Ecclesiastical Proust & Wordle

Today, I spent a lot of time reading about the Digital Humanities and the vast scope of knowledge and potential contained under that umbrella term. I immediately wished I were more tech savvy, then vowed to become so before the THATCamp in NYC this year, which I decided to attend. I read about at least a dozen intriguing experiments opening up new ways of reading and exploring literary and historical texts; doubtless I’ll be writing about those as this blog grows.

One such project was the  Ecclesiastical Proust Archive, in which Jeff Drouin, a scholar at CUNY, not only pairs church-related passages in the Moncreiff translation of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu with the referent images, but also contextualizes those passages within the themes of the work as a whole. This project certainly provides a comprehensive atlas of Proust’s ecclesiastical spaces, and as such is an excellent resource for students wishing to position themselves with regards with his culture; however, as I read about Drouin’s work, I realized that I am seeking a way to render visible not only the geographically locatable, “objective” places in my corpus, but imaginative or affective place as well (the narrator’s idea of Chartres, say, infused with memory, history lessons, nostalgia, and so on). Quite how I will do that is still a mystery to me, but then again, this whole digital humanities shebang is unexplored territory, and I have a long way to wander with nary a map.

At one point in his blog, Drouin experiments with wordle to examine the frequency with which certain words appear in the Recherche. I immediately wondered what such images could tell me about the texts I am studying, and quickly copied the text of Maupassant’s La femme de Paul into wordle, limiting the algorithm to the top 100 words and excluding what the program deems to be “common French words” (it certainly misses a few):

Wordle: La femme de Paul

The presence of that “Madeleine” is purely coincidental!

There may be other programs out there that are more sophisticated (I am sure they are, especially to those with the web 2.0 skills I am yet to acquire), but in the case of this particular one, two issues immediately stand out: firstly, I would want to be able to fine-tune the program, perhaps linking words by lexical group, grammatical category, or theme, and organizing these as superimposed layers. Secondly, it would also be helpful to be able to customize the “common French words” feature too, thereby removing some of those subject pronoun. However, if taken too far, this could produce meaning instead of letting it emerge (I’m on shaky ground here, I realize). And who knows if the subject pronouns might not have their own story to tell?

My initial take is that this could prove a potentially fruitful starting point for literary analysis, but would only ever be able to tell a very small part of the story (and even then, only once contextualized). That part, though, might well be worth the telling…

Then again, I’m not looking for something to take the place of close reading (for therein lies the joy of literary study) but merely a means to illustrate a way of reading a text.

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