natural inspiration, an enthusiasm similar to that which transports soothsayers and fortune-tellers; they all say extremely beautiful things, but they understand nothing of what they say. This, in my opinion, is what poets feel also, and I perceived at the same time that their talent for poetry made them believe that they were also for all the rest the wisest of men; which they weren’t. So I left them too, persuaded I was superior to them …
… “Finally, I spoke to the artists. I was aware that I understood pretty much nothing about art, and I knew that I would find among them an infinity of marvelous knowledge. In this I was not mistaken, for they knew things that I didn’t know, and in this they were more skillful than I. But, Athenians, the great artists seemed to me to have the same defect as the poets, for there was not a single one of them who, because he excelled in his art, did not believe himself well versed in other areas, even the most important, and this failing quite overshadowed their skillfulness. So then I questioned myself … asked myself whether I would prefer to be as I am, without their skills and without their ignorance, or to have their advantages and shortcomings. I told myself … that I would rather be as I am.”
What do we conclude from the above if it is not (excuse me) a certain foolishness on the part of Socrates? What an idea, to ask a poet what he meant to say? And isn’t it evident that if he is the only one who can’t explain this, it is because he cannot say it any other way (or no doubt he would have said it differently)?
And I extrapolate also a certitude about Socrates’ inferiority with respect to poets and to artists,—not his superiority.
For if Socrates is, in effect, wise insofar as he is aware of his own ignorance and knows only that he knows nothing, and in effect Socrates know nothing (other than that), the poet and the artist on the other hand know at least what they have expressed in their most carefully wrought works.
They know it better than those who can explain it (or pretend they can), for they know it in its own terms. Besides, the whole world learns it in these terms and easily remembers it.
From this we shall soon deduct a number of consequences (or ideas as a result). But we first must confess that poets and artists do very often abandon their happiness and their wisdom, and believe they are able to explain their poems and furthermore that their skill in this technique renders them apt to speak out on other sorts of problems, which is not a disaster.
Don’t anyone expect me to be so presumptuous. Anyone is more capable than I of explaining my poems. And clearly I am the only one who is unable to do so.
But perhaps the fact that a poem cannot be explained by its author is not to the disgrace of the poem and its author, but to their glory?
What would be embarrassing, perhaps, is if someone else said better than I what I had meant to say and persuaded me of a defect (or lack) or on the contrary of a redundancy that I could have avoided. Personally, I would immediately correct this error, for the perfection of the poems is more important to me than some sentiment of my own infallibility.
But, finally, might one not say that a poem which cannot be explained is by definition a perfect poem?
No, not so. Other qualities are needed, and perhaps only one quality. Socrates was perhaps not so silly as he might at first have seemed. And perhaps it wouldn’t have occurred to him to ask for the explanation of a poem that brought its evidence along with it … (But would one still have called this a poem? …)
SATURDAY 31 JANUARY 1948
At every moment of the work of expression, as one writes, language reacts, proposes its own solutions, incites, comes up with ideas, helps in the formation of the poem.
No word is used that is not immediately considered as a person. Its particular lighting effects utilized; and also the shadows it brings along with it.
Whenever I admit a word, whenever I let a word go, right away I must treat it not as any old element, a scrap of wood, a puzzle piece, but as a token or figure, a person in three dimensions, etc. … and I cannot play with it exactly as I wish. (Cf. Picasso’s remark about my poetry.)
Each word compels my (and the poem’s) recognition of it in all its thickness, with all its associations of ideas (that it would have were it alone, on a dark background). And yet, it is necessary to free it …
ABOUT TWO PERSONAL MECHANISMS.
The first consists in placing the chosen object (say how it is duly chosen) in the centre of the world; that is, at the centre of my “preoccupations”; in opening a kind of trap-door in my mind, in thinking about it naively and with fervour (love).
Say that it is not so much the object (it is not necessary that it be present) as the idea of the object, including the word that designates it. It is the object as notion. It is the object in the French language, in the French mind (an item really in the French dictionary).
And at that point a certain cynical relationship is established. Cynicism is not the word (but it needed to be said).
Everything that has been thought is taken into account. All that will be thought and the dimensions of the object, its comparative qualities. Especially the most tenuous, the least habitually proclaimed, the most shameful (either because they appear arbitrary, puerile,—or because they evoke a relation which is usually forbidden).
At other times, it is only one quality of the object, my favourite reaction, my preferred association with it (peeling the boiled potato,—and the way it cooks) which will be emphasized, to which all the importance will be given.
One dips in and discovers things. Here we are dealing with the trap-door of dreams and of sleep, as much as with a clear mind and wakefulness.
Nor must one let oneself be put off by associations customarily forbidden. This is even the main (or principal) task: admit the anomalies, shout them out, celebrate them, name them: a new character.
Yes, it is a question of the thing’s character, seen in the right light, praised, applauded, approved, considered as a lesson, an example.
One point which must be attentively considered is the following:
I said earlier we were talking about the object as an idea, or notion, to which its name contributes in a very grave and serious way, the French word that usually designates it.
Yes. Of course.
Therefore, the name sometimes helps me, as when I invent some justification for it or appear (persuade myself) to discover it.
But it may also happen that this partial group of qualities which are concerned more with the name of the object than with the object itself becomes too important. This can be a trap.
As for the qualities of the object which depend less on its name than on something entirely other, my attempt to express these qualities must come more in opposition to the word which would blur them, which would tend to annihilate them, replace them, put them in a box (pre-package) overhastily, after having simplified, folded, condensed them excessively.
And here’s another way to go about it: consider it unnamed, unnameable, and describe it so well ex nihilo that it be recognized. But let it be recognized only at the end: so that its name is something like the last word of the text, and only appears at that point.
Or only appears in the title (given afterwards).
The name must be superfluous.
Replace the name.
Here, however, other dangers can emerge. Avoiding saying the name can transform the poem into a kind of game in such a way that, as game, and therefore lacking in seriousness, the result may resemble one of Abbot Delille’s famous periphrases.**
[**”Abbot” Jacques Delille (1738-1813), translator of Virgil, Milton, and POpe, wrote descriptive poems such as “The Gardens,” “The Man of the Field” and “The Three Reigns of Nature.” He wrote in a very ashen style, and to Romantic eyes was the incarnation of the academic poet.]
Whereas it is not so much a question of making a comparison, ex nihilo, as of letting the object speak for itself; allowing it to express its mute character, its lesson, in more or less moral terms. (There must be a little of everything: definition, description, morality.)
One rhetorical form per object (i.e., per poem).
If one cannot really say that the object speaks for itself (personification), which would furthermore constitute an over-facile rhetorical form and become monotonous, nevertheless each object must impose its own rhetorical form on the poem. No more sonnets, odes, epigrams: the form of the poem must in some way be determined by its subject.
Not much in common between this and calligrams (Apollinaire’s): the form must be much better hidden than that.
… Which is not to say that I do not sometimes employ certain typographical artifices;
—nor am I saying that in every one of my texts there must be a connection between the form, that is, prosodic, and the subject treated;
but that sometimes this occurs (more and more frequently).
All this must remain hidden, must be very much part of the skeleton, never apparent; or even sometimes only in the intention, in the conception, in the foetus: in the manner in which one begins to speak, kept,—and then departed from.
No rules for this: since, in point of fact, they change (for each subject).
TUESDAY 3 FEBRUARY 1948
(DURING THE NIGHT)
Nothing more flattering than what has happened to me, but it still makes me laugh to think about it! The times have to be bizarrely lacking in interest for people to get attached to my sort of literature! How can they be so mistaken?
Never, in composing the texts, some of which make up The Defense of Things, never did I do anything other than have fun, when I was in the mood, writing only what can be written without effort, about the most ordinary objects, chosen completely at random.
Really, the task was conceived light-heartedly, without any profound intention and even to be honest without the slightest seriousness.
I never said anything but what ran through my head on the spur of the moment or I said it about quite ordinary objects, chosen perfectly at random.
As, for example, these prickly pears:
TUESDAY 3 FEBRUARY 1948
(IN THE COURSE OF THE MORNING)
In fact I am surely very fortunate, for to tell the truth I am not so much asked to explain one or another of my pieces of writing as to reveal something of the method by which I produce them. And maybe I am permitted to think they are therefore clear enough to be recognized for what they are, recognized as inexplicable and therefore people limit themselves to asking me to explain how I managed to produce such inexplicable texts, so manifestly clear, so obvious.
Truly, this request has something astonishing about it. Because how does it happen that people are so surprised (or interested) by the obviousness of a text, to the point of inquiring how it was produced?
How to explain this, other than by a widespread impotency or awkwardness when it comes to writing clearly, a desire to learn how to write like this?
Must I therefore conclude from this request a certain imbecility (or too great complexity) in the minds of the time?
But perhaps I can infer—(what I should prefer, after all)—something quite other.
Which is that certain of my texts, clear as they seem, have an element of the unexpected, the surprising,—and that the astonishment they provoke (and the ensuing questions) are not so much related to their obviousness as to their strangeness? …
I should therefore have to conclude there are two sorts of obviousness: the common, which provokes no questions, and the strange (which surprises even as it convinces).
Perhaps by degrees I shall arrive at my meaning …
26 FEBRUARY 1948.
PROÊME. — The day people finally come around to admitting the sincerity and truth of my persistent declarations to the effect that I do not see myself as a poet, that I utilise the poetic magma but only so as to rid myself of it, that I am more concerned to convince than to charm, that my self-imposed task is to arrive at formulas both clear and impersonal,
I will be happy,
I will be spared a lot of useless discussions, etc.
My penchant is for definition-descriptions which account for the present content of notions,
—for me and my fellow citizens (both up-to-date in the book of Culture, and honest and authentic in their study of themselves).
My book must replace: 1st the encyclopedic dictionary, 2nd the etymological dictionary, 3rd the analogical dictionary (it doesn’t exist), 4th the dictionary of rhymes (interior rhymes, as well), 5th the dictionary of synonyms, etc., 6th all lyrical poetry based on Nature, objects, etc.
Desiring to give a complete account of the content of their notions, I am drawn, by objects, away from the old humanism, away from contemporary man and ahead of him. I add to man the new qualities that I name.
That is what The Defense of Things is.
Paying Attention to Words does the rest … But poetry as such doesn’t interest me, in that what goes by the name of poetry these days is a crude analogical magma. Analogies are interesting, but less than differences. One must, by means of analogies, grasp the differential quality. When I say that the inside of a nut resembles a praline, it is interesting. But what is far more interesting is their difference. To make people experience analogies is one thing. Naming the differential quality of the nut: that’s the goal, that’s progress.
Poems from The Defense of Things:
Once the sugar concocted in the stems has risen to the base of the flowers, like carelessly washed cups, —a great effort occurs on the ground whence butterflies suddenly take flight.
But as each caterpillar’s head was blinded and left black, its torso raked by a veritable explosion from which its symmetrical wings flared up,
So from that time forth the erratic butterfly only alights randomly in its flight, or so it appears.
A match on the wing, its flame is not catching. And besides it comes too late and can only take note of the blown flowers. Never mind: like a lamplighter, it checks the oil in each one. It touches its tattered rag to the flower’s lip, then lifts it off, taking revenge for its long amorphous humiliation as a caterpillar at the base of the stems.
Minuscule sailing ship of the air the wind takes for a superfetatious petal, it vagabonds about the yard.
The End of Autumn
In the end autumn is nothing but cold tea. All kinds of dead leaves macerate in the rain. No fermentation or distillation of alcohol: only spring will show the effect of compresses applied to a wooden leg.
The last returns are a mess. All the doors of the polling booths bang open and shut. Into the bin! Into the bin! Nature shreds her manuscripts, demolishes her library, furiously knocks down her final fruits.
Then she pushes herself up from her desk. All at once she appears immense. Hair undone, head in the mist. Her arms hanging loose, delightfully she inhales the icy, thought-refreshing wind. Days are short, night falls quickly, comedy is uncalled for.
Up in the air among the other stars, the earth looks serious again. Its lit-up part is narrower, infiltrated with valleys of shadow. Its shoes, like those of a tramp, soak up water and make music.
In this frog pond, this salubrious amphibiguity, everything grows strong again, leaps from stone to stone and changes bog. Freshets multiply.
This is what you call a good clean up, disrespectful of convention! Dressed in nothing, drenched to the bone.
And it goes on, and on, takes ages to dry out. Three months of salutary reflection in this state; without vascular incident, with neither peignoir nor horsehair mitt. Her strong constitution is up to it.
Then, when the little buds start to point again, they know what they are up to, what it’s all about, —and if they peek out with precaution, swollen and ruddy, it is on good grounds.
But thereby hangs another tale, which may depend on but hasn’t the same scent as the black ruler I’m going to use to draw the line under this one.
The oyster, about as big as a medium-sized pebble, is less regular in appearance, in colour less
uniform, dazzlingly whitish. A world stubbornly closed. Nevertheless it can be opened: hold it in a tea towel, use a notched but fairly blunt knife and keep at it. Curious fingers get cut at this game, break their nails: it is rough work. Our jabs mark its outside with white rings, sorts of halos.
Inside you find a whole world to eat and to drink: beneath a firmament(strictly speaking) of mother-of-pearl, the heavens above slump into the heavens below, forming a mere pond, a viscous greenish blob, which ebbs and flows in our eyes and nose, in its fringe of blackish lace.
Once in a while a formula seeds itself in its mother-of-pearl gullet, which we immediately take for an ornament.
Midway from a cage to a dungeon, the French language has crate, a simple slatted case devoted to the transport of such fruits as at the least shortness of breath are bound to give up the ghost.
Knocked together so that once it is no longer needed it can be effortlessly crushed, it is not used over. Which makes it even less durable than the melting or cloudlike produce within.
Then, at the corner of every street leading to the marketplace, it gleams with the modest sparkle of deal. Still spanking new and a little startled to find itself in the street in such an awkward position, cast off for once and for all, this object is on the whole one of the most appealing,—whose destiny however there’s little point in dwelling on.