Jan Baetens reviews the Raymond Federman Recyclopedia, a book whose humour - and evident bad taste - raise it above its own formidable constraints.
Fed Ex Un Ltd
Fed Ex Un Ltd
Vladimir Nabokov is known, among other things, as the inventor of golf-language, a kind of verbal chess-game which asks the player to go from word A (let’s say “Sade”) to word B (let’s say “love”) in as few steps as possible, by changing only one letter at a time. Pale Fire, if I remember well, contains several examples of it. Raymond Federman plays both golf and language, and just as Nabokov he does so simultaneously, at least when he writes: he golf-plays language (I have never seen him playing golf, but I assume it must be quite an experience). And the “recyclopedic narrative” edited by Larry McCaffery, Thomas Hartl Hartl recycles Mosaic Man by Ron Sukenick in ebr, and Doug Rice, explicitly refers to Pale Fire as one of their models.
I apologize for this indirect and overly oblique introduction, which may seem completely out of tune, but at the same time something tells me that this is the right way to start. Indeed, in the case of Federman, nothing is really “out of tune.” His work is so all-embracing that it seems able to absorb more than one world. Moreover, the Nabokov link enables me to state immediately what kind of writing is put on the fore in this book (and when I say “this book,” I make no distinction between its subject, Federman’s work, and the writing of those, Federman included, who continue this work through their analyses and comments in the very specific manner which I shall deal with in this review). Finally, to start with Nabokov can also be considered (I invite my reader to do so) a literary tribute to the second term of the comparison, Raymond Federman.
Which features are then shared by Nabokov’s golf-language on the one hand and Federman A to X-X-X-X, on the other? Of course, it would be absurd to say that both writings are the same. But when analyzing more closely the notion of golf-language, and thinking also on the superb hypertextual mechanism of Pale Fire, one can emphasize the following four characteristics which are also useful for describing a “recyclopedic narrative.”
First, it is a good example of writing under constraint. Golf-language is a literary machine which produces pieces of writing in a way that is completely independent of the author’s inspiration (although not, of course not, of his unconscious: remember that when playing golf-language, one has to choose at least a material starting point, “Sade” in the example mentioned above, and this choice is never arbitrary). But once launched, the process cannot be stopped. It yields infinite possibilities and tremendous creative freedom. Similarly, Federman A to X-X-X-X ought to be considered as a kind of golf-language. The reader finds himself confronted with a tremendous number of “encyclopedia” articles, a kind of textual forest in which one has to find one’s way in a non-arbitrary manner (the game is not to read it as soon as possible, nor to read it from A to Z, but to discover how one plus one make three).
Second, it is both very enjoyable and very serious, and the boundaries between the joke, the farce, the grotesque, the carnival, and their opposites are quickly blurred. Constrained writing has more to do with Rabelais and the Bakhtinian tradition of the vulgar and the excessive than appears at first sight. see the Harry Mathews story in this issue Much more than the current constrained writing, where humour is often not very funny since it terribly lacks bad taste, Federman A to X-X-X-X brings in a lot of clean air: the book is not afraid of vulgarity, it is permanently doing too much, its laughter is not tempered by the canons of good taste, and all this only emphasizes the book’s seriousness. The comaraderie of guys laughing together over a dirty joke cannot be separated from the solidarity of those helping each other to survive (and this word has to be read at face value) under inhuman circumstances. The textual lessons offered by Federman are also life lessons, and vice versa, and Federman A to X-X-X-X is undoubtedly one of the books which can help one to understand that writing is never innocent, whatever else we may think of it.
Third, it is also a form of collective writing, and this at all possible levels. To write under constraint is always to borrow from others, and the work so produced is meant to be stolen by readers and critics. And although it remains possible to play against yourself, there’s more fun when the text becomes the field where things begin to happen and where readers-writers meet. In the sixties one would have said “wreaders,” but the spirit of the times doesn’t like puns any more: Microsoft is watching us and we are kindly invited by our spell checkers to correct this error: within a few years, I’m afraid, our PC’s will refuse to give print instructions as long as there remain spelling errors, or - and this is worse - they will “correct” and normalize our puns automatically, with no possibility left to keep our “errors” anyway. And speaking of the sixties: Federman may be one of the very few exceptions among progressive scholars who have managed to keep alive in their work the very juvenile enthusiasm and political awareness of that era, and that’s why it is absolutely necessary to read him also as a political thinker (even when he plays golf: let’s not forget that some of the most eminent French literary theoreticians of the century, for instance Jean Paulhan and Jean Ricardou, were fanatic pétanque players).
Fourth, golf-language is sequential but not linear (the same is true for Pale Fire). Nabokov’s novel is, obviously, a kind of hypertext in book form, and the more treacherous in that it does not announce itself as the latest fashion of critical theory (labeling is dangerous if one wants to produce “dangerous” and critical writing). But as “play,” it’s the perfect booby trap for traditional writing. Federman A to X-X-X-X is such a hypertext too, but the interesting part of it is that it avoids any naive imitation of electronic hypertext, at least in the stereotyped and uncritical vision of it as an unstructured set of labyrinthine linked lexias which are not very motivating to read in themselves. McCaffery, Hartl, and Rice on the contrary have had the courage to make a readable, and even a very readable, print hypertext, without ever losing the mobility and the excitement of the linking. The reader of Federman A to X-X-X-X is not confronted with a discouraging and very often completely useless explosion of links, but with a well structured set of alphabetical articles which refer to each other in well-thought-out and clearly indicated ways, and this apparent “retreat” from the seemingly infinite possibilities of what some theoreticians consider hypertext is a very intelligent and necessary decision.
Federman A to X-X-X-X is not the first of its kind. Before McCaffery, Hartl, and Rice, other scholars have had the idea to construct their textual “web” as a playful and serious, collective and hypertextual, constrained and dramatically free “book” (in this case an “organization built on the premise of the encyclopedia and infested with hypertextual hot buttons”, p. 31). A very soft version of it was Roland Barthes’ autoportrait: Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975); wilder versions can be found in books such as the Derridean Zigzag by Jean-Claude Lebenzstejn (1972) or Avital Ronell’s Telephone Book (1987), to quote some less recent examples in Federman’s two languages. But thanks to the very intelligent editing of the book, the more strenuous hypertext works perfectly well: Federman A to X-X-X-X has a mobility and an energy which I am missing a little in Barthes’ book, whereas its readability (and thus the intellectual profit one can glean from it) is superior to Lebensztejn and Ronell.
To conclude with some personal remarks, I would like to stress two aspects of the book which impressed me, and which make me think that this “recyclopedic narrative” is not only an important work per se, but can become a landmark publication for much research and much writing in the years to come.
First of all, consider the quite specific position occupied by Federman in “post-Auschwitz writing” (the blurb calls him, rightly, “one of the most original Holocaust authors”). The recent explosion of studies on trauma representation (James Young, Dominic La Capra, Ernst Van Alphen, to name just a few), the canonical position of an author such as Celan, the postmodern fascination with the unrepresentable sublime F Kittler’s technosublime is an example of this, and the durable success of books such as Spiegelman’s Maus, could make one think that there is only one possible (or at least one serious) way of dealing with the Holocaust in fictional writing. The example of Federman proves that there should be room for other voices, and that humour and energy are not incompatible with gravity. One could even raise the question whether this other voice is not also the voice which is typical of writing under constraint. Perec’s A Void, for example, is not only a tragic experience, but also an outburst of verbal creativity, writerly vitality, and linguistic playfulness. More generally, one could even ask whether the very notion of writing under constraint, with its critical refusal of the concepts of “author” and “inspiration,” is not better fitted to the challenges of post-Holocaust narrative than the models held in traditional literary frameworks.
Second, Federman A to X-X-X-X should give us also the opportunity to reread some other chapters of American modernist writing, specifically the line going from the print-hypertextualist Burroughs (who launched the metaphor of language as a virus) to, for instance, the digital hypertextualist Stuart Moulthrop (who developed recently some fascinating arguments on the structural relationships between computer viruses and experimental hypertexts). I must admit that I have never taken Burroughs very seriously (I really can’t, but please send a riPOSTe to the editor and explain why I am wrong), and it also seems to me that Moulthrop is such a critical thinker that he won’t persuade his readers to believe naively in texts as viruses. But the way Federman A to X-X-X-X manages actually to convince the reader (well, the reader I was) of the necessity of writing on a subject by creatively plagiarizing him (or it?) was an exceptionally direct experience of such a “contamination in progress.” The problem with the virus metaphor is of course its inveterate negativity, whereas the example of Federman helps to redefine it in a much more positive way, a little in the classical sense of emulation. And here again, the importance of writing under constraint is paramount. One of the great advantages of constrained writing is indeed that it not only helps for one to write without consideration of personal imagination or individual inspiration, but it also lets the writer abandon the romantic privileges which still stick to “originality.” Writing under constraint is not only writing with others, but also writing as others and with their help. This perspective frees the author from the obligation to reinvent every day what already has been invented hundreds of times (and to reinvent it stupidly, because in the ideology of originality, one must continue inventing and one never has time to make loops and to rewrite what already exists).
Federman A to X-X-X-X Federman A to X-X-X-X that there’s no need for the conjunctive “and” between these two words?