Reflection by Elspeth Green
Tondre’s study takes up Maxwell’s 1873 claim that probabilistic physics seemed “likely to have a powerful effect on the world of thought,” even as he avoids the vocabulary of cause and effect (12). Tondre quickly clarifies that The Physics of Possibility is not a study of influence (a “dialogic conversation between science and literature”) but rather of networked relations: the goal is “not to pinpoint the origin of textual meanings but rather to observe how a more massive set of associations is structured at a given moment” (26). I am often wary of work that claims to study interaction while eschewing influence; Tondre’s claims about Middlemarch and thermodynamics are clearly strengthened by his careful elucidation of Maxwell and Eliot’s “biographical connections” and shared reading in popular science (195). But there is an undeniable logic to Tondre’s approach in a book that positions probability as a formal alternative to the straight-edged bildungsroman. His historical approach is as informed by theories of “possible worlds”—potential historical networks rather than strict instances of verified cause-and-effect—as the novels he studies.
Tondre’s exploration of the decades preceding the foundation of the Cavendish Laboratory, an 1874 landmark in the development of physics as a specialized university discipline, invites us to consider literature’s contact with science in a “predisciplinary” way, providing an alternative to the “inter-” or “cross-disciplinary” formulations to which we’ve grown accustomed in our modern “two cultures” era. Indeed, Tondre’s chapter on entropy seems a direct response to C.P. Snow’s dismissive observation that none of the humanists he queried at a party “could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics.” I will admit to approaching Tondre’s claims about the “incalculable” potential of wasted, dissipated energies in Middlemarch with some skepticism: the Second Law seems quite clear that these energies can do no “useful work.” However, as surprising as it is to find entropy treated optimistically, Tondre shows that many Victorians found comfort in the notion that “indiscriminate traces of vitality suffused the world” in the wake of expended effort (190). Further, he directly addresses the problem of “use” in relation to literature, suggesting that Eliot’s insistence on art’s “inutility” emerged from this concept of diffused-yet-present energy (29).
The “use” of literature and “work” of narration find a surprising (and truly enchanting) analogue in Maxwell’s Demon, the paradoxical thought experiment in violating the Second Law. An imaginary Demon guards a hatch in between two chambers containing gases of equal temperature: the system, in such a state, can do no useful work. The Demon, capable of observing the speed and energy of each atom, opens the hatch when only a particularly buzzy one flies by, allowing it to pass into the other chamber. Slowly but surely, the temperature of one chamber rises as the other falls: in this state, with a temperature differential, the system can do work, and entropy has decreased.
The Demon paradox relies on the distinction between entropy in the aggregate and the behavior of individual molecules (Tondre suggests, compellingly, that the “paradox is itself a theory of realism, rooted in the tension between empirical observation and mass molecular tendencies) (203). The paradox also requires the Demon’s intellectual effort of sorting not be considered “work.” Tondre calls the Demon a “resplendent figure of intellectual labor” and temptingly suggests, then retracts, a comparison to Eliot’s narrator. The narrator, Tondre insists, is limited in ways the Demon is not, and “affirms the value of energy that is not reconverted” rather than restoring the system to “working” order (205).
I wish Tondre had lingered further on this fascinating new way of thinking about the “work” of narration, the intellectual “action” of sorting randomly varying molecules (or details, or actions, or characters) into more ordered form. Maxwell himself insisted that the Demon’s attributes be “essentially finite as our own,” though with faculties “sharpened” enough to track individual atoms. I am reminded of Hugh Kenner’s account of the “Arranger” of Ulysses, an organizing, supranarrative presence that asserts itself (“it is as though a giant were slowly coming awake”) in the latter part of the book. An immense amount of work, clearly, was expended by Joyce in the creation of Ulysses—but the illusion is of an effortlessly arranging presence with faculties superlative to our own, with exact recall for detail that “implies not an operation of memory but access such as ours to a printed book, in which pages can be turned to and fro.” Perhaps a Maxwellian narrative Demon is yet another modernist “innovation” that can be traced to Victorian thought.