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Sempre los camps auràn segadas resurgantas

Jean-Claude Bouvier
Jacques Gourc
François Pic

Littérature moderne et contemporaine

René Nelli : Poet of Occitan Modernism

Jacques Gourc et William Calin

Texte intégral

  • 1 On Nelli and modernist culture, Christian Anatole, "René Nelli (1906-1982)", in René Nelli (1906-19 (...)
  • 2 Renat Nelli, Òbra poëtica occitana (1940-1980) (Montpelhièr : Institut d’Estudis Occitans, 1981).
    F (...)

1René Nelli is generally considered to be the greatest poet in modem Occitan, a modem classic in all senses of the term. A scholar, an authority on the troubadours, fin’ amor, Catharism, and the history of Southern France, he taught for years at the Unversity of Toulouse. Nelli was one of the early adherents to the Occitan movement ; more than any, he insisted that a minority literature has to grasp the modem world in its modernity and has, therefore, to partake totally of modernism1. Nelli wrote difficult, arcane verse in the style of Valéry and Char, Montale and Quasimodo. Like them, he sought to attain a new Mediterranean classicism, a monumentum aere perennius that would fuse the rigor of Greece and Rome with the rigor of high modernist trobar clus. Publishing as early as 1931, Nelli produced a number of collections from 1942 on, the most important of which is the 1952 Arma de vertat (Soul/Weapon of Truth). These, along with other, newer texts, were brought together in 1981 : the Òbra poëtica occitana (Poetical Works in Ocdtan)2.

  • 3 On tree imagery in Nelli, Jean Arrouye, "La rumors dels arbres dins l’òbra poëtica occitana de Rena (...)

2 Despite évolution in form and subject matter over a period of five decades, Nelli’s corpus exhibits a remarkable coherence. Phenomenologically, his is, to begin with, a nightmare world of aggression and terror. Sometimes we read of an inside space – a room, a reading lamp, presumably a desk and books, and a window – set in contrast to, and menaced by, the unfathomable or hostile outside space. Thus trees in the garden below prevent the Speaker indoors from hearing the words under his lamp, and a star ravages him with pity. In another poem the cypress tree, outside, stands like an owl or a pagan idol with a necklace made of skulls, exhaling the odor of a dried-up well ; also green skeletons of ferns crouch beneath the window, and stars comb their ashes. The cypress invades the Speaker’s room and seats its shadow on his chair3.

3More often, no refuge is provided by a room and no médiation by a window. The Speaker stands in the open, his subjectivity opened to the external reality that presses in on him. In "Lo Sòm" ("Sleep") water, in rage, transformed into diamonds or tears, abducts a child ; a dead castle fosses a stone into a well and howls so as not to fly away yet flies off anyway, moonless ; pine trees become a forest of wolves ; and water again strangles, seeking to drink the darkness. In this poem of sleep the Speaker cannot sleep, he endures the torture of insomnia. Sleep then watches us (the insomniacs) wander on a road, alone, sad, beneath our hoods.

4Other texts tell of the living who believe they are dead, and of the dead who weep without forgiveness of love ; so many of them gaze with cruelty while so many dead dogs howl. Or of the swallows who, this spring, did not return ; this spring there cornes a dawn of blood, and the dead rise from the earth, captives of the living. Or of suns that are crucified in the smile of blood, and (since this is late autumn or winter) color is gone from the leaves, a residue of arsenic, while we perceive a petrified tree, likened to a man’s phallus. Finally, in "Òda als salamandrins" ("Ode to salamanders"), we hear of a bouquet of tortured bodies, the cry of wounded goddesses, a woman whose shades/shadows/ghosts are older than death, and ghosts who leave their dead bodies and speak yet remain unaware of who is what.

5The nightmare world is derived, in part, from French surrealism and, also perhaps, German expressionism ; in part from Nelli’s preoccupation with Catharism as a manifestation of Occitan culture and his own neo-Catharist, dualist philosophy. From the Catharist perspective, the world as we know it was created by Satan and is, therefore, in its essence doomed to chaos.

  • 4 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism : Four Essays (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1957) : (...)

6 Certainly, the outer space – ail that is nature and almost ail that is human – is depicted with what Frye called "demonic imagery"4. It is nighttime, the realm of Hecate. We hear of howling dogs and wolves, of menacing ferns and trees, of blood and dying suns, of water seizing and strangling, of pagan idols, skulls and skeletons, of hostile stone and hostile women.

  • 5 Gaston Bachelard, La Terre et les rêveries de la volonté (Paris : Corti, 1948).

7Whatever in nature or the outer world, in other literary genres or registers- – the classical pastoral or the romantic nature portrait – appears benevolent or, at least, indifferent to man, here cries out and forces itself onto the Speaker’s subjectivity : the inanimate cornes alive, and that which surrounds him is shown to be aggressive, threatening, and hostile. The Speaker cannot defend himself, given that his thought processes and his perception of this hostile universe lack coherence ; ail is fragmented, disjointed, and liminal. The landscape is his inner State. And, given the presence of stone, of Bachelard’s hard earth of the will5 – a castle casting stones, a petrified tree compared to man’s sex – the Speaker is metaphorically wounded, he suffers regressus ad uterum (but there is no womb, the windowed refuge cannot protect him), and symbolic castration, so castration is a metaphor for death. These nightmare texts are pervaded by the presence of the dead – as spirits or in the flesh – returned to life or to a sickly, non-human half-life. They corne not in peace nor do they bring consolation. They come in hatred and rage. Once the barriers between the living and the dead are broken and the world of the dead is shown to be as demonic as our own, the Speaker, in his tortured waking state (assimilated to insomnia), walks and thinks as one of the living dead.

  • 6 René Nelli, L’Érotique des troubadours (Toulouse : Privat, 1963). On Nelli’s medievalism, Gourc, "P (...)

8One cause of insomnia, nightmare, and self-petrification is the presence of Woman as Other. Given that Nelli was a medievalist and that he edited the troubadours and published an influential book on courtly love (L’Érotique des troubadours), it will corne as no surprise that a good portion of his opus – especially in Arma de vertat but not limited to that volume – is constituted by a méditation on fin’ amor as he envisages it, in itself and in modem ter ms for modern man6.

9In the beginning, so to speak, there is desire, assimilated to fire. In strophe I of the long poem "L’interna consolacion" ("the inner/intrinsic consolation") the Speaker exploits the imagery of thirst : he drinks to sate his thirst in the girl’s heart, during midnight’s burning, when even the stars are athirst ; and the girl’s cheek shines in pleasure like a forest fire. With Nelli, love and desire can be portrayed in positive terms. Thus, in a number of poems, we discover that the girl blushes and loves, new and innocent, in a night illuminated by the light and whiteness of her thighs in the pale grass, while the Speaker will pluck hope from her lips. Or the girl sings, nude in her voice like a flower on her dress, from a "polida boca" (pretty mouth). Or she is a rose and has the lips of a flower, her blondness hidden under a black moth corolla, she who stretches nude under the moon. Or her body, a young flower, made the morning cool as the joy of her limbs renewed the Speaker’s flesh. Or, in a lost farmhouse at the end of a white path, the unknown girl, nude, sleeps in a dream state, her loveliness of and in burning darkness.

  • 7 On this archetype in Ronsard, Calin, In Defense of French Poetry : An Essay in Revaluation (Unversi (...)

10Nelli renews with an old convention, dating back to Ronsard and, before him, to Le Roman de la Rose and, before it, to Horace, Ovid, and the Greek Anthology. This is the analogy between girls and flowers, the flower personified as a girl and the girl "vegetalized" as a flower. The archetype, vital in Western culture (the rose, the lily) and in the East (the lotus blossom), can be attributed to intertextuality, a process of poets reading and copying other poets over the centuries, in a golden line extending from the Greek Anthology to Aragon, Eluard, and Nelli himself ; or, in more immediate Freudian terms, as a vaginal image in which the structure of the rose or lotus mirrors the structure of the female sex (which Nelli displaces onto the girl’s mouth)7. The vaginal reading is stated openly by Jean de Maun and by the author of the Ching Ping Mei. Nelli wishes to ascribe to the woman the traits we habitually find in flowers : sweetness, goodness, purity, beauty, and evanescence, ail that is true, good, and beautiful in the green world. He then reinforces the flower imagery by insisting upon the girl’s nakedness and innocence, and the whiteness and light which she extracts from or imposes upon an otherwise dark night.

11However positive the desire and/or the experience, the ideal of fin’ amor and the reality of life itself impose an obstacle, the obstacle inhérent in fin’ amor which helps to maintain it at its peak yet also dooms it to tragedy and loss. Sometimes in Nelli the female presence exudes the demonic imagery of the nightmare, and there is no shared libido. This is the case when, in one text, although the sacred mountain waits to kneel to Diana, the proud goddess with a cruel smile is gone, never to return, so that the hearts who adored her are dead hopes ; or when, in another text, although Eve waits for the night to love, we hear no more of the love but only that there is no sun and no garden and that a mad tree unleashes the wind and the melting of stars.

12Even when love occurs, when it is shared, and when the Speaker does joy in flower lips and shining thighs, Eros proves to be fragile and fragmented, as ephemeral as the rest of life, with a resuit that lovers are separated by time, space, or death. Instants of bliss pass and are then reduced to torture. Memory preserves something of Eros but also fails to resurrect what is lost, indeed contributes to the destruction, granting pain in addition to joy. Thus, the Speaker knew a siren ("la Sirèna"), he knew the cry of her ravished flesh, the music of the abyss. She still enchants himz for he dreams of her ail his life and, because of memory, though gone she remains with him. Still, she is not there, she flees, and he beholds her presence (in memory) without hope. The character of the wind collects white speech from light (happy ?) hearts, then steals it from lovers, also torn between hope and absence. At night, permeated by the smell of rain and thunder, time distances our hearts ; between the morn and flocks in the field stands only a garden of stone. A summer day turns from us, says the Speaker, our paths will never meet again in spite of the joy your limbs gave me, an instant of your life. The thirst will be quenched only with death, by a loveless God ; the wound is first desire ; love and the Speaker’s heart are in ashes.

13In the end, or perhaps ontologically from the beginning, each human is a unique element, in time and space, between life and death. Each human consciousness is a Self, alone, doomed to solitude, incapable of merging with the Other. This is the lesson – one lesson – of "L’interna consolation." The poem speaks of the double solitude that plunges in wind and digs in sand, to find an arid tomb, only ashes and stars. It also speaks of sweet love, now in the autumn ; will I know you, who are foreign ? Even in the past, the good days, you lied. Now we part and give back the evil we have endured. In hope, death, and sadness our two solitudes abide. Later, alluding to his dead "sister", the Speaker grieves that, in her other life, she bears love for no one, so that their solitudes are doubled. Fin’ amor, then, a burning, spiritual longing for the Other, in fire, can be satisfied only in instants of time. Continuity, certainty, stasis remain impossible because time, absence and death are more powerful than desire and because the very essence of our created world contains and is eroded by the fragmentary and the chaotic. Man is doomed to be a lone, solitary consciousness. Finally, since love even at its best is grounded in the desires of the body, how can it overcome the physical and, from the crucible of Eros, purged of its dross, rise in purified light to a higher level ?

14Is there then no hope ? no answer ? no higher level, for a purified desire or the other quests of man ? In my opinion, Nelli does not offer a single answer or series of answers. His is not a poetry of doctrine. However, he does offer, after infinité struggle and pain, the glimpse of a glimpse of the possibility of hope.

15In "L’interna consolacion" Antistrophe III tells of a struggle against the gods in sacred-profane night. Did we create them or they us ? asks the Speaker. Let me breathe my fatality and dream of gods ! Then, in Antistrophe IV, in gnomic fashion the Speaker calls out : Don’t be a slave ! Live, embody what and whom you love ! Fling your cry against the sea ! Be pure and generous ! Finally, in the first of the 1970-76 Ôdas (Odes), adressing his dear, departed friend, the writer Joë Bousquet, the Speaker States, following Kafka’s Der Prozess, that there is a door behind which stands a god who will not answer, or a greater Terrible, or the Void. Yet Joë Bousquet opened that door for deliverance from death. These are statements of man’s striving, heroism, and simple human dignity in the face of the greater Terrible and Void.

16The last section of "L’interna consolacion", the text which despairs of rejoining the dead sister, ends on a brighter note. I am faithful to you, cries the Speaker, and I am truly myself to haunt you. You who cannot hide your heart or my desire for you, guide me in the shadows. Guide me to the threshhold of glory. Spirit, choose that your broken beauty becomes charity.

  • 8 See Robert Lafont, Sur la France (Paris : Gallimard, 1968). In a quirkish essay (to say the least), (...)

17I disagree wth those who insist that Nelli’s neo-Catharism détermines the intellectual content and the shape of his entire corpus. That would resuit in reductionism and the oversimplification of an œuvre so magnificent in its problematic complexity. However, it is true that the "Catharist question" is central to Nelli’s vision and is the subject of a number of his finest poems. Catharism is the heresy stamped out by the Albigension Crusade in the early thirteenth century. A number of Occitan writers, Nelli in the forefront, have created a new, twentieth-century Catharist myth (anticipated by writers in the ninteenth), the fall of Catharism perceived as a turning point in history, an allegory for the fall of the South – according to the myth promulgated by Lafont, the assault on a unified Occitan nation – the end of freedom and the décliné of humane values under the boots of invading, colonizing hordes from Paris8. At the heart of this fascinating cultural phenomenon is to be found the arch-image of Montségur, the mountain citatel which held the remuant of Catharist résistance and was eventually stormed by the Count of Toulouse, who had by then joined the French.

  • 9 Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou, village occitan, de 1294 à 1324 (Paris : Gallimard, 1975).

18Nelli evokes the Catharist question head-on Beatris de Planissolas, a playlet one-third to one-half the length of a Racinian tragedy, evoking the characters and issues we know best from Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou9. (In a shortened version, it served as the libretto for an opéra by Jacques Carpentier, performed at the Festival of Aix-en-Provence in 1971.) Nelli reconstitutes, in noble blank verse, the confrontation between the châtelaine Beatrice, her erstwhile lover Peire Clergue, and the inquisitor Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers, who in 1334 became Pope Benedict XII. Beatrice speeks for courtly love, Clergue for Catharist spirituality, and the bishop for Catholic orthodoxy. When I read Montaillou, I thought the inquisitor the only sensible person in a universe of rustic psychotics. Nelli is more "politically correct" than I am ; he gives the good lines to the adultress and the heretic, and they are very good lines indeed.

19In a moving passage, Béatrice insists that, although Clergue raped her the first time, they both felt pity and tenderness afterward. Yes, love is fire and hate, she says, yet beauty, pleasure, and hate give rise to the good, and fire creates light. Beatrice never took pleasure in the sexual act ; her pleasure was giving pleasure to him, and he, inside her, was as a pure child. His destiny acted on mine, she says, and the void was cancelled by love, for love and virtue free themselves from destiny and hell. Love is pure and true ("fin", "coral") when he gazes in my eyes.

20Clergue, on the other hand, insists this love was of the body only, and the body, my false soul, is already dead. That body and soûl exist only in the past ; they are ashes I abandon to the false Double (the Other Me) at the stake, as ashes and silence. Yes, God is absent, and, yes, now I seek only the Spirit.

21It would be wrong to credit either Beatrice’s conviction of love purified or Clergue’s sense of the good soul freed the body as a resolution of the problem. On the contrary, the strength of this text lies in the unresolved, ever deferred conflict between ail three voices. What might appear to be a symposium between allegories is transmitted into a moving, heart-rending dialogue de sourds, three possessed yet vulnérable human beings who cannot communicate. Each goes alone to his end, chosen by him, willed by him, in the fire of the spirit.

  • 10 Anatomy of Criticism : 203-06.

22Given that, twice, Nelli tells of climbing the narrow, winding, medieval streets of Carcassonne, from dusk to the stars, it was quasi-inevitable that his poetic persona, the Speaker, would also climb Montségur. Two masterpieces – "La nuèit de Montsegur" ("Montségur Night") and "Òda a Montségur" ("Ode to Montségur") – treat this theme. Montségur is a sacred mountain (Frye would call it a point of epiphany)10, a temple which the Speaker climbs, preceded by an invisible procession of souls who flee to the beyond of love. These are martyrs from centuries ago who, unchained, themselves seek out the flaming stake. Love wishes to die in the light of the flames. These specters in the wind of hate, in a sky of glass that Evil broke, may they be reborn from the ashes of the dead, freed as a dove from the shadows ! Esclarmonde rejoins her essence in the matrix of grace ; the prettiest of the girls slept for seven centuries in an ark of stone ; now, in a red mantel, she quits her dream to climb stairs in the clouds. The rocks – the ruins of the citadel – at the mountain top form an altar which no longer hears the waves of change or the rumors of the century. The angel brings love and fire to the rock, and God himself takes light from the burning, from infinité rigor extracting eternal patience. Ail will cease, ail will perish. Yet we can still dream of righting wrongs, for, if we do, fear, hatred, and evil will flame away. In thunder and lightning the Speaker approaches the portai of the castle where God is Other, a God Unknown from beyond the stars.

23Nelli offers no easy answers. He explores with the greatest intensity and rigor man’s quest for love and for God, arriving at the glimmer of a glimmer of compréhension and of hope. As with Valéry, these moments of intensity and of compréhension mark the triumph of modern art as it struggles with and, in some sense, conquers the dislocation of our modem life, our vision of the universe, and our art.


1 On Nelli and modernist culture, Christian Anatole, "René Nelli (1906-1982)", in René Nelli (1906-1982) : Actes du Colloque de Toulouse (6 et 7 décembre 1985), ed. Christian Anatole (Béziers : Centre International de Documentation Occitane, 1986) : 5-8 ; William Calin, "Occitan Literature Today : Cultural Identity and the Sense of the Past", Tenso 11 (1995-96) : 64-77 ; and Uta Hahn, "René Nelli – le langage à contre courant", Bulletins de l’Association Internationale d’Études Occitanes 14 (avril 1998) : 107-13. Nelli’s place in the poetry of modem Occitan is sketched by Philippe Gardy in his challenging study, Une Écriture en archipel : Cinquante ans de poésie occitane (1940-1990) (Église-neuve-d’Issac : Fédérop, 1992) : 25-28.

2 Renat Nelli, Òbra poëtica occitana (1940-1980) (Montpelhièr : Institut d’Estudis Occitans, 1981).
For good thematic critical analysis, consult, in René Nelli (1906-1982), Gilles Arfi, "Entre éternité et néant, le temps dans la poésie nellienne" : 21-37 ; Anne Brenon, "L’inspiration dualiste dans la poésie de René Nelli" : 57-80 ; Joan-Frederic Brun, "Sensualitat e metafisica dins l’òbra poëtica occitana de Renat Nelli" : 81-88 ; Jacques Gourc, "Poétique et ’Trobar’ dans Arma de Vertat" : 131-38 ; Arno Krispin, "René Nelli : poésie et folklore, le monde merveilleux et le joi des troubadours" : 139-54 ; Robèrt Lafont, "Lo temps coma arquitectura d’Arma de Vertat" : 155-63 ; Xavier Ravier "L’ontologie du paysage dans la poésie de René Nelli" : 233-44. See also, Fritz Peter Kirsch, Studien zur languedokischen und gaskognischen Literatur der Gegenwart (Wien : Braumüller, 1965) : 40-56 ; Lafont and Anatole, Nouvelle Histoire de la littérature occitane (Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1970), II : 776-80 ; and Hahn, "Réaliser l’invisible – imaginer le réel : la poésie de René Nelli", Actes du IVe Congrès International de l’Association Internationale d’Études Occitanes : Vitoria-Gasteiz, 22-28 août 1993, ed. Ricardo Cierbide (Vitoria-Gasteiz, Universidad del Pals Vasco, 1994), II : 469-78.

3 On tree imagery in Nelli, Jean Arrouye, "La rumors dels arbres dins l’òbra poëtica occitana de Renat Nelli, in René Nelli (1906-1982) : 45-56, and Gardy ; "À propos du temps folzejat : la veine hésiodique", ibid : 119-29.

4 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism : Four Essays (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1957) : 147-50.

5 Gaston Bachelard, La Terre et les rêveries de la volonté (Paris : Corti, 1948).

6 René Nelli, L’Érotique des troubadours (Toulouse : Privat, 1963). On Nelli’s medievalism, Gourc, "Poétique et ’Trobar’" ; Krispin, "René Nelli" ; Câlin, "Occitan Literature Today" ; and Hahn, "René Nelli".

7 On this archetype in Ronsard, Calin, In Defense of French Poetry : An Essay in Revaluation (Unversity Park and London : Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987) : 33-37.

8 See Robert Lafont, Sur la France (Paris : Gallimard, 1968). In a quirkish essay (to say the least), Jean Larzac then attacks Lafont for not having gone far enough in his attack on France, Descolonisar l’istòria occitana, I : Redusèires de caps (Tolosa : Institut d’Estudis Occitans, 1980) : 46-64.

9 Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou, village occitan, de 1294 à 1324 (Paris : Gallimard, 1975).

10 Anatomy of Criticism : 203-06.

© Presses universitaires du Midi, 2003

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