Playing with Oulipian Literary Techniques

by John Allen Paulos

The Ouvroir de Littérature  Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), Oulipo for short, is the name of a group of primarily French writers, mathematicians, and academics that explores the use of mathematical and quasi-mathematical techniques in literature. Don’t let this description scare you. The results are often amusing, strange, and thought-provoking.

The group, which was founded by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais in Paris in 1960 and is still somewhat active, searches for novel literary structures that arise from the imposition of mathematical constraints and methods of systematically transforming texts. Theophile Gautier has written that the rigidity of the constraints ensures the durability of the work, whether in poetry, art, or sculpture. More graphically, Queneau described the group’s activity as “rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.”

Simple combinatorics plays a role in many of Oulipo’s efforts. Queneau’s 100 Trillion Sonnets is a prime example of its approach to literature. The work consists of just ten sonnets, one on each page of a ten-page booklet. (Note that the 14-line sonnet is itself a product of an artificial restriction.) The pages of the booklet are cut so that each of the 14 lines of the ten sonnets can be turned separately. Thus, we can combine any of the ten first lines with any of the ten second lines, which results in 102 or 100 different pairs of opening lines. Any of these 102 possibilities may in turn be combined with any of the ten third lines to yield 103 or 1,000 possible sets of three lines. Iterating this procedure and utilizing the multiplication principle, we conclude that there are 1014 possible sonnets. Queneau claimed that they all made sense, although it’s safe to say that the claim will never be verified, since there are probably more texts in these 1014 different sonnets than in all the rest of the world’s literature. (His claim could, of course, be easily refuted.)

Incidentally, years ago I was inspired by 100 Trillion Sonnets to patent a variant of a Rubik cube that I called About Face. Each of the cube’s six sides pictured a face that remained a face when any of the sides were subjected to a certain class of rotations. The result was a gazillion possible mugshots. Alas, it never went anywhere.

Another early example of Oulipo’s work is Jean Lescure’s (N + 7) algorithm for transforming a text. Take an excerpt from your favorite newspaper, novel, or, my choice, a holy book and replace each noun in it with the seventh noun following it in some standard dictionary. If the original is well-written, the altered text often retains its rhythm and occasionally even something of its sense. “In the behavior goddaughter created the heavyweight and the earthquake. And the earthquake was without format, and void; and dark horse was upon the facia …” Of course, we may modify the algorithm by replacing every other noun (2N + 7), or by taking the tenth noun (N + 10) after the word in the dictionary, or by modifying the algorithm to apply to whole syllables, and so on.

Yet another quintessentially Oulipian work, Georges Perec’s 300-page novel La Disparition, doesn’t contain a single letter “e” except, of course, for the four unfortunate instances in his name. Think of this: no “the,” “are,” “were,” “he,” “she,” “they,” nor even an “even.” It is a “tour d forc.” In an essay on such lipograms, works that omit (lipo) letters, Perec also reiterates the group’s standard defense that constraint and artifice are the engines that have driven many mainstream authors (among them François Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, and Oulipo member Italo Calvino) to plumb all of a language’s possibilities.

The reader may deem the Oulipian approach as masturbatory, a perspective strengthened by Harry Mathews’ Singular Pleasures. In a wide variety of styles, the work describes 61 different scenes in which 61 people of different ages, nationalities, and walks of life masturbate. I don’t know the significance. If any, of the number 61.

Many of works by the group derive from ways to merge texts by “multiplying” one text by another (like matrices of numbers), from finding the logical intersection of two disparate works, from generating stories by combining their prime elements, or from the shortening of long poems to transform them into haikus. Even the knight’s tour of a chessboard has been used by Perec to generate a panoramic sequence of all the apartments in a multi-story building that has 8 apartments on each floor. The work’s chapters tell the corresponding sequence of interrelated stories and perspectives of the apartment dwellers.

Stile, yet another technique, is a method whereby each part of a clause or phrase grows from the last word or phrase in the previous clause or phrase. (“My sister went to the grocery store your boots and jackets in the closet is where many old gays still hide the jewels in the safe …) I suggest that playing around with this and other algorithms might be a way to end writer’s block. Stile is particularly conducive to stream-of consciousness writing and obviates concerns about punctuation and run-on sentences. More generally, introducing chance elements and perturbations into a story might sometimes clear mental logjams

More familiar bits of wordplay are not ignored by Olipians. Palindromes, written locutions that read the same backward and forward (Borrow or rob; Never odd or even.); spoonerisms, malapropisms of all sorts, transpositions of sounds in two or more words (Time wounds all heels; Tee many martoonis); the American Oulipo member Harry Mathews’s perverbs, the combining of two proverbs into one (A rolling stone gets the worm, or A bird in the hand waits for no man); snowball sentences, each of whose words is one letter longer than its predecessor (I do not skip class unless feeling arrogant); and all of their near and distant cousins pervade Oulipo’s poems, stories, and novels.

Politicians, prominently including Marjorie Taylor Greene and Sarah Palin, are generally innocent of such conscious wordplay despite the fact that they often inadvertently generate examples of it. For example, Ms. Greene said recently, “Not only do we have the DC jail which is the DC gulag, but now we have Nancy Pelosi’s gazpacho police spying on … us.”

Passing on QAnon without a quip, I move on to Ms. Palin’s well-known word salads. (Each is a bad salad, or perhaps a spoonerism is more apt, a sad ballad). For example, she has opined, “Career politicians are having this awesome awakening, the shifting and sifting and the exposing of this rabid bite for them to hang on to any kind of relevancy and to hang on to their gravy train.” And a good example of one of Palin’s malapropisms is the word “refudiate,” a mixture of “refute” and “repudiate.” Another of her neologisms is “squirmish,” a combination of “squirm,” wiggling because of discomfort and skirmish, a minor fight or argument.

Strangely enough, until recently Oulipo has not shown as much interest in computers as their penchant for syntactical permutation might suggest. Adapting various word-processing programs with special dictionaries, thesauruses, key word counters, and other hypermedia tools would make their combinatorial literary play easier. The combination of word play and computers brings to mind the present popularity of Wordle. I’m sure an app that suggested guesses and follow-ups and made use of letter frequencies and combinations could be easily constructed. Of course, it would eliminate the appeal of the game, but I wouldn’t have to resort to “adieu” when bereft of vowels.

In any case, when they’re good, Oulipo’s works are fresh, stimulating, and fun. When they’re not, the incessant verbal hijinks are as tedious as a long car ride with a brilliantly loquacious eight-year-old.

Postscript: Note that I’m a “lipocrat.” I’ve written the above piece with only twenty-five letters—not a single instance of the last letter of the alphabet. I hope your response to it is not zzzzz.


John Allen Paulos is a Professor of Mathematics at Temple University and the author of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, Innumeracy, and a forthcoming book, titled Who’s Counting –Uniting Numbers and Narratives with Stories from Pop Culture, Puzzles, Politics, and More