HTML Backgorund Color

  About   /  Archive   /   Seasons   /  Print   /  Tenement   /  Shop



You will now know that our world is not forlorn, that all is around you to fashion again into what you want and always did want, out of that abundant fountain that is our origin - that flowing, that light, that flux of light that wrought us into living things.

        —OULIPO Compendium


For a literary figure as dense and productive as R.R., criticism is always necessary; yet never adequate. But I prepare these notes for a talk in an art museum so I take literary theory, as it were, out of the book and into the museum among works of art friendly to critique. R.R. seems to have practiced every creative activity, including visual art. Apparently unable to draw—he hired artists to make his own—he had the money to turn to photography with a lightness and conceptual self-awareness far out of step with the stilted craft of his era. He was both curator and collector. R.R. was the entire package when it comes to contemporary art. His being a novelist, poet and playwright with as much conceptual density as nearly every other literary figure of his Paris, including Stein, Joyce and Proust, still comes as a shock.

Rays of light shoot from this nib, occupying every spectrum...

So wrote R.R. in a quill pen dipped in invisible ink on the pages of what only the dustiest of college professors call ‘the Un-Colored Notebook.’ Appropriately it would be discovered deep into his posthumous life-in-death. Among artists and poets, the existence of the Pink Notebook had been a secret surprisingly well kept by various cabals of noisy cognoscenti.

And today after the discovery of the Roussel archives, most readers, if they know of them, believe the color-coded notebooks in which R.R. planned out the mathematics and metaphysics of his bizarre creations to have been published in their entirety. The famous letter to Belgrade penned from the Hotel et des Palmes two days before the end, told of his intention to sell the beautiful notebooks (they appeared to the ordinary eye quite blank) to a student so that he and Charlotte DuFresne might take a meal at the Villa Igea.

He kept the Pink Notebook and presumably saw to its future the day after penning that letter, strangely. It's not possible for me to tell you why and how it survived. For legal reasons (impinging on the matter of the failure of my recent biography of R.R. to see print) I cannot even mention R.R. by name. You may be forgiven for doubting whether the Pink Notebook is in fact pink.


Since 1912, in art history, Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) stands for a certain influence on various 20th century artists and writers (Dada, Surrealism, the nouveau roman most familiarly). Of late a new generation of critics calls attention to the importance of his relevance to contemporary art.1

‘We are the slap and you are the cheek!’ Robert Desnos answered those who would heckle Raymond Roussel at the opening of that play like no play before or after called La Poussière de soleils. If that performance helped create contemporary art, is it so surprising that something seems to remain of a dashing and perhaps quasi-revolutionary spirit in the old notions of the avant-garde, in which young people still go out of their way to champion a hard-persecuted writer in the fray of his long abandoned real?

I am case and point. I who hold forth here on the subject have read a good deal less than the whole of the works of Raymond Roussel. Perversely, I am sure there are very few who could say otherwise. So I am quite certain there are new Roussels out there being re-written, even right now.


Duchamp's intervention in the 1942 Surrealist Exhibition brings us to right about the present in regards to the strange coexisting principles of adornment and insult still pulsating among what usually remain quite traditional modes of display in the European museum as it survives and in which Duchamp's intervention would no longer be permitted. Works come with body-guards. It was Duchamp's harshest moment (till Étant donnés?), and he selected an image of that 1942 installation for his homage to Raymond Roussel. ‘Artiste-Inventeur’—M.D. calls himself the same. A rather futuristic self-image for the artist, but for Roussel something stranger, something perhaps no longer recognizable, crackpot and nineteenth century. He was inventor, but was he an artiste as Duchamp understood that term? It is an alternate take on the possibilities of A.I. which I have only begun to understand how to address.


In the Anthology of Black Humor, Breton presents Roussel as virtual mind control, describing how the reader becomes the invisible mannequin of the novel's narrators, how the star on forehead is created, built and shared between the reader's and writer's eyes in exactly the virtual reality environment of complete pitch perfect literary communication, reminding us of the total control corporations pretend to enjoy over their communications. But unlike such discourse, the surrealists describe a total novelty, a novelty much craved in a dead and rotting 19th century culture.

‘One important point for you to know,’ says Duchamp, ‘is that Roussel delivered me from the whole physicoplastic past.’ The word seems to mean natural, with R.R. an escape from the body; an escape from paint and canvas, even from Derrida’s ‘subjectile’—that perhaps possible ground of the fixed painting—into the digital, and far beyond.

Having introduced the greatest arbitrariness into the literary subject, the point was now to dissipate it and make it vanish through a series of moves in which the rational constantly limited and tempered the irrational. Breton called what emerged ‘ideas of an extra human world.’

In this and more, Roussel anticipates the methods of artificial intelligence. Yet there is something very human, or of the human artist shall we say, something insistently juvenile in that forced erasure of the natural. The absurd insistence on the visible artifact in the invisible text.

Infravisibility shimmers in his poems of visual infinities, so much that what adheres to any text of the old Platonic resonance, the presence of the invisible is visible like never before.


Roussel’s novels unfold in explicitly infinite ekphrasis. Describing impossible visual and aural experiences in continual unfolding, it becomes clear that despite all appearances, the origins of these experiments are exclusively arbitrary. The artistry is not the imagery but the weaving of these lumps of anti-meaning into narrative unfolding, so as to render the arbitrary as easily visible as possible, transforming it into unpacking singularity. The author stands between language and the reader, forever obscured. Michel Butor has shown that while the method always works, every result is necessarily new and different from a non-existent original.6 In its singularity the text loses its identity.

Duchamp pondered such invisibilities all his life as if under the spell of he whom Breton called ‘the great hypnotist.’ Rousselâtres describe the first readymade as coming out of the bicycle wheel/stool combination in a visual pun signifying wheel and stool, Roulle-selle. Duchamp always insisted on photographing the Bicycle Wheel as casting particularly dramatic and never repeatable shadows on the real world wall behind. An invisibility visually proactive on its own, is beyond current ‘white cube’ esthetics. Contemporary presentations of the wheel-as-icon invariably make that shadow as invisible as the stool (and the resulting art historical paradox that the first readymade is in fact a combine).


In R.R., words only seem to describe the ‘visible in,’ as Annie Le Brun puts it: ‘an absolute visualization, in which everything will be said by images and in which, at the same time only images can be said.’ Rather perfectly expressed perhaps by the poem La Vue which extends sixty pages of rhymed alexandrine couplets contemplating a single souvenir pen-holder’s kitschy photograph into infinity, Roussel's vision stretches narrative back to an always developing transparency, as if that transparency is the very stuff of consciousness itself.

Reading again the first fifty lines of La Vue...

Quelquefois un reflet momentané s’allume
Dans la vue enchâssée au fond du port-plume
Contre lequel mon oeil bien ouvert es collė
À très peu de distance, à peine reculé

We see the infinite visible is only tied together by a moment's flash of sunlight against a motionless single eye. Augenblick as all time; all the tissued invisibilities, unnamed names, unstated identities, unrevealed organizing concepts we'll never see expand, regardless of time. Yet our own developing visible singularities will ever accompany us as we move. Against these islands, or indeed clouds, for they are not real images to be lived among, but only remembered ghosts, we pass like comets. The text field surrounding must splay flat to reveal the actual one-dimensional nature of reality. Like clothes on the invisible man, text rolls away only to reveal the background and the subject.

Though one could insist on seeing image as a move away from text, it is really text that steps away from image. Image loves text. Text shuns image. The first step into code is visible only as a way out from visibility. One is now merely sensible at all. Though the code connects word to images, these are but one sort of file, one clump, we step over and beyond en route in whatever circuit. In Roussel this usually invisible process is newly visible, as if rendering the invisible more visible than any of the increasingly bizarre imagery between. Readers can emerge before such undying images, un-transformed, raw—of nature.

Animals of language can behold in Roussel, as if from stable viewpoints, the enormous pits in possibility and meaning our structures define in any direction.The vast terrains of possibilities undreamt and undiscovered are more real henceforth. How clearly, how remorselessly (the labor indeed never ends and occupies every hour of every day) the visual must be redescribed, untold, made structured against that universal-scale sublime. As in Lem’s Cyberiad (1965), this work of continual invention, strangest of all, appears greasily possible. ‘Machines comparable to his,’ as Butor puts it, ‘can always be elaborated.’


A veteran of the Marne, his experience of the first world war changed his work irrevocably, so that by the time of Nouvelle Impressions, failure is no longer maddening. Roussel’s last poem, New Impressions of Africa (1932), calmly and explicitly, even mechanically, separates and attaches itself from anything that's come before. This is the adult book no one expected, seven years of full-time labor to complete to the author's satisfaction, four long cantos of rhymed alexandrines, each a single sentence with parenthetical asides that run up to five levels deep (with rhymed footnotes from time to time instigating further poems containing their own depths of brackets). These brackets seem to bring into existence a phenomenology of text within a text our technology has not given us yet, a sort of intra-textuality that John Ashbery calls “a dazzling orgy of fire and sound.” But R.R. had New Impressions of Africa, illustrated as if for a boy’s magazine.


The world had failed around him. Back at last with the literary man in Palermo we encounter the police procedural as the last literary artifact. A body found, with its own story to tell, a la Marie Rogêt. Only a stack of unsold Locus Solus in the corner interrupts the stark realism of the homage to Poe and other doomed authors. Such shadowy demises show themselves as martyrdom more clearly when perceived against the flames of the coming end of literature itself.

Duchamp especially valued the fact that Roussel had no following. In his own generation and social circles, one of the only people who seems to have respected Raymond Roussel unambiguously and on his own terms was Fulcanelli, turn-of-the-century Paris’s very own mysterious alchemist, supposedly at large and a man of repute. The magnus opus—total alchemical/transformative power over the real—was rumored to have been accomplished in that Paris before singularity theory ever existed, and Fulcanelli (physicist/inventor Jules Violle) was said to have been the one who did it. Fulcanelli is rumored to be alive today as a young woman.

So here we find a fitting 21st century contemporary for our inventor. For all his eccentricities and sciencefictional dreams of invention and transformation, Roussel did not join the Violle group, nor the Freemasons of Jules Verne, instead he seems to have surprisingly avoided other secret societies of the affluent and affective. As literary man, Roussel (in whom self-promotion and self-satire are necessarily one) will always only open his club to the world at large; and fail, in that regard.

Paul Éluard, already exhausted by that heavy century in 1925, describing the play of R.R. for us, L'Étoille au Front, whose despised and failed premiere P.E. was lucky enough to attend, saw certain success.

‘Here stand the storytellers/One begins, the other continues. They are marked by the same sign, the are prey to the same imagination that bears the ear and heavens on its head. All the world's stories are woven by their words, all the stars in the universe are on their foreheads, mysterious mirrors of the magic dreams and of the strangest, most marvelous facts. Will they entertain those insects [...] that hardly listen to them and do not understand the greatness of their delirium? [...] It is a golden ray that they are holding in their hands, and it is the blossoming of truth, of dignity, of freedom, of delight, and of love [...].’

Ah, but I don't think R.R. would use ‘insects’ that way.

Mark von Schlegell has been publishing experimental fiction and theory internationally since the 90’s. These remarks occur in relation to the essay “Roussel Returns,” coming in 2017 both as a special pamphlet edition from Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, and as a catalog essay from Galerie Buchholz, Cologne.

Submissions     ︎      ︎

Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

Mailing List