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, eat proteins, defecate, reproduce sexually, and die, we share with the rest of created beings.
In this sense Chazal is a “nature” poet. He has, like all writers, his forebears, but in his case most of them belonged to other literary cultures than his own, and it does not follow that he must necessarily have read them. For example, here are some observations which one might easily have found in Plastic Sense, but happen to have been written by others, the first two by Novalis, then three by Thoreau, and the last by Ruskin:
Are not plants, perhaps, the product of a feminine nature and a masculine spirit, animals the product of a masculine nature and a feminine spirit? Are not plants, as it were, the girls, animals the boys, of nature?
As we manure the flowerbeds for the plants, so they manure the airbeds for us.
The song-sparrow is heard in fields and pastures, setting the mid-summer to music—as if it were the music of a mossy rail or fencepost.
A turtle walking is as if a man were to try to walk by sticking his legs and arms merely out of the windows.
The heavens and the earth are one flower. The earth is the calyx, the heavens the corolla.
The Swallow: it is an owl that has been trained by the Graces, it is a bat that loves the morning light, it is the aerial reflection of a dolphin, it is the tender domestication of a trout.
Chazal is a practicing painter as well as writer. (I was, incidentally, first introduced to his writings in the early Fifties by another painter, the late Pavlec Tchelitchev.) Every painter is a lover of “nature” in the sense in which I have used the word, since his primary concern is with the visual appearance of things, including human beings. If what distinguishes us from all other beings is a consciousness of having a Self, this property is not visually manifest. All that can be “seen” are our expressions and our gestures, which all things, animate and inanimate, exhibit likewise.
Anybody, however, who, like a painter, is preoccupied with sensory experience of the world knows that this is rarely, if ever, the experience of one sense only. Rarely, if ever, do we see without at the same time hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. To testify to this, we have to have recourse to speech: the painter can only record the seen, the musician only the heard, but the writer, thanks to the metaphorical and analogical resources of language, can at least indirectly record our synaesthetic experience of the outer world. As a painter turned writer, Chazal is, as one might expect, a marvelous physiognomist.
The leaf is all profile; the flower can never be anything but full face, no matter what angle you view it from. If both were profiles, the flower would seem to be riding the leaf like a horseman; and if both were full face, the whole plant would flatten out into a kind of tapestry. So long as the leaf’s flatness is wedded to the flower’s fullness, we tend to see flowers superimposed on leaves even when the foliage is in the foreground. Because of this, a plant’s leaves never “drown out” its flowers. The full face always seems nearer than the profile even at the same distance away.
Roses on the bush are sisters on the plant and first cousins in the vase. As one might expect, something of their common character has passed into the vase, thinning out their kinship.
The gestures of the feet are perhaps the most “artifical” part of our step. Our feet have no “natural” gestures except in water. The watery element is the greatest of all simplifiers of gesture. All the gestures of the fish are infantile.
A man uses his fingers more than a child, who depends on his palm. These are, respectively, the carpentry and masonry of gesture.
But he is at his most impressive in his descriptions of experiences which involve more than one sense.
A voracious sense of smell leans forward on its nostrils like a glutton eating with his elbows on the table.
Fog severs all spatial connections of resemblance or sympathy in nature. Trees wander like lost sheep until the air currents that nip at their heels herd them together. Fog sends each plant off to search its own soul alone in the infinite corners of the schoolroom of space, and puts a dunce’s cap on light itself. Fog is the water’s “detention room.”
Wind is vocalic, water consonantal. A blast of humid air is the essence of all diphthongs. Squalls stutter while hurricanes swallow their words…. The noise of water is sound riding horse on sound. The noise of wind is an infantry march of sound. So: a cavalcade of water and the hurricane shifting its feet.
Any collection of aphorisms, especially one as extensive as Plastic Sense, cannot and should not be read as one reads a novel or even a volume of poems. There is no need to read the pages in their printed order, and one should not read for too long at a time: fifteen minutes is, perhaps, the maximum. On the other hand, if the author is talented enough, there is no literary genre to which one can return more often and be sure of finding something exciting and thought-provoking which one had missed on earlier readings.
Sens-Plastique has now been a companion of mine for nearly twenty years, and so far as I am concerned, Malcolm de Chazal is much the most original and interesting French writer to emerge since the war.
May 6, 1971