I am not entirely convinced that Roxane Gay is a single entity. I intend to find out at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, where she will sit for panels and interviews on both Saturday and Sunday, March 22 and 23
One story goes: Malcolm de Chazal, hoping for just a minute’s reprieve from a friend’s dull soiree, a gulp of fresh air, stumbled out onto the wrap-around veranda and, upon turning the corner, found himself shadowing a young girl, a painter, whose artwork was so plainspoken—the rhythm of her composition so uncomplicated—that he thought he would try his hand at it as well. And so, at the age of 56, M de C had a brush and canvas delivered to his studio at Hotel Vatel.
Even though the dodo was endemic to Mauritius, its story begins in South Asia (perhaps southern India); vaulting the islands across the Indian Ocean, from the subcontinent to the Mascarene Islands of Africa, the dodo’s pigeon ancestor could fly. From the second it landed on Mauritius, though, where it knew no predator, the dodo’s wings began to pinion themselves, shrinking relative to its swollen body. The first painting of the dodo by the Mughal master Ustad was completed in 1610, a half-century before the bird was to go extinct. Depicted with a toffee-colored torso, a hook-tipped bill, and a white translucent eye, the squat dodo is at the center of the painting, which is also populated with pigeons and parrots.
Alternately known as the dodoor (“sluggard”), dodaar (“knot-arse”), doudo (“crazy”), and dodo (for its onomatopoeic call), the Linnaean classification for dodo is Didus ineptus (“inept dodo”). There is no evidence that the dodo was any less intelligent than similarly sized birds, though. It’s just that the famished Dutch sailors would exterminate them en masse, as many as 50 at a time, cooking them with mangoes to conceal the scent. And pigs were let loose on the dodo’s nest, gobbling up successive generations of the flightless bird.
The loss of the dodo (c. 1688) was the first such anthropogenic extinction of a species in the Holocene. If only the bird had not grown so trusting of its environment and retained its wings, it could have island hopped back from whence it came across the Indian Ocean.
An early aphorism from Greek cosmologist, Parmenides (515 BC), states: “Nothing comes from nothing.” More pointedly, Epicurus wrote: “the totality of things was always such as it is now, and always will be.” These principles are as true today as they were 13.7 billion years ago when leftover fermions were converted into the sum total of the universe’s mass, the same mass which comprises the Milky Way, Earth, Africa, Mauritius, the body, and the grains beneath its fingernails today. By 1758, Russian chemist Mikhail Lomonosov articulated conservation of mass like this: Mass cannot be created or destroyed, only rearranged or changed in its form.
Around that same decade, Francois Chazal relocated his family from France to the African island of Mauritius. A member of the Order of the Rosicrucians, Francois practiced Lapis Animalis, or the transmutation of animal into stone. Like Lake Natron in Tanzania (just 2,000 miles from Mauritius on the African mainland), whose alkaline waters turn nesting flamingos into chalky corpses, Francois is rumored to have converted rats, birds, and bugs into hunks of mineral. His obsession with forms also applied to his conversion of base metals into gold.
Francois’s occult obsession is reminiscent of Borges’ short story, “Blue Tigers,” in which the protagonist, a Scottish tiger hunter called Craigie, chases the rumor of a blue tiger to an Indian village on the banks of the Ganges. After being misled by the villagers, he independently discovers a collection of brilliant blue disks stored in a crevice in the ground. The villagers, familiar with the disks, call them “the stones that spawn.” Over the course of days, Craigie finds that it is an impossible task to count the stones; they multiply and divide, spontaneously generating and degenerating. This paradox defies the law of conservation of mass, and thus, shatters Craigie’s rationalism.
Stylistically, Malcolm de Chazal’s painting of the dodo has nothing in common with Ustad’s. Here, the torso is bright yellow, the hook bill is tipped in blue, and its eyes are utterly missing. At first, it looks like the work of the nine-year-old girl Chazal chanced upon the night of the soiree. But his sensibilities (the intense color and patterning, for example) were seen as a rebuke of the impressionist obsession with en plain air and effets de soir. Unlike the famous primitivist, Paul Gauguin, who was educated in art, Chazal was an agronomist at a local plantation, meaning his self-taught style is an example of naïve art, not primitivism.
Whereas his ancestor, Francois, transformed bird to stone, Malcolm transformed bird to paint. There was little interest in Chazal’s fine art, though, and without ample room to archive his works, he eventually burned most of it in a bonfire, sending his art the way of the dodo—to ash and memory.
When he took a break from his painting or writing, Chazal walked laps around the markets of Port Louis. Sometimes circumambulating the theater 15 or 16 times, Chazal’s daily aerobics were perceived by some to be manic. Imagine a stationary observer—say, a mango vendor—ogling the artist on his rounds every afternoon as if always looking for his runaway mutt.
Around this same time Walter Benjamin was writing his Paris Arcades, extolling the virtues of the flâneur, the spirited saunterer from Baudelier’s poetry. Chazal was more of a “boulevardier” (literally, a “person who frequents boulevards”). Still, Chazal’s eccentric circling around the Mauritian capital was not unlike that which Benjamin wrote about in the Arcades. In her analysis of Benjamin’s work, Kirsten Seal says: “the flâneur’s movement creates anachrony: he travels urban space, the space of modernity, but is forever looking to the past.”
In the case of Chazal, no one could then have guessed how severe the anachrony might have been. Chazal was not just some mawkish savant contemplating the intermingling of colonial architectures of the recent past: British (19th c.), French (18th c.), Dutch (17th c.). His walking about was not just choreography devoted to Portuguese “discovery” (16th c.) of Mauritius, or the true discovery by the Arabs before that. Instead, Chazal reached way back into the geological record, some 60 million years ago, as he considered bygone (i.e., submerged) microcontinents that once connected Mauritius and India. Often, Chazal’s look to the past extended beyond that—to the very creation of the universe. Therefore, these walks were perhaps all a part of his (i.e., his material being’s) cosmogonic voyage à rebours (“journey back”).
In his most famous work, Sens-Plastique, Chazal appropriates what James Geary calls the oldest form of art, the aphorism. In his Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, Geary demonstrates how the form was established from the “wisdom traditions of ancient Egypt and China.” With eight types of aphorisms—including the chiasmus, definition, joke, metaphor, moral, observation, and paradox—Chazal elects for the pensée: “the most languid and leisurely aphoristic form.”
It seems appropriate that Chazal, who rejected most labels ascribed to him (André Breton called him a surrealist, others a Fauve), would have written a book of cosmogonic aphorisms while the rest of the world was engaged with the contemporary novel. The impetus for the book, which also includes metaphors and allegories, arrived when Chazal sensed an azalea was returning his gaze in the botanical garden at Curepipe near his parent’s home in Sylvian Villa.
Throughout his artistic career, Chazal was devoted to the development of Mauritian literature, wanting to find a genre and voice that was idiosyncratic to the island. Chazal cited ascetic withdrawal and subconscious thinking (not reasoning) for the success of Sens-Plastique, which he considered to be “a totally new method of writing.”
In his article in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal (2014), “(Re)-Connecting to the Material Universe The Scientific, Philosophical, and Spiritual Significance of Malcolm de Chazal and J.M.G. Le Clézio’s Cosmogonic Quest,” French professor Keith Moser puts Sens-Plastique into an ecological conversation with “L’Extase Matérielle,” a book-length essay by Nobel laureate Jean-Marie G. Le-Clézio. The latter work, whose title when translated means, “Material Ecstasy,” takes as its thesis “what there is is all there is.” Like Parmenides or Epicurus before him, Le Clézio takes pleasure in celebrating the finitude of mass, praising its smallest forms: an azalea, a spider, a pensée.
Moser’s analysis frames both authors’ works as fantasy “grounded in rudimentary ecological realities that have been confirmed by contemporary science.” Both authors, Moser argues, “underscore the disconnect between lingering anthropocentric logic and scientific theories such as evolution, the laws of thermodynamics, and the laws of ecology.” This disconnect is what initiated the (current) sixth mass extinction, which began with the loss of the dodo. Moser also points out how modern life has resulted in a “cosmic alienation” for these writers, and it is through the literary voyage à rebours that both are able to re-connect with the universe.
Another of Chazal’s speculative works, Petrusmok (1951), is a spiritual and mythological rendering of the island of Mauritius; here, the natural features of the island (mountains, coastlines, etc.) are, at once, both past and present. In his own words, Petrusmok is “the Island lost in the Indian Ocean where, mystery slides away in every alley, and where alchemy is omnipresent between the earth and the sky.” Rather than attempt to connect Mauritius to the African mainland as one might expect an island author to do, Chazal moves in the opposite direction.
Drawing on Philip Sclater’s theorized series of submerged land bridges called Lemuria, which supposedly connected India to Madagascar, Mauritius, and the rest of the Mascarenes (thus accounting for the morphological similarity between species on both continents), Petrusmok was Chazal’s acknowledgment of Mauritius’s geological connection with Asia. While Lemuria was eventually debunked, Torsvik et al., wrote of another landmass in 2013:
Mauritius and the adjacent Mascarene Plateau may overlie a Precambrian microcontinent that we call Mauritia… We propose that Mauritia was separated from Madagascar and fragmented into a ribbon-like configuration by a series of mid-ocean ridge jumps during the opening of the Mascarene ocean basin between 83.5 and 61 million years ago.
Mauritian poet Khal Torabully made the much more obvious connection between Mauritius and India when he coined the term “coolitude.” In an early example of neocolonialism, British plantation owners on Mauritius, dispossessed of their slaves following abolition, were given two million pounds sterling. It’s with that money that they pivoted to the Indian labor market, seeking indentured laborers (known as “coolies”) to continue the profitable cultivation of cane. Isabel Hofmeyr has called it the “ultra-Caribbean model of European, African and Asian traditions being violently brought together.” In Mauritius, such cultural mergers have been called Indienoceanisme, or coolitude. The latter borrows from Martinican poet, Aimé Césaire’s, literary concept of negritude, an ideological reclamation of the term and identity of the racist French word “niger.”
In Mauritius, though, it’s the coolie whose story is being re-inscribed. Torabully has called coolitude “an encounter, an exchange of histories, of poetics or visions of the world, between those of African descent and of Indian descent, without excluding other sources.” It is, in Hofmeyr’s words, “a way of making legible the erased experiences of indenture.”
In Mauritius, where Hinduism is now practiced by over half of the population, the most adherents of any African nation, the most popular book of aphorisms may not be Sens-Plastique, but The Upanishads. As with any cosmogonic quest, though, the trajectory is always the same. From Swami Prabhavananda’s translation of The Upanishads: Breath from the Eternal: “the little space in the heart is as great as the vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun and the moon and the stars. Fire and lightning and winds are there, and all that now is and all that is not.”
I see Chazal on the veranda, looking over the girl’s shoulder again, her pensive brush stirring the palette. In her fount of color, the universe may be transmuted. The cosmogonic lens does not allow for preferential forms—not in plant life, animal life, the life of the land, or art. All material is ecstatic. All material finds it way in here from way out there.
Lawrence Lenhart holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. His first essay collection is The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage (Outpost19). His prose appears in Fourth Genre, Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, and Terrain.org. He is a professor of fiction and nonfiction at Northern Arizona University, and a reviews editor of DIAGRAM.1