Wordplay and the contextual circle in Queneau's Petite Cosmogonie Portative

Citation metadata

Author: Chris Andrews
Date: Winter 2004
From: French Forum(Vol. 29, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,753 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

Published in 1950, Raymond Queneau's Petite Cosmogonie Portative was an ambitious attempt to revive the long-dormant genre of the verse cosmogony, incorporating the most recent scientific discoveries of the day and employing a ludic rhetoric indebted to the surrealists and to James Joyce. This article will propose a taxonomy to account for the bewildering variety of portmanteau words and puns in the Cosmogonie, then show how in many cases Queneau's wordplay confounds categorization by combining the proposed types. Moreover, instances of wordplay are linked in complex networks, so that the discovery of a new meaning in one instance enriches the context for the others, leading to a dizzying proliferation of meanings and making the distinction between over-reading and exhaustive reading particularly difficult to draw. Like Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the Petite Cosmogonie Portative is a text that illustrates this problem of the "contextual circle" with exemplary force. The article will conclude by relating the effects of wordplay at the lexical level to the broader reorganization of scientific knowledge effected by the Cosmogonie as a whole, and evaluating the metaphor of "transmutation" which Queneau used to describe this process.

We can begin to measure the project of the Petite Cosmogonie Portative by considering its title. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a cosmogony is a "theory, system or account of the creation or generation of the universe." Diachronic cosmogony may be opposed to the synchronic systems constructed by cosmology. Queneau's poem recounts the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the invention of digital computers. The title is oxymoronic: the adjectives point to the brevity of the text, making light of the totalizing intent implied by the noun. But they also indicate the work's affiliations: although the Cosmogonie is by no means short for a modern poem, with its total of 1,388 lines, it is only about as long as a single canto of its great precursor--the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius. Like De Rerum Natura, the Cosmogonie renders homage to Venus. Queneau even parodies the invocation of the goddess that opens Lucretius' poem: "Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divumque voluptas" (De Rerum Natura I, 1); "Aimable banditrix des hommes volupte" (Petite Cosmogonie Portative IV, 110). (1) However the Cosmogonie does not respond to Lucretius in isolation, but to a long, if intermittent, tradition of scientific poetry, which can be traced back to the pre-Socratic philosopher-poets Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles, and which is still showing signs of life, although for most literary historians, essays in the genre since the Renaissance have generally failed. Either they were not completed, like Andre Chenier's Hermes (begun in 1782) or they have fallen irrecuperably out of the canon, like Les Trois Regnes de la Nature by Jacques Delille (1806). In an article on "Science and Literature" written for the Times Literary Supplement in 1967, Queneau agrees with the literary historians, looking back to Du Bartas and Peletier du Mans for the last examples of a truly scientific poetry, which, he says, not only has scientific subject...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A119952078