It is entropy, not energy, that keeps stones on the ground and the world turning.
Carlo Rovelli, L’ordine del tempo (The Order of Time)
Humanity has always feared chaos, but it has now become so normal and ubiquitous that perhaps we should think about placing it firmly at the centre of the new worldview.
Benjamín Labatut, La piedra de la locura (The Stone of Madness)
But here I am, looking unseeing at the passengers in transit in the München Hauptbahnhof: beautiful when they look up at the departure board, as if waiting for a revelation – the minutes, the platform, something exact in the chaos of the days.
Paolo Di Paolo, Romanzo senza umani (Novel without Humans)
In Malá Strana in the nineteenth century, things proceeded with that quiet Habsburg regularity that made all things similar and predictable, as if they had always been so and so would be repeated saecula saeculorum. Lords and scoundrels, austere wives and rebellious young women were known, and everyone played their part precisely. Even the bizarre played a role, like Dr Spoiler: not that he was called that, this physician graduated summa cum laude, son and grandson and great-grandson of physicians, who had laid down his stethoscope and abandoned his patients, caught up in his obstinate silence and his unreasonable bicycle.
In Malá Strana in the nineteenth century, things were so regular and defined that, even when mourning occurred, especially of gentlemen of undoubted merit, the people of Prague would crowd the funeral serene and content: those who prepared and led the procession, those who followed it where it was appropriate, those who wept appropriately and already painted the memory of the dearly departed.
And so it was – Jan Neruda tells – when fate called the esteemed councillor Schepeler to its bosom: on the morning of the farewell, a smile of contentment united the chancellery clerks carrying his bier, the doctor who had accompanied his last hours, the best designated heir, his well-known and respected ‘best friend’ and even his widow (with a few tears for the timely and orderly participation).
In Malá Strana the uproar was great when, for the ritual sprinkling at the Oujezd Gate, the hearse jolter over the uneven stony ground and the coffin slid to the ground on the narrow side: in a great crash, as it rose, the lid sprang off. It happened, by the entropic cases of the world, that at that moment Dr Spoiler, usually taciturn and on a bicycle, was passing through the gate: thus it was that the unfortunate man suddenly found the pale councillor Schepeler in front of him, slightly thrown out, his knees bent and his left arm dangling.
In Malá Strana, the dismay was great upon seeing Dr Spoiler fiddling with the poor councillor: opening his eyelids, checking his pulse and chest. The procession was an absolute shambles: the chancellery clerks attacked the doctor, the designated heir cried out to the heavens, the friend ran to call the guards and the widow fainted above the swirling crowd. It was there that Dr Spoiler, almost lynched, deftly made Councillor Schepeler lie down and insisted on his chest and pulse, pointed out to the welter that there was no mourning for the lamented man yet: he had a pulse.
From mouth to mouth and from foot to foot, through the winding streets of Malá Strana a word was chased, which was a voice, which was uttered in a demure silence, which finally exploded in a disorderly surprise, to which no one – except Dr Spoiler – could associate the right feeling: “He’s breathing!“. Councillor Schepeler was alive.
In Malá Strana in the nineteenth century, things went back to that quiet Habsburg regularity that made all things similar and predictable, except for the stubborn madness of Dr Spoiler: sought after by all and revered by all, he continued to prefer bicycles to patients. A certain restlessness surrounded him: who knows if he had other miraculous disorders in store.
Now, if appearances are deceiving, it is also true that they are not always maliciously deceiving – unless that is the intention of the manipulator. If the sea is calm, it is also true that under that grey-blue film lies the chaotic dynamics of the abyss. If the sky is clear, it is also true that beyond the blue, in the darkness of the galaxies, some star explodes or implodes, adding vortex to vortex in harmonic disorders spanning billions of years. And cosmic disorders flashed before the keen eyes of those who, a century ago, in the heart of a central Europe torn to shreds by the Great War, sensed and sought out two ideas both portentous and full of fertile disquiet, those ideas that – says Carlo Rovelli – “humanity, I believe, has not yet digested”: relativity and quantum mechanics. It was a group of young people, full of desire and fervour, of different passions and mutual hatreds, who unveiled two shattering visions, between the overturning of established orders and new laws of a universe in chaos: there were the Viennese Pauli and the Bavarian Heisenberg, who were taught in Copenhagen by Niels Bohr, the Hungarian and outsider János Neumann, who later became John von Neumann, who fathered the computer science of our implacable computers and algorithms. There was the other Viennese Schrödinger, whose life was bombastic and dense, but above all the stateless Einstein, whose relativity had opened the door to a nature that follows ‘probabilities’ and changes depending on who ‘observes’ it. In short, the cosmos now seemed to be guided by a fearsome god playing dice: isn’t it then worth acting like Dr Spoiler and getting on the bicycle?
Yet, the chaos of that bizarre universe, which emerged a hundred years ago, has set the pace for our age, of hyper-fast trains, of relentless automatons and satellite technologies, of magnetic resonance imaging and drones – whether they carry Christmas parcels or bombs we do not know. Yet, the chaos of that bizarre universe, which emerged a hundred years ago, reverberates in the feelings of this age, in the wide-eyed gaze at lights that alone twirl in the dark, in the rapture of those who cry out their discomfort at the incessant novelties and impositions, in the weary bewilderment of the relentless travellers, free and otherwise, in the excitement of those who turn every trick into a new possibility.
What to do in the face of this bewilderment: try to put everything back in line by following the icy rules of times past and future algorithms, or let oneself go on an adventure with the demure ferocity of sex in one’s twenties, riding what comes, in goodness and horror? Take shelter within one’s own walls, watching from a screen what happens outside and hoping not to end up there, or throw oneself as a protagonist in the centre of the frame? Or perhaps, like a tightrope walker, attempt to navigate the world, wobbling along one’s own slender path, suspended precariously towards the goal, amidst conflicts, illusions, races, hopes and other sumptuous disorders?