Lecture: The Oulipo

While we’ve encountered the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Oulipo, a number of times already, we take a close look at them this week. Founded in 1960, the Oulipo, which roughly translates as Workshop for Potential Literature, was co-founded by novelist and poet Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais, inspired by their collaboration on Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems). If you haven’t done so already, I strongly recommend playing with the interactive version linked in the optional texts for this week.1

As mentioned in the introductory lecture for this week, as a group dedicated to potential literature, the goal of the Oulipo “is to invent (or reinvent) restrictions of a formal nature (contraintes)2 and propose them to enthusiasts interested in composing literature” (“Introduction Jaques Roubaud The Oulipo and Combinatory Art (1991),” 38).3 As Jean Lescure explains – quoting Oulipo co-founder François Le Lionnais in the “Brief History of the Oulipo,” the Ouliop sought “new forms and structures that may be used by writers any way they see fit” (176). The contraintes, as Lescure explains, stand in apposition to inspiration. Quoting Queneau, Lescure says that they exist to help writers “escape from that which is called inspiration” (176).

Although said somewhat tongue-in-cheek4, the point here is that as a group dedicated to “potential literature,” the Oulipians are more concerned with all the possible forms of contraintes that might be applied to the creation of literature than the creation of literature using all the possible contraintes. While many, if not most, Oulpians do produce literature, not all do. As a mathematician Oulipo co-founder Le Lionnais never produced a literary work but focused his energies on developing contraintes on his own or along with Oulipian writers. This is why we find the essays by Claude Berge, Paul Fournel, and Italo Calvino alongside the poems and short story by Queneau. These essays are as Oulipian as the Oulipian literary works we’ve read this week and in Week 6. It may be worth recalling as well that the N+7 procedure is an Oulipian contraintes created by Jean Lescure.

As I suggested in the introduction to this week, we might think of Oulipian contraintes as algorithms (in the broadest sense of the term) used to create literature. While this might actually involve a computer, especially when it comes to writing combinatory and algorithmic works such as Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes and “A Story as You Like It” and Fournel’s play “The Theater Tree: A Combinatory Play” (see Fournel’s “Computer and Writer” and Calvino’s “Prose and Anticombinatorics”), these are just a few of the multitude of contraintes described and used by Oulipians. Other examples include the lipogram (Georges Perec wrote the 300-page novel La Disparition using only words without the letter “e” – with a few exceptions such as the “le,” the masculine form of “the” ), the irrational sonnet, Canada Dry, the snowball, and x mistakes y for z. For a detailed but not comprehensive list of Oulipian contraintes see the Oulipo Compendium.5

One final note on the subject of the Oulipians and computers. While computers can help manage the creation of certain kinds of Oulipian texts, computers, as Fournel notes, also make reading certain kinds of texts possible. Using Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes as the example Fournel explains that when confronted with so many possible readings, a computer can winnow down all the possible options into a readable text. That is, whether we are trying to read selections from Queneau’s possible hundred thousand billion poems, trying to decide how to stage tonight’s performance of Fournel’s “The Theater Tree: A Combinatory Play,” or wanting to explore the versions of Queneau’s “A Story as You Like It,” we can use a computer to give us a solitary, readable text from all the possible versions available to us.

  1. I use playing here rather than reading in a nod to last week’s reading of Hayles “Intermediation” chapter. With one hundred thousand billion possible poems, can we say that anyone really reads Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes rather than play with them?
  2. From the Oulipo Compendium: “The usual French word for the basic element in Oulipian practice has been variously translated in this volume as constraintrestrictionrestrictive form, and other comparable terms. All these expressions denote the strict and clearly definable rule, method, procedure, or structure that generates every work that can be properly called Oulipian.”
  3.  Oulipo Compendium. Compiled by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie. London: Atlas Press, 1998.
  4. If you get anything out of Lescure’s “Brief History of the Oulipo,” I hope it is a sense of playfulness, which is not to say that Oulipo isn’t a serious endeavor and that the Oulipians aren’t serious artists. It is and they are.
  5. Of course, no complete list of Oulipian contraintes is possible because every conceivable contraintes, even those not yet identified, would need to be included.

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