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Delirium of Imagination: Raymond Roussel and the Large Glass

Just prior to moving to Munich in 1912, Marcel Duchamp accompanied Gaby Picabia and Apollinaire to a performance of Raymond Roussel’s play Impressions of Africa in PariSandra Roussel, the obscure French author and playwright heavily influenced by Jules Verne’s fanciful machines and dream-like voyages, adapted his novel and funded the elaborate production. Although unpopular with the upper-bourgeoisie and panned by critics of the time, Roussel remained in vogue with the avant-garde, including the Surrealists, Oulipo (Ouvoir de Litterature Potentielle – Workshop of Potential Literature founded in Paris in 1960) and the authors of the nouveau roman.

One of Roussel’s biggest admirers, Duchamp credited Roussel for his Large Glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelours, Even. Duchamp admitted, “it was fundamentally Roussel who was responsible for my glass Referencing Impressions of Africa, Duchamp stated, “I got the general approach… Roussel showed me the way.”  Although Roussel and Duchamp never met in person, Duchamp commended Roussel’s “delirium of imagination.” The two men were both inquisitive about technology and the imposition of the machine age on the human spirit.

Interest in mechanics and science was popular among the European avant-garde at the time Roussel produced Impressions of Africa. Besides the illogical journeys and outlandish inventions, such as a machine that produced paintings, Roussel was most noted for his elaborate word play. Based on hypnotic puns, he devised a unique compositional method. In his posthumously published book, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, Roussel stated, “I chose two similar words. For example billiards and pilliards (looter). Then I added to it words similar but taken in two different directions, and I obtained two almost identical sentences thus. The two sentences found, it was a question of writing a tale which can start with the first and finish by the second. Amplifying the process then, I sought new words reporting itself to the word billiards, always to take them in a different direction than that which was presented first of all, and that provided me each time a creation moreover. The process evolved/moved and I was led to take an unspecified sentence, of which I drew from the images by dislocating it, a little as if it had been a question of extracting some from the drawings of rebus.”

Michel Leris had this to say about Roussel’s work, “Roussel…discovered one of the most ancient and widely used patterns of the human mind: the formation of myths starting from words That is (as though he had decided to illustrate Max Müller’s theory that myths were born out of a sort of ‘disease of language’), transposition of what was at first a simple fact of language into a dramatic action.”

Unfortunately for Roussel and his ambitions for immortality as a writer, he is most often remembered for his absurdly shocking theatre productions such as Impressions of Africa and not for his poetic zeal.

To learn more about Raymond Roussel pick up a copy of Raymond Roussel by Francois Caradec  or Mark Ford’s Raymond Roussel and the Republic of DreamSandra And if you want to delve deeper into Roussel, search out Michel Foucault’s Death and the Labyrinth.

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