Christine Wertheim

Fous Littéraires: Mad linguists and other literary fools

Fous Littéraires: Some examples from a non-cannon — No. 2

Natalis Flaugergues (1823–1893)

Saint-Afrique, sacred ground (1871)
Saint-Afrique, sacred ground (1871)

Another beloved early literary eccentric now firmly established in the roll call of fou, though he was not included in Queneau and Blavier’s research, is Natalis Flaugergues (1823-1893). Natalis's father worked as an itinerant merchant, and he himself, after a period in a seminary, pursued a military career until a severe head wound in the Battle of Meleganano (Italy) brought it to an abrupt end. After this he seems to have devoted himself mainly to writing and research, though unlike some other well-known fou, Natalis was not wealthy.

Fous Littéraires: Some examples from a non-cannon- No.1

Alexis-Vincent-Charles Berbiguier de Terre-Neuve du Thym, known as Berbiguier (1764/76?–1851)

Berbiguier and imps

Before beginning a more in depth look at some of the most widely discussed fous, let us take a moment to reflect upon a few of the more beloved, if less well-analysed examples. (I remind the reader that these commentaries are intended for an English-speaking audience, whilst most of the geniuses discussed write in French. Generally, I have thus chosen to describe the work, rather than quote it., and then, mainly in English. French citations are given only when it is thought that these will help rather than hinder those not literate in French.)

Fous Littéraires: Counter-examples preliminary to a non-cannon
Shaker Gift Song

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.

What is language?: No 1

Different traditions

Raymond Lull conceptual diagrams
"Ars MagnaTree" and "Fig1," by Ramon Llull

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).


Fous Littéraires: A brief history of an idea
Anonyme, Le Monde dans une tête de fou (vers 1590). BNF, Département des cartes et plans.


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?"