Playing Derrida to our Hegel, Ray Davis writes:

Earnestness and fooling around aren’t always so easily contrasted, however…If the Oulipo Program readies the exerciser for anything, it’s in an improved ability to apply oneself seriously to transparently arbitrary make-work.

Actually, playing nominalist to our realist might be a better analogy. I respond that self-indulgence, as implied, is not always the spur to producing indulgent work. I’m willing to use this escape hatch to drive my dichotomy down a little further.

Roubaud is a gnarly case and my issues with him are probably best dealt with elsewhere. I’d recommend comparing him to Claude Simon, but that’s all I can really say at the moment. Instead:

The most notable betrayal of Oulipo principles that I’m familiar with is Italo Calvino in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, where after fifty pages of constructing stories based on rows and columns in a single rectangular layout of tarot cards, the river runs dry and Calvino starts designating “areas” of cards to generate stories from, which allow him considerably more leeway. It’s instructive to read it in tandem with his collection of Italian Folktales, which ironically turn out to be more architectonically constructed than the stories in Castle. (They seem to have been plotted Chinese menu style.) Whether Calvino (in Castle) was trying to invert the construction of stories by creating a generator, Lull- and Leibniz-style, or placing restrictions on himself to force his creativity in new directions, he ends up bending the rules so that he can return to his sources.

This is one of the main directions of the more serious Oulipo-style work–backwards. Underneath The Castle of Crossed Destinies is The Baron in the Trees. Underneath Life: A User’s Manual are Things and A Man Asleep. Underneath 334 is The Genocides.

What happens when, as in Ray’s examples, the writer cracks and seeks refuge in exercises not dissimilar from those logic puzzles where you have to figure out where at the table everyone’s sitting? There is an upheaval, but one that can be incidental to the techniques.

More to come…