|BRAUN, THEODORE E. D., and JOHN A. MCCARTHY (Eds.), Disrupted Patterns: On Chaos and Order in the Enlightenment. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi (2000). 219 pp.
Was the Age of Reason chaotic? In what way? When did the paradigm shift occur from the linear, reductive mode of thinking and a mechanistic view of the world as had been promulgated in the influential treatises by Descartes and Newton to the dynamic mode of thinking that understands disorder and order, dissolution and becoming, decay and regeneration not as binary opposites but as necessary complements in the evolution of complex structures that can be found everywhere in open and creative, adaptive and self-organizing systems as diverse as the universe, wild-life populations, human history and societies, the brain, the heart, and works of art. Literary studies employing the insights gained by chaos theory usually make the point that chaos theory and postmodern literary texts and cultural theories both emerged from the same cultural matrix in the late 1960s and early 70s, and thus share isomorphic characteristics. But consider the characteristic features of chaos theory and classical science, and their respective icons, as succinctly stated by N. Katherine Hayles, the pioneer in applying chaos theory to the explication of literary texts: “The difference between the two paradigms is expressed by the icons often associated with them. Whereas Newtonians focused on the clock as an appropriate image for the world, chaos theorists are apt to choose the waterfall. The clock is ordered, predictable, regular, and mechanically precise; the waterfall is turbulent, unpredictable, irregular, and infinitely varying in form. The change is not in how the world actually is - neither clocks nor waterfalls are anything new - but in how it is seen. The broadest implications of chaotics derive from this change in vision.” (Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, p. 8. This book is listed in the l5-page bibliography, as are all books referenced in this review) Is it possible that this change in vision emerged some 200 years earlier? This collection of fourteen essays on authors of the 18th century offers ample evidence that it did.
Whereas scientists had to await the arrival of calculators and powerful computers to measure turbulence and irregular forms, the reaction of the humanists to the reductive, mechanistic view of the world was swift and often tinged with sarcasm. Goethe, for instance, whose vision is reexamined in three of the essays, satirizes this view in Faust when he has Mephisto instruct the student in the proper academic discourse with the words, “lernt alles reduzieren / Und gehrig klassifizieren.” And of Descartes he says: “Cartesius schrieb sein Buch De Methode einige Male um, und wie es jezt liegt, kann es uns doch nicht helfen.” It is useless for explaining the phenomena of the real world. If one wants to begin to understand life, Goethe suggests instead to observe the waterfall and the resultant rainbow. The beauty of “des Regenbogens Wechsel-Dauer” results from complementarity and the complex life-sustaining interactions of water, sunlight, air, and the curvature of the earth. (Beginning of Faust II) Goethe disdains “mechanische Erklrungsarten” and opts for explaining things “dynamisch.” And Fr. Schlegel, too, perceives beauty in the complementarity of opposites, in the “reizende Symmetrie von Widersprchen,” and he dumbfounds the rationalists by declaring, “Die hchste Schnheit, ja die hchste Ornung ist denn doch nur die des Chaos….” (130) In a similar way, chaos theorists tantalized classical scientists when they suggested the possibility that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas (Lorenz), that the coast of Britain “is best considered infinite” and when they dare to assert what should be obvious: “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth…” (Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, p. 25 and 1). Knowledge can no longer be had through abstract idealizations, chaos theorists and these authors say, but rather by observing and measuring the complex behavior of real phenomena and processes; as Goethe expressed it: “Man suche nur nichts hinter den Phnomenen: sie selbst sind die Lehre.” Individual agents, local information are now considered essential characteristics of adaptive and self-organizing systems. A terminology was needed to express this new understanding and change in vision, and the chaos theorists formulated it. The authors of these essays employ the terminology and concepts of chaos theory to gain new - and fascinating - insights into texts written by the best minds of the 18th century. They skillfully and judiciously navigate around the Scylla of overburdening their argument by too much technical information and the Charybdis of the facile and superficial argument that any man or woman to whom one of the opposite sex is attracted is a strange attractor. Both the editors in their “Foreword” and N. Katherine Hayles in her “Preface” persuasively argue the case for the interdisciplinary approach of using a methodology and concepts developed in the sciences in the study of the humanities.
As these essays make clear, an approach based on the discourse of chaos theory has many advantages. Most importantly, this approach alerts the interpreter-critic to the potential fallacies of a linear mode of thinking that reduces “meaning” to consequent causality, and it also sensitizes the reader to the deeper structures of a work (and of human society depicted therein) that present a more comprehensive view of life and reveal its turbulent and stochastic processes. As van der Laan puts it: “While the surface of the Enlightenment is philosophic, rational, scientific, systematic, serious, and orderly, its undercurrents are the erotic and sensual, the sentimental and intuitive, the frivolous, the asystematic, the disorderly, and the chaotic.” (202) From Diderot, who “in a remarkable anticipation of the science of chaos…understood the limitations of the Newtonian paradigm, with its deterministic picture of a smoothly running universe where life can only be perceived as an unwelcome intrusion” (10) to Fr. Schlegel, who regards chaos as the highest order, the authors in this volume are presented as viewing the universe not as a finished clockwork but as emergent, which is to say, in chaos theory terms, “at the edge of chaos,” which is that fruitful tension between disorder and order, where fecundity prevails and new information is set free, where disruptions and discontinuities occur, where bifurcations emerge and, thus, possibilities for future choices open up, and where powerful ideas act as strange attractors and draw the system into a new direction. Like chaos theory not restricted to one discipline, the authors presented here thought of themselves as agents of cultural evolution who used their formidable intellects and profound insights into human nature to advocate and mold a more civil and humane future. Again in the words of Goethe: “Sein Jahrhundert kann man nicht verndern, aber man kann sich dagegen stellen und glckliche Wirkungen vorbereiten.” (Letter to Schiller, 21 July 1778). Minute causes can effect large-scale changes.
The essays are arranged in two groupings. Three focus on “Theoretical Concerns” - Huguette Cohen: “Diderot’s Cosmic games: Revisiting a Dilemma,” John McCarthy: “Beyond a Philosophy of Alternatives: Chaos, Cosmology, and the Eighteenth Century,” Aaron Santesso: “Aesthetic Chaos in the Age of Reason” - followed by eleven “Applications and Interpretations” - Hilary Rhodes Bailey: “Jaques le fataliste, Chaos, and the Free Will Debate,” Patrick Brady: “Chaos, Complexity, Catastrophy and Control in Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne,” Theodore Braun: “Montesqieu, Lettres persanes, and Chaos”, Kevin Cope: “John Locke Didn’t have it all Locked up, Or, Locke on the Emergence, Development, and Branching of Knowledge, Education, Politics, Religion, and Hairdressing,” Allen Grove: “Sexual Chaos: The Gothic Formula and the Politics of Complexity,” Laurie Johnson: “Bringing Chaos into the System: The Aesthetic Authority of Disorder in Friedrich Schlegel’s Philosophy,” Thomas Kavanagh: “Crébillon’s Chaotics of Desire,” Jo Alyson Parker: “The Clockmaker’s Outcry: Tristram Shandy and the Complexification of Time,” Julie Reahard: “Motion in Form: Goethe’s Force of Nature,” Herbert Rowland: “Goethe’s Hermann und Dorothea and the Chaotic and Complex Order of History,” J. M. van der Laan: “Essayistic Orders of Chaos.” This listing indicates the range of authors represented in this book and the wide scope of topics covered by the contributors. Each of these excellent essays provides new insights and a wealth of information.
McCarthy focuses on Kant as the pivotal figure in this change of vision. From Haller, whose human beings are “insignificant specks of dust” (22) standing in awe of a perfectly ordered universe, McCarthy traces this shift through the nihilistic experience of Anton Reiser, who feels crushed by the grand design, to Kant’s critique “of All Attempted Philosophical Theodicies,” his empowerment of the individual to find the moral law within and to be a participant in the “emergence of the universe” that “is ongoing and without end in time or space” (33) pointing forward to the thinking of Fr. Schlegel and Nietzsche. Evil is no longer seen as the binary opposite of good to be eradicated but as “the negative source from which the good is to arise.” (32) In the lack of order Kant saw an opportunity for new beginnings, and the potential and the “need for a new beginning is what fascinated him,” (26) thus supplanting the notion of a preestablished best of all possible worlds. Ceaseless activity, energy, creativity are valorized by Kant as well as by Goethe as the prime movers in nature and on the human level, thus supplanting the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter. A state of stasis or equilibrium is deadly; only a state far from equilibrium has the potential for change, for moral improvement, renewal in society, and progress in history. And a positive spin on the evil destructive forces of fire and war also by Goethe? Indeed, as Hermann speaks to his parents and neighbors: “Sollte nicht auch ein Glck aus diesem Unglck hervorgehn / Und ich, im Arme der…Gattin, / Mich nicht erfreuen des Krieges, so wie Ihr des Brandes euch freutet?” (l88) By linking two generations, Goethe presents order as being always on the precarious “edge of chaos.” (182) Viewed as an idyll of bourgeois life, Hermann und Dorothea is a relic of the past. Considering it “from the point of view of modern chaos and complexity” (179) enables Roland to bring out the enduring relevance of the text: “It is precisely the conflictful yet fruitful basic human needs for love, companionship, friendship, security…that provide the self-similarity or symmetry across the scales of society and history in the work.” (188) Preceding his extensive analysis of the text Roland briefly highlights the fascination famous chaos theorists - Feigenbaum, Libchaber, Prigogine, Mandelbrot - have had with Goethe, their pronouncements on the link between art and chaos theory, and provides an account of recent Goethe scholarship (publications and conferences) that utilizes chaos theory as an interpretative approach.
Goethe’s scientific and essayistic writings are reexamined in two other studies. Drawing extensively on modern theories of motion and force in the development, evolution, pattern and form in complex systems by David Bohm, Margulis, Prigogine, Stuart Kaufmann, Ian Stuart and M. Golubitzky, Reahard summarizes her findings as Goethe’s complexity theory of the development of all living forms: “Underlying all form are two fundamental systems of nature: the spiral system of motion and the vertical reinforcing system, which restrains this system to proceed to contraction and expansion…Through subordination of forms, each of which encapsulates directed movement, nature is not merely growing: it is developing new wholes that experience their forms, their ‘selves,’ at a ‘higher level,’ independently and yet similarly to the forms that compose them.” (172) Seeing this theory of “living form” take shape in Goethe’s creative work - art being a higher form of nature - allows Reahard to give an ingenious interpretation of Mignon’s egg dance: “it models ‘vertical force’ and ‘spiral tendency’ at work,” creativity within set limits, which she has internalized (blindfolded, she can’t see them). Through structured motion Mignon ascends to herself, becomes “all at once” herself. And Wilhelm watching her dance feels all the emotion he had ever felt for her “in diesem Augenblicke auf einmal.” (171) Understanding and knowledge come for Wilhelm in the typically Goethean fashion as sudden revelation (“als lebendig-augenblickliche Offenbarung des Unerforschlichen”) while contemplating living form. No less ingenious is van der Laan’s interpretation of the essay form as a chaotic system. He demonstrates that when Goethe describes granite as layered, amorphous, irregular, confused, and contradictory, yet possessed of a fundamental order “he could well be describing the essay or exemplifying chaos theory. Like Pope and Voltaire, Goethe seeks to make sense of apparent disorder…” (195) Such characteristic features of chaos as “disorder, complexity, nonlinear dynamics, unpredictability, stochastic process, randomness, incoherence, indeterminacy, entropy, turbulence, perturbations, and noise - all relate as well to essayistic writing,” (196) its form and content, its style and sentences, and, drawing on recent research, to brain activity which produced the essay. By the end of the century the authoritative agency of chaos is firmly established in the cultural period of Romanticism. “Die hchste Schnheit, ja die hchste Ordnung ist denn doch nur die des Chaos…welches nur auf die Berhrung der Liebe wartet, um sich zu einer harmonischen Welt zu entfalten,” states Fr. Schlegel. (130) It is the higher order in the modern sense that “chaos is everywhere…and it works,” (34) and when imbued with “love” as the other structuring principle, it has the potential to unfold into a harmonious world. Such a world, however, is forever postponed. Thus, Lauri Johnson concludes her masterful analysis of the “aesthetic authority of disorder” in Schlegel’s philosophical and aesthetic writings by summarizing: “Chaos is one concept in Early Romanticism’s ongoing tenuous play between longing for total…unity between referent and representation and the acknowledgment of fragmented expression in a finite present.” (133)
Santesso traces the changing valuations of the term “chaos” from the early meaning of “any vast gulf or chasm…empty space” to “utter confusion or disorder” in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance to the more positive implications of the word in Pope and Milton, where “chaos… allows for creativity,” and “chance is the thread which connects the contradictory extremes of chaos” in Paradise Lost. (41) Two studies endeavor to make the “almost incomprehensible” Jaques le fataliste (63) more comprehensible with the tools of chaos theory. Whereas Cohen sees “a clue to this text” in the striking contrast between the clock-watching Master, “who expresses the outdated ordered certainties of the Newtonian paradigm, and the mercurial Jaques…who sees the world as it is, a mixture of noise, complexity, and relativism…” (18), Hilary Baily uncovers in the text “all the principal markers of a chaotic system: nonlinearity, fractals, sensitivity to initial conditions, and the strange attractor.” (51) Patrick Brady adds to these markers the chaotic features of concealed order, self-similarity, constrained randomness, feedback loops and holism and uses chaos theory as well as complexity, catastrophy and control theories “to throw new light on the rococo character of La Vie de Marianne.” (66) Doing so enables him, among other things, to bring to light aspects of the work hitherto neglected, to see familiar ones in a new light, and to discover new structural elements in the novel. A chaotic reading of Lettres persanes using primarily the features of nonlinearity, recursive symmetries, feedback mechanisms and sensitivity to initial conditions as well as the strange attractor help Th. Braun do “what other readings of the novel have not been able to do, that is, to see how Montesqieu pulled the diverse strands of the book together to weave a novel,” and the emerging unity might well be the elusive “secret chain.” (89)
Three essays demonstrate the advantage of a chaos theory approach in that they show how it allows for the valorization of the “other;” textual details or components usually dismissed as insignificant are shown to be just as significant as the established assumptions about a text, thereby recognizing the fecundity and complexity of the text. Beyond the binary opposites of female/male, seducer/seduced, the gendered stereotypes of the libertine tradition, Kavanagh shows the tension between coeur and esprit, the reversals, the complexities of social life and sexual desire to be just as important in constituting the text. For Grove, chaos theory provides the model that can “simultaneously account for the formulaic nature…and the underlying complexity, instability, and irresolution” of Gothic novels. (107) In a refreshing reading of Locke, Cope points out that his famous works in epistemology and political philosophy were a long time in the making (his Essay existed in draft form for 20 years) and subject to “chaotic transformations,” idiosyncrasies, “the chaotic process of development,” (92) and that, most of his life, Locke was concerned with the “small physicalities,” the facts and little things of daily life down to the “gross physical details” of children’s bodies. (95) Irregular, erratic, idiosyncratic also apply to the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Parker shows how Sterne demolishes the Newtonian “clockwork hegemony” of uniform time, and how the text enacts “a complexification of time” that goes beyond the simple duality of objective and subjective time and operates on six levels: “three fictional levels and three corresponding levels in the ‘real world.’” (l53)
Parker’s essay draws extensively on research and sources from other disciplines as do all the others. A familiarity with chaos theory is assumed; such basic and standard introductions as Chaos: Making a New Science by Gleick, Turbulent Mirror by Briggs and Peat, and Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos by Waldrop are frequently quoted and listed in the bibliography. The essays are tightly argued yet lucidly written; some readers may find the book exhausting, even difficult to read because of its subject matter and small print (a lot of information is packed onto one page) while others may enjoy the intellectual challenge of new discoveries and the wealth of new insights that come from viewing the world and these authors through the lens of chaos theory. The goal of this volume, “to promote communication across centuries and across disciplines,” (xiii) has been achieved in an exemplary fashion.
Michigan State University Raimund Belgardt