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Scientists Discover That James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Has an Amazingly Mathematical “Multifractal” Structure

‘…[s]cientists at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Poland have found that James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake—a novel we might think of as perhaps the most self-consciously referential examination of language written in any tongue—is “almost indistinguishable in its structure from a purely mathematical multifractal.” Trying to explain this finding in as plain English as possible, Julia Johanne Tolo at Electric Literature writes:To determine whether the books had fractal structures, the academics looked at the variation of sentence lengths, finding that each sentence, or fragment, had a structure that resembled the whole of the book.

And it isn’t only Joyce. Through a statistical analysis of 113 works of literature, the researchers found that many texts written by the likes of Dickens, Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, Umberto Eco, and Samuel Beckett had multifractal structures. The most mathematically complex works were stream-of-consciousness narratives, hence the ultimate complexity of Finnegans Wake, which Professor Stanisław Drożdż, co-author of the paper published at Information Sciences, describes as “the absolute record in terms of multifractality.” …

Fractal Novels Graph

A close second to Joyce’s classic work, surprisingly, is Dave Egger’s post-modern memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and much, much further down the scale, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Proust’s masterwork, writes Phys.org, shows “little correlation to multifractality” as do certain other books like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The measure may tell us little about literary quality, though Professor Drożdż suggests that “it may someday help in a more objective assignment of books to one genre or another.” …

Of the finding that stream-of-consciousness works seem to be the most fractal, McBride says, “By its nature, such writing is concerned not only with the usual load-bearing aspects of language—content, meaning, aesthetics, etc—but engages with language as the object in itself, using the re-forming of its rules to give the reader a more prismatic understanding…. Given the long-established connection between beauty and symmetry, finding works of literature fractally quantifiable seems perfectly reasonable.” Maybe so, or perhaps the Polish scientists have fallen victim to a more sophisticated variety of the psychological sharpshooter’s fallacy that affects “Bible Code” enthusiasts? I imagine we’ll see some fractal skeptics emerge soon enough. But the idea that the worlds-within-worlds feeling one gets when reading certain books—the sense that they contain universes in miniature—may be mathematically verifiable sends a little chill up my spine.’

Source: Open Culture