‘Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos… to celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream.’
So wrote the Pulitzer prize-winning author John Cheever.
‘The triumph over chaos.’ Those words kept coming to mind while I was writing my novel Aphrodite’s Tears.
Whereas we use the word today to mean disorder and confusion, it is derived from the Greek khaos, meaning vast chasm or void. According to the Ancient Greeks, Chaos was the very first being that existed, the gap that was created when heaven and earth were split.
Chaos was the first primordial deity. After Chaos (or possibly from Chaos) came Gaia (Earth), Tartarus (the Underworld) and Eros (Love). Then Chaos birthed Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night), who in turn created Aether (Light) and Hemera (Day). Uranus (Sky), Ourea (Mountains) and Pontus (Sea) completed the pantheon.
The second generation of deities, the Titans, were the offspring of Gaia and Uranus. They ruled after the Titan Cronus overthrew his father Uranus. The Titans were in turn overthrown by Cronus’s children (Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, Hestia, Hera and Demeter), who became the third generation deities, the Olympians.
‘The triumph over chaos.’ For the Ancient Greek gods, this could be interpreted in literal terms – each subsequent generation triumphed over the original Chaos by seizing power.
Of course, the chaos to which Cheever refers is the modern interpretation of disorder and confusion. The choice of the verb ‘triumph’ implies chaos is a negative force against which we must struggle and do battle, to emerge victorious. But then he qualifies chaos as a ‘world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream’. That sounds really quite beautiful, don’t you think? Overwhelming at times, but also inspiring.
Back to the family tree of the Greek deities. One stands apart, branching out: Aphrodite, goddess of love. She was created from the primordial deity Uranus and yet was one of the twelve Olympians. She did not triumph over Chaos as did her siblings and their offspring; she simply came into being. She and Chaos could live in harmony.
To write fiction, to express oneself eloquently and with passion, to set down the words in order – that requires triumph over chaos, yes. But more than that, I think writing demands finding a harmonious way of being with chaos. Remember, Chaos came first, before all else. Perhaps it is disorder, or perhaps, in fact, it is the void which we fill with the stories we write.