What is a fou? Or, whose work counts in the non-cannon?
Despite the catalogues and encyclopedias, almost by definition there can be no fou cannon. Not only is the study in its infancy, basic criteria are hard to establish. On the surface the Victorian Nonsense of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll might be considered, but for reasons that will become clear later, though related, Nonsense is not generally included. Another candidate might be the private anagrammatic investigations of the esteemed linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who, during the same years–1906-1910–that he worked on his influential (some would now say pernicious) "science" of signs, he also spent copious time searching for anagrams in a variety of texts, from the Rig Veda to the Niebelungen.
There is a relationship between nonsense and madness, or perhaps, as Artaud’s rendering of “Jabberwocky” shows, the two are better understood as the poles of a sliding scale. Thus, if the genre of nonsense can be thought of as a discourse on the margins exploring the difficult passage of the child into the symbolic order, “with all the risks of error and miscommunication...inherent in the very process of language-learning [ ], Artaud, in his re-appropriative translation of nonsense-writing, takes the genre of nonsense to its crisis point," (“The Asylum of Nonsense: Antonin Artaud's Translation of Lewis Carroll," A. Lukes, The Romanic Review, January-March 2013).
In some ways, all language is errant translation. Language wanders from its intended assignments, language is slippery, and what makes the desire to communicate so beautiful is its desperation and inevitable failure; it revels in something basic and intrinsic to humanity, a primal longing, like Sisyphus and his round boulder, Wu Gang and his moon tree. In some ways this is every writer’s and artist’s ongoing work: to continuously rename the world anew, and in this renaming we attempt to grasp it while also giving it up to the ether.
Literary Madmen is the English translation of Fou Littéraire, a term invented in the mid 19th century to cover a branch of writing not previously given serious consideration. Today, googling the French phrase produces hundreds of references, yet it does not even translate into a properly searchable term in English. When I recently searched the English version I was offered “about 590,000” results in 0.30 seconds. But did I mean" literary madmen or literary mad men?"