and the Oulipo:
The Case of the Persevering Maltese
and presented in more readable form
essay was first presented at the French Institute in London in October,
as the third of the St. Jerome lectures, a series devoted to the
topic of translation.
word "Oulipo" is the acronym of the Ouvroir
de littérature potentielle,
or 'Workshop for Potential Literature', a group founded in 1960
by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. The group was created
to explore what becomes possible when writing is subjected to arbitrary
and restrictive procedures, preferably definable in mathematical
terms. Since many have found this undertaking preposterous, it seemed
useful to turn to translation and its attendant problems in making
the interest of Oulipian methods clearer to skeptical writers and
readers, as well as in examining the Case
of the Persevering Maltese.
A Problem in Translation
Some of you
may know the name of Ernest Botherby (born in Perth, Australia,
1869; died in Adelaide, 1944), the scholar who founded the Australian
school of ethno-linguistics, and also the explorer who identified
the variety of Apegetes known as botherbyi, popular in England during
the years before the Great War when private greenhouses were still
common. Botherby attained professional notoriety in the late '20s,
after publishing several papers on a north New Guinean language
called Pagolak. The peoples of New Guinea were a favorite subject
with Botherby. He had begun studying them years before when, at
the age of twenty-four, he undertook a solitary voyage into the
interior of the island, vast areas of which remained uncharted at
the time. A collation of reports by Nicholas von Mikhucho Maclay,
the Reverend Macfarlane, and Otto Finsch had convinced young Botherby
that tribes still existed in the New Guinean highlands that had
shunned contact with their neighbors, not to mention the modern
world, and preserved a truly primitive culture.
Starting from Tagota
at the mouth of the Fly, Botherby traversed the river by steam launch
to a point over five hundred miles inland, whence he proceeded in
more modest craft almost to its headwaters. After establishing a
base camp, he traveled across the plains into the mountain forests,
finally arriving at the unexplored region he was looking for, a
complex of valleys lying--to use the toponymy of the time--between
the Kaiserin Augusta, the Victor Emmanuel Mountains, and the continuation
of the Musgrave Range.
In one of these valleys
Botherby discovered, as he had hoped, his first archaic tribe. He
designates it as that of the Ohos. This community, numbering no
more than a few hundred, lived a peaceable existence in conditions
of extreme simplicity. They were hunter-gatherers equipped with
rudimentary tools. They procured fire from conflagrations occurring
in forests nearby but were incapable of making it otherwise. They
also used speech, but a speech reduced to its minimum. The Oho language
consisted of only three words and one expression, the invariable
statement, "Red makes wrong." Having patiently won over the tribal
chiefs, Botherby was able to verify this fact during the many weeks
he spent with them. Other needs and wishes were communicated by
sounds and signs; actual words were never used except for this unique
assertion that "Red makes wrong."
In time Botherby
signified to his hosts a curiosity as to whether other communities
existed in the region. The Ohos pointed north and east. When Botherby
pointed west, he met with fierce disapproval. So it was naturally
west that he next went, prudently distancing himself from the Oho
settlement before taking that direction. His hunch was rewarded
two days later when, in another valley, he came upon his second
tribe, which he called the Uhas. The Uhas lived in a manner much
like the Ohos, although they knew how to cultivate several edible
roots and had domesticated the native pig; like the Ohos, they had
a rudimentary language used invariably to make a single statement.
The Uhas' statement was, "Here not there." They used it as
exclusively as the Ohos used "Red makes wrong."
made his way back to the valley of the Ohos. There he was overcome
by an understandable (if professionally incorrect) eagerness to
share his second discovery, to wit, that near them lived a people
of the same stock, leading a similar life, and possessed of the
same basic gift of speech. As he was expounding this information
with gestures that his audience readily understood, Botherby reached
the point where he plainly needed to transmit the gist of the Uhas'
one statement. He hesitated. How do you render "Here not there"
in a tongue that can only express "Red makes wrong"?
Botherby did not
hesitate long. He saw, as you of course see, that he had no choice.
There was only one solution. He grasped at once what all translators
eventually learn: a language says what it can say, and that's that.
but we're different
The range of the
Oho and Uha languages is tiny; the range of modern languages, for
instance, French and English, is vast. There is virtually nothing
that can be said in English that cannot be said in French, and vice
versa. Information, like phone numbers and race results, can easily
be swapped between the two languages. Then again, some statements
that seem informative do not really pass.
A Frenchman says,
"Je suis français;" an American says, "I'm American." "I'm
French" and "Je suis américain" strike us as accurate translations.
But are they? A Frenchman who asserts that he is French invokes
willy-nilly a communal past of social, cultural, even conceptual
evolution, one that transcends the mere legality of citizenship.
But the fact of citizenship is what is paramount to most Americans,
who probably feel, rightly or wrongly, that history is theirs to
invent. The two national identities are radically different, and
claims to them cannot be usefully translated in a way that will
bridge this gap.
I suggest that this
gap extends into the remotest corners of the two languages. Elle
s'est levée de bonne heure means "She arose early," but in expectation
of different breakfasts and waking from dreams in another guise.
This does not mean that it's wrong to translate plain statements
in a plain way, only that it is worth remembering that such translations
tell us what writers say and not who they are. In this respect,
French and English--or Germans and Portuguese--would seem to be
as separate as Ohos and Uhas.
There are also times
when plain statements of fact do translate each other rather well--even
the statements Je suis français and I'm American. To make
what I mean clear, let me add to them one or two supplementary words.
The Frenchman says, "Je suis français, Monsieur!" The American
says, "I'm American, and you better believe it!" You see at once
that the meaning of both statements is the same: an assertion not
of nationality but of committed membership in a community--"my
community." So even essentials can sometimes break through the linguistic
What makes this interesting
is that the substantial identity of these statements does not lie
in what they say--the information they contain is obviously not
identical (French/American). So in this instance, at any rate, what
has been successfully translated lies not in the nominal sense of
the words but in other factors of language, whatever they may be.
And whatever they may be, these factors are precisely the material
of Oulipian experiment.
So can the Oulipo
help translators in their delicate task?
and the Oulipo (1)
The Oulipo certainly
can't help in an obvious way. Unless he wanted to sabotage his employer,
an editor would be mad to employ an Oulipian as a translator.
A few samples will
show why. As our source text, let's take a famous line from Racine's
Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée.
The literal sense--please
be charitable--is, "Here is Venus unreservedly fastened to her prey."
I saw Alice jump highest--I, on silly crutches. Explanation:
a rule of measure has been applied to the original. Each of its
words is replaced by another word having the same number of letters.
"Don't tell anyone what we've learned until you're out in the
street. Then shout it out, and when that one-horse carriage passes
by, create a general pandemonium." Explanation: the sound of
the original has been imitated as closely as possible--C'est
Vénus tout entiére à sa proie attachée / Save our news, toot,
and share as uproar at a shay--and the results expanded into a narrative
fragment. (Let me give you an example of a sound translation from
English to French, Marcel Benabou's transformation of "A thing of
beauty is a joy forever": Ah, singe débotté, / Hisse un jouet
fort et vert--"O unshod monkey, raise a stout green toy!")
In these two examples
the sense of the original has been quite forsaken. Even when they
preserve the sense, however, Oulipian renderings hardly resemble
At this place and time exists the goddess of love identified
with the Greek Aphrodite, without reservation taking firm hold of
her creature hunted and caught. Explanation: each word has been
replaced by its dictionary definition.
Look at Cupid's mom just throttling that god's chump. Explanation:
all words containing the letter e have been excluded.
The preserved sense
hardly makes these two translations faithful ones. And yet all four
examples can be considered translations. What has been translated,
however, is not the text's nominal sense but other of its components;
and we may call these components "forms," taking "form" simply to
mean a material element of written language that can be isolated
and manipulated. So the first pair of examples are direct translations
of forms: in the passage from one language to another, forms rather
than sense are what is preserved (number of letters, sound). The
second pair are replacements of forms--not only the words but a
form of the original has been replaced, in one instance a lexical
context, in the other the choice of vowels.
These strange dislocations
of the original may seem cavalier, but they are useful in drawing
attention precisely to elements of language that normally pass us
by, concerned as we naturally are with making sense of what we read.
Nominal sense becomes implicitly no more than a part of overall
meaning. Jacques Roubaud has recently provided a nice insight into
its relativity in a discussion of the nature of poetry. He posits
the axiom, "Poetry does not respect the principle of non-contradiction,"
and goes on to propose two poems for comparison (since Roubaud says
they are poems, let's agree):
This is a poem.
2nd poem: This is not a poem.
There is, he asserts,
no poetic contradiction between the two poems. I would add that
according to ordinary criteria, the second poem is not a translation
of the first; whereas by Oulipian criteria, they are perfect translations
of one another - just as "Je suis français, Monsieur!" and
"I'm American, and you better believe it" can be considered equivalents
even though saying different things.
This view of translation
is a first clue to why the Oulipo has something to teach anyone
interested in how writing and reading work.
The American novelist
Robert Coover writes fiction that can be mildly described as outlandish.
It is full of banal situations rapidly transformed into comic nightmares.
No one would call him a realist. Yet at a literary conference several
years ago, when he was asked why he wrote, he answered, "To tell
His answer startled
me; not that Robert Coover isn't an honest man, but this was not
what his work first brought to mind. I quickly saw that he had been
right to place himself in the age-old tradition of poetic truth-telling.
In that case, we may then ask, why does he invent tales so unlike
what we see around us? Why can't he simply say what is true?
He could simply say
it; what he cannot do is simply write it. We can tell the truth
when we speak; it may not happen often, but you know it when it
happens. But when you write down what you say, whether it's "I love
you" or "Pass the salt," the words in themselves are no longer either
true or untrue. No one is there to be responsible for them.
Even in its ordinary,
utilitarian uses, the written word cannot guarantee what it says.
Can we agree that instruction manuals sometimes fail to help? Although
once you've figured out your gadget, they become clear enough. Have
the cooks among you tried out cookbook dishes that clearly had to
be mastered before you could understand the recipe? The authors
of manuals and cookbooks tell us honestly what they do, but because
they aren't there to show us, it doesn't work.
Consider the press.
(If you watch your news, notice that the person on television speaks
a written text.) What do we want from a news report? Hard information--what
we call facts. And what are facts? What, for instance, is the central
fact about a tennis match that you learn in a newspaper? The final
score. Does that mean the score is the match? After three hours
of play, Sampras and Agassi are tied two sets apiece and 4-all in
the last set: where is the final score? Nowhere to be seen. The
score only comes into existence when the match passes out of existence.
Facts are the score,
not the game. Facts are lies. Not because they are false, but because
facts belong to the past--to what was, never to what is. We love
them, because once reality is safely lodged in the past, it becomes
reassuring, reasonable, and easy to manage. Or at least easier:
we read, "50 Palestinians and 12 Israelis killed in renewed fighting,"
barely gulp, and turn the page. Naturally. That is the way written
language naturally works. Our language is made up of devices
called sentences and paragraphs that automatically produce reasonable
conclusions, which is another word for facts.
There is no escaping
this. It is not a Bad Thing. However, a reality we can call the
truth must be looked for elsewhere.
of a neosocratic dialogue.
Scene: outside the wall of Athens
You have been
silent for a long time, Socrates.
I have been observing
these little statues, Echecrates. This shady spot must be dedicated
I thought that
you might be falling asleep. The breeze is so soft, the brook makes
so lulling a sound, and then the air is filled with such a sweet
scent of wild thyme.
It is abundant enough
and makes a pleasant couch; but I am not sleepy, Echecrates.
All the same,
you seem little inclined to speak.
So you prefer
Let me listen to
you, Echecrates. Will you agree to consider a question, one that
you, better than anyone, can surely answer?
What is your question?
me: what is the truth?
Socrates, I expect
you wish for silence after all, and that you hope to keep me quiet
with your proposal. I shall not let you off so easily but answer
your question forthwith. The truth is the perception of Ideas, which
are the sole causes of all things and the sole objects of knowledge.
Your answer, Echecrates,
is apt; for certainly the knowledge of truth requires the perception
of Ideas. And yet the truth is not that.
In that case,
Socrates, let me modify my answer, for I see that the truth lies
of course not in perceiving but in what is perceived: the truth,
then, is the divine array of absolute forms by which the One is
manifest in the Many, and the Many subsumed in the One.
What you say is by
no means false, since no opinion of the truth can deny its unity
or exclude its multiplicity. And yet, Echecrates, the truth is not
If only I could
guess what you expect of me! Socrates, you have turned me into a
confused child standing before a stern and patient father, hoping
to please and dreading to disappoint him. Let me try once more to
satisfy you. The truth is what is apparent only to the dead, whose
immortal souls are freed from the hindrance of the bodily senses
and are at last capable of knowing the pure and the good.
Let us hope, Echecrates,
that we two are carried to that realm of virtuous souls, where we
shall converse with Orpheus and Homer and know ourselves at last.
But I feel that my question wearies you, and that the time has come
to put it aside. Only in conclusion, let me repeat what I said before:
the truth is not that.
But is there an
answer to your question, Socrates?
Yes, and I have given
it to you.
Socrates, I do
I have given you
the answer three times. The truth is: not that. Is not this so,
Echecrates? However you define it, whatever words you assign to
it, you can and must always say afterwards, the truth is: Not
If Neosocrates is
right, saying that the truth is "not that" implies: whatever you
think you know, don't stop there. How can this apply to what has
already been said?
Earlier I reached
the conclusion, facts are lies. What if I round that out: facts
are lies--and that's a fact. Look at what happens now. Fact's are
lies, and that's a fact: if the statement "facts are lies" is a
fact, then the statement is a lie; and if it's a lie, then facts
aren't lies. But in that case the fact that facts are lies is
a lie, and so saying that facts are lies is not a lie, and so facts
are in fact lies, and the statement "facts aren't lies" is a lie--and
that's a fact. And so on and so on.
This modest circular
paradox has its interest. First of all, when we read or hear it,
something occurs beyond what's being said. Second, what was previously
a conclusion becomes a continuum, a succession of events rather
than a single event. What is the main difference between a conclusion
and a continuum? What distinguishes the final score of a tennis
match from the moment when Agassi and Sampras are tied 4-all in
the fifth set? Uncertainty and movement; in a word, change, a quality
that is wholly wanting in the realm of facts. Change can have no
place among facts, which constitute the realm of fatality, of what's
over and done with. The realm where change exists is that of possibility.
"Not that" suggests
that truth is a continuum of uncertain possibility. It only exists
in the next now. In writing, that means the now of reading. Since
the first reader is the writer herself, a truth-telling writer has
to create the possibility of not yet knowing what the truth is,
of not yet knowing what he or she is going to say. Non-writing artists
seem seem to grasp this easily. Francis Bacon described his painting
as "accident engendering accident." Ornette Coleman said he never
knew what he was going to play next until he heard the note coming
out of his saxophone. One writer, at least, made the point neatly:
when the Red Queen tells Alice to hurry up and say what she thinks,
Alice replies, "How can I say what I think till I see what I say?"
If we think of writers
as translators, what they must translate is not something already
known but what is unknown and unpredictable. The writer is an Oho
who has just heard what the Uhas say. Poor Botherby couldn't begin
to cope: he wanted to report a fact when what he needed was a cultural
revolution. Fortunately, we have the necessary means, not always
revolutionary. Language creates a continuum of its own, precisely
in those components that concern not the plain sense of words but
what we noticed in the circular paradox, the movement that their
Translation and The Oulipo (2)
If truth is a changing
continuum and not a series of discrete events and ideas, it's unlikely
that we can catch up with it in any reasonable way. Reasonable and
honest accounts will always resemble superior instruction manuals,
useful, even fascinating, never the thing itself. Or perhaps we
should say a thing itself. On the page, truth begins when
something real happens.
officially disclaim reasonableness and honesty. That's what imaginative
(or creative) signifies: they're lying. Poets and novelists are
outright liars. They promise to provide no useful information unless
they feel like it. Three advantages accrue immediately. First, you
are released from all responsibility to the dead world of facts.
Second, your readers are ready to believe you, since by admitting
you lie, you've told the truth at least once. Third and best, you
can discover the unforeseen truth by making it up. You are condemned
to possibility: you can say anything you like.
So much freedom can
be unnerving. If you can say anything, where do you start? You have
already started. No one sits down to write in the abstract, but
to write something. Some writerly object of desire has appeared,
and you are setting off in pursuit of it. The object may be an anedcdote,
an idea, a vision, an effect, a climate, an emotion, a clever plot,
a formal pattern--it doesn't matter, it is what you're after. What
happens next? The process of translation as it is commonly practiced
provides a helpful analogy. I am speaking from my own experience,
but I do not think it exceptional.
translation means converting a text in a source language into its
replica in a target language. Both translators and readers know
what happens when this process is incomplete: the translator becomes
so transfixed by the source text that when he shifts to his native
tongue he drags along not only what should be kept of the original
but much more--foreign phrasing, word order, even words. The results
hang uncomfortably somewhere between the two languages, and a brutal
effort is needed to move them the rest of the way.
I learned how to
avoid this pitfall. When I translate, I begin by studying the original
text until I understand it thoroughly. Then, knowing that I can
say anything I understand, no matter how awkwardly, I say what I
have now understood and write down my words. I imagine myself talking
to a friend across the table to make sure the words I use are ones
I naturally speak. It makes no difference if what I write is shambling
or coarse or much too long. What I need is not elegance but natural,
late-twentieth-century American vernacular. Translating the opening
sentence of Proust--Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure--I
might write down: When I was a kid, it took me years to get my parents
to let me even stay up till nine. (This is actually mid-twentieth
century vernacular; but that's where I'm from, and it's what I might
There is still work
to do. But I have gained an enormous advantage. Instead of being
stuck in the source language, I am standing firmly on home ground.
My material is as familiar as anything in language can be; and instead
of having to move away from the foreign text, I can now move towards
it as I improve my clumsy rendering, sure that at every step, with
the source text as my goal, I shall be working in native English.
All I have to do is edit my own writing until I eventually reach
a finished version.
Think of the writer's
object of desire--vision, situation, whatever--as his source text.
Like the translator, he learns everything he can about it. He then
abandons it while he chooses a home ground. Home ground for him
will be a mode of writing. He probably knows already if he should
write a poem, a novel, or a play. But if it is a novel, what kind
of novel should it be--detective, picaresque, romantic, science
fiction, or perhaps a war novel? And if a war novel, which war,
seen from which side, on what scale (epic, intimate, both)? At some
moment, never forgetting his object of desire, which may be the
scene of a thundershower breaking on a six-year-old girl and boy,
he will have assembled the congenial conventions and materials that
will give him a multitude of things to do as he works towards realizing
that initial glimpse of a summer day, a storm, and two children.
An example can make
this clearer. Throughout his life, Robert Louis Stevenson was fascinated
by the dual personality. His greatest exploration of the theme was
The Master of Ballantrae, but he tried other ways of approaching
it. In one instance he chose as his home ground the 19th-century
penny dreadful with its array of melodramatic and grotesque trappings.
Stevenson saw that to discover the mystery of his object of desire--the
dual personality--in its starkest terms, these trappings provided
what he needed. They proved so suitable that we scarcely notice
them when we read Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a work successful
enough to have attained the status of a modern legend. It would
be interesting to investigate works whose home grounds are not so
readily discernable; it would also be laborious, and it is now time
to think about the Oulipo.
Back home at the Oulipo
Since the mid-19th
century, writers have chosen their home grounds more and more outside
the main traditions of fiction and poetry. Firbank used the brittle
comedy of manners to register his tragic views; Kafka turned to
the parable, Hofmannsthal and Calvino on occasion to fairy tales,
Henry Miller to pornography. Other writers invented their own home
grounds - Mallarmé in poetry, for instance, Joyce and Raymond Roussel
in fiction--and it is for their successors and their readers that
the Oulipo has a particular relevance.
A parenthetical point:
the Oulipo is not a literary school. It is not even concerned with
the production of literary works. It is first and last a laboratory
where, through experiment and erudition, possibilities of writing
under arbitrary and severe restrictions are investigated. The use
of these possibilities is the business of individual writers, Oulipian
All the same, several
members of the Oulipo have exploited Oulipian procedures in their
work. I suggest that these procedures have provided them with home
grounds. How is this possible? How can methods based on deprivation
become the comforting terrain on which a writer sets out in pursuit
of an object of desire? Why would anybody not a masochist want to
determine a sequence of episodes according to the tortuous path
of a knight across the entire chessboard? Or use the graphic formulations
of a structural semiologist to plot a novel? Or limit one's vocabulary
in a story to the threadbare words contained in a small group of
proverbs? Or, if a poet, why write using only the letters of the
name of the person the poem addresses? or conversely exclude those
letters successively in the sequence of verses? or create a poetic
corpus using the ape language of the Tarzan books? Nevertheless,
these are some of the things Perec, Calvino, Jacques Jouet, and
I chose to do, with acceptable results.
Why did we do them?
I used to wonder myself. When I first learned that Perec had written
a novel without using the letter e, I was horrified. It sounded
less like coming home than committing oneself to a concentration
When we were children,
what we loved most was playing. After a fidgety family meal or excruciating
hours in class, going out to play made life worth living. Sometimes
we went out and played any old way; but the most fun I had was playing
real games. I have no idea what games you enjoyed, but my own favorites
were Capture the Flag and Prisoner's Base--hard games with tough
rules. When I played them, I was aware of nothing else in the world,
except that the sun was getting low on the horizon and my happiness
would soon be over. In Manhattan last autumn, I stopped to watch
a school soccer game in which an eight-year-old girl was playing
fullback. She was alertness personified, never taking her eye off
the ball, skipping from side to side in anticipation of the shot
that might come her way. She had definitely not engaged in a trivial
The Oulipo supplies
writers with hard games to play. They are adult games insofar as
children cannot play most of them; otherwise they bring us back
to a familiar home ground of our childhood. Like Capture the Flag,
the games have demanding rules that we must never forget (well,
hardly ever), and these rules are moreover active ones: satisfying
them keeps us too busy to worry about being reasonable. Of course
our object of desire, like the flag to be captured, remains present
to us. Thanks to the impossible rules, we find ourselves doing and
saying things we would never have imagined otherwise, things that
often turn out to be exactly what we need to reach our goal. Two
examples. Georges Perec's novel without the letter e, intermittently
dramatic, mysterious, and funny, describes a world filled at every
turn with multiple disappearances. Some undefined and crucial element
in it is both missing from it and threatening it--something as central
as the letter e to the French language, as primordial as one's mother
tongue. The tone is anything but solemn, and yet by accepting his
curious rule and exploring its semantic consequences, Perec succeeded
in creating a vivid replica of his own plight--the orphaned state
that had previously left him paralyzed as a writer. I had a similar
experience with my novel Cigarettes. My "object of desire"
was telling the story of a passionate friendship between two middle-aged
women. That was all I knew. I had concocted an elaborate formal
scheme in which abstract situations were permutated according to
a set pattern. This outline suggested nothing in particular, and
for a time it remained utterly empty and bewildering. It then began
filling up with situations and characters that seem to come from
nowhere; most of them belonged to the world I had grown up in. I
had never been able to face writing about it before, even though
I'd wanted to make it my subject from the moment I turned to fiction.
It now reinvented itself in an unexpected and fitting guise that
I could never have discovered otherwise.
For Perec and me,
writing under constraint proved to be not a limitation but a liberation.
Our unreasonable home grounds were what had at last enabled us to
Case of the Persevering Maltese
Earlier I quoted
Francis Bacon describing his painting as "accident engendering accident."
Imposing fixed patterns as it does, the Oulipian approach sounds
as though it discouraged such self-generating activity, but this
is not so: in practice it guarantees that the unforeseen will happen
and keep happening. It keeps us out of control. Control usually
means submitting reasonably to the truly tyrannical patterns that
language imposes on us whether we like them or not. Language by
its nature makes us focus on its conclusions, not its presence.
Oulipian dislocations of this "natural" language counter its de
facto authority or, at the least, provide an alternative to it.
Don't forget that language cares as little about our individual
needs as the tides and the winds; ill-equipped, we can affect it
no better than King Canute.
Those of you who
have visited Venice may know the paintings of Vittore Carpaccio
in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. The schiavoni were
slavs, and the cycle of paintings concerns a patron saint of Dalmatia,
St. Jerome. Surprisingly, St. Jerome is absent from the most beautiful
of these pictures, "The Vision of St. Augustine;" but there is a
good reason for this. St. Augustine sits at his desk, where he has
just finished reading a letter from St. Jerome asking his advice
on a theological matter. St. Augustine has scarcely taken up his
quill to reply when light floods his study and a miraculous voice
reveals to him that St. Jerome is dead.
It might be entertaining
to speculate on the relevance of the scene to what I've been discussing--pointing
out, perhaps, the futility of the reasoned answer St. Augustine
is preparing in the face of the unforeseen and overwhelming truth.
But let's not. We have a still more entertaining object to contemplate.
In the middle of
the floor to the left of the saint's desk, a little Maltese dog
sits bolt upright. He is bathed with celestial light, to which he
pays no attention as he stares at his master in an attitude of absolute
expectation, as alert in his immobility as was my little fullback
in her agile skipping. He is as unconcerned by the momentous event
now occurring as he is by literary theory. His attitude might be
translated as the human question, What next? Like children and Oulipians,
he probably wants to play, but he can't be sure of that or anything
else. He has to wait to find out. What next? What next, and what
after that? The answer will be something like the one given by Marcel
Duchamp when asked what he considered the highest goal of a successful
life. He replied, "It. Whatever has no name."
Lans-en-Vercors - Paris, October 23, 1996
Mathews has published many books of fiction,
non-fiction, and poetry; his most recent novel is The Journalist
(Godine). A member of the Oulipo since 1972, he co-edited thenOulipo
Compendium, an archival work published by Atlas Press in 1997.
Copyright © 1997 ebrand the author. All rights