Hawkins, Harriet, Strange
Attractors: Literature, Culture and Chaos
Theory, New York: Prentice Hall, 1995. xiv, 180 p.
: ill. ; 22 cm. $21.50
Reviewed by Neil Forsyth <Neil.Forsyth@ANGL.unil.ch>
[Editor's note: A different and much briefer version of this review is
soon to appear in the first number of a new journal European Journal
of English Studies, which is soon to be published by Swets and Zeitlinger.
See the announcement on their Homepage <http://www.swets.nl/>.]
Chaos is come yet again
Books which try to bridge the gap between science and literature are rarely
successful: the gap is now too vast and the language has to be stretched
too thin to reach across. An exception was Norman Rabkin’s Shakespeare
and the Common Understanding, where the idea of complementarity, borrowed
from physics, turned out to be so thoroughly right for Shakespeare. The
term was briefly explained ("an electron must sometimes be considered as
a wave, and sometimes as a particle," in Oppenheimer’s formulation) and
then the science was dropped: modestly Rabkin laid claim to no development
of the theory itself, nor did he go all over the literary map to find analogies
for it. But that kind of tact is foreign to the chaos theorists, and Harriet
Hawkins has fallen for their hype.
There are several bright moments, as one expects from the author of that
incisive survey of the "crisis" in Shakespeare criticism, The Devil’s
Party, or the lively Classics and Trash. She has read a lot
about chaos theory and is able to show how one of its principal sources
of appeal is that, though based in mathematics, it has ramifications in
many different "real world" situations, from weather description to geology
to insect life and especially to computer science. She wittily quotes one
of her chaos theorists on the Talmud, according to which God said at the
creation: "Let’s hope it works"—which leaves history "branded with the
mark of radical uncertainty." On Jurassic Park she has some good
things to say, especially on the superiority of the novel to the film (yet
to defend the film at one point she rather pointlessly quotes the Daily
Mail critic, to the effect that even a child can understand chaos theory
now). She is certainly right that one measure of the greatness of The
Tempest or Paradise Lost is how many subsequent works of art
spin off from the parent body—though quite why this is relevant to chaos
theory is not clear to me. And she is also right to erase any cultural
snobbery attached to either by giving them equal time alongside their modern
derivatives. A fatuous former colleague of mine once said rather sorrowfully
that Milton has lost his impact on our world: no-one cites or rewrites
him anymore. This book shows him wrong, and in some interesting ways: I
had not known, for example, that the jungle settings for King Kong
were imitated from Gustav Doré’s illustrations to Paradise Lost.
There are other good Milton moments. Hawkins shows how much Milton’s notion
of Providence differs from the casual notion held by any one of his seventeenth
century readers, and I could not agree more with the way she points to
the need so many readers have (C.S. Lewis is the particular example) to
resist or rewrite the poem in order to bring Satan (and Chaos) back under
control. And she does well to cite as an apposite instance of chaos theory
at work in Milton’s postlapsarian world the lines in which God’s providence
is said to work "by small/ Accomplishing great things, by things deem’d
weak/ Subverting worldly strong."
Yet the book promises far more than it achieves. What emerges here as the
basic concept of chaos theory is the straightforward idea that beyond a
certain point, nothing is predictable, but that computers can now illustrate
this with nice pictures. The key words of chaos theory are "non-linear,"
"complexity," "deterministic" and "unpredictability" —though the obvious
contradiction between the last two terms is never explained, or even noticed.
And the main concepts have names like "fractal" and "strange attraction,"
the term which gives the whole book its title.
The best known example of chaos theory is "the butterfly effect": briefly
this means that, if one wants to bother with this particular chain of causation
among all the myriads one might attend to, then a butterfly flapping its
wings in Brazil will soon lead to a tornado in Texas. Edward Lorenz delivered
his "groundbreaking" paper about this alliterative phenomenon as early
as 1972. Subsequent theorists have identified laws which govern chaos so
understood (which surely ought to mean that chaos proper should be located
somewhere else) and these laws, mathematically expressed, have been what
"chaos science" has been exploring over the past twenty years or so.
The confusion of chaos and "chaos" would be the first thing we’d want to
avoid if we are going to stride in and use the theory for analysis of art,
but Ms Hawkins’ enthusiasm doesn’t brook such caution. She admits, for
example, that chaos is not the same as turbulence, technically speaking,
but in this book—a warning we get right in the preface—they are used interchangeably.
Red lights should flash even brighter when we learn that her principle
authority, one Katherine Hales, the author of a 1991 book called Chaos
and Order: complex dynamics in literature and science, also uses the
word chaos in its broad as well as scientific sense. Indeed that is the
point, it seems: the word will become "‘a cross-roads, a juncture’ or even
a matrix" (precision with metaphors is not a strong-point) where "various
cultural associations interact and converge." In spite of these confusions,
Hawkins cheerfully insists that the ubiquity of "chaos" ideas in past and
present works of art is not due to their evident banality, however sonorously
expressed ("certain forces metaphorically embodied in certain figures in
literature generate instability"—the example that proves this point is
Cleopatra) but rather that "there could be some underlying unity
in the dynamical processes that non-linear’ literature and science alike
enable us to recognize or, metaphorically, to comprehend, albeit never
finally to predict or control." No doubt there could.
Never very clear to begin with, chaos turns out to cover a bewildering
variety of ideas: it means what happens in Jurassic Park, in which
there actually is a chaos scientist, to underline the point; it means Milton’s
Satan, and also the world Adam and Eve enter on leaving Paradise (interesting
news to Miltonists this will be); it means Blake’s "fearful symmetry" (very
odd that, and poorly explained, although Hawkins follows the lead of two
chaos mathematicians who had probably been reading Northrop Frye, and who
use the famous phrase in their own title, Fearful Symmetry: Is God A
Geometer?); it means, generally, the non-linear dynamics inherent in
many pre-modern classics, Caliban (versus Prospero) and Cleopatra (v. Octavian)
being the particular exhibits; it means the existentialists’ absurd. And
at one point, the argument extends to "general scientific theory" in order
to mention entropy and the second law of thermodynamics—an older science
not made at all relevant.
Hawkins may even be a little ashamed of all this channel-zapping; after
all it was probably that wretched "research quality assessment" that now
afflicts all British universities, even Oxford, that drove her to do this.
There are signs of haste. For example, the little set of introductory quotes
which merits a resounding title of its own "Chaos in classical myth and
modern science," does not get a mention in the table of contents, although
I suppose to have chaos infect the book might be what Garfield would call
"a nice touch." In fact Hawkins gives the game away, both wittingly and
unwittingly, when she analyzes a sci-fi fantasy, Strange Attractors,
not nearly so interesting as Jurassic Park, that is also based on
chaos theory. In this triangular story, the boring woman figure says to
her erring man that the exciting woman he wants is "a strange attractor,
pulling the timeline towards chaos." But says our hero, no that’s not it,
"I just need to talk to her, to explain, to see her one more time. It wouldn’t
be enough of a change to bring on chaos. I know I’m right about that."
Even within this pallid tale the distinction can be made. Chaos is not
just talking to an interesting woman. And Hawkins then comments that, even
though the tale is based on chaos theory, the hero could equally have been
based on Shakespeare’s portrayal of Mark Antony. If so, then why are we
bothering with chaos theory and strange attractors?
The book aims at a large and popular audience, but I doubt if most of its
readers will need to be told that Vladimir Nabokov is more complex than
Harold Robbins, though it is interesting to learn that the Sunday Times
once paid someone to write about this discovery. You will also hear about
"a new burst of insider-trading" between artists and scientists, but your
curiosity about these new crimes ("insider-trading" is a crime) will be
thwarted: the author simply means that "the two cultures" communicate—and
apparently reduce each other to banalities in order to do so. If this is
what chaos theory is about, let’s go back one square and start again: catastrophe
theory was a lot more interesting. And besides, in a book about chaos,
one’s confidence is not fortified on finding the work that spawned the
term mis-spelled as Hesiod’s Theogeny.
The method followed in the book is to move in and out between popular theorizer
and "complex" work of literature, insisting on parallels rather than differences:
"likewise" or "similarly" are some of the books most common transitional
terms, sometimes comically inappropriate. Shakespeare and Milton, we are
told, "repeatedly suggest" (where?) that there is more outside their texts
than any text can conceivably contain or fully communicate. "Likewise,
the chemist Peter Coveney concludes that ‘as physicists have already found
through quantum mechanics, the full structure of the world is richer than
our language can express and our brains comprehend’." Yes indeed. There’s
a river in Macedon, and there is also a river moreover at Monmouth. . .
and there is salmons in both. Fluellen’s wonderfully fatuous effort to
compare Alexander and Welsh Henry is more than apposite—and Hawkins does
not realize how much damage it does her case, though she has the sense
to cite it against herself. Sometimes she even seems to put Monmouth in
Macedon, as when in a discussion of various Shakespearean tempests, she
announces "there could not be more dramatic illustrations of Edward Lorenz’
recognition of order masquerading as randomness in actual tempests,
than the tempests within The Tempest." But how could tempests in
a play, however remarkable, illustrate anything about real storms?
Yet The Tempest is one of the chief texts used as illustration of
what chaos theory might show us about literature. Here’s how it is introduced.
First a quote from a chaos scientist: "The same general structure is visible
in the magnificent sweep of the Gulf of Mexico, the Pandower Coves near
Land’s End, the gap between two rocks on the foreshore at Acapulco, and
even the individual indentations of a single rock." Then Hawkins takes
up the story and continues without a break: "Much the same thing could
be said about The Tempest and successive works based on it, which
range from The Enchanted Island by Dryden and Davenant to a Star
Trek episode." You will perhaps be more struck by the differences between
those interesting bits of geography and the heritage of the Tempest,
but beware. That would be murdering to dissect, the Wordsworthian crime
already denounced in Hawkins’ introduction. Chaos theory, by contrast,
can help us think about all these various works together. The Tempest
progeny also includes: Return to the Forbidden Planet, The Magus
("comes closest to combining the fear, feeling, literary and extra-literary
impact of the original"—she really says that), Derek Jarman’s delicious
"Stormy Weather" version, Prospero’s Books, Marina Warner’s Indigo—et
This flighty method is entertaining, but leads to some misreading. Hawkins
tries in the first of the three main chapters to discover the idea of divergence
(rapidly from small beginnings) in Paradise Lost. The butterfly
effect and what she calls "the apple effect," which she thus tries to equate,
are unlike in exactly this: the butterfly needs to be trivial for the image
to have any impact, but in Milton it is the Satanic view of the Fall which
trivializes it. It is Satan who boasts to the inhabitants of Hell that
he has succeeded in his quest, "the more to increase your wonder, with
an apple." Hawkins does quote some of Milton’s lines which show the true
magnitude of the event, but does not see their meaning: "Earth felt the
wound. . . " and again when Adam repeats the act: "Earth trembled from
her entrails.:." Chaos theory may well insist that "a chain of events can
have a point of crisis that could magnify small changes" and indeed argue
that "such points were everywhere. They were pervasive." But they are precisely
not everywhere in Paradise Lost. The moral choice, however disguised
by Satan’s rhetoric, is just that and happens only once—well twice, once
for Eve, once for Adam. Small change?
It is symptomatic that Hawkins can’t write about Paradise Lost without
Pope getting in the way, not only the glorious passage at the end of the
Dunciad about "Thy dread empire Chaos, is restored; light dies before
thy uncreating word" (she makes nothing of it), but more treacherously
those opening lines of the Rape of Lock: "What dire offence from
amorous causes spring/What mighty contests rise from trivial things." In
Pope the couplet is funny for many reasons: it sends up Milton, the polite
society round Belinda, and Pope’s own world and its values, and of course
the poem it occurs in (it is "self-similar," chaos theory’s odd term for
mise en abyme): but it is mock-epic, with all that implies, not
the serious epic world Hawkins is analyzing. And then the couplet is even
misquoted, or let’s say "adapted," on p.40 as "what dire events from trivial
Let’s be clear then. My objection to this often stimulating book is not
the extended comparison of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park with
Paradise Lost. Nor is it that the comparison doesn’t work: the parallels
are few and insignificant, beyond the mythic paradigm common to so many
narratives of the movement from a contained and happy garden (the meaning
of the Persian word that comes into Greek as paradeisos) to a larger
and more complex world. No, it is rather that the idea of chaos that informs
the book is trivial. Desdemona’s handkerchief makes perhaps a more apt
parallel than the "apple effect" in that Shakespeare’s play, as Hawkins
shows, turns on the discrepancy between the apparent triviality of the
handkerchief and the enormity of what Iago works with it. But that doesn’t
mean the triviality of the handkerchief is akin to the necessary triviality
of the butterfly wings. "Chaos is come again," terrifying in Othello’s
mouth, is mere banality here. In the play, the effect would be very different
if it were a scientific law of nature, not Iago’s evil cunning, that caused
the murders and suicides.
These handkerchief or apple effects are not at all the gradual burgeoning
effect within time of the butterfly effect that the folk rhyme shows—"For
want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost
. . ."—aptly quoted by the chaos theorists. A better literary analogy would
be with Lucretius’ ancient atomism. "Chaos" theory is about what Lucretius
meant when he defined the energizing principle that differentiated his
Epicurean universe from stasis as the "exiguum clinamen principiorum,"
that minute swerve from the parallel paths of the first atoms that brings
the world of stuff into being. A fine modern version of this Lucretian
principle is to be found in Ivor Winters’ remarkable poem "Before Disaster"
in which the first stanza reads:
Evening traffic homeward burns
Swift and even on the turns,
Drifting weight in triple rows,
Fixed relation and repose.
This one edges out and by,
Inch by inch with steady eye.
But should error be increased,
Mass and movement are released;
Matter loosens, flooding blind,
Levels drivers to its kind.
In those few lines are the older idea of chaos, even the mythic one if
you like, and its equation with the behaviour of matter itself, which is
something like what the scientific chaos theorists are getting at.
Instead chaos in this book is domesticated and enthusiastically normalized.
And at one point near the end Hawkins gives the whole game away by admitting
that chaos theory itself may not be science at all but current ideology
dressed up, "metaphors no more correspondent to the true state of sublunary
nature than the science fictions based on them." But if so, she goes on,
"what richly resonant and exciting tropes and metaphors they are!" Well,
perhaps. Yet this passage is as close as we ever get to interrogating the
popularizers’ language itself, to asking whether translating mathematical
theorems into everyday English does not inevitably draw in all the fashionable
cultural reflexes, whether or not relevant to the science itself. Analysizing
the translation, not the original, often leads to this kind of misconception.
I suspect that many of us, and in this respect Harriet Hawkins is probably
in very good company, hanker after a way to bring over some of the excitement
of science (as well as the grants) to the world of our professional pursuits.
We so much want something to be at stake ("resonant and exciting"), as
it is when that faded part of our domain, the art of rhetoric, can decide
a matter of life and death in a law-court. But we should take heed. There
really is a big gap between science and art, nature and culture, and it
is there because science is founded on it, however unfashionable that view
may be. In 1919, the Archbishop of Canterbury started worrying about the
effects of the newly publicized relativity theory on theology: but Einstein
personally reassured him that relativity had no implications for religion.
It’s a lesson most of us, Einstein perhaps included, never learned.
University of Lausanne
Author: Hawkins, Harriett.
Title: Strange attractors
: literature, culture, and
chaos theory / Harriett Hawkins.
Published: New York : Prentice Hall/Harvester
Description: xiv, 180 p. : ill. ; 22 cm.
LC Call No.: PN771 .H348 1995
Dewey No.: 820.9/355 20
Notes: Includes bibliographical
references (p. 173-174)
Subjects: Literature, Modern -- 20th century -- History and
Chaotic behavior in systems in literature.
Literature and science.
Control No.: 94035486
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April 21, 1997