Ruin, the collector, and ‘sad mortality’


IN 1943, THE PHYSICIST Erwin Schrödinger delivered a series of lectures at Trinity College, Dublin. In these he argued that the metabolism of any organism feeds upon its environment in order to free itself as far as possible from consistent entropic decline. The entropic decline is expressed in the equation: S1 – S ≥ 0. This might be the most depressing thing the human species has ever said to itself. Entropy always maximises its life-destroying possibilities. Things go from bad to worse. We’re all doomed. Maximum entropy once achieved is the state of thermodynamical equilibrium. Entropy ends where life ends, at the point of absolute zero, minus 273 degrees centigrade. Short of that, things are still going on to some extent. Schrödinger argued that in battling away to minimise the entropy that condemns it to death, the organism always ingests negative entropy: it effectively creates order in an anti-entropic manoeuvre. A plant is continually borrowing order from the sunlight so as to stay alive and grow. The capture and retention of energy is the first principle of life. So we have here a cosmic dialectic between order and disorder. These two mighty forces are in constant battle and negotiation. At the microcosmic level, the collector ventures continuously into the disordered city so as to rescue some fragments of order, like Aeneas bearing his father Anchises away from the burning ruins of Troy. In his essay ‘Unpacking My Library’ Walter Benjamin speaks of the life of the collector consisting of ‘a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order’. We could equally well describe this polarity as that between contingency and causality: every bookshop, every auction, is a field of contingency from which might emerge another proof of causality.

more from Alan Wall at the Fortnightly Review here.