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The Aesthetics of Chaos is a slim book that assumes an extraordinary burden of exposition, argument, and analysis. Michael Patrick Gillespie reviews the main lines of post-Romantic critical theory and suggests that their unifying failure inheres in their linearity, the fact that they rely on simple cause and effect determinism. In their place he proposes an "aesthetics of chaos" that draws on the nonlinear dynamics associated with quantum physics and the sciences of chaos and complexity. In the opening chapters, Gillespie lays out concisely his argument for replacing linear criticism with nonlinear aesthetics. While previous critics arguing for an aesthetics of chaos and complexity have more often than not relied on modernist and postmodernist texts to test and exemplify chaos poetics, Gillespie provides an impressive range of genres and periods. In five persuasive and lucid chapters, he examines the quintessential modernist novel (Finnegans Wake), the fairy tale (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), the epic (Beowulf), sacred literature (The Book of Job), and modern drama (The Importance of Being Earnest). The effect is to broaden the range and significance of chaos aesthetics, to show that it is not a special poetics devised for modernist and postmodernist works of literature.
The question many will ask is: why should literary criticism draw its paradigms from scientific theory and experimentation? Gillespie's answer is that criticism has been doing precisely that for some time now, perhaps without realizing it. Gillespie would like literary critics to break with the implicit dynamics of Cartesian and Newtonian determinism and welcome instead the lessons of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory. In his review of critical theory from Walter Pater to New Historicism, Gillespie clearly shows that few within the humanities have heard this (old) news [End Page 794] from the sciences, continuing to operate with Newtonian mechanics when they think and argue about reading. For Gillespie, reading is itself an excellent example of chaos dynamics, but when literary and cultural theorists attempt to codify the event, they rely on classical mechanics: the chaotic experience of reading is steamrolled by the demands of linear thinking. This is something of a trade secret among literary theorists, critics, and teachers. For a while it seemed that deconstruction had outed the practice and made way for a more subtle and complex account of the reading experience, but the profession largely turned away, at that point, to a host of determinist theories rooted in nineteenth-century science (Marxism, psychoanalysis, and cultural criticism). Since the 1980s, chaos theory has provided intellectual inspiration for a way of reading literature that is neither committed to vain, if ingenious, deconstructions of texts nor to the deterministic mechanics of historicist and cultural criticism. Gillespie's slim and polished book is an important contribution to this effort to establish an intellectual method for understanding and analyzing the complex, unique, and universal qualities of literature.