Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Order and chaos

"It is as if we all carry in our makeup the effects of accidents that have befallen our ancestors, as if we are in many ways programmed before we are born, our lives half outlined for us," writes V. S. Naipaul.

Sometimes it is disconcerting to think how accidental is our fate. I could easily list a hundred moments when if I had turned left rather than right my subsequent life would have been very different. Not to mention that incredible roll of the dice with which my life began, the race of the sperms to the egg, one wiggler of which won of a very, very crowded field. And if my life is so beholden to happenstance, then multiply that contingency by a long assembly of ancestors who turned to the left rather than the right, and…

It hardly bears thinking about.

But as Naipaul suggests, we are half programmed too, as I am constantly reminded as Tom -- with his new genealogical interests -- uncovers more and more of our family's past. There is an early photograph of his great-grandfather as a boy, for example, that could be Tom himself at the same age, a likeness that passed across four generations smuggled in the DNA of the male line.

Law and chance, constancy and variation, pattern and chaos. In this at least -- as the philosophers of the Middle Ages believed -- our lives are microcosms of the greater universe, which spills into a future that is only half-programmed by the past -- bound by law, shuffled by chance.