The Second Law of Thermodynamics (the Principle of Entropy) says that any system left to itself becomes increasingly chaotic and disorganized. In other words, any system that does not get energy from an external source decays.
The earth is an example of an open system because it receives energy from an external source, the sun. Because of the sunlight energy captured by the plants on earth, life can flourish and be organized—seemingly flying in the face of entropy.
However, a system can be anything: a covered, darkened test tube, a city or town, or an individual. Authors in American Literature have written about entropy for centuries. Often they deal with the entropy of a person who has cut himself from society. One famous example is Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.
Yes thought I, it is evident that Bartleby has been making his home here, keeping bachelor’s hall all by himself. Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, what miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible!”
These words of Melville’s narrator capture the tragedy of the person who is cut off from everything and everyone.
Hawthorne’s short stories are often concerned with the entropy of the person. The entropic character is usually an educated professional: a scientist or minister, for instance. The result of the character’s isolation is the ultimate product of unchecked entropy—death.
For instance, in Rappacini’s Daughter, the brilliant scientist has cut himself off from society and his colleagues to pursue his study. By the end of the story, his experiments have cost the life of his daughter.
In The Birthmark, the scientist, Almer, is so obsessed by a birthmark on his wife’s cheek that he builds special hidden quarters to develop a “treatment”, working only with his assistant on the research. He removes the birthmark, but kills his wife in the process.
Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a brilliant commentary on the destructive forces that can be unleashed when a person works only in isolation. As Dr. Jekyll isolates himself from his friends and colleagues, Mr. Hyde becomes more destructive. When Jekyll attempts to renew old acquaintances, he temporarily “conquers” the monster. But, at the end of the book, Jekyll returns to isolation, and again the end result is death.
Entropy of the individual is even a thematic staple of modern writing. In Jurassic Park, the park is developed on an isolated island without the input or review of external scientists and ethicists—a closed system that eventually ends in chaos, although it seems to keep resurrecting itself and creating more chaos.
Although these are all extreme fictional examples of what happens when a person isolates himself or herself from family, friends and society, they are instructive. There is a reason that this theme is so common in fiction: it’s not uncommon in reality.
We are approaching the fall and winter holiday season. No matter what tradition a person claims, this time of year is marked by family gatherings, sitting around a table with the people who love us or sharing Nachos during a Thanksgiving football game. Employers host holiday parties for their employees. Large crowds gather in churches, synagogues and mosques to celebrate their shared heritage.
This is a time of year to renew acquaintances, to reach out to the estranged and to spend time in conversation with those around us. We engage and expand our minds and world views through earnest conversation. We reconnect with loved ones and share hugs, invigorating laughter, and some cleansing tears.
So, if you can, find a way to be with those who love you: sit around the table, pick up the phone (when you are not driving or shopping) and have a real conversation, hand write a letter, or send an e-mail that you compose yourself, using a greeting, a closing, complete sentences and fully spelled words. If you are alone, work in a soup kitchen, volunteer for big brothers and big sisters, or speak to the fellow traveler in the hotel lobby.
The point is: connect. Be part of the larger system, share your energy and renew yourself. It’s the way the natural world works: it’s the law.
With thanks to Peter Smith, PhD, who first introduced me to the theme of entropy in American literature when I was at Wesleyan College. I have been fascinated with this theme ever since.
© 2008—2010 Michele Arduengo. All Rights Reserved.