Feb/Mar 2009

Great Sensations

Malcolm de Chazal infused ordinary experience with the poetically peculiar

Barry Schwabsky

Sens-Plastique is a book beyond classification, and the same might be said of its author. Malcolm de Chazal was born on Mauritius in 1902 to an old and prosperous colonial family resident there since the eighteenth century. A surprising number of Rosicrucians and Swedenborgians dot his lineage, and one might detect some echoes of their beliefs in his own eccentric thought. Except for a few years studying engineering in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he spent his life on the island, working first in the sugar industry and then as a civil servant. Chazal’s first writings concerned political economy, but then he gave himself over to literature, publishing several volumes of Pensées with a local printer. Somehow his work came to the attention of the gray eminence of French letters Jean Paulhan, who prompted Gallimard to reprint in 1948 Sens-Plastique, a collection of over two thousand short texts of a genre somewhere between the aphorism and the prose poem. The book had been issued in Mauritius the year before; writers like Francis Ponge, André Breton (who compared Chazal to Lautréamont, a compliment that was, for him, the highest imaginable), and Georges Bataille (for whom Chazal was “the first writer to achieve the equivalence of sexual pleasure and language”) were flabbergasted by this visionary from the other side of the world.

Not that there is anything obviously exotic about Sens-Plastique. It bears hardly any sign of its tropical and insular origins, reflecting instead a cosmopolitan, essentially French culture, though filtered through a defiantly original viewpoint. It plunges the reader into a realm in which the most primal perceptions—of touch, color, smell; of animals, flowers, weather; of men, women, their bodies, their God—are interwoven into a series of correspondences with the most diverse aspects of social behavior and cosmic phenomena. Many of Chazal’s observations, especially in the earlier parts of the book, seem simple enough, though illuminated by a charmingly ingenuous concreteness: “Water meanders on a completely smooth surface and toboggans down the glossiness of leaves.” “The idealist walks on tiptoe, the materialist on his heels.” “To ‘hang on every word’ means to suck the eyes of the speaker.”

But these seemingly fanciful metaphors soon reveal themselves to be more than merely ornamental; felt intensely, they have become the basis for a thoroughgoing if willfully unsystematic philosophy of life, a religion, even. There are two ways of reading Chazal: as a treasury of metaphor and analogy, a nearly inexhaustible compendium of the generative essence of poetic thinking, or as the scripture for one man’s personal creed, a sort of pantheism of the senses rather than of the mind. Chazal’s thinking is at its most characteristic when it goes beyond observed connections into the counterfactual. Almost anytime Chazal uses the word if, you can be sure he is about to push into the realm of the speculative and the impossible: “The thumb is the fulcrum of a writer’s hand, the main support in a painter’s hand, the main percussion in a pianist’s hand. . . . If all the fingers were thumbs, fingering would be useless since the whole hand would turn into a palm.” “Light is absolute starvation. Eaten by plants, drunk by water, cut into sections and devoured by colors. . . . If light were to subsist on itself, everything would disappear from view, swallowed by light, time along with everything else.” “If our five senses didn’t serve as brakes to slow us down and filter our sensations, sexual pleasure would strike us like lightning and electrocute our souls.”

Moreover, Chazal’s comparisons often develop into elaborate chains of analogies, something unexpectedly akin to that “telescoping of images and multiplied associations” that T. S. Eliot praised in the poetry of John Donne, and as with the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, following these connections can sometimes be difficult. Chazal’s responses to light and color, both in nature and in painting, are hypersensitive, so intensely differentiated that they may be hard to credit in the same way that the fine distinctions of flavor enjoyed by wine connoisseurs may seem illusory to those of us with less discriminating palates. Yet they are expressed with a stunning intensity that makes them hard to dismiss: “All the colors ‘rot’ in maroon, the rust of all rusts, the putrefying corpse of all dead colors, the sun’s humus, earth-color, resurrection’s winding-sheet, the shroud of life itself, the mound of eternity, the tomb of Light, Eternity’s burial vault.” “Look too intensely at blue and your eye sees indigo. Look too intensely at red and you see garnet. If you look too intensely at yellow it turns green. A hypnotic stare injects blue into everything.”

Chazal is just as sensitive to the role of touch in music: “The touch of the ring finger is curved and hollow. The touch of the thumb is rounder than that of any other finger. When the two come together, thumb seems to fit inside ring finger. Consider their close relation on the piano, where the thumb ‘sorts out’ sounds that are ‘packed away’ by the fourth finger, respectively a kind of sonic paying out and paying in of ‘funds.’ The fourth finger is a little harmonic dam that keeps sounds from overflowing and spilling off.”

As Chazal’s translator, Irving Weiss, writes, “He is telling us things that we can’t completely follow unless we decide to trust his revelations, trust them even when we fail to understand him completely.” Perhaps his most acute perceptions are of physical desire: “The kiss ends at the point of a needle. Sex ends fanning out. The kiss is an arrow. Sex is a fountain.” “A fish in fear of its life turns into water. In the mutual pursuit of sexual pleasure—the fear of joy and the joy of fear—our bodies liquefy each other in the waters of the soul, becoming so spiritual that hardly any corporal self is left. When we wake up after love, we look around desperately for our lost body.”

After the first burst of enthusiasm, however—perhaps because the very idiosyncracy that had at first made him so striking also meant that his thinking was difficult to assimilate—literary Paris lost track of Chazal. He produced a tremendous amount of writing—poetry, prose, theater—most of which was published only in Mauritius at his own expense. Among the best known of his later books is Petrusmok (1951), which Weiss describes as “a spiritual history of Mauritius ‘written’ in the rocks and mountains of the island.” Other volumes bear increasingly grandiose titles like La Clef du cosmos (The Key to the Cosmos, 1951), Les Deux Infinis (The Two Infinities, 1954), and Le Sens de l’absolu (The Sense of the Absolute, 1956). Meanwhile, on the advice of Georges Braque, for whom Sens-Plastique was above all “an album of images,” Chazal took up painting, working in a colorful, naive style. By the time he died in 1981, he was mostly forgotten outside the island to which he was devoted but about which he could be scathing: “This country cultivates sugarcane and prejudice,” he once declared. An early advocate of Mauritian independence from France, he despised the racial caste system that allowed a few white families such as his own to retain control. With time, he became reclusive.

Among the few who kept his name alive internationally was W. H. Auden. In a foreword to Weiss’s 1971 translation of a selection from Sens-Plastique—now finally superseded by this complete version—Auden called the book “a companion of mine for nearly twenty years,” declaring Chazal “much the most original and interesting French writer to emerge since the war.” But Alain Bosquet, writing Chazal’s obituary for Le Monde in 1981, observed:

The slide to pedantry and cosmic vision did not fail to materialize. In his works of the ’50s and ’60s, which were no longer printed in France—Petrusmok, of which 400 copies were printed in Port Louis, in 1951, is the longest and most convincing example—his ambition knew no bounds. Moving from astrologer, to archaeologist and theosophist, Malcolm de Chazal refused to leave his island, encompasses the sum of human knowledge, which he bends to a singular prophetic geometry. Did the oracle listen to himself? It would seem that, denser than ever, the visionary poet bent under the weight of too many unknowns. By wanting to prove everything, he lost the power of words.

And yet I wonder: Might not an early lover of the Songs of Innocence have said something similar of Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion? Happily able to read the later Blake, I hope someday to be able to discover the later Chazal in English as well. But even if it really is the isolated achievement it presently seems, Sens-Plastique alone is enough to make Chazal one of the great heretics of literature—a heretic above all because he refuses to accept the distinction between metaphoric and literal language. Likewise, he overrides any absolute distinction among the senses or between the human realm and that of animals, plants, and natural forces like wind and water: spiritual energies all.

Barry Schwabsky’s new collection of poems is Book Left Open in the Rain (Black Square Editions, 2009).