Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature


“Works of fiction contain a single plot, with all of its imaginable permutations,” Tlön, Uglor, Orbiris, Tertius – Jorge Louis Borges

Warren F. Motte has collected a series of critical writing from The Ouvrior de Littérature Potentielle or Oulipo (The Workshop of Potential Literature), a primarily French group organized around Raymond Queneau and primarily concerned with methods of creating new literary structures. Their ideas offer a welcome relief to the staid and stale conviction that literary forms have been handed down from the ancients along with the rest of language, as if structures like sonnets or mystery novels are as intrinsically a part of language as vowels or nouns.

These essays illuminate the limited ways that contemporary fiction approaches the idea of form. In the limited framework of the short story structure, readers find great variation and even invention, but the actual form of the story seems as rigid a language structure as the blues are a song structure, tirelessly repeating the AAB structure into infinity; I asked my captain for the time of day. I asked my captain for the time of day. He said he’d thrown his watch away.

A writer who wants to be free needs to confront the constrictions and value of literary form. Yet, literary form seems to come out of a black box, so much so that writing that somehow confounds formats, like Lawrence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy or Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland or more recently Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String seems to be inspired but frivolous oddities rather than the result of a literary method. The Oulipo, however, have developed a method for subverting expectations and for being as creative with form as writer’s are expected to be with content. Franáois Le Lionnais writes in the Second Oulipo Manifesto, “Should humanity lie back and be satisfied to watch new thoughts make ancient verses?”

Literature that satisfies a particular form fulfills the esthetic aims of that form. For instance, the novel developed several hundred years ago as a result of an expanded middle class audience. The form typically follows a protagonist’s conflict with society and in the end the protagonist either achieves some kind of reconciliation with society or dies; the form of the novel performs as both a platform for an anarchic point of view but also reassures its audience that eccentricity will be absorbed in the end. A sonnet straps language into iambic pentameter, a straight jacket rhyme scheme, and limits the subject to a single sentiment. The Poetry Handbook includes this rule for the sonnet, “Groups of sonnets using the same form and relate to the same theme, which is often love of a women or the love of God.” The inherent value of the form exerts a hidden force on the content of the work. Form functions like a medium and in this sense limits the range of meaning expressed by language just as wood grain limits the direction of the carved line in a wood block.

By building mazes and trying to escape them, the Oulipo have started a dialogue about ways to imagine new literary structures. By building artificial rules the Oulipo have escaped the prison of old forms.

Founded in late 1960 in France, at a colloquium on the work of Raymond Queneau, in order to research new writing by combining mathematics and literature (and also to just horse around) the Oulipo soon expanded to include all writing using self-imposed restrictive systems. The group didn’t publicly publish until 1973, La Littérature Potentielle. The best known of the group’s work are Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. A truncated role call of the more familiar names includes: Noël Arnaud, Italo Calvino, Ross Chambers, Stanley Chapman, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Fournal, Franáois Le Lionnais, Harry Matthews, Georges Perec, and Raymond Queneau.

Oulipo contains the critical writings of the Oulipo, including Franáois Le Lionnais’s Manifestoes, a history of the Lipogram by Georges Perec, and Jacques Roulaurd’s explanation of the mathematical method of Raymond Queneau. Reading the critical writing gives a foundation in the method and the nature of the group’s experiment. Jean Lescure’s “Brief History of the Oulipo” chronicles the formulation of the group as an formally informal gathering of mathematicians and writers who began to apply mathematical formulas to literary forms. The end matter of the book contains a thorough bibliography of the principal Oulipo players and their works.

Raymond Queneau’s “Cent Mille Millards de Poéms” (One hundred thousand billion poems), expresses the Oulipian ideal. It is a series of ten sonnets contrived so that each line of each sonnet can be replaced with any corresponding line of the other ten sonnets, sort of like a sonnet version of one of those children’s flip-books where you can change the head of animals. The possibilities put forth by this arrangement would be to the order of 1014, one hundred trillion sonnets. The potential text explodes into an incomprehensible size. “According to [Queneau’s] calculations, if one read a sonnet per minute eight hours a day, two hundred days per year, it would take more than a million centuries to finish the text.”

The Oulipo seem to be most interested in discovering how to express literature by limiting the writer’s choices, either by the construction of mathematical formulas that produce results, formal constraints and rules that produces results, or language games that produce results, in this sense I mean results as in the result of an equation. The lipogram, where a single letter is stricken from the text, is an ancient exercise the Oulipians have appropriated for their toolbox. Ideally, each Oulipian structure would result in one potential literature, not necessarily a single text because “The One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems” is a single potential literature, but nearly an infinite text. For a writer, drafting an Oulipian work should be more like filling out a crossword puzzle or doing calculus homework then an act of inspiration. The muse has had her hard drive reformatted and inspiration is not to be trusted.

To practitioners approaching writing as a craft, as if the writing of stories was along the lines of knitting sweaters, this exploration seems at best frivolous and maybe a little pretentious if all you want to do is make sweaters. However, these are useful generative tools. Not only do they provide a developed handbag of new literary forms, but these tools also establish a solid framework for developing a criticism about literary structure. This book is a vital and concise introduction to the Oulipian technique.

Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature
Edited and translated by Warren F. Motte, Jr.
Dalkey Archive, Normal, 1998
Illinois State University
Campus Box 4241
Normal, IL 61790-4241
224 pages; paper, $14.95

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