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The Uses of Chaos 

One of my students wrote a poem about Eros and Psyche, about how sneaky Eros comes in the middle of the night piping thrilly nothings into a girl's ears causing her Goosebumps, but then always-alert Psyche catches Eros at his tricks and chases him away. Nothing unusual so far. A good girl must guard herself against temptation and keep the world going through proper behavior and belief in civilization. The Greeks thought up Psyche and Eros and made them into gods.

I asked my student to introduce a third Greek god into the equation, for the sake of giving her struggle a political and social dimension. Namely, I said, why don't you introduce Chaos (Kaos to some) a god of equal importance to the Greeks, who were also aware of time and history. The appearance of Chaos alters things between Eros and Psyche quite a bit. Suppose that civilization has broken down, like after the Crusades, the Plagues, and the A-bombs, and there are only a few survivors. Chaos reigns. Under these conditions, Eros' piping may get a little rough and those Goosebumps more onerous. Psyche's warnings wouldn't amount to much under the circumstances. Be a good girl? What does that mean when the job is to quickly repopulate the race and to give survival all you've got? With Chaos (or Kaos) present, Psyche is in retreat, Eros in the ascendant.

As urban and urbane creatures of a benign society, we would rather never have to encounter Chaos (or Kaos), but he lurks ever alive just at the edges of this tenuous agreement we have made among ourselves. My first memory of Chaos was the 1967 Detroit riot when the poor of every hue looted together in joyous anarchy. The first days of post-Katrina saw similar multi-cultural appropriation. The French poet Arthur Rimbaud lived through the French commune in Paris and was disturbed enough to write poetry that changed literature forever. Chaos exercises a huge pressure on all ideas of social order and authority. Mostly, it gives Eros and Psyche a bigger stage on which to play their drama of desire and control.

People who have had the good fortune of experiencing and grasping Chaos will never again feel, like the libertines of the 18th century or the Americans of the 20th, that play is frivolous and correctable. They have the ability to see the communal effects of their struggle with the gods and call for simple and decent government. It happened after every war, it happened after every epidemic, it happened briefly after 9/11, it's happening now after Katrina. Most of the time the call went unheeded, or, even worse, it brought into being greater Chaos than the original event. The Chaos of 9/11 gave birth to the even greater Chaos of Iraq. Let's try to be very clear about what we want from Katrina's present of Chaos. Andrei Codrescu's new book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing from the City.


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