Raymond Roussel (1877–1933) traveled to Tahiti in 1921 to retrace the steps of his idol, the now-forgotten novelist Pierre Loti. A friend supposedly asked Roussel to bring him back “something exotic.” Roussel brought him a stove, a rarity in Tahiti. Like Alice in a looking-glass world, Roussel found meanings reversed at the antipodes.
The anecdote summarizes the man. Never at odds with his milieu—he adored Victor Hugo and Jules Verne—Roussel was nonetheless a rift in French culture. This astounding, encyclopedic assemblage placed Roussel in context: biography, sources, and repercussions—these ranging from poems by John Ashbery to a drawing by Sigmar Polke.
What, ultimately, did Roussel’s experiments with language—the rhymes, puns, and echoes of words—mean? Perhaps we can tell what he was after when, in his 50s, asked for a picture, he sent a portrait of himself as a boy. His contribution was to rejuvenate culture, to make it a child again, to set it free and let it play in polymorphously perverse ways.
His famous How I Wrote Certain of My Books (1935), the maddening discourse on method, takes us back to Tahiti and exoticism: the precocious child plays with words until he changes their meaning, turning them into meaningless raw material. Small wonder Roussel in despair killed himself in Palermo at the age of 56.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 83.