Sunday, 2 June 2013

Loss and recovery in "Arcadia"

My essay in Eng1303 course at UiO: 
In the third scene of Stoppard’s Arcadia (up to Thomasina’s exclamation ‘I hope you die!’, Norton Anthology p. 2907, Faber edn p. 54) many of the play’s key ideas regarding loss and recovery (or rediscovery, or re-creation) are teasingly explored. Write an essay on Stoppard’s dramatic investigation of these ideas, linking your reading of the scene to the concerns of the play as a whole.

Love, sex, mathematics, physics, thermodynamics, landscape design, Classicism versus Romanticism, order versus disorder, thought versus feeling, reason versus intuition, determinism and chaos theory, truth, knowledge, time... “Arcadia” is a fascinatingly complex, thought-provoking and ‘chaotic’ play that, moving back and forth between 1809-1812 and the present- the 1990s, tackles many things at the same time. But Tom Stoppard cleverly weaves all these themes and topics together, connecting them all together, for a main theme that concerns and runs through the whole play- loss and recovery, or rediscovery.
            The characters in the play face physical loss, emotional loss, intellectual loss. Burnings. Destructions. Deaths. The idea of loss and recovery is expressed most explicitly in scene three. When Thomasina grieves the loss of the hundreds or thousands of works in the library of Alexandria, Septimus says:
            “You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.” (Stoppard, 2907)
            Septimus does not seem to be right. What is lost is lost. Time is irreversible. Tea gets cold by itself but does not get hot by itself, heat flows in one direction. Rice pudding cannot be unstirred, we cannot stir things apart. Septimus’s thousands of sheets of paper get destroyed in a bonfire. The three letters he burns disappear forever. The content of Lord Byron’s letter as well as his reasons for leaving is never revealed. Information gets lost. We can neither come back in time nor rewind past events. The past is irretrievable. Most important of all, or at least to Septimus himself, Thomasina dies in a fire and can never ‘recur’- Septimus loses her forever.
It can be said that his confidence on the recovery, or rediscovery, of things is due to his belief in Newton’s laws of motion and determinism. Thomasina’s realisation of the incompleteness of Newton’s laws in describing the world causes Septimus to shift to what are later known as thermodynamics and chaos theory. Septimus, from an ‘amoral’ witty young man who has several affairs with the older women of the house, turns into a hermit and spends the rest of his life working on Thomasina’s theories. Why he is driven to madness (that is, if he really turns mad) is never exposed, but in my opinion, it is partly because of his thirst for knowledge as well as his wish for finding a solution against a gloomy future, but more because of his love for Thomasina, his feeling of guilt and his realisation that her death is a true loss and she is gone forever. One may assume that after this loss, Septimus’s confidence on recovery also shatters.
            However, Septimus’s idea is somehow supported throughout the play. The events of the two periods take place in more or less the same setting. Most noticeably, the names Coverly and Croom appear in both periods. As the play “Arcadia” shuttles back and forth between the present and the past, we can see repetitions, recurrences, echoes and doubles. For example, Chloe, unlike Thomasina, is not a genius who has ideas and theories far ahead of her time. But both of them are fascinated by science. Both of them ponder over determinism and chaos and heat. Thomasina asks Septimus “Am I the first person to have thought of this?” (Stoppard, 2884), Chloe asks Valentine “Do you think I’m the first person to think of this?” (Stoppard, 2931) Valentine and Septimus are different, the former does not possess the wittiness of the latter. But both Septimus and Valentine have a tortoise, called Plautus and Lightning respectively. Both are in their twenties at the time of the play. And they work on almost the same mathematical problems. In both periods, a teacher has a relationship, or an affair, with the daughter of the house- Septimus with Thomasina, and Bernard with Chloe. In both periods, there is a negative review- Septimus’s review of Chater’s poems and Bernard’s of Hannah’s book. And so on.
The people from these two periods also talk about the same topics and ideas, such as gardening and landscape and the change from Classical style to Romantic style as well as the contrast between Classicism and Romanticism- logic and intuition, thought and feeling, order and disorder. Lady Croom likes the garden as it is, like an amiable picture of Arcadia, and dislikes Mr Noakes’s plan to change it “... Where there is the familiar pastoral refinement of an Englishman’s garden, here is an eruption of gloomy forest and towering crag, of ruins where there was never a house, of water dashing against rocks where there was neither spring nor a stone I could throw the length of a cricket pitch. My hyacinth dell is become a haunt for hobgoblins, my Chinese bridge, which I am assured is superior to the one at Kew, and for all I know at Peking, is usurped by a fallen obelisk overgrown with briars...” (Stoppard, 2889) Hannah shares the same opinion, saying “The whole Romantic shame, Bernard! [...] A century of intellectual rigour turned in on itself. [...] There’s an engraving of Sidley Park in 1730 that makes you want to weep. Paradise in the age of reason. By 1760 everything had gone- the topiary, pools and terraces, fountains, an avenue of limes- the whole sublime geometry was ploughed under the Capability Brown...” (Stoppard, 2900) Lady Croom stands for Classicism and order, Mr Noakes, Romanticism and disorder or irregularity. Hannah stands for Classicism and logic, Bernard, Romanticism and emotion, intuition.
Unlike her mother Lady Croom, Thomasina supports the changes “In my opinion, Mr Noakes’s scheme for the garden is perfect. It is a Salvator!” (Stoppard, 2888) She embraces, and therefore embodies, innovation, change, development, progress. Thomasina is also the person who realises the incompleteness of the Newtonian system and comes up with ideas and theories of a new world view, a new system. In fact, the change from Classicism to Romanticism in this play goes together with the shift from Newtonian determinism and Euclidean geometry to thermodynamics and chaos theory, and these changes are discussed in both periods. For example, in scene one, Thomasina says “When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink as before.” (Stoppard, 2883) The observation of the irreversibility of natural phenomena recurs in scene seven, when Valentine says “Your tea gets cold by itself, it doesn’t get hot by itself... Heat goes to cold. It’s a one-way street. Your tea will end up at room temperature.” (Stoppard, 2935) Nearly two centuries apart, the characters in these two periods discuss similar topics and ideas- determinism and chaos theory and the unpredictability of nature and the second law of thermodynamics and the heat death of the universe, especially in scene seven, when the actions take place concurrently it appears as though the people from these two periods are talking about the same things at the same time.
The topic of sexual attraction with its effects or consequences is in both periods as well. In scene six, Lady Croom says “It is a defect of God’s humour that he directs our hearts everywhere but to those who have a right to them.” (Stoppard, 2930) This is echoed in the next scene when Chloe says “The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, it’s trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed in that part of the plan.” (Stoppard, 2931) According to her Newton’s laws do not work and we cannot predict the future because of sex, reminiscent of Thomasina saying “Newton’s machine which would knock our atoms from cradle to grave by the laws of motion is incomplete” (Stoppard, 2938) because of “the action of bodies in heat” (Stoppard, 2939).   
The examples above are doubles, echoes, parallels. There are also recurrences. At the end of scene two, Gus gives Hannah an apple with a leaf or two still attached. This connects scene two to scene three, connects the present to the past. The apple appears on the table at the beginning of scene three, which Septimus eats and whose leaf Thomasina takes, intending to plot it and to deduce its equation. The sound of a piano badly played in the background of scene three, where Lady Croom talks about changes and disorder, recurs in scene four, where Valentine explains to Hannah maths and the complexity of the real world. The blurring of the past and the present is best shown in scene seven, where the actions of the two periods run concurrently in the same setting. Moreover, as some characters in the present day wear fancy dress for a party, they, to some extent, look similar to the characters in 1812. Gus and Augustus, played by the same actor in the play, look almost indistinguishable. In scene seven, Valentine looks at Thomasina’s diagram of heat exchange and tells Hannah about the heat death of the universe, and at the same time, we can see Septimus read Thomasina’s essay and look at the same diagram and say “So, we are all doomed!” (Stoppard, 2945) Thomasina gives Septimus her drawing of him and Plautus, which later appears in the same scene when Gus gives it to Hannah. And in the end, we can see two couples, from the past and the present, dancing. Thomasina and Septimus. Hannah and Gus.
The ‘recurrences’ of these objects help the characters of the present solve the mysteries of Sidley Park and find the answers to their questions. Letters burn and information gets lost but eventually Hannah and Valentine are still able to find out that Mr Chater the poet and Mr Chater the botanist are the same person and he is not killed in a duel with Lord Byron. The drawing of Septimus and Plautus remains so Hannah has evidence that Septimus is the hermit. Amidst chaos order can still be found, the truth can be found. Things are not truly lost.
Furthermore, although Thomasina’s premature death is a great loss, especially to Septimus, there is some consolation, especially when we come close to the end of scene seven.
“Septimus: So, we are all doomed!
Thomasina: (cheerfully) Yes.
Septimus: So the Improved Newtonian Universe must cease and grow cold. Dear me.
Thomasina: Yes, we must hurry if we are going to dance.
Septimus: When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.
Thomasina: Then we will dance. Is this a waltz?” (Stoppard, 2945- 2946)
Her cheerful attitude, albeit seemingly contradicting and incomprehensible, can be perceived in multiple ways. It may be the excitement of a nearly- seventeen- year- old girl who is excited to learn how to waltz. It may be the pride in discovering what her contemporaries have not thought of. Yet another interpretation is that she accepts death. She accepts that everything will come to an end, accepts that she, as well as everybody else, will die and therefore should seize the day, live for the present and enjoy every moment. The title of the play, “Arcadia”, comes from “Et in Arcadia ego”, a phrase most commonly interpreted as a memento mori spoken by Death. It is ironic that later that night Thomasina dies in a fire, but her acceptance of human’s mortality may be a consolation, and at least she feels happy and has a good time with Septimus before that unpredictable death. Her death, thus, becomes less tragic.
On the other hand, though Thomasina and Septimus do not succeed, their work is “picked up by those behind”. It must be said that the notion of recovery or discovery in the play, as used in this essay, is to be understood in a special sense. In scene three, Septimus tells Thomasina to translate a text from Latin into English, which turns out to be some lines by Shakespeare that he has translated from English into Latin. Thomasina’s translation cannot be entirely identical to Shakespeare’s original. Similarly Newton and Leibniz are both credited with the invention of calculus, but they arrived at their results differently. There are variations. But in a way, things recur, as Septimus says. A particular concept or idea emerges periodically under the form of multiple artistic expressions. All that was lost will eventually turn up again. Thomasina dies, but Hannah has her notebooks, Valentine repeats and further develops Thomasina’s iteration with the help of computers and Chloe comes up with similar ideas about determinism and chaos. In scene five, Valentine says “who wrote what when” is “trivial”, explaining “The questions you’re asking don’t matter, you see. It’s like arguing who got there first with the calculus. The English say Newton, the Germans say Leibnitz. But it doesn’t matter. Personalities. What matters is the calculus. Scientific progress. Knowledge.” (Stoppard, 2922) That is in fact similar to Septimus’s thought “The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.” (Stoppard, 2907) If Newton had not invented calculus or if he had lost the paper, we would still have calculus today thanks to Leibnitz. Therefore, if we look at life this way, nothing is truly lost.
“Arcadia”, in my opinion, supports the view of the cyclical flow of history. Firstly, the structure of the play is full of repetitions, echoes, parallels and doubles. Secondly, Thomasina’s “mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view... have their time again” years later. Thirdly, “the pessimistic prospect of the extinction of the universe posited by the law of entropy, which destroys Septimus's faith in the Newtonian system is counterbalanced by the implications of Thomasina's other genial intuition, chaos theory, since this form of mathematics allows us to discover the equations governing the shapes of nature, and therefore, as Valentine puts it, to know "how [this universe] started, [and] perhaps... how the next one will come”.” (Rallo)

Antakyalioglu, Zekiye. "Chaos Theory and Stoppard's Arcadia",
“Arcadia (Play)”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
“Et in Arcadia ego”, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
Hari, Johann. “Is Tom Stoppard's Arcadia the greatest play of our age?”, The Independent, 2009,
Rallo, Carmen Lara. “The past will have its time again”,
Stoppard, Tom. “Arcadia”. In  The Norton Anthology of English Literature- Volume 2, edited by Julia Reidhead, 2880- 2948. United States of America: W. W. Norton& Company, Inc, 2012.

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