First Sentence Series #4 -- The Bark Tree


If there’s one good thing to say about Breton’s surrealists, it’s that just about every movement that rested adjacent to it or that eventuated from it was a bit more interesting. Everyone claimed some allegiance to Roussel. Inside and outside surrealism, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and De Sade were given patriarchal mention as a matter of course by anyone who hoped to accomplish anything in French literature (France being the last country that actually tried to ‘accomplish’ anything in literature, though I would stop precisely before I could say whether or not they did). The Nouveau Roman came onto the scene intending to change the novel, though experimenting with forms already found in the whackier parts of Ulysses. Bataille got ahead of most movements that would later renounce surrealism when he replied to Breton’s invitation to join them with, ‘Don’t waste my time with idealism!’ and went on scribbling his own tales of necrophilia and erotic blasphemy.

At the time, it came as a shock that someone would accuse the surrealists of idealism when their figurehead had defined their aesthetic as one of ‘complete, psychic autonomy.’ As it always seems the trap goes, one has to use some kind of idealism with intent, even subtly, if one wishes to avoid being used by someone else’s idealism. The man who got closest to idealism without dirtying our minds with metaphysics or trying to tell us some lofty things about the purpose of art was Raymond Queneau. Queneau, like Bataille, distanced himself from surrealism, but not until much later, after having formed close enough bonds within the group for his break to hurt.

Queneau formed the group OuLipo in 1960. They were idealistic, certainly, but there was at least a mechanics to their idealism that manifested in the forms they produced, rather than through journalistic bullydom and public ostentation as it was with Breton and his followers. OuLipo was quite simple but the works they produced were quite complicated and interesting. There were exclusive members of OuLipo, but they were not required to write only OuLipoian works. A true OuLipo work, however, qualified as such if its author imposed upon it some textual proscription during its composition.

Goerges Perec, for instance, is often seen as the champion of the group, given his novel La Disparition, which is an entirely coherent, engaging narrative written without a single use of the letter E (a near impossible feat in the E-replete French language). His novel Life: A User’s Manual begins describing rooms in a sequence of frozen time, moves around a whole apartment complex like a chess-board, gives the history of each room and colors in the story for us like a (literal) puzzle piece, all the while adhering to dozens of subterranean proscriptions that the reader isn’t likely to pick out directly.

One can sense the OuLipo spirit as early as Queneau’s first novel, The Bark Tree. The book begins this way:

‘The silhouette of a man appeared in profile; so, simultaneously, did many others.’

This first sentence is one among many first sentences in novels over the past 150 years which has some cyclical relationship with last sentence.

All throughout modernity, the Eternal Return has crept into literature, as though each artist was determined that their book would evaporate into the air or burry itself into the ebb and flow of life. Joyce did it with his obvious half unbegun beginning and half unfinished finis of the same sentence in Finnegans Wake. His repetition in Ulysses was a bit slipperier. The S in ‘stately’ of the first sentence switches places with the Y of Molly Bloom’s erotic novel-concluding ‘yes,’ just as her menstrual flow recalls the blood of Buck Mulligan’s razor-nicked wound while shaving at the beginning. It would seem that Joyce had exhausted the return, if such a thing were possible. Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow begins with a rocket and ends with a rocket. Delany’s Dhalgren didn’t stray too far from the cyclical sentence method of the Wake.

But since an eternal return couldn’t really be exhaustible anyway, it was perhaps worth the time of every writer worth his weight in obscurantism to emulate some poetic form of that return. What we see in the first sentence of Queneau’s The Bark Tree, however, is not a simple high-modernism-emulating gimmick.

The book opens with a shape: a man, emerging from a mass of shapes just like him. He finds definition, but it is only through the narrative that he finds identity. The narrative unfolds several dozen times in what is, ultimately, a slim novel.

Breton might have desired ‘complete, psychic autonomy,’ for the surrealists but how was this autonomy to come about? By breaking aesthetic shackles? Laying waste to conditioning? Approaching stimuli with only the most indolent proceedings where they’d been hasty before and becoming hasty precisely where they’d been indolent?

All the same, these require proscriptions.

Like a group of slaves who have escaped their master only to elect a master amongst themselves in the desert, freedom isn’t a complete negation of proscription but a refiguring of it. Freedom creates a set of gestures which harden into rule whether or not that rule is wanted.

This is what separates prose from poetry. One may stop at the mere layout of a poem on the page in comparison to prose, but there are a dozen other proscriptive forces to which the writer adheres. Some of the proscriptions are obvious like rhyme, consonance, assonance and meter. Others are more intuitive like rhythm, solidarity in imagery or suitable vocabulary.

One of the poet’s pleasures is in discovering a poem by way of the very proscriptions that prevented anything like ‘psychic autonomy.’ By developing creative proscriptions, the poet has made a maze of his mind. He doesn’t always know the way out or what the final results will be.

OuLipo merely took proscriptions that had once been applied to poetry and used them for novels. Even though the acrobatic, maze-like methods of Perec are absent in The Bark Tree, one feels that one is reading a comedic poem. The book certainly prefigures books like The Crying of Lot 49 as a conspiracy involving fake political groups going to war overlaps with tragic deaths at weddings amidst aloof attendees, a dwarf invasively camping out in the house of an upper-middleclass family along with many other narrative bisections.

The mechanics of the novel’s humor recalls Heller’s Catch-22, in that much of it is gathered by way of repetition or familiarity—in other words, the novel gets funnier the further you read and as the book teaches you how to read it.

Lacan’s work with patients and his rereading of Freud caused him to conclude that the unconscious mind behaves precisely like a language. Breton’s term, ‘psychic autonomy,’ implicitly harbors a presupposition that the psych is bound in chains by laws and gestures that have been imposed by bourgeois sensibilities hardened into convention. His conclusion is inevitably reactionary, as if the discovery of this ‘unconscious mind’ (which could only have been discovered if it was treated as a language—language being a highly coded series of proscriptions) was the abyss man needed to aim for if he hoped to ‘break free.’ The implicit goal of the surrealists was then to destroy language, in a sense.

Bataille would have us think of proscription, rather, as part and parcel of consciousness itself. For him, consciousness comes from the formation of taboos in relation to primitive—and perhaps untraceable—forms of ‘shame’ and the resulting rituals that developed in light of this shame. Consciousness is then not a supplemental feature of human existence, but a series of careful avoidances and ways around animality. It is not so much that our minds have acquired things that animals do not have, but we have put up walls to keep us from our animal nature, and this proscriptive process results in consciousness.

Poetry, art, music—all of this carries down in miniature the human vocation of rule-setting but in a conscious, ironic way. If consciousness is the wall built around the forest of taboo—the forest of original shame—then art is the story we write on the wall.

OuLipo did what many artists do already: they refined this process so that the proscriptions would yield beautiful results which might not have appeared otherwise. Their project was in keeping with the human spirit and the original vocation of art.

When The Bark Tree concludes with that same silhouette going back to the way it was in the beginning, having emerged briefly from that place with all of its color and music to take on human definition, the narrative mimics our recognition of the narrative in which we are always taking part.