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OuLiPo and the Mathematics of Literature

by Natalie Berkman (Author)
©2022 Monographs XIV, 326 Pages
Series: Modern French Identities, Volume 141

Summary

The French literary collective OuLiPo was founded in 1960 with the goal of applying mathematics to literary creation. Comprised of authors, poets, mathematicians, and scientists, this quirky writer’s workshop also created some of the first electronic literature and digital humanities work, contributing to mathematics and computer science in the process. Now beginning its seventh decade of existence, Oulipo has outlived every other literary collective of its time, in no small part due to the diversity of its members and its fascinating marriage of mathematics and literature.
OuLiPo and the Mathematics of Literature retraces the historical foundations of this group’s unprecedented literary project, putting its first thirty years of archival meeting minutes into conversation with the scientific and mathematical literature that preceded the founding of the group. Through close readings and genetic criticism, this project demonstrates the impact of the group’s experimental literary production and how it invites a willing reader to participate in abstract, mathematical thought. Additionally, this book makes use of digital humanities techniques to understand Oulipo’s pioneering yet complicated relationship with computer science. This analysis sheds new light on disciplinary questions, suggesting that creative practices can help bridge this artificial divide between the Humanities and STEM fields.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Set Theory
  • Chapter 2 Algebra
  • Chapter 3 Combinatorics
  • Chapter 4 Algorithms
  • Chapter 5 Geometry
  • Conclusion
  • Annex: Ouvroir de Peinture Potentielle (OuPeinPo)
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Illustrations

Figure 0.1. Vocalocolorist transposition of the rhyming words of the sestina by OuPeinPo member George Orrimbe. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Figure 0.2. Artistic representation of the sestina’s spiral form by OuPeinPo member Eric Rutten. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Chapter 1 Cover Image: Illustration of the mathematical formula, borrowed from set theory, A ∩ (BC) = (AB) ∪ (AC), designed by OuPeinPo member ACHYAP. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Figure 1.1. A visual illustration of the squares of all sides of a right triangle, designed by OuPeinPo member ACHYAP. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Figure 1.2. A visual proof of the Pythagorean theorem, designed by OuPeinPo member ACHYAP. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Figure 1.3. A Boolean comic strip, Contes et décomptes (p. 16). Reproduced with the artist’s permission.
© Etienne Lécroart & L’Association, 2012.

Chapter 2 Cover Image: 8+1=9, Nature morte arithmétique (Arithmetic Still Life), designed by OuPeinPo member Philippe Mouchès. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Figure 2.1. Infinite comic strip from Contes et décomptes (p. 24). Reproduced with the artist’s permission.
© Etienne Lécroart & L’Association, 2012.

Figure 2.2. Excerpt from “Compter sur toi” in Contes et décomptes (p. 5). Reproduced with the artist’s permission.
© Etienne Lécroart & L’Association, 2012.

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Figure 2.3. Excerpt from Mes Hypertropes (p. 167). Reproduced with Oulipo's permission.

Chapter 3 Cover Image: Puzzle Theorem of the Four Colors, designed by OuPeinPo member Eric Rutten. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Figure 3.1. An example of a surrealist cadavre exquis. Reproduced with permission from the Association Atelier André Breton and the photographer. See Bibliography for full citation.

Figure 3.2. An example of the children’s book Têtes folles. Reproduced with permission from Pascal Kummer. See Bibliography for full citation.

Figure 3.3. A photograph of Robert Massin’s design for the Cent mille milliards de poèmes, beautifully executed by Maxime Fournier of SAE Institute Paris and reproduced with his permission.

Figure 3.4. The game of Go represented in Jacques Roubaud’s poetry collection, ∈ (p. 151). Reproduced with the permission of the publisher.
© Éditions Gallimard.

Figure 3.5. The completed tarot card design of the first half of Italo Calvino’s Il castello dei destini incrociati (p. 538).

Figure 3.6. The completed tarot card design of the second half of Italo Calvino’s Il castello dei destini incrociati (p. 590).

Figure 3.7. The knight’s tour problem solved by Perec for determining the chapter order of La Vie mode d’emploi, as reimagined by OuPeinPo member Philippe Mouchès. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Chapter 4 Cover Image: Self portrait as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, designed by OuPeinPo member Helen Frank. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Figure 4.1. A visual illustration of the Bridges of Königsberg problem in graph theory, beautifully reimagined as Immanuel Kant’s face by OuPeinPo member Helen Frank. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Figure 4.2. The graphical representation of Raymond Queneau’s Un conte à votre façon, taken from La Littérature Potentielle (p. 51). Reproduced with the permission of the publisher.
© Éditions Gallimard.

Figure 4.3. The graphical representation of who met whom upon visits to the Duke’s island, taken from Claude Berge’s “Qui a tué le duc de Densmore?” (p. 145). Reproduced with Oulipo’s permission.

Chapter 5 Cover Image: Vocalocolorist portraits of Michèle Audin and Italo Calvino by OuPeinPo member George Orrimbe. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Figure 5.1. The parallelogram created using the numbers in the Indice of Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili, artistically imagined by OuPeinPo member Philippe Mouchès. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Figure 5.2. An illustration of the notion of the cross-ratio superimposed over Michel Chasles’s portrait, designed by OuPeinPo member ACHYAP. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

Figure 5.3. The table of contents of Michèle Audin’s Mai quai Conti Reproduced with the author’s permission. See Bibliography for full citation.

Figure 5.4. The first mathematical image from Michèle Audin’s Mai quai Conti. Reproduced with the author’s permission. See Bibliography for full citation.

Figure 5.5. The second mathematical image from Michèle Audin’s Mai quai Conti. Reproduced with the author’s permission. See Bibliography for full citation.

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Figure 5.6. A mathematical image from Michèle Audin’s Mai quai Conti. Reproduced with the author’s permission. See Bibliography for full citation.

Figure 5.7. A mathematical image from Michèle Audin’s Mai quai Conti. Reproduced with the author’s permission. See Bibliography for full citation.

Figure 5.8. A mathematical image from Michèle Audin’s Mai quai Conti. Reproduced with the author’s permission. See Bibliography for full citation.

Figure 5.9. A mathematical image from Michèle Audin’s Mai quai Conti. Reproduced with the author’s permission. See Bibliography for full citation.

Figure 5.10. A mathematical image from Michèle Audin’s Mai quai Conti. Reproduced with the author’s permission. See Bibliography for full citation.

Figure 5.11. A mathematical image from Michèle Audin’s Mai quai Conti. Reproduced with the author’s permission. See Bibliography for full citation.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank David Bellos, whose attention to detail, critical feedback, and enthusiasm for my work allowed for my doctoral dissertation to be the best that it could be. I am eternally grateful for his guidance and attribute this current publication in large part to him. Additionally, Christy Wampole and Arielle Saiber provided me with intellectual, emotional, and professional support throughout the critical stages of this project. I would also like to thank Cliff Wulfman for his technical insights; Michael Barany for his history of mathematics expertise; and Hélène Campaignolle-Catel and Camille Bloomfield for welcoming me into the Oulipo Archival Project. It is equally important to mention the support of the late Stéfan Sinclair, who truly believed in this project. I will always regret never having met him in person.

Additionally, a certain number of Oulipians helped me immensely with my research, affording me access to their archives, and having wonderful mathematical discussions with me over coffee: Paul Fournel, Michèle Audin, Olivier Salon, Étienne Lécroart, and the late Paul Braffort. Certain members of the OuPeinPo (Ouvroir de Peinture Potentielle) also deserve a great deal of admiration and thanks for their hard work on this project, illustrating this book so beautifully with constrained artwork. Their generous contribution has allowed this book to reflect the nature of mathematical literature through their imaginative visualizations. Therefore, special thanks are in order to George Orrimbe, Eric Rutten, Philippe Mouchès, ACHYAP, and Helen Frank.

Beyond the academic professionals who helped make this project possible, I must also thank the friends and colleagues who have made up a supportive community in which I carried out this work. Thank you to Alix Punelli, Mélanie Monjean, Tuo Liu, Nicolas Verastegui, Colin Azariah-Kribbs, Liliane Ehrhart, Andréa Toucinho, Eileen Williams, Rosalind Resnick, Fu-Fu Lin, Melissa Verhey, and Charlotte Werbe for being there for me no matter where you were.

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Introduction

I. The Spiral of Literature and Mathematics

In twelfth-century Provence, a medieval troubadour named Arnaut Daniel invented a new kind of fixed form poem which is now known as the sestina. This 39-line poem, divided into six sestets and one three-line envoi, may not have the same legacy as its more famous relative, the sonnet, but its poet was lauded by Dante (who included Daniel in Purgatorio) and Petrarch (who called him the first great master of love in Trionfi d’amore).

Daniel’s original sestina, Lo ferm voler qu’el cor m’intra, tells the story of a lovesick poet who desperately wants one forbidden thing: to enter into his lady’s room. Given that the thematic material is about rules and restrictions, the form itself demonstrates a number of rules: each verse of every sestet ends with one of six rhyming words, which repeat throughout the first six stanzas in a specific order, as well as in a distinct configuration of pairs in the three-line envoi, which serves as an autograph.

Observe the rhyming words as they appear in the first stanza of the poem, which I have bolded for convenience (Daniel, n.d.):

Lo ferm voler qu’el cor m’intra

The firm will that my heart enters

no’m pot ges becs escoissendre ni ongla

can’t be scraped by beak nor by nail

de lauzengier qui pert per mal dir s’arma;

Details

Pages
XIV, 326
Year
2022
ISBN (PDF)
9781789977813
ISBN (ePUB)
9781789977820
ISBN (MOBI)
9781789977837
ISBN (Softcover)
9781789977806
DOI
10.3726/b16721
Language
English
Publication date
2022 (March)
Keywords
Experimental literature Mathematics Digital Humanities OuLiPo and the Mathematics of Literature Natalie Berkman
Published
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XIV, 326 pp., 23 fig. col., 14 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Natalie Berkman (Author)

Natalie Berkman is a higher education specialist and award-winning scholar with almost a decade of experience in pedagogy, curriculum design, research, mentoring, and academic administration. Trained as both a literary scholar and mathematician, Natalie completed her PhD in French Literature at Princeton University as well as a BA in Mathematics, Creative Writing, and French Literature at Johns Hopkins University. She has published numerous articles in flagship journals, including Modern Language Notes, Genesis, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and Études littéraires and presents regularly at the major Literature, Digital Humanities, and History of Science conferences. Her work has been sponsored by the Princeton Center for Digital Humanities, the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, the Modern Language Association, the ANR DifdePo Research Group, and the École Normale Supérieure. Natalie won the 2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century French Studies for the proposal for this book.

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