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Chamfort, Sébastien Roch Nicolas (1741-1794)

 

French writer and conversationalist, whose maxims became popular bywords during the French Revolution. Chamfort coined the early motto of the revolution, "War to the châteaux, peace to the cottages" (Guerre aux châteaux, paix aux chaumières). His aphorisms, which continued the moralist tradition of La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, have inspired such writers as Goethe, Pushkin, Stendhal, Nietzsche, and Emile Cioran. Also Schopenhauer frequently referred to Chamfort and Albert Camus wrote a preface to Chamfort's Maximes et pensées.

"The most wasted day of all is that on which we have not laughed." (from Maxims and Thoughts)

Chamfort was born Sébastien Roch Nicolas near Clermont, Auvergne. He was the illegitimate son of Pierre Nicolas, a canon at Clermont Cathedral, and Jacqueline de Vinzelles, who belonged to a noble family. Chamfort was raised by a grocer wife, named Thérèse Nicolas, a devoted mother to her foster child. At the age of seven or eight, Chamfort learned the name of his real mother.

In 1750 Chamfort was sent to Paris, where he was educated at the Collège des Grassins, one of the best schools in France. After college, he earned his living as a tutor and journalist.

At twenty-one, Sébastien Roch Nicolas assumed the name of "de Chamfort." With the help of the patronage system and pensions he received, he was able to maintain a certain intellectual lifestyle, without being forced to earn his living entirely from writing. However, a member of the socially rootless intelligentsia, he also felt a sense of solidarity with the lower ranks of society and once stated: "The poor are the Negroes of Europe" (Les pauvres sont les nègres de l'Europe). In the 18th century, the "white Negro" could refer to degraded whites, the Irish in English eyes, but later Dostoevsky described the London poor as "white Negroes."

Chamfort established first his reputation as a playwright, starting with the comedy La Jeune Indienne, produced in 1764. Already at school, Chamfort had revealed his interest in America, he even planned to leave for the New World. In the story, which portrayed Indians, merchants and Quakers, a young officer is saved from cannibals by a squaw and becomes her lover. The play was followed by Le Marchand de Smyrne, produced in 1770. Chamfort sent a copy of La Jeune Indienne to the author of Emile, Rousseau, who replied that it "should be equally well-received by connoisseurs and people sensitive to the true charms of nature."

In 1769 Chamfort won a prize in eloquence from the French Academy for his Eloge de Molière (1766). "Happy times when Louis reigned with Pompadour!" Chamfort wrote of the golden age of his life. After contracting a mysterious disease, that destroyed his good looks and virility, he left Paris for some time. In the mid-1770s, Chamfort was introduced at the court of Louis XVI and his tragedy Mustapha et Zéangir, was performed at Fontainebleau "in front of Their Majesties" in 1776 and 1777. Chamfort had also Mustapha printed, but in Paris the work received hostile reviews.

Most of his life, Chamfort adhered to his cynical definition of love as "nothing but the contact of two epidermises." Nevertheless, while in Auteuil he fell in love with Marthe Buffon, who was several years older. Later Chamfort said that there "existed something more and better than love, since there was complete union of the level of ideas, feelings and attitudes." Buffon had been brought up at the court of the duchesse du Maine; she was a self-confident lady, and quick at repartee. Chamfort married her in 1782 and moved to Vaucouleurs. The brief period of happiness ended six months later when she suddenly died. After spending some time in Holland, he returned to Paris, where he had an affair with Julie Careau, a dancer and witty conversationalist, who held a salon on rue Chantereine.

In 1781 Chamfort was elected to the French Academy. During the revolution he attacked academies in his Discours sur les Académies (1791). With the Count de Mirabeau, whom he had met in 1783, he collaborated on the newspaper Mercure de France. In 1784 Chamfort became the secretary to Madame Elizabeth, Louis XVI's sister. Two years later he received a pension of 2,000 livres from the royal treasury, thus becoming one of the best pensioned writers in his country. He also accepted the honoray post of interpreter-secretary to the Swiss and Grison Regiment. Some of his friends thought that he had sold himself.

Not only disillusioned with the the high society, but also captured by the mania for self-observation, Chamfort started to collect anecdotes, epigrams, and aphorism of human passions and actions. He decided that he would not publish his Maximes et anecdotes. At the time of his death of 1,266 Chamfort's work consisted of 1.266 fragments, deposited into boxes.

At the beginning of the French Revolution, Chamfort had been a member of the radical Jacobin Club. Captured by the spirit of the times, Chamfort hoped that the Revolution would travel round the world, but did not advocate war. In 1792 he was appointed co-director of the Bibliothèque Nationale with Jean-Louis Carra, a member of the Convention. Shocked by the excess of the Reign of Terror, Chamfort came into conflict with Marat, the editor of L'Ami du Peuple, and Robespierre, one of the leading figures of the revolution. "Be my brother, or I will you" (Sois mon frère ou je te tue), was his version of the revolutionary watchword, "Fraternity or Death," painted on all walls. On hearing that Charlotte Corday had assassinated Marat, he exclaimned, "King Marat is dead!"

In 1793 Chamfort and some other librarians were denounced by another library employee as "sly aristocrats" and "false patriots." Chamfort was arrested and taken with most of his employees to the Madelonettes prison, known for its unhygienic conditions, vermin, and poor food, and then released. The forty-eight hour prison stint was enough for Chamfort and he resigned from his post. His former co-director Carra was executed.

When Chamfort was again threatened with imprisonment in November 1793, he attempted suicide. He first shot himself in the head and blew out his right eye, and then he tried to cut his throat, but the blade slipped. In January 1794 Chamfort was given complete freedom by the Committee of Public Safety. The bullet which had shattered his nasal wall remained in his head. After the festering ceased, Chamfort started to translate Greek epigrams and write poetry. "I feel livelier than ever," he said, "what a pity that I no longer care about living." After selling his bed, bathtub, and two hundred and thirty bound volumes, he had only five pieces of furniture, a few engravings, and some Greek plays. Chamfort eventually died in his small apartment on April 13, 1794. Part of his manuscripts were stolen after his death. In 1795 appeared four volumes of his work, edited by his friend Pierre-Louis Guingené. In 1916, the American author Carl Sandburg wrote in his Chicago Poems: "And this Chamfort knew how to write / And thousands read his books on how to live, / But he himself didn't know / How to die by force of his own hand — see?"

For further reading: L'esprit de Chamfort by L. Treich (1927); Sébastien-Roch-Nicolas Chamfort, un moraliste du XVIIIe siècle et son temps by Émile Dousset (1943); Chamfort Devant La Posterite, 1794-1984 by John Renwick (1986); Chamfort: A Biography by Claude Arnaud (1992). - Suom. Martti Anhava on suomentanut Chamfortilta Sivistyksen hedelmiä: mietteitä ja tapauksia (2005), valikoima teoksista  Maximes et pensées ja Caractères et anecdotes.

Selected works:

  • La Jeune Indienne:  Comédie en Un Acte Et en Vers, 1764
    - The Young Indian: A Comedy (translated by Jennifer L. Smith, 2008)
  • Eloge de Molière, 1766
  • Le Marchand de Smyrne: Comédie en Un Acte, Et en Prose, 1770 
  • Eloge de la Fontaine, 1774
  • Mustapha et Zéangir: Tragédie en Cinq Actes Et en Vers, 1776
  • Discours sur Des Académies, 1791
  • Oeuvres de Chamfort, 1795 (4 vols., ed. by Guingené)
  • Maximes et pensées, caractères et anecdotes, 1803
  • Œuvres complètes, 1824-26 (5 vols.) 
  • Œuvres choisies de N. Chamfort, 1892 (2 vols., ed. by M. de Lescure)
  • Maxims and Considerations of Chamfort, 1926 (translated by E. Powys Mathers)
  • Wit and Gossip of the French Court, 1937
  • Maximes et anecdotes, 1944 (introd. et notes par Jean Mistler)
  • Maximes et pensées, caractères et anecdotes, 1946 (préf. d'Alfred Wild)
  • Œuvres principales, 1960  (ed. by Félix Duloup)
  • Maximes et anecdotes, 1963 (with preface by Albert Camus)
  • Products of the Perfected Civilization: The Selected Writings of Chamfort, 1969 (translated and with an introd. by W. S. Merwin, foreword by Louis Kronenberger)
  • Chamfort Maxims: Anecdotes, Personalities, Letters, Historical Writings, 1973 (selected and translated by C. G. Pearson)
  • Chamfort: Relections on Life, Love and Society, 2003 (ed. by Douglas Parmee)
  • Œuvres complètes, 2009 (2 vols., ed. by Lionel Dax)

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