Sunday, March 2, 2008

For a later week...

Lipo: First and Second Manifestos
Francois Le Lionnais

In defining "Potential Literature," Francois Le Lionnais questions the assumption that art is the product of a singular "inspired" vision. By contrast, the Oulipian aesthetic foregrounds the constraints implicit in all works of art, opening up new means of creation and a way of reclaiming works of the past through a form of "literary prosthesis."

First Manifesto

Let's open a dictionary to the words "Potential Literature." We find absolutely nothing. Annoying lacuna. What follows is intended, if not to impose a definition, at least to propose a few remarks, simple hors d'oeuvres meant to assuage the impatience of the starving multitudes until the arrival of the main dish, which will be prepared by people more worthy than myself.

Do you remember the polemic that accompanied the invention of language? Mystification, puerile fantasy, degeneration of the race and decline of the State, treason against Nature, attack on affectivity, criminal neglect of inspiration; language was accused of everything (without, of course, using language) at that time.

And the creation of writing, and grammar--do you think that that happened without a fight? The truth is that the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns is permanent. It began with Zinjanthropus (a million seven hundred and fifty thousand years ago) and will end only with humanity--or perhaps the mutants who succeed us will take up the cause. A Quarrel, by the way, very badly named. Those who are called the Ancients are often the stuffy old descendants of those who in their own day were Moderns; and the latter, if they came back among us, would in many cases take sides with the innovators and renounce their all too faithful imitators.

Potential literature only represents a new rising of the sap in this debate.

Every literary work begins with an inspiration (at least that's what its author suggests) which must accommodate itself as well as possible to a series of constraints and procedures that fit inside each other like Chinese boxes. Constraints of vocabulary and grammar, constraints of the novel (divisions into chapters, etc.) or of classical tragedy (rule of the three unities), constraints of general versification, constraints of fixed forms (as in the case of the rondeau or the sonnet), etc.

Must one adhere to the old tricks of the trade and obstinately refuse to imagine new possibilities? The partisans of the status quo don't hesitate to answer in the affirmative. Their conviction rests less on reasoned reflection than on force of habit and the impressive series of masterpieces (and also, alas, pieces less masterly) which has been obtained according to the present rules and regulations. The opponents of the invention of language must have argued thus, sensitive as they were to the beauty of shrieks, the expressiveness of sighs, and sidelong glances (and we are certainly not asking lovers to renounce all of this).

Should humanity lie back and be satisfied to watch new thoughts make ancient verses? We don't believe that it should. That which certain writers have introduced with talent (even with genius) in their work, some only occasionally (the forging of new words), other with predilection (counterrhymes), others with insistence but in only one direction (Lettrism) the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Oulipo) intends to do systematically and scientifically, if need be through recourse to machines that process information.

In the research which the Oulipo proposes to undertake, one may distinguish two principal tendencies, oriented respectively toward Analysis and Synthesis. The analytic tendency investigates works from the past in order to find possibilities that often exceed those their authors had anticipated. This, for example, is the case of the cento, which might be reinvigorated, it seems to me, by a few considerations taken from Markov's chain theory.

The synthetic tendency is more ambitious: it constitutes the essential vocation of the Oulipo. It's a question of developing new possibilities unknown to our predecessors. This is the case, for example, of the Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes or the Boolian haikus.

Mathematics--particularly the abstract structures of contemporary mathematics--proposes thousands of possibilities for exploration, both algebraically (recourse to new laws of composition) and topologically (considerations of textual contiguity, openness and closure). We're also thinking of anaglyphic poems, texts that are transformable by projection, etc. Other forays may be imagined, notably into the area of special vocabulary (crows, foxes, dolphins; Algol computer language, etc.). It would take a long article to enumerate the possibilities now foreseen (and in certain cases already sketched out).

It's not easy to discern beforehand, examining only the seed, the taste of a new fruit. Let's take the case of alphabetical constraint. In literature it can result in the acrostic, which has produced truly staggering works (still, Villon and, well before him, the psalmist and author of the Lamentations attributed to Jeremiah . . . ); in painting it resulted in Herbin, and a good thing too; in music the fugue on the name B.A.C.H.--there we have a respectable piece of work. How could the inventors of the alphabet have imagined all of that?

To conclude, Anoulipism is devoted to discovery, Sythoulipism to invention. From the one to the other there exist many subtle channels.

A word at the end for the benefit of those particularly grave people who condemn without consideration and without appeal all work wherein is manifested any propensity for pleasantry.

When they are the work of poets, entertainments, pranks, and hoaxes still fall within the domain of poetry. Potential literature remains thus the most serious thing in the world. Q.E.D.

Second Manifesto

I am working for people who are primarily intelligent, rather than serious.
--P. Feval

Poetry is a simple art where everything resides in the execution. Such is the fundamental rule that governs both the critical and the creative activities of the Oulipo. From this point of view, the Second Manifesto does not intend to modify the principles that presided over the creation of our Association (these principles having been sketched out in the First Manifesto), but rather to amplify and strengthen them. It must however be remarked that, with increasing ardor (mixed with some anxiety), we have envisioned in the last few years a new orientation in our research. It consists in the following:

The overwhelming majority of Oulipian works thus far produced inscribe themselves in a SYNTACTIC structurElist perspective (I beg the reader not to confuse this word--created expressly for this Manifesto--with structurAlist, a term that many of us consider with circumspection).

Indeed, the creative effort in these works is principally brought to bear on the formal aspects of literature: alphabetical, consonantal, vocalic, syllabic, phonetic, graphic, prosodic, rhymic, rhythmic, and numerical constraints, structures, or programs. On the other hand, semantic aspects were not dealt with, meaning having been left to the discretion of each author and excluded from our structural preoccupations.

It seemed desirable to take a step forward, to try to broach the question of semantics and to try to tame concepts, ideas, images, feelings, and emotions. The task is arduous, bold, and (precisely because of this) worthy of consideration. If Jean Lescure's history of the Oulipo portrayed us as we are (and as we were), the ambition described above portrays us as we should be.

The activity of the Oulipo and the mission it has entrusted to itself raise the problem of the efficacy and the viability of artificial (and, more generally, artistic) literary structures.

The efficacy of a structure--that is, the extent to which it helps a writer--depends primarily on the degree of difficulty imposed by rules that are more or less constraining.

Most writers and readers feel (or pretend to feel) that extremely constraining structures such as the acrostic, spoonerisms, the lipogram, the palindrome, or the holorhyme (to cite only these five) are mere examples of acrobatics and deserve nothing more than a wry grin, since they could never help to engender truly valid works of art. Never? Indeed. People are a little too quick to sneer at acrobatics. Breaking a record in one of these extremely constraining structures can in itself serve to justify the work; the emotion that derives from its semantic aspect constitutes a value which should certainly not be overlooked, but which remains nonetheless secondary.

At the other extreme there's the refusal of all constraint, shriek-literature or eructative literature. This tendency has its gems, and the members of the Oulipo are by no means the least fervent of its admirers . . . during those moments, of course, not devoted to their priestly duties.

Between these two poles exists a whole range of more or less constraining structures which have been the object of numerous experiments since the invention of language. The Oulipo holds very strongly to the conviction that one might envision many, many more of these.

Even when a writer accords the principal importance to the message he intends to deliver (that is, what a text and its translation have in common), he cannot be wholly insensitive to the structures he uses, and it is not at random that he chooses one form rather than another: the (wonderful) thirteen foot verse rather than the alexandrine, the mingling or separation of genres, etc. Only mildly constraining, these traditional structures offer him a fairly broad choice. That which remains to be seen is whether the Oulipo can create new structures, hardly more and hardly less constraining than traditional ones, and how to go about it. On ancient (or new) thoughts, the poet would be able to make new verses.

But can an artificial structure be viable? Does it have the slightest chance to take root in the cultural tissue of a society and to produce leaf, flower, and fruit? Enthusiastic modernists are convinced of it; diehard traditionalists are persuaded of the contrary. And there we have it, arisen from its ashes: a modern form of the old Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns.

One may compare this problem--mutatis mutandis--to that of the laboratory synthesis of living matter. That no one has ever succeeded in doing this doesn't prove a priori that it's impossible. The remarkable success of present biochemical syntheses allows room for hope, but nonetheless fails to indicate convincingly that we will be able to fabricate living beings in the very near future. Further discussion of this point would seem otiose. The Oulipo has preferred to put its shoulder to the wheel, recognizing furthermore that the elaboration of artificial literary structures would seem to be infinitely less complicated and less difficult than the creation of life.

Such, in essence, is our project. And perhaps I may be permitted to allude to an apparently (but only apparently) modest foundation: the Institute for Literary Prosthesis.

Who has not felt, in reading a text--whatever its quality--the need to improve it through a little judicious retouching? No work is invulnerable to this. The whole of world literature ought to become the object of numerous and discerningly conceived prostheses. Let me offer two examples, both bilingual.

An anecdote embellishes the first. Alexandre Dumas père was paying assiduous but vain court to a very beautiful woman who was, alas, both married and virtuous. When she asked him to write a word in her album, he wrote--felicitously enriching Shakespeare--"Tibi or not to be."

In the second example, I may be excused for calling on personal memories. More than a half century ago, filled with wonder by the poems of John Keats, I was dawdling in the Jardin des Plantes. Stopping in front of the monkey cage, I couldn't help but cry (causing thus not a little astonishment to passersby): "Un singe de beauté est un jouet pour l'hiver!"*

Wasn't Lautréamont approaching this ideal when he wrote: Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It embraces an author's words, uses his expressions, rejects false ideas, and replaces them with true ideas.

And this brings me to the question of plagiarism. Occasionally, we discover that a structure we believed to be entirely new had in fact already been discovered or invented in the past, sometimes even in a distant past. We make it a point of honor to recognize such a state of things in qualifying the text in question as "plagiarism by anticipation." Thus justice is done, and each is rewarded according to his merit.

One may ask what would happen if the Oulipo suddenly ceased to exist. In the short run, people might regret it. In the long run, everything would return to normal, humanity eventually discovering, after much groping and fumbling about, that which the Oulipo has endeavored to promote consciously. There would result however in the fate of civilization a certain delay which we feel it our duty to attenuate.

* This is a bilingual homophonic translation of the first line of Keats's Endymion: "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever." Le Lionnais's ejaculation can be literally (if nonhomophonically) translated as: "A beautiful monkey is a toy for winter." Excerpted from Oulipo edited and translated by Warren F. Motte, Jr.

Warren F. Motte's Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature

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