Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle

I may not have updated in a while, ironically I went off the boil after admitting in a post that my aim was to publish one post a week. Don’t worry, I’m keeping score. I may have fallen behind recently, but now I’ve broken up from uni for Christmas, hopefully I can get myself back on track.

Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) are a group of writers and mathematicians primarily based in France, that seek to create works using what’re known as ‘constrained writing’ techniques. Constrained writing techniques are varied and new ones are constantly being devised. Indeed, each meeting of Oulipo members begins with the introduction of a new technique to discuss. If there isn’t one to introduce, the meeting is disbanded. Some examples of ‘Oulipian constraints’ are:

  • Lipogram, writing that excludes one or more letters.
  • Palindromes, a piece of work that can be read the same forwards or backwards. (13731, is an example of a palindromic number)
  • Univocalism, a poem using only one vowel, although the vowel may be used in any of its aural forms.
  • S+7/N+7, a process whereby every noun in a text is replaced with the seventh noun after it in a dictionary

Although it may seem counter-intuitive for such a creative pursuit as writing to bother itself with seemingly arbitrary constraints, this is actually one of the interesting concepts the Oulipo group has brought attention to. As they argued, in a very abstract and logical way, forms like rhyme scheme, and even coherence, are structures that limit the potential of literature. Possibly limiting them even more so than some arbitrary ‘Oulipian constraints’. Hence the translated meaning of ‘Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle’ as ‘Workshop of potential literature’.

Some great works and outstanding feats of problem solving have come out of the Oulipo movement. The French book ‘La Disparition’ is a 300-page lipogrammatic novel by Oulipo member Georges Perec. Not only does the book not contain a single use of the letter ‘E’, but the book’s central mystery is it’s absence. It manages all of this and has been well-received as not only merely ‘readable’ but as a relatively good mystery novel. If that wasn’t impressive enough, ‘A Void’ is an English translation of the novel, that still somehow manages not to contain the letter ‘E’!

It's my opinion, that in this case the translator's name deserves to be bigger than the original authors.
In my opinion, in this case the translator’s name deserves to be bigger than the original authors.

This all may strike you as only tangentially related to mathematics. Maybe so, but I’d argue that the Oulipo movement is one of the most interesting applications of the mathematical approach. Combining creative writing with concepts like abstraction and logical rigour has resulted in a highly interesting way of viewing literature. However, for those of you who are craving some more numbers, the story of the first Oulipo work should suffice.

Raymond Queneau’s ‘A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems‘ is a set of ten sonnets published in 1961. On the surface these sonnets are presented strangely as each line is printed on a separate strip, as shown in the diagram below.


This presentation is a result of the fact that each of these ten sonnets are written using not only the same rhyme scheme, but the same rhyme sounds.This feat that required Mr. Queneau to seek assistance from mathematician Francois Le Lionnais, the partnership that initiated the Oulipo movement. As each sonnet uses the same rhyme sounds, any line can be replaced by the corresponding line from any of the other nine sonnets to form a distinctly new poem. Therefore a simple counting argument shows that this book actually contains 1014 different poems, as we have 10 choices for each line, and 14 lines in a sonnet. This sheer amount of poetry was quite probably more sonnets than had ever been written on earth up until that point in time, indeed it would apparently take a reader 200,000,000 years to read all of these permutations, and that’s if the reader read twenty-four hours a day! A mind-boggling example of this strange union between mathematics and poetry.

Note: this blog post is actually a lipogram excluding the letter ‘J’, not as impressive as ‘E’ I know, but still… it’s something.

3 thoughts on “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle

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