Entropy, the Novel, and Nietzsche

File:Dancing maenad Python BM VaseF253.jpg

At The New Yorker, Joan Acocella asks why novels, even great ones, so frequently have endings that sag. One of her examples is David Copperfield:

The first half of “David Copperfield” leaves you gasping. You laugh, you cry, you think you’re going to faint. The scene where David, having been rescued by his Aunt Betsey and fed, given a bath, and put to bed, looks out the window at the moonlight on the Channel, imagining that he might see his dead mother there, with her baby in her arms (she died in childbirth): after I have forgotten most of the events of my life, I will remember that. But in the last chapters of the novel, the now-adult David marries a wise woman and succeeds in life, and from then on you die of boredom.

Acocella also notes that “E. M. Forster, in ‘Aspects of the Novel,’ said that nearly every novel’s ending is a letdown.”

But why?

Acocella has an intriguing theory: entropy. “I think the tiredness may not be personal, but something about the universe in general: biology, physics.” Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system. When entropy is low for us, things are arranged in a way we call orderly (think of a desk organized exactly the way you want it, or a paragraph on your computer screen that says exactly what you want it to). When it’s high, it’s disorderly (the cat has walked across your desk with muddy paws and stepped on your keyboard, generating random letters in the paragraph you were writing).

It takes work and thought to lower entropy and keep it low; to make, say, a river flow uphill. Stop working and thinking, and the river will flow back down again. It will run to randomness because there are many more ways for things to go wrong than right; to be common than noble; mediocre than excellent. It’s a matter of probability; of entropy. Wait long enough and all stories end in death (as Hemingway used to say).

Metaphorically, entropy is Sisyphus’s stone and the true source of Adam’s curse. It is part of the dynamic tension Nietzsche discovered in ancient Greek tragedy between Apollo’s placid and transcendent dream forms and Dionysus’s intoxications.

Entropy is also among the reverberations that play out following an assertion of power (Nietzsche’s “will to power”). It is the random moving drunkard, set in motion by alcohol–an energy source–now crashing into what is fragile; what has been labored over; what is on quiet display. It is Apollo’s dream mirror that entropy assists Dionysus in breaking. Entropy is time’s emissary of undoing; the relentless blowing desert sands of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” For Acocella, entropy is responsible for the right side of the bell curve of a novel’s plotting:

Art, whether fiction or not, is a challenge to entropy, a bumping up of something that must be flattened down again. When you think about it, it’s surprising that art is allowed to exist. It’s always a deviation: overly selective, overly concrete, and unfaithful, not to our actual experience but to our generalizing afterthoughts, the thoughts that get us through life. In “War and Peace,” when the excitable young heroine grows up and has kids and gets fat, young readers may be disappointed, but I think that adults may be comforted. Most of us want extraordinary things, after a while, to quit being extraordinary—to end. The stone fell in the water. The ripples ran. Now they should stop. The surface should be smooth again.

In Nietzschean terms, the stone that claps the water’s Apollonian mirror plays Dionysus, commanding the water to make way to its assertion of energy. It is what gives life to form–and disrupts it. (Dr. Frankenstein will always need lightning.) The water, in rippling, identifies with the stone’s ecstasy, responding to it as a dancer responds to a beat; participating in the rhythm of its music; becoming, as it were, its pliant maenad. But no Woodstock goes on forever. Intoxication gives way to identity again; energy slapped around, pauses and reflects. Perspective, with its “generalizing afterthoughts, the thoughts that get us through life,” asserts itself again. The still mirror’s surface–on which Apollonian dreams play, mesmerize, delude, and heal–returns. Emily Dickinson put it this way: “After great pain a formal feeling comes– / The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs.”

Then comes again the disruption.


3rd century BCE dancing maenad image source: Wikipedia Commons. Photographer: Marie-Lan Nguyen.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Entropy, the Novel, and Nietzsche

  1. Reblogged this on TOUR 2013 and commented:

  2. Nick Gall says:

    Hi again, Santi!

    This is a follow up to the comment regarding entropy I just made on another of your posts. To me, the cause of the letdown at the end of a book is the lack of dramatic tension. The middle of a novel is full of drama because it is full of uncertainty because there are so many possibilities. You are unsure of how things will turn out.

    Thus, the middle of a novel is the point of peak entropy because entropy is a measure of surprise. [1] As most novels wind down to their conclusion, the outcome of all the plot lines becomes more and more certain, which means there is less and less entropy. And low entropy is boring because there’s little surprise, little uncertainty.

    The only novels that have great endings are the ones where the biggest surprise happens right at the end, ie the ending has high entropy!

    [1] https://plus.maths.org/content/information-surprise

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