Georges Perec’s absence from our world makes the planet just a tad darker. He really should be here to play along as technology explodes and creates all these new forms of poetry and prose for us. We now have a global talk board system that allows no more than 144 characters per statement. Just one man’s thoughts on the subject, but we are worse off because Georges Perec never got to use those boundless talents he possessed to tweet.
Perec might have invented Twitter if he’d lived long enough (he died of lung cancer in 1982 at age 45). For those not familiar, Georges Perec was a French author and a member of the literary movement OuLiPo—which stands for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature. Writer Raymond Queneau and François de Lionnais, a mathematician, created OuLiPo in 1960. The group produced literary works by creating and applying arbitrary constraints to inspire, guide, and form their writing. Coming up with constraints can be a very jocular process. For instance in homage to Perec, I once challenged a budding literary scholar to include an implicit reference to the Karate Kid in the first paragraph of the piece he was working on.
Perec pulled off some of the more acrobatic feats of constrained writing. He wrote an entire book without the letter e. This is particularly impressive (nuts?) in French since the majority of feminine adjectives end with e and since the most common class of verbs in French, er verbs, have e’s in most of their conjugated forms.
Je danse Nous dansons
Tu danses Vous dansez
Elsa valse Ils/elles dansent
Writing an e-less book, Perec would not be able to use the most common French wording to say “I dance”; “You dance”; “She dances”; “Y’all dance”; or “They dance.” If he wanted to include present tense dancing in his book, he would either have to adapt and write from the “we” perspective (“nous dansons” would be permitted), or he would have to find a synonym from one of the other verb groups. (I’ve just looked in a French thesaurus, and all 15 synonyms for “danser”--including “twister” (really France?)--were also “-er” verbs. So it looks like a present tense dance scene written without e would have been a serious challenge.)
Constraints like these might sound annoying, but they can also stimulate artistic creation. An arbitrary limit shuts down the most common way of expressing an idea, so you are pushed toward new and different ways of formulating a thought. Writing a dance scene from a "we" perspective might lead to beauty or truth that you wouldn’t have found if you were free to write however you wanted. In this post, I self imposed the arbitrary task of spelling "empathy" with the first letter of each paragraph. I had to begin the post with an e. Searching for an e word related to empathy and guilt, I remembered Ecclesiastes which reminded me of Montaigne’s writing on vanity and a comment a friend had made about repetitive thinking involved in guilt. The constraint helped me bring together ideas about the ceaseless and pointless mental work of shame that I might not have otherwise connected—like “the tyranny of rhyme forces [poets] to find their greatest beauty” (Proust).
The unlimited potential of language is one of the fundamental principles of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory. According to Chomsky, every language has a finite number of words and other meaningful elements (like prefixes “re-", “dis-”, “quasi-”). But you can create an unlimited number of statements by changing the way you put these building blocks together. Language is a gigantic set of Legos that you can always build into something slightly different from anything you’ve ever made before
To test Chomsky’s principle, I have launched my own linguistic project similar to OuLiPo. I call it OuInPo. “In” stands for “insult”, and this is how it works. I send a text to the same friend about once a week to call him a new insulting name. The one constraint is that I can never repeat the exact same insult. Science drives my quest to verify the endless expressive potential of the English language. So far, so good. I have had no trouble creating original profanity, but as the experiment has progressed, I have discovered an unexpected memory challenge. Sometimes I can’t remember whether I've used an insult already or not. Have I already accused my friend of carrying on Miltonic conversation with livestock? I'm not sure.
A situation like this calls for some creative fixes to ensure I don’t accidentally repeat myself. When in doubt, I look for a more specific and more bizarre version of the insult I'm considering. I’m not sure about livestock, but I know I’ve never sent a text about llamas or wildebeests. And llamas and wildebeests come in all different sizes, shapes, colors, and political affiliations. So many potential variations on a general idea, and the beat goes on and on and on. With a little caution and critical thinking, I'm able to maintain the integrity of my findings. Right now the experiment is still ongoing, but it is looking more and more every day like Chomsky was right.
And you know, I guess maybe I could have accomplished the same thing coming up with different ways to tell a friend I love him, but it’s too late now to reverse course and start over.