10.09.2011

A Relationship with the Infinite

When I was a kid, I was overwhelmed by the concept of infinity.  I'd lie in bed at night, in the dark, and try to picture the infinity of space, each limit in my mind giving way giving way giving way until I achieved a kind of vertigo and my skinny little body would tremble as if in orgasm, a conceptual tantra.  It was exquisite.

And it was the beginning of my conscious relationship to the infinite. 

What is the infinite?  It is the understanding — an understanding that is an experience, that is lived through — that this life is necessary, that there is no other life, that everything that happens resounds infinitely precisely because it happened, because there is no other way: there is nothing else but this. And this necessity makes every moment constitutive of the universe — everything you do, think, say, feel makes the world in this absolutely distinct way.  Everything you do, think, say feel resounds infinitely.

Of course, we often think of the infinite as out there — like my younger self discovering the infinite in space. It is no doubt easier to experience the infinite without the distractions of what seems finite — traffic, jobs, pissing, eating, cleaning, what am I gonna do Saturday night, does Sally love me, my parents are insane, etc.  So monks recuse themselves from the everyday and meditate day and night with the infinite.Kierkegaard called this "infinite resignation": one gives in totally to the infinite, putting aside the "distractions" of sex, of the right restaurant, of job, of car maintenance. 

But for Kierkegaard, the trick is not to live in the infinite alone but to live at once in the finite and the infinite — to move into the infinite and back with each step (he call this person the Knight of Faith — see Fear and Trembling, a truly fantastic little book).

Nietzsche may serve us better.  In "The Gay Science," he gives us a test, what he calls "the greatest weight": an angel — or daemon — comes to you and says: Everything that has ever happened and will happen to you — every thought, meal, pain, action — has happened an infinite number of times and will happen an infinite number of times.  How do you respond? Are you crushed by its weight? Or liberated by the call of necessity?

This is to say, for Nietzsche, our lives — what we do here and now — are absolutely necessary. Fate and chance are the same thing. We are what we do; the universe is what happens (ontology gives way to becoming).  When one lives as if this were so, as if every moment were necessarily perfect because there is no other way for that moment to be, then one is living in the finite infinitely. 

Experiencing this kind of joy, having this profound knowledge of one's necessity, is difficult to maintain day in and day out.  We get distracted by the humdrum, by the quotidian demands, by our neuroses and anxieties — what if, what if, what if, if only, if only, if only.  When one says "what if" and "if only," then one no longer sees life as necessary but as contingent, as finite. 

It's not easy to let go of the what ifs and if onlies.  It is an on going job — well, at least for me it is. 

And all I ask of those around me — my friends, my lovers, my family — is that they at least try to live infinitely, that they have a relationship with the infinite, that at least at some point in their lives they've experienced the necessity of this life, that they've lived through that trembling, that joy — and that that experience is something they actively seek and foster.

7 comments:

αλεθεια said...

Your article, according to my understanding, suggests that our general discourse instead of being premised on the 'either-or' way of perceiving issues, should rather be analyzed in a 'both-and' structure. If that is what you had intended to suggest in your article, then the notion of using a vocabulary that itself is highly paradoxical in nature, is a notion that goes back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers (who were the smartest people born on this planet.) They used few words to express deep philosophical themes, which philosophers like Heidegger and Derrida express in thousands of pages.

While I was doing my research on Heraclitus (a pre-Socratic philosopher), I realized that those primordial sages were true rhetoricians who knew exactly how to use clever puns that would hypnotize the audience and create an almost magical effect on them.

I wonder if such usage of a 'both-and' discourse would always make an argument win? And if so then, owing to its complexity, would people (the multitude) be even able to understand the notion of such a weird magnetism between differences that holds oppositions together?

Btw, I love your articles, and they help me a lot, not only academically but also personally!

I am restlessly waiting to read your next article!

Daniel Coffeen said...

Ah, I love the Pre-Socratics. Such pith! And such powerful pith! They definitely spin out all sorts of exquisite logics.

Now, as for "winning," the issue with both-and is it freaks people out as it's incompatible with an either-or. The key figure in rhetoric, I think, is the differend (do you know this term? Lyotard has a great book on it): mutually exclusive positions. So there is no winning, just a speaking past....

People clearly have a hard time understanding new, strange logics. Either-or is easy and is reinforced by all our ideology (wars on this and that), or cinema (good vs. evil, right vs. wrong), our media (red states vs. blue states), etc. Complexity, ambivalence, ambiguity: these are not popular traits or desires. But we keep on plugging away at it....

Thanks for the comments, truly.

drwatson said...

I've been trying to wrap my head around K's Knights for a while. Can you give me an example that you haven't already used.

I mean the infinite that K is talking about isn't quite the same as the child gazing at the stars is it? Maybe it is? I've heard Dreyfus lecture on this too and I've always been a little unsure about it. I mean a lot of the people I take classes with would want to say something like "It's all contingent." Can you explain why you disagree with that?

As always - it's a pleasure.

Daniel Coffeen said...

The reason I wrote this was to try and articulate something I've "understood" and experienced for ages but, when pushed, had difficulty putting into words. So here we go:

-For SK, our infinity is our divinity, that part of us that is eternal — as distinct from our bodies that decay or our desires that come and go.

-Still, what IS this eternal part? Soul? God? Every answer just seems to beg the question.

-So that's why I turned to FN and this idea of the necessity of my becoming: I am this piece of the cosmos and, as the cosmos is infinite, so am I. I am not that which passes on the world; I am the world — or at least this part of it.

-And I think this can be what SK means, too: my subjectivity is truth and this is eternal.

How's that?

Linz said...

"I am this part of the world." I really, really like this, because when I read it, it induces that infinity-understanding feeling. Thanks.

αλεθεια said...

Oh my fault! by using the phrase 'winning the argument' I was unconsciously using the 'either-or' discourse myself! So the structure of my argument was still tethered to the either-or but what I was in fact proffering was 'both-and' discourse.
Thanks a lot for mentioning Lyotard's Differend. I didn't know it, but I will def look into it. All I know of Lyotard is his short reading called Inhuman (I think it was a chapter from one of his books that I had read for a class)

drwatson said...

This is my first attempt to write on Wall Street. I'd be interested to hear what you guys think.

http://philosophicalmatters.blogspot.com/2011/10/occupy-wall-street.html