Politics and Society

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Rules of Chaos (1969), by Stephen Vizinczey

   Stephen Vizinczey is a writer and novelist, Hungarian by birth, Canadian by nationality, who now lives and writes in England. His self-published, so-called “erotic” novel, In Praise of Older Women, which was written in the early 1960’s, has just last year been re-released by Penguin as a Modern Classic. But my focus here is his 1969 non-fiction thriller, The Rules of Chaos: Why Tomorrow Doesn’t Work.  This latter is a spellbinding examination of, and confrontation with, some of our most cherished and - according to Vizinczey - presumptuous existential beliefs.
   Vizinczey propounds a thesis, in direct opposition to the received wisdom of our overly ambitious and over-confident culture, which is bound to shock some. (Indeed, in keeping with the radical spirit of the day, that was likely a priority.) Even after the intervening years, or, perhaps especially because of the last ten, it still challenges a now less comfortable equanimity.

   It presents this challenge by means of an antithetical proposal: namely, that chaos (“the convergence of otherwise unrelated events”) and the resulting radical uncertainty about the future is the true and natural context for the most important decisions we make in our lives, as individuals and as citizens. It defies the simple logic of everyday decision-making: viz. consider the options, weigh the possibilities, make a plan, and execute with confidence, by tattering the second phrase. According to his argument, we have no reasonable means of weighing the real (= innumerable) possibilities. To think so, is self-deluding at best, and madness at worst.
   This amounts to a deliberate challenge to some of our most deeply held attitudes; for instance, our confidence in the efficacy of Reason (and statistical models) as a guide to behavior, our ideological and pathological optimism (and fatalism) about the future, and our ready subordination and deferral of our emotional needs to “a reasonable plan of action.” This thesis (or anti-thesis, really) presents itself, finally, as a call to freedom and responsibility in our personal and cultural lives, and in the politics and policies of our nations. Vizinczey writes: “In a CHAOTIC world, moral decisions are the only rational ones.” It is, and means to be, as discomfiting as it is radical.

   Written in the impromptu format of a journal or day book, followed by a fairly long and marvelous digression into literary evidence, he tries first to make his main point - that we are most often guided in our decision-making by the false model of wishful thinking rather than by an honest appreciation of a chaotic reality. - and then, more positively, to illustrate and ‘crystallize’ his thoughts on matters such as chaos and freedom, by means of anecdotes and examples. This is not a scientific thesis. It is an existential one. His most obvious contention is that our (false) pride – our collective Ego - constrains our judgment, to our own and others’ detriment.

   That chaos – the convergence of otherwise unrelated events – is the primary fact of our experience is an arguable claim. But argue it he does, and with passion and real insight. Drawing on obvious influences from writers as diverse as Freud, Camus, Sartre and Stendhal, Vizinczey seeks primarily to break through an ingrained and fortified falsehood, which has the deep psychological resources of Myth and the respectable air of common sense. His tactic is more a frontal assault on our fantasy, designed to gain a philosophical beachhead, so to speak – or an audience – than a comprehensive and sustained analysis. But whatever else we might consider him to have undervalued, his impassioned plea for the preponderance of chaos as a decisive fact of our experience, and the consequent emphasis on the moral importance of freedom, cannot be simply dismissed.
   The idea that chaos, not order - or statistically reliable predictions - should be the basic assumption in our deliberations about our lives and the many choices that make our lives – because it is the primary fact of our experience - flies squarely in the face of our progressive culture’s received wisdom --as well as almost all the advice we give to and receive from one another on a daily basis. It also contests the self-serving platitudes of politicians who prosecute wars and persist in the occupation of foreign countries on the assumption that the ends will justify the means.

    Just in time, over forty years ago, Stephen Vizinczey arrives to point out the obvious: though we continually claim to know that ‘Truth is the first casualty of war,’ and that “No battle-plan ever survives the first skirmish of a war”, we continue just the same to put our faith in policies and politicians who assure us that this war (or that one) is just, well-planned and winnable. Moreover, we accept the doctrine that all wars will secure our (and even our enemies’) freedom and prove beneficial (even to our enemies!) in the end. This kind of self-delusion is both rationally and morally absurd.

   As radical and compelling as this perspective is, especially now, it is still more importantly a point of view which offers the very strongest argument against deferral of gratification – at one point he actually says “ . . .it is possible that self-indulgence is the only sanity drug.“ – but also against any moral calculus which justifies means by reference to “reasonably anticipated” future outcomes, or ends. For, according to Vizinczey, this is the howler of howlers when it comes to wishful thinking. To believe that we (as individuals, as nations or as a culture) can justify an outrage today by referring to the ultimate good it will bring about – as though we could know, let alone control the future – is the height of insanity and arrogance. It is also to deny the decisive role and predominance of chaos (or chance, from our limited point of view) as a factor in our lives and, essentially, hold the future responsible for the morality or immorality our behavior.
   This is a fire-sermon, written during the middle years of America’s military involvement in Vietnam, and directed at the atavistic and distinctly modern (progressive) presumption concerning results-oriented planning both in politics and in our personal lives; the one that presumes that we can and should seek to control global events; the same one that promises that all our dreams can come true if only we plan well, execute efficiently and aim high. He illustrates the presumption, by reference to the folly of the Vietnam experience, and its alternative, by reference to the principled and therefore just, though ultimately failed, campaign against the war by Senator Eugene McCarthy. (Having served at the barricades in the abortive uprising against the Soviet Union puppet government in Hungary in 1956,  Mr Vizinczey can testify both to the human tragedy and the moral triumph of lost causes!) It is a very challenging argument for the very worthwhile insight that doing the right thing cannot be judged by its results!
  Ironic, then, that the times we live in, along with the military, political and financial disasters we have recently witnessed, have offered only the latest and best evidence available for Vizinczey’s point: that chaos and unpredictability is, in fact, the hardest, but most enduring, truth of our experience. Given all that we have been through in the past ten years, it is hard not to agree outright, that our culture is foundering in a sea of fantasy and wishful thinking, while our lives are being guided by a principle of action that is obviously unsupportable on the evidence. And yet, it is hard to simply agree. It is also (morally) painful. Is there better evidence for the power of Myth? 

   Lest this seem to be simply a negative thesis or just another hectoring complaint, the perspective Vinzinczey prefers offers also a hopeful alternative to fatalism. For, while there is never any certainty that our best plans will pay off, there is also never any certainty that our most valiant attempts to do the right thing won’t pay off! This makes the moral factor in decision making decisive. Minding always the dictum that results are not guaranteed – indeed, they are only rarely directly related to intentions – Vinzinczey can argue, bravely
      “Though our dreams may never be realized, they can, at least, be glorious”
     Not only, then, is it simply wiser, according to Vizinczey, to live more fully in and for the moment, but also it is imperative that we do no calculated harm in the present on the pretext that the evil can or will be redeemed in the future! Since even the best possible outcome is still, essentially, a matter of chance, we should not make moral promises we cannot keep!

  In Part II of The Rules of Chaos, Vizinczey illustrates his claim of the predominance of wishful thinking and willful blindness in our culture head on, in a cutthroat examination of William Styron’s (1968) novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. Anyone who has read that Pulitzer winning book, should read Vinzinczey’s critique. You will never see it the same way again! In a following essay, he presents literary evidence of his own, preferred perspective in the guise of an examination of two of Stendhal’s works, “An Essay on Love” and The Red and the Black. (Vizinczey has been a serious student and scholar of the writings of Stendhal for over thirty years.) These are essays of stunning clarity and insight into the works and the minds of two very serious and well-respected writers, and the cultures that produced them. They would each stand independently as extraordinary critical essays in their own right, but serve vigorously as evidence for the applicability and perspicacity of the view he propounds in The Rules of Chaos. I can’t recommend them highly enough!
   Every fire-sermon ends in a manifesto. So it is with The Rules of Chaos. What Stephen Vizinczey calls “the Fontainebleau Manifesto” decorates the end pages and is as serious an intellectual and moral challenge as the "Communist Manifesto," or Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, or Camus’ The Rebel.  It is a bullet point presentation of the axioms of a new perspective, which is personal, moral and political in scope. Not that these ideas have never been expressed --they have been; but they have never been taken to heart, generally, and Vinzinczey’s Rules of Chaos begins, at least, to help us understand why. It is a humbling lesson! Against the overwhelming hegemony of ego- and pride-based ideology and power politics, a doctrine of such radical freedom and responsibility has, so far, gained little traction and few adherents. But in troubled times, when positive and hopeful alternatives are once again the scarcest resource, it is a perspective which deserves another look.

1 comment:

  1. I was pleased to see this review of The Rules of Chaos. Stephen Vizinczey is best known for his novel In Praise of Older Women, but is also a superb and underratted essayist. In The Rules of Chaos, and Truth and Lies in Literature, his essays are comparable to Orwell and Koestler. In his handling of the English language, he makes native English-speakers like me envious.

    Carl Rosenberg
    Vancouver, BC