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Irving Weiss

Malcolm de Chazal's Sens Magique


   Malcolm de Chazal (1902-1981), who was of French ancestry and wrote in French, was born and lived most of his life in Mauritius, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean. He is best known for his Sens Plastique, a collection of about two thousand unnumbered sentences and paragraphs usually referred to as aphorisms or pensèes. Here are two examples:
   Taste is a one-room house consisting of the mouth. Hearing has the boudoir of the ear, the eyes have the parlor of the cornea, and smell has the long hall of the nose. But the poorest lodged is touch, who lives on the naked plains of the skin like a vagabond in the streets.
   We never feel that nature is excessive in anything because color and form are so completely connected: button and buttonhole adjusted by divine fingers. Only manufactured objects strike us as being excessive in one way or another, and this arises from the fact that either the buttonhole is too tight or the button swims in its moorings.
   The book was first published in Mauritius and later in Paris (Gallimard, 1948) through the influence of Jean Paulhan. Andre Breton soon hailed Chazal as a Surrealist, but although one of his uncles was a Swedenborgian, Chazal refused to claim any literary or philosophical ancestry. 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.
   W. H. Auden wrote that Chazal was the most "original and interesting" French writer to appear since the end of World War II (although it should be admitted that Auden never cared much for modern French literature). In the 1960's the president of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor, himself a poet of international renown, considered Chazal an "African" poet-painter who celebrated the oceanic refulgence and tropical intensities of the part of the world they shared, and nominated him for the Nobel Prize for literature.
   In the late 1940's, however, there was considerable controversy among French writers and critics about what kind of book Sens Plastique was, about where it belonged as a work of literature. Despite prose and paragraph, it was often referred to as poetry because the kind of imagination its gnomic utterances expressed seemed to embody great visionary force. Although Chazal's next work to be published in Paris, La Vie Filtree (1949), consisted of essays expanding on the main themes of Sens Plastique- the multiplications of the face of God in the world of nature; the connections between face and body in humans, animals, and plants; the nature of clouds, sun and moon, time and space, light and color, birth and death, orgasm and agony-it also marked the metaphysical and mystic direction most of his subsequent writing took, with chapters on intra-light, the three levels of the brain, the infra-body, meta-painting, the five degrees of time, the physiognomy of diagonals, and so on. And in subsequent years Chazal's writing began to offer glimpses of a universal system in Le Nouvel Hermes, Le Roi du Monde, Le Bible du Mal, L'Absolu, and other works, a total view he usually referred to as Unisme.
   Chazal knew what he was doing. He had already foreseen in the afterword to Sens Plastique where his subconscious was forcing his mind to go.
   Sens Plastique itself took shape as the work we recognize only after Chazal had published six volumes of Pensèes, written more or less in the moralist tradition of La Rochefoucauld. In the last two volumes of Pensèes he recognized what all this preparation was leading him toward: a mode of sensuous intuition reflecting his closeness to nature in Mauritius, a psychic familiarity born of long contemplative walks among the distinctive flora and fauna, coral reefs, and glinting dazzle of light and color of the country he had been born in. Indeed, except for six years of studying engineering at Louisiana State University, he rarely left the island where his French forebears had settled in the 18th century. Although his training had been scientific, his literary background and language was French, but the all-embracing sensuousness of his subject matter bore the imprint of his native surroundings. Moreover, in Sens Plastique, he had discovered how to couch his insights in the linguistic precision, psychological shrewdness, and erotic intelligence of the French pensèe.
   His pensèes, however, seemed to be exceeding the bounds of metaphor, personification, and other figures of speech recognized as leaps of fancy or imagination in poetry, or as the untrammeled associations prodded by the unconscious in Surrealism.
   A fountain of water is all ball-bearings, so perfect in function that it requires no lubrication. Water is the only substance friction will not wear out.
   This kind of statement goes beyond proposing similitudes and imagining identities. It points to ultimate connections based on the "plasticity" of all of nature, everything understandable as a version of everything else. Then, in Sens Magique, nine years later, Chazal took one step further by demonstrating and dramatizing these correspondences in free verse.

The water said to the wave:
"It's me you're drinking,"
-"How could I possibly be
Drinking you?"
Answered the wave,
"I am your mouth."

   From painstakingly elaborating on the protean mysteries of form and substance in Sens Plastique, Chazal let the connections bluntly, unremittingly stand or speak for themselves in Sens Magique.

   In the afterword of Sens Plastique Chazal had already written:

   How can I tell where my mind will take me next? I can only say that... the difficulty of co-ordinating ideas matters much less at this stage than finding the right words to state them in. If I resort from now on to a darkly hermetic message... I will simply have to depend on readers of comparable mind, no matter how few. The trouble in this rarefied atmosphere is going to be how to shape and reshape words into a receptacle deep enough to contain these enormous forms of subconscious perception.


   I might as well be at the sea's end, plunging my arm into the fine, dry sand and then holding up a handful of siftings: all I need to do is turn my head away for an instant and I know my hand will be empty, for my fingers were never quick enough to keep the grains from slipping away. And so my problem is that language provides a vase neither deep enough to contain nor impermeable enough to hold intact the immensities of my perception.

   But even as "the exterior world was turning into my own psychic substance as I wove the design of my selfhood into its fabric...I was no longer thinking about clouds, mountains, birds, plants, the human face and body, time and space, but letting myself be thought by them." And yet, Chazal never entirely gave up his literary intention of enabling the essence of the world to speak through him unsystematically to his readers. And out of his stylistic preoccupation with words as such, but words that still retained something of the magical equivalent to things that they have for all of us in infancy and childhood, Sens Magique was conceived as a series of poems that would confront occult nature directly.

   Sens Magique (Mauritius, 1957; Paris, 1983) is ostensibly a collection of 755 poems. But if Sens Plastique is made up of curious discursive explanations of the world behind appearances, Sens Magique is composed of equally strange but straightforward notations and testimonies, presented as free verse, in which the ultimate realities are forced into rhythmic open admission. Since the advent of free verse, anything can be presented as verse by the voice breathing out separate words and phrases as they occupy the middle of the page without meter or rhyme. By choosing the free-verse form of bare words and short lines for Sens Magique, Chazal wanted to emphasize his oracular intention of demonstrating what makes the invisible world work.

   Magic is the power to impose human will upon time and space, upon nature, things, and persons. It claims to explain, like philosophy, if not to control, like technology, the secret springs of universal connections, and is not always separable from some elements of the more respectable arts and disciplines. Sens Magique (as well as Chazal's later Poemes and L'Humeur Rose, also written in lines to be delivered by word and phrase) is Chazal's most concentrated attempt to convince the reader by literary means, without requiring the adherence and initiation that the practice of magic depends on, that by the power of his language he has lifted the veil concealing ultimate truths.

   Often he seems to be repeating what our senses take for granted, that time and space, stillness and motion, light and dark, animals and plants, are as they are-surely unnecessary to mention-except that his plain way of declaring it with pre-Socratic philosophical simplicity makes the obvious uncannily persuasive. Chazal knew that in this work he was making an effort to be read as a poet, but on his own terms. In the varied collection of Sens Magique verses, he presses his case as a seer still capable of translating the language of forms into literature with authority, candor, empathy, and a sly sense of humor.

   My translation replaces many of Chazal's line arrangements with those more suitable to the English vernacular, but I have tried to retain his formal diction. In order to give consistency to this selective version, I occasionally changed the sequence of verses. I also capitalized the first letter of each line as Chazal does in his old-fashioned way because he wanted each line to stand as a pronouncement.


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