Entropy and Simone de Beauvoir

A collage of Simone de Beauvoir, with sepia tint to indicate entropy and passage of time

In this COVID Age, entropy is especially on my mind.  That and the deliciously bold derrière of author, philosopher, and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir.

Entropy is, put simply—if not simplistically—that quality of a system which exhibits increasing disorder and randomness, a decline into senile smoothness.  It is the broken egg on the kitchen floor, never to be whole again.  It is the spilled cup of coffee which will never rise from the floor, full and steaming.  It is the running down of Everything.  For us humans, it is aging.

Entropy is a fact of this universe (and any parallel ones), but knowing all that doesn’t ease my transition out of bed into the morning’s waking world.  It seems to me that this decade of my life came sneaking across the threshold of my reality unbidden, unannounced and, until it was taking up residence in the house, unremarked. But that’s the way of things for humans, isn’t it?  We flourish, follow our trajectory, and never give thought to our demise, let alone the long (if we are lucky) downhill slope which precedes it.

In 1952, photographer Art Shay snuck up to an opened bathroom door in Chicago, and snapped off some shots of the preeminent French theorist and thinker, author of The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir, who was nude save for her strapless wedgies.  She was just out of her bath, fixing her hair.  She called Shay a “naughty man”, smiled, and kept prepping.  And what, you may ask, connects Beauvoir’s ass with my ruminations on my decline?

First, let me ask, when do we finally become aware of the implications of the falling egg and cup and their shattering finale?

Well, we mostly don’t notice.  We do notice all those maladaptations which attend it.  We notice that our former suppleness of limb is now a creaky, bittersweet memory; we notice the mysterious increase in the number of people who do not speak loudly or clearly enough; we notice being tormented with pains and aches in body parts we never previously noticed.  We make jokes about this entropic slide, but it’s whistling past the graveyard because that slide eventually ends at the conqueror worm.  Our memories can travel at warp speed, with HD quality, to scenes from our past so distant as to challenge the Hubble’s powers of detection, but we sometimes have trouble recalling what day it is or where we put our glasses.  But these diminutions of our physical and mental selves are just normal occurrences, not aberrations—and I wonder, as I head into a decade I used to imagine was only mythical—what the Universe thinks about all this.

I wonder because some in science, and many outside of it, declare that this universe might be conscious. If it is, then I would like to know if it has regrets, if it remembers and feels nostalgia for its long-past youth, if it remembers first love or the deliciousness of a sunset or painting or some photograph from a different age; if it is saddened by its decline or if it is stoic about what it cannot control, and I wonder if it ever considered—at its first fiery and explosive beginning—that things would turn out this way.  And I would hope that it does not, as we humans do, experience the lessening of the enjoyment of Life Itself, the diminishing expectations which surround and envelope the inevitable cessation of being.  I would hope that if it IS conscious and it DOES have those very long memories, it would not, for instance, forget the delicious Beauvoirian butt.

Philosophers and other speculators on the human condition—from at least the time of the Indian sages—have written of the mind’s role in the happiness and well-being of human life—that the mind is what makes life good or bad, which leads to satisfaction and a well-lived life, while entropy proceeds apace. Simone de Beauvoir, herself, believed that womanhood was a (fragile) process of “becoming”. But as materialists have explained it ad nauseam, for our slowly crumbling universe, a life examined, adjusted and brilliantly lived is the same as one measured out in coffee spoons.  But if we and the universe are two of a kind, then the Cosmos won’t recall the French Fanny, Cleopatra’s nose, the Dead concert at the Hollywood Palladium, the soft and lovely face of the first born child, sunsets over Malibu, or the poisonous infernos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  If we are both just chance occurrences, mindlessly existing, carcasses without flavor and meat, then why should any of us—knowing there is not one thing we can do to stop the slide toward the ending—bother to eat our greens and sweat our machines?

Maybe what science thinks it knows about our universe is correct after all—that it is not mindful, as we are, but that it just IS—as we are not.  Does the cold and unwinding universe struggle with morality?  No.  Does the universe make endless bucket lists?  No.  Does it put its affairs in order or try to check all the boxes on the “No Regrets” chart or hurry to get more life insurance?  Never.  Will it fondly recall some nude photograph of a French woman in the prime of her life?  Not bloody likely.  It just does what it has always done—inexorably, unregretfully:  it exists.  But humans, specks in this vast and mysterious winding-down, have an immense advantage over the cosmos:  although we cannot stop or slow down that vast unwinding, we CAN just live.

We can do what the universe cannot (no matter the speculations on its sentience)—we can adjust our minds to the inevitable losses and go with what we have.  That’s something the universe can’t—or won’t—do that we CAN, but often—way too often—do not. We are often miserable about the laws of physics, about the laws which govern our own bodies, but as humans, we can do something about it all.  WE can live, as Simone de Beauvoir did, with our lives held dear as priceless objects, with commitment and flair.

As I enter what may be my last decade on this earth, I can start by being mindful—not of my decline—but of my life.  I will get up tomorrow and stumble into the kitchen; I will not take mental inventory of the fading of my youth, of entropy’s corrosion. I will slowly, delightfully, sip that first taste of coffee.

I will no doubt beat the universe to entropy’s finish line.  We will both cease—it’s just that I will enjoy the ride because I can.

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