IN THE SPRING OF 1912, Marcel Duchamp went to see a very strange play. It had been advertised around Paris with a poster displaying twelve disconcerting scenes: an earthworm playing a zither, a thermomechanical orchestra powered by an imaginary substance named “bexium,” a rolling statue made of whalebone corset stays, and other fanciful technologies, works of art, animals, and often unfortunate human beings (who were apparently needled or electrified during rituals and performances, if the poster were to be believed).
Surprisingly, this proto-Surrealist offering by the Théâtre Antoine was not the product of Duchamp’s own experimentalist circle. Rather, it was a staging of a 1910 novel, Impressions d’Afrique (Impressions of Africa), that had recently been serialized in the conservative journal Le Gaulois du Dimanche, an organ associated with the monarchist upper echelons of Parisian society. Its author, a little-known millionaire named Raymond Roussel, had been encouraged by playwright Edmond Rostand—then wildly famous for dramatizing the life of Cyrano de Bergerac—to bring his work to the stage. Although it is possible that Rostand was merely being polite to a family friend, Roussel jumped at the notion, using his inherited fortune to finance multiple deluxe runs.
Few people seem to have been convinced by Roussel’s play, and no one cared much for the works he published (also at his own expense, with the stodgy imprint Lemerre). Yet Duchamp was undeterred by Roussel’s lack of “consciousness of himself as an avant-garde artist,” as novelist and critic Ryan Ruby put it in a 2017 essay for Lapham’s Quarterly, nor was he concerned by the unpopular writer’s Right Bank affiliation. Hungry for ideas, Duchamp went to absorb the visual spectacle, probably in the company of artist Francis Picabia and poet Guillaume Apollinaire.
Reflecting, in 1946, on what he witnessed at the Théâtre Antoine, Duchamp said, “It was fundamentally Roussel who was responsible for my glass, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même. From his Impressions d’Afrique I got the general approach.” And, in an interview published in Audio Arts magazine in 1975 (recorded in 1959), he explained at greater length:
The subconscious never interested me very much as a basis for an art expression of any kind. . . . I was very pleased by the so-called pleasure of using Cartesianism as a form of logic and very close mathematical thinking, but I was also very pleased by the idea of getting away from it. It happened also in several places in the works of Raymond Roussel, a writer who wrote these completely fantastic descriptions of the same order, where everything can be done, especially when you describe it in words, and anything can be invented—in Locus Solus and in Impressions d’Afrique. That’s where, really, I found the source of my new activity in 1911 or 1912.
Although it’s clear that Duchamp believed himself to have been strongly influenced by Roussel, it is less easy to understand how this influence manifested, i.e., how Duchamp’s work responded to Roussel’s unprecedented play. Roussel’s maximalist works read as more surreal than conceptual, whether tied to the Surrealist artistic movement itself or not. Indeed, as Duchamp maintained in a subsequent interview with Pierre Cabane, he had paid little attention to the words of Roussel’s play (and did not read the novel until later); he was primarily interested to see actors animate odd scenarios using bizarre props. Whatever the case may be, it does seem that Roussel’s absurd tableaux made quite an—if the pun may be forgiven—impression.
Yet Duchamp was far from the only cutting-edge artist of his day to form an attachment to Roussel; Roussel’s writing lies at the heart of French avant-garde practice in the twentieth century, from Salvador Dalí’s innovative paintings, some of the most reproduced imagery of the Surrealist movement, to Paul Éluard’s influential elliptical poetry. Still, it is relatively unusual to see Roussel and Surrealism discussed together, and rarer still to read nuanced reflections on their relationship—notable exceptions being texts by Linda Dalrymple Henderson and Annie Le Brun, and a brilliant survey of Roussel’s influence hosted by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 2011. Given that Surrealism is currently meeting with renewed interest through a spate of exhibitions, this is a particularly good time to rethink Roussel’s ties to the movement.
Roussel was the author of long, formally and conceptually complex poems and novels, of which Impressions of Africa is probably the best known. Its structure is—significantly for Duchamp’s interest—based on an elaborate riff on two homophonic and seemingly otherwise insignificant phrases: les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard (white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table) and les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard (the white man’s letters about the bands of the old pillager). Roussel opens his novel with the first of these two phrases and, over the course of twenty-six chapters, arrives at the second, generating additional pairs of punning sentences along the way. The multilayered plot concerns the court of an imaginary African king, Talou VII, where a troupe of shipwrecked Europeans acts out various unusual scenes and performances, often with the assistance of or under the control of strange technologies.
The tone of the writing suggests the author favors neither the Europeans nor the African court: paramount in his eyes is the spectacle itself. While Roussel’s views regarding race and colonialism were likely unenlightened compared to viewpoints more prevalent today, the formal constraint of proliferating puns has its own agency, effectively compelling the author to represent Talou in ways that cut against the grain of cultural expectations of Roussel’s milieu. Talou, who first appears as a patriarchal conqueror, subsequently dons women’s garb to deliver a skillful aria in French, an act that those around him witness appreciatively. As scholar Eldritch Priest writes in a 2012 article for Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, Roussel’s linguistic procedure interrupts “the regularity of discourse, which . . . would otherwise reiterate the racist formulae inscribed in white men’s writing about other white men’s fortuitous encounters in Africa.”
Roussel later described the procedure he had used to compose Impressions d’Afrique in his essay “How I Wrote Certain of My Books” (published posthumously in 1935), which is almost certainly his most-read work in the United States. Yet Roussel had other formal literary innovations up his luxurious sleeve. For The View, serialized in 1903 and published in book form a year later, he described increasingly ornate activities derived from a ludicrously lengthy contemplation of an image in a glass ball inside a penholder. In an elaborate poem of more than one thousand lines in rhymed alexandrines, New Impressions of Africa (1932), which has little to do with the earlier novel in spite of its similar title, he used a formal structure involving a series of nested parentheses to create a complex syntax of ever-deepening bracketed asides. Roussel was obviously interested in how linguistic materials visually measure time, whether through descriptive language, sentence structure, or punctuation. His constructions also contain a Rorschach-like element, a belief that something arbitrarily produced through a doubling procedure may generate a surface on which meaning can be fruitfully projected. And, in the same way that those ink blots compel viewers to toggle between the material and the fantastic, so Roussel’s writings throw readers into dreamlike worlds only to return them once again to the complex physicality of the printed page.
Regarding content and narrative, Roussel was not an advocate of standard realism. He expended enormous energy generating formally rigorous textual environments, writings that seem to shout their status as artificial linguistic compositions through their very intricacy, even as the people described are generally one-dimensional and nothing that happens to them could occur anywhere but in Roussel’s imagination. Roussel was not interested in so-called great themes, either. Instead, he reveled in replacing Bildung with bizarre technologies, artworks, and environments (stages, gardens, aquariums, platforms, enclosed vehicles, and other built structures). What his characters think and feel matters far less than how they appear in the course of some very unexpected, often mechanical process. In Impressions d’Afrique, the performances and scientific experiments like those illustrated on the theater’s poster generate ever more images and texts that draw our attention away from the people involved. Locus Solus (1914), Roussel’s second novel, is similarly layered and mediated. American poet John Ashbery summarized it as follows:
A prominent scientist and inventor, Martial Canterel, has invited a group of colleagues to visit the park of his country estate, Locus Solus. As the group tours the estate, Canterel shows them inventions of ever-increasing complexity and strangeness. . . . After an aerial pile driver which is constructing a mosaic of teeth and a huge glass diamond filled with water in which float a dancing girl, a hairless cat, and the preserved head of Danton, we come to the central and longest passage: a description of eight curious tableaux vivants taking place inside an enormous glass cage. We learn that the actors are actually dead people whom Canterel has revived with “resurrectine,” a fluid of his invention which if injected into a fresh corpse causes it continually to act out the most important incident of its life.
Roussel’s speculative machines seem to generate useless actions and entities, even as they capture the energy, agency, and attention of human beings. Neither exactly beautiful nor recognizably symbolic, the images produced by Rousselian art-technology seem to exist only to refer enigmatically to the hidden linguistic procedure that gave rise to them—like figures in a fresco pointing toward a god concealed behind a cloud, or the pun-based carnival characters Roussel saw in Nice as a child. Thus, although Duchamp favored a more restrained visual and linguistic vocabulary, we can infer that he was excited by how Roussel brought the creative instability of language into physical space—as Duchamp himself later did with, for example, the name and person of his famous alter-ego Rrose Sélavy.
Still, Duchamp was more an early enthusiast of Roussel’s general outlook than a deeply engaged student of the writer’s work. It is really the Surrealists—with whom Duchamp is only secondarily associated after his readymades of the teens and early 1920s—who were responsible for carrying Roussel into the present and securing greater attention to his works. After attending Roussel’s 1912 play, Duchamp encouraged some of his acquaintances to attend theatrical adaptations of Locus Solus in 1922. Subsequently, Surrealist poets including Louis Aragon, André Breton, Robert Desnos, Benjamin Péret, and Éluard sent Roussel a group card expressing their admiration. When riots broke out over the incomprehensibility of the performances in 1922, ’24, and ’26, the Surrealists mounted a robust response, shouting out their defense at the shows. They also frequently invited Roussel, who always demurred, to publish in their company. Roussel’s other early critical advocates were the writers Philippe Soupault and Roger Vitrac; later, Aragon, Desnos, and writer and ethnographer Michel Leiris took up the charge. Breton published the first of several essays he would compose on Roussel, “the greatest magnetizer of modern times,” in Minotaure in 1937. Of course, in 1924 Breton had set forth his first manifesto of Surrealism, a document that in retrospect seems closely tied to Roussel’s vision, particularly given its interest in the strange and unfathomable creative depths of the mind.
Roussel’s writings simultaneously provided a spur to visual art: Dalí’s well-known paranoiac-critical method was, by the artist’s own admission, directly derived from Roussel’s literary procedure as described in “How I Wrote Certain of My Books.” In Dalí’s interpretation, satisfying visual complexity—what the artist termed “rigurosa lógica de la fantasía”—is produced when the viewer of a figurative painting may perceive multiple images within a single configuration. For example, in his 1938 painting Impressions of Africa, named, of course, after Roussel’s novel, the face of Dalí’s wife, Gala, merges with a building, her eyes coterminous with the structure’s windows. Dalí was also drawn to Roussel’s visual precision and verbal digression in works such as The View and New Impressions of Africa, finding the linguistic plasticity of these ornate texts a prompt to produce impossible visual worlds, giving weight to Breton’s contention that Surrealism “is, if you like, an artificial paradise.”
After World War II, the cult of Roussel swelled. Jean Ferry, a Surrealist author and member of the Collège de ’Pataphysique (“Science of imaginary solutions”) was perhaps his foremost advocate, initiating a tradition of illustration and republication of Roussel’s writings. Ashbery became an adherent while conducting research in Paris in the 1950s, and in 1963, Michel Foucault published his only book-length work of literary criticism on the author. (Roussel did not live to see his own pataphysical apotheosis; he died in 1933 of what is thought to have been a self-administered drug overdose.)
In spite of his indelible originality and enormous influence, Roussel still came to be seen as a sympathetic outlier of Surrealism, a sort of self-taught anomaly whom the Surrealists discovered and re-formed in their own image. This, despite the fact that he may have beaten the Surrealists to some of the ideas for which they are best known. The famous phrase describing a sensibility of nonsensical juxtaposition, the “chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella,” is of course drawn from the writings of the short-lived nineteenth-century poet Isidore Ducasse (1846–1870), who was himself the subject of a Surrealist recovery project. Roussel’s work is given to unexpected juxtapositions, yes, but more than this: it is crammed full of nearly inexplicable, highly immersive detail—as the poet and celebrated dandy Robert de Montesquiou wrote, Roussel “does not split hairs into four parts, but into 444,000.” The simultaneous vivacity and friezelike stillness of Roussel’s relentlessly optical worlds lends them the uncanny, airless mood of an ambiguous dream. Such oneiric strangeness is subsequently courted by countless Surrealist works, from the precisionist tableaux of René Magritte to Max Ernst’s disconcerting collage novels to Toyen’s hyperfine illustrations meditating on the horrors of WWII.
Yet, as Duchamp’s reception of Roussel’s work shows, explaining it in traditional Surrealist terms is a mistake. The theatrical tableaux Duchamp praised are intimately linked to Roussel’s explorations of the apparent agency of language, which is to say its seeming ability to make meaning even without, or with very minimal, human intervention—a notion that is perhaps more familiar in our current era of machine learning. He additionally portrays myriad unexpected relationships between humans and nonhumans and does so without privileging one or the other. In Locus Solus, for example, that pile driver autonomously hard at work on a mosaic made of teeth is understood as having the same significance as a human character. In Impressions of Africa, that worm gives an accomplished zither recital by using a fluid-filled device that enhances its movements and agency, enabling a virtuosity rivaling that of any human performer. Roussel might be said to cultivate a cyborgian or posthuman aesthetic, ignoring categorical distinctions like biotic vs. abiotic, human vs. animal, mind vs. matter, in his tales of creative machines capable of impossible phenomena. While Breton focused on the psychological implications of the numerous automata and rational animals that recur in Roussel’s works, today it is clear such figures have implications beyond personal history and the imaginative capacity of the individual.
Situating this updated portrait of Roussel—to which scholars and curators have been actively contributing over the past decade—at Surrealism’s origins can in turn shift the way we understand the movement’s implications. Surrealism is often described as driven by the need to criticize repressive nineteenth-century orientations to sexuality, thought, and religious belief. (Perhaps this is why Roussel has seemed distanced from the movement—a onetime neighbor of Marcel Proust, he is plagued by an association with stilted haut-bourgeois fin de siècle culture in the eyes of some readers, even now. Of course, it’s an association he himself cultivated.) But through a closer reading of Roussel’s work, we might today interpret Surrealism’s concerns to encompass questions related to ecology and the built environment, and an effort to express the dawning of post-humanity. Although scholars contest the exact start date of the so-called Anthropocene, the current era of geologic time in which humans have become the dominant geological force, the Victorian affection for steam and later combustion engines, for natural resources and dramatic reconfigurations of the landscape, suggest that humans had a notable impact on the planet in the nineteenth century.
What the Surrealists may have been drawn to in Roussel’s writing are the paradoxically interrelated possibilities that, on the one hand, the world might be entirely engineered by humans and, on the other, humans might be inexorably controlled by the movements of bizarre devices or rules not entirely of their own devising. For example, the Surrealist practice of creating collaborative “exquisite corpse” drawings—in which new extensions of a given form are added blindly, resulting in unexpected combinations—has long been understood as a means of accessing the unconscious. However, considered in a Rousselian light, the practice looks more speculative, pointing the way toward coming technological, political, and cultural transformations. Much other Surrealist imagery might be read similarly. Roussel asks his reader to consider what it may mean to be human, given humanity’s simultaneous awesome agency and lack of control: we may set in motion processes, a bit like Roussel’s textual procedures, that we lose the ability to govern. The paradox of homo faber, a being at once miraculously creative and brutally destructive, has long been thematized in literature and art, but never with the sheer polymorphous inventiveness of Roussel. His furious, hypotactic productivity also entails imagining worlds in which animals and inanimate entities act as authors in turn.
Roussel’s part organic, part virtual machines also presage later ideas about how environments can and should be composed, including the radical proposals of architects and artists such as Gae Aulenti, Pierre Huyghe, Aldo Rossi, and Arakawa and Gins. Headlines about their work often emphasize the “surreal” connection: “Madeline Gins and Arakawa’s surreal Lifespan Extending Villa faces wrecking ball,” or “Surreal Video Art by Pierre Huyghe,” for example. However, the term “surreal” obscures the particularity of their interests, which are not merely “weird.” A Rousselian approach is key to their various inventive strategies—from Aulenti’s optimistic decor utopias to Huyghe’s antihumanist ecologies.
Let’s begin with the architecture, briefly setting aside Huyghe, who is easier to identify as an artist despite his work with large-scale installations. Italian architect Aulenti in 1964 designed a remarkable line of garden furniture based on Roussel’s Locus Solus. Her tables and chairs marry the materials (enameled tubular steel) and formal minimalism of early modernist design with fin de siècle curves. The 1969 Alain Delon and Romy Schneider vehicle La Piscine featured these furnishings, which helped bolster the thriller’s success. Aulenti also designed a related floor lamp with a curious, organic shape, a bit like a petal-less flower or rearing worm. With these furnishings, she nods toward Roussel’s historical placement at the crossroads of high modernism and Art Nouveau, with its decorative excesses; she also suggests, her most Rousselian proposition of all, that the home could contain elements of fantastical industrial design. Aulenti’s countryman Rossi had a different approach to Roussel, treating the peculiar architectural spaces and structures of Impressions of Africa as an impetus to involve the metaphor of theater in his own buildings. As architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri writes, in Rossi’s Roussel-influenced experimental Teatrino Scientifico (1978), a theater-like model he used to stage and theorize his own buildings, “the space of representation coincides with the representation of space.” For Rossi, Roussel makes possible a mode of thinking in which architecture is not opposed to evolving possibility, since even a complete structure may always become a site for further staging and re-representation.
At the time of their deaths in 2010 and 2014, respectively, the artists and architects Arakawa and Madeline Gins had some twelve books by or about Roussel in their Manhattan studio. Aside from several volumes of his complete works, these included extremely rare titles such as a 1964 issue of the French journal Bizarre, edited by Jean Ferry and entirely devoted to Roussel’s work, along with a 1977 issue of L’Arc, also dedicated to Roussel and including commentary by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor. They were obviously quite interested in him.
Arakawa had at one time been a protégé of Duchamp’s, and the didactic geometries that appear in Arakawa’s 1970s paintings appear indirectly derived from Duchamp’s rejection of so-called retinal art, even as they more directly partake of the mechanical and schematic imagery Duchamp deployed in pieces like the Large Glass. But Reversible Destiny, the architectural collaboration Arakawa and Gins began in the 1970s, is, despite Arakawa’s closeness with Duchamp, ultimately more Rousselian in spirit. It involves wholesale reconfiguration of how the human body functions not only in space, but also in language. Arakawa and Gins wrote of the body as producing an ontological action they termed “personning,” through which one becomes conscious of and navigates one’s surroundings. The colorful, uneven, disorienting structures they developed as architects were designed to increase inhabitants’ awareness not merely of space but of perception itself—of the base conditions of existing as an “organism that persons.” The habits of perception that right angles and flat, white walls encourage are deadening, they believed. Those who entered a Reversible Destiny structure could, however, learn “not to die,” as if the building itself were diffusing resurrectine. Their specific vocabulary and physical structures would not have been out of place in the gardens of Locus Solus or the theater of Impressions of Africa.
Descriptions of Huyghe’s installations and scenarios, meanwhile, often include the terms “porosity,” “contingency,” “connectivity,” and “process.” The artist has said that his goal is to exhibit “someone to something,” rather than the inverse—which is to say that he eschews standard, nineteenth-century-derived, museological methods of display. Also implied in this statement is his interest in upending human-centered hierarchies; his creations frequently rely on apparently “natural” transformations and acts of communication that may be difficult to identify as artworks, per se, save for their ultimate framing within an institutional or gallery context.
Huyghe’s art foregrounds what he has called “self-generating rituals,” including outdoor landscapes such as the composting site in Kassel, Germany, that he developed into Untilled for Documenta 13 in 2012 by adding elements such as dogs and a sculpture with a working beehive for a head. Other examples include performances in which only initial conditions are set and unexpected outcomes proliferate, as well as installations involving melting ice and other atmospheric changes of state. He is a reader of science fiction (J.G. Ballard) and decadent literature (Joris-Karl Huysmans) who has also claimed Duchamp’s Large Glass as an important precedent for his orientation to exhibition-making. Just as people moving in the gallery can be perceived through the translucent surface of Duchamp’s piece and therefore become part of what the artwork depicts, so Huyghe’s convocations of places, elements, and organisms allow humans and nonhumans to become unexpectedly integrated, ultimately causing the viewer to participate in the generation of what is seen or revealed.
Although Huyghe has noted that “Roussel’s repetition of death in Locus Solus” was influential for Untilled, the artist’s work seems more deeply connected to the writer’s concerns than this singular citation might let on. If Roussel is a sort of shadow author of the Large Glass—“fundamentally responsible” for it, as Duchamp himself said—then it is not by coincidence that Huyghe’s efforts can look a bit like the movie version of one of Roussel’s novels or poems. Roussel’s obsession with procedure, his insistence that a formal textual feat transpire no matter the consequences for content—such that content itself is ever subordinated to other lapidary concerns—resulted not in dull formality, as one might expect, but rather in a wild proliferation of events and beings. The Rousselian procedure rips open whatever wall holds the matter of the unconscious back; it additionally casts humanity in a strange, metamorphic light, such that machine and animal are already mixed with human “being,” as such. It is difficult to imagine Huyghe’s iconic zoodrams (“neither the reproduction of a naturally-occurring ecosystem nor a stage set . . . rather a world in which the conditions have been constructed, yet what will unfold is uncertain”) without Roussel’s iconic Impressions.
Whereas more direct appropriations of Roussel’s work, such as a pointedly Locus Solus-esque mansion in the anime film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), or Roussel’s appearance as a fictional character in B. Catling’s novel The Vorrh (2012), keep the writer’s notions squarely in the realm of fiction, Aulenti, Huyghe, Rossi, and Arakawa and Gins project a Rousselian surreality into actual physical environments. This begs the question Duchamp also broached about Roussel’s infernally creative language: are Roussel’s paradises at base artificial, or were they always an intimation of something just beyond the horizon?
This article appears in the April 2022 issue, pp. 52–57.