What is the Oulipo ? An ironic gift in a world of words, words, words surging into books, books, books. In facing this madly proliferating multitude of language there has to be some method. Oulipians pursue deliberate principles of book composition, or, to put it more bluntly, methods and principles designed to both deepen this chronic affliction of ours and learn to live with it. Paul Braffort’s « Invisible Libraries » and Georges Perec’s « Brief notes on the art and manner to put some order in one’s library » are two examples of such efforts. The Oulipo proffers both the poison and the cure for our predicament : methods to write all as-of-yet-still-potential books and principles to array those that already exist, have existed and will exist. For, what is composition if not a considered and deliberate imposition of order ?
– Why can’t we just let books be books, running wild, happily piling up, frathouse-party-style, on top of each other, burrowing under beds, flapping in the wind ?
– Because, it seems, we have so strived to fill the world (and all critical subsets thereof : our studies, bedrooms, houses) with them that they threaten to crowd us out.
– But why such striving in the first place ?
– What if it were in the secret hope of condensing the world into them, trapping it in neat little bricks, and perhaps, ultimately replacing it ?
Books may well be an alien species, parasites proliferating on the body of humanity, breeding uncontrollably in modern climates. You think the genetically re-engineered, radiation-mutated vermin or virus, the face-hugging alien were bad ? Picture in their stead the ultimate uncanny alien species : books.
Then, just take another look at your bookshelves, at your bedstand.
Forget, sewers, secret labs, transylvanian castles, just think of small town public libraries and online bookstores. Full of replicants, living dead voices, snatched from bodies now rotting in old graves, vampires feeding off your imagination…
Books have invaded your life, colonized your home and brain, and you never even noticed it. You had barely learned to walk, you had already mutated into a reader. As you dozed off under the summer sun, the lame little comic book spread its wings, wrapping itself around your nose, and, snugly, almost protectively, hugged your face. Now your significant other won’t go to sleep without one. Unnatural intercourse with them made you pregnant with thoughts that reared to issue in the birth of more and more books : they used your time, brain and flesh to further their own reproduction.
Just as viruses invented airplanes to propagate themselves, books, that selfish species, invented humans in order to multiply.
Neither Neo, nor Terminator, nor even Sigourney Weaver, will save us. What is humanity to do, riddled as it is with books as dogs are with fleas, Oedipus with enigmas, and the US with deficits ?
(And do not think that the obsolescence of the book culture in the computer era heralds the end of the critter : its DNA keeps on mutating and recombining itself into digital media.)
Contemplating the mass of language blobs crowding my living space, occupying my mental space, I despair at the extent and the depth of my sickness. For, it is not only that, along the lines of the syndrome diagnosed by Georges Perec, my bookshelves overflow and threaten to smother me. Errant books spring vicious traps and multiply obstacles on the way to the healthy, productive and structured life for which I long.
Indeed, how can I even begin to lead a structured, productive life when, for example, faced with the imperative necessity to do a load of laundry, my repeated attempts to reach the washing machine falter miserably, as I get pinned down in skirmishes by the stray books that have taken position in all strategic spots along the way.
Say I am gathering clothes off the chairs and floor of my bedroom. As I lift a crumpled shirt, a collapsed pile of books explodes into view. Changing the bedsheets means disturbing a nest of half-read paperbacks holed up at the foot of the bed to better escape detection. Under the pillows, a few volumes have probably been holding secret, coded, colloquia with various pieces of tucked-away underwear.
(I have thought of spying on, and writing down, the conversations between a volume of Jacques Roubaud’s poetry, some soft silk and dentelle little nothings a friend of mine forgot to retrieve and a volume of Spinoza I had intended to ponder on lonely nights.)
Gathering the flock of laundry items inevitably leads to a concurrent herding of stray books.
Laundry is easy : separate the whites from the colors, delicates from cotton, select water temperature, spin cycle speed, measure detergent, dump the load, et voilà… At worst a little bleeding or shrinking might occur.
But books ? I haven’t finished soiling the margins of half of those ; how many more threads of imbecility and vanity could I tease from this recent best-seller ? Should I give up, and stack the whole bunch ? How do I sort them ? How am I ever to find them again if I hastily misshelve them ?
Abandoning the bedbooks unfinished, unsorted, disshelved, I attempt a sortie from the bedroom. The living room is a minefield : books underfoot, books climbing up the walls in perilous piles. How much time have I wasted, pinned down among scattered socks by The Charterhouse of Parma, which had sunk out of sight for months, gone underground, and suddenly popped up from the rubble of a collapsed pile ? And then, the major strategic mistake : crawling toward the volumes that have taken refuge under the sofas to better snipe at my curiosity… The laundry will have to wait until I’m done soaking up Foucault’s Care of the Self.
I sometimes think bookshelves were invented to teach books modesty, to teach them to make themselves inconspicuous instead of indecently exposing themselves to our gaze and inflaming our passions.
– Is it war, is it laundry or is it seduction ? Weapons, wash or women ?
– I can’t help but mix metaphors. Mix metaphors and they’ll either bleed into one another, or breed monstruous thoughts, wreck, in any case, the categorical distinctions you should live by.
– Beware, then, of metaphors and their impure ways.
– I wish I could, but it seems we’re short on pure categories, solid kinds… don’t have enough of them to do the work of sorting things, thoughts and books out…
Errant books are but the surface symptoms of a more radical disorder : all the governing principles and recipes for classification I have tried to apply to my books have been to no avail. Useless, pitifully powerless to contain and rule over this carnal mess of a library in the midst of which I seem to be doomed to lead a life mired in disarray by a damnable reading libido and the anarchic proliferation of language bombs.
A structured personal life would require a structured personal library. But the more I sort, order, classify, reshelve, the more it overflows, spreads, breaks down all bounds, the less I find what I seek and the more I succumb to what I sought not.
There are days when I am tempted to just slip out of the apartment, lock the door behind me and flee. Start anew, in a clean, uncontaminated, empty place.
So, I reread Georges Perec’s Brief Notes, again. Do all the treatment options he ever considered amount to more than a bandaid on the gaping visceral wound of entropy, herbal tea for the reading masses ?
The categorical remedies he meant to deploy, and the spaces they were supposed to tackle are at odds. How shall we bring meaningful order to a personal, private library, using public rules of classification and their impersonal categories (alphabetical order, genres etc.)?
How could he not see the contradiction ? He saw it, probably ; he felt it and felt it to be insurmountable, untreatable, the terminal predicament of the reading subject stuck in a universe of language both alien and familiar, and he could offer but a diversion from the intimate alienation.
Having tucked Georges Perec’s little book under my pillow and turned off the light, I find myself roaming around in my mind, a virtual space comprised of mental maps and imaginary locations. Hunting for books, scanning my remembered bookshelves for the spine of a certain volume, I drift away in pursuit of some other, some others, but along paths that depart and escape irresistibly from the categories articulating the public order of books.
I play, I have always played this memory game in my own mental library (or bookspace) according to the rules of a quasi-private language. Maybe all readers do the same.
The semantics of my private language may differ from that of publicly received nomenclatures ; it is not, however, a pure solipsistic fantasy. I may chart areas of this mental bookspace. I can retrace some of the liaisons and divides obtaining among the books living in my mind : naturally occurring clusters and borders, imaginary arrangements.
Anyone afflicted with books and sharing a like propensity to wander in mental space may meditate on their own private principles of partition, composition and ordering. Consider these.
Principle # 1
Any set of books can be partitioned according to the following [russellian] principle :
- books in which one remembers having encountered at least once the word ‘book’ ;
- books that left no memory of having contained the word ’book’.
Principle # 2
Together might live :
- books written avoiding the letter ‘e’ ;
- books that, thankfully, spare the reader any dialogue ;
- books that abstain from focalized descriptions ;
- books written without assigning characters any gender marks ;
- books flouting the requirements of punctuation and spelling ;
Principle # 3
- books that could have belonged in Kimbote’s library ;
- books Rodolphe could have offered to Emma had he been Valmont and not Rodolphe ;
- books that would have fit in a room of one’s own ;
- books forgotten in motel rooms by Humble Humbert ;
- books from the Vaticana that could be adduced to justify Lafcadio’s gratuitous crime ;
- books in which Danish princes would be liable to find nothing but words, words, words ;
- books on which, while reclining in his captain’s armchair, and thinking of bulky white things, Ahab might have propped his ivory stump of a leg.
- books likely to cause Paolo and Francesca da Rimini to fall anew into Hell.
Principle # 4
- books doomed to fall on deaf ears ;
- nosy books ;
- short-sighted books ;
- narrow-minded books ;
- books so full of bile they warrant a jaundiced view of their author ;
- highbrow books replete with flat-footed prose ;
- tear-jerkers ;
- no brainers.
Principle # 5
- books written in one language when they were obviously conceived in another ;
- books allegedly written in English though they feel like they’ve been translated from a foreign language by a translation automaton ;
- books evidently written under the spell of an overdose of German metaphysics ;
- books about which it is impossible to decide whether they’ve been written (allegedly in English) by a translation automaton or under the spell of an overdose of German metaphysics by a philosophy automaton.
Principle # 6
- books in which one encounters whales ;
- books in which not even the shadow of a whale is to be found ;
- books from which have disappeared, inexplicably, the whales one imagined there.
Principle # 7
- supposedly hot books that leave you cold ;
- books containing at least one sentence that would make you cry if you dared read it aloud ;
- books people you despise have disparaged (these books deserve respect) ;
- books, within which at least one character, one day, in the blink of a sentence, aroused in you at least an inkling of desire ;
- books so badly written they become fascinating.
Principle # 8
An alternative partitioning principle :
- homebound books ;
- nomadic books.
Among the latter, one may distinguish :
- books bought on the other side of the Seine (or the Thames, the Mississipi, the Tiber…) ;
- books that have crossed an ocean at least once ;
- books you missed, cruelly, one night at 3 a. m. because they had remained on the other side of the ocean ;
- books that show a clear proclivity to migrate under beds at the first opportunity ;
- books you took with you more than once to the countryside with no other consequence than affording them a breath of fresh air.
- books between whose pages one has tucked, to let them dry, leaves, flowers or grass picked on certain walks ;
- books containing at least one sentence you know by heart ;
- books that have left no memory ;
- books you remember reading lying down on a light-colored sofa in a room in some faraway city ;
Principle # 10
- books given to you by someone you love, loved, have loved ;
- books you talked about with someone you loved ;
- books you wish you had talked about with someone you loved ;
- books you imagine someone you love or you have loved could or could have enjoyed ;
- books you would never have read if someone you love or loved had not aroused your desire for them ;
- books you wish or would have wished to read in bed with someone you love or have loved without ever telling them so ;
- books holding no relation of any sort with the love of anyone (but who remembers those ?).
A few inconclusive remarks
The categories of this quasi-private language are, paradoxically, all commonplace : literally, the topoi of old rhetoric (loves, emotions, body parts…). Anyone can discern the implicit paradigm at work in the lists and could reorder their bookshelves according to them. What deprives them of generality is not so much their absence of systematicity as their inscrutability.
Would you gather the same books as I do under any of the headings offered above ? Certainly the body, the passions, even whales may hold some relevance for you. But which are the things, whose absence (Principle #2) would matter to your memory ?
No one, except you, could ever find a book in a library you would have arranged according to such principles. It will seem to any outsider either random, sloppy or demented (literally : a library designed by a subject out of his mind). I can’t search your mind to find a book in your personal library.
Worse, you may find, each time you search your own memory, that books have shifted. You may forget which books you dreamt of reading in bed with someone you loved, you may fall out of love, and a chunk of your private language become a dead language. The summit of deprivation : a dead private language.
Consider the following list of books : can you puzzle out the secret of their commonality ?
Ada or Ardor, Les Mémoires d’outre-tombe, Le Bal du comte d’Orgel, Words in Commotion, On being blue, Moby Dick, A Hero of Our Time, Nightwood, The Possessed, La Vie mode d’emploi…
Adding more titles would not, I am afraid, bring you any closer to the solution. This is not a game of logic, but rather a fiction of hermeneutic power, such as structures chapter 7 of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night : « a house full of books contains the story of the reader ». In an attempt at divining the life and mind of his love interest, the hero examines her library for clues. The selection and arraying of books would stand as the objective correlative of their owner’s interiority, of the beloved reader’s identity.
A thought experiment – Descartes or Dark City ?– : an evil genius, every night while you sleep, re-arranges your bookshelves according to rules and algorithms as particular as those of Descartes’ own evil genius’s arithmetic (isn’t he the true inventor and speaker of the wittgensteinian private language ?). Do you go mad ? Do you become a skeptic ? Do you adapt and become thoroughly postmodern ?
We are caught between ways of finding things in the world and ways of finding things in our minds, between functionality and memorability, use and value (notwithstanding simple sloppiness).
– Could we order the outside world, the world of objectivity (real books) following patterns residing in our minds, the patterns according to which phantom books reside in our minds ?
– You’d be out of your mind.
– Could we escape our misery by simply swallowing a computer and turning our minds into subsets of the Library of Congress Catalog ?
– You’d be out of a mind.
Public classifications and categorizations have the force of law, the efficiency of norms. To resist them requires a superhuman effort ; to subject oneself fully to them an even more superhuman effort. Just take a look at your bookshelves or at your selves, your bookselves.
– So, what are we to do ?
– The laundry, possibly : it’s easy (see instructions above).
– Why not mix ourselves a couple of metaphors instead ?
– Sure. Laundry can wait.
Note on this translation
This piece is a recomposition in English of a text first published under the title «Impensé/Déclassé» in the Bibliothèque Oulipienne (#141). Writing in a (still and possibly forever) foreign language feels like attempting to down glasses of wine with boxing gloves on : I can’t help but spill and spell gallicisms all over my English prose. I wish to thank Virginia M. Vander Jagt and Alice Kaplan for patiently trying to inculcate in me the proper table manners and, when all else fails, for their impeccable dry-cleaning services.