M. Malcolm de Chazal is a poet, though he writes in prose (not, thank God, in free verse). His chosen literary form is the aphorism. This is an aristocratic genre. The aphorist does not argue or explain: he asserts. At the same time, however, he addresses his reader as an equal, not as a pupil in need of instruction. It is for the reader to decide, on the basis of his own experience whether an aphorism be true or false. For example, when Valéry says, “Consciousness reigns but does not govern,” I do not feel I have been told a fact hitherto unknown to me, but rather, that I have been made conscious of a fact which, unconsciously, I have always known. On the other hand, reading through Plastic Sense, I came upon one statement, only one, “the insect can fathom the lowing of the cow,” which seems to me false, that is to say, my reaction is, “What scientific reason is there to suppose that the insect can? Such observations of insects as I have made incline me to think it cannot.”
French literature is famous for its aphorists, but, both in style and content, Chazal’s are a quite new phenomenon. The language used by most aphorists is abstract and deliberately avoids metaphor and visual imagery: Chazal’s is always metaphorical and charged with images. For example, two of the commonest topics for aphorists have been self-love and the difference between the two sexes. Typical “traditional” statements on these topics are:
We would rather run ourselves down than not speak of ourselves at all.
A man keeps another’s secret better than he does his own.
A woman, on the other hand, keeps her own better than another’s.
How different is Chazal’s treatment of the same matters:
The egotist’s feelings walk in Indian file.
Women eat when they talk, men talk when they eat. At table men talk longer between mouthfuls, women while eating. Women preside at breakfast when the courses are negligible and hurried. Men’s voices dominate at suppers and banquets when there are long waits between courses.
Even more striking is the difference between the dominant concerns of the French aphoristic tradition and his. Most of them have occupied themselves either with the behavior of Court or High Society, like La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Chamfort, Vauvenargues, or with political life, like Toqueville, or with the life of the mind, like Pascal and Valéry. Of French literature in general I do not think it unfair to say that while there have, of course, been distinguished French professional naturalists, French poets and novelists, with the notable exception of Colette, have shown relatively little interest in what in English is meant by “Nature,” namely, first, our human experience of all beings, mineral, vegetable, or animal, which we recognize as being “other” than ourselves, and, secondly, those aspects of our own nature which, as sentient creatures, made of matter, who are born …
Copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder