What’s Interesting about Roussel’s Impressions of Africa

It’s fairly easy to summarize Roussel’s Impressions of Africa: ca. 1900, some French people set sail for South America, but a storm ruins their ship and blows them toward Africa, where after they drift ashore they’re captured by an African kind who decides to hold them for ransom, sending a messenger to France stating that if he doesn’t receive the ransom, the survivors will all be killed. While everyone’s waiting for a response (which is never really in doubt—the ransom will be paid and everyone will return to France) the African king decides to hold a coronation ceremony, and to make it interesting he invites everyone to present some spectacle, deciding that whoever presents the best spectacle will win some prize. The spectacles are performed, the cat battle wins, the coronation wraps up, and finally the ransom arrives from France and everyone returns home. None of this plot stuff happens, however, until the second half of the book. The first half, chapter after chapter, is entirely given over to describing in intricate and context-less details the individual spectacles. Characters are named as if we know them already and without any explanation; some characters are executed beautifully though we have no idea of their crimes. If you want explanations or reasons for any of the spectacular objects or events or performances described throughout the first half of the book, it would be very difficult to get through; but the spectacles themselves are so interesting, so elaborately and minutely described and so wonderful and fantastic that if you give yourself over to these descriptions the book is very fun. If this first part of the book relies on the reader accepting that the spectacles are interesting in and of themselves, though, the second half provides all the back story, presumably satisfying the resistant reader who wants to know what all these things mean.

The thing is, the second half of the book is actually where the book becomes intolerably boring. Contrary to one of Jameson’s comments about Roussel—“his unimaginably detailed and minute description of objects—an absolutely infinite process without principle or thematic interest of any kind—forces the reader to work laboriously through one sentence after another, world without end” (Postmodernism 73)—I found the real labor of the book to be in trying to make it through the second half, where the endless descriptions give way to chapter after chapter explaining the shipwreck and the various other histories that led each character to appear in the coronation, along with (usually) their individual discoveries of the objects or spectacles which have already been described to us. What we find is that where we might expect such back stories to fill in emotional resonances behind some of the scenes, instead the only parts of the second half of the book that rise to the same level of interestingness as the first are the moments when these back stories branch off into their own elaborate descriptions of completely irrelevant objects or events. It is precisely in those parts of the stories that should ostensibly provide meaning for the earlier spectacles the book becomes intolerably boring.

I mention Jameson because I happened to be slogging through the second half of Impressions of Africa just when I was also reading Jameson’s postmodernism book, and because one easy reading of Roussel would be that his narrative techniques radicalize the surface—an essentially postmodern move, according to Jameson—I was curious to note that Jameson makes several offhand comments about Roussel. Unsurprisingly, Jameson does appear to view Roussel as a sort of modernist seed of postmodernism, thought it’s Jameson’s location of the difficulty of Roussel in his endless descriptions that got me really thinking. Because what potentially makes these descriptions difficult—and what conversely makes them so fun to read—seems not to do with anything inherently boring or difficult about the, but rather with a reader’s potential willingness to disregard narrative’s normal creation of desire for the meaning behind events.

I think a typical Jamesonian reading of the radicalization of surface in Roussel would link it to the way surfaceness in postmodernism is supposed to tear discourse from its historical boundedness, contributing to the peculiar late capitalist difficulty of mapping our situational within material history. Roussel would either then prefigure or perhaps inaugurate the postmodern invitation to enjoy this unboundedness—enjoy the surface in all its lack of meaning or material determination. A more sympathetic reading, and the one I most often considered while reading Impressions of Africa, is that this is a critique (for better or worse) of the form of meaning-making by consultation of historical narrative—whatever is explained by our awareness of the material conditions that bring about a beautiful or interesting surface, the explanation fails to exhaust the meaning of that surface. But, then, I’m not sure it’s actually a critique. After all, every last one of the wonders of the first half of the book is wholly and adequately explained to the reader in the second half. What really happens is not that Roussel critiques the possibility of explaining the meaning behind these spectacles so much as he deflates the potential for these explanations to be interesting. In fact, part of what’s so boring about these explanations is how totally and simply they account for every aspect of the elaborate spectacles.

Part of Sianne Ngai’s account of the interesting as an aesthetic category  has to do with the way declaring something interesting is always in some sense asking after why it is interesting, a call for justification that it is interesting. In this way, “the aesthetic of the interesting thus has the capacity to produce knowledge” in a way that is unique among aesthetic categories (815). Impressions of Africa seems very much to play with the way the interesting works on this level. What is either exhilarating or frustrating about the first half of the book is the way it confounds our desire to have these spectacles explained to us (a desire partially created by the fact that they’re presented to us as part of a larger narrative we at first get almost nothing of). By confounding this desire, the reader is invited to suspect that their question “why is this interesting?” is the twin question of “what does this mean?” or “what is the cause of this?” so that explanation and justification of interestingness become conflated. The latter of those questions is then answered to an almost exaggerated level of certainty, while because of the absence of the interesting that we find in this explanation the former begins to take on more importance even as the reader increasingly realizes the impossibility of satisfactorily answering it. To the extent that the interesting really does raise questions of justification or promise some production of knowledge in the pursuit of those questions, what is troubling and exciting about Roussel here is that he makes us aware that conventional narrative guides us to expect this knowledge will be looked for in a certain way, and forces us to confront that we have little idea as to really what sort of knowledge we should expect interestingness to lead us to.

This is complicated, though, by our awareness after the publication of How I Wrote Certain of My Books that Roussel’s composition method prefigures much of contemporary procedural and conceptual poetics. The question then might be to what extent this awareness satisfies the search for justification and/or the production of knowledge inherent in first finding Roussel’s work interesting. Is it that the material conditions of composition are what is interesting and therefore meaningful and Roussel’s little play at exhausting explanation is really just a ruse?

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