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.