'I have often experienced a feeling of anxiety, at crossroads. At such moments it seems to me that here, or close by, a couple of steps away on the path I didn't take and which is already receding – that just over there a more elevated kind of country would open up, where I might have gone to live and which I've already lost.' This unattainable country is the subject of Yves Bonnefoy's beautiful aesthetic reverie, The Arrière-pays (1972), recently translated by Stephen Romer. Certain landscapes seem almost to speak 'like a language, as if the absolute would declare itself, if we could only look and listen intently.' But it remains out of reach: 'it is as if from the forces of life, from the syntax of colours and forms, from dense or iridescent words that nature perennially repeats, there is a single articulation we cannot grasp.' And yet 'there are certain works that can, for all that, give us a fair idea of the impossible potential. The blue in Nicolas Poussin's Bacchanalia with Guitar Player has that stormy immediacy, that non-conceptual clear-sightedness for which our whole consciousness craves.'
Last night in the school hall of the Lycée Français, introducing an event dedicated to The Arrière-pays, Stephen Romer said he often recollected that image of the blue in Poussin's sky. When he entered the room of Claude landscapes in Oxford that I mentioned here a couple of years ago for example, the arrière-pays was suddenly present in their blue distances. As I listened to this I peered at a reproduction of Poussin's painting, dimly projected onto a screen behind the speakers, but the blue was hard to discern. If 'the absolute' failed to declare itself on this occasion, it was partly because there were so many distractions in the room - temporary seats rattling, bored students whispering to each other and an organiser who spent her time coming in and out and interrupting proceedings to tell the speakers how to use microphones. Still, we had come to experience the aura of the great Yves Bonnefoy, now ninety years old, who seemed unfazed by his surroundings. He talked vividly about the way his childhood imagination was stirred by the names on a radio dial, the memory of summers spent in the country near the River Lot and his first impressions in Italy of the real landscape he had gazed at in the paintings of the Quattrocento.
Just before the event came to an unexpected end, Bonnefoy was talking with Romer and Anthony Rudolf about an old photograph of an Armenian church that appears in one of the later essays appended to this edition of The Arrière-pays. They made a link with the poetic images Sebald used in his books - both have a mysterious, disconnected quality. This is attributable in part to their grainy light which seems to fall like a "metaphysical snow", directing our thoughts away from the objects depicted and taking us back to early childhood, before our minds had started to impose a structure on the world. They are mirages, seducing us into dreams that deny the reality of the world. 'I have suffered much, myself, from the lure of images,' Bonnefoy writes in this essay, and it was partly to counteract this that he took up the study of art history. In Poussin he eventually found 'a painter who could guide me into a self-acceptance of our finite nature.' As he writes at the end of The Arrière-pays, 'Poussin searches long for the key to the 'music of knowledge', to a return to the wellspring of the real by the power of number; but he is also the man who gathers a handful of earth and says Rome is that.'
Nicolas Poussin, Moses Saved from the Waters, 1647