Man As A “Buoy in the battlements” and Man As “The Heart As The Violent Rose”


Eye in a trance silent mirror
As I approach I depart
Buoy in the battlements

Head against head to forget all
Until the shoulder butts the heart
The violent rose
Of ruined and transcendent lovers.

Rene Char

The poem, it seems, consists of several semantic motifs: 1. Char’s characterization of human visual perception (first line of the first stanza). 2. His characterization of human behavior which corresponds to the visual perception (second and third lines of the first stanza and first line of the second stanza). 3. His description of the path to human spiritual transformation (second line of the second stanza). 4. His characterization of human spiritual transformation (the third and fourth lines of the second stanza).

The spiritual transformation Char depicts is not connected with changing the focus of our attention/dedication from “our world” to the “other world” as it’s the case in traditional concept of spirituality. Char’s (secular) concept of existential spirituality is beyond the traditional differentiation between the immanent and the transcendent realities. He, it seems, is interested in transcendent spirituality, but inside the immanent – existential area, like Platonic essence is “within” the phenomenon.

To make the human heart into what is here metaphorized as the “violent rose” is, according to the poem, the goal of our spiritual transformation (inside this world).

This existential spiritual transformation has two aspects – perceptual and behavioral. In a pre-spiritual condition human being, according to the poem, is dominated by twins of human profanity (“eye” – metonymy of visual perception, and “head” – metonymy of technical intelligence, both utilized for battles for survival, domination and advancement of our personal and group ambitions). “Head against head to forget all” is a crystallized metaphor of mental competition without self-reflection on what exactly we are doing when we follow the logic of the existing social condition of living (fighting one another and emotionally forgetting about it).

Char starts the poem with depiction of the human visual perception as vision “in a trance” (without introspection) – as automatically serving the earthly powers, and as a “silent mirror” (passive, “mechanical” perception).

Correspondingly, he describes human behavior as, simultaneously, following our goals and at the same time not being really connected with them (“As I approach I depart”). In other words, conformism presupposes the absence of a real participation, real (existentially spiritual) involvement in what we conform and are obedient to. As an “eye-person” the individual follows the set ways of the world without being involved (on the level of self) in participation in it, but only on the level of infantile (sentimental) attachment to it or being technically alert by particular tasks of successful adaptation, when human being is merely toy of the external and primary internal powers (masters outside and archaic impulses inside). Char characterizes human life as an “eye” as being “buoy in the battlements” – a condition of going through life passively, blindly and inertly (being involved in everyday fight).

In the second line of the second stanza Char depicts the path towards spiritual transformation for those who are capable to overcome a life of conformist passivity that (in correspondence with dogmatic social codes) hires/recruits people into feverish activity. “Until the shoulder butts the heart” refers to the coming/nearing spiritual mutation putting the human being against a mindless and heartless pseudo-participation in a world “as it is”. Char is not hiding that spiritual transformation includes the spontaneous violent shaking of human being (“the shoulder butts the heart”).

From the perception of the world “in trance” the human being who is ready for existential mutation is focusing his sensitivity on transformation of his heart – on its ability to become “the violent rose” (this metaphor refers not to the cliché of having an indifferent, violent heart (emotional motivations), as, for example, the “frozen, icy heart” in Hans Christian Anderson’s touching tale. The heart as “The violent rose” is the one which has interiorized violence (without internalizing it) – instead of pushing a person for more violence, to become violent, it puts violence inside itself in order to contain/neutralize it. The violent rose-heart, as if, has violence injected into its tissues, as if, to purify the world outside, isolate violence and by this protect the world from its own violence.

Visual perception connects us with the world but simultaneously it separates us from it – puts us in a trance. The heart (transformed into violent rose), on the other hand, unites us, but not with the factual world, but with its victims – with the dead – with the “ruined and transcendent lovers”, with victims of life. The violent rose-heart’s effort is to save the ones who are still living. The position of the poet is not identification with the living people, but with the dead, and for this reason, it is a position of care about alive ones – about those still violent. To directly identify with the living ones would always mean to identify with violence that is overwhelming human life of forgetfulness and blind participation in violent norms of living.

The heart as a violent rose belongs to poet and to those who are killed by life – those who lived before. Char in “The violent rose” is not saying what happens with “eye in a trance” and “head against head” when the heart is transformed into the violent rose of compassion. In the next poem “The fired schoolteacher” we can find an answer.


Three characters of proven banality accost each other with diverse phrases (got a match, I beg you, what time is it, how many leagues to the next town?), in an indifferent countryside and engage in conversation whose echoes will never reach us. Before you is a twenty-acre field: I am its worker, its secret blood, its catastrophic stone. I leave you nothing to think.

Rene Char

Char parodies obvious points with which the denotative (operational) historical science marks the “origin” of the world and “progress” of “historical and intellectual development” of human race. “Got a match?” is not only the “Big Bang” but also “revolution” in human species’ life connected with appropriation and use of fire. “I beg you” is not only appeal to god but also “cooperation” and “politeness” which make collective survival possible in spite of… “What time is it?” and “How many leagues to the next town?” are the basic Kantian transcendental categories of our perception.

It seems that Char here suggests that the “indifference of countryside” is much more of a problem for human ability for spiritual development than all the “achievements” of humanity enumerated by “diverse phrases” of the “three characters of proven banality”.

For the poet, according to Char, the conversation that starts with “Got a match…” is not substantial enough – he is not heir of “pragmatic”, external history which takes place, to use Mandelstam’s expression, “outside” human internal world. Char is telling us what can be the alternative orientation to human history – “Before you is the twenty-acre field: I am its worker, its secret blood, its catastrophic stone.” This is the creative ordeal of having to build human intelligence, not a technical one, for little boys and fat men of history, but which corresponds to human psychological wholeness, to the very existential reasoning of the heart of the human soul.

“There are two models of freedom: freedom-adaptation and freedom-revelation… Kant articulated the first type… He defined freedom not negatively, as transgression of constraint, but positively, as self-beginning… it is the ability of each person to take action, to self-begin, to act. A magnificent freedom, and yet we can see its possible deviations: we are all free to undertake something within a logical, pre-established order: the moral order of a god or the economical order of free enterprise, globalization, and the dollar… In his reading of Kant, Heidegger reconnected with another version of freedom, anchored in pre-Socratic thought before the establishment of logical categories or values. This other freedom is that of the revelation of the self in the presence of the other through the given word.”

Julia Kristeva, “Intimate Revolt: The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis”, vol. 2, Columbia Univ. Pr., 2002, p. 236

René Char with Pablo Picasso,1965
René Char and Pablo Picasso, 1965