duration press -- international poetry

Malcolm de Chazal

Malcolm de Chazal (1902-1981), who was of French ancestry and wrote in French, was born and lived most of his life on the island of Mauritius, He has written many books in various genres but is best known for his Sens -Plastique, a collection of about two thousand unnumbered aphorisms and pensées. In Auden and Kronenberger's Viking Book of Aphorisms, Chazal's contributions are given almost as much space as any of the great French aphorists, like La Rochefoucauld, Vauvenargues, La Bruyère, but unlike them he is not essentially a moralist.

Sens-Plastique was first published in Mauritius and later in Paris (Gallimard, 1948) through the influence of Jean Paulhan. André Breton soon hailed Chazal as a Surrealist but Chazal refused to claim any literary or philosophical influence. Sens-Plastique was admired by Denis de Rougement, Michel Leiris, and other well-known French writers, as well as by the painters Jean Dubuffet and Georges Braque. Braque told Chazal his book was "beyond literature," essentially an album d'images, and that he should take up painting, which he did, but without giving up writing.

In the 1960's the president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, himself a poet of international renown, who considered Chazal an "African" poet-painter who celebrated the oceanic refulgence and tropical intensities of the part of the world they shared, nominated him for the Nobel Prize for literature.

My first selective translation of Sens-Plastique (Herder and Herder, 1972) contained a preface by W. H. Auden, who wrote that Chazal was the most "original and interesting" French writer to appear since the end of World War II. My revised and augmented translation was published by SUN in 1979.

The idea behind Sens-Plastique may best be described in Chazal's own words:

    My philosophical position in this work derives from the principle that man and nature are entirely continuous, and that all parts of the human body and all expressions of the human face, including their feelings, can actually be discerned in plants, flowers, and fruits, and to an even greater extent in our other selves, animals. And although minerals are usually considered inanimate, death-like rather than life-like, I would have them also tend towards that supreme synthesis, the human form, especially when they are in motion. "Man was made in the image of God," but beyond that I declare that "Nature was made in the image of man."

    But I could never have done this by reasoning. I had to rely on subconscious thinking, the only intuitive resource available to humans--which few of us ever use in an entire lifetime. . . .I should add that I could never have learned to think subconsciously without years of ascetic withdrawal. depriving my body, isolating my self, concentrating my mind and spirit. . . until by stages I had perfected what I consider to be a totally new method of writing.

--Irving Weiss



from Sens-Plastique