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  • Memory and Oulipian Constraints
  • Peter Consenstein

Although Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle — The Workshop for Potential Literature) does not want to be considered a literary school, or to overtly advance specific ideologies or theories, its goals portray an understanding of literature that merits outline and critique. Oulipo was founded in 1960 by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau. The oulipians emphasize the use of formal constraints in their literary production in reaction to the emphasis placed on “écriture automatique” by the Surrealists. Although a mathematical equation is usually at the base of their constraints, oulipians also pay tribute to literary history by declaring all structures of all various genres of past eras open to innovation. In so doing, they define their relationship with French literature: it is one of direct innovation on the stockpile of texts of differing genres, and their goal is to offer new forms to future writers by elucidating the potential of past literary forms. In essence, they work actively with literary history and do not submit to its domination. By “working under constraint” they have raised their level of consciousness because — their dictum — if an author does not define his or her constraint, the constraint will in turn define their work for them. Such a level of consciousness controls how they are perceived, and received. Their relationship with the past, their work with literary genres, and their capacity to shape their own reception, outlines a relationship with literature with which postmodern theorists ought to be acquainted.

Oulipians innovate upon the architecture of genres not to “blur,” “transgress,” and “unfix” boundaries, but to grasp a genre’s potential.1 The oulipian notion of potenitality goes in two directions: on the one hand it attempts to build structures in a systematic and scientific manner; that which is potential is that which does not yet exist. On the other hand, oulipians strongly believe that potential and inspiration are codependent. By acting systematically and scientifically oulipians focus and clarify, not “blur,” their approach to genre transformation. Although the result may be a certain “unfixing” of boundaries, it is done in the guise of literary progress, of testing the relationship between expression and construct, and not on ideological grounds. The connection between inspiration and a scientific approach to literature was made by Raymond Queneau in his 1937 novel Odile.2 If, as I argue throughout my essay, the structure of oulipian works both recalls and further mutates past genres of literature, must their work then be considered postmodern, or, as Queneau argues, simply the work of a “true” poet?

Raymond Queneau, one of the founders of Oulipo, was one of many authors, such as Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris, rejected by the Surrealists. Passages from his 1937 Odile reveal hints of oulipian thought, a profound appreciation of mathematics, as well as a rejection of the Surrealist definition of “inspiration.” Odile’s main narrator explains that the French language is simply incapable of expressing entities that exist in “other” worlds, worlds beyond daily experiences. Some people, states the narrator, believe that the world of “nombres et des figures, des identités et des fonctions, des opérations et des groupes, des ensembles et des espaces” (of numbers and figures, of identities and functions, of operations and groups, of sets and spaces), is simply a world of abstractions based upon Nature. They believe that once humans apply reason to the world of abstractions, they construct “une demeure splendide” (a splendid dwelling). The narrator denounces this point of view as the most vulgar possible, and declares that the world of equations is like the science of botany, because in a world independent from the human mind great discoveries are made. His concern, however, is for the language used to express them. Confusion, stemming from the mode of expression and not from science itself, leads to a lack of appreciation of scientific discovery. In fact, he concludes, logistics could be considered the “philology” of mathematics (26–28). In this obvious mixture of science and literature — logic and philology — it is easy to infer that philology must examine literature in a more “logical” fashion, determining if its accomplishments fulfill its premises. The formation of...

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