Search View Archive

A Supposer…

Suppose that…

Translated from the French by Emily Gogolak


A supposition that, passing for the nth time by the place where Descartes lived at 14 rue Rollin not far from la Contrescarpe, and that even before arriving at the commemorative plaque I started to read out loud the inscribed line, from one of René’s letters to the princess Elisabeth de Bohème, that I learned by heart: “However, taking me as I am, one foot in one country and one foot in another, I find my condition very happy in that it is free,” I would bring to the present poem, which until today only existed in the future, an unexpected elegy from an unexpected place, an elegy that cuts straight to the core of my conceptual daydream on little tangled things, that which, among its other collateral merits, is able to thread lines around a cogitist subject much less stable and self-conquering than you would think, much less constrained than you would wish, and whose totem would be the antonymic object of some distant border post, one of these books of thirty-six unique pages that find themselves here or there in a multitude of more or less similar copies and missed terribly by all who don’t have one, this I quite simply called the passport.


Suppose that for the nth time, since there were men who seriously contemplated (with their brows knit, they really do look serious) the conditions for poetic or any other literary composition, I had to receive in full form the look of shock when I promised to have recourse to a constraint of the Oulipien type, to (almost) consistently stick with it, I would insistently repeat what I know to be so poorly understood, namely that if I want to travel to unfamiliar territories, it is best to first know the country I’m leaving—Vespucci always knew his homeport even when he didn’t know the particulars, the potentials, of his destination—, the constraint then being a means to conquer, at first, what is controllable (what is already at work), the only means to keep yourself from abuse by those illusory imitations we can call false novelties, the constraint then being in my eyes the state of a from that is infantile but not inane—since it pays attention to even the smallest detail, as all infants do—, however I also might choose instead to totally sidestep the question by provoking a philosopher as I tried to provoke a psychoanalyst back in the day, to challenge him to lie down on the divan under the constraints of language and form, to practice the constraint as I do… knowing that form is meaning, and that matter is mind itself.


Suppose that I wrote, on the preceding page, the words “have recourse to … stick with” (you can easily verify this statement), and that, if I did not adequately explain myself, it was with the intention to return to it, and I am returning here just to acknowledge that my promise is possible, on the condition that the course of the (re)course ahead—the noun contained within the noun—, in order to constitute a point of departure, must conquer itself, exhaust itself as though it were an inheritance—we always blow through our money, don’t we?—and this is all on a pretty small scale and not really fleshed out because it’s otherwise always necessary to reconstruct the old one yourself, to constrain it, to reconquer it, to wrestle with it again, before winning the pleasure or the pain to invent your own (reusable by others (who tell themselves: we can use the form “Suppose that…” because it’s free from royalties), and knowing, besides, after sticking with it for a while, that you can get really sick of it, temporarily or not, and this isn’t to strip the constraint of even the smallest bit of merit, on the condition that it will metamorphize into maturity, belonging neither entirely itself nor something else, this I named: a form.


Suppose that you ask me to return to an objection mentioned earlier, concerning the miscellany of my ideas, I wouldn’t be able to convince myself anymore that my lists, if not well organized, can still be well constructed (if you haven’t noticed, I rather like this metaphor of construction sites) on one principle, the concrete form, an idea that to me, contrary to eloquent lyricism, is frenetic and fundamental, and although it may be too caught up with its own ends, this is exactly why it makes to sense to break it down, starting with “concrete,” (but please don’t think that this adjective is the ideal or the standard!), not at odds with nostalgia for some immaterial golden age, and this isn’t to say that the suffering self-non-self is not poetic—like all other concrete things it is—, but this is on the condition that concrete not be the last word, and knowing in all cases the only thing poetry never can do is to sing the song-non-song that Tristan Corbière paradoxically performed, and that, at the start, nothing will be neglected, but this isn’t the case for the mystical poetry (here I think of Flaubert and Mallarmé) I often find so boring (escape it like the plague!), but rather for the work of typewriters, the mother constraint of the form, never automatic, never completed alone, but, like Saint-Amand once said in hushed words, the constraint is constructed collectively: the work of a group.


Suppose that you finally told me here that what I’ve been saying has been nothing but didactic, even for my own personal ends (though none of it has any analytic or critical utility) I would respond that this, doubly, is not at all true, on the one hand for the reason that my method requires me to look at the History of poets and their poems with an eye which risks upsetting a few vested interests, to challenge patrimony out of my disdain for its oppressive abstract lyricism (that’s to say the opposite of concrete), to reevaluate Lucrece (but is this necessary?), Lucrece the Hercules of poetry, like he himself said Epicurus was of thought, but also, to say that Raymond Queneau whose more recent Petite cosmogonie portative isn’t some bizarre boil but the pure masterpiece of a Hermes of poetry—, and, on the other hand, because of my attempts to speak from experiences (on the battle field, on the construction site, in the song) not at all caught up in the confines of some ivory tower, but rather themselves catalysts of the poetic activity necessary to fix broken machines, those with electric systems that are always overheating, ones that you must temper by means of certain cooling systems, a refrigerative poetry.


Suppose that you ask me here to touch on the tone of my active collection, I would choose to tell you about an idea I had the other day when I was walking from the Savoyard village of Saint-Sorlin D’Arves toward Saint-Jean, where I found proudly printed on a giant billboard a ridiculous paradox (ridiculous in its involuntary meaning), the work of some communication service, the com’: “Eco-discovery adventure, free parking,” and knowing that all discovery, like my walk, will end when there are no more terrae incognitae, just more free parking lots—and then being irritated, since I love walking, going by foot in the middle of the night from Paris to Trappes beyond Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, wandering nonchalantly to Garges-les-Gonesse in the middle of the day…—, and here being reminded that I am past the age of believing in immortality (including that of walks, of new lands), and I no longer interest myself in living legends I’ve never heard spoken, that, as Jean-Baptiste was telling me the other day, maybe as a joke, but I’m not sure: “With me, the humor of repetition, it only works once,” not unlike the story one hears on the morning news that some police men were accused of “sexual abusing prostitutes,” a formulation that needs time, then, to cut itself from the almost comic cluelessness of its paradox.


Suppose that you kindly ask me here, in a teary voice, to talk about the part that I save, in my philosophy of countering (or maybe more precisely of contouring, but, the Latin verb computare might as well count as contornare), for transcendence, or for spirituality, or for the absolute…, as if spirituality inevitably had something to do with religion, with non-immanence, with unstoppable death, etc., concepts that weigh down even the heaviest parts of complaisance with a miserable and nauseating melancholy, not on the counter this time, but in a sink, or on some crappy bar you seek for a voluntary solitude that tastes of cheap coffee and cold tobacco, I would respond that I look wisely to save transcendence only for the final hour, no, the final minute, the final second: the instant, like all instants, will only last an instant (and don’t say this to renounce any pleasure or happiness), the subjectivity of the duration relative only to the experience, the instant of death nonexistent at the very end, if not to discover, without much usefulness on the final page, that to philosophize is not to learn how to die, since you only can learn what can be repeated, but is rather to learn how to end by being dead, or, even better, to learn how to end by being only almost dead.


Suppose that you ask me here, after reading that last page, to explain what I call this “almost” almost death, I would jump on the bandwagon of precision to make clear that there is no point in wishing, after dying, to enter the memories of those good-for-nothings who got to live—that is if it is always better to die—, but on the other hand, it makes sense to want to hold your place—however small—in History with a capital H, of big invasions, big discoveries, big abuses of power, big revolutionary ideas, big steps, big set backs (list not closed), that place of careful contradictions and methodically weighed testimonies and evaluations, never too complaisant or too vain, that place that looks more and more to me like some comfortable corner where you’d want to sit down and meditate (that is if you haven’t totally given up on enlightenment or transcendence), that place I call my historical, rather than commemorative, work, (be it a poem, a novel, a play, etc.) at whose end—and I am starting to get this more and more—I won’t try to consecrate or eulogize, but simply apply it.


Suppose that a bit earlier you had missed the fact that “contour” could have passed as a lapsus, not unlike those I mentioned earlier, and despite the fact sliding along the keys n, o, v, e, l of my typewriter to fall upon c, o, n, t, o, u, r would be very unlikely—seeing that the two are totally different—, the product of this mistake would in all cases be preferable to the “nolev” that sometimes comes to me when my fingers slip (this lapsus doesn’t mean much when you look at), a contour then being understood as the shape of well a constructed novel most dynamic in the diversity of its form, like the lines you find drawn in the pages of a blue print—full of potential, the work of a talented architect, rather than some lazy “fiction” writer—, and all the while pholize (more than “pholi,” which I didn’t explain earlier, but sounds an awful lot like “folly”) would be to thought what fever is to a sound psychological state, that’s to say a temperature measured in degrees and tenths of degrees along the ticks of a thermometer, and working to diagnose neurosis, not as a question of mental illness, but one of health.


Suppose that you whisper to me that you fear disappointing your reader with the lapsus contour (breaking the golden rule of the smiling reader), I would only be able to wonder what hopeless smile you devote yourself to when you make art, that, by its very nature, doesn’t concern itself with satiation, in the sense of quenching the thirsty, but rather works to invent a new sort of thirst, discovered at the very moment of being quenched, and I would rebel quietly in noting that if it came to me in my work, sitting beside or facing you (the reader), to recognize your contentment and satisfaction—all the more noticeable when I read aloud at a public lecture—, the always collective and plural character of literature and artistic appreciation (unless you call yourself a disciple of the culture of a single book, or at least that of a popular book, but in this case literature itself would be denied) must necessarily temper the pride of the trophy case of gold medals, the storyteller then not satisfying anything but his own story, just like the poet doesn’t play anything but his own lute, knowing that the mystic is none other than he whose belief surpasses his faith.


Suppose that you ask me here, and nowhere else, to explain the term “destiny,” which I feel has fallen to the depths of obsolete words, tired have-beens, which, according to you, are so chewed up, exhausted, and dried out by Andre Malraux that the once open road now finds itself cleared of the “It’s your des-tiny!” of the Unknowns (if all fates are forgotten: not only for the novelist-thinker-operator-minister, but also for the televised collective of clowns, who, supposedly, are voluntarily and prudently predestined), but it isn’t impossible that I’ll inevitably find a place where the feeling of destiny is still alive, (at least in our nation of legal rationalism), and here I want to speak of something I call the meteo, the weather forecast, (an apocope potachique of, but not to be confused with, meteorology), yes, the place, but not the atmosphere, of transcendence, in the cold spell of an abnormal April, in the scorching heat of a hostile summer, with shifting Gulf Streams, melting glaciers, or dried up ground waters… lacking any human hand proven capable of changing its condition, all working daily to justify that work which personally shapes me, by which I am conditioned or con-destinied to prove myself meteophychosensible, but among what others? not as group or even society, but as a human plant growing on the planet, greater than the continent, more vast than the nation: and the world no longer having a center would be nothing more a slice in the ozone, a curve on a contour, a piece of clothing, a rag.


Suppose that you ask me here to stop starting my poems with the opening “Suppose that…” supposed to, like all types of repetition, aggravate western nerves, I would respond not that common sense must have a common form, because sense doesn’t have any form (and it’s the verb “to have” that is useless here), but rather that, and I mean this in all seriousness, the real common sense—that is the meaning—of this poem is a ride in the car that is language, free in the infinity of its constraints, in the car that is this poem itself, and when this poem drives away, its dust is carried off into in the mouth of its reader (and, between us, I didn’t build this poem all by myself, it wasn’t made for itself alone or even for the entire world—and this isn’t elitist because the question of elitism is always a political question, never aesthetic), a ride only with a beginning, never suffering from hesitation, the end revealed in the last word, in last point of punctuation, period.


Suppose that you ask me here to start again on the folly—the pholi—of my constraint, you wouldn’t have to push me very hard to make me tell you my secret list of heroes, crazy people you’d never be able to shut up, lunatics enviable for the very reason that they escaped suffering, in full force, the slightly eccentric (who, day after day, in good faith, can’t understand why we consider them so out-there), the hyper logical who move by their methods… the Schwyeks et the Nasr Eddin Hodjas, the Bouvards and the Peuchets, the Ubus, the Ah Q’s, the Quichottes… my many heroes—whom I entertain for their greatest glory and entertainment—are the standards of my general skepticism for liberty, my immunity from neurosis for the very fact that they themselves have fallen to folly, crazy from too much reason, never locked up in the walls of their own distress, they who live behind the mask—my mirror—of secret clairvoyance, beautiful bestiality, and the turning inside-out of their feelings, their ecstasy.


Suppose that you ask me here, to report a criminal news story (I wasn’t a witness, but lets just say a neighbor), I would choose to shock myself, starting with the first detail, a note under my door, telling me that in the light of day my neighbor had been murdered in her shower, rope and knife, without pity by an ex-, the note a third torn from a piece of 21 × 29.7 paper, a photocopy with the heading Brigade Criminelle—making me want to call the deputy, Mr. X, provided I had some evidence to share with him—, and the biggest shock hitting me when I first saw the Brigade (whom I thought would arrive on the premises at once, with the greatest technological precision, with the gloves and masks only sophisticated detectives can pull off) but who instead, goofy and almost childlike, opened the car door marked with the motto “Gather thistles, expect prickles,” playing the role of a band of cartoon characters, half making me want to call the deputy himself instead, and still wondering why a little piece of terrible news passing under my door, at the end of the day, comforts me.


Suppose that you ask me (and recently you haven’t been bombarding me with too many requests), suppose that you ask me to subscribe to the idea that the meaning of was now isn’t anything but a has-been and that it would be necessary then set it back on the right the path to, I don’t know what, the father, God, utopia: transcendence, in all cases, because I had the good impression that utopia brings out transcendence, where its potential is catastrophic in immanent plans, to suppose a similar scattered and hidden attempt for description, but no, I wouldn’t be convinced in seeing it this way, your idea of “meaning,” understood here or there in the absurdity of its mystery, seen inevitably in the past, by myopic eyes, in the past, evidently non-historic, in the past, without any connection to an existential golden age, because in the end what could confirm that believing society has meaning, any meaning, more meaning than another (in pity, let’s look the others in the face! …), that a past society once enjoyed man’s good harmony with the world, with that nature of vegetables, animals, neighbors, sentiment, family… nostalgia for meaning at the end only being that nostalgia for a serfdom that we’re ready to welcome with open arms, a serfdom whose master was called simplicity, simplicity for things, and for the world.


Suppose that you beg me one day to critique the term “photogenic,” in the same manner that I did with “place” and “meaning,” that brought to my eyes little other than a need for place and for a method (maps, compasses, cosmos…), the photogenic face for me is linked to this question of the instant, which couldn’t be more important when thinking of photographic technique—the flash is like a misfired bullet, a loss of life since it froze time; and the successful photo is that which reinjects the image with passing time—, even though the “photogenic” subject, at the moment of being shot, is he who—without any fuss—leaves himself for the taking, who—to put it in plain view—, when the flash clicks, accepts himself as a subject sure of his beauty, perhaps, but even more sure of his right place in this instant that’s no different from any another and especially not full of some future photography that the non-photogenic, however they arrive, anticipate and fear, and in doing so, not being here, but somewhere else, somewhere absent from the portrait, killed in the misfire.


Suppose that you ask me here to say something very French, that is even only French, I would choose talk about Alexandrine verse (by this indicating that if the question concerned a nation other than France, to respond with a “national anthem” maybe would not be bad choice, except for the fact that one language can straddle several nations, that one nation can feed itself on several languages), a verse not as old as we’d like to believe, not because of repetition and restoration, or resistance and recovery (from the imperialism of free verse), but simply because if it is possible, its potentiality, like all others, can only proliferate—if you look at the fatal decline of the alexandrine from the days of the Spleen of Paris, Coup de Des, Illuminations, Maldoror/Poets, and even Gustave Khan and Panama, what will we do in the next century of the Apollinaire, Peguy, Roussel, Desnos, Queneau, Audiberti, Aragon, Roubaud (theorist), Reda, Ristat, Roche... where will we go in the open unknowns of the future: why isn’t there a mixed prose-poem in the French theater (in the style of Shakespeare)? why wouldn’t Perec’s experiment in silent e’s bring us anything else new?—knowing that the Aexandrine is neither the “ludovicain” nor the “julesferryen,” a jewel neither of the absolute monarchy nor of the scholarly and colonial republic, but of the French language, a measure successful enough, and at the end, perhaps the only one possible.


Suppose that, tired of the idea that everything is in everything and that a text is just a text, you ask me here to clarify the place of genre in literature, I would claim that genres exist (I do recognize them), that I like the idea (Lakis Proguidis) that fiction as a concept doesn’t have much to do with the novel, or at least certainly isn’t its founding or all-encompassing concept, as I like the idea (Jacques Roubaud) that poetry doesn’t have much to do with literature, and, inversely, that fiction isn’t beyond poetry and literature no longer contains the novel, is an empty ensemble, at its core—, and I learned to love these ideas (which had first shocked me), that have the merit to seek to circumscribe the art of the novel, the art of the poem, although, maybe I am a composer equally between the two autonomous arts: the novel, the poem, poet here and novelist there, in the same day, but not in the same hour, without any bridges between them (from one river to another, we all have the same view), and so the art of theater also exists autonomously, where I am not a “writer of plays” or a “playwright,” but a play-writer.


Suppose that you ask me here to prove the value of what has become a relatively disparaged phenomenon (and not much more), the popular novel, which begs not to be called pathetic, because what greater dream could the novel have than to be popular?

I would grab a microphone, rush to my podium, climb on top of a wall to make a case for my fascination, not for those bland (though perfectly real) ingredients of stories, in bulk: to escape, courageously pass by death’s coffin, take vengeance on curses and cruel criminals, be trapped in the snare of a forbidden marriage, lose yourself in the detours of an indirect voyage, in the disappearances of a thwarted project, duel an evil twin, be stranded on an island, change your identity until everything is lost, fall forever between Charbyde and Scylla, despairing that luck turn around, etc., etc., but rather for the novel that doesn’t concern itself with popular expectations, the hardly surpassable Fantômas, Souvestre and Allain with their 32 huge written volumes, in best form (in both meanings of the term), and appearing consecutively in 32 monthly volumes, from February 1911 to September 1913, a caracoling rhythm the polar opposite of that greedy and constipated popular prudence, my fascination for this sorry, painful, tiring incompletion that made possible a short conversation I once overheard (for real) between two readers: “I never succeeded to finish a Kafka novel.—Don’t worry, he didn’t either.”


Suppose that you ask me here to give a few words on the proper use of “autofiction,” I would keep myself from peremptorily and wrongly judging the biggest or smallest flatterers of an intimate genre that “fiction” seeks to devour, literature being made by many attempts to annex this genre (Baudelaire in the Spleen of Paris stripped from poetry the covers of prose, just like Flaubert pulled from the novel those of rigorous and stylized poetry), I would prefer to assert the force, entirely intact for me, of what I will call the occasion for the alteronovel (not unlike alterego), that is, and this I already said, more of a form, an art, one of whose operating principles (though not the only one) would consist in the novelist distancing himself from himself, in transmuting his own self into a character, that’s to say working in the direction of his potential, and this driving the reader to read, for example, Bouvard et Peuchet as though Flaubert had wondered what it would mean to write his own novel of self-displacement (like two close friends switching places), and pushing a certain number of his own inadequacies and absurdities to the extreme, to the extent that the narrative force is not centripetal: Madame Bovary doesn’t go toward the center of a maelstrom that would be the “c’est moi,” but on the contrary, the “c’est moi” distorts itself in a centrifugal movement toward madame Bovary, the periphery.


Suppose that you ask me here to mention a phenomenon in the real world that might be able to nourish a certain optimism, I believe that I would attempt to dream of the idea of double nationality, thrown out in broad daylight, materialized for an individual by two perfectly legitimate passports, but also spiritualized, if I can say so, by the contagious and positive potentiality of its duplicity: why, if there are communities, wouldn’t you belong to several (this doesn’t mean that I only support group causes, like basketball teams, or that this belonging defines me at all, since I am indeed syndicated and a member of the association Friends of the Louvre…), “one foot in one country and one in another,” as you remember the saying goes, and not even that it’s impossible to dream of belonging, polyphonically, to a double religion (the people conquered by colonization sometimes experimented with this), or even to a view at once religious and atheist, it nevertheless being understood that there is a place for the conviction that religions are, as the liveliest spirits throughout in the 19th century, overtaken by sciences (historical) and philosophies, such that religions, even the active ones, are not on the same plane as philosophies and sciences, and that we never really did return to a “post-secular” society.


Suppose that you ask me here, at the moment of taking leave, to find something to leave the reader at peace, I would attempt to cast your eyes, by thought alone, to a garden, and knowing that the word “garden” physically is hardly capable of being the place of a real path, and also typographically isn’t a space very colorful or rich with olfactory sensations, and then certain that I wouldn’t have any other recourse than to trace a rectangular lot of doubly justified prose, a map delimited by the borders of some roads, tracks, troughs, and shortcuts, largely imaginary, that ask you to generously give up the pleasure of voluntarily coming and going, to take a ride to the past and pass again by the déjà-vu of places marked by a legend of lowercase letters, to finally, and imperceptibly, turn back to the beginning until you exit this text, to lose yourself at the point of entrance, and, according to plan, to Suppose with a capital S.


Jacques Jouet Translated by Emily Gogolak

JACQUES JOUET is a French writer and participating member of the Oulipo literary movement (l'Ouvroir de litteratture potentielle or "workshop of potential literature") since 1983. He works as a poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist and visual artist, and has published over sixty works in his career. With only three oeuvres available in English, Jouet remains one of France's best-kept literary secrets.

EMILY GOGOLAK is an undergraduate at Brown University, concentrating in Comparative Literature. She spent fall of 2010 studying at l'Universite de la Sorbonne in Paris, where she met the writer Jacques Jouet, and is taking the semester away from Brown to live in Tel Aviv and write for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

All Issues