The Tropological Space of Locus Solus

The five issues of Locus Solus, edited by Harry Mathews, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch, are yet another example of the magazine as alternative space. If Robin Blaser viewed Pacific Nation in terms of mapping and nations, in terms of open space, I see Locus Solus as a form of Kunstkammer (a Cabinet of Wonder), a closed in hermetic space akin to Cornell's and Duchamp's boxes. A closed space, yet one that opens into an endless labyrinth of choices, options, and possibilities.

Locus Solus was named after Raymond Roussel's 1914 novel. Central to scientist and inventor Martial Canterel's Solitary Place and the novel itself was a large glass box in which eight resuscitated individuals repeated the central moment of their lives. As Foucault makes clear in Death and the Labyrinth that moment is the threshold of life moving into death. This door perpetually open and closed. Later in the book Foucault writes of a similar door,

"In order to put one's hand on the skull with the sonnets, which leads straight to the well hiding millions - a first glimmer of particles of the sun - one must push two doors, one as open as the other (so afraid was old Guillaume that his treasure would not be found), one as closed as the other (so frightened was he that it would be lost from such easy access). Once these thresholds are crossed, the path is the same; two rival groups progress along identical stages. Perhaps also leading to the treasure of the work - to this well, at the same time a mine and a forge, whose glow was shown from the beginning by the poem L'Ame - there are two roads which are the same, two thresholds for the same road, two doors which can be opened with one motion, the first being secret (unveiled, thus becoming nonsecret) and the second being the nonsecret (because it does no need to be uncovered, remaining in the shadow and under the seal of a paradoxical secret)."

In the interview at the end of my edition of Death and the Labyrinth, interviewer Charles Ruas states, "Marcel Duchamp and other artists discuss Roussel only incidentally, there is no attempt to come to grips with his work." With Duchamp, this strikes me a debatable. For if Duchamp's Door 11 Rue Larrey (1927) only addresses Roussel incidentally, the work happens (by chance??) to capture the essence of the Rousselian threshold.

Death and the Labyrinth is Foucault's only full-length book of literary criticism. It was published in France in 1963, thus roughly contemporary with Locus Solus, which ran from 1961 to 1962. John Ashbery wrote an introduction to Raymond Roussel in 1961. It cannot be overestimated just how off the beaten path Roussel was to Americans in the early 1960s. Each issue of the magazine featured a quote from Roussel on the title page: l'ecriteau bref qui s'offre a l'oeil apitoye (roughly translated as "The short notice offered to the compassionate eye"). Ashbery and other editors of Locus Solus were pioneers in their interest in Roussel and the publication of a section of Roussel's Locus Solus in Issue Five (translated by Harry Mathews) probably introduced Roussel to a number of American poets and writers.

In the early 1960s, Roussel was being infused with the vitalium and resurrectine of literary and artistic attention and consideration. The New York School poets, Foucault and French structuralists, the Nouveau Roman writers (like Alain Robbe-Grillet), and the Oulipo writers (like Italo Calvino and Georges Perec) all lavished attention on Roussel such as he had not experienced since the surrealists rallied to his defense when Roussel's plays were being met with hoots and catcalls in the 1920s.

Roussel's work also exerted an influence on art and music. John Cage, Fluxus, LaMonte Young, Jean Tinguely, Allan Kaprow and the Happening scene. Canterel's teeth-arranging art machine surely inspired Tinguely machines, such as Homage to New York, which destroyed itself in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in 1960. That sculpture garden is yet another Locus Solus with Tinguely as a return of Canterel.

Foucault writes of Roussel's play within tropological space, i.e. that instant when the signifier detaches from the signified and becomes abstract, that space between, that space of silence. Is the door at 11 Rue Larrey the threshold into that labyrinthine space? Or maybe it represents the Rousselian process of simultaneously entering/exiting that door? The writing collected in Locus Solus magazine also explores that space and that process and thus the magazine serves as a cabinet of the curiosities to be found there.



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