Monday, 11 May 2009


I remember the first time I heard the word “motif”. It was and still is an enchanting word. Unlike “fractals”, which also refers to patterns, “motif” has a sweet gentleness to its power, like a butterfly wing. Fractals are associated with skulking the universe for nefarious collections of meaning. Motifs are repetition with variation, harmonies, rhythms that give cadence and reassurance to our lives. Fractals are scary. Aha, there goes another fractal, carrying with it apocalyptic secrets.

Fractals are those Dickensian caricatures, part animal, part human. Without a past or future, devoid of feeling or sentimentality, they just are. They don’t drive the plot of life, or contribute to the growth and nurturing of the main character. They are the undercurrents of existence lurking in roadside ditches or behind tall trees, under rocks or inside caves.

Motifs flutter and float among the reflective moments of our lives. We see them in the way a grandchild will repeat mannerisms of a distant relative. The Gandhi wisdom of a four year old, who says, “Let’s all try to get along.” The fairies at the bottom of the garden game repeats with each generation. Sometimes the pattern gets disrupted by an unbelieving child. But then an hour with Peter Pan, and the belief is restored.

Perhaps that’s the big difference. Motifs are about imagination and believing that there is meaning and purpose in the recurrence of events. Fractals are those logical, sometimes practical patterns and observations of the world. We dissect to understand fractals; we reflect on the power of motifs.