Abusing Entropy

Tristan Johnson

Writer’s comment: “The human mind is incapable of not making sense.” This insight of Peter Elbow’s is the basic rationale for why collage works. We often intuit the connections of seemingly unconnected ideas yet are unable to state these connections in logical terms. The collage essay is a useful tool in such cases; it works by laying ideas along side each other and hinting at their connectedness; our mind, incapable of not making sense, squeezes these ideas together—connecting them—making sense of them! The writer is no longer strapped with the burden of making logical connections that dilute the richness of what she is thinking. In this essay I lay several ideas along side each other: entropy, relationships, memories and commitment. You may already see connections, but if not, don’t worry—your mind will make sense of them. And to Michelle Squitieri—Thank you.
—Tristan Johnson

Instructor’s comment: Tristan was one of the most gifted students in my English 101 class last fall. The final assignment invited students to write a collage essay modeled on Susan Griffin’s collage essay, “Our Secret.” Griffin’s essay combines biographical, historical, and autobiographical narrative, speculation, and interpretation with oddly poetic, highly metaphoric reflections on cell development and missile technology. Students find the assignment both exciting and difficult—what’s hardest for them is not writing a unified essay but writing a fragmented essay with an underlying unity. This kind of exploratory, disconnected writing feels risky—what if the essay doesn’t come together? The assignment teaches students about the essential disorder that is at the heart of all genuinely creative work, including academic writing.
         Tristan’s response to this assignment was a delightful surprise for me, though it must have seemed very natural for him, given his reflective temperament and his interest in the philosophy of science. Like Griffin, Tristan juxtaposes ideas from entirely different disciplines to achieve the effect of unity in fragmentation, turning his collage into a meditation on the forms of human relationships and on form itself.
—Michelle Squitieri

Stage 1, Initiating: How did you two meet? Ask any intimate couple this question and they will likely recount, with precision, the birth of their relationship. It’s that critical.

         Dad finally stumbled home but by then Mom had fallen asleep in the love chair. I imagine Dad prowling around the house seeking an open window that might allow him access without confrontation. Unfortunately every window is secure and I watch his face resign to the only alternative—the front door. I see him staring at the door from the bottom of the steps; stealth is his highest priority.
         The rest I remember—sort’a. Mom woke up yelling. Dad hissed back and left the house slamming the screen door on his way out. Mom followed while accusing him of infidelity, drinking and lying. Somehow Dad sneaked back inside and locked her out. Her voice ate holes through that old screen door and Dad, unable to stand her words, shut the door quietly in her face. Enraged and indignant, she stole his truck.

The second law of thermodynamics states that energy conversions reduce the order of the universe. Put another way, energy changes, such as the conversion of chemical energy to kinetic energy, are accompanied by an increase in disorder. The amount of disorder in a system is called entropy. (Campbell 73)

Stage 2, Experimenting: Where are you from? What type of music do you enjoy? Through small talk, two people can get to know each other safely; it is typically uncritical and often reveals common interests between two people without much disclosure. Small talk allows us to get a feel for the other person.

         Dad went to the cupboard. I heard him in the kitchen spanking bottles together and whistling some undefined melody. I imagine he concocted a powerful new beverage. I imagine it smoked and frothed spilling over the edge and down his arm. I see his tilted face smiling eagerly as he slurps a runaway stream from off his wrist. I picture the seriousness on his face as he carefully tilts the tequila, not too much but not too little. Precision is his highest priority.
         Dad mixed for effect, not for flavor. He sought oblivion and measured the success of a drink by how easily it led him to forgetfulness. He was a creator and I realize it was through the act of creating that he forgot. The drink merely sustained his amnesia.

         Memories have entropy, though saying so abuses the concept. Memories have degrees of disorder. Fresh memories are more organized and represent reality more accurately; their entropy is low. But faded memories are disorganized, they have less grip on the past’s reality; their entropy is high.

Stage 3, Intensifying: Do I want a relationship with this person? If two people are at this stage the answer is yes. Often members express their feelings outright for one another. They flirt, help each other and spend more time together. They dress nicer and do favors. They give gifts. And they touch.

We eat to maintain the order of our bodies. We convert the chemical energy in food into the different types of energy required to maintain our body’s entropy. These conversions increase the entropy of our surroundings making them less organized; at the same time they prevent our own disorder from increasing. Our body is termed an open system; it can acquire energy from outside itself to maintain its order. A closed system, in contrast, has a fixed amount of energy which will all eventually disorganize, becoming heat!

         Mom usually drove carefully but her mind was preoccupied that night. Cheating drunk! I can’t believe he locked me out of my own fuckin’ house! I ought’a kill’um both! She overdosed on suspicion and impotence.

Open a can of petrol in a closed room. The room is also thermally isolated; heat cannot enter or leave. The smell of petrol will slowly spread through the room. The mechanism is simple: molecules leave the can and meander across the room. Why do they leave the can? Because, in the can, in the space above the liquid petrol, they are moving. Some of them will, purely by chance, find their way out of the neck of the bottle...Because this motion always seems to result in their spreading out, never in their all going back to the can, the spread of petrol through the room is termed an irreversible process. (Silver 215)

         Asking her many years later where she went that night, Mother smirked and said, he didn’t even have gas in his truck, it ran out down the road; I just left it there and walked home.

         We feed our memories just as we feed our bodies. Memories tend toward fading, toward disorder. We try to re-collect our memories to help prevent fading but our memories, taken in isolation, are a closed system and inevitably fade. So we feed our memories through inference. We add to them things that must have happened or are likely to have happened, even if we don’t specifically remember them occurring.

         Mother told me he was the sweetest and most devoted man she had ever been with... until he started drinking. Years before they got married, Dad bought her a brilliant jewelry box made of blue glass. He told her he would spend the rest of his life trying to fill it. She loved him for that. It was a promise. It implied commitment.

Stage 4, Integrating: Can I have some money? It’s easy to say no to a stranger, but at this point in a relationship it is hard to say no to a lover. We expect more from each other and we rely on each other more as well. We see ourselves as a couple as does our social sphere. We have common property: our stereo, our CD’s, our song.

         I learned early about the causal connection between the aroma of alcohol and dad’s smiling face (even now I see his grin through alcohol’s scent). Mom saw the connection between the two quite differently. In an untimely poem she describes the smell of alcohol as The smoke of memories—as if liquor were fire—as if forgetting had an odor. She wrote of his retreat from reality and of his habit of forgetting. She associated the fumes of alcohol with being forgotten and considered herself that forgotten Being. She wrote of a broken commitment; she wrote of resentment.
         But it was difficult to outright hate Dad; after all he was such a happy drunk. I always loved when he drank; we would play Hide-n-Seek and Wrestle. I would hide; he would find and tickle me until I sobbed. Afterward, we would wrestle while Mom stood by, Someone’s going to get hurt she’d say. When I did Dad would kiss it better and then attack Mom with tickle paws and tiny pinchers. She would enjoy it at first but always eventually got upset; Dad would have to play the pouting face until he cheered her up.

Stage 5, Bonding: Will you marry me? A public display such as marriage is not the crucial element of this stage; bonding can be done privately. What is crucial is the commitment.

         I was wide awake that night when Dad yanked me from bed. He took me to his room where we sat together on the bare tile floor and watched the BBC while he drank. In nothing but Superman underwear I shook as the floor seeped its coolness inside me. Dad pulled me close to his body; his warm breath soaked the back of my neck while he rocked us back and forth. The TV’s hypnotic pulsing flickered across the walls as Dad began whispering to me. He told me he loved me and that I shouldn’t cry—that Mom and Dad were just upset with each other—that things were just weird right now but they’d be better soon. He told me he had done something terrible—that Mom doesn’t love him anymore—that she was leaving and taking me—that he wouldn’t let her—and that he loved me and that I shouldn’t cry!

Stage 7, Circumscribing: I don’t want to talk about it. Couples no longer put energy into communication; instead of discussing and resolving their problems, they withdraw. Lovers lose interest in one another and the commitment starts to decay.

In a broad sense, the second law of thermodynamics tells us that the entropy of the universe as a whole is increasing; every energy transfer or transformation increases the entropy of the universe. (Campbell 73)

         The existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard thought carefully about commitments and decisions. He believed decisions had meaning only relative to some background commitment; for Kierkegaard, decisions are arbitrary without commitments. For example: imagine my Dad without any commitments. None to Mom, none to me, none to work—none—period. Now imagine him deciding between sleeping with Judy, his mistress, or refraining. With no commitments, what’s the difference? Nothing in his background makes one decision better than the other. But now let’s remember a single commitment; say his vow of faithfulness to Mom. Instantly his decisions have meaning. If he decides to sleep with Judy, his decision means he no longer values being faithful to Mom. If he refrains, his decision means he does value faithfulness to Mom.

         The act of making a commitment fixes the value we assign to a commitment and it is through this fixing that right and wrong decisions are derived. A right decision reaffirms the value assigned, during the act of making a commitment, to the commitment. A wrong decision denies the value assigned, during the act of making a commitment, to the commitment. For example: during their marriage (an act of making a commitment), Dad fixed a high value to faithfulness to Mom (the commitment). So his decision to sleep with Judy is wrong since it denies the value he assigned to faithfulness during their marriage. His refraining from sleeping with Judy is right because it reaffirms the value he assigned to faithfulness. Breaking a commitment is constantly (or in a case like faithfulness, momentarily) denying its value; maintaining a commitment is, as Sartre argues, constantly reaffirming it. Obviously, maintaining a commitment is difficult—they tend toward breaking.

Stage 6, Differentiating: What do you mean “you need space”? This doesn’t necessarily mean I want to break up. More likely it means I’ve lost my individuality and need it back. To maintain a relationship that has reached this stage, lovers should give space and reassert their individuality. If they don’t, this may mark the decline of the relationship.

         I like grapes!

         The ball hit the glass and scared us both. We didn’t hear her pull up. The window didn’t break. Several moments later Mom threw it again. The ball splashed through the window, sprung off the bed and smashed into the night stand. The stand tipped. Mom’s jewelry box disorganized. The ball bounced and bounced softer and lower and bounced softer and lower and bounced softer and lower until it no longer bounced—it rolled and it stopped.

         I say, “We didn’t hear her pull up” but in truth I can’t remember if I did or didn’t, I just know we couldn’t have heard her since she left the truck on the side of the road. I say, “...it sprung off the bed and smashed into the night stand” but as the window broke I turned away; I never saw it hit the night stand. But the stand fell—so it must have—right? I say, “The ball bounced and bounced softer and lower...until it stopped,” but I didn’t watch the ball; my eyes were intoxicated with the shattered glitter of Mom’s jewelry box. But I infer, based on my studies of entropy, that the ball must have behaved the way I described.

Meaning is derived through commitment.

One thing might end a relationship—the death of both lovers!

Stage 9, Avoiding: Beep: Hello? I know you’re there, why wont you pick up? Hello?!

         Mom and Dad quit talking to each other long before that night. They stopped wrestling. They stopped touching.

Stage 10, Terminating: Can’t we just be friends? This event can be so devastating that it leads to suicide. In some cases terminating requires legal action lasting longer than the relationship. No one wins in a divorce. But relationships can also end gracefully and with zero resentment.

         A relationship never ends; it is merely altered. A relationship still exists at the terminating stage. It is obviously not the same relationship, but something remains. Imagine two ex-lovers: their relationship consists of two people who don’t wish to be part of the other’s life. We might describe this as a disorganized relationship since their commitment to each other is no longer maintained; the relationship has high entropy.
         But relationships never end and the vital corollary is this: a separated couple might regain their relationship and all its previous richness, if they are willing. Relationships are not irreversible processes!

We expect the spreading of perfume through a room and the spontaneous mixing of two gases to be irreversible; we never observe the evenly spread or evenly mixed molecules reverting to their original arrangements. Likewise, we never observe the Worcestershire sauce in the Bloody Mary unstirring itself and separating. (Silver 218)

         I imagine dad sweeping up all the tiny pieces from the floor that night. He takes them into his workshop and in the long dark room he labors, hunched over in a stool, under an adjustable light. I see the renewed attention on his face as he peeks into a massive magnifying glass; his eyes swell to gigantic proportions so they can spot the tiniest fractures. He heals these fractures with crazy glue and orders the glassy chaos into the promise my mother once loved him for; he reorganizes the promise they both seemed to have broken. I imagine the smile on his face as he remembers how much he loves her; she is his highest priority.

                 A note played by piano begins to decay immediately after being struck.

Old Screen Door

I can still hear you through that old screen door
yelling at him a little more
And tasting the sour homemade lemons juice’s
on the back of my minds tongue
I can feel your fingerprints bruising lemon skins
for more

The water warped wooden steps
mildew stained and memory splintered
that crept, wept and watched me walk away
so long ago,
still burden the silence they promised me,
so long ago

I can still hear you; though that old screen door
has out lived your voice
It creaks those soft words you used on me before
in the dark
on that cold mean floor
Telling me ‘don’t cry’
I love you
And please...don’t remember...any more

Promises        tend       toward           breaking.

Stage 8, Stagnating: Are you bored? Even intense lovers fall victim to routine. They treat their relationship like a job; they do just enough to maintain it and nothing to improve it.

Ironically science seeks to find the order of the universe, while the universe seeks

         The average cylinder engine converts only about 25% of the potential energy in petrol into mechanical energy. The rest is disordered; it becomes heat.

         R e vi si on or ga ni ze s.

         “This is a story of gradually decreasing explicitness, unity, focus, connectedness, linearity.” (Elbow 32)

                                 We find in Beethoven’s notes
a constant reduction from highly sophisticated ideas
        to simplicity.           What starts as complex and difficult to listen
to, becomes simplicity and ease of sound.
        Relationships tend toward termination.

                                 Irreversible processes
             With mathematical certainty,
  a closed universe will end—
in heat death!

Works Cited

Campbell, Lawrence G. Mitchell and Jane B. Reece, Biology: Concepts and Connections, 3rd ed. California: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc, 2000.

Elbow, Peter. “You’re Cheatin’ Art.” Writing on the Edge 9.1. (Fall/Winter 1997/98): 26-40.

Silver, Brian. The Ascent of Science, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.