“Arcadia” and the Grid

Todd Heisler/ nytimes.com

A recent Times article commemorated the 200th birthday of “The Grid:” that hard-knuckled, 90-degree matrix that set New York’s streets in unsurprising, rectangulinear order. Excepting some of downtown’s eccentricities, the feature tells us, the grid “gave developers and, later, tourists order, access and predictability.”

How very Newtonian, Tom Stoppard might say. His “Arcadia,” a revival of which just opened on Broadway, explores similar ideas of order and chaos, predictability and chance by alternating between two periods, ultimately tracking physics’ and philosophy’s journey from optimism (in 1809) to a more complicated, less organized universe (in 2011).

The New York Grid could be said to represent classicism, or 1809 “Arcadia:” It’s reasoned, clear, and lucid. It’s the ordered cosmos Thomasina, “Arcadia’s” brilliant, young heroine, is taught to see. Whether it’s Fermat’s last theorem, advanced algebra, or any of the other brain-cramping topics her tutor brings up, order is the final, reachable goal. Surprise is tamed by logic and structure.

New York’s city commissioners, working a mere two years after the fictional Thomasina, operated under similarly classically based, optimistic principles. Sam Roberts (author of the Times article) writes, “The urban grid goes back beyond Hippodamus of Miletus, the Greek urban planner, who, like the street commissioners, viewed the matrix as a manifestation of ‘the rationality of civilized life.’” City structure could manufacture personal integrity, officials believed.

Of course, the stuff of real, day-to-day New York life is hardly “rational” or “civilized,” despite the best intentions of commissioners of old. We get philosophical proof of this in present-day, 2011 “Arcadia,” when several researchers are exploring various mysteries of the same 1809, English estate where Thomasina worked. They’ve found some of her old ledgers, and excitedly learn that she was making extraordinary mathematical discoveries far ahead of her time.

Turns out she was busy uprooting the Newtonian, ordered universe before of the rest of the world. Of this discovery, one of the present-day researchers says, “She saw what things meant, way ahead, like seeing a picture… Like a film… [She saw] that you can’t run the film backwards. Heat was the first thing that didn’t work that way. Not like Newton. A film of a pendulum, or a ball falling through

the air, backwards, it looks the same… But with heat — friction — a ball breaking a window… It won’t work backwards… She saw why. You can put back the bits of glass but you can’t collect up the heat of the smash. It’s gone.” Pandemonium, not order, is the end; pattern and tidiness are upended by cosmic uncertainty.

The understated response? “So the Improved Newtonian Universe must cease and grow cold. Dear me.”

For those of us living in that “improved,” contemporary universe, especially those of us in New York City, things can often seem overwhelmingly haphazard and undirected, more 2011 than 1809. Our city commissioners of old may have set us down on carefully planned streets, but the whims of chance and accident always manage to find their way into our small, clanky apartments. We’re living proof of “Arcadia’s” progression, harried lives spinning atop a dream of order and right angles. We’re Thomasina’s ideas incarnate.

 

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