For a man who observes the world without giving up his place in it, it is very difficult to think always the way Chamfort did. For example, it is difficult to admit that superiority always makes enemies, that genius is necessarily solitary. These are things people say to flatter genius or themselves. But they are by no means true. Superiority is compatible with friendship; genius is frequently good company. Solitude is not peculiar to genius: a genius is alone only when he wants to be.
It is very difficult also to follow Chamfort in one of the most commonplace and stupid notions in the world, namely, scorn for women in general. There is no such thing as scorn or enthusiasm· in general. Every judgment must rest upon pertinent and concrete facts. Moreover, misanthropy seems to me a futile and ill-advised attitude, and I heartily deprecate Chamfort’s surliness, his snappishness, his all-inclusive despair. Yet, to complete the paradox, I must affirm that in spite of everything Chamfort seems to me one of the most enlightening of French moralists. But let me say right away that when he indulges in very general judgments, he is false to the basic principles of his art. Usually, however, he follows a quite different procedure, and herein lie his originality and his depth.
Our greatest moralists are not makers of maxims, but novelists. Now what is a moralist? Let us say simply that he is a man who has dedicated his life to the study of the human heart. But what is the human heart? That is difficult to define, one can only assume that it is the most individual thing in the world. This is why, in spite of appearances, it is very difficult to learn anything about human conduct by reading the maxims of La Rochefoucauld. These beautifully balanced sentences, these carefully-wrought antitheses, this vanity exalted to the plane of universal reason, are far removed from the hidden complexities and whims which make up the experiences of a man. I would willingly give the whole book of Maxims for a felicitous phrase from La Princess de Cleves and for two or three true little facts such as Stendhal knew how to collect. “One often goes from love to ambition, but one can scarcely come back from ambition to love,” said La Rochefoucauld, and I know nothing more about these two passions, for the phrase can easily be turned around. Julien Sorel ruining his career through two love affairs, each so different, tells me far more in his every act. Our real moralists have not made phrases, they have observed, and have observed themselves. They have not made laws, they have painted. And in so doing they have done more to explain the conduct of man than if they had patiently polished, for a few wits, a hundred or so set formulas doomed to be material for academic theses. For only a novel is faithful to the particular. Its objective is not to sum up conclusions about life, but to depict its very unfolding. In a word, it is more modest, and as such it is classic. At least, as such it is a source of knowledge far more valuable than either mathematics or maxims, which are both mere intellectual pastimes.
Now what is a maxim? We might call it, by simplification, an equation1 in which the elements of the first term reappear in the second, but in a different order. This is why the ideal maxim can always be turned around. Its whole truth lies within itself and has no more to do with experience than an algebraic formula. We can do with it what we please until all possible combinations of the terms are exhausted, whether these terms be love, hate, self-interest or pity, liberty or justice. We can even, just as in algebra, gather from one of these combinations an idea regarding experience. But there is nothing real in such things because everything is general.
What interests us in Chamfort is that, with few exceptions, he
really does not write maxims. And, save for giving way to fits of bad humor when discussing women or solitude, he never generalizes. If we look closely at what we are pleased to call his thoughts, we see clearly that neither antithesis nor formula is cultivated. The man who writes “The philosopher who wishes to silence passion is like the blacksmith who wishes to put out his fire” is a kindred spirit of the man who, about the same time, makes the following capital observation: “We inveigh against the passions without realizing that it is from their flame that philosophy lights her own.” Both writers express themselves, not through maxims but through remarks which would not be out of place in a narrative. They are sallies,” flashes of insight, but not laws. Each one deals with a subject about which there is nothing to make laws and everything to paint. Indeed, we can seek a long time before finding in the writings of our professional moralists a text which goes so far or offers more in practical wisdom than the following, the last part of which seems exceedingly appropriate to our society: “There are errors in deportment which nowadays we are rarely guilty of. We have become so refined that, with our mind where our heart should be, even a base person, however little given to reflection, avoids certain platitudes which formerly might have been successful. I have seen dishonorable men bear themselves proudly and in seemly fashion before a prince or a minister, never bending the knee, etc. . . . Such behavior deceives inexperienced people who do not know, or else forget, that a man must be judged on his principles or his character as a whole.”
But we see at the same time that we are in no wise dealing with the art of the maxim. Chamfort does not reduce life to a formula. His great artistry consists, rather, in amazingly accurate strokes the implications of which” the mind can explore afterwards. In this he immediately recalls Stendhal who also sought man where he could be found, namely in society, and truth where it lurks, namely in the particular. But the resemblance does not stop here, and we may, without paradox, think of Chamfort as a novelist. A thousand flashes of a similar insight add up to a sort of unorganized novel, a collective chronicle which appears here in the form of the commentaries which it might call forth. I refer to the Maxims. But if we consider also the Anecdotes, in which now the characters are not suggested by the judgments relative to them, but rather depicted in their concrete particulars, we may get a better idea of this unavowed novel.
By putting together the Anecdotes and the Maxims, we have enough complete material, characters and commentaries, for a sort of great “Social Comedy” complete with plot and hero. Merely by establishing a coherence which the author chose not to give it, one would create a work far superior to the collection of thoughts which it seems on the surface to be, a true book of human experience the pathos and cruelty of which cause its vain injustices to be forgotten. We can at least point out the possibility of such an understanding. It would show that Chamfort, unlike La Rochefoucauld,” is as penetrating a moralist as Mme. de Lafayette or Benjamin Constant, and that he takes his place, in spite of and because of his instances of passionate blindness, among the greatest creators of an art in which truthfulness to life has at no time been sacrificed to linguistic artifices.
The action takes place toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, amid a weak though charming society whose sole occupation seems to have been dancing on volcanoes. The setting of the novel is laid in what was then referred to as society. Let us note from the start that this removes Chamfort’s observations from the sphere of the general. The hasty reader is often inclined to attribute to the human heart what the author says only of certain erratic characters. So the famous sentence on love being reduced to the contact between two epidermises, incomprehensible in a man who has said so many profound things about passion, may be understood only in the light of what Chamfort himself adds: “Love, as it exists in society . . .”
What Chamfort’s chronicle attacks is a social class, a minority separated from the rest of the nation, blind and deaf, bent on pleasure. This class provides the characters for the novel, the setting, and the objects of satire. For, at first glance, it is a satirical novel. The Anecdotes supply the precise details. The king, the court, Madame the king’s daughter being astonished that the maid has, even as she, five fingers; Louis XV wincing on his death-bed because his doctor presumes to use the expression “you must”; the Duchess de Rohan taking for granted that bearing a Rohan is an honor; the courtiers preferring to rejoice at the king’s good health rather than to deplore five de feats suffered by the French armies, the I run fathomable stupidity, their incredible pretentiousness in designating God as “the gentleman above,” the colossal ignorance of a class in which d’Alembert is nobody compared to the Venetian ambassador; Berrier having poison administered to the man who warned him of Damiens’ attack and ignoring the warning; M. de Maugeron having an innocent scullion hanged in place of a guilty cook only because he was fond of the latter’s cooking; and still others. These are portraits, pictures in which the same characters often reappear. Having to deal with a society congealed in the abstractions of etiquette, Chamfort has chosen to depict them as marionettes, seen from the outside. Except for two or three instances when he leans toward the theater, his technique is that of the novel and even the modern novel. Per sons are always depicted through their deeds. His sallies offer no conclusions; they merely indicate characters.
In the midst of all these characters the hero is Chamfort himself. His biography could provide us with interesting data. But it is superfluous since he has depicted himself in the Anecdotes and Maxims, and always in keeping with the novelistic technique, that is to say, indirectly. Indeed, if we were to collect all the references to a certain M…, we should have a rather complete portrait of the character for whom Chamfort invented the word “sarcasmatic” and whose conduct in an unreal and mad society he painstakingly describes. This individual has reached the time of life when youth is fleeing and taking with it the companions who had always been regarded as a source of everlasting delight. In capable of accepting the consolation of religion, having tasted everything and now enjoying nothing, he would consider himself an empty shell, were it not for two things which give his life interest: the memory of love and a devotion to character. It is not for nothing that Chamfort be stowed such a haughty title upon one section of his maxims: “On the Enjoyment of Solitude and the Dignity of Character.” There is nothing about a man that he rated more highly, and his only error is perhaps to have confused character with solitude. This is also the subject of his secret book which we will have occasion to return to later. We will, however, interpret correctly Chamfort’s emphasis on character if we recognize it as the obvious reaction of a man surrounded by a decadent society in which wit abounds, but great lessons of will are not to be taken seriously. But in establishing this supreme quality, Cham fort avoids the arbitrary or the general. He tempers his postulate by reference to experience: “It is imprudent,” he says, “to set for oneself principles stronger than one’s character.”
The reason is not far to seek. This individual so deeply concerned with lofty moral qualities is no stranger to passion and its wounds. The very man who wrote one of the proudest maxims ever conceived by a French mind: “If good fortune is to come to me, she will have to submit to the conditions which my character imposes,” he nevertheless shows his delicate sensitivity on every page. In short, and here our man reveals his full stature, he has achieved a combination of will and passion which constitutes the tragic character and sets Chamfort considerably ahead of his century. In writing the following, he becomes a contemporary of Byron and Nietzsche: “I have seen very few cases of pride which pleased me. The best example I know is of Satan in Paradise Lost.” Here we recognize the tragic tone and the stamp of what Nietzsche called the free spirit. Let us only keep in mind the society to which this spirit belongs in spite of himself, and on which, to his misfortune, he has been unable to resist passing judgment. We can then well imagine the experience of scorn and despair in store for a soul of this stature in a world which he holds in contempt. Thus we perceive the novel for which Chamfort left us the elements. It is a novel of denial, a tale of total negation which finally encompasses a negation of self, a flight toward the absolute which ends in a paroxysm of annihilation.
Such a tale can be understood only in the light of the impulsive enthusiasm which colored Chamfort’s youth. He was, they say, as handsome as a god. Success came early. Women fell in love with him; his first works, however mediocre, won over the salons and even gained royal favor. Society did not in fact act very harshly toward him, and even the illegitimacy of his birth was not a hindrance. If the expression “social success” has any meaning, we can say that in the beginning Chamfort’s life is a brilliant success. But as a matter of fact it is not certain that the word has any meaning. At least this is the message of Chamfort’s novel, which is the story of a solitary life. For social success means nothing if one does not believe in society. And there is in Chamfort a certain tragic disposition which will prevent him from ever believing in society, as well as a certain sensitivity which will keep him apart from a class which might hold his origins against him. He is one of those temperaments whose great and brilliant qualities put them in a position to conquer all, but who have another bitterer quality which leads them to reject the very thing which has just been conquered. Let us add further that his environment is a society contemptible even to those whose profession it is to believe in it. What attitude can a man take toward a world which he scorns? If his character is superior, he will set for himself standards such as cannot be met in this world. Not to make himself a model, but merely to act consistently. If every plot must have a basic motive, the motive of this story will be found in the author’s moral bent.”
We behold our hero lodged in the midst of his successes and his disdain for a corrupt society. The only thing which moves him to action is his personal ethics. Immediately he singles out for attack his very own interests. He owes his living to pensions, but calls for their suppression; he collects his fees for attending meetings of the Academie, but attacks it violently and calls for its dissolution. A man of the old regime, he casts his lot with the party which will ultimately cause his death. He draws away and rejects everything, he spares neither himself nor anyone else: we have before us a tragedy of honor. His solitude once achieved, he reveals himself the rabid foe of the only comfort to which a solitary man may have recourse; never has unbelief been declared in such vigorous accents: Not even his physical appearance remains unmolested: his countenance, once so engaging, becomes “altered, then hideous.”
Our hero will proceed still further, for renouncing his own interests is nothing and destroying his body is little compared to the destruction of his very soul. Here, in the last analysis, lies the greatness of Chamfort and the astonishing beauty of the novel he sketches for us. Scorn of mankind often indicates merely a vulgar mind, for it is usually accompanied by self-satisfaction. It can be defended only when it is based upon scorn of self. “Man is a stupid beast,” says Chamfort, “I can judge from myself.” For this reason he seems to me a moralist of rebellion, in so much as he has experienced rebellion to the full by turning it against himself, his ideal being a sort of hopeless saintliness. Such an extreme, uncompromising attitude was to lead him eventually to silence, the ultimate negation: “M . . . who was asked to talk on various public or private abuses replied coldly: No day goes by that I do not add to the list of things about which I shall never speak. The longest list belongs to the greatest philosopher.” This conviction was to bring him to deny the work of art and even the uncorrupted force of language which, within himself, had been striving so long to try to forge for his rebellion a matchless expression. He did not fail, to be sure, and here we have the final negation. He attributes the following words to one of his characters who is reproved for not taking any interest in his own talent: “My self-concern perished in the shipwreck of the interest which I had in mankind.” Nothing could be more logical. Art is the opposite of silence, it is one of the signs of a complicity which links us with the rest of mankind in our common struggle. For one—who has renounced this complicity and set his face completely against his fellow men neither language nor art has any meaning. Doubtless that is why this novel of negation was never written. For it was precisely a novel of negation. ·v..re can perceive in this art those very principles which were to lead him up to a negation of self. Perhaps Chamfort never wrote a novel because it was not customary to do so. But the fundamental reason is that he loved neither mankind nor him self. It is hard to imagine a novelist who has no fondness for any of his characters. Not one of our great novels can be understood except in the light of a great sympathy for mankind. The example of Chamfort, unique in French literature, offers adequate testimony to that. In any case, it is here that this great “social comedy” ends, belying the futile title which it bears.
We must turn to Chamfort’s biography to learn the end of this tale. In its entirety and in its details it presents a picture of utmost tragedy and consistency. For when Chamfort flung himself completely into the Revolution he was but giving logical expression to his convictions. No longer able to speak, he acted, and instead of the novel which he never wrote, he occupied his talents with lampoons and pamphlets. But it is obvious that he was concerned only with the negative aspect of the Revolution. He was drawn too much toward an ideal justice actually to accept injustice as such, inseparable from all action. Here again he was bound to fall. For anyone like Chamfort, tempted by the absolute and incapable of achieving it through mankind, the rest remains only to die. And this is exactly what he did, but in circumstances so horrible as to give its proper dimension to this ethical tragedy: it concludes in utter butchery. The mania of purity fuses here with the madness of destruction. The day when Chamfort thinks that the Revolution has condemned him, faced with complete failure, he draws a pistol upon himself, smashing his nose and putting out his right eye. Still alive, he returns to the attack, cuts his throat with a razor and slashes the flesh to bits. Covered with blood, he buries his weapon in his chest and finally, opening the veins of his legs and wrists, collapses in a pool of blood which eventually trickles under the doors and gives the alarm. Such a frenzy of suicide, such delirium of destruction, surpass ordinary imagination. But the Maxims offer a commentary: “Violent decisions frighten; but they befit strong minds, and robust characters are at ease in extremes.” It is just such a cult of the extreme and the impossible which Chamfort’s novel depicts. This precisely is what Chamfort’s peculiar moral bent amounts to. Only, this novel of a superior morality is consummated in torrents of blood, in the midst of a topsy-turvy world in which every day a dozen heads bounce into the bottom of a basket. Compared to the conventional pictures which we are shown of this period, Chamfort’s gives us a deeper understanding of himself and of morality.
For the profession of moralist cannot proceed without upheavals, without transports, without sacrifices—or else it is only an odious sham. That is why Chamfort seems to me one of our rare great moralists: morality, the great torment of mankind, is with him a personal passion which he carried out logically, even unto death. On all sides I have read condemnation of his bitterness. But really I prefer this bitterness bathed in the full light of a great conception of mankind, to the dry philosophy of the great lord who wrote this unforgivable maxim: “Manual labor delivers one from mental chores, and that is what makes the poor so happy.” “Even in his most sweeping denunciations, Chamfort never forsook the cause of the vanquished. He harmed no one but himself, and this for lofty reasons. Most assuredly I can see the weakness in his point of view. He believed that renunciation indicates character, and there are times when character must say yes. How can superiority be imagined, separate from mankind? Yet that is the sort which Chamfort, and after him Nietzsche (who admired him so much), chose. But both he and Nietzsche paid dearly, proving that the adventure of an intelligence in quest of a profound justice can be as bloody as the greatest conquests. It is an idea which compels respect. It is likewise an idea which has a bearing on us and our world. Let us remember in this connection that Chamfort is a classic writer. But if coherence, reason, logic even unto death, stubborn adherence to morality are classic virtues, we must admit that the way Chamfort chose to be classic was to die of it. This restores to the classic ideal the immensity and the thrill which it could mean to our great centuries, and which it must not lose for us.
Translated by LAURENCE LeSAGE