ISSN 
1942-2067

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Last updated:
January 2008

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In The Shadow of Giants

Malcolm de Chazal 

(1902-1981)

Malcolm de Chazal was born in 1902 in Port St.Louis, Mauritius. His French forebears had settled in Mauritius in the 18th century. Chazal’s literary background and language was French, but the rich patina of his native surroundings made their way into the essence of his work.   Chazal spent six years at Louisiana State University, where he received an engineering degree. He returned to Mauritius where he worked as an agronomist on sugar plantations, and later for the Office of Telecommunications.

In 1940 he began to publish a series of volumes consisting of hundreds of numbered thoughts and ideas entitled Pensées.

Chazal is known for his highly acclaimed Sens Plastique, published in France in 1947. The book comprises 2150 aphorisms, poetical insights that are startling, powerful and refreshing. The simplicity and truth of the epiphanies in his work is reminiscent of Antoine St. Exupery’s brilliant classic, The Little Prince, where there is a narrow margin between imagination and the perceived reality of a child. As we age, “the world” is indeed “too much with us.” And few, if any, are able to retain those sharp, clear and almost magical perceptions of childhood that create the bridge from imagination to the heart and mind.

That Chazal held children in great respect, is evident from this dedication which he wrote for a friend, Mr.Dubey. He wrote that while a few men would understand his work and seventy-five percent of the women, all the children would do so. According to Chazal, men were intellectual, women intuitive and children, perceptive.

(We are indebted to M. Michel Fillion of Antibes, France, who has generously shared his personal copy, a rare edition, of Chazal’s “Sens Magique” with us.)

Chazal’s book Sens-Plastique was first published in Mauritius and later in Paris, where it continued to capture the attention of many writers and philosophers. Among others, Andre Breton and W.H. Auden were impressed with his work. In spite of the prose format, the vivid imagery and distilled beauty of his writings lent itself to the descriptor of poetry.

    “Immediately before it falls, water turns into a living being as if a person's soul had just slipped into it: look at the way it bends and twists, writhing in desperation.” 

    “Taste is a one-room house consisting of the mouth. Hearing has the boudoir of the ear, the eyes have the parlor of the cornea, and smell has the long hall of the nose. But the poorest lodged is touch, who lives on the naked plains of the skin like a vagabond in the streets.”

Chazal wrote not just of similarities but also of the connections and the “plasticity” of nature; the idea that everything was in some way a version or part of something else. He elaborated the mysteries of substance and form in Sens-Plastique and developed his ideas a step further in free verse.

    The water said to the wave:   
    "It's me you're drinking,"   
    "How could I possibly be   
    Drinking you?"   
    Answered the wave,   
    "I am your mouth."
       

According to Chazal:

    “…But even as the exterior world was turning into my own psychic substance as I wove the design of my selfhood into its fabric...I was no longer thinking about clouds, mountains, birds, plants, the human face and body, time and space, but letting myself be thought by them."

Chazal’s work seems to be infused with the brilliance of unfiltered perception. It suggests the presence of a visionary; his utterances intuitive and sensuous in nature, where his words of childlike simplicity and instinctive wisdom, hold magic. His thoughts seem to jump from the confines of personification and metaphor to become a living entity:

    "The vase
    tipped over   
    and showed 
    water’s   
    belly.
    "
    "Wind   
    gets 
    its fingernails 
    among 
    the thorns."
    "Light 
    reached its hand 
    into evening’s purse 
    and pulled out 
    a star."

    Translated from the French by Karina Borowicz and Ben Admussen

    "Flowers are both knowing and innocent," with experienced mouths but childlike eyes. They bend the two poles of life into a divinely closed circle.   

Chazal’s other writings include La Vie Filtrée (1949), a collection of essays that elaborate upon the ideas found in Sens-Plastique, Sens Magique (1957) and Poémes (1968 ), a collection of miniature verses that dramatize the experiences described in Sens-Plastique, and Petrusmok (1951), the spiritual history of Mauritius found in its natural surroundings. Sens-Plastique was translated into English by Irving Weiss in a volume published by Green Integer (2005) as Sens-Plastique. Those who wish to learn more about Chazal would benefit from reading Weiss’s brilliant essay about Chazal’s “Sens Magique.

Sens plastique Petrusmok Sens magique 

Chazal took up painting in the 1950s. In his painting, unlike the philosophical complexity of his written work, he concentrated on natural forms and landscapes in a primitive style. Chazal was a gifted painter, his medium being gouache on paper. Chazal's favorite subject were the flowers and landscapes of Mauritius

chazal, fleur gouache paysage et bateaux chazal, barque paysage orange case creole
theiere, gouache chazal-voiliers chazal grand paysage chazal-fleurs chazal-oiseaux

"The crown of petals is the flower's panties. Rip them off and you will have public indecency. They were the pre-adamic fig leaf of nature before the first Eve wore that leaf as her own crown of petals." (p. 117)

"Flowers are always peerlessly dressed, formal in splendor, at the height of elegance on all occasions except at the first appearance of the fruit when they change into something skimpy." (p. 56)