Why Exhaustion? — Expanding on The End of Oulipo?

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Levi Asher has a nice review up on his blog of The End of Oulipo? where he poses a question about why exhaustion is an interesting goal for a literary author. I’d like to discuss that a little here. First, Levi’s remarks:

The End of Oulipo? mostly consists of two essays. First, Scott Esposito presents “Eight Glances Past Georges Perec”. He considers Oulipo as an overlooked remedy to the kind of exhaustion with postmodern literature recently described by David Shields, and then tries to explain how the use of constraints in creative writing creates an opportunity to explore the potentielle (for Oulipans, apparently, it is just as important to ponder the possibilities of potential literature as it is to create actual literature).

Esposito also describes Georges Perec’s apparent obsession with the idea of “exhausting” a literary approach, or perhaps exhausting literature itself (I’m not sure I understand why this would be a good thing, but Perec seemed to take the mission very seriously). After reading this piece, I began reading Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, even though Scott Esposito personally warned me that I should start with a different Georges Perec. He says I won’t like Life, and he’s probably right.

(Incidentally, I don’t think I ever told Levi he wouldn’t like Life A User’s Manual, only that I’ve heard a number of readers express frustration with the book, even those who are generally receptive to challenging literature and Perec’s other work. It might not be the best place to start with Perec.)

I can think of at least two reasons why exhaustion is an interesting (and Oulipian) literary thing. (I get into both of these in varying extents in The End of Oulipo?, but I’d like to talk about them here a little more explicitly.) The first one would be that for many of the Oulipo authors, there was nothing new about a lot of what they were doing—rather, what was new was the exhaustion of it. Perec, for instance, was well aware that the lipogram (writing a text without a certain letter) was used in ancient times. More generally, the group recognized that a lot of the constraints they were using were in fact borrowed from prior writers and artists. That of course didn’t matter a whit to them, because they were interested in taking those constraints to places they had never been before. Hence, exhaustion is a very Oulipian (and creative) thing in the sense that it inspires you to make established texts and ideas your own.

You can see this today in a story of Perec’s that I discuss in The End of Oulipo? called “The Winter Voyage.” (You can read a translation here but should also read David John Sturrock’s translation, collected in Species of Spaces.) It’s a very Borgesian story that plays on the idea of creative plagiarism, and it is an extremely open-ended story (as many Borgesian texts are). So, Perec’s Oulipian brethren did what one might have expected them to do: many of them have written their own versions of “The Winter Voyage,” adapting it to their own literary tendencies. (You can read more about that in Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels, and I have been told that an English-language volume of the collected versions of this story will be available one day.) There you see the Oulipo plagiarizing a text that one of its own creating, in effect trying to exhaust itself.

So, there you have the idea of exhaustion as a way of reinvigorating older ideas/texts and inspiring a writer to make them his or her own—essentially a spur to creation and innovation.

The second way I can think of exhaustion being useful is in the idea of defamiliarizing yourself from your world in order to find new ways of looking at things. It’s in this sense that I connect Perec to Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (even though McCarthy isn’t an Oulipo author per se). Perec famously would create schemes for exhausting the potential of certain geographical places, or certain memories he had, or even certain literary ideas. Part of this was as a way of getting past the trite, everyday insights one might have and instead getting into particularly interesting ways of viewing the world. Thus, for example, if you spend a few minutes describing your favorite cafe, you might yield an interesting observation or two, but more than likely you won’t say anything that original. But if you spend hours interrogating every inch of that place, you might eventually discover something in there that no one else has ever seen before.

I think this connects to McCarthy’s Remainder in interesting ways, since that is largely a book about treating memory like a feedback loop, where certain memories are obsessively recapitulated until they effectively break down, yielding strange and potentially new experiences. (This is a very general statement on things that I discuss in a lot more detail in The End of Oulipo?)

Anyway, the point is that there’s a lot to be said for exhaustion as a way of inspiring new creative energies, especially when you’re thinking in terms of creatively plagiarizing old works and when you’re concerned with discovering methods that you can apply to the creation of literature.

And, as a sort of teaser to further thought, I think it’s very interesting that the Oulipo group reinvigorated the idea of exhaustion right in the middle of the enormous growth of capitalism in the middle of the 20th century—capitalism is, if anything, a sort of exhaustion of the potential of society for the production of various things.

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Where would you recommend starting with Perec?

I have been told that an English-language volume of the collected versions of this story will be available one day.

Winter Journeys has already been published in English by Atlas Press in 2001, and includes Perec’s original and versions by Bens, Caradec, Mathews, Roubaud, and several others, 10 in all. Sturrock translated Perec, Mathews translated his own, and Ian Monk translated the rest.

Do you know if Barth coined the term “Exhaustion” in the way you are using it? How does his work LETTERS relate to Oulipo?

Atlas Press in the U.K. has published the book with variations on Perec’s Winter Journey.It’s called “Winter Journeys”, and includes stories by Roubaud, Jouet,Matthews etc. Translated by Ian Monk, Harry Matthews,John Sturock.

http://www.atlaspress.co.uk/index.cgi?action=view_anti_classic&number=11

This is always tough to answer, if only because all of the books are so different from one another that there’s no “representative” work. That said, Things is very readable yet gives you a sense of Perec’s experimentalism. Ditto A Man Asleep. W, Or the Memory of Childhood is beautifully wrought and probably the quickest of the ones I’ve read.

I would hold off on A Void or Life A User’s Manual until you’ve had a chance to experience some of the other books. There are also lots of other miscellaneous works, but I would try one of the above first. Species of Spaces collects some incredible essays.

Thank you Richard and Rachel. I think there’s a new edition planned, as that one is out of print.

I don’t think Winter Journeys is officially out of print. I ordered a copy from Atlas less than six months ago without difficulty.

Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll seek out Things/A Man Asleep as a starting point.

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