Daily Archives: May 14, 2018

Fractal Literature

I recently came across this article from back in 2016. It’s a couple years old, but I found the premise fascinating enough to discuss anyway. As you probably know, one of the things I talk about here is the difference between “literature” and “genre.” The distinction has never been all that clear to me. I especially take issue with literary snobs who insist that, for example, stories with paranormal elements or speculative technologies can never be literary, basically by definition because they fall under “fantasy” or “science fiction.”

There certainly is a lot of bad genre fiction out there, especially these days, but it also seems to be that literary conceits such as “dysfunctional family” are really no less genre than say, stories about werewolves or whatever. I can follow the argument that literary writing requires prose of a certain level, or character development of a certain level, or story complexity of a certain level – or for that matter all three. But if that’s the case, it should be independent of the subject matter.

“Realism,” especially of the “hard materialist” sort, has never really captured my attention. For one thing, magick is totally real. I do it all the time, and it makes my life way more awesome than it would be otherwise. So a world without active spiritual forces seems totally forced and unrealistic to me. Also, why do I want to read about regular life? Especially the regular life of a character who’s way more boring than me? When your life as a magical practitioner feels totally normal, trying to understand a character who lacks that element is really, really dull.

This article, though, discusses an idea that I had never previously considered. According to mathematical analysis, sentences in great literature exhibit a “multifractal” pattern. The analysis was conducted by analyzing sentence length throughout the entire text. The researchers concluded that the pattern was present in the vast majority of “great literary works” that they studied, and was especially clear in texts that were written using stream-of-consciousness techniques.

“All of the examined works showed self-similarity in terms of organization of the lengths of sentences. Some were more expressive—The Ambassadors by Henry James stood out—while others were less 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,” says Dr. Pawel Oswiecimka (IFJ PAN), who also noted that fractality of a literary text will in practice never be as perfect as in the world of mathematics. It is possible to magnify mathematical fractals up to infinity, while the number of sentences in each book is finite, and at a certain stage of scaling, there will always be a cut-off in the form of the end of the dataset.

Things took a particularly interesting turn when physicists from the IFJ PAN began tracking non-linear dependence, which in most of the studied works was present to a slight or moderate degree. However, more than a dozen works revealed a very clear multifractal structure, and almost all of these proved to be representative of one genre: stream of consciousness. The only exception was the Bible, specifically the Old Testament, which has so far never been associated with this literary genre. “The absolute record in terms of multifractality turned out to be Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. The results of our analysis of this text are virtually indistinguishable from ideal, purely mathematical multifractals,” says Prof. Drozdz.

The most multifractal works also included A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, Rayuela by Julio Cortazar, The US Trilogy by John Dos Passos, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, 2666 by Roberto Bolano, and Joyce’s Ulysses. At the same time, a lot of works usually regarded as stream of consciousness turned out to show little correlation to multifractality, as it was hardly noticeable in books such as Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and A la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust.

“It is not entirely clear whether stream of consciousness writing actually reveals the deeper qualities of our consciousness, or rather the imagination of the writers. It is hardly surprising that ascribing a work to a particular genre is, for whatever reason, sometimes subjective. We see, moreover, the possibility of an interesting application of our methodology: it may someday help in a more objective assignment of books to one genre or another,” notes Prof. Drozdz.

There’s some speculation in the article on how this observation might or might not related to a fractal structure within consciousness itself. Back in my college days I played around with the idea of fractal consciousness, and the result was this paper. While neuroscience has disproven enough of psychoanalysis that much of the Jungian speculation in it is probably meaningless, I still contend that it makes sense for consciousness to follow some sort of fractal pattern – we just need to work out what the fractional dimension of that pattern is.

At any rate, one of the things I have mentioned a couple of times over on Augoeides is that I have never found it that difficult to distinguish a genuine “received text” from a fake one. There’s a particular feel to the language that seems obvious to me, in terms of how it flows in general and how certain points get elaborated and extended. The Book of the Law, for example, clearly exhibits this sort of structure. On the other hand, most of the “secret fourth chapters” that show up every so often in the Thelemic community don’t. I also see it in historical pieces like Dee and Kelley’s Angelic Keys, and not as much in some of the other conjurations and so forth from those periods.

So is something like this “multifractal structure” what I’m noticing? I’m not sure at this point, but it strikes me as a possibility. It could be the case if the closer something is to stream-of-consciousness while remaining meaningful, the more likely it is to be a legitimate received text. The researchers did apply their analysis to the Bible and didn’t find a pattern, but the Bible is a collection of many texts written in both Greek and Hebrew, and I don’t know enough about the analysis conducted to see whether or not I think that translation might be part of the issue.

Perhaps more practically – can a novel be written in a multifractal pattern by design? If so, it would be an interesting experiment to write the same kind of story that I usually write – fantasy or science fiction – but write it in this “literary” way. Would book critics view it differently? If so, does that imply that multifractal prose is literary and prose without it is not? At the very least, if that distinction exists it would represent an objective difference between these two kinds of writing.

I also think that what we would find is that there should be such a thing as “good genre” and “bad literary.” Obviously it should be possible to write something terrible using a multifractal approach, just like it should be possible to write something really good without it. But I probably am getting ahead of myself there. One study does not a scientific discovery make, and maybe this finding is little more than a stray artifact.

I will say, though, that I’m looking forward to future research along these lines. It’s always frustrating to be judged by a metric that is essentially “I know it when I see it” rather than anything quantifiable. Here’s an interesting experiment to try – find a selection from Finnegan’s Wake or one of the other “high-multifractal” pieces in this study. Write down the length of each sentence in the selection. Then, like composing a haiku, write a narrative that matches the length of each sentence and see if what you get is any good.