Last week the UCLA French Department was host to Marcel Bénabou, an eminent member of a group of twenty-odd  French writers called Oulipo, short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature. Oulipo probably holds the longevity record for modern literary schools. Founded just under forty years ago by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, it is still going strong, acquiring new members to replace those who depart. In its early years, it was a relatively obscure rival to the much-heralded Nouveau roman (New Novel), a far looser group of higher-profile writers such as the late Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet; today, the nouveaux romanciers are nearly all gone and their slogan relegated to the history books, but Oulipo lives on. The secret of its continued life–Bénabou emphatically rejected the term survival–is contained in the deliberately antiquated term ouvroir. Oulipo presents itself, with the modesty indispensable to success in our postmodern era, as a workshop of artisans rather than a coterie of artists. But the modesty that matters most is not that of personalities or slogans. The Oulipiens’ fountain of youth is a literary method that permits them to remain a coherent group of free and relatively equal individuals rather than an unstable set of rivalrous egos.

This method is not a common “vision” such as may arguably be said to have united the nouveaux romanciers. The Oulipiens are devotees of wordplay, of les jeux du signifiant. Their governing principle is the self-imposition of generative procedures restricting or organizing the use of words on the basis not of their meaning but of their written (or occasionally sonorous) manifestation. Perhaps the most famous Oulipian exercise is a “lipogrammatic” novel by Georges Perec, the school’s most talented writer; La disparition (The Disappearance, 1969) is written entirely without using the letter “e,” a letter still more common in French than in English. (A similar novel in English appeared in the 1930s, but unlike Perec’s, it does not make the disappearance of the fifth letter the central theme of the story.)

Bénabou himself has conceived combinatorial systems for constructing locutions and aphorisms by combining lists of “templates” on the one hand (“There is no A without a B,” “Take the A and leave the B”) and lists of words related in various ways on the other (“love-“hate”; “pleasure”-“treasure”) to produce “There is no love without hate,” “Take the pleasure and leave the treasure,” and so on. Another Oulipian method is “S+n”: one takes a sentence from some well-known source and replaces each noun/substantive with the nth noun following it in the dictionary. A Shakespearian S+1: “Friesians, romances, countryseats, lend me your earls.”

For the Oulipiens’ most important predecessors, the Surrealists, “automatic writing” was meant to serve as a unifying methodology, and André Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) explicitly defined Surrealism by this method. (“Surrealism: n. Psychic automatism by which one proposes to express … the real foundation of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of any control exercised by reason…”) But automatic writing was too limiting and negative a constraint; denial of conscious control over the writing process is not a source of new material. The Oulipiens, in contrast, have solved the dilemma of finding a method that can unite the group yet remain open and indefinitely creative by imposing no restrictions on the constraints that the members may invent for themselves. These can extend from the mechanical S+n to the complex combinatorial patterns of Perec’s masterpiece, La vie, mode d’emploi (Life, an Owner’s Manual, 1978), in which each chapter takes place in a different room of an apartment building in an order determined, along with the contents of the room, the vocabulary of the chapter, and other details, by complex formulas.

My acquaintance with Oulipo is largely the product of directing Stella Behar‘s doctoral dissertation on Georges Perec nearly ten years ago. I should admit that, despite admiring Perec’s work (not all of which is dominated by wordplay), I have never taken Oulipian practices very seriously. Formal constraints like rhyme or sonnet form have a communicative function that merely combinatorial exercises do not. All art strives to motivate its signifiers, and all writers seek out and exploit word patterns that potentially convey meaning. But the foregrounding of these patterns rather than the meanings they convey, one of many examples in avant-garde art of emphasizing the process over the product, undermines the context in which the meanings themselves are communicated. A pun is only funny when there is a punster who intends that you should find it funny. Computer-generated puns or their hand-calculated equivalents inspire tedium rather than laughter.

But Bénabou’s talk suggested another way of looking at these methods. His main point is that expressed in the title of his first novel: Pourquoi je n’ai écrit aucun de mes livres [Why I Haven’t Written Any of My Books], a take-off on the title of a famous essay by the turn-of-the-century cult figure Raymond Roussel, who claimed to have generated his novel Impressions d’Afrique from punning on an arbitrary sentence. As Bénabou explained, his youthful ambition had been to write A/The Book, an ambition nourished by a combination of Jewish reverence for the Torah and literary emulation of Mallarmé’s dream of Le Livre. His conversion experience came when he realized that no one (certainly not Mallarmé) could write the Book, but that each can write the story of his plans to write the Book and their failure, which writing converts into a meta-success. Interestingly enough, of the three novels Bénabou has published about not writing The Book, the latest (Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic, 1995, English translation 1998) is much less occupied than the other two with word-play and far more with the autobiographical and family material he originally intended his Book to contain.

It is enlightening to compare Bénabou’s model of novel-writing with that proposed by René Girard in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque). For Girard, too, the novel reflects a conversion experience, a turning-away from the illusion of mimetic desire. Proust’s novel, which supplies Girard’s theory with its explicit model, ends with the novelist retiring from the world to write the Book of his prior illusions. But what if the illusory object of desire is the Book itself? Then one must write a meta-Book that recounts the time of illusion and renunciation. Unlike the Proustian confession-narrative, the meta-Book is a prehumiliated form of the Book. The meta-novelist’s ambitions for worldly fame are no less than those of the novelist, but he realizes them by demonstrating their failure.

But this easy formula disguises the underlying market situation. As a replacement for Proust’s 3000-page masterpiece, a mere admission of failed ambition would not sell many copies. The high-school journalist’s column about not being able to find enough material to write his column is not the one he’d use when applying to journalism school.

It is here that Oulipo makes its positive contribution. Perec’s literary success and the curiosity value in being the sole surviving literary “school” provide the Oulipo label with considerable market value. Yet the underlying source of this value, which is also the source of Oulipo’s remarkable staying power, is the humble praxis of word-play. There are no geniuses at S+n, and even when, as in Perec’s e-less novel, Oulipian constraint becomes the occasion for a creative tour de force, we admire the author as an artisan conquering his medium rather than as an Artist communing with the sublime. Perfect adherence to an arbitrary constraint is a modest substitute for the Book’s unreachable perfection. In its crafty silliness, Oulipo may well have discovered the literary technique most conducive to postmodern creativity.