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  • Between Roussel and Rousseau, or Constraint and Confession
  • Marcel Bénabou (bio)
    Translated by Roxanne Lapidus

Roussel and Rousseau are two names that one is scarcely used to associating. Nonetheless, their joined presence in my title should not lead one to anticipate some unexpected revelations on subterranean structural analogies, eventual thematic affinities, or even hypothetical stylistic connections discernible beyond the obvious phonetic heritage of these two writers. If such links exist (and I reserve the right to show, someday, that they do indeed exist, even if they have not often been perceived), 1 my object today is not to study them. These two great names figure here only as flag-bearers, as emblems, as mythical godfathers of two literary attitudes, or rather two ways, supposedly antagonistic, of going about the act of writing:

One, which proposes relying heavily on “procedures,” such as those Roussel finally revealed, at least partially, in his posthumous work, Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres. 2 It is this process that opened up for him the way to create universes, characters, and adventures that were totally imaginary, like those that fill the chapters and pages of Locus solus or Impressions d’Afrique, to mention only his two best-known novels.

The other way stresses the search for truth, and valorizes sincerity and authenticity in the use of the word about oneself. This is the way that leads directly to such enterprises as the Confessions; this is what has opened the way, as we all know, to an overabundant autobiographical production.

If we accept this summary division of the literary field, it goes without saying that the Oulipians, by definition, must be situated largely on the side of Roussel. In fact, among all past writers to whom the Oulipians feel close, 3 Raymond Roussel would doubtless rank first. “L’écriture sous contrainte,”—“writing under constraints”—so dear to Oulipians, can be considered as an attempt to generalize and systematize diverse Rousselian “procedures.”

Now it so happens that, as has been noted by such alert observers as Jacques Lecarme, 4 Claude Burgelin, 5 or Philippe Lejeune, 6 some Oulipians (one could name Jacques Roubaud, Georges Perec and myself) do not hesitate, at least in some of their books, to look toward Rousseau, if not frankly to follow in his footsteps, by engaging in writing which, despite disclaimers, can be linked to autobiography. And to do this in spite of unleashing [End Page 22] what Jacques Lecarme calls “the anti-autobiographical hydra” (19), and in spite of the unenviable place that autobiography as a genre occupies in the literary hierarchy, which favors novelistic fiction.

Thus my object is to examine this situation, and to seek the “why” behind the apparent and paradoxical migration that would have led some Oulipians to abandon the reassuring Rousselian shores that had been their chosen homeland since their beginnings, and to journey to the dangerous confines of a Rousseauism that would surely seem less familiar to them.

I will reveal right away the basis of my thinking by saying that the “why” in this case can only be grasped at first through a minute analysis of “how.” If the Oulipians were able, apparently without hesitation, to head towards a form of writing that can be called autobiographical, it is because this form did not seem as foreign or refractory as one might think to their habitual methods and techniques. In a word, autobiography could accommodate the Oulipian concern with formal research.

This, to my mind, is the key to the problem. Thus I will attempt to show, with some precise examples, the means of wedding Oulipian constraint and autobiographical writing. In so doing, I am not forgetting that the Oulipians were not the first nor the only ones to try to resolve the problem of the contradiction between formal research and confession. Sartre’s Les Mots, and especially Leiris’s L’Age d’homme or La Règle du jeu had already succeeded, by various routes, in effecting this reconciliation. Philippe Lejeune has shown 7 how Leiris’s autobiographical writing owes much to plays on words, which appeared in his work starting in 1925, with Glossaire, j’y serre mes gloses and...

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