The Buddhist monks from Namgyal monastery in India engage in a ritual that involves the creation of intricate patterns of coloured sand, known as mandalas. As large as three metres across, each mandala requires a couple of weeks of painstaking work, in which several monks in orange robes bend over a flat surface and scratch metallic vials. The vials extrude sand from tiny spouts, a few grains at a time, onto areas bounded by carefully measured chalk marks. Slowly, slowly, the ancient pattern is made. After the thing is completed, the monks say a prayer, pause a moment, and then sweep it all up in five minutes.
Although I haven’t witnessed this particular ritual, I’ve seen a number of mandalas during my travels in Southeast Asia. For Buddhists, the creation and destruction of a mandala symbolises the impermanence of earthly existence. But the ritual also reminds me of the profound symbiosis of order and disorder at the core of our world.
Somewhat surprisingly, nature not only requires disorder but thrives on it. Planets, stars, life, even the direction of time all depend on disorder. And we human beings as well. Especially if, along with disorder, we group together such concepts as randomness, novelty, spontaneity, free will and unpredictability. We might put all of these ideas in the same psychic basket. Within the oppositional category of order, we can gather together notions such as systems, law, reason, rationality, pattern, predictability. While the different clusters of concepts are not mirror images of one another, like twilight and dawn, they have much in common.
Our primeval attraction to both order and disorder shows up in modern aesthetics. We like symmetry and pattern, but we also relish a bit of asymmetry. The British art historian Ernst Gombrich believed that, although human beings have a deep psychological attraction to order, perfect order in art is uninteresting. ‘However we analyse the difference between the regular and the irregular,’ he wrote in The Sense of Order (1979), ‘we must ultimately be able to account for the most basic fact of aesthetic experience, the fact that delight lies somewhere between boredom and confusion.’ Too much order, we lose interest. Too much disorder, and there’s nothing to be interested in. My wife, a painter, always puts a splash of colour in the corner of her canvas, off balance, to make the painting more appealing. Evidently, our visual sweet-spot lies somewhere between boredom and confusion, predictability and newness.[…]