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How much is too much knowledge?

A literary symposium and an organ marathon prompt questions about how information affects the experience of art.

November 01, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Even if I hadn't been stuck in downtown traffic Friday morning, I probably would have been glued to the radio. Political reporters pressed special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald to reveal more about his investigation of a White House leak that outed a covert CIA agent than was included in his short report. He resisted, saying that he did not enjoy keeping secrets but that he was constrained by law.

My destination was the start of a two-day symposium at REDCAT, the CalArts-run black box at Walt Disney Concert Hall, on the gleefully obscure French literary outfit Oulipo. On Saturday, Oulipo would give way for me to Olivier Messiaen's ecstatically recondite French organ music at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels up the street. The Oulipo writers and Messiaen are cover-up artists who all but fetishize constraint.

Fitzgerald posed the latest riveting example of a question that has long been central to society and to belief: How much should we know? Whether in terms of national security, our personal health or religion, we can never be sure exactly where to draw the line. We may fear the danger of too much knowledge (especially when it is poorly understood), but we also fear the motives of those who withhold such knowledge.

This has long been true in the arts as well. Do you understand a piece of music better if you know its secrets, or does illumination destroy mystery just as explaining a joke defuses its humor? Might audiences at classical music concerts be more receptive, not less, if they didn't read program notes? Is there a reason why so many people who profess to believe in the Bible haven't actually read it?

This weekend downtown offered the two extremes. At REDCAT, academics went into high-explanatory gear. At the cathedral, religion predominated, and no elucidation was felt necessary.

Oulipo, a society for literary bondage, was formed in 1960. Inspired by such writers as Raymond Queneau and wanting to give mathematical flair to their writing, the members of this group turned to experiment. For them, creativity was inspired by producing works under conditions of sometimes severe restraints. A famous example is George Perec's substantial, perfectly readable novel "La Disparition," which does not contain the letter E. It was brilliantly translated by Gilbert Adair as "A Void," also without the letter E.

The intriguing aesthetic uncertainty is just how much knowledge of that constraint affects your enjoyment of the novel. Perec professed to be pleased when reviewers didn't notice the missing vowel. And maybe we should admire those reviewers. We cannot read "A Void" without looking out for an E. Yet there is a whole new level of appreciation you gain when you're aware of Perec's feat. James Joyce's "Ulysses" is a great read if you don't know the Odyssey, but it is all the more fascinating if you do.

At REDCAT, Oulipians argued for revelation. They've allied with mathematicians, and in some of their best work they give poetic voice to algorithms, displaying what is meant by the elegance of a mathematical solution. But they are also a sly bunch. Paul Fournel, the whimsical president of Oulipo and the best writer about bicycling in any language, posed the question at hand as, "To reveal or not to reveal?" He then explained how the Italian novelist Italo Calvino published an explanation of his Oulipian masterpiece, "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler," only in French, instructing that it never be translated into Italian.

Some cultures, clearly, handle transparency better than others. In his marvelous new "autobiographical" novel, "My Life in CIA," Harry Mathews, an American Oulipian, sheds no light at all on the truth of the rumors that he was a covert agent in the '70s posing as an experimental writer in Paris. You can read it either way. What might Mathews have had to say about the current state of the CIA had he attended the REDCAT conference? I'll bet nothing substantial but something nonetheless fascinating.

Yet the weekend's more academic papers that I heard proved of little consequence. Critical theory often takes less pleasure in text than in critical competition, in the theorists' own jostling for position.

Olivier Messiaen was not an Oulipian, but he might well have been. He came out of the same general postwar French intellectual and artistic climate. He led the movement to create music using extreme constraints in the form of mathematical formulas.

And in the best Oulipian spirit, his music is a passionate, sensual embracing of form. He shared the idea that mathematics underlies everything, be it the erotic or the divine (and he doesn't make a huge distinction between the two). But he was also deeply devoted to the Roman Catholic Church, which was a most un-Oulipian position.

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