Constraining Chance: Georges Perec and the Oulipo (Avant-Garde & Modernism Studies)
By Alison James
Northwestern University Press
I have a critical attitude towards “chance,” and the role it might play in one’s writing process. My skepticism towards it stems from some of the creativity theories out there that try to downplay the role of the artist’s cognition, deliberation, and consciousness in the creative process. In the field of creative writing, much has been said about the advantage of spontaneity or automatism, and how overthinking can ruin an original idea. One example is the “flow”-based rhetoric that circulates in many writing guidebooks, which advocate abandoning conscious control over the writing process. Since I don’t believe in such a theory (partly because of my own writing and teaching experience, and partly because of the research that I have done in this regard), I have held an anti-chance attitude towards writing, meaning I believe in being in full control of the writing process or being fully conscious and deliberate in the decision making process. That’s the recipe for original and quality writing as far as I am concerned.
My anti-chance attitude is why I have gravitated towards the Oulipian aesthetic for last several years. Oulipo is a literary movement founded in France in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. It has always remained a small but influential literary group that has introduced the idea of formal constraints into the writing process. Some examples of Oulipian constraints are N+7 (where every noun in the original text is replaced by the seventh noun in sequence form a dictionary) or lipogram (where one or more letters are completely avoided by the writer). The most famous example of the lipogrammatic text is Georges Perec’s La Disparition (A Void in English translation), a nearly 300-page novel that never uses any word containing the letter “e.” That’s quite a feat, especially in the French language. These examples are a minuscule sampling of the various mathematical, lexical, syntactic, and semantic constraints that Oulipians have either proposed or applied to their writing. Though Oulipians are quite heterogeneous in their aesthetic principles (compared to other literary movements), one point on which they always appeared to have stood together is the dictum of anti-chance. I have adopted this principle into my pedagogy. Though I don’t consider myself a Oulipian in my aesthetic taste, but for some time I have been theorizing on the usefulness of constraints in teaching writing, craft, experimentation, and awareness of the writing process. So by citing the anti-chance formula, I have been trying to persuade my students to take control of their writing processes. The idea is to challenge the entrenched myths about the writing process surrounding creative genius, innate talent, spontaneity, thinking-free creativity, and flow-based automatism.
I must say that in my advocacy, I have discounted the role of chance. I have equated it to automatism to a degree that I have come to deny its presence in my own writing process even when on certain occasions the evidence was to the contrary. Alison James’s book Constraining Chance provides a very rich historical and aesthetic perspective on chance, and it challenges the dichotomous view on chance like mine. The most provocative question that James poses is: can any creative process be solely left to chance; conversely, can all the aspects of a creative product be fully controlled by its author? James tries to investigate what does Oulipians mean when they claim their writing to be “anti-chance”? One of her important findings is that Oulipians were not on the same page as far as the conception of chance goes. Queneau himself corrects his colleagues saying, “We are perhaps not so very ‘anti.’ I would prefer to say that we display a certain suspicion with regard to chance” (110). In Queneau’s positioning one could see that he anticipates how hard it is to completely eliminate the role of chance in writing. In fact, James argues, if Queneau was anti anything then it was towards the psychic automatism of the Surrealists, who believed that the creative process is better served when the conscious filter of the human mind is superseded by the unconscious. That’s when the truth or the real intention emerges. So in the anti-Surrealist stance of the Oulipians what gets the bad rep is chance. But even the Surrealists were not totally in favor of chance.
Critics of Oulipo are always skeptical towards the merits of the writing constraints. For them constraints are highly inhibiting; it only replaces the psychic automatism (that Oulipians opposed) with the mechanical automatism. But James points out that the two automatisms are not the same. She thinks the Oulipian writing process that consciously struggles with the constraint is more powerful than the psychic automatism purely on the basis of the “rigorous, systematic exploration” if for nothing else (120). Another criticism labelled against the Oulipians is that contrary to what they propound the nature of constraint-based writing is such that any meaning ensuing from the produced text cannot escape an element of chance or accident. An Oulipian writer may take full control of the form by introducing constraint but it seems very unlikely that he/she can anticipate the semantic outcome of the produced text. Though this criticism is valid, James argues that this improbability, unpredictability or indeterminism is actually the strength of the Oulipian project. True that this criticism drives a dagger to the very core of the “anti-chance” principle of Oulipo, but then the “chance” that Oulipians want to defend has to do with controlling the form, whereas for their detractors “chance” has to do with the meaning of the content. This form and content distinction provides a nuanced understanding of what the group Oulipo stands for.
James exposes the self-contradiction in the Oulipian philosophy. But in doing so she demonstrates how this paradox is the strength of the Oulipian aesthetic. Also, in the process she rescues “chance,” and the positive role it might have in the creative process. To characterize one writing process as automatic (hence fully chance-based and devoid of authorial intent) or as anti-chance (hence, fully deliberate) is simplistic. In fact, accepting the dialectic relationship between chance and constraint provides a more constructive understanding of how constraints can be useful in our writing. James’s theorization helps to address for me a contradiction in my own advocacy of Oulipian constraints. To be fully conscious of one’s writing process does not mean to be entirely in control of the written outcome or to discount unpredictability or chance. In fact, if the purpose of the constraints is to discover potential literature then how could it be an adventure without accidents and surprises?