David Rice: Sens-Plastique
by Malcolm de Chazal
Green Integer, 774 pp., $25
There are two main questions to ask about Mauritian author Malcolm de Chazal’s Sens-Plastique, first published in French in Mauritius in 1947 and in France in 1948, and reissued this year in a new, improved English translation: one, is it a book of poems, and two, whatever it is, how literally ought we to take it? Beloved in his time by major figures like Andre Breton, Georges Braque, and W.H. Auden, and today by fellow Mauritian writer and Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Lé Clezio, Chazal is often hailed as the inheritor of the French visionary tradition of Baudelaire and Rimbaud.
He probably would have been glad both to accept and to reject this title. Indeed, Sens-Plastique is not unclassifiable by accident, as Chazal straddles as many lines as he possibly can — between art and science, between poetry and prose, between madness and prescience, between painting and writing, between the miniscule and the immense, and between comedy and tragedy. The “plastic” of its title is meant to call to mind art in all of its forms, none more so than any other. As the purveyor of this plastic sense, Chazal presents himself as a kind of cracked prophet, smiling half-seriously because, if we take him at face value, the joke is on us.
Sens-Plastique, unanimously hailed as his greatest work, is a collection of aphorisms and observations, in no particular order but generally increasing in length over the course of the book’s nearly 600 pages, ranging from one to fifty or sixty sentences each. This new edition is a handsome, beguiling desk-side companion, always offering up curious and memorable insights whenever one opens it up, taking just a cursory glance or stopping to read a page or two. Nearly as thick as it is wide, with short, crisp pages, it’s a heavy cube that rests elegantly on the corner of a nightstand or writing desk, begging to be incorporated, if just for a moment, into the ritual of sitting down and getting to work, or lying down and beginning to read.
The two questions of form and intent overlap to the point of being nearly indistinguishable. There is a definite artistry to Chazal’s prose, be it his wry, tongue-in-cheek humor in some of the aphorisms or a more macabre apocalyptic cast in others, but underneath lies a disarming literalness, a sense of the genuinely visionary that is far less ironic or self-critical than most of the twentieth-century literature that approached this realm. Clever as much of his writing is, it’s clear that Chazal isn’t kidding. Perhaps this is why Sens-Plastique was so popular upon its initial release and why its legacy has been so checkered ever since, settling deep into the memories of a few and being forgotten by everyone else.
As much a cosmic instruction manual as a book of poetry, more a detailed workman’s description of the universe than an intellectual’s meditation upon it, Sens-Plastique does seem to be a book that demands to be cherished forever or abandoned almost immediately. Maybe it’s not even a description of the universe but simply a picture of it, explaining nothing more than what should be obvious but somehow is not. To call it a book of poems would be to give it at once too much and too little credit, for it is as careful as the work of any poet but not in the same way — Chazal’s attention to form and style operates not at the level of each individual word and sentence, as a poet’s must, but on the level of the entire book, which, although lacking a distinct order, forms a definite whole, a universal magnifying glass which, since in Chazal’s system everything betrays the secrets of everything else, is neither bigger nor smaller than that which it magnifies. It’s like a novel of ideas liberated from its novel.
“The aphorist does not argue or explain: he asserts,” writes Auden in the foreword, and this is very true of what is to follow. Although each entry is minute and consistent only unto itself, Chazal has set himself the very ambitious task of building a complete and coherent universal system, almost religious in its spiritual nakedness. There is no context and no exposition, but, jostling around in the middle of Sense-Plastique, we feel certain that we are in the grip of something.
A painter, explorer, physicist, and nephew of a practicing Swedenborgian, Chazal’s sources are various and vivid. Whether ruminating on the behaviors of plants and animals, cloud formations and flowers, small children or old men, individual aspects of the face and body or the grand blueprints of time and space, wrotes translator Irving Weiss, “Chazal is at the opposite extreme of certain dehumanizing and anti-humanist tendencies in modern thought. Instead of disinfecting the natural world to keep it free from human influence … he enlarges the human face and form to universal proportions.” The newness of his art form is in many ways due to how little artifice it actually employs: his thought is never far from the shapes of the natural world and the behaviors of real beings, no matter how counterintuitive and even disturbing his take on the significance of these shapes and behaviors may be. “In the throes of desire the pupils of a man’s eyes and the whites of a woman’s eyes protrude.” Is this poetry? Scientific observation? Universal rumination or autistcally minute detail?
Describing thunderstorms, teardrops, mouths, noses, the taste of salt, and the effects of the moon, Chazal writes like he’s just arrived on earth from another planet, but has immediately seen farther into its hidden echelons than anyone who grew up here. And he’s clearly fallen in love with all that he’s gathered on this first penetrating glance — he writes in a twisted, idiosyncratic way, but is never cold or alienating. As he puts it: “a cataract over the eye is a natural monocle,” perhaps summing up his take on vision and the life of a visionary. With the clear conviction that he’s committing the truth to writing, he delights in the blooming weirdness of everything around him.
Sens-Plastique is more of a reference guide than a straightforward work of literature, but its referent is at once too frivolous and too profound to be anything other than literary. Like the old party game of opening Finnegans Wake to a random page and reading aloud whatever obscure treasures happen to be stored there, putting them out there for a group of friends to interpret and riff on, Auden suggests fifteen minutes as the absolute maximum for any one session with Sens-Plastique, letting its dense patterns sink in without working too hard to determine how. The comparison with Joyce’s last book feels natural but isn’t really fair: most of us read single pages of Finnegans Wake with a twinge of guilt, knowing we ought to read more, with more courage, but we’re unable to contend with the prospect; with Sens-Plastique, a page or two suffices more gracefully. The book’s title may be the only name we’ll ever find to describe the art form that it invented, and thus we should be glad that, in this new edition, it’s been beautifully preserved just as it is.