Warren F. Motte

Teoksen Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature tekijä

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My first brush with the Oulipo (a French group of select “experimental” writers whose roster includes Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Marcel Duchamp) was a book of poems written by the mathematician Jacques Roubaud, titled, “The Form of the City Changes Faster, Alas, Than the Human Heart.” The poems had an experimental and mathematical feel to them quite different from my usual fare – in short, I loved the book. I then proceeded to get books by other Oulipo members: Harry Matthews wrote a small, wonderful book of 61 vignettes, “Singular Pleasures,” all about different people in different countries, all in the act of masturbation. Raymond Queneau tells the story about an altercation in a bus – one story, but told in 99 different ways – metaphorical, philosophical, gastronomical, operatic , mathematical, in the form of a sonnet, ode, haiku, peragoge , and dog Latin, among others.

History of Literary Play and Experimentation

Experimentation and play with literary form is amusing, and it seems plausible that as long as literature has existed, so has experimentation. In the 6th century BC, Lasus of Hermione already wrote lipograms: He eliminated the letter Sigma from his work, “Hymn to Demeter.” Lope de Vega wrote five stories, the first without the vowel A, the second without the vowel E, and so on. In the 3rd century A.D., Nestor of Laranda rewrote the Iliad, but didn’t use the alpha in the first canto, the beta in the second canto, and so on. In the 11th century, Pierre de Riga translated the Bible such that the first canto had no letter A, the second no B, and so on. The Bible itself is suspected to be God’s joke; some say it is an acrostic, a code. A word like “Agla” in the Bible could mean Atha Gibor Leolam Adonai. Some suspect that each letter in the Bible is only the first letter of a word of a much bigger book, about which only God knows.

In the twentieth century, in 1939, Ernest Wright published a 267-page novel, “Gadsby,” where the letter E was not used. In 1962, Marc Saporta published a factorial novel, “Composition No. 1,” whose unbound pages could be read in ANY order that the reader chooses (This was republished recently and available in amazon). Georges Perec, a member of the Oulipo, wrote a 300-page novel “La Disparitions” in 1969 entirely without the letter E.

What many consider THE Oulipian work is Raymond Queneau’s “Cent Mille Milliards de poems,” a set of 10 sonnets, each having 14 lines. The first lines of all 10 poems are interchangeable, and so are the second lines, and the third lines, and so forth, so that we could essentially make one hundred trillion sonnets in all. It would take approximately 200 million years for one person to read all the sonnets.

History of the Oulipo

Oulipo, which stands for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, is a French group of writers that was founded in 1960 under the College de ‘Pataphysique (a college established by Alfred Jarry in 1948) by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais. Its main objective was to create, using mostly mathematics, new literary structures or forms that writers in the future could use. In the last 50 years of its existence, it has counted about only 38 members, many of whom are university professors, mathematicians, scientists, musicians, linguists, and philosophers (one is a chemical engineer, another an architect). Its most famous members are Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Roubaud, Harry Matthews, and Georges Perec.

The word “Ouvroir,” in French, means a mobile shop in which master cobblers in Paris sold wares. It could also mean a group of rich women who, to assuage their conscience, did needlework for the poor. When the Oulipo was founded, as an “Ouvroir,” it saw itself as a sort of laboratory of literary structures, a search for forms that writers can use. While it may seem that Oulipian works today seem avant-garde, the members consider themselves as only “the most recent manifestation of a venerable literary tradition.”

Oulipo vs. Surrealism, and the Paradox of Constraint

Some of the members of the Oulipo were part of the Dadaist and Surrealist movements in France in the 1930s, from which they defected. The surrealists emphasized subconscious automatic writing. They emphasized freedom in writing and inspiration, against the rigid structures and logic of the Parnassian movement of the 19th century. The Surrealists wrote by chance, randomly. The Oulipo, in turn, go against the surrealists, saying that writing from the subconscious or from inspiration is not freedom but fascism. The Oulipo is anti-chance. Oulipians do not believe in inspiration or waiting for inspiration before writing. They believe that writers are never inspired by subjective chance. They believe that, to write, a writer only has to choose any of the Oulipian forms or constraints, then produce from there a conscious “voluntary” literature. Arguably, we can say that the Oulipo urges us to go back to forms and constraint, traditional or newly invented. The harder the form or constraint, the greater the merit of the solution.

But don’t forms or constraints hinder the writer’s freedom or inspiration? The Oulipo replies that even inspiration has constraints of diction, vocabulary, etc. The Oulipo just uses maximal formal constraints. (All Oulipians believe in constraints, but they deviate in application. Queneau wants that for each constraint that the Oulipo invents, they give several texts as example. Roubaud wants only 1 example for each constraint. Le Lionnais wants no example at all. Ideally, the constraint is simple, and the application difficult.)

The paradox is that, by applying constraints, we are so focused on these constraints that we are distracted regarding the other natural constraints in the language that we take for granted. Thus, we are freed. Constraints are like verbal vacuums that suck in lots of verbal elements that we would otherwise not realize or use. The only real freedom in writing, according to the Oulipo, is the generative power of mathematical forms applied to literature. By creating new forms and structures, not unlike the constraints of the sestina or sonnet of the past, the Oulipo believes that literature could be made.

The Objectives of the Oulipo

The Oulipo has two directions: Anoulipism or analysis, which means a rediscovery of old literary forms (like the sonnet or sestina), and synthoulipism, or synthesis, creation of new forms. Their goal is to furnish future writers with new techniques and forms that would free them from the clutches of inspiration. Thus, the Oulipo wants to discover new structures and to give a few examples for each. They do not really aim to give birth to literary works but to discover the forms that could give birth to, or have “potential” of becoming, a literary work. Queneau even claims that the Oulipo is not a literary school or movement. They are beyond aesthetic value.

Another way to say this is this: The aim of the Oulipo is to explore language scientifically. For them, language is an object that can be explored, like in science. What is Literature? Literature doesn’t only refer to external objects, but to itself as an object, as language. Literature is literary because of its indefinite number of potential meanings; it calls attention to itself. In effect, Queneau wanted to do for literature what Hilbert did for Math. In place of axioms on point, line, and plane, Queneau used words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Oulipo and the Future

Many consider the works of the Oulipo as trivial and only acrobatic amusement, not “serious literature.” But the same way that topology, the theory of numbers, probabilities, and game theory used to be only “mathematical curiosities” that would later become full-fledged fields in themselves, I feel that the Oulipo, from mere potential, mere amusement, has become a literary movement (Even if its founder denies that it is a movement, and even if it has not yet gained critical popularity).

The mixture of mathematics and poetry that the Oulipo does is intriguing. Using Matthew’s Algorithm, for example, we can use any old text, parse the sentences into its constituent parts, scramble the different parts, and generate a new text. With the aid of a computer, we may even be able to make a program that writes a poem or story especially suited to the taste of any reader. The writer creates the program, the program asks the reader to choose the parameters he likes (theme, length, characters, style, décor), the reader selects his choices, then the program will print out a unique story or poem especially made for that reader.
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arkaye | Dec 12, 2012 |

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