Metafiction and Chaos Theory: Cory A. Reed’s “Chaotic Quijote”

While Miguel de Cervantes was writing a tale about a mad knight, scientists were discovering and describing a rational order to the cosmos. Between the publication of the first book of Don Quijote in 1605 and and the second in 1615, Johannes Kepler proposed the first two laws of planetary motion, and Galileo Galilei made telescopic observations that proved the heliocentric model of the solar system proposed by Copernicus sixty years earlier. To these scientists, the universe appeared to be an organized system, operating according to observable, objective laws.

In his article “Chaotic Quijote:  Complexity, Nonlinearity and Perspectivism,” Cory A. Reed argues that Cervantes’ metafictional novel anticipates chaos theory: “Like chaos theory itself, Cervantes’ novel challenges the reliability of determinism, objectivity, and literalism that would soon be adopted by the Newtonian and Cartesian models of scientific investigation” (Reed 738). In contrast to the scientists of his day (and all others up until Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg), Cervantes represented reality as contradictory, random and subjective.

One Voice, One Meaning

Scientific language strives to be univocal,  having one precise meaning for each word. “Roland Barthes suggests that the goal is to convert language into another scientific instrument — a tool which, when used correctly by the responsible scientist, will allow the effective communication of a precise message without any possibility of ambiguity or misinterpretation” (Reed 739). Scientists want to be precise, but precision is very tricky when using language, which is essentially metaphorical since it relies on symbols for meaning, symbols that have no inherent meaning.

Although scientists may strive for literalism, “Cervantes equates such literalism with madness” (Reed 739). Cervantes shows us at great length the harm that can come from taking one’s personal interpretation of events as objective truth. Don Quijote can only read the world in the language of chivalric romance; his insistence on univocality, one language to describe reality, gets him into some very uncomfortable situations. Sancho Panza, on the other hand, is more of an earthy empiricist who relies on his senses and pithy traditional sayings, yet even he is fooled.

Reed summarizes a scene in which Quijote sees a huge cloud of dust in the distance. Since he can only understand reality in terms of a chivalric code, he interprets the cloud as an approaching army. The knight errant is even able to convince Sancho Panza. Sancho points out another army approaching from the opposite direction. When the “armies” clash, even the reader is confused as to what is happening for all the dust and noise, until we are allowed to see that the armies are in fact herds of sheep. Reed explains, “Cervantine perspectivism suggests a relativist view of reality that acknowledges subjective observation and suggests the possibility of diverse interpretations of the same phenomena” (Reed 746). The perspectives involved are not just those of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, but also of the writer (or writers) and the reader.

Scientific Determinism Determined Unfit

As stated, Reed claims that Don Quijote “challenges the reliability of determinism, objectivity, and literalism.” We have already addressed literalism, and will soon attack objectivity, but what of determinism? “Determinism,” according the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “doctrine that everything that happens is determined by a necessary chain of causation.” If everything occurs according to a logical chain of cause and effect, a scientist who understands the basic laws of the universe and has all the necessary facts at hand should be able to foresee every subsequent event, much as astronomers are able to predict the position of the planets and the timing of an eclipse.

Albert Einstein was a determinist. In a 1926 letter to Max Born, he wrote, “I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.” This famous, but frequently misquoted statement, suggests that God does not play randomly with the universe; however, Einstein’s insistence on the first person, followed by “at any rate,” indicate that he knew it was a matter of opinion, a controversial theory in the scientific world.

The very next year Werner Heizenberg revealed to the world that God does in fact play dice, as his Uncertainty Principle makes clear. The Uncertainty Principle states that the “more precisely the position [of a particle] is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.” In other words, a scientist could determine place or speed, but not both at the same time, for the very act of observing caused changes in the behavior of the particle. A fundamental unpredictability entered science.

Perspective itself became paramount. Truth was not something that existed independently of the observer, but depended on the observer’s point of view. Einstein agreed with Heisenberg here; after all, his Theory of Relativity overthrew the objective model of the universe. The universe could not be observed separately, as by a god-like scientist who could step outside the cosmos in order to examine space and time. The way space and time look depends upon the relative position of the observer.

Heisenberg took this subjectivity a step further. Not only does our perspective matter, but the way we observe matters as well: “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”  Heisenberg is suggesting here that the questions we ask of nature determine the kinds of answers we receive. In his article on Cervantes and Chaos theory, Reed writes, “The acknowledgment (in both literature and science) of the importance of perspective suggests that human observations of reality are inherently subjective — that reality is perceived differently from various points of view” (Reed 746).

Determinism and Human Behavior

Those who believe in scientific determinism often extend the philosophy to human behavior as well. Another definition in the OED of “determinism” reads, “The philosophical doctrine that human action is not free but necessarily determined by motives, which are regarded as external forces acting upon the will.” According to this philosophy, a specialist who understood all of the “motives,” “causes” or “external forces” acting upon a subject would be able to predict the actions of that individual, for a person is not free to make any choices of their own, but has to act in accordance with birth, environment and experience. A feeling of randomness underlies Quijote’s adventures. Episodes do not follow one another predictably and sensibly. Each event comes to the characters and the reader as a surprise. Character’s reactions to Quijote’s madness are equally unpredictable: some play along, some ridicule him, and some attack him.

Einstein, on the other hand, did not believe in randomness. He said, “I do not believe in freedom of will. Schopenhauer’s words, ‘Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot want what he wants’, accompany me in all life situations and console me in my dealings with people, even those that are really painful to me. This recognition of the unfreedom of the will protects me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and judging individuals and losing good humour” (Einstein in Mein Glaubensbekenntnis, August 1932). In 1932, as Nazism was on the rise, Einstein found comfort in the idea that human actions were not chosen, but determined by external causes. However, his reasoning here sounds more like a rationalization for otherwise incomprehensible events, rather than rigorous scientific theory.

If an essential particle like the quantum is unpredictable, how can we assume that the larger system which depends upon this underlying randomness is predictable? Isaac Asimov’s science fiction series Foundation is based on the deterministic idea that the course of history is predictable when examined on a very large scale. “The premise of the series is that mathematician Hari Seldon spent his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory, a concept of mathematical sociology (analogous to mathematical physics) . . . Using the law of mass action, it can predict the future, but only on a large scale; it is error-prone on a small scale. It works on the principle that the behaviour of a mass of people is predictable if the quantity of this mass is very large (equal to the population of the galaxy, which has a population of quadrillions of humans, inhabiting millions of star systems). The larger the number, the more predictable is the future” (“Foundation Series”).

While Asimov rejects the idea that science can predict the actions of an individual, he suggests that independent variation is canceled out on a mass scale. Even before I knew much about modern physics, I found this fundamental concept ludicrous. A larger system may be easier to predict than a smaller system, but the essential randomness of nature does not disappear. Instead, very small variations will compound over time.

Evolution: God Plays Dice

For example, scientists have discovered a life form in Mono Lake California, which has arsenic in its DNA instead of phosphorous. If the rest of the life on the planet had evolved from this creature, how different would the world be today? We cannot even begin to imagine, for we project our own image onto alien creatures in our science fiction stories. The beings from other planets are usually people, even when they appear as grays or little green men. If not, they usually have a spine and four limbs, like the lizard-like predator with acid for blood from Alien. When extraterrestrials are truly different from the quadrupeds of our planet, they resemble insects or sea creatures. We can only picture what we know.

Yet when life was developing, every little chance had an enormous impact on the outcome. Biologists describe evolution as a process of trial and error, a genetic role of the dice to see what will work. Is there some larger sense to the random pattern of evolution? Leaves all over the world have developed similar patterns, although they don’t share close relatives. Animals that evolve in similar environments sometimes resemble each other, a process called parallel, or convergent, evolution. For example, the Tasmanian wolf, a marsupial from Australia, is quite similar to the European wolf. Is this really so surprising since they share a common ancestor from only about one hundred million years ago, a short time in the history of life on earth? Or does the similarity arise more from point of view than actual fact?

Patterns in Chaos

Chaos scientists claim that there is order to chaos: larger patterns appear in a chaotic system. Gases introduced into a box will mix in a random way, but eventually the system will become more or less smooth, with molecules of each gas distributed rather evenly throughout the space. Why do we even look for order in chaos? Reed suggests that it is due to our training: “Scientists perceive order in chaos because they are trained to do so — both human perception itself and the scientific method are exercises in understanding nature’s complexity by identifying meaningful patterns and structures” (Reed 745). Authors too, including Cervantes, attempt to make order out of chaos, to identify meaningful patterns in our chaotic realities.

Reed argues that the very structure of Cervantes’ novel is chaotic. The basic story of the knight and his squire proceed chronologically, but the tale is interrupted by interjected tales and metafictional reflections on the process of creation. “Stoicheff sees a chaotic element in such metaliterary games, stating that ‘the reader is forced to recognize that [the metafictional text] is deliberately disrupting his assumptions concerning the linear relationship between text and familiar world'” (Reed 743). The relationship between novel and outside world is not as simple as mimetic theory would have us believe, the theory that art reflects nature.

And yet if reality is truly chaotic, then perhaps Cervantes’ novel does mime reality. Readers too are trained to find patterns in chaos. In any case, reader, Cervantes, the various narrators, Don Quijote and Sancho Panza all struggle to make sense of a contradictory, confusing, nonlinear, subjective universe in as orderly a fashion as they can. Scientists may try to eliminate this extra noise, but in literature it is not possible. “Extrasystemic information in a scientific investigation can be ’rounded off’ or ignored if it does not pertain to the specific object of study, but the polysystemic facts in a literary work signal the presence of additional levels of meaning that must be taken into account as an integral part of the system” (Reed 741).

The noise, the chaos and the confusion, after all is the reality, but so is the attempt to make sense of it all one way or another. We are all mad as Quijote because we can’t shake the idea that reality somehow someway makes sense.

(Most of these ideas are covered in more detail in my book Narrative Madness, which you can get at or on Amazon.)

Works Cited

Reed, Cory A. “Chaotic Quijote: Complexity, Nonlinearity and Perspectivism.” Hispania 77.4 (1994): 738-749. Print.

“Foundation Series.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 13 December 2010. Web. 14 December 2010.

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