OuLiPo: Mathematics in Literature

The 20th-century literature depicts the need for experimentation, after many conflicts and two world wars. A literary group called “OuLiPo,” named after the French acronym (Ou)vroir de (Li)ttérature (Po)tentielle, which translates roughly in English as "Workshop of Potential Literature," registers this urge to further explore. Ouvroir de littérature is thus a workshop that questions and creates literature, and Potentielle (potential) means not yet existing. That is exactly what OuLiPo is interested in: what had not yet been written (Bellos, 2010). “Literature in unlimited quantities, potentially producible until the end of time, in enormous quantities, infinite for all intents and purposes” is the official definition of OuLiPo, translated from French, given by its two notable members, Marcel Bénabou and Jacques Roubaud.

Figure 1. Fonds Oulipo. Dossiers mensuels de réunion (1980).

Arose in Paris in the 1960s, OuLiPo, called at the beginning Sélitex (Séminaire de Littérature Expérimentale), began as a small group of friends seeking to explore the potential of integrating mathematics in literature, two disciplines that enthralled its founders. Raymond Queneau (1903-1976), French poet, novelist, and former Surrealist, along with engineer and mathematician François le Lionnais (1901-1984), were the two founding members of this closed group, where only the Oulipians choose its members and no member ever resigns (the only way to be excluded from the group is by committing suicide). Their main purpose was to investigate and explore how mathematics could benefit literature composition, experimenting with a new writing style and renewing the process of creation. In an endeavour to clarify what is truly this Ouvroir, it is preferable to delineate what it is not. OuLiPo is not a scientific seminar or a literary school, and as Marcel Bénabou notes, it “refuses the label of a literary movement.” “In its structure, a conscious antithesis of Surrealism” (Duncan, 2019, p. 83), this eclectic group embraces ancient techniques and philosophy, as well as devising revolutionary writing formulas.

To link literature and mathematics may seem like a conflicting assignment at first, but what if in fact, these two fields are complementary? Literary creation requires carefully chosen lexical pieces, put in the correct order so that the result is coherent. Oulipians use constraints as literary forms to construct their work and explore literature’s potential. By the same token, “a small measure of constraint has highlighted useful structure and form, opening up a world of interesting mathematical possibilities” (Bahls, 2010, p. 14). Thus, mathematics, just like literature, recommends countless possibilities for exploration, centred on constraint-based writing methods (Terry, 2019). A series of constraints and procedures –simple and advanced– was therefore developed: Isomorphism, Lipogram, Tautogram, Snowball, Terine, Ouliporime, LSD, and so forth. One of the originals is Jean Lescure’s S + 7 (1961) and involves replacing each noun (in French Substantif) in a pre-existing text, with the seventh noun following it in a given dictionary (Duncan, 2019). The so-called “Lescurian” constraint also became the inspiration behind different variations: A + 7, V + 7, and so on.

Figure 2. Fonds Oulipo. Dossiers mensuels de réunion (1977).

The Oulipian philosophy follows a system of mathematic techniques that create this amusing self-imposed challenge, based on cryptograms, constraints, algorithms, and other strict rules, that as Georges Perec, renowned OuLiPo member and novelist wrote: “I set myself rules in order to be free.” “Driven by a commitment to literature as subversive play, the OuLiPo tirelessly explored both the theory and practice of procedural poetics and the literature of constraint” (Epstein, 2016, p. 327). Thus, Potential Literature developed a literary composition game, particularly in poetry, with different writing restrictions and boundless results, offering its creators, both dependency and creative autonomy. “The Oulipian author is a rat who builds himself the labyrinth from which he will try to escape,” states the co-founder R. Queneau.

Exercises in style (Exercices de style, 1947), written by the aforementioned, narrates a monotonous incident of two passengers disputing on a crowded bus, in ninety-nine dissimilar ways. This compelling book foreshadows OuLiPo’s powerful ideas and demonstrates that writing style and forms can be more important than the actual story. Nevertheless, Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets (Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes, 1961) is considered the prototype of Potential Literature, showcasing the perfect amalgamation of mathematics and poetry. It is indeed an unconventional volume of potential poems since there are numerous, 1014 to be exact, possible combinations. This “book cannot possibly be read in its entirety by any single human being - including its author - and its significance thus remains, in a strong sense, potential” (Levin Becker, 2012).

Figure 3. Plan of the building described in Life A User's Manual by G. Perec.

One of the most unconventional writers of the 20th century, Georges Perec (1936 - 1982), was a remarkable member of the second era of OuLiPo, representing its ideology like no other does. Perec managed to compose A Void (La Disparition, 1969), a 300-page “e”-less detective novel in French, following OuLiPo’s lipogram constraint. However, his magnum opus is considered to be Life A User's Manual (La Vie Mode d'Emploi, 1978), winner of the prestigious Prix Médicis, a French literary award, and praised both for its story and structure. Indeed, Perec experiments in this novel that captures life, not only with different constraints and allusions, but also styles, writing games, even quotes, hidden into this series of stories, turning it into a literary puzzle, a complicated and revolutionary game, that reflects the Oulipian spirit.

Finally, 21st-century OuLiPo consists of 35 members, including those excused, due to death. However, no distinction is made between the living and the dead, and their purpose remains the same, heretofore: the invention of new rules, that benefit the exploration of literary possibilities. Outspread all over the world, this group of “explorers” remains closed, yet active, publishing their work and offering their constraints to potential writers.

Bibliographical References

Bahls, P. (2010). The Mathematical Muse: Using Math to Construct Poetry. Math Horizons, 17(3). https://doi.org/10.4169/194762110x489251

Benabou, M. (2017). Historique de l’Oulipo | Oulipo. Oulipo. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from https://www.oulipo.net/fr/historique-de-loulipo

Contraintes | Oulipo. (2017). Oulipo. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from https://www.oulipo.net/fr/contraintes/

Duncan, D. (2019). The Oulipo and Modern Thought. Oxford University Press.

Epstein, A. (2016). The Oulipo, language poetry, and proceduralism. In B. McHale & L. Platt (Eds.), The Cambridge History of Postmodern Literature. Cambridge University Press.

Levin Becker, D. (2012). Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, Harvard University Press.

OuLiPo. (1988). Atlas de littérature potentielle. Gallimard.

Terry, P. (Ed.). (2019). The Penguin Book of Oulipo: Queneau, Perec, Calvino and the Adventure of Form. Penguin Books.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Fonds Oulipo. Dossiers mensuels de réunion. (1980). https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b100102284/f12.image

Figure 2: Fonds Oulipo. Dossiers mensuels de réunion. (1977). [Manuscript]. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10010198n/f17

Figure 3: Perec, G. (n.d.). La Vie Mode d'Emploi. [Manuscript]. Fonds privé G.P., Bnf.


Author Photo

Lamprini Papathanasi

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