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May 18, 1986|Andrew J. McKenna

DEATH AND THE LABYRINTH: THE WORLD OF RAYMOND ROUSSEL by Michel Foucault; translated by Charles Ruas (Doubleday; $15.95). At age 19, Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) experienced what he called a "sensation of universal glory," and he spent the rest of his life trying to recapture it through literature. Before committing suicide, he bequeathed to posterity, in "How I Wrote Certain of My Books," a "process" by which to generate fictions out of word play; images are derived by dislocating elements of pat or chance phrases, narratives spring from coupling two words taken in two different senses or from mere homophonic word play. For Foucault, this produces "wonderful and impossible machines" which "set free the whole brilliant and vibrant surface of words" and "create a whole expanse of strange flowers, metallic, dead, whose silent growth hides the monotonous beating of words."

In short, a purely verbal universe, which may strike readers instead as what Foucault blamelessly calls "a technical eternity, barren and cold," which "has turned to stone a language." Such ungainly word ordering reflects part of the difficulty of this book; the translation is often too literal and too close to the syntax of the original, so that Foucault's dazzling periods and paradoxes on words and things, on words as things, on "the proliferating emptiness of words," do not always come across. And while no study of Roussel can dispense with Foucault's effulgent essay, perhaps no study of the writer for us Anglophones is worthwhile. After all, we have Lewis Carroll's "Alice," whose humor is entirely lacking to Roussel's arcane inventions. There's glory for you.

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