Oulipian Moment for the End of Times

[This was first read—in French!—on Thursday March 21, 2006, at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. I have adapted it into English.]

Dear public of the monthly Oulipo public readings:

I put myself in your shoes (at least in imagination). I thus imagine that you are at this moment looking at the stage of the BNF auditorium. I also imagine that, if you are indeed looking at the stage, you are probably seeing something on it. Something quite curious. Maybe even slightly ominous. Certainly perplexing. Should we venture to say, something catastrophic?

If you attend the Oulipo readings regularly, you have gotten used to seeing on stage a more or less varied, more or less numerous assortment of Oulipians.

I put myself in your shoes (again, in imagination … be advised that I like comfortable, rugged shoes, can’t walk in heels, and feel quite naked and exposed in sandals, so maybe I’m only putting myself in certain kinds of shoes, even in imagination … ). You are possibly looking; it is probable, if that’s the case, that you are seeing; and it is certain, if that is the case, that you are telling yourself: “But, où sont-ils? Where are they? Where is Marcel Bénabou? Where is Jacques Roubaud? Where is Jacques Jouet? Where is François Caradec? Where is Olivier Salon? Where is Ian Monk? Where is Hervé Le Tellier? Where is Frédéric Forte?” You even wonder about the more rarely sighted Oulipians. Where are Harry Mathews, Paul Braffort, Bernard Cerquiglini?

You must be telling yourself that this has to be some trick, some ploy, some new Oulipian invention, and that THEY are on their way, that THEY are going to pop out of the wings, once the Oulipian constraint will have run its formal course. You may even be reflecting that the Oulipo, after so many years of lipogrammatic functioning along the lines of La Disparition (no trace of an ‘e’, i.e., of the feminine) has decided to indulge in a brief spell of Revenentes (only ‘e’s, only the feminine). You wish.

I’m starting to feel quite comfortable in your shoes (in imagination only), but there’s no lifting ourselves out of this situation by your bootstraps. Let me assure you: there is no ploy, no feint, no recourse. You are all alone with us: Valérie Beaudoin, Michelle Grangaud and myself.

The wings are empty; the dressing-rooms deserted; there will be no ex-machina male Oulipian tonight to resolve and save the ending of this considerable tragedy in the realm of French (and possibly world) culture:

An Oulipo solely represented by women.

This is unheard of. Unsymbolizable. Could it be one of the forewarning signs of the end of times? The apocalyptic moment of culture?

Some in the Oulipo, foreseeing the catastrophe about to happen even called for the cancellation of tonight’s public reading. Countervailing forces (the adventurous souls among the Oulipo) rose up to advocate letting the event take place, whatever might come of it.

I put myself in your shoes (I’m even wiggling my toes in them). The spectacle must be mind-boggling. Worse, it must feel perfectly invraisemblable, unlikely.

What is indeed the probability that such a state of affairs could ever obtain?

While in your shoes, I took the step of calculating the mathematical chances of the event you are now witnessing.

Picture for a moment the Oulipo as a pack of cards. So many members, so many cards: at this point in history, an accumulated stack of 34 cards. From these 34, 13 are substracted from a possible hand by the absurd accident of their death (we’ll just have to imagine them hidden in the sleeve of Potentiality itself).

In the remaining stack of 21 Oulipian cards, there are exactly 4 feminine figures (I’ll call them by their french name, Dames: the civic republican and radical egalitarian strain in me objects to ‘Queens’). Our little mathematical problem can be summed up in the following way: what is the probability, in this monthly poker game of a public reading, of being dealt a three-of-a-kind hand comprised of dames, and only dames?

Answer: 0.003 (3 chances out of a thousand).

Compare this with the probability of an unalloyed masculine three-of-a-kind deal: 0.51 (more than one chance in two).

If I were you (but I am not you, however insistently I may have been stepping on your toes in order to get into your shoes) and taking such probabilities into account, it would seem to me rational to doubt what I see.

If I were you, I would simply refuse to believe my eyes.

Your eyes tell you there are 3 Oulipiennes on stage; one of them tells you it is improbable that there would be 3 Oulipiennes on stage.

Now, who are you gonna believe, your eyes or me? [As Marx used to say … good old brother Marx … ]

The existence of God may very well be less improbable than this all-women Oulipo.

The destruction of our planet itself, and in a rather near future, is less improbable still. NASA has computed a one in 300 chance that the earth may collide around March 16, 2880, with meteorite 1950DA (whose diameter exceeds 1 km).

Tonight’s event should fill you with ominous forebodings: first the take-over of the Oulipo readings by women.… What next? Nothing more and nothing less than the beginning of the End of Times.