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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Notes for a future essay on Chamfort


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, a writer with a similarly confused relationship to the enlightenment, is inspired by his discovery of Nemesis and history – 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.


Well, Chamfort threw himself, body and soul, into the revolution. He impoverished himself, he wrote speeches for Mirabeau and Tallyrand, he, it is said, suggested the title for Sieyes critical pamphlet (Qu' est-ce que le Tiers-Etat? Tout. Qu'a-t-il? Rien) which neatly summarizes what, actually, all modern political revolutions are about – the struggle between what is really All – the working class – and its false political position – what does it have? Nothing.

A title that is echoed in one of Chamfort’s maxims:

“Me, all; the rest, none: thus it is with despotism, aristocracy, and their partisans. Me, this is an other; an other, this is me: thus it is with the popular regime and its partisans. After this, decide yourself.”

That Chamfort the pessimist, Chamfort the executioner of the Enlightenment smile of reason, was also Chamfort the revolutionary, Chamfort the anti-monarchist, was a paradox that the lineage of reactionary writers in the 19th century, up to and including Nietzsche, tried to find ways of explaining. Chamfort’s sotie, his double, was a reactionary, Antoine de Rivarol, who, before the revolution, ran in the same circles as Chamfort, wrote for the same journals, cultivated the same charming cynicism. Afterwards, in exile, he became Chamfort’s most bitter critic. But he was not the only one: Chamfort seemed to especially burn the anti-revolutionary crowd. Unlike Tallyrand, whose motives seemed transparent – greed – Chamfort seemed to have reached his conclusions coherently; he seemed to have thought they unfolded from his dethronement of God and his corrosive view of man. There was, in the reactionary view, a pit even under cynicism, and Chamfort was its guardian devil. Thus, among the conspiracy minded among them (and the exiles from the French revolution were massively inclined to theories of conspiracy – De Quincey rightly compared their visions to that of an opium smokers) Chamfort must be accounted for as a kind of intellectual criminal master mind. After all, it was Chamfort who came up with the slogan that smelled of blood and jacquerie: War on the castles! Peace to the huts! (Guerre aux chateaux! Paix aux chaumieres!) under which, in effect, the countryside of France seemed to be reorganized. In 1810, Marmontel, an old litterateur, publishes his memoirs and includes an anecdote about Chamfort – long dead, of course, by 1810, another victim of the Terror. I’ll quote from Pellison’s biography:

‘The passage is curious – we have to cite it. When Marmontel objected to Chamfort’s reform projects, [saying] that the better part of the nation will not let any attack be carried through on the laws of the country and the fundamental principles of monarchy, he (Chamfort) agreed that, in its antechambers, in its counting houses, in its workshops, a good part of the stay at home citizens would find perhaps that the projects bold enough to trouble their repose and their enjoyments. But, if they disapprove, that will not, he said, be but timidly and quietly, and one has to impose upon them that determined class which has nothing to lose in the change and believes it sees much to gain. In order to organize them into a mob, one has the most powerful motives, famine, hunger, money, alarms and terrors, and the delirium to blaze a path and the rage by which one will strike upon all minds. You have not heard among the bourgeois but the eloquent speakers. Know that all your tribune orators are nothing in comparison with Demosthenes  at a quid per head who, in the cabarets, in the public places, on the quais announce the ravages, the arsons, the sacked villages, flooded with blood, the plots to starve Paris. I call those gentlement the eloquent ones. Money principally and the hope of pillage are omnipotent among the people. We are going to make a test of Faubourg Saint-Antoine. And you won’t believe how little it costs the Duc D’Orleans [The rival of King Louis XVI] to have the manufactury  of honest Reveillon sacked, which was the living of one hundred families. Mirabeau has gaily upheld the idea that with a thousand Louis D’or one can create quite a pretty insurrection.”

Thus spake Chamfort, the Goldfinger of his time. Evil keeps a book, and ticks off in it just what he will do: destroy the living of a hundred innocents, spread rumors, dethrone culture. Did Chamfort really put the fear of God into Marmontel? The conversation is recorded years after one of the major participants committed a very bloody suicide, so we don’t know what Chamfort did. We don’t know whether this was mockery. The note about the Duc D’Orleans sounds significantly false. But the falsity at the bottom of this is that those who “came from the people”, the intellectuals, and adhered to the aristocracy couldn’t imagine someone going back to the people, except on behalf of some powerful figure. As Chamfort wrote: 

“All who emerge from the class of the people are armed against it to oppress it, from the militia man, the mercant become the secretary to the king, the preacher who comes from a village to preach submission to arbitrary authority, the historian son of a bourgeois, etc.  These are Cadmus’ soldiers: the first armed turn against their brother and jump on them.”

Chamfort is one of Cadmus’s soldiers who, to the surprise of all, turns not against his brother, but strikes at Cadmus the King. To a certain extent, to an extent that the pessimistic line that came after Chamfort could not believe he could accept, he did accept the bitterest consequences of the revolution:

“In the moment that God created the world, the movement of chaos must have made one find the chaos more disorganized than when he rested in the midst of it in its peaceful state.  Likewise, among us, the the embarrasment of a society reorganizing itself having to appear as an excess of disorder.”

This is what makes Chamfort stand apart – his notion of the irrevocable is not a nostalgia for what is lost, but is instead a  hope, expressed in a language that goes back to the Bible, that it is truly lost.


“… 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 a 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 them we take from them. [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 takes away when it pays – which is the deficit at the very heart of payment, the free lunch that is the despised, impossible other in the crackerbarrel wisdom of capitalism.  

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.”






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