The Education of Adams (Henry) / ALAMO

The Education of Adams (Henry) / ALAMO

Paul Braffort

Paul Braffort studies constrained writing from Henry Adams to Braffort’s own ALAMO project, and presents his findings in the form of a Triolet (between 1999 and 2000 words)


During the month of October 1999, The New York Times ran, on its Web Forum, a Book Reading Group headed: Discuss ” The Education of Henry Adams.”

I acquired then Adam’s ” The Tendency of History ” (Macmillan, 1928) and William Jordy’s ” Henry Adams: Scientific Historian ” (Yale UP, 1963).

Like Barzun’s ” Darwin, Marx, Wagner ” (Doubleday, 1958) and J. Bernard Cohen’s ” Revolution in Science ” (Harvard UP, 1985), these books helped me to assess HA’s work.

As the title of this essay clearly shows, a simple substitution changes “Adams” to “ALAMO” and back, but the word constraint is the necessary clue for understanding a correspondence going beyond the alphabet.

For a typical Bostonian such as Adams, constraint is everywhere, deeper than high society ethics. A descendant of two American Presidents, he was looking for rules to understand History through the Sciences.

He wrote on the Law of Acceleration, the Rule of Phases, started an enduring fight against historians confusing history and story-telling. The first chapter of Jordy’s book is entitled: Two Temperaments in History: Scientific and Literary.

After Lucretius, Llull, Cyrano de Bergerac, du Bartas, Goethe, Hugo, and before Queneau and Calvino, he found another bridge between Science and Literature.

Since architecture is also a domain of human creativity where art and science work together, Adams, through his book, Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres, was again involved in another instance of the constraint problem. One should then remember the frequent use of architectural metaphors in Queneau’s discussions of literary constraints.


One of the high moments in Adams’s life was his visit to the great Exposition which opened in Paris on April 15th, 1900. In the Galerie des machines, huge equipment was exhibited, such as dynamos and steam engines: power-generating machines.

For a writer and a scholar such as Adams, the idea of a text-generating machine would have been also a cause of great excitement. He would have found there a new form of energy!

A project in this direction had been mentioned in the third part of Gulliver’s Travels (chapter V, ” Travel to Laputa “) where Swift describes Lagado’s Academy and its endeavors.

As Norbert Wiener pointed out, Swift was trying there to settle a score with Leibniz, criticizing the mathematician, inventor of the computer, founder of Academies.

Leibniz’s program was geared towards the mechanization of deductive processes including those used in natural language text generation. Later, W. Stanley Jevons gave a description of such a mechanical model in his paper, ” On the mechanical performance of logical inference ” (1870).

In 1964, the Editions du Jour in Montreal published La machine ý Ècrire, assembled and programmed by Jean A. Baudot, which slightly anticipated Oulipo’s models and ALAMO’s programs.

Then in 1965 Sheldon Klein created MESSY, followed by James Meehan’s TALESPIN, etc. In France the pioneering work of GÈrard Verroust was followed by essays on text synthesis by Daniel Goossens (1984) and Laurence Danlos (1985).

But as early as 1981, building on Oulipo’s work on combinatory literature, the ALAMO group had been launched.


The aim of Raymond Queneau and FranÁois Le Lionnais, when they founded Oulipo, was to unite mathematicians and writers who were interested in literary creation under formal constraints.

The Oulipians, while acknowledging their “plagiats par anticipation” (lipograms, palindromes, etc.), strived to define and moreover to invent new literary forms using non-trivial mathematical structures.

Among the various existing sources, Oulipians were naturally attracted to the writings of Jean Meschinot (1490) and those of Quirinus Kulhmann (1660) who tried quite early to take advantage of combinatory models in literature.

Raymond Queneau then proposed in his Cent mille milliards de poËmes a hand-driven sonnet generating system. Quite soon specialists created computer versions of Queneau’s book.

This led Paul Braffort and Jacques Roubaud in July 1981 to propose the creation of a new group named ALAMO (Atelier de LittÈrature AssistÈe par la MathÈmatique et les Ordinateurs).

Using computers means implementing constraints. In his introduction to Oulipo: a Primer of Potential Literature (U of Nebraska P, 1986), Warren Motte has a section, entitled “Formal Constraint,” where he describes various types of alphabetic, lexical, and higher level constraints.

In the same literary anthology, Marcel Benabou wrote a chapter, “Rule and Constraint,” that offers various models of “Tables” such as Queneleiev’s.

At a metalinguistic level, Roubaud has suggested two super-rules: 1. A text obeying a constraint defined through a given mathematical structure should include a mathematical property of that structure; 2. A text obeying a given constraint should include a definition of that constraint.


The Education of Henry Adams was probably written between 1909 and 1913, that is, at the very moment of a big - and decisive - clash which had occurred between Thermodynamics and Electromagnetism, and which gave birth to Quantum Physics and Relativity.

In chapters xxv, “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” and xxi, “The Grammar of Science,” from her excellent book Duchamp in Context (Princeton UP, 1998), Linda Henderson contrasts Adams’s vision of science, with Marcel Duchamp’s ” La mariÈe mise ý nu par ses cÈlibataires, mÍme.”

Adams insists (in ” The Tendency of History “) on the fact that energy “must submit to the final and fundamental necessity of Degradation.”

Duchamp, on the other hand, looks for the opening of creative possibilities with new media revealing previously invisible reality.

Both are present in The First Moderns, Modernist Discontinuities by William R. Everdell (U of Chicago P, 1997), which describes the sudden explosion of all the Sciences and the Arts.

In chapter 6, “The Arts: 1914-1915,” from The Age of Extremes (Vintage Books, 1994) Eric Hobsbawm explains how the collapse of Europe confirmed Adams’s pessimism and nevertheless induced new directions of research such as Dada.

In any case, Duchamp’s machines, such as his Chocolate Grinder or his 1913 draft, “Perspective Drawing for the Water Mill Wheel” (as a “transformateur ý dÈtente”) were probably inspired by the same 1900 machine exhibition that Adams celebrated.

Adams’s speculation about an electromagnetic ether should also be evaluated against Duchamp’s studies of a fourth dimension (as illustrated by his 1918 Tu m’).


The education of Henry Adams took place in Harvard and included essentially humanistic disciplines. Only at the end of his life was he committed to science, and especially to Physics.

But then he started the ambitious project of giving a scientific foundation to History. Thermodynamics and its two first laws became the subject of his lectures as can be read in his Tendency of History.

Such a program was another genuine effort to pull down the “iron curtain” between Sciences and the Humanities, and anticipated C.P. Snow by 50 years.

The “Two Cultures” debate has been frequently mentioned, lately, as being obsolete. Curiously, such a theme is still regularly quoted in many publications.

In fact the Snow/Leavis debate came after a first row in quarrelling, around 1896, between Thomas Huxley and Matthew Arnold (the former being a friend of Darwin and an activist for the promotion of science in the academic curriculum).

The attack by F.R. Leavis, in 1962, was followed by a turmoil only moderated by subsequent rejoinders by Aldous Huxley, Jacob Bronowski, Jacques Barzun and Arthur Koestler (some of whom had significant involvement in science).

At the beginning of the 1980s, a reversal took place. I call it “Snow’s syndrome.” Under pressure from the media, authors and critics began introducing scientific concepts (G-del’s theorem, Heisenberg’s principle, chaos theory, etc.) everywhere!

Fortunately, great authors from Lucretius to Nabokov, through Cyrano, Goethe, and Hugo gave us true works of art where science remains at the right place.


While the “Two Cultures” debate did not raise many echoes in France, it had important impacts in Italy, a country with a strong interdisciplinary tradition.

From Carducci to D’Annunzio, many discussions took place, involving writers and philosophers such as Croce and Pirandello. Giacomo De Benedetti and Elio Vittorini contributed significantly to the debate.

Hired by publisher Einaudi after 1945 (he had been active in the guerilla warfare), Italo Calvino became Vittorini’s friend and edited his essay Le due tensione, inspired by Snow’s work.

From the beginning, Calvino was interested in Science, particularly in its “cybernetic” developments. In The Literary Machine, he gives a lucid appreciation of the new possibilities offered by the fast and deep expansion of computer applications.

A member of Oulipo, and a friend of Queneau, he supervised the Italian translation of La petite cosmogonie portative and I helped him to find the hidden meaning of line 219 in the third canto (an allusion to Vanadium).

Primo Levi, a chemist by profession, acted as a consultant in Calvino’s translation work. But he was himself interested in the coupling of computer systems and literature.

Under an alias, he published in 1967 a short - funny - story: Il Versificatore (The Versifier) which anticipates recent cyber-novels such as Powers’s Galatea 2.2.

Another friend of Calvino’s, Leonardo Sinisgalli, a former pupil of Enrico Fermi, finally decided to turn to Literature and the Arts. But with such works as Archimedes, Furor Mathematicus, etc., he acted, too, as a man of the Two Cultures.


The beginning of this century could be characterized as the age of electricity and, more specifically, of the electron. Adams celebrated the dynamo as a kind of secular Virgin while Duchamp was contemplating a plastic expression ” L’ÈlectricitÈ en large.”

It should be remembered that, at the same time, Ezra Pound was also very much interested in electricity, electromagnetism, and the electron as a special kind of image, vortex, or ideogram.

In Quantum Poetics (Cambridge UP, 1997), Daniel Albright goes so far as to contrast Pound’s “particles” to Yeats’s and Eliot’s “waves.”

If Ezra Pound’s political opinions could be at least as repulsive as those of Henry Adams, they were both in the situation of opening the possibility of a major change in the dominant paradigm: a change from a mechanistic view of nature to an “electricist” one.

But this change did not really happen. In spite of Lorentz’s and Weber’s efforts, the standard mechanistic model remained predominant even in their relativist or quantum guise.

And now that we reach the end of the century, electronics is coming back, stronger than ever, invading every aspect of our life, including literature: ALAMO and other creative activities (Holopoetry, Teano, Telepoetry, are good examples).

Structuralism, which, for a while, interested Calvino, may seem now rather obsolete. Our poetic creation needs color, motion, dynamics in space and time. But this is also the case in Science where nothing significant would have been achieved without the new technologies.

Neither could exist this “tree-owl-hay.”


As most of the true revolutionaries have said, freedom means recognition and mastery of constraints. This is true in the Arts as well as in the practice of Science and Technology.

The editors of this tenth issue of ebr imposed the following constraint: our texts should have a length between 1999 and 2000 words. Hence my alternating title.

This text was prepared to exemplify the constraint problem in both its literary and technical aspects. For that reason I chose the old triolet form and a computer implementation of it on the ALAMO site at the French Ministry of Culture computing center.

This is why my essay is divided in eight sections of eight paragraphs each (corresponding to the eight stanzas of eight lines in the poem). Rhyme is replaced here by theme, in such a way that sections one, four, and seven develop the same theme, and so do sections two and eight.

I wanted to apply also a meta-constraint, the second of Roubaud’s rules (A text obeying a given constraint should include a definition of that constraint). This is precisely what I am doing here (but note that some of the computer-produced triolets also describe the rule of triolet!).

Now, get your personal triolet. Its two stanzas will complete the preceding paragraphs of this last section (bringing their total number to 8 times 8 giving 64 as required).