Friday, March 18, 2011

et in Arcadia ego

The Authoress shared her joy for the play Arcadia with me earlier this month, when we saw a revival production on Broadway.

Photo:  Catherine Ashmore, New York Times  

The play is set in Sidley Park, an English manor house.  The action moves between 1809 and present day, with the characters in one time revealing things about those in the other time through dialogue that is full of wit, literature, mathematics and depth of observation.

The Independent newspaper review of the play holds that it is one of the most important of the 20th century, probing issues of the meaning of life.  The summary of the issues is as follows:

The classical order – which mutated into the Enlightenment – believed the world was ordered and was governed by rules that could be slowly uncovered. The Romantics believed this was a suffocating cage in which humanity was being imprisoned, and sought to overthrow all rules in the name of individual creativity. You make up your own rules as you go along: every man is an artist. There is no order other than the one you invent.

Septimus Hodge is a brilliant tutor [and classmate of poet Lord Byron] who teaches his student [a thirteen year old girl named Thomasina who is a math prodigy] about Newton's laws of physics. They are clean, clear, promising an underlying, predictable order to the universe. Thomasina...spots a series of dark flaws in Newton. 
She explains that...there is one equation that runs only one way: heat turns to cold. The same thing is happening everywhere, all the time: it's called the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The implications – only just being grasped by the generations after Newton – were plain, and bleak. "It'll take a while, but we're all going to end up at room temperature," says one character. Septimus – sobered by Thomasina's explanation – adds softly: "So the Improved Newtonian Universe must cease and grow cold." 
These are characters who take the implications of their ideas seriously. Septimus and Thomasina are stricken by the realisation that instead of setting up a perfectly ticking and well-oiled machine, Newtonian physics exposed us as living in an irrevocably doomed world.
The characters in the play Arcadia react to the world in different ways -- that there is inevitable decline and destruction seems unbelievable when there on the stage are young and vibrant characters -- two main reactions.  One is to turn aside from science, and seek meaning and solace in romantic poetic ideals (what Dylan Thomas would later exhort, to rage against the dying of the light).  The other is to see the desire to learn as the mark of a significant life.  The Independent review continues:

In the most important speech in the play, Hannah suggests the answer lies in the process of trying to understand, while you can. You find meaning by questing on, even in the face of failure and extinction. She tells Valentine: "It's all trivial...Comparing what we're looking for misses the point. It's wanting to know that makes us matter...Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final."  Independent 22 May 2009

Yet it isn't really a pure quest for knowledge.  Rather this noble pursuit is mingled with the desire for self-glory.  One aspect that the reviewer, and many articles about Arcadia seem to miss out, is that the main characters in the present day are academics whose passion for their subject, for solving puzzles, for discovering links in history about Lord Byron, or the history of landscape gardening or literature, of mathematical proofs -- is that this pursuit of knowledge, even the pursuit of love, is mixed in the with the pursuit of self-glory.  The characters have a refrain that drives them -- to publish their findings, and be lauded by their peers.  Perhaps to the journalist or to Stoppard himself as those who publish work, this is not as self-evident as it was to me (whose seeking plaudits no doubt takes different form than the published word).

I had another reaction to the play -- it made me think about the presupposition we have about the world as we approach it -- is it fundamentally good or evil?  Christianity sees it as good but fallen, beautiful yet corrupted. 

This came to mind not only as I interacted with a biblical text in the past couple of weeks (on salt and light), but also in the Christian stance of hope, against the notion that life ends "at room temperature".  An Anglican minister (writing about an entirely different subject, namely, church politics) made an observation that is apropos of the central issue in Arcadia.  It is, in a sense, the Christian response to the despair or at least struggle in the musings of several of Tom Stoppard's characters.  Charles Raven wrote:

One way to express the power of the resurrection is to say that it gloriously breaches the second law of thermodynamics. Our hope of a new heaven and a new earth is grounded in Christ's physical resurrection as a reversal of entropy - and that power of the resurrection is at work in the Church now, not through resourceful words or the control of money, but through faithfulness to God's Word and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit.

Et In Arcadia Ego, Nicholas Poussin (Louvre, Paris),
The paintings from which Stoppard's play draws its title (and theme) are two by Poussin (the later work is shown here) and one by Guercino:  Et in Arcadia ego.  This is the inscription on the tombstone happened upon by three shepherds and a shepherdess.  There are some interesting articles on the meaning of the paintings and indeed the inscription itself, but however construed, there is the fact of death existing even in the midst of the beauty of Arcadia.  This is true in the play, as tragedy frames the relationships, and even there in the midst of the beauty (whether ordered or disordered) of the English country house, death lurks.  And so the Resurrection and the promise of life speaks a word of rebuke to death.

Gentle reader, your thoughts on Arcadia are welcome; and if you come to NYC to see it, I'll send you a discount code, perhaps we can meet up for coffee...


Ran Barton said...

I can never think of entropy without thinking of Asimov's The Last Question, which has its own religious tweak at the end.

Ciao, Cliff!

Clifford Swartz said...

Thanks, Ran. I'm not sure I've read it, and so will have a look. If you come up to see the play...