restricted access Italo Calvino's Ordering of Chaos
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Italo Calvino's Ordering of Chaos

The conflict between the chaos of the world and man's obsession with making some sense of it is a recurrent pattern in what I've written.

—Calvino in a 1982 interview with William Weaver.

At a certain point in his gardening, the thoughts of Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino's last and most autobiographical character, wander from his lawn to the universe:

Mr. Palomar's mind has wandered, he has stopped pulling up weeds. He no longer thinks of the lawn: he thinks of the universe. He is trying to apply to the universe everything he has thought about the lawn. The universe as regular and ordered cosmos or as chaotic proliferation. The universe perhaps finite but countless, unstable within its borders, which discloses other universes within itself. The universe, collection of celestial bodies, nebulas, fine dust, force fields, intersections of fields, collections of collections.

"The Infinite Lawn" ends with speculative leaps and nagging quandaries that are common to both Palomar and Calvino. To begin with, there is Palomar's movement from the particular to the universal, [End Page 283] a characteristic of Calvino's works that the author traces to sources ranging from the atomism of Lucretius and Cyrano de Bergerac to Jorge Luis Borges' mastery at modeling entire universes in a few pages (Six Memos for the Next Millenium 8, 20 and 119). Secondly, there is Palomar's anxiety as to the nature of the universe, a need to determine whether it is "regular and ordered cosmos" or "chaotic proliferation." This binary tension between order and disorder is a continual preoccupation in Calvino's works. Finally, there is Palomar's vision of the universe as simultaneously implosive, in its encapsulation of other universes within itself, and explosive, in its unending collections of collections.1 This vision corresponds to Calvino's use of metaphoric mise en abyme and metonymic synecdoche as rhetorical tools born of scientific method to impart order to the potential disorder of his fictional universe.

I. Crystal and Flame: Two Views of Chaos

Throughout Calvino's fiction one finds an eloquent and at times anguished manifestation of the current paradigm shift in the scientific community's attitude toward chaos. The chaos that Calvino depicts in its nearly opposite manifestations as void or teeming confusion has been with us since the time of our earliest cosmogonies. Traditional Western science, however, has preferred to keep it offstage, focusing on the neat linear equations of Euclidean physics and ignoring the messy nonlinear and chaotic configurations of most natural phenomena. Henri Poincaré's proof in 1890 that the introduction of small perturbations into linear equations was in general not sufficient to solve nonlinear problems foregrounded this incompatibility between the traditional scientific approach and the realities of nature. In the 1860s and 70s, the infamous second law of thermodynamics was formulated, ruling that all heat exchanges result in chaotic entropy, or the irretrievable loss of a certain amount of energy. Chaos was seen not only as the confusion that existed outside of order, but as a threat to existence itself, a cosmic dissipation that would eventually result in the heat death of the universe.

Only recently, with the rise of information sciences, has a rethinking begun to take place. Rather than poor in order, chaotic systems are now seen as rich in information and complexity. The latest developments in the science of chaos have stressed two other revolutionary tenets: 1) the vast majority of nonlinear phenomena in the universe are not characterized by true randomness, but by an orderly disorder; 2) the interaction of order and disorder is not an [End Page 284] irreversible dance with entropic death but the very source of life in the universe.2

The revolution in the scientific attitude toward order and disorder has been paralleled by analogous changes in the broader cultural sphere. In particular, the case has been made for convincing correspondences between the scientific paradigm shift and the world vision of postmodern critical theory, literature and culture (see Chaos Bound and Chaos and Order). This is but the latest episode in what Ezio Raimondi, one of Italy's...


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