Sunday, March 28, 2010

John Banville, The Infinities (2009)

In The Beginnings of Western Science (March 24, 2010 post), David Lindberg states that the Sixth Century (B.C.) Milesians of antiquity posed a question that had never been previously asked in either Greek or Middle Eastern culture: "what is the material origin of things---the single and simple underlying reality that can take on a variety of forms to produce the diversity and order behind chaos?" And importantly, Lindberg adds, "in the answers offered by these Milesians we find no personification or deification of nature; a conceptual chasm [that] separates their worldview from the mythological world of Homer and Hesiod. The Milesians left the gods out of the story. What they may have thought about the Olympian gods we do not (in most cases) know; but they did not invoke the gods to explain the origin, nature or cause of things." And while the idea of a god as a creator or prime mover later found a place in the ideas of Plato (Timaeus) and Aristotle in subsequent centuries, these were not anthropomorphic gods that meddled in earthly affairs. Similarly, Yahweh gradually abandoned its personal intermeddling in the history of the Hebrew people over these centuries as well. Only later in Christian mythology, with its story of a miraculous virgin birth, do we come close to a story, now about 2000 years old, of divine intermeddling that some people to this day believe is part of human history.

Occasionally, a novelist brings to life mythological dieties who intervene in human affairs to tell a story. Jose Saramago brought the god of the Jewish people to Galil to the bedroom of Mary and Joseph in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and behold, Mary, was with child. That other Christian demiurge --- the devil ---also enters an appearance in the Saramago story. Greek mythological gods are central to John Barth's Chimera, with the objective of showing that these gods are real human beings with all the characteristic foibles of humanity. And so it is with John Banville in The Infinities, where Hermes, Zeus, and Pan lurk over and intermingle in the life of the Godley family as their patriarch, Adam Godley, sits in a coma facing his last day of life.

Early in The Infinities, Zeus slides into bed with dying man, Adam Godley's daughter-in-law for sexual intercourse. This is not new to storytelling. Even in the early chapters of Genesis (6:4), heavenly gods came down to earth, in the Greek tradition, and impregnated women who bore their children. The miracle of Jesus' divine paternity merely repeats this storytelling technique, as do other parts of the Gospel that seek to build on the Hebrew stories to form a continuous history.

The term "infinities" has multiple meanings for this playful, amusing tale, which could have been titled, with apologies to Shakespeare, A Midsummer Day's Coma. Facially, the Infinities refers to the mythological gods of Greek lore, who, without apparent conspiracy, find their way to the home of a dying mathematician as he lifelessly waits out the final day of his life. But equally, it refers to the conundrum that has plagued quantum physicists and string theorists who have pursued the theory of everything that will mathematically unite quantum mechanics and general relativity, only to find failure in the mathematical equations that produce bedeviling infinities. The dying mathematician has purportedly solved the problem (although we are not told how). The closest we come to learning of Adam's stunning achievement is the statement of Pan, in the guise of the dying man's long-time friend Benny, who says, "you see, the infinities, the infinities that cropped up in everyone else's equations and made them null, and which cropped up in his, too, he saw as exactly what----an infinity of infinities, all crossing and breaking into each other, all here and invisible, a complex of worlds beyond what anyone before him had imagined ever was there---well, you can imagine the effect. . .Well, well, you can imagine." Pan appears to be saying that the dying mathematician simply accepted the infinities and their inherent contradictions for what they are and posited the existence of multiverses, a subject addressed by Charles Seife in Decoding The Universe (August 23, 2009 post). Inquiring minds, however, would like to know more.

In this novel, the dying man in a coma can still think, and for a chapter the reader is treated to his memories and thoughts, including one glimpse of the infinities that he stared in the face and understood. "My equations spanned a multitude of universes yet they posited a single world of unity and ultimate order. Perhaps there is such a world, but if there is we do not live in it, and cannot know how things would be there." An admission that countless authors and religious leaders have contemplated for millenia: human limits in the face of a universe (and perhaps an infinite number of universes) that seem(s) to be without limit. Echoing Pan, humans can imagine multiple universes and infinity, but the limitations that make us "human" mean that we will never know the infinite how things really are in those other universes that we cannot live in.
Each of the characters in this novel seems to be coexisting in their separate universes. They notice each other and talk to each other, but they don't appear to be truly intersecting. They are almost invisible to each other.

Banville closes his treat with this observation from Zeus: "This is the mortal world. It is a world where nothing is lost, where all is accounted for while yet the mystery of things is preserved; a world where they may live, however briefly, however tenuously, in the failing of the self, solitary and at the same time together somehow here in this place, dying as they may be and yet fixed forever in a luminous, unending instant." These are themes that return us to information theory, described by Seth Lloyd and Charles Seife (August 2009 posts). As Seife noted, while the universe may be infinite, information processing cannot go on forever --- and at some point information processing will stop and the gezillions of bits of information that life has stored and preserved will be dissipated (not destroyed) so it is useless and life in the visible universe (not just human life) will become extinct. That is a universe where "nothing is lost," but in contrast to Banville, all cannot be accounted for because of entropy. Banville does not contemplate entropy or the dissipation of information, and if he did the mildly upbeat ending would likely turn out to be more pessimistic instead.

This is a deep novel, probably one people can afford to read more than once. And a dose of Greek mythology in your academic background could make it enjoyable on another level.

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