the executioner's melancholy

“… writing, on the contrary, is always rooted in a beyond of language, it develops like a seed and not like a line, it manifests an essence and threatens with a secret, it is a counter-communication, it intimidates. We will find in all writing the ambiguity of an object which is at the same time language and coercitation: there is, at the bottom of writing, a “circumstance” that is foreign to language, there is something like the glance of an intention that is already no longer that of langauge. This glance can very well be a passion for language, as in literary writing; it can also be the threat of a penality, as in political writing: writing is then charged to join in a single dash the reality of acts and the ideality of ends.” – Barthes, The Degree Zero of Writing

(…l'écriture, au contraire, est toujours enracinée dans un au-delà du langage, elle se développe comme un germe et non comme une ligne, elle manifeste une essence et menace d'un secret, elle est une contre-communication, elle intimide. On trouvera donc dans toute écriture l'ambiguïté d'un objet qui est à la fois langage et coercition : il y a, au fond de l'écriture, une « circonstance » étrangère au langage, il y a comme le regard d'une intention qui n'est déjà plus celle du langage. Ce regard peut très bien être une passion du langage, comme dans l'écriture littéraire; il peut être aussi la menace d'une pénalité, comme dans les écritures politiques : l'écriture est alors chargée de joindre d'un seul trait la réalité des actes et l'idéalité des fins)

The common approach to Chamfort’s ‘maxims’ and “anecdotes” has been to consider them as a philosophy – and to eventually dismiss them as a philosophy. Pellison, his nineteenth century biographer, remarks on the similarity of temperaments that seems to exist between Chamfort and Schopenhauer. But Chamfort was, Pellison concedes, not a systematic thinker.

The notion that a philosopher must work within a ‘system’, which figured largely in the 19th century, still has an influence on the definition of philosophy – in fact, the teaching of philosophy often comes down to a puppetshow of conflicting systems – if you claim x, you are a critical realist, and if you claim y, you are a nominalist. Etc.

Barthes was concerned with another system – the system of ecriture. This has a lot more relevance to Chamfort. Chamfort wrote his “Products” out of a reaction to, a consciousness of, the writerly function. That function – which, as with all middleman positions, has an unearthly relation to the basic one of pandering – is both under attack in the Maxims – from the beginning, the very idea of the maxim is ridiculed as the idea of a mediocre mind – and, inevitably, chosen as Chamfort’s instrument. What other instrument is there? But the notion of maxim, of a rule, if only a rule of thumb in the Repulic of Thumbs, puts us on the track of Chamfort’s sense that his writing was political. It is to this that the reflection tends; political scandal is the whole point of the anecdotes he carefully amassed. When his listeners at Mme Helvetius came away from his conversation with the sad sense of being present at an execution, it was no accident.

So, what was this politics?

Because Chamfort was intentionally freeing up his writing from the literary – and thus the systematic – it is easy to quote him, but hard to point to one passage or another that would provide the key to him. It is this very freedom that “intimidates”, to use Barthes term. But to threaten politically implies an order that can be violated, a standard from which one can judge. And there are many passages from the Maxims that hint at this order – that, as it were, give us the mythic foundation for the series of sacrifices, of executions, that space themselves in both the Maxims and the Anecdotes.

This passage from the first section of the Maxims, for instance.

‘I have often noticed in my reading that the first movement of those who have performed some heroic action, who have surrendered to some generous impression, who have saved the unfortunate, run some great risk and procured some great advantage – be it for the public or for some particulars – I have, I say, noted that the first movement has been to refuse the compensation one offered them. This sentiment is discovered in the heart of the most vile men and the last class of people. What is this moral instinct that teaches men without education that the compensation for these actions is in the heart of he who has done them? It seems that in paying ourselves for them, they have taken this from us. [Il semble qu’en nous les payant on nous les ote]” OC 1812, 2:28

The insistence of the writen, here, is caught in that repetition of “I have often remarked” – its way of pointing to the superfluity of the oral, the way, in the economy of speaking, repetition serves to organize a series that is continually disappearing, going beyond the attention of the listener, which is strictly not needed in writing (for after all, the reader has merely to glance back) and that appears there nevertheless to ‘glance beyond’ the written object, to connote the theater of conversation. But the major economic instance, here, is of course the gift – or the sacrifice. The gift – the heroic act, the generous impulse - initiates an internal circuit in which the outward gift (the true gift) is compensated by an inward gift (which is marked, already, as a compensation). But it is a circuit that is taken from us when we impose upon it another economy – that of payment.

This is, of course, a very Rousseau-like stance. However, it joins Rousseau to a moralist theme – of self satisfaction. Or at least of self compensation. As in Rousseau, nature is identified with a primary process – with spontaneity. The secondary process is that of payment. Chamfort does not, here, reflect on the connecting link of compensation – that there must be compensation of some kind is assumed.

The executioner’s melancholy arises from the perception that the rupture between the regimes of compensation has corrupted us in such a way that there is no going back. It is an irrevocable movement.

“Society is not, as is commonly believed, the development of nature, but rather its decomposition and entire remaking. It is a second edifice, built with the ruins of the first. We rediscover the debris with a pleasure mixed with surprise. It is this which occasions the naïve expression of a natural sentiment which escapes in society. It even happens that it pleases more, if the person from whom it escapes is a rank more elevated, that is to say, farther from nature. It charms in a king, because a king is in the opposed extremity. It is a fragment of ancient doric or corinthian architecture in a crude and modern edifice.”