Academic journal article French Forum

OuLiPotemkin: Down with the Tyranny of Constraints!

Academic journal article French Forum

OuLiPotemkin: Down with the Tyranny of Constraints!

Article excerpt

In 1870, in the month right before the beginning of the French--Prussian war, an almost unknown writer deposits a new book called Poesies II at the Depot Legal of the French Bibliotheque Nationale. Isidore Ducasse (better known to posterity under his nom de plume: Comte de Lautreamont) believes that he has again produced a masterpiece. This time he hopes his new volume will bring the success he deserves, unlike the preceding one, Les Chants de Maldoror that, much to his chagrin, was not noticed by the readership as expected.

Alas, Poesies II will have no more success than Les Chants de Maldoror and it will not be until the late 1930s, when Andre Breton and the surrealists discover it, that Ducasse's works will finally be recognized for their originality and innovation. Fame and fortune for its commentators will come in the late 1970s when Poesies II is regarded as the text that, in its time, opened the coffin of the Romantic literary movement and was a precursor to the language poetry that becomes the mark of French poetry at the end of the 20th century. The group Tel Quel and, in particular, Marcelin Pleynet will foreground Ducasse's work. The study of Ducasse's work will be an important part of Julia Kristeva's reflection on negativity in poetry in her book La Revolution du langage poetique published in 1974. For example, she writes: "In Poesies II one has to read Isidore Ducasse's declaration about poetry not as a negation of a negation--even if it seems that way, but as the affirmation of the trace of negativity, or as an affirmation of a necessity that poetry can only exist in a negative state of the discourse." (1)

Given the importance of Ducasse's work for the Tel Quel group in the 70s, it is poetic justice that, today, Ducasse's ideas about poetry appear more in line with what could be described as the poetics of the Oulipo, a movement which, historically, has ties with the literary journal Change that was Tel Quel's preeminent intellectual challenger in the 70s and 80s. While Kristeva and the Tel Quel group will recognize Ducasse for the materialism and the social conviction of his ideas about poetic discourse, Change and the Oulipo group will claim Ducasse's legacy because of his scientific approach to poetics and his resolute conviction that the salvation of poetry lies in its firm conformity to a rationalistic and formalist line.

Nothing further from Isidore Ducasse than ontological lyricism, nothing further from Ducasse's poetry than the unique poem for the special occasion. With eloquent fury he denounces the poetic moments when Lamartine celebrates the color of his mother's hair or when Hugo glorifies the sweat steaming off his father's horse after the battle of Austerlitz. Ducasse's best known sentence is: "[In poetry] I am not interested in case studies; I am only into finding rules." (2) Further along he finds it necessary to add a few remarks about the necessary state of mind of a true writer: "The writers who are familiar with the capacities of reason are much stronger than those who are totally unfamiliar with its power." (3) This remark certainly constitutes what the Oulipo movement calls "anticipatory plagiarism" [plagiat par anticipation]. Indeed, in 1932, Raymond Queneau, the historical founder of Oulipo, writes:

  The seventeenth century classical playwright who writes his tragedy
  according to a certain number of constraints that he is familiar with
  is freer than the poet who writes anything that comes to his head and
  who, in fact, is the slave of rules that he does not know. (4)

Finally, it is also Ducasse who wrote: "When I write, I am fully in control of my thoughts." (5)

The Oulipo movement is officially founded on February 13th, 1961--no, it was not a Friday! On that date the Secretaire General particulier du Vice-Curateur Baron du College de Pataphysique performs the official naming of the group that is first a subaltern group within the College de Pataphysique. …

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