How does a literary text come into being? Is it born from mad inspiration, or from the labor of a logical mind?
Pablo M. Ruiz explores these questions in Four Cold Chapters on the Possibility of Literature (Leading Mostly to Borges and Oulipo) (Dalkey Archive, 2014), but he also ends up doing much more. He takes us on a journey through literature from Aristotle to Queneau and, being a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, he can’t resist taking the scenic route and pointing out interesting landmarks along the way. The result is a digressive, meandering, occasionally frustrating and yet utterly absorbing book.
For example, in the middle of a section about how critics form literary judgments, Ruiz takes us on a sudden “excursus on games and experiments.” In fifteen dizzying pages, we are swept through the history of literature as a game, taking in the opinions of Freud, Kant, Schiller, Mallarmé, Nabokov, Perec, Auden, Calvino, Banville, Winterson, Eliot, and many others. When it ends, and we are deposited back into the main narrative, it’s difficult to remember what the chapter was supposed to be about, but somehow it doesn’t seem to matter.
The question of composition is at the heart of the book. Ruiz gives us the contrast between Plato’s image of the poet as someone who can compose only when “he has become inspired and is beside himself and reason is no longer in him,” and Aristotle’s view of the writer as a conscious creator, following specific procedures of composition.
He then traces those two poles through the history of literature, showing how one view dominates at one time, only to be replaced by another. The medieval troubadours valued conscious creation, for example, whereas the Romantics placed value on passion, inspiration, and genius. By 1846, the Romantic view had become so dominant that Edgar Allan Poe reacted against it by positing a much more logical, conscious process in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition." The twentieth-century heirs of Aristotle and Poe are writers like Jorge Luis Borges, and also Oulipo, the group of mostly French writers who created works using deliberate rules and constraints.
In places, the book itself embraces the idea of "possibility" and potential rather than reality. It begins with two sections labeled “false starts,” for example. And although we are promised four cold chapters, we get only two fully formed ones. Chapters II and III are described only in brief sketches, Chapter II beginning, “This chapter on mathematics and the following chapter on translation will function, when written, as a transition between the writing perspective of the first chapter and the reading perspective of the last one.” They remain only potential chapters, interesting in concept but forever unwritten.
The chapters Ruiz did write contain some novel insights, particularly on Borges. Ruiz places him convincingly in the tradition of Aristotle and Poe, and also shows how, although he was never a member of Oulipo, he is perhaps the most Oulipian writer of all. His stories are full of potential literature, from a library containing all possible books (“The Library of Babel”) to a book with an infinite number of pages (“The Book of Sand”).
He also presents the contrasting critical interpretations of Borges in a fascinating light, attributing them to the way that Borges successfully conflates two very different reading models: that of the sacred text, and that of detective fiction. Like a sacred text, his stories promise subtle meanings to those who read them carefully, and like detective fiction, they invite readers to be skeptical of their claims. It’s his appeal to two very different types of reader that explains why Borges is “recognized as a referent by thinkers or intellectuals who would not even read each other.”
To sum up the conclusions of Four Cold Chapters is a tough task, since the author himself dismisses conclusions as “an illusory remnant of scholastic thinking that wants us to believe that every conceptual problem can be transposed into some sort of clean and distinct silogism [sic].”
Nevertheless, it’s natural for a reader to want some kind of conclusion, even if it’s not particularly neat or conclusive. And Ruiz does, at least, give us a few hints.
By specifying that his chapters are “cold,” Ruiz appears to be aligning himself with the conscious creators like Borges, who was criticized by Argentine writers, according to Estela Canto, as “a cold and geometrical author, a creator of purely intellectual games.”
But the final section, in which he gives his own miniature philosophy of composition, tells a different story. He says the entire structure of the book came to him in no more than thirty minutes on a sunny October afternoon, “without my being able to say exactly how.” The line recalls Lewis Carroll’s explanation of how he wrote his poem The Hunting of the Snark, in which a line just came into his head, and although he “knew not what it meant,” he let the rest of the poem piece itself together.
After that, though, it was the hard graft of conscious creation, a process in which the original vision became distorted. Ruiz says that it’s in Chapters II and III, which were never completed, that he comes closest to achieving his original goals. The implication is that the rest of the book is a missed opportunity.
It’s a harsh description of the book, but an excellent, honest description of the creative process: the brief glimpsing of a perfect, fully-formed idea, followed by the flawed attempt to get it down on paper without too much damage and loss.
Andrew Blackman is a former Wall Street Journal staff writer, now living in Crete and writing fiction. He’s had two novels published in the UK, and is working on another.
Four Cold Chapters on the Possibility of Literature
Pablo M. Ruiz
Dalkey Archive, 2014
$35.00 paperback, ISBN: 9781628970586