the yelling reaction

Just another weblog

a man, a plan, a canal…

with 7 comments

Velvet Underground & Nico – I’ll Be Your Mirror

I’ve gotten to the end of Georges Perec’s Cantatrix Sopranica L, Scientific Papers, and have reached what I think is the best one so far. It’s called Roussel and Venice: Outline of a Melancholy Geography, and it deals with a lot of subjects that I get all hot and bothered about – maps, codes, mirror images, layers of meaning, and word-play.

The piece, like the others in the book, is written in the style of a scholarly essay directed at an academic audience, and thus is able to take the same liberties that an academic piece can in its ability to assume that a certain base of knowledge is present in its readers. Since these articles are parody, however, they have only limited basis in actual fact, and so we as readers can use little outside knowledge in our attempts to pin down what is significant. Because we are aware that applying fact to the fictional science given here would be ridiculous, we are unable to make few connections other than those that are provided for us, and so we become occupied with mentally cataloguing and fitting together the hints we are thrown as to the significance of words, characters, or places. The world within the book, because it is completely self-contained, becomes completely absorbing, in the same way that a novel does: Perec has succeeded in “using the expressionless terminology of sociology, entomology and linguistics to achieve effects they are distinctly designed to avoid.” If the terminology and style of academic writing is meant to describe a factual world, here they are used to create a world of fiction.

Below are some snippets from the Roussel and Venice piece. They are all instances in which the author tries to locate significance within “five unpublished sheets of paper [written by Raymond Roussel] he was lucky enough to discover and identify in the Fitchwinder University Library” by figuring out how they fit into the context of Roussel’s writing style and life.


Fleisch makes an obvious mistake at the end of his analysis when he suggests that the theme derives from the transformation of “La vérité sort de la bouche des enfants” [Truth comes out of the mouths of the children] into “La vérité sort de la douche des enfants” [The truth comes out of the children’s shower]. The transposition b/d is indeed common in Roussel (le crachat de la bonne à favoris pointus / le crachat de la donne à favoris pointus) [the spit of the maid with fussy suitors / the regalia on the dealt card with pointed sideburns], Dardanelles / Bard à Nesle [Dardanelles, Bard at Nesle], la place du bandit sur les tours du fort / la place du dandy sur les tours du fort [the bandit’s place on the towers of the fort / the dandy’s bet on the strong man’s feats])….

*Singe [monkey] could be a rebus-abbreviation of Saint-Jean Baptiste (singe en batiste [monkey made of cambric])

In this sense, Roussel’s voyage to Venice was his only journey (Venice becomes “Voyage,” “Voyage” becomes “Venice,” and V comes to stand for both Venice and “Voyage”).

There are then two superimposed topographies in Roussel. One corresponds to the world of his books and generally respects geoographical reality…; the other is the secret world of his Venetian life. The centre of the first is Paris, the centre of the second is the Hollenberg Hotel, where Roussel and his mother stayed. It is immediately obvious that [the topographies of Paris and Roussel’s Venice] are mirror images of each other.


The essay goes on to pose any number of possibilities to fill the gaps in our knowledge of Roussel’s plot and writing process, based on pun, rebus, and not least what we know about his life and history. The tools used to map out this possible story behind the story create for us a world in miniature and we find ourselves absorbed in piecing together the puzzle of a question that for us is as free of contextual import as the few pages of the “found” manuscript are free from binding. The Scientific Papers and the essay Roussel and Venice both manage to absorb us completely using no tool but their own decontextualization: they both contain only the amount of significance that we care to look for, and exist only to make us curious enough to inspect them.

“One cannot expect the exegesis of a few lines, however assiduously one may have dissected them from every possible angle, to cast much light on a body of work that was so well described in the words of Bachter as ‘a literary adventure having no source but itself, no end except its own existence, and no other meaning than the trail it leaves.'”


Written by bellaheureuse

January 12, 2010 at 1:44 am

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I wouldn’t say that Perec is “parody;” in fact, it is largely academics who don’t understand him that think that. And if Perec ever agreed, he was talking up his sleeve, probably to an academic. Roussel, too, is deadly serious stuff. I still like Foucault’s take on him in ‘Death and the Labyrinth.’

    This tendency to turn everything complex, convoluted, labyrinthine even, into “parody,” is one way of avoiding having to understand and talk about such a work on its own demanding terms–really to respond to it. You see where this leads…what I’m engaged in right now…not very productive…but very academic.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m quite intrigued by your interests. But the best way to treat them is to be deadly serious about them, to participate in them, rather than staying on the outside and orbiting around them as objects of admiration.



    January 12, 2010 at 2:39 am

  2. I would absolutely not describe Perec’s work as parody in general, but I do use that word here because of its capacity to describe the imitative nature of this particular body of work, the Scientific Papers. And rather than looking at imitation as a shallower version of something else, I see Perec’s version of it as a method of realizing one creative goal using the tools of another, and thus as a rich, resourceful, and inventive medium unto itself (in the same way that a painting holds a greater, or at least different, significance than the individual elements that form its makeup). This relates in a lot of ways to my thoughts on mapping, in an earlier post, “biggie cartography.”

    In terms of the deadly serious nature of it all, I think it’s central in reading Perec to appreciate him not only as an intellectual heavyweight but also as a lighthearted wit, and as both, a rare thing indeed.

    Thanks for reading my blog and it was great to get your response. I couldn’t hope to go into the depth of analysis that Perec warrants in one post, but rather simply to express why it is that I get such pleasure from reading him. I can only hope that at some point I’ll have occasion to turn these little musings into something more than just that.


    January 12, 2010 at 3:04 am

  3. In response to TOG: the opposition of parody and seriousness, “deadly” or not, is a false one. All successful parody is serious work. The question to pose re: Perec’s work is, thus, just WHAT, precisely, is he serious about?
    Serious answers gladly accepted.


    January 12, 2010 at 6:11 pm

  4. This reminds me of the allegorical maps I spent the Fall researching–particularly the mention of liberties taken concerning the line between fact and fiction. If the use of allegory and/or parody is something you find interesting, I can send you some titles. (They are all sociological works based around sex and marriage, if that interests you).


    January 12, 2010 at 11:56 pm

  5. Actually the sociology of sex & marriage is one of the main subjects of my article for Poetica – I’d love love to read some things or if you’d be willing take a looksy at your project. ❤


    January 13, 2010 at 9:09 am

  6. Most absolutely. I’ll send all the information your way, I think it might be helpful and interesting. ❤


    January 13, 2010 at 9:58 pm

  7. […] about Messiaen’s additional work with palindromic rhythms, I am reminded of mirrors and their central role in so much literature, philosophy and art. One could say that Messiaen’s work is a good […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: