The stories we tell in our attempt to make sense of the world—our myths and religion, literature and philosophy, science and art—are the comforting vehicles we use to transmit ideas of order. But beneath the quest for order lies the uneasy dread of fundamental disorder. True chaos is hard to imagine and even harder to represent. In this book, Martin Meisel considers the long effort to conjure, depict, and rationalize extreme disorder, with all the passion, excitement, and compromises the act provokes.
Meisel builds a rough history from major social, psychological, and cosmological turning points in the imagining of chaos. He uses examples from literature, philosophy, painting, graphic art, science, linguistics, music, and film, particularly exploring the remarkable shift in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from conceiving of chaos as disruptive to celebrating its liberating and energizing potential. Discussions of Sophocles, Plato, Lucretius, Calderon, Milton, Haydn, Blake, Faraday, Chekhov, Faulkner, Wells, and Beckett, among others, are matched with incisive readings of art by Brueghel, Rubens, Goya, Turner, Dix, Dada, and the futurists. Meisel addresses the revolution in mapping energy and entropy and the manifold effect of thermodynamics. He then uses this chaotic frame to elaborate on purpose, mortality, meaning, and mind.
Lay readers may find the style of this ambitious multidisciplinary work overly academic, but those who patiently soldier through the dense prose are likely to find the journey worthwhile. Meisel, a theater professor at Columbia University, brilliantly integrates two distinct areas of study: recent scientific conclusions about the limits of human knowledge and whether there is an order to the universe, and how artists, poets, philosophers, and writers "have attempted to give shape to the imagination of chaos." An opening section on the history of science is particularly effective, explaining how even fields assumed to be firmly grounded in provable ideas, such as mathematics, are not; Meisel makes palpable the "sometimes poignant expressions of unease among scientists and mathematicians" about the "sustainability of the claims of science to objectivity and precision." He then takes readers on a fascinating survey of humanity's questioning of "whether we live in a universe of laws," in which he includes Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare's King Lear, and the artwork of Pablo Picasso. The text is enhanced by reproductions of works by Alberto Giacometti, J.M.W. Turner, and Francisco Goya, among others that offer different perspectives on whether the illumination provided by human knowledge will disclose the secrets of the universe or merely emphasize the surrounding darkness.