Science : entropy, degeneration, and decadent self-destruction

Kistler, Jordan; Desmarais, Jane and Weir, David, eds. (2021) Science : entropy, degeneration, and decadent self-destruction. In: The Oxford Handbook of Decadence. The Oxford Handbook of Decadence . Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 600-616. ISBN 9780190066956 (

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This chapter considers the relationship between decadence, individualism, and science at the end of the nineteenth century. Individualism was considered key to the decadent style, yet it was also widely understood by sociologists and scientists to be symptomatic of nervous disease and social decline. This chapter argues that the overly civilized, nervous, and exhausted heroes of decadent literature result from the widespread understanding of the human being as an energy system, subject to the recently formulated laws of thermodynamics. As isolated systems, these characters use up their energy in increasing disorder, "continually suffering deductions, [until] these unceasing deductions finally result in the cessation of motion" (Herbert Spencer, "Progress: Its Law and Cause," 1880). Thus, many decadent texts can only end with nothing other than the death of their protagonist.