Order and Chaos

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

My wife and I moved recently, so naturally I’ve been thinking about chaos. Over time, our possessions have a way of increasing in number and expanding entropically to fill the available space. Until it’s time to move, and all of those possessions need to be ordered and compacted into boxes for transportation. Then, at their new destination, they are released to begin a new process of expansion.

Photographs of two desks, one cluttered (right) and one uncluttered (left)
Two different work styles

I don’t qualify as a minimalist, but I tend toward minimalism, and my home office reflects this. My wife, on the other hand, has no time for such things and this is also reflected in her home office. My wife has an easy time finding things on her desk because everything is in plain sight. I have an easy time finding things on my desk because, well, there’s so little to find. Neither system is generically better or worse. The world isn’t black or white. Life exists in shades of gray.

Jack Ryan had to learn this the hard way:

During a visit to a game shop several years ago, the owner gave me a brief summary of “American-style” board games vs. “European-style” board games (his words). American-style games rely more on luck or chance (chaos), such as rolling dice or drawing cards from a concealed deck. European-style games are oriented more around strategy (order) and try to minimize the role of chance. While I prefer the strategy approach, it’s hard to argue against the influence of chance in real life.

We see this contrast in management styles, also. The late Steve Jobs was sometimes described as “mercurial” and “abrasive” during his CEO years at Apple. He focused on whiz-bang products that captivated consumers and markets. Current Apple CEO Tim Cook, on the other hand, has been described as “calm” and “approachable,” still looking for whiz-bang products but putting more emphasis on supply-chain management that gives Apple greater control over product development, pricing, and fulfillment.

Artistically, order and chaos can be expressed in any manner of ways. Novels can be written to convey their story in a well-ordered, chronological fashion, such as Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979). Whereas Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004) uses a series of flashbacks to jump around chronologically. The same applies with non-fiction. David McCullough’s 1992 biography Truman generally tells Harry Truman’s story from birth to death. James McBride’s Kill ‘em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul (2016), however, is a rollicking journey that intersperses James Brown’s story with anecdotes from McBride’s own life and socioeconomic commentary on American life. Painting offers a more dramatic comparison. Just consider Josef AlbersSP X (1967) next to Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952).

Josef Albers' painting SP X next to Jackson Pollock's painting Blue Poles
Albers, Pollack, and a stark visualization of order vs. chaos

I listen to a lot of instrumental jazz, a highly improvisational art form. One thing that has always attracted me to jazz is its integration of order and chaos. A jazz artist might play a standard like Summertime two nights in a row, and while the song will be recognizable both nights, it will be an entirely different listening experience because of the way the artist improvises within the song’s key changes and chord progression. Chaos within an ordered structure. Much the way I believe the founders intended America to be, and how I hope it will one day function, as a society structured by the rule of law but allowing entrepreneurial improvisation within that order.

The tension between order and chaos may even have an evolutionary origin, as the complexity of the natural world forced humans to invent ways to order this information to even be able to fit it all into our minds. Making sense of the chaos of dreams may have been one of the original motivations of culture and creative expression. In Technics and Human Development (1967), Lewis Mumford wrote about the necessity of finding the mental space for both:

“Because of the extremely complex structure of man’s large brain, uncertainty, unpredictability, counter-adaptability, and creativity (that is, purposeful novelty as distinguished from randomness) are constitutional functions, embedded in man’s complex neural structure. In their readiness to meet unexpected challenges they surpass the surer instinctual patterns and the closer environmental adaptations of other species. But these very potentialities have made it necessary for man to invent an independent realm of stable, predictable order: internalized and under conscious control. The fact that order and creativity are complementary has been basic to man’s cultural development; for he has to internalize order to be able to give external form to his creativity. Otherwise, as the painter Delacroix lamented in his diary, his tumultuous imagination would erupt in more images than he is able to hold together or utilize, as in fact it often does in nocturnal dreams.”

Closeup photograph of multiple tree leaves

Just consider something as simple as a tree leaf. Trying to identify this among the thousands of different varieties of trees seems outlandish. But if we reduce the identification process to a series of yes-or-no questions, suddenly chaos becomes navigable. Is the leaf simple or compound? Are the leaves in an alternate or opposite arrangement? Before long, we’ve identified the tree. If that basic a task seems daunting, try to imagine how tormented early humans must have been by something as chaotic as dreams, and how that might have contributed to the necessity of a system of labels and words.

In terms of actual work, I’ve always believed a disciplined approach of daily activity is best, but even this leaves room for flexible schedules and work styles (see the desk example earlier). One of creativity’s most important functions is to exist in that area between strict order and absolute chaos, find meaning, and express that meaning in a way that’s accessible to others. This means that eventually we have to do the ordered work of forging a path, by outlining a novel, making a preliminary sketch of a painting, or storyboarding a movie.

Photo of busy pedestrian shopping plaza in old town Montreal
Art, like life, is often about the coexistence of order and chaos

Navigating that gray area isn’t easy, because the truth is, life is not really gray, after all. It’s a spectacle of colors and sounds that can be breathtaking or crushing from one moment to the next. It does not lend itself to order. That’s a big reason so many people say they want to become a writer/painter/musician/etc. but never really do. It’s hard work and requires an orderly commitment that often strays into chaotic expression, and vice versa. But if you find that you have no other choice but to do exactly that, then you’ll know that a creative life adventure is right for you.

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