Some years before writing Impressions of Africa, [Raymond] Roussel discovered a poetic technique he called prospecting, which became his trademark compositional method, as well as the foundation for Impressions of Africa. As he explained in his posthumously published How I Wrote Certain of My Books (1935), he would find two almost identical words with separate meanings, and put them inside two almost identical phrases. Then he would establish a connection between the two different phrases, however disparate and roundabout they might be, and write the narrative that linked them together as realistically as possible. For example, the marksman Balbet is a synthesis of two phrases: “1ST Mollet (calf) à gras (fat); 2ND. mollet (soft-boiled egg) à gras (Gras rifle); hence Balbet’s shooting exercise.” And the zither playing worm: “1ST Guitare (title of a Victor Hugo poem) à vers (verse); 2ND. guitare (guitar, which I replaced with zither) à ver (worm).” Foucault described Roussel’s procedure as “a certain way of making language go through the most complicated course and simultaneously take the most direct path in such a way that the following paradox leaps out as evident: the most direct line is also the most perfect circle, which, in coming to a close, suddenly becomes straight, linear, and economical as light.”
Roussel’s prospecting forms images, plots, and characters with a numerologist’s calculated serendipity. At once demystifying and absurdly complicated, his methods inspired Foucault to question the nature and limitations of language and the Oulipians to create their own complicated linguistic procedures.