In 1969, Georges Perec wrote a 300-page French detective story, La Disparition, without once using the letter “e.” This was a linguistic marvel by any measure, one-upped only by Gilbert Adair who actually translated the work into English in 1994- a task which, if you ask me, is completely satanic; miles above the abilities of any mortal man. Mr. Gilbert Adair is really, I suspect, a bilingual supercomputer hidden somewhere in the basement of HarperCollins. I mean, it really strains the mind: “Not a word is said from that point onwards. Savorgnan puffs on his brazza and Amaury, burrowing into a book bought at a station kiosk, a long and circuitous saga about an association of major con artists, its liquidation, gradual slump, crash and bankruptcy, wholly fails to grasp that staring at him, in print, is a solution to that conundrum that is haunting him, consuming him…” This shit is as clever as the devil himself; and as clever as the circumstance demanded.
In the off-kilter world of experimental form, constraints like La Disparition produce for their authors more than ‘just’ literary dog-tricks and ‘mere’ crossword puzzles. As a device, constraint breaks habits neatly into halves. It makes language superselective, hyperconscious, and surprising for incomprehensible reasons. It binds the stronger hand to strengthen the weaker. It cultivates our inner awkwardness, regrooving the neurological pathways that have made us acceptable members of society. Wordsmiths have always used constraint as the midwife to invention; reading Tennyson or Petrarch, rhyme-scheme and meter gives form to color, order to flux. Yeah, poets have long constrained this way and that, but as for myself, I only have a passing interest in poetics-qua-poetics or language-in-itself, so I must constrain otherwise and for other purposes. Luckily for me, I also have this nasty little habit- or fullblown obsession- that compels me to translate literary and poetic devices into the realm of everyday life. When I’m reading Aristotle’s Poetics or Longinus’ On the Sublime, I’m thinking how I can apply “reversals-of-fortune” or “amplification” in line at Dairy Queen. The last thing I’m thinking about is “poetry.”
And, when I was first introduced to La Disparition (or A Void, as it’s entitled in English), the literary significance failed to leave much of an impression. I was too preoccupied with this brand new gimmick, and the litter of lifegames that were sure to follow. “Brandon, how can constraint, as a device, overfill the life-narrative with pleasant and unpleasant surprises?” The quickest answer was directly borrowing Perec’s “lipogrammatic” technique for everyday speech; cutting letters, words, and parts-of-speech from the dinner-table dialogue. This would make family conversation refreshing again, while effectively dousing any heated conversations about “dental insurance” or “telephone calls from the dean’s office,” and making you sound more like a stroke victim than a ‘lord of language’-
(Gesticulating wildly) “Hi my ummm pal ummm shall you and I umm sup? Ummm no wait my stomach is, uh, unfull. I ummm no wait umm no wait uh I want to umm put food umm within.”
“Boy, have you been smoking bathroom cleansers or something?”
You’ll switch into Spanish and French, slip and curse, coin words like ‘unfun’ and ‘anality,’ and forget how to construct simple English sentences even after the game is long finished. You can drop whole words, borrowing from Pee-Wee Herman, and pull out hair trying to dodge elemental words like “like,” or “or,” and “and.” Omit the present tense, or the first and second person, and you’ll end up with linguistic origami, with all orientation lost in a tangle of first names and future perfect. “Brandon will have finished this sentence by the time this sentence has been finished.” Translation: “I am finishing this sentence.” Constraints and sloppy circumventions are a barrel of laughs and under-rated remedies for the unfailing boredom of bar-rooms and parties. With the art of straightforward communication knotted into demented word-play, people will no longer have the patience to convey how little they really like each other.
The constraint of all language constraints is, I suppose, total silence. Some time ago, frustrated with my bragging and nonsense, Meghan rightly accused me of “talking too much” and “stealing the spotlight” from any social setting I stepped into. So, in order to prove my humility, I took a monastic vow of silence that very moment, pledging to remain a tight-lipped non-entity for the remainder of the evening (or until Meghan begged me to speak again, whichever came first). Arriving at the Pudhouse for an enchanted evening of sonic-throttling, I remained stonefaced and mute, slumping and sighing, waving off friends and fiends as they approached. But before long, several friends had semi-circled around me, each guessing my motivations by way of a crude game of charades. So much for social invisibility. “That didn’t count,” Meghan broke in, “even your silence is egomaniacal.” Most other times, though, I really prefer ‘group silences,’ especially at times when bullshit icebreaking is absolutely obligatory; like introductions, dinner parties, and job interviews. Ten minutes without word or whisper and something strange begins to happen. Group interaction breaks into coy little smiles, exchanged glances, body language, pointing, wordless flirtation, and some freaky kind of hyperawareness brought on by the suspense of total silence. A total breakdown and breakthrough in human communication.
The next big step is dragging and generalizing constraint-games outside of language altogether; pinning down any dominant tendency even if its trivial and stupid. Especially if its trivial and stupid. Keeping your dominant hand in your backpocket for twenty four consecutive hours; ordering items at the drive-thru without calling them by name; driving home from that midnight screening of Battlefield Earth making only left turns, without brakes, wholly in reverse; breathing and speaking through a plastic straw; eating only foods of a primary color; boycotting natural fibers; covering the left half of your television; entering buildings only through windows or through doors which someone else has opened for you; purchasing things only with checks or pocket change; dating exclusively Hispanic women- blond Hispanic women; or the simplest disorientation I can recommend: blindfolding yourself and having a (trustworthy) friend lead you around by the arm; across busy avenues, up and down flights of stairs, around the candy aisle, feeding you directions in your time of darkness as you spill Mountain Dew Slurpee all over the counters of Seven-Eleven. Blindfolded, the subtler perceptions finally take their turns at the wheel: the feel of the gravel, the heat of the sun, the sounds of oncoming traffic, the aroma of the Hardee’s employees. You understand, for once, how many handles the world has, how conception is shaped by perception, and how sadistic your friends can be when you put your trust in their hands. I highly recommend it, especially at high-traffic Chinese dinner buffets.
Ultimately, I’d like to elevate constraint-games to the very loftiest of realms- constraints on emotions, identity, and philosophy itself. For instance, imagine if Karl Marx had committed to publishing a philosophical tract without any reference to class struggle or economics. Remember, we’re talking about a thinker who, as Emily Harpster informs me, used the word “proletariat” in a love poem to his wife. This would be a cruel anti-foundationalist joke on poor Karl, possible only with the aid of a lobotomy, but it would certainly loosen the belt on the man’s weltanschauung. We grow under constraint, oddly enough. We dislodge ourselves from conceptual ruts and fixed ideas; dropping or adding new personality traits with a roll of the dice; temporarily switching teams from Christian to Hindu to worshipping electricity; going from Platonist to pragmatist and back again, historical optimist to morbid pessimist, scientist to scientologist— all from surrendering to the idea that things could be very, very otherwise. But I’m probably just talking shit by this point. I should have warned you: these things tend to get out of hand. But, if you’ll notice, there is not one, single constraint in this entire spiel… such self-control.