Fous Littéraires: A brief history of an idea
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?" No matter how many times I corrected the google-bot’s rewriting of my phrase, it kept returning to its own version, yielding the following results:
And yet the whole of idea of the fou littéraire grew out of a 19th century French fascination for all things Anglais, especially that country's conception of eccentricity, which had then no parallel in France, (see The Sunday of Fiction: The Modern French Eccentric, Peter Schulman).
To the French, the eccentric was a half-mad, often aristocratic individual whose life was filled with unusual events. In November 1835, the writer Charles Nodier published a catalogue of these types entitled, “Bibliographie des fous: De quelques livres excentriques,” (Bibliography of the Mad: Of Some Eccentric Books), where he coined the term fou littéraire to denote madmen who wrote, and published–otherwise, one would be simply a maniac. Nodier himself was no slouch in this matter, publishing copious volumes of quasi-fantastic stories and novels, and collections of his own "dream writings," as well as such non-fiction tomes as "A Dissertation on the Use of Antennae in Insects," and the Reasoned Dictionary of French Onomatopoeia. However, his bibliography of eccentric books was to have the most lasting value, filling a gap in literary studies and spawning a new tradition. Immediately, other "eccentricologists" took up the theme, producing their own catalogues of fou, which "document a vast nomenclature of personalities that the rest of the world has overlooked, undertaken not with the aim of ultimately finding cures, but out of pure affection," (Schulman). Here the idea of eccentricity shifts, "no longer connoting frivolous nobility or stylized dress, but a kind of romantic heroism...the undeniablity of the unknown that attracts and stimulates," (ibid.).
The Sunday of Fiction: The Modern French Eccentric, Peter Schulman, p. vii.
Despite this extensive lineage, today the term is sometimes taken "in the strict sense" to refer to authors who were the subject of research by Raymond Queneau and André Blavier in the 1930s. Whilst Queneau ultimately abandoned work on the fou, incorporating his research into a novel, The Children of Silt (1938), his accomplice André Blavier took the matter more seriously, eventually producing a fully-fledged encyclopedia, entitled Literary Fools, listing more than 3000 authors–unfortunately not published until 1982. Writers indexed there include Alexis Vincent Charles Berbiguier Newfoundland Thyme, Jean-Pierre Brisset, Nicolas Cirier, Natalis Flaugergues, Xavier Forneret, Paulin Gagne, Alfred Moquin-Tandon, Claude-Charles Pierquin Gembloux, Jean Prat, Raymond Roussel, Tapon-ax Fougas and Paul Tisseyre-Ananké, (http://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/fous-litteraires). Blavier too provides a nomencalture, dividing fou into various categories, including, "prophets, seers & Messiahs," the "squarers," "Inventors & DIY", the "philanthropists, Sociologists & Pest," not to mention scholars, novelists and poets. Whilst some are looking for an Ur language (a Lingua Adamica), and others seek to square the circle, all present theories radically different from the commmon epistemes and orthodoxies of their time, and all produce singular objects in which sense and nonsense spectacularly collide. Today, numerous websites and institutions are devoted to research on this heterodox "canon." Of these we may briefly note the Institut International et d'Explorations sur les Fous Littéraires (IIREFL), online at firstname.lastname@example.org. The IIREFL has an annual day of fou studies at the Biblioteque Nationale, and its founders include Marc Decimo, regent of the College of Pataphysics, and editor of the collected works of Jean-Pierre Brisset, probably the most beloved of all fou.
Unfortunately, the current state of fou research is confined mainly to men. Perhaps, as scholar Susannah Wilson notes, this is because the perceived "distance between sickness and cultural femininity is not so great," (Voices from the Asylum: Four French Women Writers, 1850-1920, p. 37). Recognized fou are also mostly white, possibly for similar reasons. And it is for this reason that I shall, in the final section of this commentary, look at the relations between the concept of fou littéraire and Alexander Weheliye's notion of habeas viscus. In the meantime, we are entitled to ask, what exactly characterizes such work, and just what, if any, is the relationship between "literary" madness and madness per se?
Addendum: A partial bibliography
- Presentation by Henri-Joris Jespers in five articles dated May 16 to 18, 2009 and 24 May 2010 on the site of the Institute International RESEARCH and Explorations on Fou Littéraires
- About literary madmen interview with Stéphane Fleury, ed. decorated with a collage of André Stas. Paris, Ed. Ash, 2001, p. 59.
- "Books that were composed by fools," Mixtures from a small library, or literary and philosophical varieties, Charles Nodier, Paris, Crapelet, 1829, p. 243-248. Available on Archives.org and Google books .
- "Bibliography crazy," From some quirky books. Paris, Techener, 1835. 2 installment. Bibliophile Supplement to the Bulletin, No. 21 [and 23] .
- On the Edge of Darkness: Literary Madmen Nineteenth Century, Raymond Queneau, ed. presented and annotated by Madeleine Velguth. [Paris]: Gallimard, 2002. 428 p. (The notebooks NRF).
- The Violence of Language, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, trans. English by Michèle Garlati, revised by the author .... Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1996 VIII-285 p. (Theoretical Practices)
- The eccentric, Champfleury, Paris, Mr. Levy brothers, 1852, p. 375.
- Anthology of Black Humor, André Breton, Paris, Editions of Sagittarius, 1940, p. 263.
- "Louis Neuf Germain motley poet," Christmas Arnaud, Bizarre, special issue The Heteroclites and literary Fools April, 1956 No. IV
- International and Exploration Institute Fools Literary email@example.com