Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Literature and Entropy

When I began this blog on energy depletion I knew that there would not be any topic that was off-topic, since there is not a single event, practice, belief or thing you can think of that does not epitomize the expenditure of energy, including he act of thought itself. But being an English Major I was especially excited to write about the different ways energy sources and usage is depicted in literature.

How is entropy—especially social entropy—handled by writers?

Let me kick off an Entropy Law summer-reading surfeit with the summer reading novel that inspired me with this idea several years ago. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

What happened in Paris in the late 1780s and early 90s is a case study in misspent social energy. The hungering, oppressed masses in so much need of the basics for survival, witnessed the aristocratic few burning up all of France’s resources (milk for crème puffs, firewood to heat mansions, gold leaf wallpaper, in essence the entire economy) for their own needs and pleasures. This drove the commoners into the kind of sane madness that engulfs all societies when energy is likewise misspent. It is the trick of every government—democratic or dictatorship—to either balance the energy expenditure or disguise the imbalance (see Saudi Arabia). The Bastille became a symbol of the fools at the top stealing all the energy and oppressing the people who tried to take a little for themselves. Interesting that by the time the commoners stormed the prison, the government had already gotten smart to its symbolism and moved the convicts out (see Abu Ghraib). The place was mostly empty. But the act of breaking through a government-sanctioned wall also became a symbol, one that was repeated in greater, bloodier proportions (see Lybia, Syria).

The grisly image of the grindstone early in the third book is so horrific that I want to believe Dickens’ was exaggerating, but I secretly don’t want to know that he did, so I haven’t looked up the historical research. It is one of the most arresting images in the novel—perhaps second to the women knitting by the guillotine—but it is central when one is thinking about the social energies pulsing through the people committing the slaughter. The grindstone becomes a kind of engine on which the entire Revolution is run. For the commoners in Paris, the fact that it is spinning becomes reason to sharpen blades on it, and the fact that it is bloody becomes a reason to sharpen blades on it for one particular purpose. The energy that was being channeled into crème puffs and Versailles is being wrested back with each grinding turn.

The key passage for me (and the worldview of this blog) is Chapter VII of the second book, Monsignor in Town. It also happens to be a pair of beautifully constructed sentences:

“The leprosy of unreality disfigured every human creature in attendance upon the Monseigneur. In the outermost room were half a dozen exceptional people who had had, for a few years, some vague misgiving in them that things in general were going rather wrong.”

Does that ring any bells? From global warming denials to pension-budget chicanery, dealing with the effects of real energy depletion is hard work, requiring much cold-eyed sacrifice. It is far easier to cloak yourself in the “leprosy of unreality” and surround yourself with lepers. Until it’s not.

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