Chamfort was not his real last name. In fact, it is still not certain whether his name was really Sébastien-Roch Nicolas, son of a Clermont grocer, or whether he was the bastard child of a Clermont canon. Sébastien-Roch-Nicolas Chamfort, like many another Enlightenment demi-sage, came up through the ranks from a seemingly engulfing provincial obscurity by inventing himself in a different milieu.
His success as a writer falls in the period of the 1770s. He earned money from a hit play; he wrote for enlightened journals; he found an aristocratic patron. And he enjoyed eating, drinking, talking and fucking. He mingled with some of the big names, wrote a catty little verse about Candide, received a letter of praise from Rousseau. His life, although he didn’t know it then, was falling into a pattern of anecdotes. For instance, on the subject of making love, his biographer Pellison recounts that a woman told him, once, “this curious thing. I don’t love smart men in love – they are watching themselves parade on by.” [impossible to capture the phrase, ils se regardent passer- ‘they are people watching themselves’ might be a better translation]. A remark that sticks with Chamfort, and that he records, later.
He was a good looking young man. Another biographer, Arnaud, records that he was the lover of an actress, Mlle. Guimard, “famous for the perfection of her bosom and who did her makeup each day before the portrait that Fragonard had painted of her.” [xiii]
But already, at twenty five, Chamfort’s life had changed much for the worse. Famously. As Remy Gormount wrote: “Chamfort’s secret, why use periphrases that don’t trick anybody, is in the syphilis that tormented him for a period of thirty years, during the time first of his greatest genital activity, and the second, and then in the third, the more discrete but more conscientious and refined period.” His looks fell away. He recovered, but with a disfigured face. Much like Mirabeau – to whom he has a strange, doppelganger relationship – Chamfort had experienced the down side of the libertine moeurs in his body, and he didn’t like it. An anecdote – how they trail our man, how they dog him like devils – from Abbé Morellet, a habitue of the Madam Helvetius’ salon, where Chamfort was a faithful attendee:
“I saw him, he said, in the society of Saurin and Mme Helvetius… this happened to me twenty times at Auteuil that, after having heard him for two hours in the morning recounting anecdote after anecdote and making epigram after epigram with an inexhaustible talent, I would leave with my soul as saddened as if I was leaving the spectacle of an execution. And Mme. Helvetius, who had much more indulgence than I do for that kind of wit, after having amused herself for hours listening to his malignity, after having smiled at each ‘hit’, told me, after he had parted: Father, have you ever seen anything as tiring as the conversation of Chamfort? Do you know that it makes me blue for the entire day? And this is true.”
For between 1780 and 1788 – the decade in which Herder is inspired by his discovery of Nemesis – Chamfort ‘retires’ from the circles of the intellectuals and the long stays as a house guest at the estates of the nobility. He was in his forties. It is now that he leaves behind poetry and the theater and begins writing down his epigrams and anecdotes. He has a sense that this will make a book, and calls the project – in one of those flashes of mordant wit that depressed Mme Helvetius – Produits de la civilisation perfectionnée.
This is one of Chamfort’s maxims:
“Hope is only a charlatan who ceaselessly tricks us. And, for me, only after I’ve lost it does happiness begin. I would gladly place over the gate of paradise the verse that Dante put over that of hell: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.