Home > Essays > The Annoying Lacuna: One Unofficial History of the Oulipo
Published: Wed Jul 1 2009
Eva Lundsager, We are quiet (nowhere to hide) (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
The Annoying Lacuna: One Unofficial History of the Oulipo

You are about to begin reading my new essay on the experimental literary group known as the Ouvroir de la Littérature Potentielle: The Sewing Circle of Potential Literature.  Please be aware that every single fact herein is absolutely 100% true . . . I think. So relax.  Concentrate.  Dispel every other thought.

We must begin with some necessary backtracking, unpacking, detangling of roots; down the long trail of antecedents, back to the Nineteenth century science of imaginary solutions known as Pataphysics, which, according to Alfred Jarry, the leader of the movement, deals with “the laws which govern exceptions and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, will describe a universe which can be—and perhaps should be—envisaged in the place of the traditional one.”  For it is here that we locate the big bang responsible for the creation of the Oulipo.

Pataphysicians believed in the truth of contradictions and exceptions.  They did not believe in truth or other provable unprovables.  They firmly believed in not believing in things, and especially believed only in facts that could not be proven to be unprovable or visa versa.  They also disliked ice cream, cake, and all other desserts.  Spearheaded by Jarry, these anti-dessert-eating literary explorers sliced a gash in space-time and established the first productive European avant-garde collective.

Biographer John Richardson described their leader as a man who “crashed the barrier between fantasy and reality, and established the parodic sense of Pataphysics, which would detonate all traditional canons of beauty, good taste and propriety.”  On the other hand, Boris Vadlo, Director of the Paris Theatre, wrote a scathing indictment of Jarry, calling him a “mediocre bungler with the sewing potential of a falcon.”  This particular criticism stunned the avant-garde community and for a period of time silenced the output of all artists in France.  Luckily, Otto von Bismarck’s nephew, Claude, was a staunch supporter of Jarry and took it upon himself to assassinate Boris Vadlo, which single-handedly resurrected the arts and put an end to hurtful criticism in France.

In 1893 Jarry’s wife, Sophie Fevvers, world renown aerialiste extraordinaire, half woman, half swan, gave birth to a giant egg on stage, during a particularly gruesome performance of “Guignol.”  This instantly made headlines around the globe, rustling many a tail feather, especially when the egg cracked and a baby boy emerged, chanting:

“Eadem mutata resurgo!  Eadem mutata resurgo!” (“I arise again the same though changed!  I arise again the same though changed!”)

On the evening of December 10, 1896, Jarry debuted his riotously controversial Pataphysical play Ubu Roi, which he described as a portrait of “the eternal imbecility of man, his eternal lubricity, his eternal gluttony, the baseness of instinct raised to the status of tyranny; of the coyness, the virtue, the patriotism, and the ideas of the people who have dined well.”  It opened with a naked King Ubu trotting on stage with a large target drawn on his belly, holding a toilet brush for a scepter, and announcing the first line, “Merde!” (“Shit”).  Such an onslaught of vulgarity shocked and disgusted the prim and proper theatergoers: many of whom passed out, vomited, or shouted at the stage.  Amongst the upheaval sat a smiling William Butler Yeats, who would later proclaim in admiration and defense of Jarry, “What more is possible? After us the Savage God!” Unfortunately the voice of the majority called for a ban on the play;  thus the legendary precursor of the Absurdist, Dada, Surrealist, and Oulipo movements closed on the very same night it opened.

Jarry spent his remaining grief-stricken years alone, living in the midget home he created by cutting a regular apartment in half horizontally, intoxicated on absinthe, roaming the streets of Paris on his oversized bicycle, waving his signature gold plated pistol and chanting, “Eadem mutata resurgo!  Eadem mutata resurgo!”

He died in 1907.  His last request was for a toothpick.

A year later, the Italian fascist/futurist Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti—the self-described “Caffeine of Europe”—tried to fill avant-garde’s huge void following Jarry’s demise.  “Let’s get the hell out of Paralysis,” he declared, after being dragged from a ditch outside Milan where he crashed his car while attempting to avoid a flock of imaginary low-flying ladybugs.  He was hopped-up on philosophy and ready to impregnate the world with radical war-mongering, misogyny, and a manifesto that proclaimed: “We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.  Time and Space died yesterday.”

Jarry’s followers, however, gave little fanfare to Marinetti’s cranky drivel.  Instead they sheepishly wandered the streets in search of a new shepherd who could rejuvenate the party and upend the bourgeoisie looked to a new crowd for direction.

Enter Dadaism, the anti-art born 11:24 PM on July 14, 1916, at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, Switzerland.  Father: Tristan Tzara (who smashed André Breton in the nose over a bowl of cashews and a dispute involving the mating habits of reindeer).  Mother: never determined, although a forty minute fistfight between Beatrice Wood (who lived to be 105 years old) and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (the most promiscuous woman in Europe) nearly placed Wood in the history books.  According to reports, the fight ended when the two women decided to stop fighting each other and start fighting sobriety.  Members included: Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Max Jacob, Hugo Ball, and Marcel Janco who recalled, “We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the ‘tabula rasa.’ At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.”  They also began by irritating their neighbor, a young politico named Vladimir Lenin who was trying to complete his revolutionary plans for Russia while the noise of the Dadaists filled the street below his tiny loft.

Much to the dismay of high culture, a resurgence of the vile-mindedness of Alfred Jarry was afoot, as if his ghost had come to take revenge.  Reportedly, an unnamed Dadaist had dipped an alarm clock in blue paint and sold it as a piece of art for half a million dollars, only to poison the buyer with cyanide, steal back the paint-dipped alarm clock, and sell it to someone else who was then murdered in the same way.  Later it was discovered that the alarm clock actually belonged to Jarry’s estranged wife, Sophie Fevvers.  Authorities were never able to catch the culprit, nor identify the Dadaist who would eventually grow a tree called Surrealism.  Was it Tristan Tzara, the man with the goldfish pinned to his lapel, who created “a difficult but humanized language,” who bought raspberries by the boatload to feed hungry villagers and migrant workers in the fields of Romania?  Or was it his archenemy, the egomaniacal André Breton?

It was 1924: the year Lenin died and Stalin assumed control of the Soviet Union, the year Hitler began working on Mein Kampf, fascism won election in Italy, former Ku Klux Klan member Calvin Coolidge won reelection here at home, an Ohio man named Fred Zaner successfully created a time machine, and George Herbert Walker Bush was born.

In that same year, André Breton wrote the “Manifesto of Surrealism,” where he declared: “Language has been given to man so that he may make Surrealist use of it.  To the extent that he is required to make himself understood, he manages more or less to express himself, and by so doing to fulfill certain functions culled from among the most vulgar.”

Louis Aragon and Antonin Artaud signed that First Manifesto, as did Paul Éluard and Robert Desnos.  Quantum physicist Niels Bohr did not sign the manifesto because of the wording of the final passage:

Surrealism is the ‘invisible ray’ which will one day enable us to win out over our opponents. ‘You are no longer trembling, carcass.’  This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass.  The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes as little impression upon me as a ghost.  It is living and ceasing to live which are imaginary solutions.  Existence is elsewhere.

Bohr believed existence was both here and elsewhere simultaneously, which irked Breton.

Across town, in a much more posh Parisian neighborhood, a counter-model to Breton’s surrealism emerged: a clandestine group of rebel mathematicians who went by the collective pseudonym Nicolas Bourbaki.  Instead of embracing the chaos of Surrealism, these wild fellows sought a foundational approach to order.  Therefore they undertook the task of completely rewriting mathematics as we know it by replacing the existing paradigm, which they saw as too willy-nilly, with a controversial model based on set theory.  Strict adherence to order was not always valued by the group.  According to Émilie Richer, “During a Bourbaki congress any member was allowed to interrupt, to criticize, comment or ask questions at any time. Apparently Bourbaki believed it could get better results from confrontation than from orderly discussion.”  Besides revolutionizing mathematics, as well as orchestrating the most talked about public clambakes in the history of France, they were also responsible for introducing the attractive words bijective, surjective, and injective into the lexicon of mathematics.

Then came 1929, the year André Breton went completely bonkers, joined the French Communist Party, and wrote the infamous “Second Surrealist Manifesto,” which excommunicated nearly everyone in the group including a newbie named Raymond Queneau.

Like most of the jilted Surrealists, Queneau shrugged off his ousting; anyway, he had already grown disenchanted with Breton’s ultra-leftist politics, bad breath, and obsession with “automatic writing.”  Young Raymond favored a more systematic and scientific approach to literature.  Where the Surrealists vaunted the magic of dreams, Queneau fancied the magic of numbers. For the next ten years he traveled around Europe with a group of gypsies who spoke only in mathematical formulas.  Then in 1948 he left the gypsies and joined the Société Mathématique de France where he secretly began to study the theoretical rhetoric of Nicolas Bourbaki.

Two years later he was elected to the Académie Goncourt, and by the mid-50s he had begun to associate himself with the erudite mathematical savant François Le Lionnais. The two men had much in common. They both enjoyed picnicking and playing chess. They both avowedly disliked ice cream, cake, and all other forms of desserts.  They both read the dictionary for fun and possessed an encyclopedic capacity for useless trivia. Most important, they were both eager to explore the possibilities of marrying mathematics and literature.

They rounded up eight likeminded individuals and gave birth to the movement on November 24, 1960.  After losing to Queneau in a game of Paper-Rock-Scissors, Le Lionnais was tasked with constructing the “First Manifesto”.  Here he established the framework for the research they would undertake by distinguishing two principal tendencies, oriented respectively toward Analysis and Synthesis: “Anoulipism is devoted to discovery, Synthoulipism to invention.  From one to the other there exist many subtle channels.”  This binary approach seems to have grown out of what he calls “The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns.”  Although he gives authentic praise to the work of those who come before them, he is clear to assert that the more ambitious work of the Oulipo, their true vocation, lies in the synthetic tendency, or that which builds upon the lessons of the past.  Later, Oulipians began to refer to their precursors as anticipatory plagiarists.

In the early years the group worked in voluntary obscurity.  They held their first semi-public meeting on a Belgian radio station in 1964, filling in for a rock and roll group called The Linguists, who had canceled their appearance at the last moment.  During this radio broadcast, founding member Albert-Marie Schmidt declared, “The Oulipo likes to think that it is preparing with fear, laughter, gluttony, intoxication, and trembling, a future for French literature, a future brightened by substantific and medullary discoveries.” Queneau rushed to add, “Oulipians are rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.”

Unfortunately, this did very little by way of explanation.  In fact, Queneau’s comment about rats seemed to scare the general public.  No one in Paris could sleep, with such a strange specter roaming the streets.  An outcry of concerned citizens demanded clearer answers.  Thus, the leading figures of the movement responded:

François Le Lionnais: “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.” (from “Lipo: First Manifesto,” 1960)

Marcel Bénabou: “One must first admit that language may be treated as an object in itself, considered in its materiality, and thus freed from its subservience to its significatory obligation. (from “Rule and Constraint,” Pratiques 39, 1983)

Jacques Roubaud:
Proposition 14:  “A constraint is an axiom of a text.”
Proposition 15: “Writing under Oulipian constraint is the literary equivalent of the drafting of a mathematical text, which may be formalized according to the axiomatic method.” (from “Mathematics in the Method of Raymond Queneau,” Critique 359, 1977)

François Le Lionnais: “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).” (from “Lipo: First Manifesto,” 1960)

t o
s e e
s t e r n
p o e t i c
t h o u g h t
p u b l i c l y
e s p o u s i n g
r e c k l e s  s l  y
i m a g i n a t i v e
m a t h e m a t i c a l
i n v e n t i v e n e  s  s,
o p e n m i n  d e d n e s s
u n c o n  d  i t i o n a l  l y
s  u p e r f e c u n d a t i  n g
n  o n a n t a g o n i s  t i c  a l
h  y p e r s o p h i s  t i c a t  e d
i  n t e r p e n e  t r a b i l i t i  e s.

—Harry Mathews, from “Liminal Poem” (1974)

Jean Lescure: “Every literary text is literary because of an indefinite quantity of potential meanings.” (from “Brief History of the Oulipo,” 1967)

Susan Sontag called the group “a seedbed, a grimace, a carnival.” Gilbert Sorrentino argued that the aim of Oulipo was “to destroy the much-cherished myth of inspiration, and its idiot brother, writer’s block_._” Jonathan Bing of The Village Voice called the group “a motley organization of writers and mathematicians who use fiendishly elaborate arithmetic formulae as vehicles for the composition of poetry and fiction.”  Paul Auster referred to the Compendium of Oulipo works as “a late-20th-century kabala.”  And Henry Kissinger devilishly compared the group to an annoying South American country that needed, in his opinion, “to be overthrown with as much force as humanly conceivable.”

In practice, the Oulipo is a relatively harmless association of individuals—most of whom are nonsmokers, own cats, have 3.14 children, and are vegetarian—who are interested in exploring the potentiality of literature.  They pursue this goal by inventing, reinventing, and experimenting with different types of formal constraints, against the Surrealist model of automatic writing and in relation to the axiomatic method developed by Nicolas Bourbaki.  But one might ask, what exactly is the Oulipian concept of constraint?  According to The nOulipian Analects (2007), Christian Bök proposes six axioms that form a loose definition :

  1. It must be simple.
  2. It must be difficult to execute.
  3. It should reference its own existence.
  4. It should exhaust all possibilities.
  5. It should be as distanced as possible from any chance operations.
  6. It must allow for one ‘anti-constraint,’ a deviation that breaks the rules.

Their defining text, for example, is Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a collection of ten sonnets composed on the same rhyme scheme and grammatical structure, originally published in such a way as to allow each line to be turned individually so that it becomes a machine capable of generating 1014 poems.  Other of the countless formal constraints adopted or invented by the Oulipo include:

The Lipogram: A text in which a given letter (or letters) of the alphabet does not appear.
(See Georges Perec’s La Disparition)

The Cento: A text composed of passages from other texts.
(See Kenneth Goldsmith’s No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96)

The Heterogram: A text in which no letter is repeated.
(See Doug Nufer’s Never Again  – slight variation: no word is repeated)

The Bore: A text that can put anyone to sleep within three pages.
(See Anything written by Willa Cather)

The Tautogram: A text whose words all begin with the same letter.
(See Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa)

The Preverb: A text using the first part of a proverb with the second part of another.
(See Harry Mathews’s Selected Declarations of Dependence)

At last count, there were thirty-seven official members, taking into consideration that the Oulipo make no distinction between living members and deceased ones: once a member, always a member.  This number in no way reflects the girth of literature produced using Oulipian constraints, as many writers use the tools created by the group without having any official association.  To date only one writer has actually been sued by the Ouvroir de la Littérature Potentielle for appropriating their constraints, that person being Jonathan Franzen, who gratuitously utilizes The Bore.

If on a winter’s night a traveler, “Reader, it is time for your tempest-tossed vessel to come to port.” Like all Oulipian texts, this essay must linger rather than fade away.

Christopher Higgs curates the online arts journal Bright Stupid Confetti. He is the author of the forthcoming chapbook Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously (Publishing Genius Press). His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Abjective, No Colony, AGNI, Post Road, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. (updated 1/2009)

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