Monday, November 24, 2008


Unpredictability as a constituent of the universe.
History is the story of human effort to impose order on life, to refashion as much of the universe as possible into a set of complex but organized - and therefore ultimately predictable - events. Most of us are bureaucrats at heart, conscious that things occasionally go wrong but determined that they will do so less and less, and that by taking due precaution we can protect ourselves from the vicissitudes of fate. Wise to the fact that we like to feel permanently armed against extinction, Hollywood earns plenty of cash by having heroes rescue humanity from disaster when all seemed lost.
Acknowledging chaos as part of life’s fabric means leaving that cosy scenario behind in the cinema.
At a personal level we are familiar enough with uncertainty. We know that brakes seize, pipes spring leaks, rains fail, smokers may or may not get lung cancer, we may or may not bump into an old friend on our next trip into town. We know, too, that some chance events are fatal. Yet we like to pretend that, far from being a product of happenstance, the planet earth has a purpose. Day-to-day randomness we can handle, ultimate purposelessness is another matter.
Most of the orbs out there in space (maybe all of them) are devoid of organic matter. It follows that life must be an anomaly; because if the universe worked predictably, it would be uniform, and we couldn’t exist. As it is, we occupy no more than an infinitesimal blip in the space-time continuum; and cosmically speaking, there’s no reason why we should be around for long. When we’ve finished ruining the planet, or the planet has finished with us, we’ll doubtless leave it. And all the beauty of which we make so much, the green fields, the desert sands, the snow-clad peaks and verdant valleys, the masterpieces of our own making, will melt back into the primeval soup from which they and we emerged.
Since we can count ourselves lucky to be here, maybe we shouldn’t lament the fundamentally chaotic nature of existence; for though chaos may one day cause our extinction, it has brought us into being and moulded our aesthetic and emotional response to the world.31 The harmony we find in natural landscapes, in the intricately disordered branches and twigs of trees, in overgrown gardens, in the ephemeral patterns of passing clouds is not accidental. Our brains are tuned to them. Artists understand this, which is why their works so often seem disordered, untidy - complexity being the overriding condition of human experience and the medium in which our imagination floats most easily. Shakespeare who saw many things, saw this too:

Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish
A tower’d citadel, a pendant rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air.32

By contrast, we can’t inhabit a world in which everything that takes place accords with Aristotelian logic. Drama trimmed to the unities of time and place, architecture stripped of ornament and quirkiness, music played strictly to beat and measure - these may offer simple pleasures and even evoke admiration; but we experience them distantly, and tire of them easily. By contrast we enter and move within the worlds of War and Peace, or Lear, or The Iliad, recognizing in the messiness of the life depicted, the multiplicity of characters with whom we mingle, the thoughts they express, the diversions and tangential paths on which they and we embark, a parallel to our own. The best music works in just this way also, by creating expectations in us, and then satisfying them not with the notes our ears might anticipate unaided, but with a sequence that at once meets our expectations yet surprises us with an appeal to something tangential and more involving than we could have imagined for ourselves. All great art is, in that special sense, complex - satisfying to our brains which are complex too, and inimical to our instincts, which are self-protective and conservative. Art best plays its role in our lives when it defies the bureaucrat in us; when it beats against imposed order; when it simulates the chaos that we know lies at the heart of all that exists, and thereby helps us understand how wondrous strange it is to be alive and conscious.
31 “Impurity,” wrote Primo Levi, “which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life.” - The Periodic Table, Turin 1975.
32 Anthony and Cleopatra, IV.14

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