The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Blaise Cendrars and the Power of Death

"A thousand million people have devoted to me all their activity of a day, their strength, their talent, their knowledge, their intelligence, their habits, their feelings, their hearts. And now I have the knife in my hand. The Bonnot clasp-knife. "Long live humanity!" I feel a cold truth summed up by a sharp blade. I am right. My young athletic past will suffice. Here I am with my nerves stretched, muscles bandaged, ready to pounce in reality. I braved the torpedo, the cannon, the mines, the fire, the gas, the machine-guns, all the anonymous, demonic, systematic, blind machinery. I will brave the man. My fellow. A monkey. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It's up to the two of us now. Punching, stabbing. Without mercy, I jump on my antagonist. I'm giving him a terrible blow. The head almost came off. I killed Fritz. I was quicker and faster than him. More direct. I hit first. I have the sense of reality, me, poet. I acted. I killed. Like the one who wants to live."

This is an excerpt from a powerful poetic essay published by Blaise Cendrars in 1918 about his experience in the Great War. "J'ai tué" (I have killed) is one of the most profound works written about war. Cendrars, a volunteer in the French Foreign Legion, lost his hand in one of the fiercest battles of World War One, on the river Somme, in February 1915. He also documented his life-changing experience and proximity to death in his famous 1946 novel La Main coupée (The Severed Hand, translated into English as Lice 1973 and The Bloody Hand in 2014).

Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961) was born as Frédéric-Louis Sauser in Neuchâtel, Switzerland into a bourgeois francophone family, to a Swiss father and a Scottish mother. He didn't like school, so in 1904 he permanently abandoned it, and set out for Russia where he became an apprentice with a watchmaker. He wrote his first poem, "The Legend of Novgorod" in St. Petersburg. In 1907 he came back to Switzerland, started studying medicine and publishing poems.

He was the first modernist poet not only in terms of expressing the fundamental values of Modernism, but also in terms of creating its first solid poetical synthesis. Spontaneity, boundless curiosity, a craving for travel, and immersion in actualities were the hallmarks both in his life and art. Cendrars' style was based on photographic impressions, cinematic effects of montage, rapid changes of imagery, and scenes of great emotional force, often with the power of hallucination.

Cendrars became an important part of the artistic community in Montparnasse in Paris, and friends with Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Georges Braque, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway and Amedeo Modigliani, who painted his portrait in 1918. After the war, he concentrated more on writing novels, and he often travelled to South America. His novel "Emmène-moi au bout du monde!" (Take Me to the End of the World!) was his last before he suffered a stroke in 1957. Blaise Cendrars died four years later. His ashes are a held at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, a town 26 miles west of Paris.

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