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New Impressions

Raymond Roussel and the upside of crazy.

“Whatever I wrote was surrounded by rays of light,” a young Raymond Roussel told his psychoanalyst, Pierre Janet. “I used to close the curtains, for I was afraid that the shining rays emanating from my pen might escape into the outside world through even the smallest chink; I wanted suddenly to throw back the screen and light up the world.” Roussel was speaking literally, and Janet, who would treat Roussel for years, was taking notes.

Though nobody knows for sure, it’s suspected that Roussel first started seeing Janet in the years just before World War I, almost a decade after that first ecstatic experience he described in their early sessions. The manic spell coincided with the editing of La Doublure, a novel in verse that took most of Roussel’s adolescence to complete and that he believed “would illuminate the entire universe” when it was published. When it finally was published in 1897, La Doublure was ignored by critics. The reception to his obsessively detailed and obviously unsalable work ushered in a lifelong series of public disappointments for Roussel, a writer whose work was met—in his own words—with “an almost totally hostile incomprehension.” 

In later sessions with Janet, Roussel proved himself to be outlandishly hubristic and deluded about his chances at fame, predicting, for instance, that he would “enjoy greater glory than Victor Hugo or Napoleon.” Over dinner recently, I quoted this prophecy to a friend and roussellâtre (what one calls a Roussel enthusiast), and he laughed. “That’s what’s so insane about him,” my friend shouted over the restaurant’s ambient noise. “He actually thought that what he wrote was normal, that people would like it, that he deserved—and would find—a mainstream audience!”

In his lifetime, the French poet, playwright, and novelist never did find a mainstream audience, or any audience really. He remained buoyant, though, paying Lemerre—the then-stylish French publishing house known for its pale yellow covers—to print his books. And Roussel always worked with devilish focus: New Impressions of Africa, his illustrated poly-parenthetical alexandrine in four cantos, took him seventeen years to write (15 hours per line, by his calculation). But almost 100 years later, Roussel’s labor is still paying off. New editions of his books come out with relative frequency. In June of last year, Mark Polizzotti’s much-awaited new version of Impressions of Africa was finally published by the Dalkey Archive Press. In a Harper’s Magazine review, Ben Marcus referred to Polizzotti as Roussel’s “immaculate translator.”

Roussel’s posthumous reception is almost as predictable as the critical neglect he experienced when alive. That he was seized upon by the Surrealists as a patron saint is no surprise—his tacking sentences accumulate like iterations of an exquisite corpse. Marcel Duchamp adapted his plays, and the poet/ethnographer Michel Leiris cites Roussel’s puns and unhinged logic as his most major inspirations. Word games were the foundational principle of Roussel’s compositions, and they are an obvious precedent to the Oulipo (an acronym for what translates into English as “workshop of potential literature”), whose members ascribed to mathematical theories of writing and produced a body of work brimming with palindromes, lipograms, and acrostics. Locus Solus was the subject of Michel Foucault’s only extended work of literary criticism, in which he writes that Roussel “forces the reader to learn a secret that he had not recognized and to feel trapped in an anonymous, amorphous, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, never really demonstrable type of secret.” John Ashbery, not only one of our most acclaimed contemporary poets but a heralded translator of French, gives Roussel as the reason he studied the language in the first place.

In a case-by-case way, the lineage makes sense, but Roussel was really only retroactively considered avant-garde—by his proprietary (and posthumous) association with his admirers. However satisfying the creative genealogy is, tracing it doesn’t communicate just how bizarre it is to read Roussel’s martian dream writing. Neither, of course, does a condensed list of his conceptions. There’s a reason why Roussel has his own eponym.

By the time Roussel came to him as a patient, Janet was already a respected and widely published psychologist (he, not Freud, coined the term “subconscious”). Roussel makes frequent appearances in Janet’s writing under the pseudonym “Martial,” which is also the first name of the main character in Roussel’s novel Locus Solus. Janet first introduces Martial as “a young neuropath who is timid, scrupulous and easily depressed,” eventually concluding that he suffers from “a displaced form of religious mania.” The diagnosis, though grandiose-sounding itself, does explain a good deal of the imagery for which Roussel is now known. 

For only someone with a God delusion could think up what Roussel did—or, rather, what his procédé thought up: mosaics depicting Scandinavian morality tales rendered in rotten teeth, a theater of reanimated corpses impelled to endlessly act out the most significant events of their lives, a disappearing girl carrying a cornucopia filled with an infinite supply of gold coins, a sniper who can shave an egg down to its unmarred yolk in exactly 24 shots. Perhaps Roussel’s religious mania didn’t manifest itself in his imagery so much as in his devotion to a strategy he thought sacred.

Roussel’s world is strange because it is so specific, and his imaginative audacity reminds me of nothing so much as anime. Like Hayao Miyazaki movies—in which buses look like cats, amphibious girls have mouths full of salubrious saliva, monsters vomit up bathhouse employees, and decapitated spirit heads cure leprosy—Roussel’s works are littered with inconceivable amalgams. But at least in anime, there are protagonists with motives, however simplistic—they avenge family members, fall in love with characters that look like themselves, and seek adventure in parallel worlds. Roussel’s characters, if they can even be called that, express almost nothing a reader could identify as emotions. Bearing witness to the products of Roussel’s imagination isn’t nearly so unnerving as the moment that comes—quite late, it seems—when you are finally struck by the severe lack of human feeling. Janet outlines what he understands to be some of Roussel’s aesthetic principles: “The work must contain nothing real,” he deduces, “no observations on the world or the mind, nothing but completely imaginary combinations.”

Born in Paris in 1877—just a few blocks from the Prousts—Roussel grew up the coddled baby of a typically haute bourgeoisie family. His father was a stockbroker; his mother collected Dresden dolls. As an adult, Roussel would refer to his childhood as “many years of perfect bliss.” Photographs of a young Roussel—riding a live swan, posing as a chambermaid, dressed up as a Turkish sultan—corroborate his “delightful memory” of his boyhood and prove that he was always destined to Belle Epoque dandyism.

Roussel’s eccentricities were sundry and systematic. His biographer, Mark Ford, generously identifies them as “attempt[s] to screen out or neutralize the anxieties of living.” He fasted for days, wore garments for only limited amounts of time (collars, once; neckties, three times; suspenders, 15 times), and started and stopped work always on the hour. Roussel’s love for his own mother bordered on the erotic, and when she died, he had a pane of glass inserted into the lid of her coffin so that he could look at her corpse just a bit longer. There are more impish examples too, like his habit of tearing pages from his favorite books so that nobody could see what he was reading and then devouring them in the back seat of a chauffeured car. Most telling of what was clearly a personality disorder was Roussel’s conduct at social events, where “he became so afraid of causing offence, or of himself being offended, that he would pre-empt all potentially upsetting topics by asking an endless series of factual questions.”

This last behavioral anomaly can be read as a sort of clue to Roussel’s entire oeuvre, the individual works of which are enigmatic in total, but eerily precise line by line. A common Rousselian motif is the elaborately mechanized contraption—Louise Montalescot’s painting machine in Impressions of Africa (“a tantalizing experiment”) being his best known. Once set in motion (and lubricated with an essential oil harvested in a virgin jungle), it can reproduce any scene set before it. Unlike Rube Goldberg machines, which perform simple tasks in convoluted ways, Roussel’s inventions are marked not by their needlessly serpentine movement of parts, but by the fantastic weirdness of the machines’ purpose and the amount of time he devotes to describing the operation. The demonstration of the painting machine takes up close to six pages, for example. Roussel describes each system in painstaking, metaphor-free detail that would read like a technical manual if it weren’t for the inclusion of his adjective-heavy results: “The great trees of the Behuliphruen were faithfully reproduced with their magnificent limb, whose leaves, of strange hue and shape, were covered with a host of intense reflections. On the ground, large flowers in blue, yellow, or crimson sparkled amid the mosses . . .” And so on.

The detail is insanely minute but all “necessary,” it turns out. Roussel’s works are erected by a sui generis system of linguistic logic; he composed his plays, poems, and novels according to what he called a procédé, a sort of game played by the manipulation of homonymic French words. He never revealed his trick while alive; we know of it only from reading his How I Wrote Certain of My Books, which came out in 1935, two years after Roussel died of a suicidal barbiturate overdose, destitute on account of all the self-publishing, in a Palermo hotel. In the (unbidden) coda to his works, Roussel explains that he arrived at this contrivance—the procédé – only after years of tinkering and rearranging, a period he called “prospecting.” As Roussel describes the process, one would think his word games were as simple as grade-school mathematical equations: “I would choose a word and then link it to another by the preposition à; and these two words, which when considered in relation to meanings other than their initial meaning, supplied me with a further creation.” He goes on to cite some examples—small islands become Spartan slaves, feeble individuals become calf lungs.

Roussel describes the disclosure—“my duty”—as an act of altruism, hoping that future writers would “exploit it fruitfully.” It seems more likely, though, that the divulgence was in fact a final plea for prominence, a delightful secret, an intellectually flattering advertisement for himself that Roussel was unable to keep, even after his death. That his distorted phrases are the products of self-imposed and artificial constraints doesn’t always quite justify their ends. Even Foucault, himself a roussellâtre, admits, after a long discussion of Roussel’s “glaring doubt” and “internal void,” that “[i]n the reading, his works promise nothing.”

This is of course an exaggeration. Roussel might not promise internal revelations, but he does promise a singular kind of perverse pleasure, which is due in no small part to his meticulousness and relentless practicality. The flipside of the pleasure is an exasperating sense of pointlessness, the same torment one feels when already improbable sci-fi movies are ruined with logistical questions about time travel. Roussel is gratuitously coherent; the very content of his texts consists of pre-empted questions we would never even ask: about the anatomy of monsters or the hydraulic capacities of made-up machines. Almost every scene Roussel ever wrote is unquotable—not because his reasoning isn’t sound, but because he goes on at such painstaking length. The delight is dispersed, and abridgement would demand the omission of too much already fraught charm. Even despite his sometimes excruciating protractedness, there is a Nabokovian lustre to Roussel’s images (sparkling purple liquids, winged pets). It’s undeniably hypnotic. Cocteau originally rejected Roussel, afraid that he would be placed “under a spell from which [he] could not escape.”

This tension between madness and sobriety—a madness so soberly composed—is, I think, why it is possible to love, and even to like, Raymond Roussel. His works, constrained by exotic, arithmetic rules, are what a sane person imagines—and wants—a lunatic to have produced: freakish hallucinations explained by a foreign but thorough and consistent logic.

I went on a walk recently with an old friend who suffered a psychotic break during college. It was the hour I spent with her that got me thinking of mental illness as something that could take an aesthetically ideal form. In the past few years, her condition has alternately improved and deteriorated for reasons that remain obscure to me, to her, and—presumably—to her doctors. Each time I’ve seen her since the initial hospitalization, I’ve left unable to summarize the experience. This last time, the off-ness of her mental state seemed more acute than usual. Maybe her medication had changed, or perhaps the difference between us was just more pronounced because we were walking. Her pace was impossibly slow—I literally could not move that slowly without pausing to stand still every few seconds. In her company, I felt like a bike that topples over once you stop pedaling. Her speech was also drawn out, and for the most part I never knew what she was talking about. Her pronouns lacked antecedents. There were no periods, but lots of ellipses. I tried to ask specific and direct questions that I thought would force her to respond specifically and directly, but somehow her answers always dissolved into baffling nothingness. Her grammar was mystifying, but the content of what she said wasn’t eccentric at all: no delusions, no bewildering rage, no paranoia.

Real psychosis is, among more serious and empathetic adjectives, unsatisfying. At the time, and for a long while after, I tried to recreate the conversation I had with my friend (or at least her parts of it) and couldn’t. Roussel’s sentences, unlike my friend’s sentences—which seemed assembled out of only prepositions, words I knew but couldn’t define, and which added up only to lifeless nonsense when combined—read cogently. In Locus Solus, Roussel makes us understand how a deck of tarot cards could produce emerald illuminations and an “extensive though nondescript concert.” In Impressions of Africa we are presented with Celtic warriors, a Roman circus, and a gospel of Saint Luke, each suspended in the pulp of an individual grape’s flesh. We don’t blink an eye. Roussel makes perfect but eccentric sense. This is what is best and most terrifying about his writing—that the fantasies of a madman can seem so lucid. 

  • Alice Gregory is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in New Yorkn+1, The Boston Globe, Tablet, and NPR.org, among other publications.


New Impressions

Raymond Roussel and the upside of crazy.
  • Alice Gregory is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in New Yorkn+1, The Boston Globe, Tablet, and NPR.org, among other publications.

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