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D e t e r m i n i s t i c C h a o s in E d A b b e y ’s D e s e r t S o l i t a i r e R o d R o m e s b u r g In 1951, Ed Abbey wrote in his journal: “Art of the Novel: Maximizing order in maximum chaos— complex symmetry as opposed to simple symmetry— simultaneity— counterpoint and contrary motion” (Confessions 8-9). His aesthetic declaration can serve as a concise def­ inition of chaos theory, or deterministic chaos. In traditional determin­ istic order, everything is predictable; cause runs smoothly to effect, and future effects are easily computed. Deterministic chaos just as clearly attaches every effect to a preceding cause. However, because we can never divine infinitely detailed information about all causal forces, many systems ultimately appear disorderly. The system is still deter­ ministic in theory, but in practice unpredictable. In this manner, a Chaos Theory, heavily dependent on computer technology with its digital imaging capabilities, is associated with Benoit Mandelbrot, originator of frac­ tal geometry, who used computers to understand chaos and complexity theory. The Mandelbrot Set, which is readily reproducible with a computer, illustrates how self-similar growth occurs.—The Mandelbrot sets sprinkled throughout this essay were created by WAL staff. R o d R o m e s b u r g 2 0 1 chaotic system bears qualities of both order and chaos. It is orderly in that definite rules govern how the system functions; but if we equate unpredictability with disorder, the system is ultimately chaotic. Positing chaos within order and vice versa, traditional connotations of order and chaos are challenged. Finding value in both, chaos theory clarifies a paradoxical model of nature, even while reinforcing essential and unresolvable tensions. There is no evidence that Abbey knew anything of chaos theory when he published Desert Solitaire in 1968. A t the time, a few isolated scientists were only beginning to uncover the components that would be coined “chaos theory” in 1975, and it is highly unlikely Abbey would have connected these scientific dots.1 Indeed, Abbey’s feelings about science in general were ambivalent. In his essay “Science with a Human Face,” Abbey praises individual scientists such as Newton, Darwin, and Einstein as “liberators of the human consciousness,” but condemns science as a whole as a technocracy bent on destroying the planet in the name of industrial progress (Abbey's Road 125). Although Abbey likely knew nothing of chaos theory, his vision of wilderness in Desert Solitaire nonetheless echoes the shift toward uncertainty played out by science through the twentieth century. In Desert Solitaire, Abbey recounts his exploration of the area in and around what was then Arches National Monument in southern Utah, pondering the relationship between humanity and nature. More than any of his contemporary nature writers, including more scientifically literate writers, Abbey redefines the relationship of chaos and order in nature and the way humanity fits into that schema. Wilderness, for Abbey, is built on contradictions; it is chaotic and orderly, empty and filled with meaning, uncertain yet utterly solid. M ost important, nature’s pulsing unpre­ dictability is the lifeblood of wilderness, and the only way to evoke this beautiful maelstrom is through paradox. James Bishop recalls that when critics concentrated on the contradictions in his work, Abbey would reply that, “as he learned while earning his master’s degree in philoso­ phy, contradictions are the building blocks of life, that the only bedrock solid enough to stand on is paradox” (143). Desert Solitaire works not in spite of, but because it is a chaotic text: complex, defiant, paradoxical, and unresolvable. Abbey demonstrates a paradox in nature best under­ stood through the metaphor of deterministic chaos— a paradox that complicates our image of nature, and our ability to interact with and discuss nature, by redefining the relationship between chaos and order. A s such, Abbey signals a scientific and cultural swing celebrating, instead of condemning, nature’s unpredictability. 2 0 2 W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r...


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pp. 200-219
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