Terence W Deacon in his book, Incomplete Nature, has one chapter called Homeodynamics - though don't ask me what that means.* It is a long and closely argued book on science and philosophy which I am only halfway through at the moment. Nevertheless, the chapter on homeodynamics raises some very interesting questions which do, I believe, have a great deal of relevance to creativity and the arts. In Homeodynamics, he draws a distinction in the field of Thermodynamics between Entropy and Complexity, which are characterised by what he calls Orthograde and Contragrade processes, the first of which tends towards thermodynamic equilibrium and the second towards thermodynamic disequilibrium.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics holds that ordered states of affairs have a natural tendency to become disordered - i.e., gas molecules placed in the corner of a container tend to spread out and become distributed across the volume of the container. This is because such molecules left to themselves incline towards a state of thermodynamic equilibrium. Whatever tends towards this state is moving in what Deacon calls an orthograde direction and going with the flow of things, as it were, and finding its natural level. Entropy reflects what things will do when they are free to do it and have no constraints placed upon them. Thus tidy rooms become untidy over a period of time, corpses decompose in the ground, while a hot poker eventually cools to ambient temperatures. Contragrade processes move in the opposite direction, that is to say, they arrest orthograde processes and become more ordered, thus contravening the natural process of entropy, which leads to decay. In point of fact, Deacon says that there are no pure contragrade processes; rather there are two or more conflicting orthograde processes which resist and place constraints on each other in ways which cancel each other out. Organic life he sees as an example of these contragrade processes in action in nature. A slightly mechanistic point of view, I suspect, but it does have some explanatory power nonetheless.
Over the past few weeks I have been watching a number of YouTube films and documentaries on the composer Ludwig Van Beethoven. These include the BBC's Eroica, about the first rehearsal/performance of Beethoven's Third Symphony, Immortal Beloved and Copying Beethoven. For me, by far the most interesting of these is the last, because a) it deals almost exclusively with the late-period Beethoven and b) the philosophy of art and creativity expressed in it is much more interesting than it is in the others, which do tend to present a clichéd portrait of Beethoven. It achieves this I believe because it contains the least biographical material and therefore allows itself to wander more in the realm of cinematic 'fiction'. In other words, it is a meta-portrait of Beethoven rather than an actual portrait and this has the paradoxical virtue of laying bare the 'soul' of the artist much more convincingly. Whether that artist was Beethoven or not is, of course, another question entirely. Near the beginning of the film, Anna Holtz (Dianne Kruger) corrects "the Maestro's" own composition of the 9th. Symphony, and when Beethoven (Ed Harris) questions her about it, says simply that that's what he would have done had he had more time to think about it, a point Beethoven concedes. This is a very interesting slant on the creative process in that it suggests that there are right ways and wrong ways of doing things, and the process of emergence of a work of art involves an element of trial and error until the right way has been discovered. And sometimes it can be discovered by somebody else. Elsewhere, Beethoven talks about how music emerges not from the head or the heart, but from the gut. In other words, it is visceral. I think the same about poetry. In yet another part Anna Holtz points out the differences between Beethoven's earlier 'romantic' middle period works and the much more 'cacophonic' and difficult later works such as the Grosse Fugue. She complains, for instance, that the Opus 131 Quartet is not divided into movements like other quartets and Beethoven's reply as ever is highly illuminating. He says that it's because it is organic and metamorphoses from one 'movement' to the next like something actually growing. I cannot think of a better way of characterising that quartet. Beethoven's music is full of apparently seamless transitions from one phase to the next, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the Opus. 131 Quartet.
What the film brings out is that Beethoven's late-period music was in fact far less 'musical' than his music was in the preceding periods. The Grosse Fugue, for example, was almost guaranteed to empty concert-halls at the time. It was harsh and dissonant compared to the more romantic music of his middle-period such as the Moonlight Sonata or the Pastoral Symphony. I am not going to make an absolute distinction here - obviously, there are gradations - but I think I am justified in saying, using Deacon's thermodynamic terminology, that it is much more contragrade and therefore much more organic. The difference between the orthograde and the contragrade in music might be characterised as the difference between the harmonic and the dissonant, the first of which would run with the flow of the notes freely exploring the musical spaces they find, while the second runs against the natural flow of the notes, becoming harsh and dissonant, where conflict rather than conciliation is the order of the day. Yet, curiously enough, for all its dissonance, the Grosse Fugue does end in an intensely lyrical way, having resolved all its conflicts. What the film brings out so well is the extent to which Beethoven had left 'music' behind and was going where no composer before him had gone in dynamically - and organically - integrating all these contragrade elements, thereby anticipating later composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok and others. One could say almost that this was the period in which Beethoven was finally able to compose for himself rather than for a public and explore all the intimate highways and byways of his own musical psyche.
On a narrative level, the film concerns a young composer by the name of Anna Holtz who is sent to work as a copyist for Ludwig Van Beethoven, whom she reveres as a 'master'. However, he is not only a 'master', he is also a bit of a 'monster'. She is extremely attractive and there is an underlying sexual tension between them which, thankfully, is kept at a distance. At first Beethoven comes across as thoughtless and insensitive, rather a bear, who on many occasions alienates Anna, because he is forthright and seemingly boorish. Underneath the surface, however, he is as much feeling his own way into their relationship as she is and whenever he alienates her he comes to regret it and tries his best to make amends. It is in fact a much more intriguing portrait of Beethoven's 'social inadequacies' than the usual romantic one of the 'deaf, misunderstood genius'. By the end of the film they have developed a very intimate musical relationship which spills over onto a personal plane in which each has become necessary to the other. Of course, to achieve this, sometimes the film has to forget that Beethoven is deaf. But, as I have said, it is a metaportrait rather than a portrait as such.
Getting back to the interesting idea of orthograde and the contragrade processes and extending it beyond thermodynamics in general, it is possible to see how it may apply to fields like music or art. Take the case of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple novels. They are a good example of the orthograde principle in action, whereby everything falls into place, not only in the solving of crime, but the kind of society in which those crimes come to be solved and also in the casual prejudices she expresses. Here we are in mid-fifties rural England, where the classes are clearly divided one from the other and only the wealthy really exist. Others are either servants or 'rustics' - i.e., slightly thick policemen and other working-class denizens of villages like St. Mary's Mead. In fact, for the most part, they are not even interesting enough to plan and execute the crimes Miss Marple will solve. But actually, it is quite realistic and aesthetically justified. The rich are the only ones capable of exploring their various desires sufficiently to be interesting as subjects in her novels, so she is only being honest about this. The poor simply don't have the means to live interesting lives and therefore be interesting enough in themselves to be anything more than ciphers in her novels. Often, Agatha Christie's social comedy can be as good as it is because of this 'class-bias', much like Jane Austen's, in fact, although nowhere near as prickly. Agatha Christie's is an England in which everyone knows their place and, therefore, everything falls into place - much like the crimes Miss Marple will solve. It is the antithesis of the works of the late-period Beethoven, where the ultimate creative syntheses have to be struggled for because they go so much against the grain and therefore do not just 'fall into place'. Terence W Deacon is clearly onto something with his ideas about orthograde and contragrade processes and kudos to him for the way he helps us understand them in the realm of thermodynamics, because they aren't only relevant there.
* Reading on, I see that Homeodynamics is contrasted with Morphodynamics and Teleodynamics. Homeodynamics refers to processes where entropy works in an unimpeded way, Morphodynamics refers to processes where entropy is partially impeded and forms emerge - such as happens in various crystals. Teleodynamics goes one step further to the point where entropy is completely inhibited and what emerges is directed towards an end which determines the functionality of the parts necessary for keeping it in existence. This is where organic and mental life apparently come into the picture. Probably not a good explication on my part, that's how I understand the terms.