A Soul is a Strange Factory

Paris, 8th December, 1922. In the Théâtre Antoine, Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus is having its opening night. The audience grow rowdy at elements they did not expect from an evening at the theatre: there is a ballet of skeletons and singing fish, characters rise to heaven or break out into burlesque, and a review in the New York Times of the next day informs us that ‘[it] attempts to convince the audience that earthworms are just as fond of music as human beings and easily tamed’. By the third act, the crowd are heckling, whistling, throwing coins, and arguing with the actors. Yet, sat among the audience that night are a group of Dadaists, all admirers of the author, and keen to defend him: up jump Vitrac, Leiris, Breton, Aragon and others, who join in the fighting in an attempt to protect the actors and stage (three nights later, Breton will be arrested for an over-vigorous ‘defence’ of another performance). Sat to one side, Raymond Roussel silently observes the angry public and the eventual Surrealists; both incomprehensible to this author who somehow, through images of muttering corpses and parrots’ tongues, dreamt of global success.

My soul is a strange factory

Roussel is probably not a familiar name to most. It was unknown to me until one day while chatting with a tutor, when a mention of language games prompted him to lean over and dig out an encyclopaedia of French literature, searching fussily for the right entry: ‘Perfect, here we are!’. I only got a glance – dandyism, addiction to barbiturates, world travel – before the book was snapped shut and the conversation moved on. Fortunately, it was a memorable glance, and I sought out his work. Those first impressions were fleshed out. I discovered an eccentric and deeply troubled man stranded at the turn of the 20th century. Born in 1877, he led a life as strange as his fiction, although certainly easier to digest. I read about a severe fear of tunnels, a habit of only wearing collars once, and a great black vehicle in which he travelled the globe (neglecting to look out of the window in favour of his meticulous writing). He wrote near-unreadable books while dreaming of popular acclaim: worshipping Jules Verne, he reads more like a proto-Pynchon. That quick glance at the encyclopaedia entry was my own initiation into the small cult of Roussel admirers. Mark Ford opens his biography of the man, Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (2000) with a description of a meeting a fellow fan: ‘I felt like a neophyte who has just made his first successful contact with another member of a secret order he has recently joined;.

The machine knew how to recreate the same work indefinitely, without help or surveillance

In this Rousselian secret order, mechanical imagery is everywhere. Over and over again in his work, the image of the art-machine appears; in ‘Mon me’, a poem written at 17, he compares his soul to a vast and infernal factory. Miners and factory hands unearth and churn out poetry: ‘Ils saisissent à la surface/ Les vers déjà formés un peu’ (From the surface they seize/the verses, already part-formed). It recurs yet more frequently in his later, stranger novels. In Locus Solus (1914), the reader is led around the vast home of a genius inventor named Canterel. Amongst his creations is a ‘paving-beetle’, suspended by a balloon, which lays out mosaics of human teeth: ‘The contours and the proportions varied endlessly – immense molars and monstrous canines side by side with near-imperceptible milk teeth. Metallic reflections blossomed here and there from silver or gold fillings’. Art is detached from the need for a creator in Locus Solus – objects multiply themselves. In the square at the centre of the fictitious village in Impressions of Africa (1910) stands a statue of Immanuel Kant which, when a magpie lands on a special perch, illuminates his head:

One divined the presence of countless reflectors, placed facing in every direction inside the head. So great was the violence with which the bright rays, representing the fires of genius, escaped from their incandescent source… Each time the bird’s weight was applied to the lever, it seemed as though some transparent idea was born in the thinker’s brain, as it blazed suddenly with light. 

There are yet more art-machines in this novel, in particular that created by Louise Montalescot in the final display of Les Incomparables, the group of stranded geniuses in the text. Her photosensitive creation captures a landscape, then paintbrushes attached to a wheel transfer it to canvas. There is also the inventor Bedu’s ‘precious machine borne out of his industrious perseverance’: an impossible tapestry machine which weaves out of rushing water shining scenes of the biblical Flood. As with clockwork Kant, the process of creation is depersonalised – there is no transcendent genius to be found here.

Music is also mechanized. Locus Solus features a worm-shaped music machine which convulses drops of water onto the strings of a zither. Roussel compares it to ‘a miniaturized version of the componium of the Brussels Conservatoire’, pointing to the bizarre real-life inventions of his own time. This strange contraption was a variation on the orchestrion, a machine made to imitate an orchestra through the rolls of music it played. The componium was unique in that it played a random stream of muzak by endlessly combining random notes, creating a never-to-be-repeated tune. In this respect, one may begin to better understand what J. A. Duncan refers to when he discusses Roussel’s ‘sophisticated contrivances – which have nothing to do with utility but mock the age of machines by the absurdity underlying their apparent ingenuity’. Despite the remarkable advances in technology being made in his time (vacuum cleaners, combustion engines, radios and helicopters) Roussel tends to interpret these wonders as a kind of magic. Instead of weapons or washing machines, he focuses on making a comparison to one odd muzakmaker now relegated to a museum. It is important to remember his own circumstances in this respect. A pampered man-child, he was the wealthiest author of his time. He had no need to interact with the utility of the new machines which furnished his lavish lifestyle – indeed, he went so far as to refuse to eat food that showed signs of serration. Tomatoes would have to appear as though they had been parted out of sheer self-will. The sign of human effort, of the interference of a tool like a knife, was unthinkable – little wonder that his creations never venture into the realms of usefulness.

Like the componium, random chance is at the heart of Roussel’s work. It is not just the images which are mechanized: the whole system by which he wrote was a tightly regulated game of chance. The books were constructed according to a complex system of homophones: ‘I chose two similar words. For example, billard (billiard) and pillard (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.’ A story beginning with ‘Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard’ (the white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table) must somehow end with ‘Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard’ (letters written by a white man about the hordes of the old plunderer). This was not the only method he used: certain images are also created from homophones – ‘These last three couplings of words gave me a statue of a Spartan slave, made out of whalebone corsets, rolling on rails made from calf’s lung…’ The never-ending variety of images that Roussel finds in this system of word-games is the result of both a strict writing system and the randomness of homophones. Roussel’s infinity isn’t sublime or poetic – it is the endlessness of a random number generator.

Was Roussel himself a type of art-machine? He was at several points in his life subsumed entirely by his manic need to write. One can picture him, monomaniacal, bent over his writing desk in a little darkened carriage while a Tahitian sunset burns outside. There is a remarkable quote detailing the most passionate of these phases when, aged 19, he spent six months gripped in a frenzy of writing, convinced of his genius: ‘Whatever I wrote was surrounded by rays of light; I used to close the curtains, for I was afraid the shining rays emanating from my pen might escape into the outside world through even the smallest chink’. He was machine-like, too, in the curious emotional detachment that permeates his work. Nicholas Jenkins, reviewing the detailed minutiae present in Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1932), notes the significance of an infected uvula: ‘A distasteful glimpse into the depths of an infected mouth is the nearest that Roussel’s writing ever comes to entering the inner world of another person.’ Roussel truly believed himself to be apart from all those around him. There is a fantastic story of the poet Péret attempting to contact him, only to be brushed off with the assertion that ‘he did not class himself as belonging to any school’. This detachment could often turn dark, particularly in the months leading up to his death from overdose. Addicted to barbiturates in a hotel in Palermo, Michel Leiris describes him then: ‘handsome and elegant, but a bit heavier, somewhat slumped, and he spoke as if from a great distance’. In the ever-widening distance, he seems to have been a flesh and blood precursor to those melancholic, neurotic robots that crop up in science fiction now and again – a very French paranoid android.

Roussel’s mixed legacy is painfully apparent considering the gap between ambitions and reception. While popular literature has not been kind to him, the rarefied world of installation has welcomed him with open arms. Although it was no condolence to him, there is no denying the influence he has had on visual artists to this day. Ideas from his work can be seen in that of Marcel Duchamp, a dedicated follower who went to Roussel’s plays, to Pierre Huyghe’s later installations incorporating live animals (much like the worm attached to the zither in Locus Solus). In particular, his influence is most visible in the mechanical moving creations of Jean Tinguely. Tinguely never explicitly stated that he had been inspired by Roussel, but often did implicitly acknowledge it. This inspiration is undeniable when looking at the former’s 1950s Métamatics, a series of clanking great iron machines armed with paintbrushes. These are Roussel’s art-machines brought to life. There is another, more subjective reason for which the artist calls to mind the author. At a retrospective of Tinguely’s work in Amsterdam, after I had just read Impressions of Africa for the first time, I was struck by two things. The first was the deeply Rousselian nature of much of his sculpture, particularly the smaller pieces made of junk: a radio attached to a tin can and a dead stoat, playing music from jangling scrap metal, would not have seemed out of place in Locus Solus. But the second was the reception from the visitors in the gallery: whole families ooh-ing and aah-ing at the moving machines, small children running between them laughing, students and toddlers and grandparents clapping together when a particularly magnificent piece whirred unexpectedly into motion. Here was a 1950s take on the paving-beetle, the worm-zither, the paintbrush-wheel, and here too was the popular all-ages acclaim which Roussel had so desperately sought.

In the delighted reactions of children, I also began to understand more about Roussel’s machines. Having spent so long contemplating their significance in art and industrialisation, it was easy to forget that the closest thing to a useless, entertaining, fantastical machine is a child’s toy. After all, this was the man obsessed with authors like Jules Verne and Pierre Loti, the man who would have his chauffeur drive out to the countryside where he would curl up in the back seat with a copy of Around the World in Eighty Days or Les Trois Dames de la Kasbah, and lose himself in their childish worlds. Their influence finally showed on my last reading of Locus Solus, hinting at a populism that was never to be. The story of a king, travelling deep into a marble-and-gold cavern to carve out a message for his future heir, read as though it were a forgotten folktale, as did the ‘popular and moral story’ of a Norwegian duke battling to earn the love of fair Christel, married to the evil baron Skjelderup. The exoticism of Loti’s Orientalist works is clearly visible in the ‘Africa’ that Roussel conceives, separate as it is from the reality of the continent, and he takes the focus on fantasy at the expense of characterisation (a not uncommon feature of these adventure novels) to its extreme. His work was a child’s adventure story turned inside-out. So too was his life, recalling Larkin’s ‘hideous inverted childhood’, whether cocooned in the black vehicle in which he travelled the world, or in the warm irreality of barbiturates. In light of all this infantile fancy, the machines that dominate his work can be seen less as a comment on technology, and more as a distorted toybox: woven water, singing fish and all.

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