Tag Archives: comedy

Brownian Motion, Tragedy, Comedy, and History

The Discovery of Brownian Motion

In 1829, the Scottish botanist Robert Brown observed microscopic grains of pollen suspended in water. Instead of moving in straight lines or staying still, they moved about in an erratic and entirely unpredictable manner. They followed, as it were, a ‘drunkard’s path’:

Brownian Motion

Brownian Motion

To Brown, the pollen grains seemed invested with the primordial rudiments of life which gave imbued them with the capacity to meander about like drunkards following a random walk. Cool! Too bad though: he was wrong. But like so many things, even though his hypothesis was incorrect, the search for the correct explanation changed the way we look at the world. The correct explanation for Brownian motion is that the grains of pollen were being bombarded by myriads of water molecules moving at random. The molecules were too small to be resolved by the microscopes. Their presence could only be inferred by observing Brownian motion.

So, Brownian motion is the name given to the random motion of particles in gases or liquids. The particles follow a ‘random walk’ or a ‘drunkard’s path’ because they are round and elastic, bouncing off one another in proportion to the temperature of the system. Or so the kinetic theory of gases would argue. If this seems self-evident, it sure wasn’t in 1829. Molecules: what are those? Didn’t matter contain phlogiston, an element with the property of fire which enables combustion? And so on. It wasn’t until 1905 that someone figured out the true cause behind the disturbingly random movements in Brownian motion. It took Einstein to figure it out.

Levels of Uncertainty and Order in Brownian Motion

Now, what is most interesting about Brownian motion is that here is a system that is completely random, unpredictable, and lacking certainty on one level but exhibits form, predictability, and order on another level.

On a micro level, the random walk of a gas particle in a container is, well, completely random. That is to say, there is no force in the universe which is capable of predicting whither it will go. God doesn’t know. Ask Laplace’s demon and he would tell you many other things, but the random walk is beyond his intelligence.

All this uncertainty: very frustrating! What can be done? Well, nothing can be done. The uncertainty resolves itself! How? On a macro level, a container of gas exhibits form, predictability, and order. Gas in a container-that is to say millions of billions of particles all randomly walking-is governed by such things as Boyle’s Law (pressure inversely proportional to volume) and the transfer of kinetic energy (temperature) of the container to the outside world is also well regulated.

How it happens that on a micro level things are completely random (individual particles of gas randomly walking) and on a macro level things are completely determinate (billions of particle of gas have well defined characteristics including temperature, energy, pressure, etc.,) is beyond me. At some point, however, chaos gives way to order. Keep this in mind for now.

Tragedy, Comedy, and History

Ever thought about how randomness, unpredictability, and the unexpected dominate comedy and tragedy. In comedy, the unlikely couple overcome cantankerous patriarchs, and social and economic barriers to become happily married. In tragedy, the unexpected also dominates: Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane hill every time. But now turn your attention to history. Patterns emerge. Some of the patterns are linear. Fukuyama thought that history aimed towards achieving democratic capitalist societies. Then history ends. Marx thought history strives towards the communist revolution. Patterns can be linear. Polybius believed in anacyclosis, the doctrine that constitutions move cyclically from monarchy to tyranny to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to ochlocracy and then back again to monarchy. The patterns in history are reflective of a reality that has form, order, and is predictable. If tragedy, comedy, and history all represent reality, is comedy and tragedy correct or is history correct? After all, the unexpected reigns in comedy and tragedy while the expected reigns in history.

Come back now to the behavior of gases on a micro and macro level. On a micro level, Brownian motion is the term used to describe the unexpected ways particles move around at random. On a macro level, patterns emerge that are predictable (e.g. as pressure increases volume decreases). Tragedy and comedy look at the world from a micro level. They usually dramatize the actions of a day or less (the unity of time). History looks at the world from a macro level. It records actions taken place over decades and centuries. In this way, the short term randomness of a day yields to long term order and patterns. So comedy and tragedy versus history is like looking at Brownian motion: on a small scale, disorder. On a large scale, order. Neither are right or wrong. They are looking at the same reality from a different perspective.

It always astounds me how many parallels there are between science and art. It may have something to do with how we look at the world. Whether we are artists or scientists, we look at the world with the same set of eyes and the same intellectual apparatus. So perhaps the parallels between science and art rests on humanity and the all-too-human way of understanding things.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work by figuring out the secrets to tragic literary theory.

The Prologue in Comedy

Diligent readers will recall that comedy has been on the reading list of late. There’s the Old Comedy of Aristophanes (446-386 BC), the New Comedy of Menander (341-291), and the Roman comedies of Plautus (254-184) and Terence (186-159). Next up will probably be Moliere, Congreve, and Shakes. The purpose of reading comedy is to see how it handles the theme of the unexpected. Of course, reading comedy is also a delight unto itself! Just finished reading Terence’s The Eunuch where a young man disguises himself as a eunuch to go in the whorehouse. You can just imagine what happens! Of course, some of the things are politically incorrect to laugh at nowadays. Women, for example, are frequently ravished, and when they find out they are actually freeborn, they get married to their ravishers and everyone rejoices. But some jokes maintain their timelessness. For example when the head mistress complains that her incompetent champion needs a champion himself:

Thais: You must talk to him firmly.

Chremes: I will…

Thais: Prepare yourself for action [aside] Good heavens I’m lost. What a man to defend me! He needs a champion of his own!

The Prologue

One thing that sets apart the comedies of Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, and Terence is the presence or absence of a prologue. Terence uses the prologue to give credit to his Greek predecessors and defend himself from critics. Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to The Eunuch:

If there are people who try to please as many and hurt as few honest men as possible, the poet begs to announce himself one of their number. Furthermore, if someone has thought something too harsh has been said against him, he must realize that this was not an attack but an answer, for he launched the first assault. For all his competence as a translator, his poor style of writing has turned good Greek plays into bad Latin ones. He is also the man who has just given us The Spectre of Menander, and in his Treasure made the defendant state his claim to the money before the plaintiff puts his won case…

Plautus uses the prologue to set the scene and lay out the argument. Frequently a divinity addresses the audience. Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to Amphitryo delivered by Mercury:

The scene is laid in Thebes. That is Amphitryo’s house. He comes of an Argive family. His wife is Alumna, daughter of Electrus. At the moment, Amphitryo is commanding the Theban army; Thebes is at war with the Teleboians. Amphitryo went away leaving Alumna pregnant. Jupiter…well, you know, of course, how-what shall I say-broad minded he has always been in these affairs, what a wonderful lover he is, when he comes across something he fancies…

Menander uses the prologue in much the same way as Plautus. Here’s an example from Old Cantankerous delivered by Pan:

Imagine, please, that the scene is set in Attica, in fact at Phyle, and that the shrine I’m coming from is the one belonging to that village (Phylaeans are able to farm this stony ground). It’s a holy place, and a very famous one. This farm here on my right is where Knemon lives: he’s a real hermit of  man, who snarls at everyone and hates company…

Aristophanes does not use prologues. What is to happen develops as a matter of course from the action. Here’s the beginning to The Clouds:

Strepsiades: Yaaaahhuuuuu. Great Zeus Almighty, what an endless monster of a night it’s been! Won’t the daylight ever come? I could have sworn I heard the roosters crowing hours ago. And listen to those slaves. Still snoring away! By god, things around here were a long sight different in the good old days before this war! Drat this stinking war anyway! It’s ruined Athens. Why, you can’t even whip your own slaves any more or they’ll desert to the Spartans. Bah. [pointing to Pheidippides] And as for him, that precious playboy son of mine, he’s worse yet. Look at him, stretched out there sleeping like a log under five fat blankets, farting away. All right, if that’s the way you want it, boy, I’ll snuggle down and fart you back a burst or two. Damn! I’m so bitten up by all these blasted bedbuggering debts and bills and stables-fees, I can’t catch a wink.

So, the play will be about his son and debts. But this is known not by prologue, but by action and dialogue.

Which is Best?

Which style do you like best? No prologue (Aristophanes), prologue to hear dramatist venting (Terence), or prologues that give out the argument of the play (Menander and Plautus)? If you ask me, the best is Terence: with prologue but prologue is not about events in the play. It is best just because it’s fun seeing him dig up dirt on rivals. And acknowledging his debts and sources is always excellent as well. Second best is Aristophanes: no prologue. In both Terence and Aristophanes’ cases, the plot develops organically from the action. Drama is from the Greek verb dran ‘do, act’. The natural function of drama then is to do or act, not narrate, which is what a prologue does. If I had wanted narration, I would have read a novel, not seen a play. So, having said this, least best is the prologue in Menander and Plautus which tells the audience what will happen instead of acting out what will happen. It is least best because narration is foreign to the function of drama. Why would Menander and Plautus used the clumsy prologue than? Perhaps they were unsure of the sophistication of their audiences, the capacity of their audiences to follow the action. The prologue would have solved this. Aristophanes wrote in Athens for an Athenocentric audience: they likely shared a similar point of view so the danger of being misunderstood was low. Menander and Plautus likely wrote plays which would have been performed throughout the wide Hellenic world: more danger of misunderstanding. So that might be a reason why. Not that I forgive them for this indiscretion to the spirit of drama, though.

Other Examples of Art Doing Things Contrary to Its Nature

Lately there seem to be some movies fascinated by stills. So if prologues in drama is a drama wanting to be a novel, stills in movies is a sign of a movie wanting to be photography (a still instead of a moving image). One movie that had a lot of breathtaking stills was Snyder’s 300. Though breathtaking, the cinematic experience allows motion: motion is its natural element whereas the frozen frame is the natural element of photography. Why confuse the two?

A common feature of medieval art is the speech scroll or the banderole:

Non est Deus Banderole, Master of Ingeborg Psalter 1210

Non est Deus Banderole, Master of Ingeborg Psalter 1210

Here is a visual representation of Psalm 14, ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’. The banderole quotes the psalm, non est Deus. But this is a painting, whose function is not to narrate speech. The painter could have depicted the man trampling the bible or doing some other act visually to indicate this. The purpose of painting is to capture the imagistic heart of a moment. The banderole, being speech, takes away from the image and is contrary to the nature of the visual representation.

The other day, I was watching Kurosawa’s The Idiot (his adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel) with MR and MA. One thing that got my attention was Kurosawa’s use of text to get the audience up to speed on the prehistory and argument of the movie. Again, I thought, ‘if it is a movie, why couldn’t this be done through the action proper?’.

In each for of art, there must be a telos: its proper function. When art observes its telos, it is in order. When art exceeds its telos, what is it-out of order, perhaps?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I have been Doing Melpomene’s Work.