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  • The Consequences of Chaos: Cleopatra’s Sister and Postmodern Historiography

Of the many ways of judging the character of a period in history, surely one of the most important is through a given era’s sense of, precisely, history, for we are constituted in a profound way through our representation of experience in time. Most of our everyday conceptuality, for instance, depends upon the essentially unquestionable assumption about the temporal relationship between events that we call cause and effect. But in recent decades a different notion of cause and effect has emerged in our contemporary mindset. In the physical sciences, the new idea runs under the popular label of chaos theory, though nonlinear dynamics or complexity theory are also accepted names. 1 We shall look briefly at the concept of chaos in a moment, but what will matter to us is not so much the theory itself as the question of whether and how the theory finds a counterpart in nonscientific realms of thought. How does the scientific notion translate into more everyday notions of experience in and of time? To answer this question, we will look at recent attempts to bring chaos theory into the study of history, and then, having investigated the idea in the abstract, we will turn to a [End Page 397] novel—Penelope Lively’s Cleopatra’s Sister (1993)—in order to see the idea imagined into life. Lively has frequently written novels concerned with our contemporary understanding of history, and in Cleopatra’s Sister she gives us both a story told in terms of this complex causality as well as a critique of the uses of such causality for the writing of history. We will find, then, that the theory can help us discover the significance of history in the novel and that the novel can help us discover the significance of the theory.

Although its importance and even its meaning have not yet been settled, chaos theory has spread rather swiftly and broadly since it first surfaced in the early 1970s. 2 Examples of its use may be found in the more mathematically-based “hard” sciences such as meteorology, biology, physiology, but also in other fields that make use of mathematical models in their research: archaeology, paleontology, as well as economics and sociology. It remains to be seen, however, in what ways such a theory might prove useful in the study of the less mathematical human sciences, specifically history, and then in the study of the nonmathematical, imaginative arts. The name, chaos, actually misleads because the theory in fact describes a kind of order, one that does not appear as such to the everyday perception. When we think of everyday causation, of event A bringing about result B, we remain within the more or less intuitively apprehensible, linear world of Newtonian physics. But chaos theory discovers a different order of causation. If we isolate some sequence of change in the natural world, we have automatically distinguished a beginning state from an end state. Chaos theory has to do with the nature of the difference of the end from the beginning. In a nonchaotic sequence or system, as it is called, there is a relatively direct causal relationship between the two. Thus, the end will vary in a regular way from the beginning, such that small changes in the nature of the beginning will bring about small changes in the end, large changes in the beginning will bring about large changes in the end, etc. If we strike a baseball with a certain force, it will go a certain distance, and as we increase the force, the achieved distance increases in a similar, predictable degree.

In a chaotic sequence, on the other hand, small changes in the beginning produce large changes in the end. In fact, to everyday perception, there seems to be no causal relationship between beginning and end. The end seems simply to have happened. For example, the [End Page 398] smoke particles drifting up from the end of a cigarette in a still room will move in a coherent column for a time but then suddenly become erratic and diffuse, moving in all directions. Typically, we would...

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pp. 397-417
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