coincidence 3: the naive and the sophisticated novelist

In 1850, Dickens began a novel with an exemplary sentence: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station shall be held by someone else, these pages will tell.”  It was, in fact, obviously the nature of these pages – the novel – to tell this story. It went without saying that for Dickens, as well as for other Victorian novelists, the interest of the novel was tied to interest in the individual. If there was an anxiety here, it was about heroism in Carlyle’s key, a heroism that passes the moral tests of life – but there was no doubt that a life was definitely not a matter determined within a larger social pattern, and only of interest insofar as it could be grouped with a subpopulation in order to display certain tendencies. In this sense, the novel bet everything on the ideology of heroism.

Even so, at the same time, in mid nineteenth century, there were indications that a radically different point of view, the statistical mindset, was winning minds outside the circle of literature.  Quetelet, for instance, in 1835 had already tried to show that crime should not be understood through its individual instances, but through statistics demonstrating its likelihood of incidence. From this, Quetelet inferred that it was society, and not the criminal, which produced crime, just as an orange tree produced oranges. We would not hold an orange responsible being an orange, although we might pluck it and squeeze it to death for its juice – just as we might take down a criminal and cut off his head to satisfy the principles of social hygiene.

Dicken’s notion of the novel and the individual produced what Robert Musil called a naïve, or old fashioned story form, which was very difficult to break with. In his view –a view, it must be admitted, conditioned by Musil’s envy of the fame of the great modernists – Ulysses and A la recherche are still footed in the archaic world of certainty and heroism, instead of the world in which that ground had disappeared and criminals could be considered the fruit of society, rather than bad actors making bad decisions, while characters could be considered as hybrids of the interior thoughts that, they delusively believe, guide them, and the administrative purposes for which they employed by exterior forces.

It is in this context that Musil thought a lot about coincidence – Zufall. Chance, after all, is felt as coincidence in a story, especially when science shatters our confidence that a life and a life story are one and the same thing.  In his diaries,  Musil piled up references to popular work on probability and chance in the field of math and physics. One of his sources was Erwin Schroedinger’s essay on the Gesetz der Zufall – the Law of Chance – in Koralle, a popular science magazine, which appeared in 1928.

It is a small, lucid essay, with two themes. One is that our understanding of the physical world is based not on certainty, but on probability. The other theme is that the second law of thermodynamics, which posits that systems advance from order to larger degrees of disorder, doesn’t free us from the link of determinism, if by determinism we mean unpredictability. Rather, entropy is highly predictable.

To make this point, Schroedinger uses an example that would have struck a writer like Musil – the example of the library.

He asks us to imagine a library that has been organized so that all the books in it are numbered and put in their proper places. And then he imagines a horde coming in on Monday – surely, students right before exam time – and going through the library and taking out books and putting them back with no regard for their proper place:
 Now the astonishing feature is that this process proves to be subject to very definite laws, especially if we suppose that the valumes are taken from the shelves in the same haphazard way as they are put back…. If we suppose that there were eighty volumes of Goethe’s works, for instance, neatly arranged in one section of the library when the casual mob entered, and if we find that only sixty volumes are now in their places while the other twenty are scattered about here and there, then we can expect during the second week about fifteen volumes will disappear from the row, and about eleven volumes will vanish during the third week, etc. For since we have supposed that the books are taken out quite at random, the probability that one of the remaining volumes will meet with this misfortune decreases as their number decreases.”

Schroedinger concedes that his example is stylized – really, for the predictions to be more exact, the numbers must be bigger. If the collected works amounted to 80,000 among millions of volumes, the deviations from the predicted number of remaining books would be smaller.

Schroedinger’s library example is interesting to follow through. If this were a real library, then some of the Goethe volumes would be checked out, and some of the books that were scattered around would be discovered by library assistants and put back in their place. In terms of the second law, what this would mean is that the system had feedbacks – which means that it is not entirely closed.
“ We do not wish to asseert anything more than that the total balance of disorder in nature is steadily on  the increase. In individual sections of the universe, or in definite material systems, the movement may  cvery well be towards a higher degree of order, which is made possible because an adequate compensation  occurs in some other systems.”

The notion of feedbacks gives us a new way of thinking about the game played between the novel and the author, in as much as the author keeps adding and subtracting from the novel, as well as that played between the reader and the novel, in that the reader keeps decoding the novel. But the question Musil was gnawing on was whether the novel as a system could accommodate the character as a point determined by the irreversible progress from order to disorder inherent in the other administrative systems within the social world that give the character a content.