One of the lovely interpretations of the classic chaos glyph (that eight-pointed star thingy which itself has various names, none of which are perfect descriptions) is the idea that it represents the magician expanding outwards in all possible directions. This is a symbol of diversity and multiplicity rather than a unitary simple Truth. The many-rayed sigil reminds us that, as American essayist and satirist H. L. Mencken pointed out; “ For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” In the complexity of human existence (which has, I suspect, always been pretty complex even in various imagined ‘simpler’ ages) what appear to be ‘straightforward’ answers (often served as naive religious, philosophical or esoteric Truths) often turn out to be bunkum.
Sure there are times when we must decisively act. When we must say ‘no’ and draw a line in the sand. There are times when we must slice those Gordian Knots and cut through complexity to find clarity. However the kind of poor quality simple answers I’m thinking of are the kind of (supposedly) axiomatic articles of faith that get trotted out without much reflective thought.
Take, for example, a view that began to emerge as Freud et al were exploring the subconscious architecture of the human mind. As any 1960s hippy will tell you; the main problem with society is that we’re all sexually repressed. If only we could somehow be free sexual beings; free of the patriarchal fear of female erotic power, free of repressive laws about nudity, free of our own Judeo-Christian notions of sexual guilt and shame. If only we could be free in this way everything (and the suggestion is that miraculously dealing with what is perceived as the big problem will somehow fix all the other problems in culture) would be groovy. While there is certainly merit in exploring the issue of sexual openness the problem is that in individuals who, perhaps as a result of illness, don’t exhibit any sense of ‘repression’ end up finding life in consensus reality pretty tricky. Sexual disinhibition can arise as a result of various neurological problems and for the people with these difficulties, their families and carers, the trauma caused by a reduced ability to understand what is appropriate behaviour in a given context can be greatly distressing.
This is not of course the same as saying that sexual mores in culture cannot and do not change. I was recently at a wonderful beach in Cornwall where it is accepted that people may, if they wish, go naked. There has been a generally gradual social process which means that, still with boundaries, nudity is accepted in this locality. Equally we can look at the objects left by other cultures which point to the flexibility of human social mores on nudity and sexuality. I was recently involved in the curation of an exhibition and associated sexual health project which takes objects from the past and other cultures and uses these as lenses through which we can explore how ideas about sexuality change and how we can use those insights to reflect on our culture today. Change certainly happens, and sometimes change is sweeping and radical. But even dramatic change happens within a context, which we ignore at our peril.
When we consider simple (wrong) solutions there’s also that often quoted idea that ‘if only we could live in the moment’; to deeply appreciate the now rather than being swept up in our ideas about the past and future then we’d all be so much happier (and of course society would be so much better…). But is this ‘simple truth’ of the power of now really, like ‘love’, all we need? Look at the life experience of individuals who only (as a result of neurological trauma) live only in the present. What we see are people with memory illnesses who find their situation confusing, distressing and, like those with sexual disinhibition, impossible to integrate into consensus reality. Living in the moment is great, mindfulness meditation is great, but only as part of a balanced diet that includes having plans, regrets, hopes and fears.
There’s also that pervasive idea that ‘all we want is to be happy’. Again, a simple solution to the complex problem of human experience. But is happiness really all we want? I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with my children where we discussed whether, as a thought experiment, we would be prepared to take a pill that would make us happy for the rest of our lives. Having discussed the various problems and paradoxes involved we decided that none of us would take the happiness pill because if we did (although we’d not notice, because we’d just be happy…) we’d somehow have lost something of our humanity. (Or as one wag once put it; “I’d rather have a full bottle in front of me than a full frontal lobotomy.”) Happiness is an aspiration for many of us, but a lifetime of total blissful joy – would that actually be cool? What of the context in which we are being happy? What, as James T.Kirk repeatedly observes, about the importance of struggle as part of the human condition?
For me the chaos sphere/chaos star/octaris/eight-fold pointy thing is a reminder that changing ourselves and the world is a multifaceted and complex process. We need a variety of skills, of tactics, of selves and of truths. We need to take a wide view and engage with the full range of experiences available to us. So rather than take refuge in simplistic statements (whether couched in esoteric, politcal or other terms) that pretend to a self-evident marvellous power of radical and total transformation, the icon of chaos reminds us that the world is complex, mutable and multiple. The eight-fold star invites us to explore the full panoply of what it means to be fully human and to remember that for every complex problem…