CHAMFORT by Claude Arnaud


A Biography
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 More an intellectual history than a biography, this sweeping study explores the life and times of the self-invented and self- destroyed wit, philosopher, and playwright Chamfort (1740-94), whose aphoristic style and enigmatic personality influenced, among others, Nietzsche and Camus. Born the illegitimate son of an aristocrat and a canon, Chamfort was raised by a grocer, his beauty, wit, and charm ingratiating him with an aristocracy insatiable for the sexual and verbal prowess he exhibited. At age 25, this lover who had been called a ``Herculean Adonis'' suffered a disfiguring disease and, in a period famous for its furniture, fashion, and conversation, became a writer, entering the petty intellectual wars among the now forgotten wits and scribblers competing for a place in the French Academy. Although supported by noble patronage, Chamfort was allied with no one, and embodied the contradictions of the age--reason and passion, irony and sentiment, elitism and egalitarianism, a love of both civilization and of solitude. In 1789, he began to negotiate the conflicting and changing ideologies of the Revolution, in which he believed intensely. By 1791, he renounced his comforts, titles, and prerogatives for an austere life as a ``citizen,'' and in 1792 he became director of the Bibliothäque nationale, which he turned into a repository of national treasures. The following year, caught in the vagaries of revolutionary leadership and ideology, he attempted suicide rather than be imprisoned for his defense of Charlotte Corday (assassin of Jean Paul Marat)--an act that left him alive but hideously mutilated. Chamfort died several months later, a ``cultural double agent'' as Arnaud (Art and History/Centre Pompidou, Paris) calls him: both participant and spectator, aristocrat and populist--but, above all, an enigma, a stranger, an ``exemplary case of illegitimacy.'' In his foreword, Joseph Epstein describes the peculiar conditions--sociological, psychological, philosophical, political- -that create the aphorist. In his careful analysis of every stage in Chamfort's metamorphosis and the worlds in which he lived, Arnaud re-creates those conditions and gives them credibility. (Fifteen halftones--not seen.)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-226-02697-3
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1992