Ulysses, Chaos, and Complexity

Thomas Jackson Rice
University of South Carolina
Pause. J.J. O'Molloy took out his cigarettecase.

False lull. Something quite ordinary.

Messenger took out his matchbox thoughtfully and lit his cigar. I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time that it was that small act, trivial in itself, that striking of that match, that determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives. (U7:760-765)

This famous passage from the "Aeolus" episode of Ulysses, with its peculiar shifts in time and tone, has provoked its share of commentary, chiefly searches for the source of Joyce's apparent parody of the anachronic conventions of Victorian fiction (in this case a prolepsis, a "flash-forward"). This "Messenger" interpolation, however, has both local and global significance for Ulysses, neither of which has received much attention. For example, the fully responsive first-time reader, that ideal creation, would immediately naturalize the narrative's shifts by seeing them as yet another move into Stephen's stream of consciousness. Likewise Stephen, within the passage itself, is defending himself against the seductions of rhetoric, first by preparing to hear "Something quite ordinary" in O'Molloy's rendering of Bushe's "polished periods" (U7:747), and then by supplying this "something ordinary": a portentous narrative cliché, its banality reinforced by its awkward style. (The second sentence features six thats.)

The re-reader of this brief sequence, however, one who has gained the prospective and retrospective vision that the passage itself illustrates, might notice an emergent pattern in the novel: various "messengers" accost Stephen/Telemachus this morning: the milkwoman/Athena of the first episode (a "messenger from the secret morning" [U1:406]), or the sententious Mr. Garrett Deasy, or the Frauenzimmer and cocklepickers of "Proteus." Does Bloom find his place on this list? Indeed, completing the pattern, Bloom's "ignited lucifer match" in "Ithaca" seems, in hindsight, potentially as determined and deterministic as Messenger's "striking of that match"; Leopold becomes the latest entry in Stephen's catalog of significant firelighters (U17:131, 135-147). Yet responses such as these overlook one of the most important features of the Messenger passage: its absolute content. This textual intrusion reminds us of three basic facts of our existence: (1) minute causes can have momentous consequences, (2) events appear to be purely accidental and contingent in the present moment of their occurrence, and (3) these same events, once displaced into the past and reviewed "as in a retrospective arrangement" (U14:1044), seem to have been fully deterministic, to have "determined the whole aftercourse of . . . our lives."

The genre of the novel, like Tom Kernan, has always been "dead nuts" on "retrospective arrangement" for its "trenchant rendering" of experience (U6:147- 150). Reading, conversely, is prospective; criticism, however, reverses the orientation once again, replicating the retrospective processes of the book's creation. The history of Ulysses's reception, for example, clearly shows the critics' reciprocal retrospective assimilation of the apparently contingent details of the novel into deterministic patterns of interpretation. Even more important, I would argue, the Messenger passage offers a strong correlation between our first two "basic facts" of real and fictional existence--that minute causes may have momentous consequences, and that everything in the world of the present, as Wittgenstein would have it, is accidental--and the fundamental premises of chaos theory in contemporary science. In Ulysses James Joyce uncannily anticipates the perspective of the new chaoticians and shares the metaphysical implications of their worldview. Moreover, understanding Ulysses in light of chaos theory can substantially refine our sense of how the novel should be read and legitimately interpreted.

This is not the place for a detailed account of chaos theory; rather, I want to focus simply on three important features of the theory, all accessible to the non-scientist, that have fundamentally altered the way chaoticians approach the study of phenomena as varied as the weather, commodities markets, plate tectonics, evolution, epidemiology, cardiology, populations in ecosystems, the distribution of galaxies, and on and on. These three features are (1) the principle of sensitive dependence and the related role of feedback in dynamic systems, (2) the emphasis on scientific explanation, rather than prediction, and (3) the concept of design, either innate or emergent, in chaotic systems. I shall also draw correlations to the literary equivalents of these principles in Ulysses, not from the conviction that Joyce was intuitively aware of chaos theory some forty years ahead of its earliest developments, but from the realization that, in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, he anticipates the aim sought by our contemporaries in science: a more accurate picture of the world in all its complexity and apparent randomness. And I shall conclude by suggesting that recent developments in Joyce criticism, and critical theory generally, offer some illuminating parallels to the paradigm shift now occurring in the sciences.

The Cartesian-Newtonian worldview pictures the cosmos as driven by rather simple forces, and nearly three centuries of scientists working in the Cartesian tradition have applied their own version of "Occam's razor" to their research: assuming that all phenomena can and will ultimately be understood as the results of simple rules, or laws. In literary studies the term "convention" has the same force as the "laws" of science, so it seems to be no accident that at the same time as the scientist's conviction of a lawful cosmos weakened at the turn of the century, the writer's adherence to conventions as absolutes began to waver. Nonetheless, still generally confident that all events were reducible to simplicity, scientists until recently routinely ignored those complex phenomena that seemed intractable to mathematical modeling and scientific analysis. For example, consider the entrenched mechanical principle that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; two logical consequences of this idea are the assumptions that small causes have small effects and that large causes have large effects. (Test this by striking a billiard ball with a "BB" and then with a bowling ball.) One of the most unsettling early emphases of chaos theory, however, was the study of many actual events in nature where small causes produce enormous consequences. Often, quite minute differences in the initial conditions of a dynamic system, in fact, lead to vast differences over time, differences both unpredictable and apparently unanalyzable. This principle of sensitive dependence on initial conditions has been nicknamed the "butterfly effect," from the meteorologist Edward Lorenz's description of the dynamics of weather systems, in his 1979 paper entitled: "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?" Unless meteorologists have infinitely precise information for every cubic millimeter of the atmosphere--the exact temperature, wind velocity, atmospheric pressure, and so on-- instant by instant, they will be unable to predict the future weather with absolute certainty. Lorenz demonstrates that "predictability," the cherished goal of Laplace, if not of Newton, and of generations of scientists since, is as unattainable in global terms as Heisenberg had shown it to be at the sub-atomic level. No wonder, then, that conventional scientists call these sensitively dependent systems that behave so unpredictably "chaotic."

Actually, Lorenz's "butterfly effect" is not a totally original formulation; the turn-of-the-century French mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré had observed something very similar in non-linear equations, and the nineteenth-century English scientist and founding father of thermodynamics, James Clerk Maxwell, had anticipated Joyce by using the match to illustrate a similar disproportion between cause and effect: "The match is responsible for the forest fire, but reference to a match does not suffice to understand the fire" (qtd. Prigogine and Stengers 206). Likewise, Stephen's reverie that Messenger's lighting of his cigar, "that small act, trivial in itself, that striking of that match," could determine "the whole aftercourse of both our lives," does not seem like a profound metaphysical insight; indeed, it sounds very much like a cliché. And if it be a cliché, it is because Stephen reflects, through conventionalized narrative style, something often thought and recognized in everyday experience: the sensitive dependence of our fates on apparently small and accidental initial conditions. Notwithstanding its status as a commonplace, Joyce in fact builds his entire novel on just such a "small act, trivial in itself," the brief encounter of Stephen and Bloom. Lorenz's formulation of his "butterfly effect" itself illustrates the principle it concerns, because his iteration of a familiar idea has generated, through a series of consequences, a massive reorientation of contemporary thought in the sensitively dependent system of the sciences, a new analytical focus on the complexity, irregularity, and unpredictable muddle of the world as we experience it. Chaos theory moves science toward the description of this real world and indicates that complexity is rooted in the simple, in a way very different from the Cartesian-Newtonian conception of simplicity.

We understand the Messenger passage because all of us have sometimes thought back through a series of events that we have experienced and wondered: if I had not dropped off my dry cleaning, then I would have been driving on the freeway; and if I had been driving on the freeway, I would have taken the 2nd Street exit; and then and then and then, on to some calamity or good fortune, met or missed. In a similar vein, in "Circe" Bloom remarks "If I had passed Truelock's window that day two minutes later would have been shot" (U15:645- 646). Such a reflection is simply the retrospective arrangement of a chain of multiplying effects emerging from a single ultimate cause. Through this chain, some effect resulting from a prior cause is "fed" into the next causal link, leading to the next effect which, in turn, is fed back into the next link. Indeed, this principle of feedback characterizes all sensitively dependent phenomena, exponentially intensifying the effects of even the most humble of causes.

If we were to graph the relation of action and reaction in a dynamic system featuring such feedback, we would not get the diagonal straight line of a classic Newtonian system, where equivalent causes create equivalent effects: hence, scientists call such systems "nonlinear." Our lives, our world, and "just about everything else of interest," as Heinz Pagels remarks, are resolutely nonlinear (73). In the often quoted words of the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, "Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line" (1).

A classic example of a nonlinear system, characterized by feedback, is the erratic fluctuation of populations in ecosystems. A variety of circumstances will affect the growth and decline of a population of, say, insects in a particular environment: reproductive rates, available food supply, populations of predators, etc. One of the most important of these conditions, obviously, is the population of the previous generation of the same insects, the parents of the next generation. Population biologists use a formula, called the Verhulst equation, to project growth rates; the Verhulst equation includes a factor that feeds back the estimate of the present population. This equation is so sensitively dependent that an error of only "one part in ten quadrillion (a one followed by sixteen zeros)" in our estimate of the number of bugs in the pond will make our calculation of the population, after fifty cycles (or iterations of the equation), totally unreliable (Peat 198). To ascertain the likely growth or decline of the population over several years, we would have to have an impossibly exact figure for the first year's population; any error will feed back every time the equation is recalculated (iterated) for a subsequent year. So, if our margin of error can be no greater than 1 X 10-16, an accuracy vastly beyond human capacity, why should we even attempt prediction in analyzing the behavior of such nonlinear systems? One obvious answer is that these systems are, after all, most characteristic of life as we know it; we cannot simply abandon the study of nonlinearity. Yet, if we cannot project their behavior, what should our objective be in examining nonlinear systems? This is precisely the question addressed by chaos theory and by the larger emerging discipline of which it is a subset: what Pagels calls the "Sciences of Complexity" in his Dreams of Reason. One of the most important consequences of the paradigm shift toward complexity research is that scientists have recognized that they are not in the business of prediction, but explanation. Prospectively, the cosmos is unpredictable, accidental; yet in explanation, in description by a kind of retrospective arrangement, we can see that this cosmos is designed, determined. In a word, in Joyce's word from Finnegans Wake, the scientists of complexity have found a "chaosmos" in the cosmos (FW118.21).

We have a precise analog in literature for the phenomenon of feedback that makes the behavior of dynamic systems both unpredictable and, it would appear, hopelessly complex. In the act of reading itself, the individual reader's response alters the behavior of the "system," the book, with each "iteration," or reading. The same and many additional readers perform subsequent iterations/readings: in all cases, the products of the experience will differ, sometimes with unpredictably vast shifts in the results. Joyce's own, often noted behavior as a reader of his own work, feeding back his prior experience of the text into the text, intensifies this chaotic complexity. The exponential growth of Ulysses from its earliest state as a short story intended for Dubliners and Joyce's well documented incremental methods of composition for both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, parallel the behavior of nonlinear dynamic systems approaching chaotic turbulence. The apparently simple initial conditions of the Joycean text approach and maintain a tenuous balance on the so-called "edge of chaos," that region where the greatest diversity and creativity reside in nature. This region, now being examined by the scientists of complexity, is the realm Joyce's critics have long inhabited in literary study.

The new emphasis on description rather than prediction as the goal of science, the recent turn away from Laplace's dream of solving the mysteries of the universal machine, means, among other things, that the arts and sciences are once again treading on a common ground, or sharing a cup of cocoa under the same roof, like "The artistic" Stephen Dedalus and "The scientific" Leopold Bloom (U17:560). On the one hand, description has always been the business of the literary and visual arts. On the other hand, computer-generated portraits of chaos, the "Mandelbrot set" for example, a graphic representation of the behavior of a very simple reiterated nonlinear equation, have become a new art form, adorning book jackets, t-shirts, and posters; the success of coffee-table volumes featuring such "portraits of chaos" suggests that the line between computer-generated and non-representational art is thin indeed. Theoretical physicists, such as Stephen Hawking in his Brief History of Time, foresee the reunification of physics and metaphysics in the near future; already, scientists such as Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics) and Richard Healy (The Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics) are writing about theology and philosophy, while philosophers such as Stephen Kellert are assessing the impact of recent developments in science (In the Wake of Chaos). The researchers at the Santa Fe Institute for the Study of Complexity approach their subject in much the same way as some critics approach the analysis of literature. This is not entirely coincidental, since one of the founders of the Santa Fe Institute is Murray Gell-Mann, who turned to Finnegans Wake to find a name for an elementary particle in quantum physics, the "quark." But, note that I say that the methods of the Santa Fe Institute resemble those of "some" rather than "all" literary critics, for the similarity extends solely to those that accept the presence of inherent design in art, as the chaoticians have in nature.

If chaos theory shows us that an apparently simple nonlinear dynamic system can generate phenomena of extraordinary complexity, the obverse also holds: that the simple roots of extremely complex phenomena may be discovered by a painstakingly detailed analysis, that chaos has a deeply imbedded design. Portraits of chaos, made possible by advances in technology, by computers that can reiterate nonlinear equations hundreds of thousands of times in a few hours, have given scientists their first intuitions that chaos might be orderly. The stunning patterns of the Mandelbrot set, "the most complex mathematical shape ever invented," seem designed, not random (Stewart, God 237). So also do erratic statistics such as population distributions, which until recently could only be studied a few cycles at a time, seem intricately ordered when we have a few millenia of data. The most remarkable implication of chaos theory, in fact, is its reintroduction of the concept of design in natural phenomena, either a Platonic immanent design (Gleick), or an anti- entropic, self-organizational dynamic in nature (Prigogine), but in either case a design that is beyond the influence or control of the individual observer. This last point is crucial, because it marks a fundamental difference between chaos theory and quantum theory.

Ulysses, a novel that many first-time readers perceived as chaotic and incomprehensible, nicely illustrates the distinction between immanent and emergent design in a nonlinear system; more than this, it also exposes the differences between the worldviews of quantum theory and complexity science, in both its characters and its readers. As we all know, Joyce himself imbedded a number of organizational structures in his novel: the Homeric myth, the Hamlet allusions, the Gilbert-Linati schemas, and so on. These represent the immanent design of the novel, the deterministic structures of the creator, the lawgiver. The emergent structure of Ulysses, however, comprises those random features of the novel, such as messengers or firelighters, each of them apparently innocent of intent. Nevertheless, these ostensibly incidental, gradually emerging details progressively combine into a community of behavior as the novel takes on a mind and life of its own. Only at rare moments does Stephen dimly intuit that he inhabits the ordered system of a novel. ("Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words?" [U3:414-415].) Bloom has no idea that he recapitulates the wanderings of Ulysses. Neither recognizes that his speech and thoughts, for a part of the evening of June 16th, model the embryonic development of the English language. Similarly, no brain neuron has any "idea" that it is acting collectively with other neurons, providing an other entity with the much larger and more complex experience of an idea. The consumer in the mid-1970s who purchased a VHS videorecorder, rather than a Beta machine, had no idea that this simple action might determine the future of an industry through the nonlinear phenomenon of "increasing returns" in the "complex adaptive system" of the economy. And you and I have no idea how our decision to purchase some product, today, will affect the future "behavior" of the stock market, a complex living structure subject, we are told, to "moods."

Living within a system, such as a novel, Stephen and Bloom and all the other characters of the book can not grasp the design that contains them. Contemporaneous with the publication of Ulysses, Ludwig Wittgenstein succinctly stated the case in Proposition 6.41 of his Tractatus:

The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists--and if it did exist, it would have no value.

If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and is the case is accidental.

What makes it non-accidental cannot lie within the world, since if it did it would itself be accidental.

It must lie outside the world. (71)

From Stephen's limited viewpoint, then, it may seem perfectly legitimate to consider any design, any pattern he might perceive in his experience as the creation of his own imagination as "a conscious rational reagent," "ineluctably construct[ing meaning] upon the incertitude of the void" (U17:1013-15). However, Joyce counterpoints the artistic Stephen Dedalus, a creative "reagent," with the scientific Leopold Bloom, "a conscious reactor against the void of incertitude" (U17:2210-11), who, like the contemporary chaotician (1) rejects the reduction of complex phenomena to the half-truths of simplicity, to the Citizen's fury, for example, in "Cyclops," (2) accepts the reality of immanent and emergent design, that is, of both cosmic codes, such as "Roygbiv" (U13:1075-76), and of self-organizing systems, such as "find M.C." (U17:1842), and (3) recognizes that even the infidelity of his wife, the most complex and assuredly nonlinear dynamic system in his experience, is "as natural as any and every natural act" by a sensitively dependent system in the process "of adaptation to altered conditions of existence" (U17:2178, 2191).

Stephen's quantum view of reality as subject to the influence and control of the observer, understandable perhaps for a literary character inside the world of the book, is less acceptable for the reader and critic who exist outside the system, where "all that happens and is the case" is not accidental, but, in the terms of chaos theory, the result of immanent and emergent design. One has to ask, then, whether the extreme subjectivism of much post-structuralist criticism risks too "close" a reading of Ulysses, celebrating the dislocation of the signifier from the signified, in effect inhabiting the quantum worldview of Stephen Dedalus, with all its limitations, and ignoring the glimpse of the complexity that is based in an aboriginal reality, expressed through Leopold Bloom. And perhaps we also need to ask whether we should start reading Finnegans Wake, too, with an eye toward complexity, rather than carrying over from Ulysses only Stephen's quantum view of reality to argue against the metaphysics of presence.

The history of literary theory in our century, if I may be allowed some very broad generalizations, roughly parallels the developments, the paradigm shifts in the sciences, with a chronological "red shift," a lag of several decades between the scientific theory and its assimilation by the literary academy. (Ironically, artists themselves have often been more timely in their responses: witness Joyce's rather casual and superficial allusions to relativity and quantum theory in Finnegans Wake.) The ascendant "New Criticism" of the 1930s, tracing the generic laws of literature in the model work, resembles the isolated study of physical systems in ideal states, the methodology of Cartesian-Newtonian science, an approach already three decades out of date. Pursuing our analogy, the formalist and structuralist enterprises that, in the Anglo-American world, grow out of the New Criticism, like Einstein's theories of Special and General Relativity (1905, 1916), do not abandon the concept of law, but see the structures of literature as contingent rather than absolute. The intense subjectivity of post-structuralism finds its antecedent in quantum theory which, advancing through the 1920s and taking Einstein further than he was willing to go, argues against aboriginal reality altogether, saying, in effect, that the observer creates "reality" in the act of the observation. Finally, the contemporary return to the study of literature in all its contexts, call it the "new historicism" if you will, which views the work of literature not only in terms of itself and its readers, but also in terms of its relations to the complex multiple realities of history, popular culture, politics, and so on, has closed the temporal gap, sharing the fundamental assumptions of chaos theory and the broader, emerging field of the sciences of complexity. Heinz Pagels's description of the present state of complexity science in The Dreams of Reason could, with a modest adjustment of terms, apply to the most positive directions in contemporary literary study:

Science has explored the microcosmos and the macrocosmos; we have a good sense of the lay of the land. The great unexplored frontier is complexity. Complex systems include the body and its organs, especially the brain, the economy, population and evolutionary systems, animal behavior, large molecules-- all complicated things. . . . Scientists, in a new interdisciplinary effort, have begun to meet the challenge of complex systems and, remarkably, are understanding how complexity can emerge from simplicity. . . . All of existence may be viewed as a complex system built out of simple components.

Some of the themes of the new sciences of complexity . . . [such as] the importance of nonlinear dynamics and selective systems [and] the new understanding of chaos . . . portend a new synthesis of science that will overturn our traditional way of organizing reality. (12- 13)

The literary work, too, springs from a simple conception, a "struck match," but it grows into a complex system, like the forest fire, or like the weather, or better yet like those "complex adaptive systems" such as the stock market, or the international community, where the mind of man, butterfly wings of a sort, can generate even more unpredictable fluctuations in behavior. A nonlinear dynamic novel like Ulysses feeds back upon itself, adapting to and affecting its several contexts, and assimilates the reader into its complexity, the reader who feeds on and feeds back into the work and its world. No random phenomenon, Ulysses nevertheless strays from the ordered and static world of the stable system, not into chaos, but to the borderline of complexity, the edge of chaos, where small causes have large effects and where both life itself and great works of literature are found.
Works Cited.