Thursday, February 21, 2013

On the Origins of Language -- An Update On My Theory

In my dissertation, I theorize that we can find the components of language by looking at ape behaviors. Further, I argue that language is rooted in song. While I did argue that language emerged out of a division of song into music and language, which, as it turns out, is probably technically wrong. I was nevertheless on the right track.

Language is likely a combination of music/song and communicative sounds/gestures. Thus, I was right that language is related to ape mating songs (as we see in gibbons) and that it's not unconnnected to ape communication. My mixing and matching and divisions, though, were somewhat off. Better than being completely wrong in my language theory, though!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Concepts and More

My work is expanding into Hayek's spontaneous order theory.

More, since I had children and have seen how my daughter learns and forms concepts, I would have to change what I said about concepts. It seems our brains are far more efficient than we sometimes imagine, as I have seen my daughter able to see one thing and extrapolate it out to include a wide variety of other things that look similar. It seems we can form concepts based on the example of one.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Literature as a Game

An update on an old paper: here's the new site of Literature as a Game.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

III. Introduction to the Fractal Distribution of Words in Literary Texts

Strangely, my dissertation text is missing the following section -- one of the most important sections in the entire dissertation. Also, I could not for the life of me get the graphs on this site.

For Kundera, a novel investigates themes. “A theme is an existential inquiry” (AN, 84), the “examination of certain words, theme-words” (84). In other words, “A novel is based primarily on certain fundamental worlds,” which are “analyzed, studied, defined, redefined, and thus transformed into categories of existence” (84).

By the time I came around to rereading James Gleick’s book Chaos: The Making of a New Science, I had taken Kundera’s idea of theme-words in literature to heart, and was beginning to think about literature within the paradigm of chaos theory. Thus, I re-read Gleick’s book looking for metaphors that could describe literature. Mandelbrot’s observations regarding noise in a system, creating fractal time, made me realize that narrative, too, was an example of fractal time, the words acting as the “noise” in the “system” of the novel, similar to Cantor dust. This is best seen in a rewording of Gleick’s own words:

Mandelbrot saw the Cantor set as a model for the occurrence of errors in an electric transmission line. Engineers saw periods of error-free transmission, mixed with periods when errors would come in bursts. Looked at more closely, the bursts, too, contained error-free periods within them. And so on – it was an example of fractal time. (93c)

which I have reworded thus:

I see the Cantor set as a model for the occurrence of words (particular words) in a novel. There are periods where a given word does not appear, mixed with periods when the word does appear, mixed with periods when the word comes in bursts. Looked at more closely, the bursts, too contain periods without that word within them. And so on – it is an example of fractal time within the novel.

These dusts occur on smaller scales, each cluster giving clusters of spaces and clusters. In a novel one can only go down so far, but one can see the general principle holds. Fractals are repeated self-similar patterns. This is what made me think to graph words in a text to see if any patterns would make themselves apparent – and if they would show bifurcations and both steadiness in frequency and self-similar groupings of words. This is indeed happened with the word “friend” in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure at 1,000-word intervals, as we can see here.

This graph is what is called a “Poincaré map,” which “removes a dimension from an attractor and turns a continuous line into a collection of points” (142). “Such pictures ... [begin] to reveal the fine fractal structure” (144) of the system – in this case, the novel. We see word distribution in a novel “as a Cantor set arranged in time” (Gleick, 92), where “the degree of irregularity remains constant over different scales. ... the world displays a regular regularity” (Gleick, 98). This suggested to me that meaning in a novel is both emergent and fractal – as one goes down, one sees ever-smaller elements of meaning – elements that finally stop at the level of words, or morphemes. There is also perhaps the level of multiple interpretations of words – especially in context of the emergent properties of the phrase, sentence, paragraph, etc. Going down helps us see the fractal repetitions while going up (looking at the patterns the words make, looking at how they are functioning in a particular sentence, paragraph, scene, etc.) helps us see the emergent levels of meaning. The mere repetition of a word is not enough – it has to repeat in a chaotic pattern to create the strongest levels of meaning. Each word “repeat[s] itself, displaying familiar patterns over time. ... But the repetitions [are] never quite exact. There [is] pattern, with disturbances. An orderly disorder” (15). If we look at the graph above, we can see that the pattern of word distribution between 33,000 and 59,000 resembles the pattern between 69,000 and 89,000, and the word distribution pattern between 94,000 and 176,000 words resembles both, though it is flatter than the first two. They all resemble, but are not identical, to each other, as one would expect in a fractal. This specifically happens when we get a bifurcation – in the frequency of the word, which would indicate a bifurcation in the word’s meaning within the text, since in bifurcation, the attractor the line was following turns into a repellor, dividing the line. Although the word “church” has a similar number of respetitions in Jude the Obscure, as we can see here:

the fact that it lacks this kind of periodic behavior (orderly disorder) – the word “church” does not have either steadiness in frequency nor a bifurcation – while the word “friend” does, tells you the word “friend” is a stronger theme-word, having been created through the tensions in the novel. An even stronger example of this is when we look at the distribution of the word “the”:

We would expect a random distribution of a word like “the,” as it is an article, the type of word one would not expect to receive thematic development in a work such as a novel (though it may have thematic importance in such works as Wallace Stevens’ “The Man on the Dump”, which ends with the line “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.” – but such works have different ways of emphasizing meaning). And that is what we see here. While repetition does create meaning in a text, it is not just any type of repetition (or else words like “the” would typically be the most important theme-words in a text), but patterned repetition. In another text, “church” may be a theme word. Here, it is not. But “friend” is. How does this happen? “Information is transmitted back from the small scales to the large... And the channel transmitting the information upward is the strange attractor, magnifying the initial randomness just as the Butterfly Effect magnifies small uncertainties into large-scale weather patterns” (261). So we would expect the peaks of the word “friend” to correspond to major plot points in the text.

Take another look at the first graph, of the distribution of the word “friend.” We find in the first peak of eight, at around 34,000-35,000 words entirely in chapter II-4, pg. 79-85, when Sue came to see Jude as he was working at his job as a stonemason on a Gothic church, and Jude takes Sue to meet Phillotson for the first time. The first “friend” occurs to say how Jude would not treat Sue, at first – to befriend her in hopes of it leading to romance (79). The second occurrence is of Sue saying to Jude in a latter she would have liked for her and Jude to have been friends while they had been in Christminster (81). She next speaks “with the freedom of a friend” (82), though this is their first real meeting as adults. As they begin to talk, Jude laments her leaving because she has “hardly any other friend. I have, indeed, one very old friend here somewhere,” speaking of Phillotson, whom he has yet to go see. They decide to go see him, and when they arrive, Jude says he came “to see him as an old friend” (82). Phillotson invites them in, after saying he had forgotten Jude, though the “old friendship was imperceptibly renewed” (83). When they leave Phillotson’s, Jude perceives that Sue’s “sentiments toward him were those of the frankest friendliness only” while “he loved her more than before becoming acquainted with her” (83-4). And when they part, Jude goes back to Phillotson to ask him for a teaching position for Sue, which Phillotson assures “Jude as a friend” (85) would be a waste of time for Sue unless she wished to pursue teaching.

What is going on here? Jude wants a lover, but gets instead a friend – thus inverting the way things “should” develop, from friend to lover. And the tragic situation is also set up in this chapter because of Jude’s friendship with Phillotson. It is because of this friendship that Sue and Phillotson meet, and that Sue works for Phillotson – all of which leads to Sue and Phillotson’s marriage. There is a complex of meaning and consequence created in this chapter by the strange attractor of friendship and the meaning of friendship.

The second peak occurs (at 51,000-52,000) after Sue’s expulsion of school, after her having gone to see Jude, the episode which leads into Jude telling Sue of his being married, Sue’s seeing Jude about her engagement to Phillotson, and the last two occurrences of “friend” in this peak in the second letter from Sue and the response from Jude regarding Sue’s marriage. Phillotson comes to see Jude about the scandal of Sue’s expulsion, and each felt their conversation “could not comfortably merge in a friendly discussion of their recent experiences after the manner of friends” (131). After Jude tells Sue of his being married, at that moment “She was his comrade, friend, unconscious sweetheart no longer” (132), though after further discussions they persuaded themselves that they could still be friends, and their “parting was in good friendship” (134). The next chapter (III-7) begins with Sue announcing in a letter her immanent marriage to Phillotson. In her second letter, Sue asks Jude to give her away in marriage, saying that her father is not “friendly enough to be willing” (136). Jude recommends in his letter that Sue marry from his house, not “from your school friend’s” (136). Here we go from not friendly, no longer friends, to a promise to remain friends, to not friendly and not another friend. We have a bifurcation in friendliness to unfriendliness, and a putting-off onto others the not-friendly and not-friend felt by Sue and Phillotson toward Jude. By negating others, by seeing Sue’s father as unfriendly, by rejecting Sue’s friend, Sue and Jude are able to remain friendly toward each other, despite Jude’s being married and Sue’s immanent marriage.

As we can see from looking at just the first two peaks, Hardy creates a development of Sue and Jude’s friendship that coincides with major plot points, even when we do not realize in our first reading that what is happening is a major plot point or crisis, as we saw with the first peak with Jude introducing Sue to Phillotson. The peaks correspond with major plot points and with the development of the theme-words in the novel. And we also see the first peak of the second pattern (pg. 192-4, at about peak 71,000) gives a re-affirmation of the ideas of friendship developed around the first peak of the first pattern, even as they occur right when Sue leaves Phillotson for Jude. But of course this reaffirmation is one done in light of the previous development of the meaning of the word “friend,” which means it becomes affirmed in a different light, and is thus given a different meaning, than was the first peak the reader encounters.

The existence of fractal word patterns shows us that a novel is a particular kind of fractal It is self-similar at lower intervals, but as one goes up, new forms are made, self-similar to what came before, but having emergent properties (meanings). What we see in deconstruction is a concern only with the “infinite coastline” of the novel, at the expense of the emergent meaning of that coastline in delineating the complete form of the novel. Since the novel is now seen to be both regular and irregular, to be, in essence, fractaline, one could perhaps see Gleick’s observation that “The degree of irregularity corresponded to the efficiency of the object in taking up space” (100) could be taken as a literary judgement. Is there perhaps a correlation between a novel’s degree of irregularity as a fractaline object and our finding that novel beautiful (and giving it long-term survival)? This complexity that a fractal view of the novel illuminates is also another way of judging a novel (or understanding how novels have perhaps been judged in the past) since, as Gleick says, “Simple shapes are inhuman. They fail to resonate with the way nature organizes itself or with the way human perception sees the world” (116-7). We have to be careful when we say the word “simple,” since “simple systems can do complicated things” (167), as anyone who has read Hemingway knows. Further, “as [a] system becomes chaotic ..., strictly by virtue of its unpredictability, it generates a steady stream of information” (260). This is undoubtedly why we consider both predictable stories and stories that are not retrodictable to be bad stories. A chaotic story would be one that is not predictable, but is certainly retrodictable.

Gleick also says irregular patterns and infinitely complex shapes have “a quality of self-similarity. Above all, fractal meant self-similar” (103). Further, “self-similarity is symmetry across scale. It implies recursion, pattern inside of pattern” (103). The presence of meaning in a novel is also not determined by its scale. Its words have meaning, and so do its plots, and every level in between. But, in the same way eddies of air are the same as a hurricane, only at different scales, the effect of the higher levels of meaning is as different from word to plot as the effects of an eddy of air are to that of a hurricane. All the same, an eddy of air can, building on other eddies of air, build into a hurricane over space and time in the same way as words, building on other words, build into a novel over space and time. This is because “each change of scale [brings] new phenomena and new kinds of behavior” (115). The existence of meaning applies “without regard to scale” (108) in a novel. And greater meaning emerges as we go up in scale, since these scales are hierarchical (116). “Fractal scaling [is] not just common but universal in morphogenesis” (Gleick,110). Since fractal geometry is “nature’s own” (114), and a novel is a part of nature inasmuch as it is a creation by a living organism, we should not be surprised to find that novels have fractal geometry. Further, “A geometrical shape has a scale, a characteristic size. To Mandelbrot, art that satisfies lacks scale, in the sense that it contains important elements at all sizes” (117). A good novel (that satisfies the reader) lacks scale, in the sense that it contains important elements at all scales, from words to plot.

The importance of looking at fractal distributions of words can be understood in Prigogine’s explanation of what occurs in a dissipative system: “One of the most interesting aspects of dissipative structures is their coherence. The system behaves as a whole, as if it were the site of long-range sources. ...the system is structured as though each molecule were “informed” about the overall state of the system” (171), a dissipative system being one that has both structure and disorder in it (143). One can see a sentence as having this very structure (Turner, The Culture of Hope). One can, in a sense, see how each “molecule” of the word “friend” is “informed” about the “overall state of the system” of the novel, helping it to cohere and have meaning. This is also how beauty is created: literature achieves beauty through linguistic density. Charles Kahn defines linguistic density as “the phenomenon by which a multiplicity of ideas are expressed in a single word or phrase” (89). This occurs in the relationship between the sign and the signified

if by sign we mean the individual occurrence of a word or phrase in a particular text, and by signified we mean an idea, image, or verbal theme that may appear in different texts. Then density is a one-many relation between sign and signified; while resonance [among signs] is a many-one relation between different texts and a single image or theme. (89)
One form of resonance “is a repetition of the very same word,” while others include “occurrences of the same theme in cognate words” (90), “the recurrence of a single image or theme which may or may not be expressed by the very same words: sleeping and waking” and “between words of similar or related meanings” (90). We can see this when we compare the graphs for “life” and for “live”. One is a noun, the other a verb, and yet the graphs independently give fractal distributions of words, though those fractals have a different geometry than did the distribution for the word “friend”. We would, of course, expect there to be differences in the fractal patterns for different words. What would be unusual, it seems to me, would be if one did come across words similarly patterned within a word. It would certainly suggest a strong correlation between the meanings of the two words. But let us look at the words live and life. First, Live:

And now let us look at Life:

The first thing to note is that they appear to be almost mirror images of each other in the way the major peaks are distributed. But it is life, with the most occurrences of the word, which is the stronger theme-word. And it has the stronger fractal geometry too, with the flatter single- followed by double-peaks pattern. We do see a similar pattern between “live” and “friend” to the extent that the single-double-peak pattern is there, but the pattern is less obvious because of the high number of words spread between them. However, we also notice here that there are very large peaks in each of these, particularly, again, in the graph for “live.” For the peak at 78,000, we have the repetition of the word “live” starting on pg. 176, where Sue is asking her husband, Phillotson, to allow her to move out. To which he replies: ‘And do you mean, by living away from me, living by yourself?’ And she responds with: ‘Well, if you insisted, yes. But I meant living with Jude.’ He asks her to consider his reputation, and she agrees instead to live in his house, but separate from him. What we have in this passage is the irony of them talking about her living with Jude, while "living" is hardly what is being proposed in her staying with Phillotson. Thus we have a bifurcation of the meaning of “living” in this peak. We know she will not really live if she continues to live with Phillotson, and this is confirmed in the next chapter when she jumps out of the window of her bedroom to escape her husband when he accidentally walks into her bedroom to go to bed. She says she was asleep when she did it – and perhaps she was half-asleep – but what this then suggests is such a deep disconnect between living and living with Phillotson versus her desire to live with Jude, that it became expressed in a leap from a second story bedroom window rather than having to sleep in the same bed with her husband.

These graphs and the analysis they suggest is highly suggestive of further work in this direction. More works of literature should be analyzed using this method, to see what sorts of patterns develop in other works, to see how theme-words are developed. It seems likely that it would be in long prose works, particularly in novels, where fractal patterns of word distributions would be seen. There is a limit to the level of complexity that is comfortably taken in by the human brain. Thus we would expect simpler (though likely still fractal) patterns of word distribution in more poetic works such as Shakespeare’s plays, since there is already a great deal of complexity in the rhythms and the rhymes and other poetic techniques. But the apparent simplicity of prose allows for the development of more complex fractal word patterns, allowing for a different kind of meaning development of the theme-words. And it might also be interesting to look at both the retention of fractal patterns and development of the meanings of theme-words for a particular novelist, as well as the history of such patterns and theme-words through the history of literature. Can we find a genealogy of the development of the word “friend” that is traceable through the use of the kind of fractal pattern Hardy uses? And is the kinds of fractal patterns of word distribution limited? And what about issues of translation? Can a translation be judged better than another if it maintains these patterns? These and many other questions can be raised and investigated using this technique I have introduced here.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

III. A Tragic Conclusion

But I could be wrong. About everything I have written about in this work.

Factually wrong – not artistically wrong.

The beauty and grandeur of an interpretation of the world (alias philosophy) is what is now decisive for its value, i.e. it is judged as art. Its form will probably change: The rigid mathematical formula (as in Spinoza) which had such a soothing influence on Goethe now remains justified only as an aesthetic means of expression. (Nietzsche, PT, 49)

Even if all the science used by a philosopher or theorist turns out to be completely wrong sometime in the future, that does not matter. Aristotle’s ideas on science have been mostly disproven. Does that make Aristotle obsolete? Of course not. What is left after science has disproven certain elements of a philosopher’s work is the art: “philosophy does not follow the course of the other sciences, even if certain of the philosopher’s territories gradually fall into the hands of science. Heraclitus can never be obsolete” (PT, 53). I can only hope what I have written remains poetically true.

But there is no promise even of this. Influence waxes and wanes. Or I may be ignored during my lifetime, only to be rediscovered, or ignored completely. This is part of the tragedy of living, acting, and working. We do not know how much, if any, influence we will have – or if that influence will be positive or negative, no matter what our intentions. How else could the anti-nationalist, anti-socialist, anti-nihilist hater of anti-Semites be adopted by the anti-Semitic, nihilistic, National Socialists? Or, in a far less extreme misuse, how could the pluralistic postmodernists adopt the ideas of a man who said that “If we are ever to achieve a culture, unheard-of artistic powers will be needed in order to break the unlimited knowledge drive, in order to produce unity once again. Philosophy reveals its highest work when it concentrates the unlimited knowledge drive and subdues it to unity” (PT, 30)? Nietzsche wants to “produce unity once again,” while the postmodernists, particularly through deconstruction, have only contributed to the “unlimited knowledge drive.” We must not only unify knowledge, but “The culture of a people is manifest in the unifying mastery of their drives: philosophy masters the knowledge drive; art masters ecstasy and the formal drive;  masters , [agape masters eros], etc.” (PT, 46). We must unify our drives into art, we must unify eros, which isolates the loved from the unloved, into agape, brotherly love, the love of all. This is not to say we should sacrifice the one to the other. We must remember that Nietzsche does not want one side or the other to win, since if one side wins, that will be the end of agon, the end of creativity. Both are necessary.

Thus, I am willing to stand by this work, knowing I may be wrong about some things in it. I stand by it because in this work I have attempted to unify multiple perspectives, create complexity within simplicity in my style, make a creative work which will hopefully be generative, create rhythms – both regular and fractal – with my style, hierarchically organized the work, and shown the self-similarity of all aspects of the universe. If I may be allowed to be so bold: while Kant suggests in his Metaphysics of Morals that he knows his theory of morals is correct because it is incomprehensible, I will rather suggest that I know what I have presented here is correct because – having all of the above – it is beautiful.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

II. Chaos Theory and a Possible Rebirth of Tragedy

Ernst Fisher, after embracing Hutcheson’s definition of beauty as variety within unity, says that “knowledge of the structural principle of fractal images has led successfully to the discovery of uniformity in the variety of appearances, a condition that evokes the sense of beauty” (67). Fractals are the visual representation of chaos theory, and, in showing a finite space contained within an infinite border, “are the visible sign that freedom is possible” (Fisher, 67-8). This notion of variety in uniformity could be seen as having already been attached to tragic theory by Nietzsche, in his idea of tragedy as a combination of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, in variety and in unity, something he points out are “artistic powers which spring from nature itself, without the mediation of the human artist” (Nietzsche, BT, 18) – in other words, these are “natural artistic impulses” (19), something that makes sense in light of chaos theory. If we understand the tragic as “the conflict felt by creatures who, because of their complex nervous systems, are capable of entertaining notions of infinity and yet who are in some way bounded by finite constraints” (Argyros, 335), we can begin to see the connection between chaos theory and the idea of the tragic. Tragedy is precisely about our inability to be unnatural, despite our best efforts. Any attempt by us to be unnatural will result in nature reasserting itself – tragically, if necessary.

If we have beings who are finite, but who entertain notions of infinity, and who live in a world that is itself fractaline (Fisher, Mandelbrot, et al), which is to say, finite, with the promise of infinity, we would expect to have beings capable of tragic action. We would have someone like Oedipus who thinks there is no end to what he could and should know – not realizing there are some things just too terrible to know. Oedipus has the “genuine confidence that the shortcomings of the present can be overcome in the future” (Argyros, 338), as Oedipus has shown in the past. All he needs is information, and he is confident he can solve the puzzle of what is causing the plague in Thebes. If we understand chaos theory from the consideration of “extreme sensitivity to initial conditions” (Argyros, 340-1), we could find the situation of the innocent, and apparently insignificant, dropping of a handkerchief leading to the tragic deaths of Othello and Desdemona. Tragedies occur on the edge order and chaos, with order threatening to slip into chaos, chaos being created through butterfly effects of small occurrences.

Insofar as chaos theory shows these elements we find in Sophoclean and Shakespearean tragedies to be fundamental features of the world, including our participation in the world, we can see that tragedy still has a strong role to play in contemporary culture – by emphasizing this aspect of nature, showing us that, as Fraser says, no final victory over evil is possible, since it is often difficult to know what the good is. And “even if we assume that it is possible to know what the good is, efforts to realize it are diverted from the agent’s original intentions and end up having evil effects” (Argyros, 343). For the audience, tragedy presents to us “our deep fear that every step we take forward on what we think is the road of progress may really be a step toward a foreordained rendezvous with disaster” (Knox, 133). Romeo and Juliet’s priest certainly did have good intentions in all of his actions – but because of the lateness of a letter, the deaths of the young couple became certain.

If “today’s tragic hero must live with the unresolvable conflict between transcendence and finitude without a sure sense of what transcendence or finitude means or how his or her actions can succeed or fail” (Argyros, 346), then the author of a tragedy must make it clear to the audience that these things are encompassed in the world as a chaotic system – that the heroes, even if not themselves aware they are bounded (and usually, they are not), have to be shown to be bounded by something. In a contemporary tragedy, biology would be a good element. E.O. Wilson envisions human action as bound by a long, stretchy tether to our biological human nature. So long as we act within the bounds of our biological nature, there is no danger of tragedy. But humans are not satisfied with staying within bounds – we feel the need to at least try to break out. We are, if nothing else, the rebellious species. If we consider Oedipus’ situation as his trying to overstep physis through nomos – in his case, physis containing the gods too as physical reality – and reimagine physis as physics/chemistry/biology, with nomos in each case being the human attempt to get beyond physis, we can see how adaptable such an approach to tragedy could be to modern understanding. The view of the world as a chaotic system also shows us how we can have both mystery and certainty (this is best seen in how Hawkins refers to chaos theory as “deterministic chaos”), which, as Camus points out, is necessary to have tragedy, since “If all is mystery, there is no tragedy. If all is reason, the same thing happens. Tragedy is born between light and darkness and rises from the struggle between them” (303).

So what, if anything, could make contemporary culture receptive to tragedy? Tragedy seems only to arise at certain times – the Age of Tragedy of Greece, the time of Shakespeare. Tragedies seem to arise during a conflict between a traditional view and an emergent view of the world (Argyros, 338). Knox notes that

The fifth century in Athens saw the birth of the historical spirit; the human race awakened for the first time to a consciousness of its past and a tentative confidence in its future. The past came to be seen no longer as a golden age from which there had been a decline if not a fall, but as a steady progress from primitive barbarism to the high civilization of the city-state. (140)

Spariosu notes that this same time period was a move from archaic (Homeric) to median (Platonic, Aristotelean) values. Camus too agrees with this view of tragedy, when he says in “On the Future of Tragedy,” that “great periods of tragic art occur, in history, during centuries of crucial change, at moments when the lives of whole peoples are heavy both with glory and with menace, when the future is uncertain and the present dramatic” (296). In other words, “the tragic age always seems to coincide with an evolution in which man, consciously or not, frees himself from an older form of civilization and finds that he has broken away from it without yet having found a new form that satisfies him” (298). In Shakespeare, particularly in Hamlet, we see a move from Medieval Man to Modern Man, with Hamlet being the Modern Man, educated, thoughtful, unwilling to act without putting considerable thought into the issue, and Hamlet’s father and uncle both being Medieval Men, unafraid to act to get what they want, without thought. The tragedy occurs when Modern Man Hamlet has to still deal with the Medieval value system, and is forced to act within it. Shakespeare deals with this transition in a different way when MacBeth, who has consulted witches and therefore has been making decisions based on mysticism, is defeated by a man whose very life is owed to medical science, having been born by Caesarean section. Again, we see a similar thing in Euripides’ Bakkhai, where the king, trying to be sensical and even-minded, is faced with the very archaic-value-driven Dionysus. In Bakkhai, archaic values may have won for the moment, but we know median values will win out in the end. In Shakespeare, where the one representing the old value system is a fellow human being, we get the satisfaction of seeing the representative of the old system die at the hand of the representative of the new system, even as we have to witness the tragic death of the hero. All of this being said, we must return to the question of what, if anything, could make the contemporary culture receptive to tragedy? Is our culture in such a transition period?

Since the Renaissance, the West has been in the Modern Era, where man is no longer a man of action, but of thought. One gets Ages of Enlightenment and of Reason only through contemplation. And the Romantics, though advocates of action, actually did a lot more thinking – this is how so many books and poems got written. Even the prime promoter of action, Nietzsche, actually spent most of his time reading, thinking, and writing. And those influenced by him mostly only wrote about the problems of thinking people like themselves: Thomas Mann in A Death in Venice, Gide in The Immoralist, Sartre in Nausea, Kazantzakis in Zorba the Greek, and Camus in The Fall. And since “the tragic world is a world of action, and action is the translation of thought into reality” (Bradley, 20), we can see the Modern Era is not an era of tragedy. We further see that Existentialism is really nothing more than a further development of the ideas of the Modern Era, and is just a restatement of Rousseau’s Blank Slate, with Postmodernism just a further development of that. If we are only products of history, language, culture, etc., then changing those things will change our nature. Such is the belief in the blank slate. The gist of Steiner’s argument in The Death of Tragedy is that “the romantic vision of life is non-tragic” (128) – and our world view remains essentially romantic. At the same time, this Romantic rebellion against Newtonian determinism that has characterized our world for so long has recently been challenged on several fronts, particularly through chaos theory – and this is the potential source of a contemporary rebirth of tragedy.

The new traditional view of the world is that of the blank slate, which has been tied in with the thinking man of the Modern Era. Throughout this period, emphasis on the Other, particularly in the German tradition, has resulted in increasing fragmentation, leading to fragmented, pluralist, multicultural postmodernism’s collage-montage approach to the world. This modernist world view resulted in the fragmentation – the splitting in two – of tragedy in Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, with the tension between freedom and necessity (determinism) being split into the Romantic story The Wild Palms and the Naturalist story Old Man. The tragic world view is shown, in this strange, bifurcated novel, to have been split asunder – it is only through bringing these two elements together again that we can get a return to tragedy. Chaos theory shows us how this is possible, by showing us the world is both free and determined, both certain and uncertain at the same time. But “fragmentary” is precisely how Doczi defines knowledge. Thus, one could classify the Modern Era as the Era of Knowledge – at the expense of wisdom, which Doczi defines as seeing the world as holistic. By seeing the world as both varied (fragmented, something that can be known), and as holistic, one, we can see the world as beautiful once again – and as tragic. This suggests that to view the world as tragic is to view the world as beautiful, as we see in Nietzsche’s view of tragedy as unifying (in an agonal way) variety and unity through the Apollonian and Dionysian – the beautiful being affirmative. Though a part of the Modern Era, Nietzsche is one of the first to act as the answer to it, including the Modernist and Postmodernist variations of that world view (who both misread Nietzsche because of their reading him through Cartesian and Rousseauean lenses).

I believe that the understanding of the world through chaos theory, as well as our understanding of ourselves and our basic human nature through sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, both of which show that human nature meets the requirements of chaos theory in being both bounded and free within those bounds – something game theory is increasingly showing us, by helping us understand that many good rules create far more freedom (chess, which has a nearly infinite number of possible games) than no rules, or very few (checkers, which has a small, calculable number of games that can be played) – can be the preliminary developments of a new world view that will take us beyond the Modern Era, just as the Renaissance took us into the Modern Era from the Medieval Era. In The Modern Era, Rousseau managed to introduce to us the idea of the Golden Age of the past in the idea of the Noble Savage – anthropology is still trying to recover from this idea (Fox). We are beginning to see the suggestion of a view of history as improving, similar to the one Knox claims happened in Greece – only this time, people like Robert Wright are using game theory to show how there has been cultural, moral, and technological progress in a global sense. This contradicts the postmodern world view of progress being impossible (even in understanding progress as an increase in complexity, and capable of tragically slipping back into less complex states), seeing instead only change.

Considering the postmodernists’ tendency to be anti-science and anti-technology (the two things that most clearly do show progress), instead concentrating more on art, literature, and philosophy (where I would have to agree that notions of “progress” are entirely nonsensical), we should not be surprised. In fact, both world views are true – human culture both progresses and does not progress, but only changes. It depends on which aspect of the culture one is looking at. But this situation, too, is a ripe one for tragedy, since a tragedy could be written showing an agonal conflict between the forces of “progress” and the forces of “change,” of science and the arts. As one who believes the sciences and the arts and humanities should be brought together, so that the knowledge of science informs the wisdom of the arts and humanities, just as this wisdom informs scientific knowledge, I find this idea of unification exciting – while realizing too the potential tragic consequences. Steiner points out that “Instead of altering or diminishing their tragic condition, the increase in scientific resource and material power leaves men even more vulnerable” (6). The one with the view of infinity will necessarily, at some point, get reined in by the finite one. There is no end to the minutiae science can investigate – and to the changes that can happen over time. Thus scientific knowledge can progress infinitely. But art and philosophy only uncover aspects of existence we have forgotten – thus, wisdom in this sense is finite. Thus, we get the apparently ironic situation of (scientific) knowledge actually being the infinite one, and (artistic) wisdom being the finite one, with wisdom keeping knowledge in check, just as the finite space of a fractal holds in place its infinite border. Chaos theory helps us to see the finite-infinite tension in wisdom and knowledge, and thus shows us a tragic possibility.

In many ways people still consider the past to have been more moral than the present. People are constantly talking about how much better things were when they were children, when their parents were children, etc., and that things appear to just be getting worse and worse. But Wright notes that the philosopher Peter Singer has suggested that things could be getting better. This is an idea I myself had developed independently, and have only recently discovered that my great new idea was previously suggested by not only Peter Singer, but by Charles Darwin – it is the notion of the expanding tribe. Humans have two contradictory ways of viewing people: through the eyes of xenophobia, and through the eyes of xenophilia. We simultaneously fear and are attracted to the exotic, the unknown. This attraction is very often realized in sexual attraction. In tribal warfare, we want to kill all the men, but we want to take all the woman back as wives (think of the rape of the Sabines). Xenophobia makes perfectly good sense if you are a tribal hunter-gatherer. Those who saw new people and then ran out to joyously greet them typically got a spear through the body, while those who saw a new person, and then killed them, lived to reproduce. At the same time, attraction to the exotic is good, as it creates greater genetic diversity. Further, there are good political reasons to make friends with neighboring tribes – often to do battle with other tribes you hate more. But if we start befriending other tribes, strengthening that bond through trade, etc., we soon have a confederation. And with a strong enough leader from one, a chiefdom. Soon you have large cities and nations, which are so large one cannot possibly know everyone in the city or nation. And with enough expansion, one cannot recognize tribal (and, eventually, racial) differences. It makes little sense, if you are an American, to hate someone on account of their race, since this country has no real racial foundations (this does not prevent people from trying, though). With increasing global trade and interdependence, hatred of someone because of their race and/or nationality will increasingly make less and less sense. As such, our xenophilia (and plain old selfishness in wanting to make money from trade) will override, over the long term, our xenophobia. This will result in an increase in moral behavior. For example, murder is considered immoral in all cultures. What differs is what is considered murder. But it is always murder to kill someone of your own tribe who is not otherwise doing something wrong. And it is never murder to kill your foreign enemies. But what happens when we collapse the idea of “foreign”? What happens when people who look very different from you are people you consider to be in your own tribe? It becomes increasingly difficult to go to war, to kill people who do not look, act, or dress like you. Now, this does not mean such things will not happen. The 20th Century is filled with examples of people killing people in other “tribes,” including people we would consider to be within a “tribe.” But at the same time, how else does one explain the fervent outrage we have seen in the 20th Century at such things as the Holocaust, when it was considered the height of morality to slaughter Jews during the Inquisition? The “problem” with an expansionist view of morality is precisely its tragic aspect. A Holocaust now would be a more terrible thing than was the one during WWII, which was itself far, far more terrible than the one during the Inquisition. The problem with climbing high is that the fall is much farther – and far more terrible. And the very notion of progress contains within it the idea of regress. If we can go forward, we can fall back too. And the farther forward we push, the farther back we can fall – and the more tragic the consequences. If we see history and morality both as progressing, we have a world where tragedy is increasingly possible. Turner goes so far as to say that

true hope necessarily implies tragedy, and true tragedy implies hope. Tragic loss would not be tragic if what was lost were not worth having in the first place – so valuable that even if we knew in advance that it would be lost, we would choose to have it anyway. And hope would not be hope it if did not necessarily project itself into a future world of uncertainty, even one in which evil may well triumph (259)

If we understand the world as getting better, “The world that is to come will be the more tragic, for being the more beautiful and free and wise and holy, and the more these good things for being the more tragic” (Turner, 260). This view is supported by Camus in his essay “On Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée”: “Life can be magnificent and overwhelming – that is its whole tragedy. Without beauty, love or danger it would be almost easy to live” (201). But who would want to live in such a world? And who would not want to live in a world more beautiful, hopeful, magnificent, and full of love than is the one we live in? But to desire such a world is to precisely desire a world ripe for tragedy.

Now, as if the tragic possibilities of a more progressivist view of history and of morality (which is not necessarily an always optimistic view, in the same way that Marxism and Christianity are optimistic, since for each of them, there is an absolute certainty of a particular world to come, while this progressivist view I am suggesting is progress as increasing complexity, not leading to any sort of utopia, but instead to a world that is better, but much less definably better, since we often do not know what “better” really is until we get there and see it – this is why Steiner says “the metaphysics of Christianity and Marxism are anti-tragic” (324), and thus identifies them as the world views that brought about the death of tragedy – though one could equally argue that something like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a tragedy in the same sense that Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus is a tragedy insofar as both end with redemption, suggesting that there could be a Christian tragic metaphysics), and the suggested new tragic relationship between knowledge and wisdom, and the understanding of the world as a chaotic system were not enough to create a new tragic milieu, the new fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have provided us with an understanding of human nature that allows us to see human action as tragic. This has already been suggested above in my brief discussion of physis and nomos in ancient Greek tragedy. This new view of the biological basis for human nature provides us with a new physis with which to put our contemporary nomos in conflict. One could imagine any number of scenarios where a person’s understanding of their basic nature – perhaps because they continue to believe in the blank slate world view – comes into conflict with their biological nature. What else is the overprescription of behavior-altering drugs such as Ritalin in the United States (in western Europe it is prescribed at 10% of the rate it is in the United States) but an overzealous application of the view that human nature is infinitely malleable – even if that malleability is now seen as achievable through drugs? This can result in a tragic situation precisely because drugs such as these do have their appropriate uses – when properly used, in conjunction with a proper understanding of our biology. At the same time, we do not know the long-term effects of using behavior-altering drugs, especially on those who do not actually need the drugs. Certainly it is the potential for misuse in the direction of prescribing them to people who do not need them that can have tragic results. But why would anyone want to prescribe such a drug to someone who does not need it? Precisely because there are those out there who think we can and should mold behavior beyond its natural tendencies. And drugs is not the only possibility. One could imagine a story of someone using Skinnerian techniques to create any number of tragic situations in their attempt to force people beyond the limits dictated by their basic human nature. At the same time, this is not to say that just because it is in our nature to do something that it is good. This falls into the fallacy of believing that everything natural is necessarily good (we can thank Rousseau for this idea too). One can also have tragic situations created precisely because of our human natures – particularly, the conflict that can arise from different aspects of our human nature. I previously noted that humans have a tendency both towards xenophobia and xenophilia. Is this not precisely the conflict Shakespeare shows us in Romeo and Juliet? Certainly the 20th Century is full of precisely these kinds of tragic situations.

Another aspect of the world that makes it conducive to tragedy (as if the above were not enough) is the fact that we seem to be at a crossroads Camus recognizes as necessary to give birth to tragedy, in that periods of tragic art “mark a transition from forms of cosmic thought impregnated with the notion of divinity and holiness to forms inspired by individualistic and rationalist concepts” (297). Eagleton agrees with this idea, saying we see tragedy “emerging from a tension between old religio-mythical ways of thought and new politico-legal ones which still remain cloudy and contested” (143). It may appear strange to suggest we are now at a similar historical crossroad, since religion certainly does not appear to have the power it did during, say, ancient Greece and Medieval Europe, but a religious view of the world is precisely what we are abandoning in abandoning the Rousseauean Romanticism that has characterized the last half of the Modern Era. Pinker argues that the Blank Slate view of human nature is taken on faith by many, particularly those on the Left. And it is certainly defended by them with a religious fervor. The same has been true of Rousseau’s idea of the Noble Savage. And, in the form of Marxism, Romantic politics has a religiousity to it too – creating the same kinds of hermeneutic circles as religion (I know God exists because the Bible says he does, and I know the Bible is true because it is the word of God, and the idea that you cannot see this truth because the Devil is blinding you to it, vs. claiming the bourgeoisie cannot see the truth of Marxism because they are bourgeoisie, and if they were proletarians, then it would be clear to them – it is the same argument that you are being blinded by the Devil). We have ended up with a plethora of secular religions, that are no less religions for being secular. They are designed to provide Truth, to provide The Answer(s). If postmodernism is good for anything, it is that it did work to do away with many such secular-religious notions (while also retaining the religious belief in the blank slate). But science, which does not claim to provide Truth, but only facts – and these facts only work to raise more questions, while claiming it does not and cannot have The Answer – is precisely, for these reasons, not religious, though there are a few secular-religious beliefs surrounding it. One cannot precisely predict what the new rational world view will be, as it is the purpose of tragedy to move us toward it (though I am imagining an affirmation of the evolutionary, chaos-theory world view). But one thing I think we can say is with the rise of a contemporary tragic art, we would see the final death of Rousseauean Romanticism, and its Marxist and postmodernist offspring.

One final element that suggests the time is ripe for a new birth of tragedy is the development of a new view of time – I am particularly speaking of the umwelt theory of time (also, the evolutionary theory of time, and the theory of time as conflict) of J. T. Fraser. Schmidt says tragedy is the “poetics of time” (149), and that “the crisis which the tragedy unfolds is a crisis of time and, as such needs to be understood as opening me to the final meaning of time, namely, my death” (148). This is why he says rhythmical language has typically been used in tragedies, since “rhythm mimes the course of life” (149) by drawing our attention to time, to ourselves as time, to the passing of time, and therefore to our awareness of death. With Fraser’s understanding of time, we have time itself emerging from “randomness” into “order” – or, at least, human order. Fraser calls his theory of time both “the hierarchical theory of time and the theory of time as conflict” – the latter because “in its dynamic features it is a general theory of conflicts” (TCHV, 21). As a hierarchical theory, it has a fractal depth, and its fractal geometry shows how the deterministic world has elements of probability and of randomness, as recent work in chaos theory has shown. Lower levels of reality bleed through to higher levels, pure energy through to the quantum world, both through to the macrophysical world, all of these through to the biological world, and all of these through to the human (minding) world. Each of the lower levels are able to be experienced by the levels above. When this happens on the level of physics, we get fractal images. The world is shown to be both free and determined. When this happens with people, we get dreams and art – and, sometimes, madness.

For Fraser, tragedy arises because we feel our inbetweenness. “The unfolding of tragedy demands uninterrupted reflections upon the past, the future, and upon the choice among different paths of action thinkable in the present. These elements, skillfully combined, create what has been called the tragic present” (Time, 294). Time is literally of the essence of tragedy. “The moods of time are ceaselessly evoked and are intricately mixed: we feel the terror of chaos, the call of continuity, the demands, pain, and satisfaction of being alive, and the predicament of being able to think in terms of noetic time” (294). And tragedy is precisely the lot of humans, because “only humans can make a series of deliberate choices in support of an idea, a symbol they created by distilling what they judged permanent in their experience of time” (295). This is why,

when it comes to time-knowing humans with a single life and death, the appropriate drama is not heroic comedy but tragedy, because it must involve the decisions a person must make in terms of his assets – life and limb, love and hatred, freedom and duty – and in full awareness of the finity of his life. (TCHV, 160)

Our decisions and actions will have consequences – and one of the consequences could be death. This is tragic for each person, we being the species aware of our own deaths. And in a theory of time as conflict, tragedy is precisely the art form one would expect to see – and not just because Nietzsche sees the world, too, as agonal, since:

Tragedy describes a world where conflict is endemic, resolvable only in transient fashion, and where men and women, to be able to live with their dreams of a better world, must make present sacrifices for very chancy future returns. The tragic is a form of unresolvable conflict in the nested hierarchy of such conflicts: it is native to the nootemporal and sociotemporal worlds. In this it joins the lower-order unresolvable creative conflicts: those of life (between growth and decay) and those of matter (between forms of permanence and the ever-present chaos). (TCHV, 162)

This final comment brings us back to the issue of chaos theory and its relationship to tragedy. The time seems ripe for the creation of new tragic art. And this new view of time as conflict, and nature as deterministic chaos, show us a world where tragedy is possible – and, indeed, likely. We are at what seems to be the end of the Modern Era, and the chaos we have seen through the 20th Century, with the demise of the various experiments in Marxism, and, even now, in the final throes of the conflicts of the 20th Century in the current War on Terrorism (brought about in part by the way the United States and the USSR fought each other) seems on the order of that which, in a Prigoginian manner, will give rise to a new, higher social order, as we saw developing after the Renaissance (though much of the political realization has unfolded only slowly). Perhaps the current War on Terrorism is precisely that transitional element from the old into the new, and the beginning of something new. This past century has come about precisely because of the Rousseauean rejection of tragedy and the belief it fostered of our “perfectability” through social engineering. It failed – precisely because it did not understand the tragic situation of man. Insofar as postmodernism has embraced such Rousseauean beliefs as the blank slate (even if it does reject the idea of the perfectability of man), it too is incapable of creating a tragic art. To have a tragic art, one must be at the same time Romantic and Naturalistic, pluralist and unified, knowledgeable and wise, deterministic and chaotic – in other words, one can only have tragedy in a non-linear environment, and one can only create a tragedy if one views the world in this way. To create a tragedy, one must be able to see the world as beautiful.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Chapter 10: On Tragedy: I. The Modern Era: The Death of Tragedy

In “The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture” from Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach (McKeon, ed.), Franco Moretti argues that the Modern Era has been a pro-youth period, a time of European man’s adolescence. This, he argues, was the necessary conditions under which the European novel evolved, with its concern with play and with telling the stories of youth, of their development, education, and socialization. This also helps explain why the Modern Era has been one of rebellion, whether political or artistic, or even against the agonal nature of physis/logos, as we see in Hegel and Marx (it is this conflict which resulted in the 20th Century enacting tragedy rather than more safely performing it in artistic rituals). Postmodernism is a rebellion against Modernism, Modernism a rebellion against Naturalism, Naturalism a rebellion against Realism, Realism a rebellion against Romanticism, Romanticism a rebellion against the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment a rebellion against religion. All this after the rebellion of the Renaissance. One could perhaps see European history after the rise of Christianity as the long, serious-minded childhood of belief, finally giving way to the adolescent Modern Era. The novel has been the genre of this adolescence, giving us stories of adolescence, of Werther’s rebellion of love, of Jude’s rebellion against the class structures preventing him from becoming an intellectual, etc. These rebellions are all legitimate rebellions – against various forms of repression – the kinds of rebellions adolescents undergo in the move from the legitimate protections they had as children, unjust now that they are becoming adults. If this metaphor is accurate, this would suggests, once European Man’s adolescence is over, that adulthood should rise to take its place. But with adulthood comes the possibility of giving birth to a new child – and a repetition of the cycle – in the same way that the adult Greek culture (even if it was a Roman-controlled Greece) mated with the adult Hebrew culture to create the infant Christian culture, which reached adolescence in the Renaissance, and is now due to enter into its own adulthood.

But let us take into consideration some literary consequences of this late adolescence with Mann’s A Death in Venice and Gide’s The Immoralist. I want to discuss them together because they are so similar in their basic stories: an intellectual becomes sexually obsessed with a young boy. But it is in the different ways these two works deal with the situation that we find them uncovering two different existential situations we in the Modern Era have found ourselves in.

Mann presents us with the following situation: an intellectual (a poet) goes to Venice, where he finds himself not really in charge of his life – the gondolier will not listen to him, but takes him straight to the hotel; at the hotel he finds himself hopelessly in love with a young boy he sees; when he tries to leave, his things end up accidentally sent back to the hotel, making him have to spend the night, and eventually not leave – and so in love he cannot leave, even once he learns there is a plague in Venice. He is the consummate man of inaction. He will not act, so cannot affect or change anything. He will not act on his love, but only stalks the boy. He is a toothless, clawless predator (something we may be happy about, for the boy’s sake). This story of a toothless, clawless predator only works to highlight the impotence of modern man, with his tendency to over-think things, until it is too late to act. While Hamlet, who is a prime example of this situation at the entrance of European culture – which includes American culture – into the Modern Era, takes a long time to act, he does, in the end, act. But Aschenbach does not do a thing throughout the novel, which only leads him to finally die of the plague that has hit Venice, since he can neither act on his love for the boy, nor tear himself away from him. Mann shows us the possibility of impotence due to overintellectualization. Aschenbach only thinks about living – he never actually lives.

With Gide’s Michel, however, we have a somewhat different situation. Michel too is an intellectual, but whereas Aschenbach dies of his sickness, Gide shows us what could have happened had Aschenbach lived, as Michel does. The difference is that Michel is an historian, not an artist – which creates a somewhat different crisis for him in the novel. When Michel recovers, he sheds the mores of society, learns to love life, and revels in the senses. He finds it difficult to return to his life as an intellectual – finding instead a more pleasurable life tending his property – or, more accurately, getting into mischief with his property. The problem is, Michel is only playing at mischief, while those who actually live the life he is imitating manage to take advantage of him. This game being a failure, along with his wife getting sick, convinces Michel to travel – eventually back to North Africa. There, his wife dies, and Michel finds himself involved with a young boy and the young boy’s sister – the latter whom he is sleeping with, though his observation that the boy appeared jealous, and that he was not adverse to the possible consequences thereof, suggests homosexual possibilities. Michel is searching for a life that better fits this great insight he received with his recovery. One could imagine, had this happened to Aschenbach rather than Michel, that Aschenbach would have known what to do – since Aschenbach was already a poet. Michel received the kind of insight Nietzsche associated with great artists – but Michel has not figured out that it is art that he should be pursuing. One could presume that Aschenbach would have continued as a poet, but would have become a greater poet than he is in the story. By the end of The Immoralist, Michel is admitting to homosexual attractions, to essentially being without means to get by, having wasted his money and separated himself from his former work. Is this where living life according to Nietzsche’s dictums will get us? This could be precisely the situation we should be in: where we have no prospects, but every possibility, and nonetheless find ourselves happy and ready to press forward (one is reminded of the line on the first page of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am.”). In the end, we are left not knowing what Michel is going to do. What should he do? What would we do if we were in his position? That, perhaps, is precisely the point. What we have with Gide is the existential possibility of the kind of insight that makes for great artists being received by someone who does not realize they should be making art.

Each of these characters represent one of two major existential categories of Modern man: the man who does not act, but has all the resources available to him to do something great if only he would act, and the man who does act, but has neither the knowledge nor the wisdom to do anything positive with his abilities. Michel knows neither the possibilities of making art, nor of truly engaging life. Michel is the man with the artist’s soul, but does not realize it. Aschenbach is the artist without the artist’s soul. He is the thinker without action. Following Descartes, the Modern Era has split people in two: body and soul. The consequence of this split is a world containing either Aschenbach or Michel, but very few whole people.

With postmodernism – the postscript to modernism – we have entered into a sort of late adolescence, where we are now rebelling against ourselves. If not just for the sake of rebelling. Modernism is the philosophy of eternal youth – specifically, of rebellious adolescence. It sees the world as a series of constant breaks with, rather than a continuation of, the past. It is anti-tragic. The belief that we can or should break with the past is to deny the past, and the attempt to deny the past is the attempt to deny tragedy. While modernist theorists promoted this myth, most modernist artists and writers themselves would be very surprised to learn they radically broke from the past and learned nothing from it. Much current scholarship has shown our greatest modernist artists and writers were devout students of the past. Yet, this myth of continual rebellion pervades our culture in the guise of postmodernism.

A specific example is the philosophy of Thomas Kuhn, whose theory of science being a series of revolutionary breaks with the past is a prime example of modernist mythology. He bases his philosophy on the history of physics, so let us look at that history. He supposes that Einstein’s theory of relativity was a radical break with Newtonian physics. But this ignores the fact that Newton himself recognized that there was a problem with his theory of gravity regarding the orbit of Mercury. This problem was worked on continuously by physicists until Einstein formulated his theory of relativity. And Einstein himself did not work in a vacuum. His ideas were built on the foundation of all those physicists who came before him. Which is not to take away from the impressive work of Einstein, but, to paraphrase Newton, Einstein was able to see as far as he could because he was standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before him. Also, having been a physicist, Kuhn should have known that Einstein did not overturn Newton. Newton’s ideas are valid for the vast majority of physics between the quantum and galactic levels, as anyone who has taken a semester of university physics knows. No one uses relativity to calculate the velocity necessary to lift a rocket from earth into orbit. Newton’s calculations work just fine. Relativity was, in many ways, merely a fine-tuning of Newton’s theory of gravity, something needed to explain such anomalies as the orbit of Mercury. This is how science works. Scientifically derived knowledge is not constantly overturned, but is more often slowly and subtly modified. To paraphrase a story related by Konrad Lorenz, in science, today’s truth is not tomorrow’s falsehood, but rather tomorrow’s special case.

Much of this is a rebellion against such things as deterministic views of history, including theories of teleology and of progress. But we have seen in this work that the solution is a mixture, as found in the mixture between determinism and randomness in chaos theory. With chaos theory, we can see our belief in a deterministic world is only part of the story – there is a randomness to the universe too that allows for the possibility of free will. So we do not need postmodernism’s rejection of determinism in favor of randomness, nor, for that matter, its rejection of progress or our ability to understand others, or any of its other features. Progress can be seen as possible, though not certain. Just because we are walking forward now, it does not mean we will be walking forward always. And just because we are slipping now, it does not mean we cannot gain our feet later. The ability to walk forward implies the ability to stumble and fall too, or to walk backwards. Thus, we can legitimately say things like, “there has been marked progress in the speed of computers in the past twenty years.” Does this mean the speed of computers will continue to increase? Yes and no. It does suggest computer speed will, in the near future at least, continue to increase. If people did not believe it could, they would not try to make computers go faster. At the same time, there is certainly an upper limit to a computer’s speed, whether limited by the speed of electrons or light. And even then, we will probably continue to find ways to tweak computers to get another nanosecond out of them. So the ideally-fast computer will certainly never be reached, just as we will never see the ultimately fast human, since there is no telling how many fractions of seconds can be shaved off of anyone’s speed. We can also make this comment about things that have happened in the past. It can make sense to say something has progressed to the present time, even if we reject the idea that something will necessarily continue to progress into the future. The story of progress is like any good story – postdictable, if not predictable. We can say after something happened what happened, and why, even if we cannot say what will happen, and why, since the world is not determined. The present and the past are knowable, but not the future (insofar as postmodernism says we cannot know the past, it is also anti-epistemological). So it seems that, at least in science and technology, progress is possible, in this limited understanding of progress, and that it is a necessary belief to hold if advancements are to be made in science and technology.

But arguing for science and technology usually does not get you very far with the anti-science and technology postmodernists. So what about social issues? The history of social issues is one of progress and regress. Groups make advances, only to be pushed back. Jews once fled to Germany to escape anti-Semitism, only to encounter the Holocaust. In recent decades, at least in the United States, there has been much social progress in the way women and ethnic minorities are treated in this country. It is fashionable (and a product of postmodernism) to argue that things are as bad now as they were fifty or a hundred years ago. But if you were to tell an elderly woman or an elderly African-American that there has been no progress in the U.S. regarding the way women and minorities are treated in this country, they would laugh at you. Things have clearly gotten better, and to deny it is to be eminently ahistorical. This is not to say that the way women and minorities are treated could not be better – there is always room for improvement, and we have to fight against our xenophobic tendencies with our equally present xenophilic tendencies – but we cannot effect any effective change if we refuse to acknowledge that anything has changed in a positive way. To treat all times as the same is naive, at best. Has there been progress on these sorts of social issues? I think women and minorities should be treated as equals. Any movement toward greater equal treatment, I consider progress. And I consider it progress because treating people equally – while allowing for their inequalities – makes for a more complex society.

So where does this position against progress come from? Aside from the conservative opposition to progress already noted, and the anti-teleological stance of postmodernism (one with which I agree), it comes out of the postmoderns’ remaining blindly focused on art and philosophy. In dealing with art, literature, and philosophy, it makes no sense at all to talk about “progress.” In what way is stream-of-conscious progress over the Bildungsroman? To make such a statement is to speak nonsense. Is Picasso “improvement” over Michelangelo? A ridiculous concept. Indeed, in these realms, we have changes, but these are changes for which notions of progress or regress are nonsense, even in the sense of progress as an increase in complexity. DeLillo’s novels are certainly no more complex than Rabelais’ novel – nor, likely, any less. What we see instead is an issue of better and worse art reflected in the issue of complexity. DeLillo and Rabelais both are more complex than any romance novel – and that is what makes them literary, and continually interesting. Creative products of the mind reflect the complexities of the minds which create them – and that has not changed. We can, however, say that a world that has both Michelangelo and Picasso, rather than just Michelangelo, in it is a more complex world. In this sense, the mere changes in art have, through the accumulation of artifacts, made for more complex cultures.

Postmodernism has been particularly useful, on the other hand, in foregrounding many important ideas. There is a certain extent to which we cannot know with complete certainty that another understand us. But this is not to say understanding is impossible. It is instead an understanding and acknowledgment that there can be a level of misunderstanding – especially in dealing with written language. But when my friend calls to tell me, “My wife just gave birth to a baby boy,” I know with such certainty what he means, it might as well be absolute. This view of language breaks down with regular conversation among most people, even if it holds true for discussions of art, literature, and philosophy. Postmodernism has also been useful in making us beware of teleological arguments, especially those that lead to utopian visions. And it has been important in decentering us, making us more aware of our thinking as a human in a particular time, in a particular culture. But if we cannot use this information to adjust our thinking, if all we can do is think in this situation, then where has it really gotten us, other than the promise of stagnation? And this is one of the greatest problems I have with postmodernism. All it can do in the end, if we end with postmodernism, is cause stagnation. This is why we are beginning to get popular rock bands like Queens of the Stone Age in their song “Go With The Flow” singing “I want something real to die for / so it is beautiful to live.” Even popular culture is beginning to see the problems with postmodernism – in its inability to give us something real to die for, which is to say, something beautiful to live for. Without such ideas, we stagnate. Without ideas such as progress – even one decoupled from teleology would suffice – we cannot find the desire to change. One thing we can learn from history is that those cultures that went against progress were eventually taken over by those that did believe in progress. And certainly those who believe we should have a more fully human life will win out over any culture that dehumanizes us, as postmodernism seems intent to do. If we replace the dead-end of postmodernism’s myths with a more complex myth, one that incorporates what we have learned from postmodernism with what it has rejected, we can get out of the trap both sides create, and learn to become more human, and live in a more human society – one that affirms life.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

II. Roses, Dogwood, and Milkweed – An Application of Scalar Self-Similarity to a Novel

One way one could use chaos theory to helping one analyze a text is to search the text for elements of scalar self-similarity. Since “fractals consist of patterns that recur on finer and finer magnifications, building up shapes of immense complexity” (Richard P. Taylor, “Order in Pollock’s Chaos, Scientific American, Dec. 2002, 118). The more scalar self-similarity one can find in a novel, for example, the more complex the novel. One should find thematic unity at every level of scale in a great novel (great because more complex) – from chapters and episodes, to scenes and sentences – including word distribution. We have seeon one example of this in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. We can see another, even more complex example of this in William Faulker’s The Sound and The Fury.

In the section narrated by Quentin, Faulkner creates a text full of rich symbolic imagery, none perhaps more full and beautiful than that found on page 77:

She ran right out of the mirror, out of the banked scent. Roses. Roses. Mr and Mrs Jason Richmond Compson announce the marriage of. Roses. Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed. I said I have committed incest, Father I said. Roses. Cunning and serene.

Quentin’s obsession with his sister, with Caddy’s virginity, drives him to tell his father he committed incest with her, hoping his father will punish him, the first of several times Quentin mentions he told his father he committed incest, though the only time Faulkner combines this “confession” with the images of roses, dogwood, and milkweed.

Faulkner uses flowers throughout this novel, such as the “curling flower spaces” of the first sentence, but he mentions these flowers, roses, milkweed, and dogwood, only here in Quentin’s section and nowhere else in the text. Why, in this section, does Faulkner choose roses, dogwood, and milkweed? And what does he mean by “Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed?” Faulkner places the last two flowers together in an unusual sentence. “Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed.” Faulkner uses milkweed as a visual symbol. Milkweeds bleed when broken, just as a woman bleeds when her hymen breaks. The milkweed does not bleed red, but white. White represents purity and, thus, virginity. When broken, a milkweed bleeds virginal.

Faulkner uses the dogwood, a more complex symbol, because of its use in Christian mythology. According to this mythology, the Romans crucified Christ on a dogwood cross. Previously large, robust trees, after Christ’s crucifixion on a dogwood cross, the dogwood became small and twisted, so no one could ever again be crucified using the tree’s wood. It then began to bloom flowers in the shape of white crosses to commemorate the crucifixion. The white flowers represented the purity of Christ, the dark splashes on the tips of the “petals” (actually bracts), the blood of Christ, and the spiny buds of the true flowers, the crown of thorns. Many believe Christ remained a virgin throughout his life; his virginity and his mother’s virginity when she conceived him are also recalled in the white flowers. Faulkner uses the dogwood to bring to mind the whole of Christianity: purity, because of the dogwood’s white flowers, and virginity, since Christianity started with a virgin birth and because Christ supposedly remained a virgin to his death (according to Christian mythology), as well as the blood and the crown of thorns. The dogwood represents virginity on three levels: Jesus’ purity and presumed virginity, his mother’s virginity, and the color of the flowers - white representing purity and virginity. Quentin places particular importance on virginity, especially his sister’s virginity. He expects his sister to somehow maintain an ideal form of purity, like that represented by Mary and Christ (and milkweeds and dogwood). He does not realize that in the real world ideals cannot and do not truly exist, since we cannot control every aspect of everyone else’s lives (or even of our own), as would be necessary for anyone’s idealized world to exist.
Finally, Faulkner uses roses several times in this section. The first sentence evokes scent, as Quentin similarly remembers the odor of honeysuckles: “She ran right out of the mirror, out of the banked scent. Roses. Roses.” The odor of roses, which signifies sorrow and death, had accumulated and become overpowering, as the honeysuckles have become, as Quentin’s repeated references to the odor of honeysuckles in his chapter suggests. Quentin feels sorrow at the loss of his sister’s virginity, and her subsequent pregnancy, and his mind has become very much preoccupied with death on this particular day, since apparently if the world cannot live up to his idealized expectations, he does not want to continue living in it.

But Faulkner does not keep the rose symbolism relegated to odor: “Roses. Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed.” Roses have a complex and, oftentimes, contradictory symbolism. Roses do symbolize purity and, thus, virginity. Christian mythology says the red rose came into being by sprouting from the blood that dripped from the crucified Christ onto the ground, further emphasizing the purity and virginity Quentin wishes his sister still had. But roses, especially red roses, also represent earthly passion, blood, and lust. We give red roses to those we love. Which makes roses not virgins, like dogwoods and milkweeds. Milkweeds bleed white, and thus stay virginal, but roses are red, like blood, like the blood created by a broken hymen. Quentin sees Caddy as closer to a rose than dogwoods and milkweeds. The image of the red rose incites the image of passion, especially sexual passion, which explains why Quentin mentions roses four times. His sister, no longer a virgin, and now pregnant, gets married because of her sexual passions. In classical and medieval symbolism, the rose acts as a symbol of female genitals, which relates again to Quentin’s obsession with Caddy, through her virginity, and his “admission” of incest. Quentin begs his father to punish him by claiming to have committed incest because of the sexual passion he feels for his sister. We do not know if he has actually done this or if he wishes punishment simply for having the desires, but it is the latter which seems most likely, from the references to Quentin’s virginity (78).

Faulkner combines the scent of the rose representing sorrow and death, the thorns of the rose representing martyrdom and pain (which Quentin unquestionably feels), and the flower representing lust, passion, purity, and the female genitals, as well as Time and Eternity. Quentin dwells upon time and eternity throughout his chapter, thinking about the eternity of time, how it comes back on itself because of the curvature of space, making time eternal and causing us to repeat our lives over and over forever (as suggested by Einstein’s theory of relativity and the way Nietzsche’s Eternal Return was understood at the time), which Quentin fully believes will happen, ultimately making his suicide meaningless, since he will relive his life over and over, forever, to create in these sentences a full symbolic picture of the themes in Quentin’s chapter. The rose represents the way Quentin sees life, to the way Quentin feels about life, about his passions, about his sister. She has caused him sorrow and pain because of her passions, because of his own passions for her. The rose’s scent represents death, the thorns the martyrdom he thinks he commits (but a martyr to whom? To himself?). And finally, the flower represents time and eternity. Quentin views time as eternal since space curves time into a circle, making it continuous. Eternity encompasses human life too, as we eventually come back around to where we started to repeat our lives. This reading of Einstein and Nietzsche proves the pointlessness of death and life, meaning Quentin’s committing suicide will have as little meaning as the decision to commit suicide would if he had decided to continue living. The rose evokes all these things.

But what about the fourth invocation of “roses?” What does Faulkner mean by “Roses. Cunning and serene.” The serenity could refer to the serenity of Christ, to the serenity of Time and Eternity, to the serenity, perhaps, behind the final decision to commit suicide. Perhaps Faulkner uses it as another reference to lust and passion, which must be cunning in order to be fulfilled. Or does Faulkner use it as a reference instead to the sentence before, since Quentin thought it cunning to tell his father he committed incest, since his “admission,” or at least the prospect of his father punishing him for it, could bring him serenity? There is also the etymological connection between “cunning” and “woman” in such words as cunnilingus (from Latin cunnus, for vulva), queen, womb, and woman. Or perhaps Faulkner combines these. Quentin’s “admission” turns out not to be cunning, nor does it bring him serenity, because his father does not believe him and therefore refuses to punish him. Willing to allow the rose to grow wild, he refuses to keep Quentin’s passions in check. But Quentin does not want his father to allow him to have these incestuous desires. If he cannot find serenity in the Law of the Father (Freud), he must find it in the only other place where serenity can be found: in death, as represented by the rose’s scent. The rose, representing lust and passion, but also purity and virginity and the Law of God, through the invocation of the image of Christ, and death, represents Quentin’s desires and the moods he feels, of sorrow and pain.

In this short section, Faulkner gives us a richness of symbolic imagery in the invocation of these three flowers. Symbolically, Faulkner neatly summarizes Quentin’s entire section in the central half of this paragraph. Quentin’s attempts to hold Caddy narcissistically in a mirror, only to lose her, her wedding, the confession of incest, the obsession with virginity. With the rose, Faulkner summarizes all of Quentin’s pain and desires, all the themes he expounds upon throughout Quentin’s chapter. In this small section, we can see the beauty and richness of Faulkner’s prose and his symbolism, as well as the scalar self-similarity of this small section to Quentin’s chapter – and to the themes developed throughout the novel.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Chapter 9: Chaos Theory and Literature: I. Strange Attractors

Chaos and complex systems theory have been discussed at length in this work, and have been applied to understanding everything from the human down. If chaos and complexity theory are relevant for everything in the universe up to and including humans, it does not seem like much of a leap to apply these theories to understanding the arts and literature. Of course, I am not the first by far to delve into the use of chaos theory to understand literature. I have many predecessors: Alexander Argyros, Harriet Hawkins, C. Katherine Hayles, Frederick Turner, et al. My goal has been to show in considerable detail why these theories, in conjunction with game theory, information theory, Fraser’s theory of time, etc., are applicable to understanding the creation and appreciation of art and literature.

In Strange Attractors, Harriett Hawkins points out that chaos theory is an excellent way to analyze literature, since “deterministic chaos is the context, the medium we inhabit in everyday life, ubiquitously allowing for, and indeed mandating individuality too as unpredictability within a physically determined order” (2). We can immediately see how chaos theory

helps to explain why, after centuries, certain works maintain their operational fangs and claws and terrible beauty. They are the artistic equivalents of deterministic chaos, and as such evoke chaotic responses, contradictory interpretations, altogether different generic adaptations. Therefore, as in the artistic tradition itself, their complex metaphorical signifiers keep on floating around in the minds of individual readers (and generations) long after the text was first read. (8)

Chaos theory can explain why certain works have long-term value within and among cultures. More complex works create more ways of seeing the text, breed different interpretations, have people arguing about the text for centuries (sometimes millennia). Any work that creates a large number of interpretations is, according to this theory, a great work with lasting value.

Hawkins further shows how complex works generate new works as new artists attempt to emulate the work they are influenced by – usually in the creation of less complex works. An example she gives is Milton’s Paradise Lost, of which Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park was a less complex emulation – which itself had a less complex emulation in the movie version. She points out that another way of knowing a work is a great work of art is to see how many times people try to replicate it. Most of the replicants will be less complex than the original, and will therefore likely be forgotten. But occasionally, works of art will come along which go beyond mere emulation to create another highly complex work of art that will inspire future emulation.

The above works for older works, but how can we determine if a new work is sufficiently complex to fit her definition of a lasting work of value? “When a fractal is viewed on any scale, comparably complex details emerge. And comparably complex details likewise emerge in individual lines, books, actions, and characterizations, as well as on the mythic, narrative and temporal scales of a complex nonlinear work” (18). One way of seeing if a work meets this level of complexity is to ask yourself what it would take to write up a set of instructions to have a writer write any given work. A work is complex if the “instructions” on how to write it (as romance publishers give their writers) would be longer than the work produced (13). This brings us back to what I said earlier about theory, as one could, in a sense, see literary analysis as an attempt (actually, various attempts by various people) to write parts of the instructions of how to write any given work of literature. Using psychological analysis, for example, one could learn various elements of the psychologies of the characters in the work (let us say, a novel). Marxist analysis could point out the various class concerns the author had in mind. Formalism and structuralism could show on a formal and structural level how the novel was constructed. Poststructuralism could point out what the author left out and suggest why. And one could go back to older theories and see what they have to say about works of literature, since “even as chaos theory calls into question comparatively exclusive critical paradigms, it also allows for a retroactive, retrospective understanding of earlier artistic and critical insights commonly brushed aside as outmoded or as too obvious to need further thought” (19). Using chaos theory to understand literature reintroduces the idea of unity within diversity.

Chaos theory shows how these approaches can all work together to create a set of instructions for the reader to both enter the text and to better understand various elements of it, and for potential writers to understand how and why an author did what they did in a given work. It also provides its own contributions to the instructions. Hawkins points out that the butterfly effect helps explain how “an inadvertent dropping of a handkerchief, or someone else’s otherwise insignificant incapacity to tolerate alcohol (as in Othello) – can exponentially compound with other effects and give rise to disproportionate impacts” (16). She proposes this in opposition to “linear-minded moralists [who] have sought to charge tragic heroes and heroines with correspondingly great (quid pro quo) crimes, vices, sins and fatal flaws,” pointing out that “as chaos theory demonstrates, and as had long been obvious in ordinary life (as in comic as well as tragic art) very small, morally neutral, individual effects” (16) can, result in huge, tragic effects.

The themes and conflicts of a potentially great work of literature must themselves be complex, while “it simultaneously establishes what chaos theorists term nonlinear replications, iterations, self-similarities – that is, regular irregularities, structural correspondences (symmetries) and (asymmetrical) contrasts – between characters and actions” (61). Such a work would also seem to never have satisfactory interpretations, because “In complex works of art, as in the fractal formations of nature, there are interactive effects within interactive effects, and the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. The holistic interaction between components cannot be analytically dissected precisely because analysis requires segregation” (77). One cannot consider a single chapter of the lengthy instructions of a work to be the complete instructions. This in particular puts deconstruction in a delicate position, since it does not acknowledge emergent properties in its analysis of a work’s smallest parts.

A great work of art is great because it replicates the complexities found in nature. That is the why it satisfies: the various arts “are not literal representations, but [are] metaphorically satisfying because they ‘work like nature’” (83) – they are scalar. All the elements found in a work of great art, “iterations, recursions, self-similarities, symmetries and asymmetries [are] operative in the nonlinear systems of nature, in contrast to the regularities and predictabilities of comparatively linear (generically determined) systems and fictions such as formulaic romance novels” (88). The instructions for such formulaic novels can be written up in an area smaller than the novels that are created. The instructions for the creation of a relatively small work, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, would take up volumes. This is perhaps why it takes so many people longer to enjoy and appreciate great works of literature – but when they do, that is also why

in the long run, the survival of a complex literary “fractal” . . . continuously resonates, on multiple scales – imaginative, aesthetic, intellectual, orderly and disorderly – in the minds and memories of individual readers of successive generations, in very much the same way it continues to resonate in the artistic tradition. (103)

The same can work with looking at the complete literary tradition, as Ngg Wa Thiong’o wants us to do. Many postcolonial theorists have viewed him as promoting pluralism only – but what he actually supports is unity with plurality, as he suggests that

each department of literature while maintaining its identity in the language and country of its foundation should reflect other streams, using translations as legitimate texts of study. An English or French or Spanish or Swahili student should at the same time be exposed to all the streams of human imagination flowing from all centres of the world while retaining his or her identity as a student of English, French, Spanish, or Kiswahili literature. Only in this way can we build a proper foundation for a true commonwealth of cultures and literature. (Moving the Centre, 11)

This allows us the possibility of a more complex cultural tradition, with multiple centers (as a fractal with multiple strange attractors is more complex and beautiful than one with but one strange attractor). He explained this as realizing that
knowing oneself and one’s environment was the correct basis of absorbing the world; that there could never be only one centre from which to view the world but that different people in the world had their culture and environment as the centre. The relevant question was therefore one of how one centre related to other centres. A pluralism of cultures and literatures. (9)
He is not asking people to give up their own traditions – or to lose focus on their own traditions. He is asking instead that we also consider other perspectives, to have beautiful cultures.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

III. The Element of Play in Reading, Creating, and Understanding Literature

Literature is a game in which each writer both abides by already existing rules and creates his own rules, which each reader has to accept upon picking up any particular poem or work of fiction in order to understand and enjoy that particular work. When a professor of literature hears a student say Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is stupid because who ever heard of a man turning into a bug, that may be less a problem of a lack of imagination on the part of the student than a refusal to play by the rules Kafka has set up in his story. If there is no agreement by the reader to the writer’s rules at the outset, no game can be played – if a reader does not agree to the implicit rules any given author gives him, he cannot enjoy, perhaps cannot even understand, the author’s work. This is undoubtedly why so many of those novelists we consider great – those we consider literary, because they are continually creating their own rules – often tell their readers how to read their novels through the very way the novels are written. Such self-referentiality is not unique to postmodernist novelists – it is found throughout the history of the novel, from Cervantes, Rabelais, and Laurence Sterne to Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, and Thomas Pynchon.

The statement that creative writers use rules in the construction of their works may at first appear to suggest that creative writing is completely conscious, that such writers “know” what they are doing at all times – but as anyone who writes fiction or poetry knows, much of what comes out and turns out to be the best work is not fully conscious, and some is surprising to the writer himself. But writers nonetheless do follow the rules of their craft, whether it be the most basic rules of syntax and grammar, the understood needs of any particular genre, ranging from lyric poetry to the novel, or even self-made rules, where the author decides (s)he is going to include certain words, have a certain rhythm, or have a certain rhyme scheme (or lack of a rhyme scheme). Once those rules are decided upon, the author soon finds himself abiding by those rules,
even when the story or poem seems to be writing itself. This way of writing resembles the way soccer is played. Soccer has particular rules, which all the players are aware of and abide by, though any particular soccer player may not be consciously aware of all the rules when the ball is coming toward him and he needs to pass the ball while keeping it on sides so one of his teammates can shoot for goal. For a good soccer player, the rules are so well-known that he can play without having to continually think of the rules he nonetheless plays by at all times. A writer writes using his rules of writing in the same way.

Anyone familiar with Andre Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto” and the idea of automatic writing may be tempted to see the surrealists as proof against this idea. But the surrealists were not really that good at being surrealists, if the idea of automatic writing is to be taken as the ideal. Aside from the fact that they all wrote grammatically, which is the most basic rule by which writers write, the surrealists are particularly famous for using puns. A pun is one of the most purposeful, conscious uses of words one can think of. It is a conscious play on words, and, as anyone knows who has either used or knows someone who uses puns, it requires some effort to come up with one. Any surrealist who used a pun automatically broke out of his “automatic writing” (which, by the way, could also be seen as a rule – a rule that required you to not edit and to write whatever came into your head, no matter what it was, but a rule nonetheless), and thus turned it into conscious play that abided by the rules of pun-making. The analysis I made of the placement of the pictures and the effort that had to have gone into the intricate metaphors Breton created in Mad Love further suggests that, whatever the writing was, it was hardly “automatic.” The surrealists, as with any literary writers, used what Huizinga identified as the various play-rules of literature, “metrical and strophical patterns, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, stress, etc. and forms (genres)” (132), a “range of ideas and symbols to be used,” as well as “special terms, images, figures,” and “image-making or figurative word(s)” (133). The surrealists, like the literary writers they were supposedly trying to break from, used every one of these rules, just as their predecessors had before them. Had they not, the surrealists would not be given the respect we now hold for them.

Surrealism was one of the many attacks on what was seen as the basic flaw of literature (and of the world in general): the existence of rules. Rules were seen by the surrealists and other anarchists as restrictive, preventing freedom of expression, and oppressive. But rules, while restrictive, create, through that restriction, greater freedom. Rules per se are not oppressive – they are necessary elements of freedom. Imagine driving without rules. You can drive on either the right or left side of the road. You do not have to drive in a straight line, and stop signs and stop lights are ignored or no longer exist. No one would want to drive under such conditions, but these are the conditions literary anarchists claim to want us to read and write by (the fact that this is not how surrealist literature turned out is further proof they worked by rules). This may seem an extreme example, but could anyone imagine playing chess without rules? What would you have? You would have complete randomness, and complete randomness has a tendency to look remarkably identical to other instances of complete randomness. This is undoubtedly why so much surrealist literature – and all bad surrealist literature, which typically comes from writers unfamiliar with the actual works of the surrealist literary movement – sounds so much the same.

Consider the following poem I wrote. For the longest time, I wrote poems “as they came to me” – I took the surrealist ideal of automatic writing seriously. In recent years I have been writing poems using more formal rules. One day, I returned to automatic writing in starting the following poem:

Without Rules

Im bored
floored, soared
seeming sailing high on winded sky
stupid, stupid, stupid
It all sounds the same every time I write
whatever comes to mind
continual rhyming – internal, alliterative,
same sounds over and over,
S and I
Poe’s long O for sorrow –
even the sentence above sounds sorrowful –
But why my S and I?
S is slippery, serpentine,
I lifts the soul high –
how can high and slippery serpentine
possibly come together? –
a formalist problem –
the postmodernists know
even if I don’t.

It took only three lines for me to realize what I was doing and stop it. One can see that once I slipped out of my revery of automatic writing and started really thinking about what I was writing that I stuck with the same rules – but this time, I used them consciously, and the poem really began to speak. Undoubtedly there are also other unconscious rules in the poem, but I would argue that whatever they are, they work better in combination with the conscious rules. One could argue that such rules are only superficial – surface decoration. But one must have a surface if one is going to have any depth.

It seems the surrealists tried to sell the world a set of goods they did (and could) not use themselves. Before Breton developed the idea of automatic writing, most of the surrealists were already writers who well understood their craft. So we should not be surprised when their version of automatic writing comes out sounding remarkably like literature. They were writing by rules they had accepted so completely it became unconscious. Their idea becomes a problem when people who have not learned enough rules of writing use it. That is when surrealist writing really begins to all sound the same. Instead of creating a great proliferation of great writing, it created, after a while, a stagnant soup of identical-sounding works. This is why surrealism as an automatic writing movement has been mostly abandoned, except by those undergraduate writing students who consider themselves to be more radical than the “typical” writer, and just end up creating works that sound like all other undergraduate neo-surrealist writing. Rather than sounding different, all they end up doing is sounding exactly the same as all other “ruleless” writers.

Rules are found at all levels of society. They are what help different aspects of society work well together. This is not a defense of all the rules of society, or of all rules of literature. It was very healthy for poets to ask why it was necessary for a poem to rhyme or have a steady, regular rhythm in order to be a poem. Why could there not be other forms of poetry? Why not Dickinson’s slant-rhyme? Or Whitman’s free-verse? But even Whitman’s free-verse has its rules. He abided by the rules of poetry in deciding that what he was writing should have line breaks. He decided on various other rules in word choice or in particular rhythms or use of metaphors. So even when it does not appear that a given author is using rules, we are oftentimes surprised to find he is. And this questioning of rules is, I believe, one of the hallmarks of a great writer, whether it be the questioning of rhyme in poetry (or the current prejudice against it), how characters or situations or reality are portrayed, the use of alliteration, the use of metaphors, the choice of words, or any number of other things writers use. We consider Baudelaire a great poet mostly because he challenged the rules of appropriate topics for poems in the romantic style. He maintained the romantic structure, the rhythm and end-rhyme, and many of their turns of phrases, then twisted them with the topics he used, which challenged the rule of what was an appropriate topic for a great poem. Baudelaire is a great poet in part because he was able to write a romanticist poem about a rotting deer corpse.

The necessity for rules to create literature is not the only thing that makes literature a game or play. Among the functions play performs, Johan Huizinga has identified “training for the demands of life,” and “compensating for unfulfilled longings” (3), which one could argue (and Richard Rorty, among others, has) are indeed functions of literature, especially fiction. Play makes use of an “imitative instinct,” a ““need” for relaxation,” and acts as an “outlet for harmful impulses,” or as “wish fulfillment” (2). What does fiction do but imitate? Why else do we read literature except to relax? (There are other reasons, like intellectual stimulation, but this does not preclude play, since chess is played for this very reason too.) In the confines of his writing a writer can do or say things he otherwise would not. He can be smarter, braver, a bigger villain, more attractive, less attractive, etc. He turns himself into what Milan Kundera calls “experimental selves,” in order to try out various scenarios. If pretending you are someone else is not play, I do not know what is (this is precluding you do not have mental problems that make you think you really are this other person).

Ritual, art, and literature are all forms of play. Just replace the word “play” with either “reading” or “writing literature” or “viewing art” or “creating art” in any of Huizinga’s definitions of play (such as those already stated above), and the connection, the synonymity among them becomes clear. Huizinga says play has a “profoundly aesthetic quality” (2),that “is based on the manipulation of certain images, on a certain “imagination” of reality (i.e. its conversion into images)” (4), that “all play is a voluntary activity” (7), “we play because we enjoy playing” (8), “play is not “ordinary” or “real” life. It is rather a stepping out of “real” life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all its own” (8), that “the consciousness of play being “only a pretend” does not by any means prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption, a devotion that passes into rapture” (8) such as Roland Barthes argues literature does in The Pleasure of the Text, that “play may rise to heights of beauty and sublimity that leave seriousness behind” (Huizinga, 8), that play “adorns life, amplifies it and is to that extent a necessity both for the individual – as a life function – and for society by the reason of the meaning it contains, its significance, its expressive value, its spiritual and social associations, in short, as a culture function” (9), which are, again, things Rorty argues literature does in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Huizinga goes on to identify play as “distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration. . . . It is “played out” within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning” (9). Further, “while (play) is in progress all is movement, change, alternation, succession, association, separation” (9), it is either “a contest for something or a representation of something” (13) (and literature certainly does fit this definition of play), and that “in nearly all the higher forms of play the elements of repetition and alternation (as in the refrain), are like the warp and woof of fabric” (10). This latter idea is seen in the repetitive elements, or motifs, of any work of great art, and in the repetitions of words and phrases Kundera identifies as “theme-words,” which is necessary for a work of fiction to succeed and which convey information to the reader regarding the importance of a certain image or idea, but which the writer plays with in the construction of his work of literature. Finally, Huizinga says of play what could easily be said of great art and literature, that it

creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game,” robs it of its character and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play . . . seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play tends to be beautiful. (10)

He also points out that the words used to describe play are the same words we use to describe the effects of beauty: “tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc.” and that play “is invested with the noblest qualitites we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony” (10). Any work of art or literature with tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, rhythm, and harmony could be identified as being a great work of art or literature. These may even be the very minimum requirements of great art or literature. If they are, and if they are elements of play, then, again, we cannot separate art or literature from play.

To sum up Huizinga’s definition of play and how he himself relates it to literature:

Let us enumerate once more the characteristics we deemed proper to play. It is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow.
Now it can hardly be denied that these qualities are also proper to poetic creation. The definition we have just given play might serve as a definition of poetry (132).

Or, indeed, of literature in general. “The rhythmical or symmetrical arrangement of language, the hitting of the mark by rhyme or assonance, the deliberate disguising of the sense, the artificial and artful construction of phrases – all might be so many utterances of the play spirit” (132). That is, “the creative function we call poetry is rooted in a function even more primordial than culture itself, namely play” (132).

“The writer’s aim, conscious or unconscious, is to create a tension that will “enchant” the reader and hold him spellbound” and “underlying all creative writing is some human or emotional situation potent enough to convey this tension to others” (132), and “such situations rise either from conflict or love, or both together” (133). Is this latter not an accurate summation of all of literature in all cultures from all times? If this is the case, the very subject of all literature is play, since “conflict and love imply rivalry or competition, and competition implies play” (133). Love and conflict, sex and violence, passion and tension – the very subject of literature is human play.

If we recall the connection both Nietzsche and Huizinga make between words and metaphors, we can understand Huizinga’s statement that “poetry continues to cultivate the figurative, i.e. image-bearing, qualities of language, with deliberate intent” (137). Literature is not only playing with words, but, through literature “what poetic language does with images is to play with them” (134). Literature plays with images through using language that makes reference to actual things (remembering an idea is a thing), actions, or qualities. Great literature has this play element – there is as much playing with words and sentence structures as with images, form, ideas, and, in fiction especially, plot (which involves some element of human play) and character. While humans are in a continual state of play in regards to language – certain sounds are playfully associated with ideas, actions, objects we perceive, as well as with each other – literature is the play of language made more stylized and, therefore, made into a more complex game. Any book or poem where the element of play is minimized – such as the formulae of romance novels, where all an author is really doing is plugging new names into already-created slots, with the first sex scene on a certain page number, etc., thus preventing true creativity, since a recipe is not the same thing as rules – which is to say, any work that cannot be seen as having evolved from that which has come before, can be considered outside the realm of great literature. This could be considered a good working definition of literature: literature is any text in which the writer of the text has maximized the elements of play in that particular text, which means he has set up rules for himself (and accepted other rules necessary for the text to be the particular form in question), and played with language and images and, for fiction, characters and plot, within those rules.

While this does allow us to make some sort of determination of what constitutes great literature without the worries created by complete subjectivity, this does not mean that any given reader has to like the particular rules an author has chosen to use. A writer invites his reader into the game he has played with the words and rules he has used, but a reader has to agree to the rules of the game the author has constructed. This brings us to the idea of an implied reader for any given work, since one could easily see agreement to the authors’ rules as the reader essentially having the same taste as the author (as well as other implied readers). Naturally, if you refuse to agree to the authors’ rules, you will dislike the work. Readers also bring their own rules to the game of reading. These rules are historically, socially, and personally determined (formed in part by the reader), and include their own definition(s) of literature. The role of the professor of literature, then, could be seen as one of helping students to learn to play by as many new rules as possible, expanding their definition(s) of literature and the ability to appreciate more forms of literature. Further, for the serious student of literature, literary theory could be seen as acquiring a new set of rules to take to the game of reading, such as the rules of reading historically, socially, postcolonially, and using formalism, New Criticism, postmodernism, evolutionary theory, etc. Or even through the understanding that authors play in order to create literature.

By understanding that (and what) the author is playing, we can look for places where such play is obvious, where the language is tweaked, where the author has set up rules, etc. There are authors for whom this is fairly obvious. It would be almost too easy to talk about the play element in the works of Cervantes, Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, or even, as I have done, Milan Kundera. If understanding literature as a form of play will help us better understand literature as a whole, it should work on unobvious as well as obvious texts – the less obvious, the better. Further, I want to discuss an English-language writer, so the play with the language itself would be obvious. This is why I have chosen to discuss one of the great works of the Naturalist movement in England: Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

Hardy is particularly fond of allusions – he is continually playing with references to and fragments from other works. In Jude, Hardy makes several allusions to Bible verses. He makes an allusion to Luke 23:49 – when Christ was crucified, “all his acquaintances . . . stood afar off, beholding these things” – when he says “The regular scholars, if the truth must be told, stood at the moment afar off, like certain historic disciples” (10). Hardy is telling us these scholars will, as Peter did with Jesus, deny Jude, as Jude is directly denied in a letter from one of the college Masters (95). Hardy is already playing with the reader, telling his reader as early as page 10 that Jude is going to be shunned by what he loves most just as Jesus was shunned by those who followed Him. Intertextuality is a form of play – and references to other well-known games help us better understand the new game.

When Hardy says “In the glow he [Jude] seemed to see Phillotson promenading at ease, like one of the forms in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace” (20), he creates a very powerful image of Phillotson. But what else does this allusion do? It tells us a great deal about Phillotson. It tells us Phillotson, like the three brothers who were thrown into the furnace, is accepting of his fate and, because of that, will be in a way rewarded. What would have hurt him (as the flames for anyone other than the three brothers) does not appear to hurt him because of his love. Naturally, we can see this looking back, but what this allusion does is give us a hint regarding Phillotson’s character. Here the play of intertextuality helped Hardy develop one of his characters in a particularly powerful way.

Another way Hardy plays with language in this novel is in his use of rhyme and rhythm. I was very much surprised to find Hardy playing with rhyme and rhythm in this novel, which seemed for the most part very prosaic. A change from a-rhythmic prose to rhythmic, rhyming patters breaks us out of our prose reading pattern and draws our attention to the new rhythmic pattern. For example, Hardy uses rhyme to emphasize things that are strongly noticed by Jude. Talking of the picturesque English countryside, he says it is “being as sudden a surprise to the unexpectant traveler’s eyes as the medicinal air is to his lungs” (158). There is an alliteration with “sudden” and “surprise” and a rhyme between “surprise” and “eyes,” and the line itself is very rhythmical. It catches us by surprise just as much as the scenery is supposed to take the traveler’s eyes by surprise. Next the scholars Jude wants to join are emphasized again by rhyme when Hardy says Jude saw their “black, brown, and flaxen crowns” over the sills (159). The lyricism here helps convey the romantic way Jude thinks of scholarship. Later, Hardy uses end-rhyme to emphasize a particular theme-statement: “. . . there used to arise among wheeled travelers, before railway days, endless questions of choice between the respective ways” (227). The quote is in a passage that is literally about travel in England, but the lyricism and end-rhyme put particular emphasis on this line. Why? Hardy appears to have done this to draw attention to this particular phrase because the novel is in great part a commentary on the “endless questions of choice between the respective ways” in which people can chose to believe the world exists, as an Idealist or a Materialist world, since at least the time of Plato and Aristotle.

Hardy also uses in one particular passage a form of lyricism without end-rhyme that, in the way he ends it, tells the reader exactly what is going to happen in the novel. To see this, one must see the passage in its entirety:

‘It is odd,’ she said, in a voice quite changed, ‘that I should care about that air; because – ’
‘Because what?’
‘I’m not that sort – quite.’
‘Not easily moved?’
‘I didn’t quite mean that.’
‘O, but you are one of that sort, for you are just like me at heart!’
‘But not at head.’
She played on, and suddenly turned round; and by an unpremeditated instinct each clasped the other’s hand again.
She uttered a forced little laugh as she relinquished his quickly. ‘How funny!’ she said. ‘I wonder what we both did that for?’
‘I suppose because we are both alike, as I said before.’
‘Not in our thoughts! Perhaps a little in our feelings.’
‘And they rule thoughts. . . . Isn’t it enough to make one blaspheme that the composer of that hymn is one of the most commonplace men I ever met!”
‘What – you know him?’
‘I went to see him.’
‘O you goose – to do just what I should have done! Why did you?’
‘Because we are not alike,’ he said dryly. (160)

This back-and-forth between Sue and Jude is very lyrical all the way to the end, when Jude finally ends it with his “dryly” said line. And look at the amount of information Hardy gives us in these playfully-rendered lines. First, we see Hardy understands their relationship to be one of play (as was stated above about all human relationships portrayed in literature) when he says Sue “played on” with the back-and-forth. Second, lyricism conveys information to a reader – it tells the reader there is a particular unity occuring in the lyrical lines. And the way Hardy ends it, with what Jude “said dryly,” and the fact that he said it dryly, conveys further information to the reader – Sue and Jude will be in agreement through most of the novel, but this lyrical existence together will come to an end. Thus, beyond the words, which tell us how their relationship will end, the way those words are written, the way Hardy had Sue and Jude speak to one another here, tells us a great deal about how the plot of the novel will unfold – it has fractal self-similarity to the plot of the novel, just on a different scale. By playing with rhythm, Hardy informs us about what to expect as the plot unfolds. It tells us that while Jude and Sue will be in sync through most of the novel, a day will come when they are no longer in sync; and when that happens, their relationship, as the lyricism between them in this passage, will end.

There are many other play elements in Hardy’s novel: He uses irony – which is a very conscious form of play – such when he says “After this exhilarating tradition. . .” (222) after a passage that expressed anything but exhilaration. He uses references to and direct quotes from several poets, particularly when he uses a section of another’s poem to describe something rather than describing it himself. And he uses authorial self-reference to his writing a story (such acknowledgment of writing a story within the story is a form of playing with the reader’s expectations) when Jude says, “‘I may do some good before I am dead – be a sort of success as a rightful example of what not to do; and so illustrate a moral story’” (256), which is perhaps one of Hardy’s intentions in writing this story. And he uses playful repetitions of words, phrases and ideas (he reiterates the idea that no one believes Sue and Jude are married because they get along so well, meaning married people are not supposed to get along, several times in the novel).

What constitutes the formal poetic element is the assonance which, by repeating the same word or a variation of it, links thesis to antithesis. The purely poetic element consists in allusions, the sudden bright idea, the pun or simply in the sound of the words themselves, where sense may be completely lost. Such a form of poetry can only be described in terms of play, though it obeys a nice system of prosodic rules (Huizinga, 122).

Hardy engages in each of these elements Huizinga identifies (though one could suppose that identifying the “sudden bright idea” in a work of art would necessarily be far more difficult to do than any of the rest) with the “purely poetic element.” Hardy plays with ideas in this story by having Sue represent Idealist philosophy, particularly in her views on love, and Jude represent a more evolutionary view of love, representing Materialism. Rather than writing a philosophical work condemning Idealism, Hardy has chosen to write a work of fiction where two characters represent these two ways of viewing the world and having them interact, creating a dialogue between Idealism and Materialism more complex than simple condemnation of Idealism and support of Materialism, no mattter how anti-Idealism we may find Hardy’s work to be in tone. He has chosen the most playful way of presenting these ideas and, in presenting these ideas, has played with the language and the structures of the novel in order to emphasize the themes of his novel. By continually playing with the presentation of his characters and by playing with the language in the novel, Hardy has shown himself to be a great literary writer.

Finding places where Hardy is obviously playing with the language, ideas, or elements of story-telling, such as allusions (which seem to be his favorite element to play with) can help us uncover elements of the story we may have otherwise overlooked. By asking “why does Hardy make this line rhyme, or read so lyrically, or have alliteration here, or make this particular allusion or have this particular quote?” we can uncover the themes, both intended and unintended, in this particular novel. The same is true of any other work of literature. Naturally, this method of literary analysis works best if the work is analyzed in the language it was originally written in, as is true of any form of literary analysis that has such a strong emphasis on the language itself, though there are still play elements that can survive translation, including themes, overall ways of presenting character and plot, and certain metaphors. Also, by understanding the play nature of literature, we can potentially develop more accurate ways of understanding how readers read, how writers write, and how literature, overall, means, as well as, perhaps, the very origins of language and literature itself.