Reading in Reverse [Part III of III]
It’s in Part III of Many Subtle Channels that Levin Becker turns to the “So What” question, the influence and value of the Oulipo in the wider world of writing. Harry Mathews once told me that the Oulipo had never been “theorized” and he hoped it never would be; I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. An example of what I think Mathews had in mind was the 2005 “noulipo” conference in Los Angeles, where several presenters used the language of critical theory to protest the Oulipo’s lack of a public political stance—as though the Oulipians only built labyrinths, and did not also escape from them. Many Subtle Channels glances at this and other academic and critical views of the Oulipo, such as that of Gérard Genette, who got them entirely wrong when he summarized them as “a game of chance.” It’s not Levin Becker’s purpose to write an academic book—thank god!—but as with oulipian writing itself, it would be good to have a bibliography or a reader’s guide to the best examples of respectful and intelligent critical writing on the group.1
In the critical view, oulipian writing is often minimized as the creation of works under formal constraint. Perec’s e-less La Disparition (A Void) may be a compelling concept, but once you know the trick even it loses much of its luster. In this way, Oulipo Light tends toward in-jokes in textual form and the conceptual work which Marjorie Perloff and Matvei Yankelevich have recently debated. But the authors of such work don’t claim that it represents an unforeseen aesthetic summit. Rather, what Oulipian formal constraint allows is a kind of exhaustion of form, by pursuing it so doggedly that the unseen details of reality and narrativity come to the surface simply because everything else is off the table. Perec was a master at this, in his investigations of the “infraordinary” most accessible in English in the collections Thoughts of Sorts and Species of Spaces. This is also where Oulipian creation must come to terms with the tension between inserting itself into recognized genres and creating new generative forms. The more recognizable, the more easily a work may gain readership and popularity; the more sui generis, the more chance it will be successful as original literary creation. Does the Oulipo want to fit in, or stick out?
Out of the living members, only Jacques Jouet makes his living as an author. Even among the “Olympian Oulipians,” Queneau and Calvino worked as editors for publishing houses, Perec was an archivist, Roubaud a professor of mathematics, and so on. Several members (including Levin Becker himself) were coopted, at least in part, because they had studied the Oulipo per se—shades of the cover artist who joins the original band.” The Bourges workshop attracts people not able to devote their full professional selves to oulipian work; the kind of work that results is sometimes a kind of fanfiction and necessarily mostly Oulipo Light. So where in this is the serious literary purpose, the lasting contribution to culture?
The key lies in reading, not writing. As Levin Becker points out, those members who studied the Oulipo before becoming members learned to read “oulipianly” before they learned to write that way. But this is not the anoulipism of the founders; this has much more to do with Barthes’ notion of “readerly writing.” As explicated by Tom La Farge, readerly writing engages the reader as a creative collaborator. For the writer, “the process of composition is . . . an experience of reading,” and the reader in turn becomes “an active participant in the composition process.” The oulipian reader, like the oulipian writer, is always re-reading, re-creating, re-membering. Levin Becker claims this “creative reading”—in effect, writing in reverse—“is no less noble, no less rewarding, no less potentially spectacular, than creative writing.”
In practice all oulipian work goes through two creative phases: first, the writer sets himself a problem which he then solves (he creates a labyrinth, then escapes from it); second, the reader presented with the text is challenged, explicitly or implicitly, to reconstruct the terms of its creation. The second phase exposes the greatest philosophical divide within the Oulipo, between those (like Jouet) who see the “scaffolding” as part of the substance of the work it was used to create and who thus explain the constraints used, and those (like Mathews) who prefer to play their cards close to their chests. Jouet wants the reader to appreciate his skill directly; Mathews wants the reader to experience the frustration and pull of unsatisfied curiosity. But for both, the point is to bracket the constraint outside the reader’s experience and let the work itself come to the foreground.
In other words, the Oulipian work is not intended to be a puzzle. In fact, when it is taken too far, creative reading works against the text; it can become the kind of over-interpretation called conspiratorial or paranoid or “defensive” reading—what the characters in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum do, to their great regret. If a reader thinks there is a puzzle to be solved in the work, he will read it into the work, like the viewer of a Hitchcock film who takes the MacGuffin as the Holy Grail.
But the Oulipian work does invite a responsible level of creative reading. This openness to the reader, the invitation to interpretation, is the “generosity” which Levin Becker identifies in a recent essay on one of Mathews’ apparently minor works; unusually for a Mathews work, Selected Declarations of Dependence wears its scaffolding on its sleeve, as it were. In Many Subtle Channels Levin Becker argues that, in this sense of generosity and openness (which goes back to the group’s origins), oulipian potential is not just a tool for writers, let alone writers who are members of the Oulipo—and that people who mistake the Oulipo as some kind of exclusive club are missing the point. Oulipo is a way of reading the world. An appreciation of the Oulipo can be a kind of badge of collective trust in the power of reading—a trust that the work (and the world) does hold a meaning, even if it’s never found.
At first the Oulipo was going to be called “SeLitEx,” Seminar on Experimental Literature, highlighting its mathematical and scientific basis. The Oulipo is still experimental in two significant ways. Its work takes the form of proposing and then demonstrating a theorem (the viability of a particular form or procedure); the demonstration is published as a volume of the Bibliothèque Oulipienne. And an oulipian experiment, like a scientific one, may fail; after all, it is only potential, not a certainty. If such stark terms make it hard to understand the evident appeal of the group, consider its experiments instead as a formal rule-bound game: a close cousin to scientific experimentation, offering the same possibility of freedom within constraint. That’s the sense in which Oulipo Light can be a literary and linguistic diversion for the reader, like a good crossword puzzle. (Perec was also a master crossword constructor.) The group’s “heavier” work equally invites the reader to experience the power and the necessity of experimenting with language and meaning.
The Oulipo has even turned its own history into an ongoing game, one that is ever more tightly constrained. Starting from Perec’s story “The Winter Journey”—the very text which first introduced Levin Becker to the Oulipo—the members of the group have constructed more than a dozen alternate versions, interpolated tales, and newly-unveiled conspiracies. The original story, like the Oulipo itself, was written into the interstices of literary history; each new addition writes itself into the spaces between what came before. Levin Becker writes, “It’s about anticipatory plagiarism as it really manifests itself in collaborative creation.” As the group thinks its way out of the constraints of history, the story and its sequels have become a kind of origin myth. The Oulipo is reading its own literary history in reverse—and reading in reverse is, of course, writing.
Perhaps it would be more relevant to characterize Oulipians not as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape” but as “rats who escape from the labyrinth they have built.” François Le Lionnais was a prisoner of war in Nazi concentration camps; Georges Perec lost his family to the Holocaust; Oskar Pastior spent five years in the Soviet Gulag. One founding member said that “in the world we live in, we are beholden to all manner of terrible constraints—mental, physical, societal—with death the only way out of the labyrinth. The least we can do is mark off a little section where we get to choose the constraints we are mastered by, where we decide which direction to take.” Oulipian writing is a literature of potential, a demonstration of the potential of literature—not just something that’s “possibly literature” (and possibly not). It’s not only about language, but also about story, form, and life. It is, in Levin Becker’s words, an invitation “to live your life craftily.” Here is a new sense for the phrase “escapist reading”: reading (and thinking) under constraint, under the sign of the Oulipo, offers the reader the opportunity—and the challenge—of discovering his or her own freedom.
1 Levin Becker quotes from at least three excellent articles, though without the bibliographical detail that would allow a reader to find them. They are: Chris Andrews, “Constraint and Convention: The Formalism of the Oulipo,” Neophilologus 87 (2003): 223-232; Leland de la Durantaye, “The Cratylic Impulse: Constraint and Work in the Works and Constraints of OuLiPo,” Literary Imagination 7.1 (2005): 121-134; and Jacques Jouet, “With (and Without) Constraints,” _SubStance 96 (2001): 4-16.