Monday, June 23, 2014

Oulipo, or The Workshop of Potential Literature

Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books

(Pourquoi je n'ai écrit aucun de mes livres)

By Marcel Bénabou


I love this picture of Georges Perec (seated) with Marcel Bénabou--taken sometime in the 1960's.  Together with Marcel Duchamp, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud, and Harry Matthews, Perec and Bénabou were member of the playful and inventive Workshop of Potential Literature founded by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais in 1960--a group of writers interested in what might best be called the playful or ludic forms of literary expression. I have written elsewhere in TR about Perec's novel A Void, a full-length and complex book that dispenses with all words that include the letter "e." Bénabou, a historian of ancient Rome and author of a dozen scholarly works in this field, also wrote numerous fictions and meta-fictions in the Oulipoian mode--think of Borges's Other Inquisitions  pushed further over the brink of self-reference, literary-mindedness, and surrealism.  Or, as Warren Mote suggests in his own witty introduction to Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, look to Raymond Roussel's truly eccentric How I Wrote Certain of My Books (which is about everything but) to get a sense of what a writer who loves puzzles can do with fictional form. This little-known circle of mostly Francophone writers not only eschewed the conventions of the realist novel, they also negated the conventions of modernist and post-modernist fiction as well by doing away with characters, plots, themes, and even the "anxiety of influence." Perec's masterpiece, Life: A User's Manual, takes the reader on a guided tour of an apartment building, room by room, fragmented story by fragmented story. And Bénabou's WIHNWAOMB not only renounces authorship, it also plays with the notion of the book as an actually existing entity--as if Heidegger were asking the question "What is called writing"?

"Don't you go believing, reader, that the books I haven't written are pure nothingness. Quite the contrary (let it be said once and for all), they are as if suspended in the literary universe. They exist in libraries by word, by groups of words, by entire sentences in certain cases. But they are surrounded by so much empty filler and trapped in such an overabundance of printed matter that I myself, truth be told, have not yet succeeded, despite my best efforts, in isolating them and putting them together. Indeed, the world seems to me full of plagiarists, which makes of my work a lengthy tracking down, an obstinate search for all those little fragments inexplicably snatched away from my future books."

Northrup Frye, in The Anatomy of Criticism, suggested that all existing literature belongs to a universe of words and sentences, thus unifying the efforts of all writers from all places and times. When I first encountered this idea in Frye it seemed to vindicate my own inchoate sense that literature had the mystical power of Kabbalah--that the word, the Word, was indeed the creator of a universe (of language), and that it was this world of words that made sense--if any sense was to be made--of the "real" world.  That language creates reality is hardly a new idea--George Steiner, for one, wrote brilliantly about the implications of this view in After Babel, and the fictions of Borges interrogate the world that is language (rather than the world "of" language). The writers of Ouilpo have created fictions--if they are that--whose oddity comes from their self-conscious examination of the conventions of writing, authorship, and of language-use itself. It seems, for Bénabou (and in some sense for Frye, Steiner, and Borges) that the act of writing is more akin to collecting words and sentences than of creating ex nihilo. The God/gods (Gen. 3:22) of Genesis create first with the Word, and then with earth and breath (Gen. 1:3; 2:7). The writer, in Bénabou's view, moves among fragments of language and pieces together works he "has not written" but dreamed into being.

The question Bénabou asks in Why I Have Not is this: what is the point of writing (or reading)? Why not feast on reality instead? Why shouldn't we give up stories--poems too, while we're at it. After all, "we" nearly have done so already, in the name of what we are told is more compelling, or practical, or profitable. Any writer worth his or her salt knows the answer to this question: "I accepted a book's function as being not a useless redoubling of reality but its continuation by other means."  The form of the book is endlessly plastic; instead of the mirror or the lamp, we discover in literature the earthiness that Yahweh shaped into human beings, a reality unlimited by human imagination. A book can be anything--even a book that is not a book.  When Bénabou claims not to have written his books he means it--authorship implies creating, but books are already written into the world and need only (!) be discovered. This is a Platonic notion of authorship, but appealing for where it leads--which is, like everything else, to a form of love:

"Well, let's say that in the final analysis, this text could claim to be a very classic novel. Is it not the story of an ever deferred meeting, of a frustrated love strewn with obstacles and crosspieces which is the victim of illusions and regrets? Of an unhappy and perhaps ultimately impossible love, that of its author for a certain idea of literature." 

I've been reading Bénabou's colleague Georges Perec this week as well--his Thoughts of Sorts--and came upon this passage last evening in "On the Art and Craft of Sorting Books" (I read it because I've been sorting mine: if you think Perec will be any help with your own literary taxonomies, forget it):

"Like the librarians in Borges's Babel looking for the book that contains the key to all others, we waver between the illusion of completion and the abyss of the ungraspable. In the name of completion we would like to believe that a single order exists which would allow us immediate access to knowledge; in the name of the ungraspable we wish to believe that order and disorder are two identical terms signifying chance." [my emphasis]

Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, trans. by David Kornacker, is published by the University of Nebraska Press (1996).
Perec's books are published by Verba Mundi, a division of David R. Godine, who makes lovely books for our disorganized, dusty, and inchoerent libraries.

George Ovitt (6/23/14)

(The middle photo is of George Steiner. The bottom photo is of Bénabou.)


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