Chaos Imagined

Literature, Art, Science

Martin Meisel

Columbia University Press

Chaos Imagined

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Pub Date: January 2016

ISBN: 9780231166324

608 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $45.00£38.00

Pub Date: January 2016

ISBN: 9780231540469

608 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $44.99£38.00

Chaos Imagined

Literature, Art, Science

Martin Meisel

Columbia University Press

The stories we tell in our attempt to make sense of the world—our myths and religion, literature and philosophy, science and art—are the comforting vehicles we use to transmit ideas of order. But beneath the quest for order lies the uneasy dread of fundamental disorder. True chaos is hard to imagine and even harder to represent. In this book, Martin Meisel considers the long effort to conjure, depict, and rationalize extreme disorder, with all the passion, excitement, and compromises the act provokes.

Meisel builds a rough history from major social, psychological, and cosmological turning points in the imagining of chaos. He uses examples from literature, philosophy, painting, graphic art, science, linguistics, music, and film, particularly exploring the remarkable shift in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from conceiving of chaos as disruptive to celebrating its liberating and energizing potential. Discussions of Sophocles, Plato, Lucretius, Calderon, Milton, Haydn, Blake, Faraday, Chekhov, Faulkner, Wells, and Beckett, among others, are matched with incisive readings of art by Brueghel, Rubens, Goya, Turner, Dix, Dada, and the futurists. Meisel addresses the revolution in mapping energy and entropy and the manifold effect of thermodynamics. He then uses this chaotic frame to elaborate on purpose, mortality, meaning, and mind.

Meisel has a unique perspective, remarkable command of examples, and astute use of etymologies. His discussions of Sophocles, Calderon, Chekhov, Beckett, and Stoppard are matched by equally detailed and thoughtful considerations of graphics by Otto Dix, the landscapes of Turner, War and Peace, Zola's Rougon-Macquart series, and Haydn's Creation.

Ross Hamilton, Barnard College

Meisel's magnum opus is a heroic act of defiance against its own subject matter: an enlightening, judicious, cohesive history of three millennia of thought about the terrors and attractions of chaos. The book moves with steady confidence through literature, science, art, and philosophy, illuminating many varieties of darkness and finding convincing and original connections across centuries and continents. With authority and energy, Meisel creates a whole new field of study.

Edward Mendelson, Columbia University

This extraordinary, encyclopedic exploration of how artists, poets, philosophers, and scientists have imagined and represented chaos explores not chaos in the abstract but those crucial transitions to (and from) chaos that are so intricately represented in the most complex artworks. The unpredictable is then made not predictable but endlessly fascinating. Martin Meisel's is a bravura performance, one of those rare critical studies not for one but for all seasons.

Marjorie Perloff, Stanford University

This exhilarating masterpiece can only have emerged from a mind steeped in physics as an undergraduate and theater as a graduate student, followed by the broadest explorations in a lifetime of scholarship. The world may have emerged from the quantum 'chaos' of the Big Bang, but Meisel has ordered everything since beautifully.

David Helfand, author of A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age

[An] ambitious multidisciplinary work.

Publishers Weekly
List of Illustrations
Ω. Uncertainty and Complexity: An Untethered Epilogue
After Entropy
Incompleteness and Incongruity
The Message of the Quantum
Lost Horizons
Chaos Everywhere
Looking Askance
Chaosmos
1. Shaping Chaos
2. Nothing and Something
Something out of Nothing?
Nothing in Something
"The Nurse of Becoming"
Saying Nothing
Nothing as Nothing
The Middle of Nowhere
Positive Negation
3. Number: The One and the Many
Division and Multiplication
Sophocles' Thought Experiment
Imagining the Worst
Taking the Measure
One World or Many?
"Number-Worlds"
A Glance Into the Abyss
Truth and Poetry
Sightlines
Everything by One and One
4. Carnival
Monstrous Confusion
Going to the Fair
Dreamworks
Lords of Misrule
Parody Refram'd
The Wild God
5. War
Representation
Conscripting War
Emblematics
Condition
Soldiers and Peasants: Callot
Goya's Nightmare
Dix and the Chaos Within
Consummation
Managing the Chaos
The Fog of Battle
Armageddon and Apocalypse
6. Energy
Matter in Motion (Inertia, Friction, Noise)
Statics and Dynamics
The Homeostatic Universe
Friction and Noise
Nebular Hypotheses
Energy Unbound
Wirrwarr
Petrific Chaos
Energy's Epic
Energy's Image
Postlude: Energy's Acolytes
7. Entropy
Time and Tide
Conservation and Convertibility
Double-Entry Physics
The Death of the Universe
Ancestral Voices
A Question of Time
A Sense of Direction
Second Thoughts
Tristes Entropics
Nature Decay'd
Chekhov's Fiddle
Entartung
Zola's Fevers
Vox clamantis
Anarchy and Endgame
Resistance and Complementarity
Beckett and the Shape of Chaos
Sights and Sounds
8. Coda, or Da capo al fine
Notes
Bibliography
Index

Read the chapter, "Uncertainty and Complexity: An Untethered Epilogue":

About the Author

Martin Meisel is Brander Matthews Professor of Dramatic Literature Emeritus at Columbia University. He is the author of Shaw and the Nineteenth-Century Theater and Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts of the Nineteenth Century.