Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

N Tropes for Entropy in Pynchon's Early Works

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

N Tropes for Entropy in Pynchon's Early Works

Article excerpt

1

When Pynchon republished all but one of his short stories in Slow Learner, he severely criticized most of his early texts. Among the stories which find no grace in the eyes of their author is "Entropy." The reason Pynchon gives for his "bleakness of heart" when he has to look at this story is that it was a mistake "to begin with a theme, symbol or other abstract unifying agent, and then try to force characters and events to conform to it" (12). He points out that he had read Henry Adams and Norbert Wiener, and that "the 'theme' of the story is mostly derivative of what these two men had to say" (13). The theme of the story is, of course, entropy, and in this essay I argue that Pynchon's perspective on the concept changed considerably after "Entropy" was published, and that this development has not yet been fully appreciated in Pynchon criticism.

The argument in "Entropy" is indeed very close to the evaluation of the physical principle as explained by Wiener. In The Human Use of Human Beings, Wiener argues that the inevitable tendency of nature toward disorder and the ultimate heat-death of the universe is evil (he uses the image of the Augustinian devil to specify the form of evil he refers to) while negentropic activities like the creation and processing of information are good because they help keep entropy at bay, if only temporarily. (In his account Wiener successfully promoted his own new field of science, cybernetics.) He persistently argues that life-imitating machines in particular are a valuable asset in the perennial fight against entropy. It is striking, though, that his examples of negentropic machinery are frequently military. In fact, war appears to be a driving force toward the perfection of a cybernetic world when Wiener claims that "a new war will almost inevitably see the automatic age in full swing within less than five years" (218). Furthermore, he occasionally fails to distinguish among genres of technology: for example, he writes indiscriminately about the "successful inventions of the steam engine, the steam boat, the locomotive, the modern smelting of metals, the telegraph, the transoceanic cable, the introduction of electric power, dynamite and the modern high explosive missile, the airplane, the electric valve, and the atomic bomb" (63) to point out the revolutionary changes within the past few centuries. (1) Pynchon was hardly likely to pass lightly over these elements in Wiener's text.

In addition, Wiener's account of negentropic enclaves of order raises a crucial problem. Within highly dissipative processes, that is, processes which occur in a situation of great energetic imbalance, order can appear spontaneously out of chaos. As our world is, for the time being, a place where such processes are fueled by vast amounts of energy from the sun, we experience natural growth (and possibly evolution) which tends to be directed toward an increase in complexity. But this order does not come free; it results from an enormously greater increase of entropy caused by the infusion of energy into the enclave of order. Then again, order can appear from disorder, because the law of entropy is only statistically valid. There is always the infinitely small chance that order may result from the Brownian movement of particles or from any other random process. This possibility may be the basis for the "anarchist miracle[s]" (CL 120) which appear in some of Pynchon's texts, for example, the "historic moment" of the Duke di Angelis quartet in "Entropy" (SL 94) or the dance of the deaf-mutes in The Crying of Lot 49 (131-32). But the willful creation of artificial enclaves of order within a system is irrevocably linked to an increase of entropy in the system. Thus the creation of life-imitating machines may produce a local enclave of order, but the price one has to pay for it is a distinctly larger loss of available energy or order elsewhere, and the overall entropic process is sped up rather than slowed down. …

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