Triple Sight, Double Exposure: Malcolm de Chazal’s Sens-Plastique
by Jeffrey Zuckerman
Chazal, Malcolm de. Sens-Plastique, translated from the French and with an introduction by Irving Weiss. Foreword by W. H. Auden. Wakefield Press, December 2021, $24.95, 384 pages. ISBN 978-1-939663–68–9
“…the automatic writing of Chazal’s visionary equivalences simply is the astringent prose of Weiss’s double-concentrated translations…”
It’s 1948, and a volume of aphorisms has just come out in France. Its cream-colored cover has the characteristic red lettering and slim border of the country’s prestigious publishing house, Éditions Gallimard. Its editor, Jean Paulhan, has written a preface for it; it ends with the declaration: “this art deserves the badge of genius. That badge and no other.” The book’s author is virtually unknown: a man named Malcolm de Chazal, 46 years old and living nearly six thousand miles away on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. The book title is spare, Sens-Plastique [Plastic Sense]; there’s no hint there of the consternation and amazement it’ll set off among Paris’s literati. “In there is a new proposition,” André Breton insists. “In there is the proclamation of a revolutionary truth . . . Such a powerful voice has not been heard since Lautréamont.” Georges Bataille concedes that Chazal “has, perhaps alone in our time, given a resolute expression to the happiness of sensuality.” Léopold Senghor calls him “a wellspring of lifeblood, a torrent of lava, a wilderness of metaphors.” Even today, in an era of globalization, Paris’s literati are a close-knit group; for such an outsider as Malcolm de Chazal to make waves among those circles in the postwar era is full evidence of just how deeply original his words are. A year later, La Vie filtrée [The Filtered Life], in which Chazal lays out much of the thinking behind his work, comes out; it’s the only other book he’ll ever publish with Gallimard. Suddenly, just as quickly as he’s burst onto the scene, he recedes into relative anonymity. Decades later, other books of his will be published in Paris, while all the rest are printed on his native terrain of Mauritius. The consensus will hold, though: among the three books now considered his masterpieces, Sens-Plastique is his breakthrough.
What was it about Sens-Plastique that stirred up such a fervor among these readers almost half a world away from the tropical climes where Chazal lived and worked and wrote? Collections of aphorisms, by design, are supposed to feel random; happenchance and juxtaposition are just as integral to the form as they are to the content. But even by such standards the first page of Sens-Plastique is still astonishing for its sheer range:
The cerebellum and the cerebrum are respectively our human Senate and House, where the body is the people, the senses are the Cabinet, and the nerves are the Federal Administration. In the body’s democracy the soul is appointed president for life but without authority to dissolve Congress. All social democracies originate in the body’s democracy and model themselves on it, with one difference: in its social form the individual matters most; in its physical form the only thing that ever matters is the common interest.
Water meanders on a completely smooth surface and toboggans down the glossiness of leaves.
Nature is the most beautiful of all picture books, but its covers are shut tight. There can be no leafing through its pages unless we learn how to peel the layers off every plant, flower, and fruit as if they were onions, or until we can absorb nature as a whole like an orchestra whose separate parts can be enjoyed in detail without sacrificing the total effect. Really to appreciate the flower’s loveliness we would have to savor every streak, stripe, and splash of color, the texture, the down, the elastic marblings, every bit of light, dark, and patterning; the flesh and the spirit; the symbols, container, and setting; the stage, ramp, and wings; the orchestration of colors and marriage of forms; the architecture and the scenic design. But to get to the point of being able to pare down the flower minutely, wouldn’t the human eye first have to develop planar looking? . . .
The feel of the neck of branches, of the mouth of the flower, of the belly of water, of the hips of fruit. O leaves, your wet tongues.
In a single page not only are different modes of thought presented with all the uneasy proximity of a double-exposure photograph, two perspectives cheek-by-jowl, but they are also articulated with such precise wording that the wide gaps between the human body and (to draw from those examples on the first page) democratic government or the elements of the natural world are collapsed. The “as” or “like” of similes has been banished; Chazal’s work offers up metaphor upon metaphor at a nearly breathless pace. Adding to the sense of immediacy is Chazal’s relentless focus on the human body, rooting abstract thought in the very bodies of the readers inhaling those lines. In La Vie filtrée, he went so far as to declare that “My principle is to try to intra-visualize life by constantly making use of humanity as a means of expression, as uniform lenses for approaching and for piercing.” The result was a book that almost flooded its readers’ minds with ideas and inspiration.
Sens-Plastique was a mid-career work for Chazal; by the time he began it, he had already been publishing for a dozen years, and his output included several volumes of Pensées. His terse and compressed style was already present, but when he wrote aphorisms they were maxims in the vein of La Rochefoucauld’s. What sparked his transformation was a stroll through the gardens of Curepipe, an especially well-cultivated corner of Mauritius which was otherwise largely given over to sugarcane fields and estates. As he explained almost two decades later, in Sens-unique: “One day, on a very pure afternoon, I was walking when, facing a prospect of azaleas, I saw for the first time an azalea flower looking at me. It was magic. Sens-Plastique was born.” In his afterword to this book, “How I Created Sens-Plastique,” Chazal elaborates how this revelation unlocked a new way of seeing:
It works like this. First I contemplate the object at hand—a flower, for example—just the way anyone else would view it: in actual vision. Then I integrate it into my self by dividing myself into the flower’s world (double vision via reverse narcissism) so that the flower “sees me” in return. Obviously this is only an apparent act of seeing by the flower: what really happens is that the separate parts of the double self contemplate each other by means of the flower. Finally, at the third and final stage, a new procedure for seeing: with my gaze hypnotically attached to what it sees, I draw the flower down into my subconscious (sensationally speaking, by smelling it deeply) until the flower becomes incarnate there. At this point the cerebellum projects the flower on the interior screen of my conscious mind where the psychic film unrolls, and the constantly observant mind stops the imagery in flight here and there to extract a still shot and proceeds to write about it. During this third phase of observation via triple sight, the flower has ceased to be seen by the physical eye, even though the latter is still directed at it, and is perceived only by the eyes of the spirit, because everything at this stage has moved to a form of spiritual vision and inner life. This whole trivision process ultimately boils down to seeing oneself, through the flower, in the intimate halls of the mind, in the “inner sanctum” of thought. I must say that this process of trivision observation is the very key to the other descriptions that follow.
As singular as Sens-Plastique was, it was followed by many more equally radical chapters in Malcolm de Chazal’s œuvre. The companion volume he wrote and published quickly thereafter, La Vie filtrée, is considered integral to understanding his work, but it was only after those two books that he could embark upon what is considered his crowning achievement, the 579-page Petrusmok, where he put his newly discovered “trivision observation” in service of the monumental task of creating a spiritual epic of the very soil of Mauritius. He moved on thereafter to grander ambitions and new prospects; even if his physical distance inevitably eroded his prestige among Paris’s literati (where his deism, he conjectured, had led to his eventual snubbing by the Surrealists), his mind’s eye and his determination remained undimmed as he put out volume after volume before his death in 1981.
In the early forties, the global increase in sugar prices made Mauritius a wealthier island, and it was in that climate that writers and thinkers, freed from the strictures of plantation or indentured-labor economies, sprang up and formed an artistic milieu within which Chazal swam. For all his interest in the Parisian Surrealists, it is these fellow countrymen who bore the greatest influence on his work both before and after Sens-Plastique. His elder by a decade, Robert-Edward Hart, would introduce him to the writings theorizing an ancient “Lemuria” under the Indian Ocean that inspired Petrusmok; his junior by a decade was René Noyau, who often published under the pen name of Jean Erenne (a pun on his initials, R-N) and whose own poems have also recently been published in English in a loving translation by the poet’s son. Both compatriots can be found in history books, but they remain, for the most part, mere names for Mauritians today. Chazal, however, has become an enduring influence. The Mauritian government voted to establish a Malcolm de Chazal Trust Fund to support a museum, colloquia, and books; his paintings (most notably of the island’s long-extinct dodos) can be found on the walls in the wealthier areas of Mauritius, and his eldritch aphorisms have been inscribed on plaques hanging from streetlamps on a street in Port-Louis now rechristened the Parcours Culturel Malcolm de Chazal. His words, his distinctive understanding of reality, have become the warp to the island’s weft.
Underlying the vivid images and juxtapositions of Sens-Plastique—and, indeed, much of his other creative work—is an extraordinarily taut prose; in numerous places I tried to see how a thought or aphorism could be expressed more succinctly, and failed. This philosophy of language is one that Chazal had long practiced even before his breakthrough; in the very first pensée he ever published, in 1936, he wrote:
Dante is a towering figure because he understood what so many writers did not: that words are living creatures. He could combine them, break them down, and put them back where they belonged so as to draw out harmonies of sound and image, but he never forgot that every word is a being. When I write astres [stars] with those six letters, I am not tracing dead letters. They contain real, organic substance. The word is living magic.
It is this belief in a mystical quality that makes Chazal’s prose, and the aphorisms through which it takes shape, so arresting in French; the challenge of translating him into English, then, is to convey that same “living magic” in a language that boasts a greater vocabulary but far less music. Certainly this makes translating aphorisms an easier feat than translating rhymed verse, but it is still a challenge to successfully move away from the Latinate, often abstract words that English acquired after the Norman invasion and that are immediately called to mind by looking at the French, and to opt instead for their Anglo-Saxon and Germanic counterparts that, for English-language readers, summon up a more concrete, earthy set of meanings and allusions.
For his American translator, Sens-Plastique became—quite literally—a lifelong project. Irving Weiss originally published a partial translation of Sens-Plastique in 1971, and a full translation eight years later; it was reprinted by another publisher three decades later, only to fall out of print within ten years. And now—seventy-three years after Sens-Plastique astonished the Surrealists in Paris and months after Weiss, 99 years old and having approved final revisions, passed away—a definitive version of the English translation is finally coming out from Wakefield Press.
Perhaps it would be wise, at this point, for me to be honest about the sleight of hand I’ve committed in writing this piece. When I mention the tautness of Chazal’s aphorisms, I don’t specify whether that’s present in the French as well. The English sentences Irving Weiss gives us are wound tight like a coil; if I say that it’s hard for me to see how to wind them even tighter, it’s because the decades Weiss has had to hone them are evident in how much they’ve been worked and reworked to ring out in English. Chazal did not grant himself the luxury of such slow, patient concentration; his work was published at such a rapid pace as to suggest automatic writing. When I read books translated from French, I often fall into the habit of back-translating the text into French; some authors write a prose that feels like it should, in English, hark back to the original French, while others seem to encourage a translation that feels fully rooted in English. Weiss’s translations have completely shaken off their French origins; the result carries the unnerving immediacy of Chazal’s own aphoristic equivalences. For example, the shortest aphorism from that first page, “Water meanders on a completely smooth surface and toboggans down the glossiness of leaves” has a tautness not present in the original French of “Sur toute surface lisse, l’eau coule en serpentant. Sur le vernis des feuilles, l’eau luge” (a direct English translation would be “On every smooth surface, water flows by weaving. On the gloss of leaves, water sleds down”). In another spot, French assonances seem to guide Chazal’s pen: “La colère sourcille du regard. La bonté cille des yeux”—if I were to try to mimic that rhetorical device, I might put it as “Anger raises its eyebrows. Kindness bats its eyelashes.” And Weiss, instead, has opted for the taut “Anger knits the brows. Goodness blinks.” Again and again, as I flipped between Chazal and Weiss, I was struck by how the English was not quite isometric to the French. But it felt faithful on a higher level than a more direct translation might have been. If (to cite two aphorisms plucked at random from this volume) “the hair on one’s head is a field of cloves aligned in odors” or “gray is a Russian salad dressing of blue beaten stiff” then we might extend that manner of equivalence to these two parallel texts: the automatic writing of Chazal’s visionary equivalences simply is the astringent prose of Weiss’s double-concentrated translations.
If Weiss sacrificed fidelity for faithfulness, we can rest assured that he did not do so behind Chazal’s back. The author himself knew English well enough, having both grown up in Mauritius while it was a British colony and spent some years being educated in Louisiana. He was not insensitive to Weiss’s radical transplantation of these sentences—but his feeling on the matter is unclear. As Weiss mentions in his Translator’s Introduction, “He was kind enough to write that my English reads more forcefully than his French.” The end result is a self-contained piece of art, just as gnomic as Chazal’s was, and just as bewildering. W. H. Auden’s remarks echo those André Breton made: “So far as I am concerned, Malcolm de Chazal is much the most original and interesting French writer to emerge since the war.”
For too long, Chazal has been virtually unknown in English. Sens-Plastique, in this definitive edition, reaches us d’outre-tombe, from beyond the grave twice over, as the man who penned its original French died forty years ago and the man who spent his life perfecting its English counterpart died less than a year ago. But death, in Chazal’s work, is no end; he declares that “la mort est comme un avion qui décolle”; Weiss has rendered it as “death is like an airplane taking off.” What is the view they share with us from such a plane? Maybe the wide and rolling landscape created by those aphorisms, peeking out from treetops and rising up from the ground itself, tracing with their sharp delineations the contours of an island deep in the Indian Ocean, six thousand miles away from the literati of Paris and almost twice as far away from the United States where a new cadre of readers are now able to discover and revel in his works, his land, and his double-visions of reality.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is a translator of French, including books by the artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Dardenne brothers, the queer writers Jean Genet and Hervé Guibert, and the Mauritian novelists Ananda Devi, Shenaz Patel, and Carl de Souza. A graduate of Yale University, he has been a finalist for the TA First Translation Prize and the French-American Foundation Translation Prize, and has won the French Voices Grand Prize. In 2020 he was named a Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. [Photo: Carl de Souza]
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, December 14, 2021