|Photo: Alison Flood|
|Capturing scientists’ imaginations ... James Joyce in Paris in 1937. |
Photo: Josef Breitenbach/PA
James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has been described as many things, from a masterpiece to unreadable nonsense. But it is also, according to scientists at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Poland, almost indistinguishable in its structure from a purely mathematical multifractal.
The academics put more than 100 works of world literature, by authors from Charles Dickens to Shakespeare, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Mann, Umberto Eco and Samuel Beckett, through a detailed statistical analysis. Looking at sentence lengths and how they varied, they found that in an “overwhelming majority” of the studied texts, the correlations in variations of sentence length were governed by the dynamics of a cascade – meaning that their construction is a fractal: a mathematical object in which each fragment, when expanded, has a structure resembling the whole.
Fractals are used in science to model structures that contain re-occurring patterns, including snowflakes and galaxies.
“All of the examined works showed self-similarity in terms of organisation of the lengths of sentences. Some were more expressive – here The Ambassadors by Henry James stood out – others to far less of an extreme, as in the case of the French 17th-century romance Artamene ou le Grand Cyrus. However, correlations were evident, and therefore these texts were the construction of a fractal,” said Dr Paweł Oświęcimka from the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, one of the authors of the new paper Quantifying Origin and Character of Long-range Correlations in Narrative Texts.
Some works, however, were more mathematically complex than others, with stream-of-consciousness narratives the most complex, comparable to multifractals, or fractals of fractals. Finnegans Wake, the scientists found, was the most complex of all.
“The absolute record in terms of multifractality turned out to be Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. The results of our analysis of this text are virtually indistinguishable from ideal, purely mathematical multifractals,” said Professor Stanisław Drożdż, another author of the paper, which has just been published in the computer science journal Information Sciences.
Joyce himself, reported to have said he wrote Finnegans Wake “to keep the critics busy for 300 years”, might have predicted this. In a letter about the novel, Work in Progess as he then knew it, he told Harriet Weaver: “I am really one of the greatest engineers, if not the greatest, in the world besides being a musicmaker, philosophist and heaps of other things.
All the engines I know are wrong. Simplicity. I am making an engine with only one wheel. No spokes of course. The wheel is a perfect square. You see what I’m driving at, don’t you? I am awfully solemn about it, mind you, so you must not think it is a silly story about the mouse and the grapes. No, it’s a wheel, I tell the world. And it’s all square.”
The academics write in their paper that: “Studying characteristics of the sentence-length variability in a large corpus of world famous literary texts shows that an appealing and aesthetic optimum … involves self-similar, cascade-like alternations of various lengths of sentences.”
|‘A fitting heir’ … Haruki Murakami outside Hans Christian Andersen’s house in Odense, Denmark.|
Photo: Henning Bagger/EPA
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Source: The Guardian