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  • Malcolm de Chazal’s Sens-plastique as Aesthetic Remainder
  • Alexander Dickow
  • L’idiot bêle du regard.

  • *

  • Nuages bas servent de presse-papier au vent.

  • *

  • L’écorce est le crâne des plantes; et la sève en est la matière grise.

  • *

  • Seul

  • Le

  • Feu

  • Peut

  • Lécher

  • Sa

  • Propre

  • Langue.

  • *

  • L’huître

  • En

  • S’ouvrant

  • La bouche

  • Se

  • Parlait

  • Dans

  • L’oreille.

  • *

  • Les lèvres sont le potier des sons. Comme des doigts appuyés sur l’argile, les lèvres moulent les sons que leur transmettent les cordes vocales à vitesses variantes, autour du pivot flexible de la langue.1 [End Page 109]

One is best introduced to the Mauritian Francophone writer Malcolm de Chazal by encountering his work, such as the aphorisms above, before his history. Neither the details of the writer’s life as a telephone serviceman, nor his role as a self-styled visionary and eccentric provide much insight into the strangeness of Chazal’s thousands of aphorisms and poems, a strangeness that in the 1940s prompted the immediate admiration and praise of the likes of André Breton, Jean Paulhan and Francis Ponge.2 While this sudden fame has assured Chazal a relative place in literary history, that place remains on its periphery: like other writers far from Paris, far from the center, Chazal is made to play the at once prestigious and marginalizing role of literary Other. Such writers are caught in a machinery that cannot fully integrate them as a working part. Their foreignness makes them hypervisible as Other, yet institutionally invisible, relegating them to the uncomfortable space of the footnote and the passing allusion.3

Chazal’s critical reception has reproduced this double bind in a peculiar way: criticism has privileged his most obscure work rather than the works for which he acquired notoriety. This notoriety arose when Jean Paulhan, his curiosity piqued by the Mauritian poet’s strange work, arranged for Gallimard to publish Chazal’s Sens-plastique in 1948. To the literary world (as opposed to the public at large), this collection of some two thousand aphorisms or mini-essays remains Chazal’s signature work, and the only one to have been completely translated into English.4 Shortly after its release, André Breton would publically praise Sens-plastique; Jean Dubuffet and others noticed and extolled the book, while Ponge compared its importance to that of Lautréamont’s work.5

This brief moment of fame helped establish Sens-plastique as an admired curiosity up to the present day. Some part of Chazal’s readers also know the longer essays of La Vie filtrée (1949), the second and last of Chazal’s books to be published by Gallimard. Yet in-depth critical discussions of Chazal’s work do not generally focus on Sens-plastique, nor on later aphoristic volumes like Sens magique (1957). Instead, they involve charting Chazal’s vast mysticism, developed from the 1950s to the 1970s in books such as Petrusmok: roman mythique (1951), Pentateuque (1953), or L’Évangile de l’eau (1952), among countless others. A relative invisibility, or minoration, of Sens-plastique and the aphoristic corpus results within Chazalian critical discourse.6 In short, Chazal’s critical reception largely runs counter to his broader readership, for whom the aphoristic corpus remains Chazal’s principal legacy.

Of what, then, does this legacy consist? Chazal’s aphorisms and poems seem to push the logic of decoration to its furthest confines. His stunning [End Page 110] conceits display the superlative inanity of a fireworks show: all gratuitous spectacle, without consequence or implication beyond themselves. As I will argue in this essay, this aesthetic purity, this nearly subconceptual quality effectively remove Chazal’s work from the realm of critical visibility, making his aphorisms almost philosophically and ethically irrecuperable. In other words, what makes Chazal hypervisible—his singular investigation into aesthesis—is also what renders him, in a sense, invisible. Chazal’s mystical discourse represents an attempt to rationalize the aphorisms’ purely aesthetic project by artificially grafting a metaphysical project onto it. But Chazal’s mystical, metaphysical project, in the end, cannot effectively recuperate the aesthetic project. Along with works like Sens magique, Sens-plastique constitutes a critical remainder, unaccounted...


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