Books: Cultural Amnesia — Chamfort |
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Known, to his contemporaries and to posterity, always and only by his pseudonymous single name, Chamfort was born Sébastien-Roch Nicolas in 1741 and forecast the modern age by the reason for his death. He committed suicide in 1794 because the Revolutionary authorities had made it clear that they planned to reward his irreverent wit with a visit to the guillotine. In the rich tradition of French aphorists, Chamfort was the one who paid with his life for the knack of getting reality into a nutshell. It was because he lived at the wrong time. The Revolution had given birth to ideological malice in a form we can now recognize, but it was not recognizable then. It was still discovering itself. Chamfort, by the time that he ran out of luck, had already defined some of its characteristics, but not even he had guessed that it couldn’t take a joke. In the twentieth century both of the main forms of totalitarianism were united in promoting the jokers to the head of the death list.

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If it wasn’t for me, I would do brilliantly

SANS MOI, je me porterais à merveille. Chamfort said this after a bungled attempt to kill himself. His real name was Sébastien-Roch Nicolas, but he lived, and lives on, as Chamfort the wit. He had other ambitions, some of which brought him worldly success. His theatrical works were well enough thought of to gain him admission into high society. Tall, handsome, and a mighty lover of women, he said that he would never get married, “for fear of having a son like me.” He was admitted to the Academy in 1781. In today’s textbooks, however, Chamfort’s sentimental plays are remembered for the thoroughness with which they have been forgotten, and he is classed with Rivarol as one of those pre-revolutionary minor philosophers who haunted the salons, made a night of it, and put too much of their effort into clever talk. But Chamfort’s posthumously published Maximes took their place in literature for those connoisseurs of the aphorism who positively liked the idea that there was a wasted lifetime behind the wisdom. Though initially all in favour of the Revolution, Chamfort would probably have had the same chance as Camille Desmoulins of surviving the Terror, and for the same reason: he was a known critic and parodist of the hypocrisy prevalent among humanitarians, and the humanitarians were in charge. Desmoulins was executed because he had made a joke about Saint-Just. (In the tumbril, Desmoulins was heard to say “My joke has killed me,” and his last witticism was already spreading by word of mouth even as his clever head fell into the basket.) Unlike Desmoulins, however, Chamfort tried to anticipate the guillotine. In a piquant forecast of Egon Friedell’s flight from a window in Vienna 144 years later, Chamfort chose himself as an executioner. He made a frightful mess of it, but luckily died of his wounds, leaving the memory of his deliciously sardonic intelligence free to do its work. Chamfort was the one who supplied the lasting definition of fraternité: “Be my brother or I will kill you.” That, in fact, was the joke that killed him: he was arrested soon after making it.

Jean-François Revel is only one of the many subsequent students of politics to admire Chamfort. Mirabeau borrowed from him freely, and Talleyrand more than freely, because Talleyrand didn’t even acknowledge the debt. In London, Chateaubriand read Chamfort’s complete works. Pushkin, the Goncourt brothers and Schopenhauer all thought Chamfort exemplary. From Ernst Jünger’s Caucasus notebooks we can tell that he was reading Chamfort attentively in November 1942, with American bombers already over Germany in broad daylight and the Stalingrad disaster in the final stages of preparation. In de Gaulle’s memoirs, Chamfort is quoted to fascinating effect: “Those who were reasonable have survived. Those who were passionate have lived.” Evidently Chamfort helped de Gaulle to believe himself a bit of a devil. It is possibly the secret of the attractive wastrel, as a type, that reasonable men see in him the road not taken: his seemingly effortless charm allays momentarily the consideration that for them the road might never have been open. Some of the admiration heaped on the talented goof-off is gratitude to the sacrificial goat. Writers in general are happier if one of their number wastes his gifts, especially if the gifts are conspicuous: the way is left open for his tone to be borrowed, not to say plagiarized. But Chamfort might not have needed his overdeveloped taste for social life in order to marginalize himself. Purporting to find the whole business of securing a reputation sufficiently off-putting to justify a career of cynicism, he seems to have suffered few agonies of shame in writing his romantic entertainments. It was the serious literature that he found, or claimed to find, repellent. “Most books of the present have the air of being made in a day from the books of the past.” It will do as well as anybody else’s aphorism as a warning against making books out of books, although—as I have tried to argue elsewhere in this book made out of books—there is something to be said for the practice, as long as what is said is something true.

Chamfort had a way of getting something true said memorably without making it look laboriously chiselled. “I am leaving a world,” he said, “in which the heart that does not break must turn to bronze.” Few wits bow out with a throwaway line, and if they try to, the line is seldom as good as that. Even from such masters of elision as La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère and Vauvenargues, too many French aphorisms come equipped with a marble slab. Chamfort favoured the paper dart. There is an easy, wristy flourish to his phrasing, which an artist-journalist like Revel is qualified to appreciate, because he can do it himself. “Systems of literary criticism,” Revel wrote in his little book Sur Proust, “are made to satisfy the devouring lack of interest in literary works that calls itself a thirst for culture.” If that sentence turned on “calls itself a thirst for culture” it would just be a Wildean paradox. But dévorante gives it savour, because the consuming energy of the deafness to art that goes into a critical system is always one of its distinguishing features—distinguishing it, that is, from the decently reticent poise of a sensitive response.

Chamfort got the vital extra word from his lyrical talent. With the aphoristic statement as with any other measure of prose, a nose for poetry helps. “For this magician of the epigram,” wrote Revel of Chamfort, “the crystal and the music of a phrase are what matter most.” A hidden corollary might be that the truth and the justice are what matter least; but there can be no doubt that a suggestive enchantment, always in shorter supply than rational exposition, is more likely to get our attention first, if not to hold it longest. Chamfort reaped all the rewards open to the quick wit, and almost convinces us that it was the only way to live. But if he had really believed that, he would have written down nothing at all. He did do brilliantly in the end, and all because he was himself, and not in spite of it.