Given the seriousness of recent events, including my diagnosis and surgery for colon cancer, my anticipation of my upcoming chemotherapy, and the death of my partner Robert's grandmother a couple of days ago, I thought that it might be appropriate to post something a bit light-hearted. As its subtitle indicates (the word bagatelle literally means "trifle," and refers to a short, light piece of music), this piece, modeled after some of William H. Gass's essays in his wonderful collection Fiction and the Figures of Life, is not meant wholly seriously, but I don't think that it's without substance. I hope that you enjoy it.
In his essay “How I Wrote Certain of My Books,” Raymond Roussel tells us that books are made out of words, and we are shocked. As William H. Gass writes of one’s discovery that one’s favorite character is mere literature, it is as if one were to discover that his lover were made out of rubber. Yet one has spent all these years living with this man made out of words, just as the unfortunate lover has spent years living with his rubber-made man. And they were happy together, were they not? A literary character does not one day turn into mere words, one’s lover does not one day turn into rubber: he has always subsisted in this medium, and to know this need change nothing about the relationship, which has been going along so well under these conditions. (And of course it has been going well, or one would have closed the book, found another lover.) Why, new vistas of possibility for the relationship are opened up, if one is imaginative. (And we are all imaginative, are we not?)
Roussel writes as if, in certain of his books (hoping perhaps that the qualification will mitigate the audaciousness of the claim), he has invented a new kind of book: the book made out of words. He implicitly tells us (or his interpreters tell us on his behalf) that there is nothing in his books but words. (That is, in certain of his books, as if books could be divided into those made of words and those made out of Something Else, Something More Important: and if Roussel did not say that, you may be assured that someone did.) But words are all that any book contains: words, and the reader’s mind. Yet the mind of the reader is exterior and posterior to the work itself (which is what it is, like Yahweh), just as the mind of the author is exterior and anterior. Otherwise the author would be pestering one day and night with intentions, his intentions, as if readers had none, when the only intention the text itself recognizes is the intention of language to form phrases, sentences, paragraphs.
As Alain Robbe-Grillet writes, language is, it does not function. That is to say (maintaining a wary distance from totalization), language does not function as anything other than language: essence and existence are one and the same, neither preceding or following the other. Sentences do not emerge from the “creative mind,” they emerge from sentences: as anyone who has ever faced a blank page or screen with the intention of filling it with the riches of his “creative mind” well knows. Works of literature do not spring from the joys and sorrows of the artist, though these may serve as an extremely useful pretext and alibi, even as justification (why is one wasting one’s time playing with words?). Works of literature spring from other works of literature. How could one write a poem if one had never read a poem, if the idea of “the poem” had never been presented to one in the form of actually existing poems? (There are, hélas, fountain-penned, word-processing hordes attempting at this very moment to answer, all too prolifically, that very question.) For once Harold Bloom did not take a dictum far enough: it is true that the only proper response to poetry is more poetry, but poetry itself (the “original” poem, the one to which one responds by means of a poem) is only the proper response to other poetry. The literary art is the play with words; the literary pleasure is the pleasure of that play, of witnessing and participating (as a writer and as a reader/rewriter) in such play of and with words.
Roussel became for Robbe-Grillet and his compatriots at the Café Nouveau Roman the very type of the pure writer not because this knowledge was unique to him but because he claimed this linguistic play as the only motive of his writing, eschewing other pretexts. (Though he undoubtedly had other, less “pure,” motives—his “feeling of universal glory” sounds suspiciously like something Shelley might have rhapsodized about—they are of no concern to literary discourse, being part of that nothing which Derrida has helpfully informed us exists outside the text.) Roussel’s works were read as texts which, uniquely, said only what they said: writing as an intransitive verb, an example of Roland Barthes’ zero degree of writing. Viewed in the proper, clarifying but not harsh light, all texts, as texts, say only themselves. What the author “says” or the reader “hears” between, around, beneath, or above the lines need be of no concern to anyone besides the parties concerned. The text is an innocent bystander to such accidents.
There are those who would deny the seriousness of Roussel’s texts: he is simply playing linguistic games, “he does not deal with the Human Condition.” (Even Robbe-Grillet finds that phrase oozing from the tip of his pen, when he defends the nouveau roman as a more “true” reflection of la condition humaine.) Need it be said that there is no Human Condition? There is my condition and your condition and Robbe-Grillet’s condition and Roussel’s condition (no doubt rather decayed by now). To the extent that such an abstraction may be said to exist, it exists in the medium without which, like all abstractions, it could not have come into being: language. Man (as opposed to you and to me and to Robbe-Grillet: and presumably as opposed to any individual of the female gender) is not conceivable without language, though one can’t blame language for conceiving of him (or should I rather write, Him?). That is what language keeps itself busy at: making words, making phrases. What we make of those words and phrases is our own affair, though habitually neglected, attended to in a haphazard and slipshod fashion, as if we did not live (and, too often, die) in language.
Roussel plays language games: so do all true writers. It is the definition of the vocation, and even of the trade. Let us neither bury Roussel nor praise him. I don’t personally care to be a spectator to or participant in Roussel’s games, but either to condemn or to praise writing because it is a game of and in language would be like condemning baseball because one’s favorite team has lost every game this season or praising it because one’s favorite team always wins. In neither case is it to see the thing for what it is. Let those who dislike literature say so and be unashamed, just as those of us bored by baseball say so. There are other diversions in either case.