Mandelbrot Among the Gypsies

Mandelbrot Among the Gypsies

Mandelbrot Among the Gypsies (2001)

Gaston Julia, recovering from injuries caused by a hospital, was named king of the gypsies in 1917. He had darned some socks for corpses and driven a hawthorn stake through his soon-to-be famous set. Much of his initial groundwork was spent decapitating computers on a finite area of the X-Y plane. Female vampires might have been more helpful in seducing his theory, but Pierre Fatou was a familiar who was missing a finger. He used melons to free up computer time. Of course, they dripped blood. To ward off vampires, gypsies used computer-generated cremation grounds. In 1979, Benoit Mandelbrot himself could reproduce after he made noises and calculated Kali. The goddess drank his image — all his blood was drained but none was spilled, thereby the “Mandelbrot Set.” The values of IBM went from C to mullo (one nomadic perimeter of a large, complex ghoul). The discrete boundary of this formula is very loyal to dead relatives, both inside and out. In 1982, Mandelbrot’s soul re-entered the world, and he published a book similar to ours only very different. It was called In the Fractal There Is No Death. His soul, kept crated in wooden boxes, stayed more around his publisher than his body. This was actually seminal, for undead followers soon generated and sprang out of the ground. They believed only in dendrites and Slavic primacy. Later, after deep zooming and (re)animating irregular shapes, interesting patterns like animal appendages emerged and wandered the countryside. These beautiful images were a surprise, and intestines and a skull combined to make an apparition that drank only coloring gradients. So, yes, Bram Stoker spread his work at high magnification. By 1000 AD, computer artists with their powerful PCs had settled in Turkey. All culture and contemporary simulation seemed to stop shortly afterward.


Using the “cut-up” composition method popularized by William S. Burroughs, two blocks of text were run through a virtual cut-up machine. The result: a randomly scrambled “found” text mirroring chaos theory and yielding new meanings.

The two texts used here and merged were:
1) an article about the beginnings of fractal art–
2) an article on gypsy vampire superstitions–


I sometimes try to write poetry using similar steps to the way I make fractal images.

My process for creating a fractal-like poetry begins with the “cut-up” theory of writing popularized by the late Beat writer William S. Burroughs. It’s probably written by elves Wikipedia describes cut-up composition as follows:

Cut-up is performed by taking a finished and fully linear text (printed on paper) and cutting it in pieces with a few or single words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged into a new text. The rearranging work often result in surprisingly innovative new phrases. A common way is to cut a sheet in four rectangular sections, rearranging them, and then typing down the mingled prose while compensating for the haphazard word breaks by improvising and innovating along the way.

I then try to add two new dimensions to cut-up composition: 1) collage software and 2) bits of fractal theory.

My compositions begin by pasting two existing text excerpts into a virtual cut-up machine. This is software designed to scramble and splice texts to make new, “found” texts. But I use the software in a very specific way — and for a very specific end: to create a kind of “fractal poetry.” There are, indeed, some connections. Chopping and rearranging (layering?) the same two “set” texts means subsequent cut-up(s) will always be “self-similar.” The field of available words never changes and syntax replicates but is altered with each iteration. In theory, the cut-up text could be infinite — if I could live forever and constantly keep mashing up the same two select texts. Fractals are also infinite in theory, but a graphic viewer capable of a never-ending deep zoom has (to my knowledge) not yet been created. Moreover, by placing all of the cut-up machine’s settings on “random,” chaos theory comes into play. So, the resulting cut-up texts do have some fractal characteristics — computer generation, self-similarity, theoretical infinity, and influence of chaos theory.

I am not the only writer to link fractals and poetry. Poet Alice Fulton has discussed “fractal poetics” in her book Feeling as a Foreign Language (Graywolf Press, 1999). She writes:

Science’s insights concerning turbulence might help us to describe traits common to the poetry of volatile (rather than fixed) form…Just as fractal science analyzed the ground between chaos and Euclidean order, fractal poetics could explore the field between gibberish and traditional forms. It could describe and make visible a third space: the non-binary in-between.

Naturally, Fulton has her detractors. Michael Theune disses her ideas in an issue of Pleaides:

At first, Fulton’s theory sounds promising. A real departure from organic theories of poetry, it could help to privilege a new kind of poetry, a hyper-repetitive or incremental poetry perhaps analogous to the fugue — a structure Fulton mentions in her essay, “To Organize a Waterfall” — that might approximate the not-quite and both chaotic and self-similar — “[a] self-similar mechanism is, formally speaking, a kind of cascade, with each stage creating details smaller than those of the preceding stages” — aspects of the fractal. The fractal, one could say, replaces the paradigm of the musical score with the paradigm of the loop.


The trouble with Fulton’s theory is that none of this happens. Instead, Fulton makes a mess of things, bleeding her potentially interesting theory dry by turning it into at best a lightweight surrealism or at worst a trite descriptive tool.

Fulton applies fractal theory to existing free verse patterns in hopes of discovering a middle ground of exciting expression poised between sense and nonsense and for extracting (deep zooming?) new meanings. Fulton is less interested in generating poetry based on fractal components than she is concerned with applying fractal theory as a critical tool to decode and validate what she sees as super-charged free verse poetry. In contrast, I am more attracted to using pieces of fractal theory as a mirror and a map to generate new “found texts” that are somewhat fractal in both compositional method and structural design. Ideally, such new texts can truly inhabit Fulton’s “third space.”

And that’s where I want to be. In that third space suspended between chaos and order.

Fulton goes on to say is poem is not a fractal because poems aren’t “complex adaptive systems.” True enough — but if a poem can be spliced and diced to embed at least some fractal characteristics, and each subsequent stage of that cut-up is a new iteration, doesn’t that evolving new text demonstrate traces of complex adaptation? Or is the inclusion of deliberate randomness in my cut-up process an adaptation buzz killer?

One thought on “Mandelbrot Among the Gypsies

  1. Philip,

    Your cut-up Cut-Up Machine instructions actually make more sense than some of the convoluted toy assembly instructions I wrestled with when my daughter was much younger.

    There was one tricycle in particular that was possessed by the Forces of Darkness. Triumphant, with a smirk on its handlebars, that half-finished mutant frame now rusts in the garage.

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