- The Rhetoric of the Impossible
Is it possible, it thinks, that one has not yet seen, known and said anything real or important?—Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
It’s damn near impossible to write about Marcel Bénabou’s books. They present a limpid, armored surface where the kind of handholds one normally looks for in a text are rare and extraordinarily precarious. Every utterance in them is so deeply bound up in irony and doubt that the prospect of saying anything frank and valid about them appears dim at best. Every gesture the critic might be tempted to make seems to have been anticipated by the author, and parried in advance as it were, as if Bénabou had deliberately followed the script for the puzzle-maker that Georges Perec laid out in Life: A User’s Manual. 1 In short, if reading Marcel Bénabou’s books is consistently—indeed extravagantly—pleasurable, writing about them is hell on wheels. That bit of whining aside (there will be no more, or not very much more), let me begin. But I would like to say in passing that it is the inalienable right of every academic to whine. Moreover, it is a right we must also accord to Bénabou himself as we try to come to some sort of terms with his books (for he, too, is an academic, and a distinguished one at that). Allow me then to start with something relatively easy in order to work my way, crab-like, toward the impossible.
Marcel Bénabou was born in the Sephardic community of Meknès, Morocco in 1939. At the age of seventeen, he went to Paris to study at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, matriculating thereafter at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He earned his doctorate at the Sorbonne, and makes his living as a Roman historian at the Université de Paris VII. He joined the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (or “Oulipo”) in 1969, and serves currently as that group’s Definitively Provisional Secretary. His first book, published in 1976, is a work of historiography entitled La Résistance africaine à la romanisation, and I’ll say no more about it, because it’s his three other books, Pourquoi je n’ai écrit aucun de mes livres (1986), Jette ce livre avant qu’il soit trop tard (1992), and Jacob, Ménahem et Mimoun: Une épopée familiale (1995) that interest me [End Page 4] here. 2 Each of those books may be read as a sustained meditation on the impossibility of writing; and granted his insistence on that theme, it’s a wonder that there are any books signed “Bénabou” to write about.
Pourquoi is a deeply duplicitous, deliciously perverse text in which Bénabou attempts to explain why, though he was “born” to literature, he hasn’t written any books. It’s a book that is always beginning, built on hesitation, erasure, and a hallucinating series of false starts; reading it, one feels as if one were walking in wet cement. More than anything else, it presents itself as a prolegomenon to another book, an ideal, virtual, and clearly impossible one that Bénabou would certainly write, if only he were able. As maddening as they may be, Bénabou’s tortured maunderings in Pourquoi are also consistently amusing, and indeed the book won the 23rd Xavier Forneret Black Humor Prize. Jette is a book about the discontents of writing and reading, and it begins with the following exhortation: “Come on, put this book down. Or rather, throw it across the room. Right away. Before it’s too late. There’s no other way out for you, believe me, except that” (9). Layering ironies upon ironies, Jette has much to say about the way writers and readers cleave to literature, even when—perhaps especially when—literature is at its most embattled as a cultural commodity. The title that Bénabou chose for his most recent book was On écrit toujours le même livre (One Always Writes the Same Book), but his publishers demanded that he change it to Jacob, Ménahem et Mimoun: Une épop...