An American in Oulipo: The Harry Mathews Symposium
Give me the fruit and I will take from it a seed and plant it and watch grow the tree from which it fell.
— Mary Ruefle, “On Beginnings”
A note in the minutes to the August 2000 meeting of the Oulipo, the Parisian literary consortium of which Harry Mathews was for nearly four decades the only American-born member, records that he has recently been proud to identify a statement made by his granddaughter about her cluttered purse, j’ai tellement de trucs dans le fond de mon sac, as a classical alexandrine. Many things have endeared Mathews to me in the ten years or so since I became aware of him, but this snap-recognition of poetic matter in the lining of everyday life is arguably the most satisfying. It is also the trickiest to situate within my understanding of how his writing works.
Everyday life is not a particularly highly favored source of inspiration in Mathews’s oeuvre, as anyone even slightly acquainted with it knows. (My mother, who read Tlooth for the first time last month, remarked to me after one late-novel revelation that everything “made even less sense than it did before.”) As he has avowed here and there, it was the power of pure artifice as a narrative motor, the power of the unaccountably alien to titillate and defamiliarize, that attracted him to fiction in the first place. Mathews the fiction writer, after all, is unequivocally Mathews the disciple of Raymond Roussel, that proto-pomo raconteur whose disciplined hallucinations eventually proved too weird even for the Surrealists.
Nonetheless, the literary potential of everyday life, however oblique, is for me fundamental to the meaning of “potential literature,” the Oulipo’s collective quarry. At its best, to my mind, the Oulipo exists to tease out and elaborate structures that can close the gaps, or at least indicate where a medium-sturdy footbridge might go, between living life and making art. The involuntary alexandrine is a wonderful example of this because it so handily shows how loftier things can arise without any lofty pretensions — things that can be found and polished and mounted, rather than built from nothing. (As it happens, Jean Queval, a founding member of the Oulipo, once cobbled together a sonnet out of twelve-syllable segments poached at random from Victor Hugo’s prose work, and successfully convinced the other Oulipians that it was a newly unearthed Hugo sonnet.)
Historically, oulipian philosophy has prized speculation about literary potential as dearly as it prizes literature, the footbridge as much as whatever lies on the other side. The language of everyday life is hardly the only point of origin for the group’s experiments — from a scholarly perspective, linguistics and mathematics are much more important as generative sources — but it has never been too far off. In fact, it has crept into the spotlight more and more in recent years, a trend that coincides directly with the growing popularity of the Oulipo not as a collective of writers but as a sort of performance ensemble specialized in taking literature out of the armchair. Its public readings in particular offer, alongside the chin-stroking matter of your average poetry recital, texts that tell no particular story but incorporate a lot of homophones or kindred clichés; texts that list off anagrams made from subway station names or phrases mangled by dictation software; texts that oblige the audience to participate, to guess or chime in with certain sounds at the right moment, rather than just be readers or listeners.
There are naturally some, within and without the Oulipo, who look askance at the productions that sustain this popularity — often referred to, with varying degrees of dismissiveness, as “Oulipo light” — on the grounds that they amount to no more than the application of literary means to other ends: mere play at best, pandering at worst. This stance neglects the virtue of literature as a participatory phenomenon, of course, but more importantly for our purposes it misses a point central to the founding doctrines of the Oulipo: that the means are what matter. Even Mathews, who has been heard on occasion to grouse about Oulipo light, told an interviewer in 1989: “the Oulipo is not about written works. It’s about procedures.”
In this light, the only difference between a formally robust oulipian work like Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual and a crowd-pleasing form like Jacques Roubaud and Paul Fournel’s chicagos, in which the names of cities are turned into homophonic guessing games, is where the procedure stops. Both cases begin with a simple recognition of literary potential — in a grammatical rule, a rhetorical peculiarity, a mathematical loophole — and build on it in successive stages: formalization, demonstration, creation based on the demonstrated form. Often, particularly in a novel like Life A User’s Manual, and certainly in the lion’s share of books Mathews has published, actualizing the potential also means obscuring it. In Oulipo light, though, the potential hangs around a while longer, not displayed explicitly but not permanently submerged either. It’s held back just enough that the reader has to, or gets to, make his or her own way across the footbridge between recognition and creation.
In any case, Mathews’s identification of his granddaughter’s spoken alexandrine was step one, the recognition of potential, and there was no step two: he did not formalize it, did not look around for other instances of the same phenomenon; he simply related it as an anecdote to a handful of men and women who could be counted on to appreciate an anecdote about French prosody. And that’s as we might expect from an author who is notoriously staunch in refusing to reveal the structures and forms at work in his novels, much less the earthly origins thereof. If my ideal interpretation of the Oulipo depends on reinforcing the footbridge, Mathews’s usually depends on burning it once he alone has made it across.
* * * *
But perhaps a partial reconciliation can be found in Mathews’s work with the perverb, of which he is not the inventor but is the Oulipo’s most committed practitioner. The perverb is a form rooted very close to the lining of everyday life, at least provided you accept that proverbs are commonplace bits of language — not altogether free of artifice, per their origins, but without the sort of artifice on which novels are constructed. It takes two or more proverbs or maxims or bromides or saws, such as
It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity
It’s not the size that counts, it’s how you use it
and intermingles them to make
It’s not the size that counts, it’s the humidity
It’s not the heat, it’s how you use it
As with the involuntary alexandrine, this operation lends itself to multiple levels of engagement on the part of the operator. There is the single example, as above, as well as the possibility of finding or generating more based on the same logic: He who laughs last dealt it, say, or If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, the scenery never changes. There is the option of presenting them without commentary, their constituent parts quietly but fetchingly askew, and there is the decidedly Roussellian temptation to fabricate circumstances that might have led to them (“How come your flamethrower is so much weaker than mine, yet you manage to kill twice as many snakes?”). Unlike the novel or the fixed poetic form, there are no conventions on what to do, what to make. At any given point along the trajectory from recognition to creation — simple peculiarity, single-use pun, hard-earned punch line, full-fledged narrative skeleton — it would be acceptable, maybe even advisable, to stop and say well, you get the idea.
Selected Declarations of Dependence, Mathews’s attempt to exhaust the potential of the perverb, does contain formalization, demonstration, and creation, though not in that order: it begins with “Their Words, For You,” a novella-length prose poem (which Mathews calls simply a “story”) that uses only the vocabulary encompassed by a bank of 46 proverbs:
And soon you’ll be rolling down to Rome. Have a good time, go east, go west, but — when in Rome, God disposes! And will dispose of him, could be, with him as old as an oak. No, my days aren’t that lucky; but the unturned card is always the sucker’s delight.
There are shorter, catchier experiments that put perverbs to more direct use: in “An Interview with Chairman Mao Tsetung,” for instance, a nameless reporter asks questions that prime the ear for a pseudo-Confucian punch line (to the observation “you have also insisted on periodic shake-ups of the Party and administration, thus threatening the political unity so painfully acquired,” Mao replies, “You can’t make an omelet before you leap”). But the central oddity of Selected Declarations is its “paraphrases”: bite-sized narrative sketches, like the flamethrower example above, grouped roughly by the dozen. Each group is followed by a list of perverbs to which they could conceivably act as encapsulations or morals; these latter are “listed randomly,” Mathews writes in a foreword to the 1996 edition, “in order to leave the pleasure of making appropriate connections to the reader.”
This has all the trappings of Oulipo light, obviously. Selected Declarations deigns to be interactive and entertaining, and not just in the Kafkaesque way that puzzles with no solutions are interactive and “entertaining.” It will seem unusual, to the seasoned reader of Mathews, how much is there to grasp, to be interacted with: how easy it is to enjoy the text by earning comprehension instead of by failing to achieve it. The “appropriate connections,” such as they are, can be made without much more than a passing grasp of English idiom, since the contorted proverbs are used literally rather than allusively; certainly the customary the map or breadcrumb trail, or smile of indulgent resignation, is not necessary here. Everything needed to make the connections is already in place. The payoff is always self-referential, self-contained: the punch line answers to no story or structure that cannot be, well, recognized.
Where the majority of Mathews’s fiction thrives on a sense of incompleteness in our understanding of the machine, then, Selected Declarations leaves the hood up and the engine running, places a few helpful arrows to the most essential mechanisms, and allows us to make a few connections for ourselves. Of course, the sense of more or less complete understanding we earn by doing so reveals the machine to be finite in function. To wit, the following detail would not feel remotely out of place in Tlooth, but neither would its narrative function likely ever surface:
Two colossal representations of the Trinity had been raised on the Via Appia Antica, the second immediately outside the city gates.
Here, it has no function but to be connected with its begetter, which is openly accessible only a few pages away: Six of one lead to Rome. Once coupled, solution and clue are mutually exhausted; neither retains much of its initial mystery, of the titillating artifice it evoked when first confronted by itself. The only evocation the pair leaves behind is of the proverb’s plasticity as a generator. The built creation falls on its sword for the benefit of the potential of the form, and suddenly you see exactly what so much of Mathews’s work is committed to concealing: effort. Not coincidentally, your own effort suddenly counts for a great deal more.
* * * *
“I knew immediately that this would be a text of great poetic and aesthetic value,” recalls the experimental writer Nick Montfort, in an introduction for the opening of a 2004 exhibit on Mathews’s work at the University of Pennsylvania, of his first time reading the opening pages of Selected Declarations of Dependence, “enjoyable to me as a reader and instructive to me as a writer.”
I had to read that sentence twice, upon first encountering it, to make sure Montfort hadn’t said wouldn’t. This was the more natural choice to me, for Selected Declarations is not what I would call a good book by any conventional metrics, fully aware that Mathews has little interest in conventional metrics. (It is listed in his bibliography as “miscellany”; Singular Pleasures, arguably its most kindred work, is under fiction.) It is not easy to read as a narrative, nor indeed as much more than Oulipo-light chicanery; by and large it reads like what it is, which is a patient combinatorial cobbling-together, by an inventive and self-assured author, of many different possible scenarios involving, say, a horse and a man and a loaf of bread.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s consider the statement I initially thought Montfort made: This is not a text of great poetic or aesthetic value, but it is enjoyable to me as a reader and instructive to me as a writer. That’s more like it, I think. Indeed, the way in which the first clause of that sentence can be flipped around completely without changing the second is the way in which I hold the concept of potential literature to be truly useful. That is, there is value in a text that is poetically and aesthetically impoverished, if it elicits a spark of recognition — with or without the operations that follow — of creative potential. There is also value in seeing someone, especially someone as gifted as Mathews, seizing upon his own recognition of potential (that proverbs tend to follow stock syntactic and thematic patterns, that they almost always have a caesura), putting the idea through its paces, and finally failing to make of it a text whose quality as literature transcends and obscures its initial promise as an essentially empty form. It helps to disabuse us of the pernicious fallacy that a gifted artist is above mere play — it shows us instead how much of the gift consists in the patience, the attention span, to keep playing until it looks like work.
The lasting value I find in Selected Declarations of Dependence is threefold: that Mathews recognized in the garden-variety proverb the rhetorical equivalent of an accidental alexandrine; that, rather than point it out and be done with it — even when that would have been plenty — he spun it into something larger and riskier; and that he lets us see, even play alongside him, as the process unfolds. (Perec, in Life A User’s Manual: “Despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle maker has made before.”) The value of this text lies much more in its existence than in its content. I don’t mean that in the Kenneth Goldsmith sense, that it makes an interesting conversation piece if only because nobody in his or her right mind would make or even read such a thing. I mean it with respect to the curious humility of the gesture — from recognition through to creation, and back to square one — and the unexpected earthbound quality of the result. What is wonderful about this book is that it is not literary so much as instructive about where literature comes from: from recognition, from play, from humble, everyday beginnings. It is encouragement and cautionary example at the same time, the former masquerading as the latter.
Daniel Levin Becker is reviews editor for The Believer and the youngest member of the Oulipo. His first book, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, was published in April by Harvard University Press.
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