Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture and Spring Journal Books
$ 32.95

A Taste for Chaos
The Art of Literary Improvisation

by Randy Fertel

ISBN: 978-1-935528-68-5
522 pp.

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.
*****
Praise for A Taste for Chaos
A smart blend of psychology, philosophy and literary history.... A tour de force of reading in the fields of literary theory and history befitting a George Steiner or Erich Auerbach.
Kirkus Review
A Taste for Chaos is a stunner of a book—smart, jarring, innovative, witty, provocative, wise, and beautifully written. As a sustained and unified work of literary analysis, this book is nothing short of dazzling, both in its meticulously structured central argument and in its intricate exploration of the artistic tensions between order and disorder, reason and intuition, design and improvisation. Not only is this a book about the artistic endeavor, but it is also a work of art in its own right.
Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato
A Taste for Chaos provides a sweeping view of the complex history of the notion of artistic spontaneity. Packed with erudition and references ranging from Lucretius to James Brown, and written with reader-friendly clarity, Fertel’s book is a lively examination of the centuries-old debate between the improvisers and the deliberators. This detailed labor of love deserves its place on any serious bookshelf devoted to literary study or the history of ideas.
Billy Collins, Poet Laureate; Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems
Fertel has Erasmus jamming with Jung and Louis Armstrong, and you can almost tap your foot to it.
Roy Blount, Alphabet Juice
The magnificent chapter on Hermes and Odysseus is alone worth the price of the entire volume.
Stanley Lombardo, Prof. Emeritus of Classics, Univ. of Kansas; translator of The Iliad and Odyssey
Randy Fertel leads us on a brilliant literary exploration of improvisation and the art of appearing spontaneous. From Louis Armstrong to Derrida, Twain to Jung to Joyce, he shows how order emerges from chaos. It’s a delightful and fascinating book, written with a jazz-like enthusiasm.
Walter Isaacson, CEO, Aspen Institute; author of The Innovators and Steve Jobs
A Taste for Chaos, is both important and rich with a perceptive imagination; it is a good match to Isaacson's The Innovators, and stands tall as another huge and hand-carved broom that removes so much dust from the floors of the academy. Fertel is about stepping up to the issue and using his head for much more than a hat rack.
Stanley Crouch, Kansas City Lightning and Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz
A highly personal tour de force of literary criticism that got me thinking in totally new ways about improvisation, spontaneity, and invention—the tools of the trade for any jazz musician.
Tom Sancton, clarinetist; Song For My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White
A Taste for Chaos is smart, wide ranging, full of surprises, and insightful. It is both impressive and a delight to read. As a work that is wide ranging, bringing together both insight and illumination of the disparate, it’s the kind of scholarship I most admire.
David Lynn, editor of The Kenyon Review
I started reading New Orleanian Randy Fertel’s journey through the landscape of literary improvisation with a CD of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet playing softly. Gradually I realized that Louis was Fertel’s exemplar rather than simple accompanist, and that all those intimidating, august, marble-busted great men of letters—Rabelais, Milton, Joyce, Jung, and so on—had also been sitting up too late, smoking, working out their riffs. Who knew? There’s a new and unanticipated note on every page of Fertel’s exciting book.
Richard Rabinowitz, Revolution!: The Atlantic World Reborn
There’s nothing quite like A Taste for Chaos: a cool, analytic, and deeply insightful book about improvisation and chaos. Fertel argues that craft and ‘reason’s click clack’ lead nowhere without spontaneity. Through intriguing examples gleaned from literature and literary criticism, he leads us to the heart of creativity.
Fred Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age and Bamboula!: The Life and Times of Louis Moreau Gottschalk
If jazz, like love, has its own inner logic, why shouldn’t it have taken Randy Fertel four decades to riff through all our notions—and then some—of what it means to be an improvisational literary artist? Seeming contradictions are anywhere you find them, and serious work always has its own timetable.
Paul Hendrickson, National Book Critics Circle Award; Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost
I love this book. A Taste for Chaos had me at: ‘evaluation is one of the least interesting things we can do with spontaneity.’ Fertel opens the mysterious doorway of ‘spontaneous creation’ and shows me something clear, new, and useful on every page. Fertel is learned and light, reliable and readable, provocative and pleasurable. Even in his writing style he has caught the vitality of spontaneous creation, including some dazzling forays, yet with the authoritative voice academics demand.
Eric Booth, The Everyday Work of Art and The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible
In A Taste for Chaos Randy Fertel takes us deep into the substrata of the literary imagination and the creative process, linking such seemingly disparate minds as James Joyce’s and Louis Armstrong’s. It’s a fascinating exposition of the mysteries and benefits of improvisation.
Bruce Boyd Raeburn, Curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University; New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History
An inspiring book, as eccentric as its subject. It answers the question why some people are wonderfully, surprisingly creative (and why the rest of us are ploddingly predictable trudgers). Bravo, Fertel!
Bill Buford, Heat and Among the Thugs: The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence
Fertel’s writing is elegant and his undertaking impressive in scope and ambition, an interesting blend of close reading and panoramic vision.
Amy Ziering, director/producer of the film Derrida
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PREFACE
  WRITING IN THE NEW PARADIGM
I. METHODOLOGICAL GROUNDWORK
1 “WINGED BY AN UNCONSCIOUS WILL”:
HOW TO DO THINGS WITH SPONTANEITY
2 “GREAT DISORDER” VS “VIOLENT ORDER”:
THE RHETORIC OF SPONTANEITY VS THE RHETORIC OF CRAFT
3 “THROUGH CANDOR . . . A CANDID KIND”:
THE CONVENTIONS OF LITERARY IMPROVISATION
4 “PERCEIVING THE IDEA OF THIS INVENTION”:
SPONTANEITY IN LITERARY AND INTELLECTUAL HISTORY
5 “THE FIRST IDEA”:
UNPACKING SPONTANEITY
6 “STRANGE RELATION”:
CHAOS SCIENCE, IMPROVISATION, POST-MODERNISM
7 “A PRIMITIVE ASTRONOMY”:
HERMES AND LITERARY IMPROVISATION
II. APPLICATIONS
8 MILTON AND THE PROBLEMATICS OF INSPIRATION
9 TRISTRAM SHANDY:        
THE RAW AND THE RHETORICAL
10 “TINTERN ABBEY”:
WORDSWORTH’S REVOLUTIONARY EXPRESSION OF LOVE
11 TENNYSON:
“TOIL COÖPERANT TO AN END”
12 “FREE AND EASY”?:
THE POLITICS OF SPONTANEITY IN THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
13 “PIERCE[D] . . . WITH STRANGE RELATION”:
JUNG, JOYCE, AND MANN EMBRACE THE BACK STREETS
14 “DREAMING THE MYTH ONWARDS”:
SATURN VS. HERMES IN IAN MCEWAN’S SATURDAY
CONCLUSION
About the Author:
Randy Fertel holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Harvard University, where he received a student-voted teaching award. He has taught English at Harvard, Tulane, LeMoyne College, and the New School for Social Research. He specializes in the literature of the Vietnam War and the literature of exile.

Fertel has been featured in People, Bloomberg, and Esquire and has contributed to The New York Times, NPR, Smithsonian, Kenyon Review, Gastronomica, Creative Nonfiction, The Journal of Modern Literature, Modern Language Quarterly, Victorian Poetry, Spring Journal, Tikkun, WLA,New Orleans Review, and The Huffington Post. His first book, The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steaks: A New Orleans Family Memoir, the tale of two distinctive people—his parents—and his efforts to survive them, it is now in its third printing.

Fertel is president of the Fertel Foundation and co-founded, with the Nation Institute, the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth-Telling, named for My Lai whistleblower and investigative reporter Ron Ridenhour. He lives in New Orleans and New York.