Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Impressions of Africa

by Raymond Roussel

Translated by Lindy Foord and Rayner Heppenstall

Raymond Roussel is primarily known, by those who know of him at all, as just another in a long line of foppish 19th century eccentrics; he’s the one who wore a completely new outfit everyday, who lived next door to Marcel Proust, and squandered his considerable fortune on drugs, flamboyant theatrical productions, and independently funded runs of his own verse and prose. Though the details of his life are important in any full understanding of Roussel’s books, his biography threatens to overshadow and marginalize a remarkable body of work, one which more than just anticipating Surrealism, also confronts issues of industrialization, post-war Capitalism, and Imperialism, as well as establishing a precedent for postmodern theory. French thinkers to follow, such as Derrida, Deleuze and Debord, are especially indebted to his work. Roussel’s work reflects his eccentricities, but more importantly they reflect the changing cultural climate at the opening of the twentieth century. Yes, the anecdotes of Roussel’s life may help attract those readers with a cultivated interest in the esoteric and bizarre, but taken in the absence of a close reading of his work, they misrepresent a writer who also prefigures the roman nouveau of Alain Robbe-Grillet, in addition to the early works of American writer, Nicholson Baker, such as “The Mezzanine” and “Room Temperature.”

So, if Roussel is as important a writer as I say he is, what exactly is he all about? Is he simply a fin de siecle decadent obsessed with impossible machines and improbable tales? In part, yes, he is, and wonderfully so. But at its heart, Roussel’s writing is about itself, and how it is read. That is, it’s as much about the reader and their reactions to the text as it is about the text. What’s his novel, “Impressions of Africa,” about then, with its deep jungle empires and insane machines? At the conclusion of the novel, the soprano Carmichael snatches a manuscript out of the hands of the novel’s unnamed narrator. The soprano tears “…up with joyful haste, the infernal text which reminded him of so many hours of nerve-racking and tedious labor...” spent learning a bizarre and complex musical score. Mind you, can it really be a coincidence that such a statement comes on the second-to-last page of a novel ostentatiously about a crew of ingénue inventors shipwrecked off the coast of Africa?

Despite sharing its premise with countless turn of the century penny thrillers, “Impressions of Africa” could never be mistaken for “King Solomon’s Mines.” The first 151 pages of the novel describe in detail the coronation of Talu VII, Emperor of Ponukele and King of Drelshkaf. The ceremony itself is full of marvels, such as a sharpshooter who shoots off both the shell and the white of an uncooked egg, leaving only the yoke held in its thin membrane, as well as a boy who attaches himself to a high-flying vulture with the aid of the glue-like secretions of a strange breed of rat. Needless to say, those examples are only the tip of the iceberg.

Okay, so this all sounds pretty exciting so far, but the book is never about what happens next, but what already happened. The second half of the novel only includes a quick aside stating that the ransom for the prisoners was paid and are able to return to Europe. It isn’t concerned with resolution, but with exposition, in the form of an in-depth explanation of the otherwise incoherent first half. The second half of the book creates the context for the first half – the point of the book is to explain and contain itself. “Impressions of Africa” is a difficult and tedious read at times. The book spends over 150 pages describing the construction and operation of countless fantastic machines, all told with an obsessive eye for detail in dry, calculated prose.

All of these machinations are enacted for the edification of the emperor of Ponukele, Talu VI. In many ways, Roussel finds his avatar in Talu VII, who in addition to demanding impossible and fantastic feats from his captives, is also a poet who composes a long and exhaustive masterpiece. This epic poem is the Jeruka, “…which had a strange rhythm and tonality, (and) consisted of a single, short motif, repeated indefinitely with a constant change of words.” The European captives of Talu VII are astounded by the Jeruka’s strange richness, but eventually grow tired of the seemingly endless poem, which is itself a stand-in for “Impressions of Africa.” While Talu VII in many ways is Roussel, the Frenchman is unlike the sovereign in that he is fully aware of the tedium such ceaseless mechanical prowess is certain to engender. This exhaustion and boredom is a response he continually refers to throughout the text extant.

The numerous episodes of the novel, which seem to serve no greater narrative purpose, are in fact microcosms of the larger unity of the book itself. The scientist Bex is one of the many miracle-workers who compose Talu VII’s captives. At the coronation day festival, Bex shows off his “…gigantic buttonstick, which together with the cylinders, amply demonstrated the virtues of his discovery, without serving any practical purpose.” What is its purpose then? The buttonstick’s purpose is simply to be, and in the act of being, it generates a spectacle. Remember when I earlier compared Roussel to Guy Debord? The novel’s endless gadgets and eccentric tales within tales strongly echo the opening of Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle:” “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.”

There is no directly experienced living in “Impressions of Africa,” everything is simulation and artifice. The plot, that the crew of the Lynceus is being held for ransom in the African kingdom of Ponukele, is finally articulated at about the novel’s midpoint. Instead of presenting a captivating narrative for the reader to latch onto in anticipation of what is to come; all the ensuing drama occurs in the past tense. The captives do not attempt a rousing escape; they wait for the emissary Seil Kor, to return to the capital city of Ejur with their ransom. Nothing happens, everything has already happened. Andre Breton, in his first “Manifesto of Surrealism,” writes, “Roussel is Surrealist as a storyteller.” It is precisely this narrative stasis Breton was celebrating.

The book occupies itself with description and elaborate categorization, but the tendency of Roussel to use monotony and lists betray his disregard for realism or the illusory tricks naturalism employs to create a submersive text. This book is as much a manual as it is a novel. Passage after passage of the book proceeds with deliberate precision. The schematics of a sealed laboratory cell are soberly explained, indicating how “…the least infiltration of light would jeopardize the work’s success, and a panel in the roof would lend itself better than any lateral doorway to an hermetical closure guaranteed by its own weight.” Instead of convincing the reader of such a machine’s veracity, these description in a dry, monotonous litany, actually highlight the artificiality of this book, and of all books - the artificiality of narrative.

It was already stated that narrative remains in stasis throughout Roussel’s novel, so what is the point of this all? Process. Process before functionality. Mechanical inevitability over whim. The procedure itself, like the movements of a industrial machine, is more important than what is created. Process itself is beautiful, regardless of whether it creates some thing of beauty. Consider Roussel’s anecdote of Handel, where the composer attempts to transcribe into music a particular phrase “…which had been worked out by no direction but by chance…” but eventually “the same phrase of twenty-three notes recurred throughout, each time differently presented, and alone constituted the famous Vesper oratorio, a work of unmistakable power and serenity…” Here we see a fixed process producing beauty, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Elsewhere in the text, process is its own reward. Classical ideals of beauty are marginalized on behalf of procedure. Consider how the captive Europeans chose to communicate their bets in a makeshift gambling ring in Ejur. They “…decided that only orders placed in alexandrines would be accepted.” Remember that Roussel wrote his verse novel, “New Impressions of Africa” in alexandrines as well. The captives’ attempts to gamble result in “…halting alexandrines full of padding and misplaced hiatuses…” Whether or not their poetry is of any beauty is of less importance than the very existence of this process-based poetry.

Roussel, like JK Huysmans, represents an intriguing step in the development of our contemporary aesthetic. Roussel renounces the bourgeois mandate that art be beautiful, but remember, Roussel is no petit bourgeois; he is exactly the sort of over-cultivated aristocrat that Huymans’ “A Rebours” eulogizes (and also lampoons). The procedure itself is a thing of beauty and power for Roussel, but don’t mistake his process-based experiments with the transformative, transcendental experimentalism of John Cage or Jackson Mac Low. The fate of the Lynceus and its crew is in a way a metaphor for Roussel himself. The ship sets sail for America, home to both the vulgarity and innovation making aristocrats such as Roussel obsolete. Before reaching the New World, the vessel is shipwrecked in Africa, but not the Africa of history, instead it’s an unknown land fabricated by the children of Imperialism and Capitalism. This imagined Africa is populated by people, like Talu VII, Fogar and Seil Kor, who initially pose a threat to the crew as the other. Before long, the fantastic is normalized, and they each in their own way appropriate the culture and science of the Occident. They also substantially improve upon the inventions of the Europeans. They are the new blood, like the bourgeois at the end of “A Rebours,” who are entitled to the future. In the final sentence of the novel, the crew of the Lynceus return to Europe and “…took leave of each other on the quayside at La Joliette, after a cordial exchange of handshakes…” ending the novel in an appropriately gentile show of etiquette. The old ways, obsolete in lieu of a changing context.

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