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Lectio praecursoria – Merja Polvinen

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 5, 2009Emotions Issue

© 2009 Merja Polvinen


Lectio praecursoria


Merja Polvinen


Imagine a universe consisting not of objects, but of interactions. A universe in which, when talking about the physical properties of an apple, it is more meaningful to describe its dynamic relation to the branch it grows on, to the air that pushes against its surface, and to the gravitational pull exerted by the ground, than it is to say that it is nine centimeters in diameter and consist of sugars, water and fiber. This universe of movement, forces and relationships is described by dynamical systems theory.

            Sometimes the interactions studied by dynamical systems theorists are so sensitive to the smallest change that the system’s behaviour becomes impossible to predict. Even though we know that each apple ripening on a tree enters a stage where its connection to the branch becomes tenuous enough for the tiniest breeze to cause it to plummet towards the ground, it is impossible to say exactly when a particular apple will fall. The field which studies such complex, unpredictable dynamical systems is popularly known as chaos theory. Thus when Newton’s head was knocked by the apocryphal apple, he understood one vital part of the dynamics of apples, that is, gravitation, but the contribution of chaos theory is that it has allowed us to also understand why Newton was not able to foresee the fruit’s fall and duck his head out of the way. Thus chaos theory, despite its name, does not overturn determinism and claim that the universe is random. It just turns to look at phenomena which seem random, and shows firstly, that such phenomena can be described in terms of complex geometries and rhythms, and secondly, that despite the existence of such descriptions the phenomena will always remain fundamentally unpredictable.

            The universe as described by chaos theory easily catches the imagination and it deserves much study, but the mathematical and geometrical approaches developed by the natural sciences are not the only way to approach it. The meaningful descriptions of an apple are not limited to either its static physical properties or its dynamic relation to branch and breeze. It may also be important to describe its attractive colour, taste and nutritional value to human beings. Or, even further, to describe the cultural meanings of apples, from Eve’s temptation or the red-cheeked fruit of eternal youth in Norse mythology, all the way to the story of Newton’s gravitational headaches, and the ways in which his discoveries changed the connotations of such concepts as apple and falling. Metaphorically speaking, what I have focused on in this dissertation is the relationship between, on the one hand, what chaos theory knows about the dynamics of an apple’s fall and, on the other, the stories we might tell about an apple, about Newton, about the fall of one and the achievement of the other.

            Chaos theory has been taken up by the general public and non-specialist academics as  a way of changing our view of the basic rules of interaction in the universe. In this study I analyse the ways in which literary authors and scholars have adopted the concepts created in chaos theory, and the questions they feel the new paradigm might be able to answer. Thus the larger context of my work is the movement of ideas in culture, between art and science, between the humanities and the sciences, and between literature and literary scholarship. However, my study does not itself aim to be interdisciplinary in the sense of applying chaos theory to literary works or to their interpretation. What it does, instead, is trace a cluster of concepts in literary works and in literary theory in order to find out how and why those concepts are being used.

            My central argument is based on the following two points. Firstly, the theories created by literary scholars about the meaning of chaos theory for literature do not accommodate all the literary works which use chaos theory as a conceptual background. This study originally arose from the need to explain a group of literary works that have clearly been influenced by chaos theory, but which equally clearly fall outside the categories and descriptions suggested by previous research. Although important contributions have been made to the understanding of the complex ways in which order and disorder have been conceptualised in postmodern culture, a prevalent emphasis on unpredictability makes it difficult to accommodate works that focus more on the ability of chaos theory to make visible the shapes and rhythms in seeming disorder.

            Secondly, I believe that the blind spots revealed in these scholars’ interpretations of chaos match a set of possible answers to questions in current literary theory. While these issues have recently been left largely unattended by scholars, the literary works which engage the ordered end of the spectrum of metaphorical possibilities offered by chaos theory point towards new solutions to the very same questions. What is literary scholarship and how does it differ from the natural sciences? What is the nature of the literary work and how can it be analysed? What is the relationship between self and other, both in terms of human identity and the agency of the author of a literary work? How does the human mind connect to the material universe and how can that universe be represented in literature?   

            I particularly wish to emphasise the fact that there is no such thing as ‘the way to do literature and chaos theory’, no one position, method or research programme that unites all the practitioners. Instead the critics and theorists occupy a multitude of positions depending on how they envision the interactions between literature and science, between literary form and content, between change and stability, or language and the world. While it has clearly been shown that poststructualist forms of literary and cultural theory have had a central role in the ways in which chaos theory has been adopted into non-scientific culture in general and literary studies in particular, in this dissertation I aim to show that it has not been the only theoretical framework involved. Interpretations of chaos theory have also been influenced by what I have termed humanist conceptualisations, particularly in connection with the four major issues that structure my argument: appreciating the role of scientific knowledge in culture, conceptualising the literary work as a semi-autonomous and meaningful entity, seeing human identity as coherence rather than dissolution, and believing that physical reality and embodiment can be represented by literature.

            As my focus is on tracing the different emphases given to chaos theory in different aspects of literary culture, the literary works I have chosen as primary material can clearly be shown to be taking part in the contemporary discussion surrounding chaos theory, whereas I have excluded others which could be linked to the themes of order and disorder, but which make no direct reference to chaos theory or complexity as such. I focus on three authors in particular: British playwright Tom Stoppard, American novelist John Barth and American poet Jorie Graham.

            Stoppard’s play Arcadia from 1993 is about the balance between variety and invariance in human life, thematising life’s unpredictability and uncontrollability, but also the eternal recurrence of sex and death. These themes are folded together with the loss of innocence, the eternal gap between the real and the ideal, and finally, with the question of what exactly counts as beauty for human beings. In Arcadia the interplay of order and disorder is both thematic and structural: the play not only expresses the coherence of human experience in terms of chaos theory’s concepts, but it also incorporates the structures found in chaos mathematics in its form. On the one hand, the scenes of the play switch back and forth between the past and the present at an increasing rate, simulating the rhythm of period doublings with which the phases of a chaotic system bifurcate. However, the play ends with a new equilibrium, a scene where the two time periods come together in the form of two couples from different centuries waltzing to the same music, emphasising the harmony of the overall shape over the discordance of the details.

            John Barth has also explicitly incorporated chaos theory into his novels and short stories at least since 1994. In his writing chaos theory appears as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of the individual and culture, of present and past voices, as well as for the balance between innovation and recognisable constraints in literary structure. Particularly in terms of literary form, the chaos theory concepts of fractal infinity and feedback loops appear in Barth’s fictions as narrative devices through which an infinite number of stories are contained within the finite space of a single book. For example, time conceptualised as a fractal allows Barth’s characters to slip into ever tinier moments in narrative time and extend them by spinning out digressions, while self-similarity and feedback processes are reflected in the idea of time having loops which can return us to earlier moments and be repeated until the narrative is ready to move on.

            Furthermore, Barth’s entire corpus is built on an evolving autotextual structure of repeated and reflective elements which create links between the books and make that body of work into an organic whole. Through multiple iterations of themes, tropes and characters, and finally by consciously utilising the symbolic structures he detects in chaos theory, Barth constructs a personified authorial imagination, an authorial identity which, by reiterating and reinterpreting the corpus that makes him up and is made up by him, draws both inspiration and coherence from the past. The authorial persona stops its reflective identity from becoming mere textual play by connecting story-telling with sexual pleasure, and by consciously attaching itself to the details of the actual author’s body of individual experience. In all of this, chaos theory provides Barth with a view of identity as ‘coaxial esemplasy’, as a reflective and dynamic, self-organising whole.

            Jorie Graham has been regarded as a poet who is reacting to her own language as she is writing it, and exploring what happens in the gap between her language and the ineffable. Like Barth, whose autotextuality both creates an authorial presence and comments on its creation, she writes about reality and about her writing about reality in equal measure. The title of her Pulizer-prize-winning collection The Dream of a Unified Field from 1995 not only refers to one of the unsolved puzzles of theoretical physics, but is also a metaphor for the desire in Graham’s poetry to connect reality, experience and language into an interactive whole. While her poetry pushes at the complex boundary between the sayable and the unsayable, it also thematises that struggle in bodily terms. Through chaos theory Graham is trying to express a dynamic movement between the experience of being inside our human skin, and the consciousness of all that exists outside that skin, to which we are, through our embodied existence, still connected.

            This love of external reality is also strongly present in Stoppard’s Arcadia, where it surfaces in the form of curiosity both about the physical world and about imagined abstractions. A play fizzing with ideas, Arcadia is a theatrical representation of both physics and physicality. Not only is chaos theory explicitly present in the play, but the characters, buffeted as they are by the forces of mutual attraction and repulsion, embody the chaotic dynamics that affect all living systems. In Arcadia mathematical equations, human beings and the turbulence of time all express the same universal patterns of behaviour. But the idea of universals presented in this play is not a reductive threat to the individuality and variety of human existence. Stoppard’s characters manage to move with infinite freedom in their finite spaces and to create a dance of intricate thought and feeling from the basic steps provided by universal laws.

            In this dissertation I have attempted to describe the intersection of literature and science by not only presenting readings of works of fiction, poetry and drama where the concepts developed by chaos theory appear, but also by examining the use of those concepts in literary scholarship. In particular, my aim has been to observe this particular niche of interdisciplinary research in order to discover why chaos theory has appealed to so many theorists and critics and why it has been understood in such different ways. While many scholars have interpreted chaos theory in terms of poststructuralist thinking, others have been drawn to the themes that also appear in the works of Barth, Stoppard and Graham. The scholars have formulated theories and analyses where chaos theory helps conceptualise the literary work as simultaneously an autonomous object and a process of meaning-making, where it enables a view of human identity as both determined and free, and where it allows a realism that is able to combine metafictional literary techniques with a mimetic intent.

            Although the direct applicability of chaos theory to such issues is understandably limited, it is clear that the concepts and metaphors adopted from the sciences have played a role in furthering the discussion in the field of literature. But I also suggest that as the concepts of nonlinear dynamics seep more permanently into contemporary culture, the presence of chaos theory in literary studies is diffusing in such a way that the explicit references to it are supplanted by discussion which may well have benefited from those concepts, but which continues to employ the terminology of literary studies themselves. By this I do not mean to say that the interdisciplinary field between literature and science is being abandoned by either party, only that activity may be shifting elsewhere along the border, perhaps even changing from forms of open conflict to mutual respect and diplomacy. One of the points about the approach delineated here is that rather than viewing the sciences and the humanities as either opposing or enclosing forces it attempts to combine a respect for the knowledge produced by the natural sciences with an equal respect for the expertise of the humanities in evaluating the cultural meaning and consequences of that knowledge.

            In their writings, the three authors who form the backbone to my presentation of the humanist perspective are renegotiating the deal between literature and science. Stoppard, Barth and Graham present in their works a material universe of complex, yet perceivable forms, and their writings reflect the pleasure generated by human curiosity about the shape and behaviour of those forms, a curiosity that expresses itself in both science and art. Even while science, philosophy and literary theory may develop explanations for the universe and for mankind’s place in it, such explanations will never be final nor will they end the human need to create non-scientific representations. Disenchantment is here demystification, not devaluation, and the detailed explanations given of the basic processes of the universe will not eclipse the fact that the multitudes of ways in which the texture of reality can be represented will always retain their beauty and fascination.