Monday, September 26, 2011

Shakespeare and the Infinite Monkeys, or Why Art Isn't an Accident

Some people take their clichés too seriously.

A BBC article this morning, entitled "Virtual Monkeys Write Shakespeare," investigates Jesse Anderson's project to simulate an infinite number of monkeys hammering on an infinite number of typewriters, to see how long these code monkeys take to reproduce the Bard's complete body of work. In short, this is a virtual test of the platitude that an infinite number of monkeys pummeling relentlessly on a battered keyboard can shamble together the prose of a lyrical genius. So how much value is there to this cliché?

"If you put enough monkeys in a room with a typewriter, they'll produce Shakespeare": this concept is called the "infinite monkey theorem." (And yes, there's a Wiki page on it. And no, I will not explain the mathematical proofs.) Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay "The Total Library," traced the idea as far back as Aristotle--so the idea is hardly new. Literary theory uses this concept in one of two general ways: either to argue that art is not an accident, or to contend that anybody has the ability to produce art. In the latter case, the monkey adage swings from our tongues to insinuate contempt at someone else's good fortune, or to compliment a budding talent.

But let's stop for a moment. Anderson's project provides a fun glimpse into a quirky thought experiment--can an infinite monkey actually generate Shakespeare's texts, yet alone any others? There are a few pragmatic issues that weigh down this test, like a monkey on the back. Firstly, nobody--save the titular Doctor of Doctor Who--has an eternity with which to toy around in time and space. Secondly, genuine art is a reaction to life experiences, a considered and developed response to an individual's sense of reality. The collaborative effort necessary for monkeys ad infinitum to gather in a room and produce a text are staggering. In the instance of a single monkey, an eternity could elapse before producing the opening chapter of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight.

Which would leave literature in a sorry place, indeed.

This is to say that the complete works of William Shakespeare are the culmination of the Bard's singular existence. His endeavors as an actor, playwright, father, husband, lover, etc. produces an array of influences far vaster than the random happenstance of monkeys slapping their digits across a typewriter's keys. Furthermore, Shakespeare has a certain social, historical, and political context--Elizabethan England, the rise of empire, the culture of the stage, bowing to the wants of groundlings and nobles alike. Perhaps the only context—political or otherwise—of imprisoning monkeys with typewriters is a pending legal action by the ASPCA, or a series of coy adverts released by PETA.

Let us leave literature to each other, and to our individual talents and insights. And let the monkeys keep their own interests intact. "Monkeys," as the BBC article's photo caption reads, are "more interested in throwing faeces than writing sonnets."


Post a Comment