A History of Potential

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In his new history of the experimental writing movement, Oulipo, Many Subtle Channels, Daniel Levin Becker goes where few have gone.

If there is an axis for the great intellectual and artistic movements of the 20th century, it may very well be Paris. Dada, the Situationist International, surrealism, the lost generation and Oulipo, at one time or another, each found a welcome home in the City of Lights. Oulipo is a dedicated collective of writers, artists, mathematicians, chemists and polymaths with the sometimes nebulous goal of placing constraints upon texts that may result in literature. Or not. Potential literature is their goal, but what precisely that means is a long-time enigma for oulipians themselves.

Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature is the history of the Oulipo as pieced together by an expatriate American Daniel Levin Becker. Armed with a Fulbright Grant, an obsession with wordplay, and a desire to understand the experimental procedures of the Oulipo, Levin Becker soon finds himself, literally, a slave for Oulipo, rather than pure academic. Anyone having been through a PhD program will likely realize there is little difference. Shackled to the paper canyons of old meeting minutes, essays, partial histories, partial texts, and other tangential bits of written media, Levin Becker explores the back libraries of Oulipo with an eye for detail. He opens doors covered sometimes in dust, sometimes in mystery and often in indifference. Along the way, he recollects the work of founding and present oulipians, all of whom are quirky, one of whom is fictional.

His task is daunting. Oulipian dogma is about the constraint that one places on literature, rather than the literature that may emerge as a result. In the scattered files and extant published work, Levin Becker must weave together the narrative of a group who often wish to remain undefined.

Picture yourself at the outset of ’60s Paris. New Wave has broken upon the conservative rock of cinema, surrealism has deconstructed modern art, and post-modernism has lead to post-structuralism. It is no surprise that literature would find new methods with which to reproduce itself. Enter French novelist Raymond Queneau and chemical engineer Francois Le Lionnais. In the basement of a Parisian restaurant in 1960, the two officially begin Oulipo (the name is an acronym which translates as “Workshop for Potential Literature”) with little fanfare and four simple questions they wish to answer. “What should we expect from our explorations? Where will they take us? Where do we want to go?” More than fifty years on, the group still seeks the answers to these questions. Potential literature isn’t any literature which may exist, but that literature which may emerge from the application of certain constraints.

What if someone decided to write a novel without using the letter E? How about composing poetry only in the small intervals during which a certain subway car stops along the metro? What about a novel that consists only of the beginnings of novels? These are the sort of restrictions the Oulipian intentionally builds for himself. The Oulipo are “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.” Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Marcel Duchamp, and eventually Levin Becker himself are all members of Oulipo. But what does that mean, to be a member of this odd group?

Levin Becker toggles between sketches of his interactions with Oulipo and historical episodes drawn from his diligent research into the fifty-year history of the group. For a society whose goals lie in the process and not the result, the resulting history is a skein of linguistic inventions, challenges, jokes and the very serious work of playing with literature though not necessarily creating it. As an academic feat, Levin Becker’s book is impressive.

For Oulipo, however, the creation of an engaging work of literature is more a by-product of process than the end result of the attempt. Such structures and rules might involve composing a poem only when in the mood to stab someone, or rewriting prose by replacing each noun with the noun that appears seven entries later in a given dictionary. These artificial, if not bizarre constraints, are all purposed toward moving something deep, perhaps imperceptible, in both the writer and the reader. For Oulipo, this movement leads to the potential of literature.

What it produces in tangible form are of varying success. Perhaps the most famous oulipian work is The Void, by Georges Perec, the aforementioned novel written entirely without use of the letter E. Levin Becker ostensibly eschews constraints such as this in his approach to the group’s history. There may be some hidden technique in there I have not guessed at. Ultimately, whether an artist is Oulipian or not is less important than whether the collective as a whole is able to continually produce new techniques. Mind you, it is the technique and not the result the Oulipo is after. Zen-like, the journey is everything for the Oulipian, and journey begins with one subtle detour followed by the next.

Is this a way to produce interesting literature, even if by accident? Sometimes, but not consistently. At the end of the book you may have a deeper appreciation of the group but not enough insight into the sort of obsessions that drive writers to produce entire novels without the letter E. The members we meet throughout are sketched, their lives recounted rather than spelunked, for greater depth. What motivates the hard-core Oulipian? I cannot say.

While I certainly have a better idea of what lies behind the mysterious name Oulipo, I don’t feel as if I’ve been there. Levin Becker, eventually inducted as only the second American in the group’s history, does the heavy lifting of the researching academic, while often neglecting the immersive portraits of a journalist. It reads, at times, as if one is cataloguing the Merry Pranksters in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test without really taking the trip. Given that the text is of academic pedigree, a certain objective assessment is to be expected. Yet, Levin Becker sets himself the goal of reaching less scholarly writers and readers.

Levin Becker, a self-admitted word and number geek, is so fascinated with anagrams and puzzles that he “…occupied idle moments in traffic making the numbers and letters on license plates into mathematically true statements.” Comfortable in some species of highly functional, Rain Man-esque method of engaging with letters, Levin Becker is Oulipian a priori.  What if the reader is not? An excellent tour guide and historian to Oulipo, Levin Becker, as a member, is not able to extend a full invitation. We remain voyeurs, interested in the show, but unable to join. Perhaps this is the constraint of all recollection by proxy, but Levin Becker’s own journey is curiously devoid of the discovery and emotion of becoming a member of Oulipo. Levin Becker sets a goal of reaching a broader readership, but doesn’t utilize the narrative tools to snare one.

The group remains locked away behind a series of purposefully confounding yet nimble games with words and numbers. We have watched others participate without participating ourselves. That, the author intimates, is the necessary step of transubstantiation. You have to enact their techniques to understand them and experiment in order to reveal. Neither is the purview of the book, and so the journey is left uncompleted.

In the final pages of the book Levin Becker asks, “What, besides the fundamentally self-reflexive research of how its own forms and ideals evolved, does the Oulipo stand for… why?” His answer: “no particular reason.” We have been on a grand tour but come to a hazy resolution.

Chris Lites is finishing his MA in Creative Writing at DePaul Univesity. He doesn't have many credits to brag about yet. When he does, he will be sure to e-mail them to each and everyone one of you individually along with a current X-ray of his head to show you the ideas certainly don't come from there. More from this author →