Outlook moderate to fair

Strange Attractors
May 31, 1996

This is one of those books whose non-existence would require its invention. It latches on to the contemporary fixation with the subject of chaos following the exhaustive popularisation of its role in science over the past decade and uses it for an experiment in literary criticism.

"Band wagons roll" I hear you cry. However, this book is by no means the sort of trivial importation of the scientific that many social studies have perfected. The author focuses on a number of recurring stories that involve a significant bifurcation in human affairs at some stage: a choice that has incalculable consequences.

The author's favourite examples are Paradise Lost, Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, and many modern retellings of these stories. In tracking this unpredictable market of literary derivatives one is bounced around an arcade of creations that span a bewildering range of times, media and genres: from Star Trek episodes, Jurassic Park (the book and the film), Arcadia, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Perelandra, The Forbidden Planet, and many others.

The author's aim is to track the sensitive development of narratives containing critical choices, eating or ignoring the forbidden fruit, for instance, while expounding a view of the complexity of literary construction that reflects the multiplicity of possible interpretations that a given work presents at diverse times, to different readers, in varied contexts.

Hawkins's account of a variety of familiar books, films and works of drama is often illuminating and refreshingly clear of unnecessary complications. By concentrating on well-known works rather than drawing from a library of esoterica, the author has managed to produce a story that will be rewarding light reading for scientists as well as for literary professionals. Yet, for all the author's skill in painting a picture of chaos in the mind of the reader, the scientist might be left with a nagging doubt that it is not ultimately of any real use.

Chaos is not merely a way of looking at the world. Its development occurred because of a desire to describe particular complicated phenomena, like turbulent fluid flow or changing weather patterns, in a precise fashion. While one can apply theory to texts, just as one can apply mathematics to anything, there is no guarantee that it will amount to more than a notation.

Thus, although I believe the author's general thesis to be correct, can it really provide literary critics with the depth of insight that they seek? For the whole approach to chaos employed by mathematicians is something of a Faustian bargain. Detail is sacrificed on the altar of generality.

Chaotic systems are critically sensitive to perturbations; exact descriptions of their behaviour are therefore impossible to create or confirm, so one retreats, to ask if there are common properties of wide classes of phenomena, regardless of their detailed specification.

If so, then one can make predictions about their behaviour without needing to model them precisely and completely. We pay a price because if we can discover general properties of whole classes of chaotic phenomena irrespective of their detailed character, then that information must be rather weak. Apply the same approach to literary constructions and we end up with statements of such generality but low specificity that they are little more than the painful elaboration of the obvious.

Artistic criticism, whether it be of painting or writing, is not the exposition of a general theory in the way that scientific theory is. It possesses intrinsic unpredictability which derives from the uniqueness of the individual doing the commentating. There is no more reason to expect new literary insights from the application of chaos theory to literary texts than to expect the Meteorological Office will discover new structures in weather systems from a careful study of The Tempest.

Finally, one should alert chaotic critics to a dramatic irony. During the period that literary critics have taken on board the concept of disordered chaotic complexity, the professional chaologists have moved on. Recent studies of complex systems have focused upon examples of organised (rather than disorganised) complexity.

Here, I believe there is a closer point of contact with artistic creations. Musical or literary compositions are more fruitfully viewed as particular examples of organised complexity in the large than as stories about the sensitive dependence of human affairs.

Perhaps Hawkins can be encouraged to take up the new challenges offered by organised complexity and its delicate interface with chaos in an equally charming and entertaining fashion.

John D. Barrow is professor of astronomy, University of Sussex.

Strange Attractors: Literature, Culture and Chaos Theory

Author - Harriet Hawkins
ISBN - 0 13 355355 8
Publisher - Prentice Hall
Price - £11.95
Pages - 180

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