Alan Moore, in his generous and characteristically insightful recommendation for my book 'Wilful Misunderstandings' (the one I'm now trying to sell, remember?), spoke of the 'oulipo toolkit' which he felt I had employed. Since the book has become available, a number of people have already asked me smart and well-informed questions like: "What's this 'oulipo' then?" The short answer is that they (the 'Oulipo') are a group of writers mainly but not exclusively based in France, who hold some wonderfully challenging ideas about the art of writing. Over the next few weeks, I shall attempt to provide some idea of what the Oulipo are about.
Needless to say, there is perfectly good description of the Oulipo and their activities on Wikipedia. They have their own web pages, and there are some other fine pieces about them that turn up on a Google search. So this is just my take on them, in which I attempt to take on some of the smaller challenges they present. These take the form of 'constraints', a concept which will be explained more fully later on.
We start with some introductory comments and then go on to a brief digression regarding their antecedents, the pataphysicians...
A Moya Based in Frangipane - the Oulipo Enlarged, part 1.This is not the first, nor the most definitive piece of writing to concern itself with ‘Oulipo’, a literary movement based in France, whose foundation took place in 1960.
I will now apply one of the Oulipo’s ‘constraints’, known as ‘N + 7’ amongst other names, to the above paragraph.
This is not the fish, nor the most definitive pietism of xanthophyll to concern itself with ‘Oulipo’, a literary moya based in frangipane, whose foursome took place in 1960.
That’s what they do, the Oulipo, they fuck around with words, but employing care and precision in the process. ‘N + 7’, for example, is applied by replacing each noun in a text with the seventh noun following it in the dictionary.
Here’s one they did to the beginning of the Book of Genesis:
‘In the behest, God created the heckelphone and the easement. And the easement was without format, and void: and darshan was upon the facial of the defeasance. And the spirituousness of God moved upon the facial of the wattles. And God said, Let there be lights: and there was lights.’
If you, like me, enjoy making language a playground for purposes both serious and trivial, the Oulipo are worth knowing about. Their story is one of eccentricity, wit and extraordinary persistence. Its roots go back to the Surrealists and to another extraordinary and enduring institution: The College of ‘Pataphysics.
I have now to digress, in a way that I hope will cast light on the Oulipo, into the subject of ‘pataphysics. The term was coined and the concept was created by the notable turn of the Twentieth Century French writer and absinthe drinker, Alfred Jarry, who defined it as ‘the science of imaginary solutions which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments’. Make of this what you will, ‘pataphysics has also been described as a philosophy dedicated to studying what lies beyond the realm of metaphysics and as dealing with "the laws which govern exceptions and will explain the universe supplementary to this one".
Are you any the wiser? I do hope not.
The College of ‘Pataphysics became an institution in 1948, long after Jarry’s untimely death in 1907. Its early members included Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Eugene Ionesco and the Marx Brothers. Its UK branch is the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics. In a 2005 Guardian article, writer Zoë Corbyn described the college as an “elaborate pose”. She continued: “Nonsensical beaurocracy is its hallmark and with a remit to conduct useless research, the college seems more of a joke than a serious enterprise.”
Whilst this dismissal possibly misses a point, humour is undoubtedly a hallmark. Whilst browsing the web pages of the London Institute I was amused by its departmental acronyms. DDT – the Department of Dogma and Theory; CHAP – the Committee for Hirsutism and Pogonotrophy (look it up – I had to); and BISI the Bureau of Subliminal Images (no, I don’t know what the first ‘I’ stands for either).
Origin of Oulipo
Prominent amongst the College’s early membership was the writer Raymond Queneau and his close friend François Le Lionnais. Their respective ranks and titles in the college were ‘Transcendent Satrap’ and ‘Regent’. These two gentlemen launched Oulipo as a sub-committee of the College.
Queneau (1903 – 1976) was a writer, a philosopher and member of the Surrealist group until 1929, when he left after a ‘violent disagreement’ with Andrē Breton. What led to this disagreement (nor indeed just how violent it was) is not apparently recorded, but it is clear that Queneau had little time for the surrealists’ free associating and trancelike approach to the process of writing. Queneau began his literary career in 1933 with the publication of ‘Le Chiendent’ (‘The Bark Tree’). A competent amateur mathematician, he became increasingly interested in the integration of mathematical elements into the composition of his novels and poems.
He shared this mathematical interest with Le Lionnais (1901 – 1984). The latter survived imprisonment in a World War 2 concentration camp, following his activities with the French Resistance. His career began in industry and he went on to become a scientific adviser to the National Museums of France. Le Lionnais did not see himself as a writer, but took fascination in the possibilities of what could be written, and it was this concept that was at the core, when he and Queneau inaugurated the Oulipo.
The name began as an abbreviation of ‘Ouvroir de Littērature Potentielle’ (which translates as ‘workshop of potential literature’). The abbreviation: Ou. Li. Po. evolved into the noun, thus allowing for adjectives such as ‘Oulipian’ to be coined in due course.
Next time: we'll take a look at the concept of 'constraints' in more depth, and some of the extraordinary work these writers have produced. Until then, may your ship sail smoothly and your anchor hold you well beside isles of plenty.