E-less in Gaza

John Sturrock

We hear a lot about floating signifiers and how they bob anchorless around on the deep waters of meaning; we hear too little about sinking signifiers, or language items that have stopped bobbing and been sent silently to the bottom, if not for the duration then at least provisionally, while we see how well we can do without them. To scuttle a signifier in this way is to play at lipograms, an elementary language game that has been around for two and a half millennia. This lipo has nothing to do with fat, or with the world of the liposuctionist’s hoover: it comes from a Greek verb meaning to ‘leave out’. The lipogram is a piece of writing from which one or more letters of the alphabet have been excluded, preferably common ones if the game is to be worth playing. There is in theory no reason why there shouldn’t also be spoken lipograms, or lipophones – indeed, I can imagine that, the bit once between their teeth, composers of lipograms find themselves talking lipogrammatically, either because they can’t stop or because they think it will help them to keep their eye in.

The earliest lipograms are thought to have been composed in the sixth century BC, but none of them has survived; maybe they were never actually written down, only imagined, to circulate among the clerisy as instant legends of verbal skill. One Greek lipogrammatist is said to have written poems from which he left out the letter sigma because he didn’t like the hissing sound it made when spoken; a more ambitious fellow Greek rewrote the Iliad excluding a different character from each of its 24 books: no alphas in Book One, no betas in Book Two and so on – odd that the number of books in the Iliad and of characters in the Greek alphabet should be the same, unless, perish the Perecquian thought, that is why the poem is divided into 24 books. The sigma-phobe with his ulterior aim was in fact missing the point of the lipogram, which is not designed for the writer’s convenience. The Iliad man was the purist of the two, he had grasped that the lipogram should be a purposeless ordeal undertaken voluntarily, a gratuitous taxing of the brain, and the severer the better. It should make the business of writing not pleasanter but harder.

Harder or, if you think like Georges Perec, easier. Perec has to have been the most talented and entertaining player of word-games in the long history of Homo ludens, and he gave as his reason for taking to them so whole-heartedly that had he not been bound to observe tough formal constraints when writing, he would have been unable to write anything at all. He needed to have the possibilities narrowed down for him in advance, to be made to feel less free in respect of language. He had, he said, not ‘one carat of inspiration’, didn’t believe indeed that there was any such thing: there is a bracingly cool theory of preplanning and calculation behind all the writing that Perec did. He was the star performer among the similarly uninspired members of the OuLi-Po, or OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle, a formidably ingenious group of poets, mathematicians and others who met together regularly in Paris from the late Fifties and set themselves to reactivate long obsolete forms of prosodic constraint as well as to work out ferocious new ones.

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