Guest Post, Caleb Nelson: The Oulipian Strategy

guest post, Caleb NelsonTHE OULIPIAN STRATEGY

We might think of Ouilpo as the ultimate writing workshop program. Of course, Ouilpo is more than that. The organization has a longevity few literary groups can claim. In the essay “Raymond Queneau and the Early Oulipo,” scholar Warren Motte writes, “Oulipo has certainly shattered the record of longevity for literary groups, leaving Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Lettrism, Situationism, and so forth behind like so many sleek but abashed hares bested by the tortoise.” The constant quasi-religious in-fighting of groups like Lettrism and Surrealism made it almost impossible for the members to remain a unit. For example, André Breton’s excommunications of those like Robert Desnos and Raymond Queneau (Oulipo’s cofounder) seems almost tyrannical in hindsight. Ouilpo somehow avoids this. As Motte describes, “No excommunications here, no ritual immolations, no spectacular au·to-da-fé, no gore-drenched seppukus.” Oulipo achieves this relative peace perhaps out of its very ambitions and aims, its structuring.

Raymond Queneau described Oulipo as “Rats who build the labyrinth from which they try to escape.” In an essay called, “Into the Maze: OUILPO,” scholar Mónica de la Torre argues, “The concerns of the original members of the Oulipo were, at least, two-fold: on the one hand, they wanted to write literature that could not be easily consumed and disposed of, literature that was always in the making… Oulipians also wanted to devise a system to guarantee that writers would not run out of innovative formal possibilities.” There’s a playful paradox at work here. The Oulipian literary model attempts to impose arbitrary constraints on the writing process, and, at the same time, hopes to produce lasting, transformative (non-disposable) works of art, which suggests there’s a useful/latent degree of freedom lurking within such constraint. The idea of not running “out of innovative formal possibilities” might seem sort of old hat in our age of algorithms, but it wasn’t in the 1960s.

Oulipians wanted to maintain a system of procedural innovations for writers, but they also wanted their literature to be transformative. They differed from the Surrealists in the sense that they considered “automatic writing” to be a form of cheating. According to Queneau, in his 1963 essay, “Potential Literature,” he says the Oulipian goal is “To propose new ‘structures’ to writers, mathematical in nature, or to invent new artificial or mechanical procedures that will contribute to literary activity: props for inspiration as it were, or rather, in a way, aids for creativity.” Again, it’s kind of like the ultimate writing workshop formula(s)/exercise(s). Torre explains the exciting, if not obvious, possibilities of such a program, “Thanks to the Oulipo, poets with writers’ block can explore lipograms, perverbs, antonymic translations, homophonic translations, spoonerisms, centos, heterograms, pangrams, and a myriad of other forms instead of agonizing over the blank page.” Oulipo didn’t invent these forms or procedures, but rather, according to Torre, they rescued them from “literary oblivion.”

A writer I love and admire comes out of the Oulipian world, the Italian short story writer Italo Calvino. Calvino has a wonderful collection of short stories called Marcovaldo, which are obviously still worth reading today. In an essay called “Cybernetics and Ghosts,” Calvino describes some foundational Oulipian assumptions. He writes, “primitive oral narratives, like the folk tale that has been handed down almost to the present day, is molded on fixed structures, on, we might almost say, prefabricated elements – elements, however, that allow of an enormous number of combinations.” Here, we see again the Oulipian fascination with a predetermined “labyrinth” as a set of literary possibilities. Calvino goes on. He argues, “Even if the folk imagination is therefore not boundless like the ocean, there is no reason to think of it as being like a water tank of small capacity. On an equal level of civilization, the operation of narrative, like those of mathematics, cannot differ all that much from one people to another, but what can be constructed on the basis of these elementary process can present unlimited combinations, permutations, and transformations.” Combinations. Permutations. Transformations. Calvino, rather brilliantly, outlines the Oulipian strategy. I have to say, this program/project may partially explain Oulipo’s longevity. The possibilities within this mazelike framework are unexpectedly open and endless.