The noblest and most innocent of all revolutionary manifestos is the Hessische Landbote, written by Georg Büchner in 1834 when he was 20 years old. Addressed to the peasantry of Hesse, the Landbote had almost no effect except to provoke a wave of repression against the young intellectuals who were behind it. It is written, deliberately, in language of Biblical simplicity, and its subtitle might have been spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Peace to the Cottages! War on the Palaces!’
Vol. 14 No. 23 · 3 December 1992
The title Chamfort gave to Sièyes’s pamphlet was ‘Qu’est-ce que le Tiers Etat? Tout. Qu’est-il? Rien.’ The translation, quoted by Neal Ascherson (LRB, 5 November), reads: ‘What is the Third Estate? Everything. What does it have? Nothing.’ You’ve got a nuance de taille there.
Neal Ascherson might appreciate knowing that W.S. Merwin made a fine selection and translation of Chamfort in 1969, called Products of the Perfected Civilisation (Macmillan; reprinted by North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984). The book also contains a lengthy, eloquent and informative introduction.
Melrose, New York
Vol. 14 No. 24 · 17 December 1992
It is sad that Neal Ascherson (LRB, 5 November) did not know Chamfort before reading the biography that he reviews with such sensitive generosity, because that means he has not had the pleasure of reading The Unquiet Grave. The melancholy and bitterness of Chamfort’s aphorisms spoke to Cyril Connolly, and through him to many of my generation who grew up in the war, for whom Connolly and Horizon were links with and often an introduction to a European civilisation from which we were temporarily cut off. Connolly quotes one tribute to the power of Chamfort’s maxims, from John Morley’s Studies of Literature: ‘All literature might be ransacked in vain for a more repulsive saying than this: “A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the day is over.” ’
Neal Ascherson finds Chamfort’s life more stimulating than his maxims, but the man and the work are inseparable. Nietzsche knew Chamfort through the aphorisms, and through the letters that Mirabeau addressed to him. He did not find the maxims heavy or lacking in wit, since this acquaintance caused him to admire Chamfort, not as ‘the amoralist who admired vital strength’, a vague and dubious description (Nietzsche in fact calls him ‘the wittiest of all moralists’), but as one of a small group of French writers who were at one with the thought of ancient Greece, for the Classicist Nietzsche the greatest compliment. Nietzsche names six: Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Fontenelle, Vauvenargues, and Chamfort; he praises their brilliance and delicate clarity to the detriment even of Goethe and Schopenhauer. The list varies slightly when Nietzsche cites examples of the French as amore purely intellectual nation (eine viel reinlichere Nation des Geistes) than, for example, the Germans. Pascal and Stendhal come and go, but Chamfort is always present.
Such undiluted praise is rare in Nietzsche. In the long and moving passage of Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft that Nietzsche devotes to Chamfort, he echoes the surprise of Chateaubriand, who knew Chamfort personally, that anyone with such knowledge of men should commit himself to a political cause, or, as Nietzsche says, knowing the mob, should make common cause with the mob. Nietzsche finds only one explanation: his instinctive hatred for the nobility and his wish to avenge his mother’s suffering through his illegitimate birth. ‘Had Chamfort been just a little more of a philosopher, the Revolution would have lacked its most acute wit and its sharpest goad; it would be seen as a much more stupid event, and would not have won over so many minds.’ Mirabeau, whom Nietzsche sets above all past and present great statesmen, looked, he says, to Chamfort as to a higher self, and sought from him encouragement, warnings and judgments, which he heeded.
Nietzsche finds it strange that Chamfort found so little favour with the French, and suggests that the reason might be that he was closer to the Italian spirit than the French, the blood-brother of Dante and Leopardi (another favourite of Connolly’s). He also recalls Chamfort’s last words, spoken to Sieyès, Ah! mon ami, je m’ en vais enfin de ce monde, où il faut que le coeur se brise ou se bronze, and adds: ‘Those are certainly not the words of a dying Frenchman.’
Neal Ascherson’s review conveyed engaging sympathy and admiration for a man who was torn by the contradictions of his birth and of the tormented time in which he lived; but he gravely underestimates the relevance for us today of Chamfort’s clear-sighted view of human society. Whatever began with Chamfort was nothing so trite nor trivial as ‘revolutionary chic’. Such phrases mock sober judgment and human respect. Chamfort wrote: Un homme d’ esprit est perdu s’ il ne joint pas à l’ esprit l’ énergie de coractère. Quand on a la lanterne de Diogène, il faut avoir son bâton. Chamfort’s stick was a goad, never chic in salons, revolutionary or other.