Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An Oulipo challenge!

Here's a change of pace for a drizzly holiday week (here in Pennsylvania, at least), a game challenge for any readers brave enough to take it! You've heard of Googlelwhacking? It's the old internet challenge to find two words that, together, bring up only a single hit on Google. Think it's easy? Try it! It was a lot easier when there weren't so many websites!

Now here's another entry into the intellectual game-world: the Oulipics. Oulipo is a 50-year old French elite organization that tries to find potential in literature--ways of doing art that follows very strict rules or structures, rather than conventional constraints (or freedoms). The name is a contraction of the French for Workshop of Potential Literature. I learned about this from a BBC podcast (my only source of real news!).

One classic Oulipo formulaic is called "N+7": Take a piece of writing and substitute every noun with the noun that appears seven nouns later in the dictionary (agreement such as pluralization is OK, and for our purposes to make it easy, we'll accept an English dictionary--sorry, no French on this post! And to make this even a tad more practicable, we'll allow adding or subtracting articles like 'a' or 'the')

Here's an example. The original, from Longfellow's poem Evangeline, is:
THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld...
Oulipoing this, we get:
THIS is forgiveness primeval. The murmuring pinks and the henroosts, bearded with moths, and in garrets green, indistinct in the twirl, stand like drumsticks of the electorate...
Now that may be highly adventurous as literature, but it's right in the spirit of Oulipo to break the bounds of conventionality--and it's easy, no? (Actually, the original was written in the 1800s so for my N+7's I used Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, the definitive source at the time).

So here's our Oulipo challenge for you: use the N+7 rule and find an existing passage about evolution (from Darwin or any source you care to choose), that translates into an N+7 passage that is also about evolution.

For starters, here's the most obvious example:

"There is grandiflora in this view of life-giving...."

Que les jeux commencents!


Anne Buchanan said...

The Orismology of Specificity, The Selfish Gene Pool, The Expulsion of Empery in Management and Animal Kingdom.

Sam said...

Wouldn't you know it. I left my copy of Samuel Johnson's at home today. Of course I always carry all 12 volumes of my 1928 OED, so maybe I can find a good mid-20th century quote.

Ken Weiss said...

Any quote will do! Anne easily managed three right off the bat. Hopefully, people will rise to the challenge, and go deeper. Maybe some things from science articles? Probably not -- our gobbledygook jargon is not even IN the dictionrary!

Anyway, Sam, you should never be without your dictionary! I got a CD of Johnson's original edition after reading Boswell's Life of Johnson and getting interested in the Johnson Dictionary project (kind of like a Genome Project of its time).

Happy Oolipo-ing!

Anne Buchanan said...

Sam, yes, the fatal flaw in this whole thing is that you can't scroll down in web dictionaries. And, other than you, who carries their 12 volume OED around with them?