A Taste For Chaos

The Art of Literary Improvisation

Randy Fertel

Spring Journal, Inc., March 2015

Western civilization has always driven toward mastering the world through reason, will, craft and scientific objectivity. Yet beneath this current swirls a riptide that suggests we can know more of the world through non-rational means – through spontaneity, intuition and creativity. In A Taste for Chaos, literary scholar Randy Fertel explores this undercurrent of spontaneity in literature and identifies a new metagenre called improvisation – texts that claim to have been written without effort or craft, like an idea that hits you in the shower. Whether the authors claim to have written them in a dream, instinctively, off the top of their head, or when drunk, they have done so, so they claim, without effort, and their work is the more valuable because of it.

While self-styled spontaneous texts claim to be unlike anything we have ever seen before, they actually abound across genres and time, from the epic sung poetry of classical Greece to 21st century novels. A Taste for Chaos presents a methodology for talking about spontaneity, and then applies that methodology to landmark texts. Fertel explores the complex nature of the spontaneous gesture; identifies the stylistic conventions, themes and rhetorical features of improvisations; and explores the archetype of spontaneity throughout history from philosophy and psychology to chaos science, jazz, conceptual art, post-modernism and finally Hermes – the god of crossing boundaries, of improvisation, who graces the book’s cover. Fertel then provides a fresh approach to major texts of the Western tradition by analyzing them through the lens of improvisation: Milton’s Paradise Lost, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Jung’s Red Book, Joyce’s Ulysses, Mann’s Dr. Faustus and finally, McEwan’s Saturday. Woven throughout these improvisations, demonstrates Fertel, is the lesson that we can ultimately know more of the world by accepting the limits of reason, and opening up rationality to more of life.

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About the Author

Randy Fertel, a writer based in New York and New Orleans, is president of both the Fertel Foundation and the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he received a student-voted teaching award, and specializes in the literature of the Vietnam War. He has taught English at Harvard, Tulane University, LeMoyne College, the New School for Social Research and the University of New Orleans. Fertel is a prolific and popular essayist with recent items in Smithsonian, Gastronomica, Gilt Taste, Creative Nonfiction, Tikkun, New Orleans Magazine and Kenyon Review, which published his award-winning essay on Hurricane Katrina.

A former busboy, restaurant manager and Director of Marketing for Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Fertel remembers interrupting high school homework to make emergency French bread runs. A lover of fine wines, fine food and great cars, he has long dined out on the stories that make up The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak.

As president of the Fertel Foundation, Fertel weaves together people and ideas, and fosters projects related to the arts and education. The Foundation is especially interested in initiatives from which new communities and new insights may emerge, and those that challenge entrenched communities of power.

He is also president of The Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, which is devoted exclusively to education in Louisiana, providing scholarships and support to high-achieving, economically deprived students in the New Orleans region. The year after the storm, The Ruth U. Fertel Foundation pledged over one million dollars in grants to New Orleans schools and educational resources.