Emerging Patterns: 
Chaos and Order from the Mind of Nadine Gordimer
Written by Elizabeth Howell Brunner at Cal Poly, 1996, for English 459: Seminar on Women Writers, taught by Professor Nancy Lucas.  Posted online September 1999. 
Intro | Page Two | Page Three | Page Four | Page Five | Page Six | Works Cited
In 1986, with the confident naivete of a recent college graduate, I spent five months conducting ethnographic research in the homeless encampment known as Justiceville. After an evening of lengthy interviews, I accompanied four homeless black men into a nondescript hamburger shack on Skid Row ­ my treat, of course. As soon as the entry bell chimed, the owner pulled a gun from a grease-stained counter. I'll never know what threat he saw. But in “the moment before the gun went off,” my comfortable world, my youthful daring, crashed to the cement pavement as I dove for cover. Urban dangers, racial polarities, and cannibalistic Los Angeles violence meant chaos ­ a constant, lurking chaos that poisoned the cocktail-party values of my suburban upbringing. Twelve years in the bowels of the city left scars, but my battle stories only serve as prologue to the horrors of South African apartheid. 
Representing the physical and psychological conditions of her homeland, Nadine Gordimer's fiction scrutinizes the movement from the repressive, enforced order of apartheid through the chaotic interregnum. This dynamic motion between order and disorder reverberates continuously through the recurring images of disintegration, the psychological development of characters, and the overarching plot structure of her novels. In July's People, revolution forces Bam and Maureen from the relative comfort of a white Johannesburg suburb to alienation in their former servant's black village, with a parallel collapsing of their values and identities. Turbulence, irregularity, and unpredictability predominate, but beneath the surface chaos lie complex revelations about basic human motivations and behavioral patterns. 
     Application of Chaos Theory
Given the revolutionary turmoil during the past three decades in South Africa and the subsequent portrayal of political development in Gordimer's novels, literary interpretation requires a theoretical framework capable of encompassing both change and complexity. Chaos theory holds appropriate credentials from the world of science, elucidating thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, fractal geometry, meteorology, and epidemiology. 
The word chaos reaches deep into the postmodern soul ­ personally, locally, and globally. In an age of ethnic tension, economic restructuring, soaring crime rates, religious skepticism, and personal doubts, chaos sums up our world. In the beautifully illustrated book Turbulent Mirror, John Briggs and F. David Peat trace the excitement of researchers who apply "the strange laws of chaos" to much of what "we consider remarkable about our world: the human heartbeat and human thoughts, clouds, storms, the structure of galaxies, the creation of a poem, the rise and fall of the gypsy moth caterpillar population, the spread of a forest fire, a winding coastline, even the origins and evolution of life itself"  (14). In the face of chaos, we eventually confess our awe. No matter how advanced the computer projections and no matter how ardent the prayers, even the most hard-edged sceptic must admit miracle when the pattern finally emerges. Chaos theory teaches us of interconnections, of overlap and density, of intricately choreographed spirals and fractals which hide laws of nature. 
Chaos surfaces frequently in the literary vocabulary, both in the psychological sense of extreme confusion at the brink of the abyss and in the cosmic dimension of formless matter and infinite space. Multiple religious traditions teach that chaos preceded divine order, and we might frame our conversations with the evocative line "My life is chaos." As readers, we expect art and literature to help us structure this turmoil of everyday reality. Canadian novelist Marge Piercy describes: "We want stories that help us make sense out of our lives. We want to see all this mess mean something, even if what we discover is a shape perhaps beautiful but not necessarily comforting" (209). But as we know from personal experience, the richness and craziness of life rarely lends itself to linear plotlines. 
Borrowing scientific terminology, humanities scholar Alexander Argyros demonstrates that "the fractal folds of narrative" and "frequently tangled layers of plot" serve as a "remarkable data bank in which to store and transmit cultural knowledge and a flexible and turbulent laboratory in which to invent new knowledge" (319). Certainly Gordimer intends to convey such knowledge, to articulate cultural factors which shape activists in My Son's Story and to play out possible post-apartheid consequences in July's People. In the essay "Selecting My Stories," Gordimer explains the shared creative ambition of artists: ". . . any individual writer attempts to build the pattern of his own perception out of chaos" (Gordimer 1976, 112). Her choice of the word chaos hardly seems coincidental; many writers describe the process of creating order from disorder, of drawing lessons from the sensory overload of life, and of distilling simple truths from social clutter. 
However from a scientist's perspective, chaos theory is the dilettante abbreviation for the methodology of "nonlinear dynamics" which encompasses complexity, randomness, strange attractors, sensitivity to initial conditions, iteration, feedback, self-organization, recursive symmetries, entropy, and fractals (Hayles 8). Kate Hayles, probably the most prominent scholar to base literary analysis on scientific research, streamlines the goal of chaos theory: to reveal "deep structures of order within the apparent disorder" (xiii). Inspired to a large degree by Hayle's two groundbreaking books, a growing number of literary critics apply chaos theory in two directions, seeking complex patterns within the seemingly random while also illuminating the complexity hidden by external order. 
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
Email: liz@grantproposal.com
Main Web Site: www.calpoly.edu/~ebrunner