Jigsaw Order Out of Chaos

Frank Lloyd Wright, Hoffman House rug design


It’s not often that I do jigsaw puzzles, but I just completed a particularly challenging Frank Lloyd Wright rug design (challenging at least for me) and am feeling proud of myself. Perhaps it appeals to the side of me that has specialized in 18th century literature.

Many in that century were obsessed with finding order in chaos. Buoyed by the discoveries of Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and others, the deists saw God as a clockmaker who wound up the universe and then stepped back, having given humans the intellectual capacity to penetrate those secrets. Alexander Pope, for instance, extolled Newton with a perfectly balanced heroic couplet.

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

To be sure, the moment that classicism and notions of divine order discoverable by science took hold, authors spoofed them. Through his satire of a figure modeled on Leibniz, Voltaire famously takes shots at the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds and that a divine plan can be found underlying even the most disastrous of events. In “Upon a Lady’s Dressing Room,” Jonathan Swift has a voyeuristic lover rummaging in his mistress’s dressing room (including her chamber pot) to understand her beauty. While he emerges disgusted and disillusioned, the poem’s speaker says he’s just not looking at things the right way:

If Strephon would but stop his nose
(Who now so impiously blasphemes
Her ointments, daubs, and paints and creams,
Her washes, slops, and every clout,
With which he makes so foul a rout)
He soon would learn to think like me,
And bless his ravished sight to see
Such order from confusion sprung,
Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.

In the past I have put together jigsaw puzzles featuring flowers—from tiny cardboard shapes, not from dung—and I long ago realized that I do so whenever the world feels particularly chaotic. When I first entered the job market, I obsessively put together jigsaw puzzles while waiting for employers to respond to my resumes, which I had scattered in a 20-mile radius around our house in Braham, Minnesota. As soon as I landed a job, I lost all interest in the puzzles.

Perhaps anxieties over a new course explain why I poured myself into the Wright puzzle. Now that the course is underway and the syllabi are completed, I have once again become indifferent. Nor, to cite an activity that provides similar reassurance, do I feel the need to read any new detective mysteries. Since I’m deep into Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone, I’ll probably complete it, even though I’m not terribly interested in who stole the gem. The novel has a great narrator in house steward Gabriel Betteridge, however.

For the most part, I’m now comfortable enough with the familiar day-to-day chaos of everyday life. Yesterday I declined my mother’s suggestion that I open another puzzle.

This entry was posted in Collins (Wilkie), Pope (Alexander), Swift (Jonathan), Uncategorized, Voltaire and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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