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Roussel and the Roulotte; Interiors in the Void

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Roussel’s Roulotte (c.1925, build by G.RĂ©gis)

Once inside this nonspatial place, whether in the lens of the pen or on the label—in this fictional world, analogous to reproduction, created of vague markings printed on paper—a plethora of beings serenely impose themselves; the luminosity of the whole never diminishes. It is a perpetual, soft emanation, existing outside of time.1


Strange vessels, infernal tableaux, Danton’s decapitated head reanimated, puns and wordplay so intricately baroque that they become elaborate mechanisms for perverting reality. The work of Raymond Roussel has a profound and deliberate ontological confusion, creating stories that are more like assemblages made from language, with “narrative” as the flimsiest of pretexts for knitting together sequences whose main “character” is language itself. Roussel is a tinkerer and constructor, less in the sense of some homely artisan, than as a quixotic maker of megalomaniac eccentricity. Who else would invent new typographic characters merely for the name of a Siamese cat? Perhaps the same constructor who made a poem out of parenthesis so protracted one must read from front and back simultaneously. Yet this dandy of oddball aristocratic aspirations, a child of a provincial bourgeois fortune, and possessed of talents that defy any reasonable explanation, had more ambitions than language could contain.

Roussel promoted his prodigious literary output with a kind of abandon that only fanatical self-belief can provide. The scholarly cult devoted to his work that arose after his death has the unenviable task of glossing texts so transparent and devoid of psychology as to be as brittle as glass. If one ignores the insanity of the contraptions of Locus Solus and instead notes the facts of their rendering, they are less “narrated” than drawn as if to specify the exact dimensions of their impossible, otherworldly function. This flattening of the fictional into a diagram of the fantastic detaches both author and reader from the text. What would be “engaging” in a conventional narrative sense now becomes a view seen through a vitrine that distorts the objects under its protection as much as it preserves them.

There are two remarkable instances where Roussel went beyond his own sui generis language and made actual things in the world. These were not word-objects, but architectural objects. The most famous was the “road yacht” or roulotte Roussel had custom made by Georges RĂ©gis in 1925. Inspired by a neurasthenic aversion to sleeping in different beds every night when he traveled, Roussel wanted an environment that was both mobile and strictly regulated that gave him a certain amount of seclusion. It was reportedly almost 30 feet long and 7 feet wide. The interior space was divided into two rooms: Roussel’s private space with a Murphy-style fold down bed that allowed the room to be studio, bedroom or salon depending on configuration, and in what was basically an antechamber a tiny staff « dormitory » for chauffeurs and valet. In August of 1926 La Revue du Touring Club de France called it a “rolling” or “touring” house. They saw travelers as fitting one of two tribes, the « spartan » who carried everything they needed on their back and the « sybarite » who carried everything they needed on the back of a car. A completely bespoke vehicle, the roulotte’s claim to fame was the sybaritic integration of living space with the automobile, resulting in a vehicle resembling a UPS truck. The luxurious materials and multifunctional interior made for a complete simulacra of a small house or flat.

Michel Leiris compared Roussel’s roulotte to a well appointed railway-carriage. Postcard photographs (or are they drawings?) of the interior are uncanny in the sense that they have an off-kilter perspective that makes them seem just removed from the status of a document. They look doctored yet why would anyone place such incongruous furniture together in such a small place? The impractical fauteuil for the driver of the roulotte seems straight out of a drawing room or salon, implying that there was little consideration of this mobile house as a unique type of system with its own requirements. In Roussel’s perverse imagination the roulotte was a fractured segment of reality set upon on wheels. Yet in a strange inversion this mobile home also had value as a representation of Roussel’s dominion over reality that could be easily understood by anybody. Despite the opacity of his fictional projects and their complicated methodologies, Roussel sought a classical clarity to his prose that could be easily understood by anyone. He often employed his staff as test readers for his books, editing accordingly if individual sentences were not comprehensible to the simplest reader.

The roulotte found a distinct public audience that ranged from L’Illustration the French newsweekly, to Romany caravans he encountered on his travels. Admirers of the roulotte included Pope Pius XI and Mussolini. The “what” of the roulotte remained easy for anyone to grasp: a massive touring house whose popularity made it an attraction at automobile expos of the era. It is Roussel’s more peculiar needs that remained invisible as his mobile home rolled over the streets of Europe. Roussel’s singular impetus was to insulate himself from reality. He had no desire to cloister himself while looking at an external landscape, his desires drove him in the exact opposite direction. As François Caradec notes in his biography of Roussel his roulotte allowed him to “avoid hotels and the annoyance of service that was often below what he was accustomed to. For the countryside he travelled through did not really interest him. He read instead of looking at it. He did not take entire books, but torn-off pages he kept stuffed in his pockets. Roussel hated people seeing him read!”2 It is this avoidance of public surveillance and total disinterest in conventional notions of touring that drove Roussel to commission his portable nowhere. As one of Roussel’s few popular successes it posed a singular paradox: ostentation and technological invention combine to provide a vehicle for an extraordinary, myopic interiority. This is the purloined letter as mobile home. Roussel’s secrets, his “soft emanations”, toured the open road.

Roussel’s machines do not manufacture beings; they maintain things in their state of being. Their function is to make things remain as they are: safeguard the images, uphold the heritage and royalty, maintain the glories with their sunbursts, hide the treasures, record confessions, suppress the declarations; in short keep under glass….All these machines open, within the protective enclosure, a space which is also that of marvelous communication. A passage which is an enclosure. Threshold and key.

The flipside to Roussel’s mobility are his designs for stasis. If the roulotte and his books provided the public outlet for his visionary excess, then his actual dabbling in building technology provides a bizarre counterpoint. As with all of Roussel’s “secrets” his designs for a novel type of building insulation were public, they were published as patents with the Office National de la Propriété Industrielle in 1925. Drawings of the technology would be fascinating to examine, but in lieu of the actual drawings, François Caradec describes them (presumably quoting from the filed patent) as “the use of a vacuum for the non-loss of heat in everything concerning the house and locomotion.” In essence the walls, floors, ceiling and doors of buildings (or any enclosure) would be lined with a system of glass vacuum tubes, negating the transfer of heat in or out of the building with up to ninety precent efficiency. In secret Roussel built a prototype stonework maisonette (exactly cubic in form) outfitted with this vacuum insulation system in the garage of his inherited family estate in Neuilly. Although Roussel sold the estate in 1931 and the buildings were subsequently razed for a new neighborhood, there remains a single trace of these experiments. In a signed affidavit, quoted in full in Caradec’s biography3, a local bailiff describes the unoccupied garage as containing the miniature building with clear warning signs describing an implosion danger if the garage and vacuum-tube laden maisonette are demolished.

In a practical sense this invention anticipates current technologies such as vacuum insulated panels that utilize vacuum sealed foams as an effective and lightweight insulation material. Roussel’s scheme is clearly not insane or tilting at cold fusion powered windmills. But beyond mere technical prolepsis there is the question of why. Caradec notes that the development of this insulation system paralleled the design and manufacture of the roulotte, yet the biographer of Roussel himself cannot find any reasonable explanation as to why Roussel would go through all this trouble to patent an invention that remained obscure and unused.

Viewed together the roulotte and non-loss vacuum insulation system are technologies of preservation. Stasis is the key to much of Roussel’s work. His body of work for the theater became laughingstock because of its assiduous aversion to drama. Tableaux within Locus Solus feature dead bodies temporarily resurrected to play out key scenes in their past lives over and over again. The only evolution comes from the procédé, Roussel’s method of literary construction where the arbitrary interconnections of language (metagrams and homophones) are used to generate entire narratives.

Stasis functions as a way of reproducing a reality and as a pretext to stage an elaborate system to maintain this reality in perpetuity. The effect is both perversely nostalgic and implicitly hinting at the impossibility of the entire project. Stasis for Roussel is both a necessity and an impossibility. If in Locus Solus Danton’s decapitated head is to be resurrected to speak again, this ghoulish and incommensurate act can only take place through an elaborate system involving an aquarium of breathable water, a hairless Siamese cat and a substance that electrifies tissue called “erythrite”. It is this surreal infrastructure of reanimation that provides a key to understanding Roussel’s more practical projects.

As Foucault notes Roussel’s stasis machines create a “protective enclosure, a space which is also that of marvelous communication. A passage which is an enclosure.” Likewise the mobility of the roulotte, combined with its function as a house supporting Roussel’s need for privacy, insulation, and familiarity, provides a perfect realization of an enclosure that can also act as a passage. Even if for Roussel this is a passage to nowhere. His patents for a vacuum insulation system augments this mobile enclosure since in the patent application quoted by Caradec it is clear that it is a system designed for both “the house and locomotion”. Mobility and enclosure are intimately linked in Roussel’s schema even if the only significant movement was to occur in his own mind.

These enclosures that Roussel designed are a strange rapprochement with the outside world. In this obsession with building environments for the mind Roussel finds himself uncomfortably in alignment with philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. Sixty-five years after Roussel’s death Sloterdijk initiated his Spheres trilogy, a rambling treatise that attempts to connect all aspects of human existence into a philosophy of roundness. Spheres central conceit is that relationships of bubbles and spheres are the operating environment for human beings. For Sloterdijk the entire tradition of western philosophy and metaphysics has been “un-grounded” in the twentieth century and turned into space. Vaporized by a combination of technology and philosophy itself, the human is constituted by interlocking spheres of existence, literally a “being-in-spheres.” There is no real “exterior” only relationships and intimacies between interiors that beget other interiors.

Roussel’s inventions have an uncanny resonance with Sloterdijk’s work. Throughout his work there is an obsession with controlling and regulating atmospheres and environments. The patented vacuum insulation system was comprised of interlocking glass tubes containing a vacuum, echoing Sloterdijk’s metaphorical description of spheres that are “constantly disquieted by their inevitable instability: like happiness and glass, they bear the risks native to everything that shatters easily.”4 Implicit in this idea is the insinuation that the glass is under pressure from the outside as if it contains a vacuum. Sloterdijk refers to spheres “dying” by imploding not exploding. Roussel’s poem Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique composed as a series of parenthesis is nothing but a series of interior, nested sentences receding into a linguistic implosion. The reader must have a double relationship to the narrative space as it recedes into itself as if reaching at a literary equivalent of Zeno’s paradox.

But there is much about Roussel that is inimical to any kind of relationship, spherical or not. Stasis is incompatible with bubbles. All of Roussel’s dabbling in architectural technologies were meant to further insulate himself from reality and create environments that are detached from their surroundings. The roulotte may have been a touring vehicle, but it really only functioned as a transporter for Roussel’s self-contained world that needed no external input only the illusion of sameness. The same interiors, the same manservants, the same food, the same books.

Sloterdijk uses the lovely example of sugary sweetness as a metaphor for the porous boundaries between subject and object, where every subject is susceptible to the intimate, penetrating intensity of the cloyingly sweet candy5. Roussel would inevitably reject this kind of intimacy, preferring what Mark Ford describes as a “fantasy of mastery at its most isolated, exalted, and implacable.” As much as Roussel’s inventions have a certain sympathy with future eras there is always the whiff of the ruin. Despite his interests in the technology of mobility and the uses of language as a constructed system of games, he operated in reverse, taking the twentieth century back to the nineteenth century and beyond into the musty, questionable depths of eternity. If he can be construed as a modernist, his modernism is one of the backward looking utopia, where the future becomes a void, and his provocative inventions are preserved in amber as old as the dinosaurs.

  1. Passages in italics from Michel Foucault’s Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel. translated by Charles Ruas (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday): 1986, pp. 110-112, 77-78. []
  2. See François Caradec’s Raymond Roussel. (London: Atlas Press, 2001), p. 251. []
  3. Caradec, Raymond Roussel, 298-299. []
  4. See Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles: Spheres I, trans. Wieland Hoban (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011), p.48. []
  5. See Sloterdijk, Bubbles, 92-93. In this passage Sloterdijk quotes from Friedrich W. Heubach’s account of the “artful phenomenological micro-drama” of eating  a candy. []