When at last I had disabused my mind of the enormous imposture of a design, an object, and an end, a purpose, or a system, I began to see dimly how much more grandeur, beauty, and hope there is in a divine chaos -not chaos in the sense of disorder or confusion but simply the absence of order- than there is in a universe made by a pattern, this draught-board universe my mind had laid out: this machine made world and and piece of mechanism; what a petty despicable microcosmos I had substituted for the reality.” Richard Jeffries, The Absence of Design in Nature, 1887.(1)
Chaos evokes the dark abyss of infinite space, the primal matrix of creation and destruction from which ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Taoists, Native Americans, and many other human communities have variously imagined the emergence of deities, stars, elements, other-than-human ancestors, and ultimately humankind.
You’ll no doubt be familiar with feminist accounts of how mother goddesses that once gave form and order to life were demoted during the Bronze age as ‘numinosity was transferred to a father god’. The Iron Age Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish (‘from on high’) is said to have been the first story in which a mother goddess who generated creation as part of herself was replaced by a god who ‘made’ the world as something separate from himself. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford regard Marduk’s violent overthrow of Tiamat, in which a Goddess who once sacrificed her son/lover became the sacrificial victim, as the mythological root of patriarchal religion and as a template for subsequent dragon slaying hero myths. They argue that it marked the overthrow of ‘a goddess culture’ emphasising ‘relationship between every aspect of creation’ by a ‘new culture’ that venerated male deities and rewarded mastery, control, objectification, and violation.(2)
Some three millenia later the feminist philosopher and theologian Grace Jantzen identified a masculinist Western imaginary (a formative constellation of constructs, images, meanings, and values) obsessed with death, and suggested privileging its repressed other, natality, as a transformative possibility. Far from emerging ex-nihilo, or being ‘thrown into existence’, she reminded us that we are born from a mother’s womb ‘into a welcoming and nurturing web of relationships’. She argued that a culture of natality would validate empathy and respect, and foster a sense of kinship with other-than-human beings. ‘We have all begun as part of somebody else; we have all been utterly dependent […] and we are still deeply dependent on the web of relationships with other natals and on the earth that supports us’.(3) On re-reading this I found myself wondering whether memories of perinatal experience as described by Stanislas Grof -which have often proved uncannily faithful to the mother’s lived experience of birth- might somehow have informed cultural images of chaos?(4)
Wendy Hollway writes “Underneath the image of nature in modern science as passive and entirely knowable is a suppressed signifier of nature as ultimate force, capable of wreaking havoc over mind and culture. It contains intimations of something which always resists being fully known (like woman) and fully controlled (like woman) -else why the emphasis on pursuit and control.”(5)
I have Bernadette Brady to thank for sparking this train of thought. She begins Cosmos, Chaosmos, and Astrology (6) by referring to Hesiod’s telling of an ancient Greek creation myth in which a dramatic binary distinction between ‘gloomy chaos’ and the glorious heavens supplanted archaic imagery of a creative and generative primordial chaos. In Hesiod’s Greece chaos and cosmos were conceived as opposite poles or states within a single continuum. Cosmos brought knowable and reliable order out of chaos and was thus associated with reason, and valorised.
Not surprisingly, then, chaos, in one guise or another, has often been suggested as a remedy for modern worlds in the grip of alienating Cartesian logic.
In James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, for example, “While HCE (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker/Here Comes Everyman) is the patriarchal hero on the ‘ghostwhite horse’ (FW 214.15) who, like Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu in Hindu and Buddhist eschatology, concludes unilinear history and the world, in Joyce’s writing of a ‘whorled without aimed’ (FW 272.4-5) he is toppled in the play of chance.”(6)
The Victorian writer and naturalist Richard Jeffries has been celebrated as a forerunner of Chaos ecology. Fascinatingly, his ‘The Absence of Design in Nature’ (epigraph above) was published in the year before the Flammirion Engraving (also above) depicting a medieval missionary poking his head through a membrane dividing the sublunary world from a mechanical looking celestial sphere. Perhaps this figure, thought to be the work of a Victorian era artist, expresses a gendered desire to escape incarnation and the memory of ever having been born? I take Jeffries’ ‘absence of order’ to refer to the absence of an authoritarian overarching order -the kind of blueprint that might be produced by just such a seeker of transcendent cosmic knowledge- rather than an absence of regularity of any kind.
Scientists of complexity define chaos in terms of its negating function as ‘disorder, irregularity, and unpredictablity’ but also relate it to complex systems that manifest positive emergent properties. Flocks, swarms, herds, crowds, and cities, are often cited as examples of such systems. At worst, and this may be a caricature, the science of chaos seeks to ‘explain’ the complexity of life in reductive terms, using simple deterministic laws. Cognitive scientists, for example, describe consciousness as an emergent property of the complex system of brain neurochemistry and brain-environment interactions. Although mathematical conceptions of chaos (and images generated from them) may have a certain glacial beauty, my difficulty with them is that they effectively erase the subjectivity, interiority, and agency of the myriad persons, human and more-than-human, who co-create the worlds they describe, and reduce questions about relationship to population level formulae.
Bernadette Brady draws attention to the work of the 8th/9th Century Persian Jewish astrologer Masha’allah ibn Athari who talked about aspects (the angular relationship) between planets in terms of relationship. Under certain conditions Mars may want to ‘talk’ or ‘work’ with the Sun, but the sun is not open to an exchange (pp61-62). I’m with her all the way when she compares what I would call his animistic perspective favourably with Kepler’s ‘pursuit of a mechanical sky’, and when she expresses reservations about some twentieth century reductionist approaches that leave no room for sumpatheia.
This Stoic term (or its Pythagorean equivalent harmonia) expressed a sense that, as Diogenes Laertius put it in the 3rd century B.C.E., all things are ‘rendered continuous by their mutual interchange’.(p7). Crucially, for the Stoics, the cosmos was a perfect living body whose parts depended on the internal tension, or tonos, of the whole, created and sustained by the divine breath pneuma, or world soul. Sumpatheia also referred to shared feelings. Our English word “compassion” comes from the Latin compassio, which, it seems, was coined as a loan-translation (also known as a “calque”) of this Greek philosophical term. (see here). The assumption of interdependence and relationship (of many kinds) encoded in such terms is now more vital than ever, of course.
The key question here seems to be whether we regard chaos, cosmos, and chaosmos, as descriptions of a living world. Collectively we are now confronted with a paradoxical scenario in which those who see the Earth as a resource that can be ransacked without consequence -the forces of mastery and control- are set to intensify an already alarming trajectory towards anthropogenic chaos -in the negative sense of the term. It may be too late to hope for some humility in the face of Nature (!?), but its never too late to remember that we humans are (also) an incredibly creative, resilient, and compassionate species. Harmonia!
B.T. 6th December 2016.
Part 2 looks at Cosmos, and cosmography.
(1) Richard Jeffries, 1887. The Absence of Design in Nature, cited in Heidi M. Scott, Chaos and Cosmos; Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British 19th Century.
(2) Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of an Image, Viking, 1991.
(3) Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine, Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion, Manchester University Press, 1998.
(4) Stanislas Grof, 1985. Beyond the Brain; Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy, State University of New York.
(5) Wendy Hollway, 1989 Subjectivity and Method in Psychology, Sage, cited by Stephen Frosh, 1994. Sexual Difference; Masculinity and Psychoanalysis, Routledge pp102-5.
(6) Bernadette Brady, Cosmos, Chaosmos, and Astrology, Rethinking the Nature of Astrology, Sophia Centre, 2014.
(7) Simon Crook, 2015. A Petroglyphic Monad: The Constellation of Megalithic Art, Finnegan’s Wake, and Benjamin’s Arcades Project, The Grammar of Matter accessed 28th November 2016.