Calvino, Llull, Lucretius - Two Models of Literary Combinatorics
Jan 2012: Comparative Literature 64(1): 94-109 A recurring problem in much critical writing ab... more Jan 2012: Comparative Literature 64(1): 94-109 A recurring problem in much critical writing about the Oulipo is a tendency to homogenize the output of the group’s writers in order to present a universal poetics of constrained writing. Oulipians rightly bristle at these attempts to oversimplify the group’s history. Nevertheless one useful distinction has been made by Jacques Roubaud who notes the widening of the group’s membership which began with himself in 1966, and postulates that a second era—the “Perecquian era”—of the Oulipo began in 1969, when Georges Perec published his infamous novel without the letter e, La Disparition. This paper will look closely at the theoretical writing of Italo Calvino over the six year period from 1967 to 1973—the years between his translation of Raymond Queneau’s novel Les Fleurs bleues and his full election to the Oulipo—arguing that, during this time, Calvino’s own poetics underwent a significant change with regard to the perceived relationship between creativity and constraint. The paper will make its case by analogy with two authors often cited by the Oulipo—the medieval theologian Ramón Llull and the Atomist philosopher Lucretius—between whom Calvino draws a parallel in one of his final works, the undelivered lectures, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Instead of a parallel, however, this paper will argue that Llull and Lucretius represent two opposing models of the combinatorics, and that the former encapsulates Calvino’s views at the start of the period in question, while the latter neatly exemplifies his later position. It will suggest too that the trend in Calvino’s thought is germane to the distinction which Roubaud makes—that Calvino’s earlier position is characteristic of the “pre-Perecquian Oulipo,” while his later views are closer to those expressed by some of his peers among the group’s second wave.
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