Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The one and the many

Near the end of Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps, the protagonist -- Meg Sargent, a stand-in for Mary -- and her therapist steer away from talking at length about her childhood, "for it suggested...that the universe is mechanical, utterly predictable, frozen, and this in its own way is quite as terrible as the notion that the universe is chaotic."

And there you have it, really, the balancing act each of us must maintain if we are to stay sane -- call it, if I may use a physical metaphor, the liquid state, somewhere between the immobility of the solid (frozen) state and the stochastic chaos of the gaseous state. Recall the line of the physicist James Clerk Maxwell I quoted here recently: "It is a universal condition of the enjoyable that the mind must believe in the existence of a law, and yet have a mystery to move about in."

If the human mind is most comfortable with a balance of order and chaos -- law and freedom, stability and adventure -- it is undoubtedly because the universe itself is poised somewhere between the utterly predictable and the utterly unpredictable. Our brains evolved to cope with the world as it is; it can be no surprise that we are frightened of extremes of rigidity and randomness.

In politics, our preferred system lies between the poles of totalitarianism and anarchism. In religion, we gravitate to something between infallible dogma and "anything goes." Literature? Which of the following strings of letters do you find most interesting?
1) Aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa.

2) One fish two fish red fish blue fish. Black fish blue fish old fish new fish.

3) How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon the bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears.

4) Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

5) Vfg w eklpsi muc dvpk dbjhq a v sm i yu ncq bfox w wgbm ifiai lvdymssa lsa s s aiuro y astwaeqyw rtwvme gv k ljr jxbkdq.
No. 1 is pure repetition, presumably boring. No. 5 is chaos; I programmed my computer to generate random letters and spaces. Young children may prefer No. 2, a passage from Dr. Seuss with lots of rhythm and simple pattern. A few adults profess to enjoy No. 4, from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, full of complex, deeply buried patterns. My guess is that most of you picked No. 3, a snippet of Shakespeare.

And so we make our way, with the instrument nature has given us sitting at the top of our spine, terrified of determinism, frightened by chance. We want desperately to believe we are free, but seek out islands of repose. We are mirrors of the universe that spawned us.