Monthly Archives: June 2021

Anaglyphic Text

In the Oulipo’s La littérature potentielle (Gallimard, 1973), François Le Lionnais brainstorms several ideas for new literary forms that would depend on computer technology. One of these forms is what he calls anaglyphic text:

Literary texts are always planar (and even linear, generally speaking): that is, they can be represented on a sheet of paper. A text could be composed whose lines were situated in a three-dimensional space. Reading it would require special glasses (one red lens and one green) using the anaglyphic method that has already been used to represent geometric figures and figurative scenes in space.

One will notice an attempt at orthogonalization within the plane, in the acrostics. (34)

By “acrostics” I think Le Lionnais means that one can read not only within a traditional two-dimensional plane but also depth-wise, focusing on elements in the same syntactic position on different planes and observing spatially how the elements differ semantically.

I have programmed two examples of anaglyphic text based on early examples of Oulipian writing (you will need the special glasses for the full effect). The first is an interactive version of Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes. In this version, the reader selects one of the ten options for each verse in a sonnet and the selected verses advance toward the reader while the other verses recede. The reader can see all the verses at once, generating a particular instance of a sonnet while keeping all options for each verse within sight.

Because of copyright considerations, I must refrain from sharing the full anaglyphic version of the Cent mille milliards de poèmes. Below is a screen shot to give you an idea of how it works.

The second is a version of N + 7, whereby one takes a text and replaces every noun with the seventh noun that follows it in a given dictionary. The procedure can be generalized to W ± n, where W is any part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, …) and n is any integer. The Oulipo’s first examples of N + 7 were produced “by hand” with printed dictionaries, but the procedure clearly lends itself to computation where the writer can easily look up words and experiment with different source texts, dictionaries, and values for n. The first instance of a program for N + 7 was written by Dimitry Starynkevitch on a mainframe computer in 1963, when computers were relatively rare and expensive to use (Bens, 199). The web application below combines W ± n with anaglyphs as a viewing option. The dictionaries are sorted word lists extracted from the Brown and Gutenberg corpora (containing respectively 38,879 and 33,924 distinct lemmas) included with the Natural Language Toolkit, and the tools for parsing source text, conjugating lemmatized verbs, and performing other linguistic tasks come from the pattern Python module.

The anaglyphic version of N + 7 allows one to experiment with different source texts, dictionaries, and values of n and see ten variations of a source text simultaneously (with some scrolling), reading both planarly and in depth.

The source files for both these web applications are available here.

Works Cited

Bens, Jacques. Genèse de l’Oulipo 1960-1963, La Castor Astral, 2005.

Le Lionnais, François. “Idea Box,” trans. Daniel Levin Becker. All That Is Evident Is Suspect: Readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018, ed. Ian Monk and Daniel Levin Becker, McSweeney’s, 2018, pp. 34-39.

Queneau, Raymond. Cent mille milliards de poèmes. Gallimard, 1961.