Literary Topoi

Fig. 18., Benjamin Betts, Geometrical Psychology, or, The Science of Representation

An explorer’s task is to postulate the existence of a land beyond the known land.
Whether or not he finds that land and brings back news of it is unimportant.
He may choose to lose himself in it forever and add one more to the sum of unexplored lands.
— Gerald Murnane, The Plains1

The book still appears to me as the most complete of all media.
…..The library (is) the true theater of world events.
— Judith Schalansky, An Inventory of Losses2

Once I decided I would no longer do mathematics I set myself the task of making up for years of lost reading and, concomitantly, harbored hopes of becoming a writer. It has taken me a long time to acquire the wherewithal to attempt to try to understand the connections, if any, between my two careers, and the ways in which my mathematics has intersected with my approach to reading. One thing I have ascertained is that underlying both are the precepts of abstraction and aesthetics, and the goal of finding connections. 

I like the idea of thinking of a reader as a kind of flâneur. After reading The Arcades Project,3 and replacing “street” by “book” and “flâneur” by “reader”, is it not the case that a book opens up a landscape even as it closes around as a room? In the same way that a flâneur is a detective of the streets, a reader is a literary detective. Thus, I imagine myself a literary flâneur, being drawn hither and yon, along aleatoric paths, down alleyways that looked enchanting or at times forbidding, discovering cul-de-sacs where I found myself lingering, obsessively returning time and again. Increasingly, I ventured out to more and more remote neighborhoods seeking out houses of writing whose windows faced away from the prevailing winds, looking out on a seemingly endless landscape.

Recently, my perambulations have led me to Rue de Bachelard, with its imaginative poetic spaces inspiring reveries and flights of imagination, and Sontag Square, with its eclecticism, the breadth of its catholic tastes, the rigorous attention to detail, and imaginative approaches beckoning one to take a closer look. Then, there is Barthes Boulevard with its forbidding, imposing edifices yet, if one has the courage to enter and the patience to explore, one finds a treasure trove of arcane delights.

As a mathematician I studied category theory, a subject which “encompasses everything” in the sense of seeking to find a foundational underpinning for the constructions and relationships of the objects of mathematics across its various disciplines. It has been called, with more than a hint of disdain, “abstract nonsense”, for abstraction can be intimidating, yet category theory attempts to weave a beautiful tapestry from seemingly disparate mathematical threads. It is a language for translating ideas, seeking heretofore unrealized connections.

Topos theory, a branch of category theory, is both forbiddingly abstract and yet quite beautiful, imbued with what I have always thought of as the aesthetics of mathematics. In ancient Greek, topos refers to place. Mathematically, a topos is a kind of category that is a “place for doing mathematics”. For me, part of its appeal was the distillation by William Lawvere of the foundational principles for mathematics to four basic constructions. (For the cognoscenti, these are (generalized) elements, pairing (cartesian products), “spaces” of functions, and the ability to classify “subobjects”.) Of necessity, this mandates eschewing classical logic for certain topoi. Topos theory allows for new mathematical “realities”, each governed by its own internal logic. I can see how this has translated into my interest in new literary “realities”, each subject to the hermeneutics provided by the reader.

Interestingly, in classical rhetoric, topoi are categories (in the non-mathematical sense) that help delineate the relationships among ideas. They are variously described as “strategies of invention”, or more broadly as “literary themes”. As a mathematician turned writer, it is not surprising that I have a fondness for and interest in Oulipo. One of the most famous Oulipians, Jacques Roubaud, is a mathematician, (interestingly, he also worked in topos theory), and in the third volume of Roubaud’s “memoirs”, Mathematics,4 his description of mathematics might easily become a description related to my above conceit of being a “literary flâneur”, upon replacing the word mathematics by literature.

Literature is a great city whose suburbs never cease to grow in chaotic fashion on the surrounding lands, while its center is periodically reconstructed, each time following a clearer plan and a more majestic arrangement, demolishing the old sections with their labyrinthine alleys, in order to launch new avenues to the periphery, always more direct, wider and more convenient.

What follows are my own personal literary topoi, as I attempt to unravel for myself the question of what are the essential features of literary texts – of any form – that provide me with the greatest intellectual fortification and means of organizing the aesthetics and trajectory of my own writing.

Price of admission your mind. Not for everybody.

David Markson’s “index-card” quartet of novels form a compulsively addictive accumulation of facts and quotes. I realize that this essay is perhaps along the lines of what he describes in the first book Reader’s Block5 as: something similar to but not exactly like a commonplace book, more like an assemblage. One of the titles Markson considers for the book he is writing is Price of Admission Your Mind. Not for Everybody. My essay has evolved into a collection of quotes with commentary; the idea of convolutes6 from The Arcades Project appeals to me. A synonym for convolute is sheaf and a personal connection comes from the fact that sheaves are central constructions in topos theory (spatially, un espace étalé); there is the space of ideas generated by my reading spread out over the base of my internal space, containing as its points my thoughts related to writing.

Erudite, filled with literary allusions, idiosyncratic.

In This is not a Novel7 by Markson, Writer describes the very book he is writing as erudite, filled with literary allusions, idiosyncratic. These attributes, which seem in the current literary climate to have been sacrificed at the altar of accessibility, are very much what I aspire to in my own work. From my recent readings, Judith Schalansky’s Inventory of Losses8 represents an ideal text to aspire to with its polymathic erudition and multivalent approaches to style. It is a book without genre, yet seemingly of all genres. The preface proposes the idea that books provide us with a patrimony of sorts, a second heritage. By writing, as by reading, one can pick one’s own ancestors and establish a second intellectual hereditary line to rival conventional biological heritage. Perhaps this is why Roland Barthes in his autobiography describes himself not in terms of events in his life, but rather in terms of language and his writing.

It must be abstract.

So proclaimed Wallace Stevens as one of the necessary tenets for his supreme fiction.9 In an essay on reality and imagination, he further averred the necessity of abstraction for fully realizing the potentiality of imagination. The imagination is the only genius. It is intrepid and eager and the extreme of its achievement lies in abstraction.10 Abstraction involves stepping back, a distancing, in order to be able to allow for a reconsideration. It challenges preconceived notions. By its very nature of seeking the universal, it allows for a questioning of the particular and then, subsequently, provides the means to envision it with a newfound clarity. It is by its very essence in opposition to facility and ready accessibility.

It draws on no less than everything.

As soon as I read Roberto Calasso’s description of absolute literature,11 it seemed apposite to my intellectual inclinations. Much like category theory in mathematics, absolute literature draws on no less than everything, bringing all of nature as well as the full range of humanity into its sphere. As with topoi, Calasso distills literature into a small set of principles. His absolute literature is unbeholden to agreed-upon conventions or forms, and thus is of no describable genre; a second reality opens out beyond the cracks of that other reality. Being in search of an absolute and hence bound to fail, it is not only unbounded but becomes freed from any social utility or obligation to inform.

A creature unto itself.

Much as Calasso has been referred to as a literary institution unto himself, absolute literature should be a creature unto itself. Susan Sontag echoed this sentiment when discussing the over-emphasis on content in Against Interpretation12 and the idea that, in the case of writing, the work requires some form of justification and validation. She goes so far as to proclaim that the greatest artists contain a sublime neutrality. The text should be autonomous and self-sufficient. A work of art should be just what it is – nothing more.

The point is the writing itself.

Echoing these ideas, Anne Carson says the point is not to find the reader, the point is the writing itself. She further articulates the need for writing to be a private gesture, as accurate as one’s name.13 Barthes in his essay Authors and Writers14 makes a profound distinction between writers and authors. The writer writes about something, whereas an author is immersed in the function of writing. Authorial writing eschews didacticism and should be an inductor of ambiguity. Sontag claims in discussing Barthes, the point is not to teach us something in particular – it is to make us bold, agile, subtle, intelligent, detached.15

The sensuous surface of art.

This is how Susan Sontag refers to style when arguing that there has been an overemphasis on content and interpretation. It is style as opposed to content that truly gets us inside the text. Gaston Bachelard, in describing the importance of style, said any poetic work that derives its force from the vigilant action of a cause must still flower, must adorn itself….must embrace the exuberance of formal beauty.16 Absence of style trivializes the inherent poetry of ideas which lose their impact in an attempt at facile communication.One should not be ill-disposed to alembicated, mandarin prose, rather it should be embraced and celebrated. It is language that determines the vibration and luminescence of the text.

Words…are merely the sails. The way they are set turns them into concepts.17

As I read the convolutes in The Arcades Project on “the collector” and “the interior”, it occurred to me that a reader is a collector, with the interior being the mental space into which the readings are received. As with the collector accumulating aesthetically pleasing objects to create an interior which becomes an asylum for art, we create an interior space from our readings. Much as category theory allows for a perspective from which to approach the study of connections between different branches of mathematics, so does our reading and writing allow us to recognize the sea on which we navigate and the shores from which we push off of. In mathematics decisions regarding the initial approach are crucial; similarly Benjamin postulates that the key in negotiating the vast ocean of literature is in deciding how we set our sails.

  1. Gerald Murnane, The Plains, New Issues Poetry & Prose, Western Michigan Press, 2003.
  2. Judith Schalansky, An Inventory of Losses, New Directions, 2018.
  3. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.
  4. Jacques Roubaud,  Mathematics, Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.
  5. David Markson, Reader’s Block, Dalkey Archive Press, 1996.
  6. See #3.
  7. David Markson, This is Not a Novel, Counterpoint, 2001.
  8. See #2.
  9. Wallace Stevens, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, in “The Palm of the Mind”, Vintage Books, 1990.
  10. Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel (Essays on Reality and Imagination), Vintage Books, 1951.
  11. Roberto Calasso, Literature and the Gods, Vintage Books, 2002.
  12. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2013.
  13. Anne Carson, Float, Knopf Publishing, 2016 (These phrases come from the pamphlet Candor.)
  14. Roland Barthes, Writers and Authors, in “A Barthes Reader”, Hill and Wang, The Noonday Press, 1990.
  15. Susan Sontag, Writing Itself : On Roland Barthes, Introduction to “A Barthes Reader”, Hill and Wang, The Noonday Press, 1990.
  16. Gaston Bachelard, Creative Language and Imagination,  in “On Poetic Imagination and Reverie”, Spring Publications Inc., 2014.
  17. See #3 for the italicized quotes. The title of this section opens the chapter Wind in the Sails of Fredric Jameson’s work on Benjamin, “The Benjamin Files”, Verso 2020.