Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The romance of chaos

Many disparate and diversely colored threads I'd like to braid together here if I can. (Are your days sometimes dominated by specific metaphors? I am all tied up today in 101 Things to Do with Thread and its Fat Cousin, Yarn: braid, sew, weave, darn, knit, spin, embroider, unravel, unspool and so on and on to the fraying end.)
       I often listen to the podcast of Krista Tippett's public radio interview show, which was until recently called Speaking of Faith but now goes by the rather grand name of Being. A few months ago, Tippett spoke with the surgeon and writer Sherwin Nuland about "the biology of the spirit," and I nodded happily along with his description of spirit as an evolutionary rather than a divine endowment, as a biologically determined pleasure (in order and symmetry) that we have actively cultivated-- or cultured! New metaphor! My later segue to discussions of bacteria will now be entirely organic. I need only to let it ferment for a paragraph or two. Ha.
       Nuland once suffered from a debilitating depression, and his description of the discovery that his Orthodox Jewish "faith" consisted of little more than neurotic compulsions and obsessive thoughts which he used superstitiously as talismans against inchoate threats of hellfire and damnation-- this all struck a chord with me. (Nuland is extremely careful to note that this discovery was merely personal, and that faith may spring from sources other than neurosis; it may be true at least in the sense of being sincere, though his atheism does not allow it a corresponding substance. He believes, it seems, in the reality and even in the potential value of unanswered prayer.)
       I wanted to keep nodding along with Nuland-- he has a lovely, gravelly voice and a charming streak of irreverence toward his own most cherished insights-- but I stopped when he started talking about our perennial attraction to disorder as if it were an entirely bad thing. Unsalutary, to borrow his word. He wondered aloud why so many cultures have over time moved toward monotheism, tossing out lesser gods like worn out toys and gathering the scraps of their spiritual allegiance into one great mass. (So to speak. But I'm thinking less of Latin liturgy and more of the old impulse to make string balls).
       "Why is monotheism better?" Nuland asked, and then answered his own question: it's better because it represents a progression toward greater order. Nuland does not believe in God (or gods), but he believes in the human capacity to make meaning from apparent chaos. And from his conversation with Tippett, he appears to believe that a more orderly world is self-evidently more meaningful. To his mind, our dalliances with disorder are expressions of thanatos, a deathward vertigo that must be resisted.
       For a truly eloquent response to my no-doubt-simplified account of Nuland's love of light and clarity, one might turn to Byron, Nietzsche, Isaiah Berlin, or Lewis Hyde: all the Romantics and their multifarious offspring. Whether the discussion concerns Apollo and Dionysus, foxes and hedgehogs, or Hermes and Coyote, the central lesson is clear: disorder is vital. Life surges at the frayed edge where order unravels. Yes, we may at moments desire our own destruction, our ultimate dissolution and release from the effort of making meaning. But we may in other moods be erotically drawn to the edge, whatever its dangers. We may court chaos when we feel bold and bushy-tailed, or when the meanings we've made have become waxy and stiff. Yes, we often lose more than we willingly offer in sacrifice to change, but our health ironically depends on our appetite for risk.
       I will get back to bacteria, I promise.