Fous Littéraires: Some examples from a non-cannon — No. 3

Raymond Roussel (1877–1933): Part 2 — The work 'explained'

"How I came to write certain of my books," R. Roussel, cover


Serious interest in Roussel began with the posthumous publication of a short essay entitled, How I came to write certain of my books (Comment j'ai écrit certains de mes livres), composed just before his suicide in 1933. Though the paper purports to give a "key" that will enable readers to understand the connections between the apparently arbitrary scenes in Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus, Impressions already supplies its own explanation. The novel is divided into two main sections–chapters 1-9, and 10-25–with a forward advising readers to skip the first section wholesale and begin at chapter 10. However, most readers refuse the provocation and begin at the beginning, though they are soon just as lost as if they had started in the middle.

On the main square of a purely imaginary African capital, a series of acts, in the theatrical sense, are performed, each more unbelievable than the rest: a marksman manages, by shooting at it, to separate the white from the yolk of a soft-boiled egg; six brothers, because of their extreme thinness and the hollowness of their chests, reflect, by placing themselves at regular intervals, the voice of their father exactly like the echo in the nave of a cathedral; a singer has a mouth and tongue so shaped that he is able to sing, at the same time, four tunes, or the four parts of a canon.

Many of these impossible acts involve equally impossible machines. The statue of a Lacedonian slave (a helot) is made of corset stays. It is set on a base supported by wheels, themselves placed on rails made of a pinkish substance, which turns out to be the lights that cats are fed on. A magpie has been taught to operate with its beak a complex mechanism which tilts the statue, back and forth, on its base.

In the first nine chapters dozens of such wonders are presented, one after the other, without the least explanation, to an astonished reader. The next fifteen chapters provide an explanation, by placing them in a narrative framework: the dynastic quarrels in two African kingdoms, a steamer on its way to America stranded on the African coast, an order imposed on some of the white captives by a rather capricious black sovereign, the desire of the rest of the white people to impress him by showing their best tricks.* A host of stories provide a "logical" explanation for each act.

... First we have a tableau vivant, then a fiction which "explains" it, (Philosophy through the Looking Glass, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, p. 18).

This is how the linguist Jean-Jacques Lecercle describes a first pass of Roussel's novel, pointing out what's often elided, that the book gives its own explanation, "if explanation is the right word, so contorted, gratuitous and absurd is the fiction, (ibid.).

"Jean-Jacques Lecercle is Professor of English at the University of Nanterre, France, and a worldwide authority on Nonsense,” (ibid, back cover). He is also a serious scholar of fou littéraire, and his writings on this subject are the best introductory source for English-language readers. (Though short pieces have been written by others on many of the main fou, including Foucault's book on Roussel, Lecercle has produced the only general introductions I know of to the topic as a whole, and furthermore to the significance of these writers in the development of an alternative, i.e, non-Saussurean, non-Chomskyan approach to linguistics and the philosophy of language. See the brief bibliography below for his main publications on these and related topics, all of which are primary references for this commentary.)

Lecercle follows his introduction to Impressions of Africa, with an account of the key Roussel gives in Comment j'ai écrit…noting that this is in fact inaccurate, and that it includes more than one explanatory “device"–device or le procédé being the term Roussel used to designate the key methodological tool in his brand of literary construction.

The first device consists in taking a sentence whose words each have two different meanings, and in modifying only one letter in it, so as to obtain another sentence. The writer then proceeds to compose a text which starts with the first sentence and ends with the second. Roussel claims that he used this device for Impressions of Africa. The sentence he chose is ‘les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard’ [which reads in English] (the letters of the white man concerning the hordes of the old bandit). By changing the ‘p’ in ‘pillard’ to a ‘b’, he obtained the following sentence: ‘les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard’, which he claims, we must interpret as ‘the characters traced in white chalk on the edges of the old billard table’, (ibid., p.18-19).

(For an informative account of the difficulties involved in translating Roussel–whose work often seems to consist in translating himself­–see "Translating Raymond Roussel," by Mark Ford and Mark Polizzotti, in BOMB 118, Winter 2012.)

But though Roussel did write an earlier, shorter story beginning with the first sentence and ending with the second, Impressions does not, for the whole of the last sentence has disappeared. Instead, the writer uses another device, which we may see as derived from the first. This "second, or extended device," as Lecercle calls it, is based on a systematic use of punning. In this case:
two sematically linked words are chosen; their meaning is transformed by punning, and two new words, or meanings, are produced which have no sematic link. The tableau vivant, or the machine, and the fiction in the second part, are there to provide such a link, (ibid., p. 19).
To understand how this device works, let us take an example. In French, the calf of the leg is called 'le gras du mollet,' and a soft-boiled egg, 'un oeuf mollet', while a 'gras' is an old-fashioned french army gun: thus the marksman shooting at an egg with a gras gun in the story above. "From a 'natural' (semantic) link, we proceed to an 'artificial' (fictional) one," (ibid., p.19). The apparently arbitrary character of the stories is produced by the fact that they must establish a  link "between two words which are homophonic but have little or nothing in common in the world of reference," (ibid., p. 20). Fiction is here merely a device for linking similar-sounding words.
Yet even the extended device did not permit Roussel to diversify his fiction enough. Thus, he proceeds to an even more complex method, which Lecercle calls the modified device. Here the pun works not at the level of a single word or phrase, but at the level of the whole sentence. For example, the sentence 'j'ai du bon tabac' is divided phonetically so that other words appear, such as 'jade, tube, onde, aubade'. Roussel did not invent this device, which is often used in charades and other games, and is the basis for a type of verse known as holorhyme, for which Thomas Hood is famous. It is also typical of Surrealist methodologies where one text is produced from another by an almost mechanical technique. However, while the use of such devices creates derangement in the surface of the text, where the most disparate objects and events are juxtoaposed, the books as a whole have a strangely static quality:
Take for instance the structure of Impressions d'Afrique: static scenes, their narrative explanation, and many years afterwards, in the essay, the key to their linguistic structure. The order is the same as a textbook on language: first, a vocabulary, lists of words to be learnt; then, examples of grammar, sentences which give meaning to the words by presenting them in context; and last, the philological commentary, the grammarian's metalinguistic explanations of the syntactic and semantic properties of the words...For Roussel, the novel has the form of a grammar, (ibid., p. 20, emphasis added).
Or, to put it another way, while charades and tableaux vivants are used in realist novels and Shakespearean drama to provide ironic commentary on the plot, here the relation is reversed.
Since the only role of the fiction is to fill the gap between two homophonic words, the plot is used by the charade as its commentary, rather than the reverse: fiction is an instrument for the exploration of language. The absurdity of the objects described, or the adventures narrated, springs from this inversion, (ibid., p. 20, emphasis added).
Like Lecercle, Roussel's primary interest is not literary fiction but language, and the ways tongues produce delirious logics of their own. As we shall see however, when we look at some other fou, Roussel's délire (a term that shall be explained shortly) is of a rather tame or staid kind. In the end "he is frightened by his own audacity. So he tries to balance his délire by the ponderous seriousness of his writing," and by his frequent resort to cliché, which, as Lecercle reminds us "constitutes a protection...against dissolution and incoherence," (ibid., p.22). A short sample from Locus Solus gives a sense of Roussel's general style:
A tender couple, Florine and Lucius found absolute happiness when, after ten years of cruel waiting, the birth of a daughter fulfilled their most ardent wishes, (quoted by Lecercle, (ibid., p. 22).
(We are reminded here of Roussel's conventional tastes–see previous post). This is a very mild form of délire. "The narrative sentence is 'impossible', the scenes that constitute its words defy belief, but the language which conveys these wonders is conservative and stilted," (ibid., p. 23). Far more extreme forms of délire are found in other writers less well known than Roussel. But before we move on to these, we must clear up the question of why (and how) the work of fous littéraire differs from (Victorian) Nonsense.

* We contemporaneans can only note the orientalist overtones of this narrative. 

Addendum - Books by Jean-Jacques Lecercle used in the posts on this commentary thread:

- Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature (PoN)

- Philosophy through the Looking Glass (PtLG)

- The Violence of Language (VoL)

- The Pragmatics of Language (PrGoL)

- Deleuze and Language (DaL)

- Badiou and Deleuze Read Literature (BDrL)