The infinite within (excerpts)

by Vlad Zografi



What is, in fact, one's interaction with oneself? What hides in it and what does it generate? I will try to answer these questions, making a detour in the world of the physical phenomena, since the physical objects offer the easiest and the most obvious example of interaction (I am well aware of the risks to which this type of analogies are subjected to, but, since I opened the discussion about the amoeba, I assumed all risks). Let's take an object and observe its interactions with other objects. There are four fundamental interactions in nature, we will take the most familiar of all – the gravitational interaction, that connects the Earth to the Sun and the apple up in the tree to the ground. It has a feature that everybody knows or can assume: the closer the objects, the stronger the interaction. Simplifying things in order not to fall into mathematics, the interaction is inversely proportional with the distance between the objects. But what happens when the two objects coincide, when the distance between them is zero, when we think about the interaction of an object with itself? In this case, the interaction is infinite – the inverse of zero. You could say that the problem is absurd, that is wrongly presented, that it doesn't make sense for an object to interact with itself. Still, there are situations where physicists must face these type of problems, and they found a technique to eliminate these subversive infinites, because we can only operate with definite quantities.

Let's try to apply the above scenario to interactions between people. The further somebody (in a subjective sense, of course), the weaker our interaction with him – if we are relatively indifferent to the person, the energy invested in the interaction is minimal. Conversely, the closer to us, the stronger the interaction – and from here the intensity of family dramas. We could say, stretching language, that the interaction between two individuals is inversely proportional with the subjective distance between them (don't ask for precise definitions, as this is the subjective realm!) For sure the distance between “me” and “myself” is always zero, no matter what, therefore, accepting the rules of the game, we have to conclude that my interaction with myself is infinitely intense. In other words, its result are indefinite.

If we think about it, this is not so inconceivable. We find ourselves caught among parallel mirrors once we start to think about ourselves – this is an empirical observation that anyone could make. This is the reason why we cannot do our own psychological typing – as we saw in the previous chapter - the psychological typing can only be done by an outsider, that observes us from a certain distance, different from zero, so has a finite interaction with us, someone to whom we present a well defined image. But us, we cannot have a well defined image of ourselves, as Hamlet, in whose story Shakespeare leads us, is not a character with a defined psychological typing. Looking from inside, there is a disconcerting spectrum of contradictions within us, we cannot say anything clear about ourselves and we indignantly reject anything that others say: sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, psychoanalysts, they are all lying when they talk about us, although they might be right when they talk about others.

The problem though is much deeper and it goes beyond self image. When the first Greek philosophers opened their eyes to the world, they started to look for principles to explain it – in fact they were physicists. No matter that they found, one by one, the water, the air, the earth, the fire, the apeiron and they never agreed upon the principles. Have they had a solid scientific method, have they known the power of experiment, they would have established a common language and would have faced a well defined mission: they would have done what today's physicists do. Our interaction with the outside world is finite, which makes out of physics a true science – an objective field of study. In physics, there is a perfect consensus regarding the results, even if the interpretation of some hard to digest principles happens to differ. The history of physics, the paths followed, their dead ends included, are totally irrelevant for the present state of knowledge, they enjoy a secondary interest, somewhat eccentric and pedantic, although they can sometimes offer interesting suggestions to those immersed in the research itself.

However, philosophy is different. When the Greek philosophers started to ask themselves questions about man, they touched the germ of the infinite – that infinite of the man's interaction with himself. They placed themselves among parallel mirrors - which they seem to be aware of, since Heraclitus says: “You cannot discover the limits of the soul, even if you traveled every path; so deep is its logos”. They faced an infinite problem – which they approached each in a different way, with the landmarks of some central ideas, somewhat eliminating the infinite part of the problem, trimming it in various ways and getting no common ground as the physicists do, but a flourishing fauna of systems. And things continued like this until nowadays, which really makes the philosophy to be in fact the history of philosophy: a museum of lively or dead items (depending on our intellectual docility), some basic, some complicated, which, according to each of the philosophers' inclinations, contain practical individual solutions to limit the infinite resulted from the interaction with the self. So that, ultimately, the philosophy which deals with the problem of man reached the point of being repelled by systems – and gave birth to Nietzsche or Cioran, with their literary talent.

This image is not depressing unless we view it form the perspective of the strict criteria of scientific knowledge, but the philosophy which deals with the problem of man is not - and it cannot be - a science. It is an art – the art of eliminating the infinite, with which we cannot operate within the limits of human thinking. Let's not make funny faces, let's not degenerate its status – the questions about man are inevitable. What else could philosophy be concerned with, since for the rest there is science? And how can it not ask about man, since this is the only question that really touches us? The only thing now is that philosophers, at their turn, should not despise art. The history of philosophy is a museum in which we find quite a lot of fascinating objects, some of them as lively as possible. 



In our attempt to talk about meaning, on a literary base, let' direct our attention to Don Quixote. I was saying at the beginning that this is the only literary work with a known author that has the consistency of a myth and we find an interesting paradox here: the myth of Don Quixote has an exponential simplicity, it entered the collective consciousness in an easy to recognize version, confirmed by each re-narration and re-presentation – it became cliché; conversely, Cervantes' book is maybe the most complex literary works that was ever written. There are striking inconsistencies between the cliché-myth and the book. Here is an example: although Cervantes clearly writes that Dulcinea is a coarse country girl, in all the films based on the book the actresses that play Dulcinea's part are beautiful – even Sophia Loren is starring in one of the versions, although slightly upset and sloppy dressed, but nonetheless these cannot hide her beauty. Even the Chinese, who had recently produced a film on this theme, have chosen a suspiciously beautiful actress. In other words, the film makers present us Dulcinea not as she is, but as Don Quixote sees her – and they do it because they do not give enough credit to Don Quixote, they don't trust him to convince the other characters and the public that Dulcinea is indeed beautiful beyond her appearance. His transfiguration force is under the question mark, therefore he needs help from Sophia Loren or a superb Chinese woman. This is not completely illogical, since a good film maker's best bet is the action, not the text of Cervantes, in whose lush territory he barely ventures. Anyway, the cliché – myth withstands.



Let's focus on two moments: two welcome greetings that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza enjoy – two pauses in which they can catch their breaths, taking a break from the unfolding of events and enjoying the opportunity to discuss and reflect. The first greeting happens in the house of a knight, don Diego de Miranda, and is taking place after he assists to the adventure with the lions, a belated adventure coming after Don Quixote already went through many others and acquired the title of the Knight of the Sad Countenance and is now acquiring a new one – the Knight of the Lions. Arriving at Diego's house, our rambling knight is welcome by Diego's wife and son, Lorenzo, a poetry lover. Left alone with don Diego, Lorenzo tries to figure out who is in fact Don Quixote, but his father is also confused: “I don’t know what to tell you, son,” said don Diego, “I will only say that I’ve seen him do things that only the craziest man in the world would do, and I’ve heard him say things that were so keen they overshadow and efface his deeds”. So Lorenzo needs to find out himself who Don Quixote is, and he has a conversation with Don Quixote about the art of poetry as well as the arts of the rambling knighthood, but is confused by his meaningful words – and needs to acknowledge in front of his father: “All the doctors and scribes in the world won’t be able to fix the first draft of his craziness. He’s a crazy man with periods of lucidity.” So, eliminating or simplifying the discourses with which Cervantes abundantly endows Don Quixote, the film of the action leads directly to the cliché – myth; by this, Don Quixote's traits become more nuanced and ambiguous.


And this ambiguity is increased at the second welcome greeting offered by the duke and the duchess. If don Diego was hesitant, the duke and the duchess immediately realize with whom they are dealing with – and they offer him a grandiose show: 


"When at length the party arrived at the gate of the castle, they were met by two of the duke's servants. These servants were dressed in long vests of crimson satin, cut and shaped like nightgowns...

...As they entered the courtyard they were met by two beautiful girls who threw a mantle of fine scarlet over Don Quixote's shoulders. Then all the servants of the duke, both men and women, shouted, "Welcome, welcome, flower and cream of knight-errantry!"

All these things pleased Don Quixote amazingly”.

What follows next is, I think, the most important moment of the novel. Here are the words further expressed by Cervantes:

“For this was the first time he had felt that he was really and truly a knight. He now found himself treated just like the famous heroes he had read about, and it did his heart good. They led him up a stately staircase and into a noble hall, all hung with rich gold brocade. There his armor was taken off by six young ladies, who served him instead of pages.

'This is, indeed, like the glorious days of chivalry,' he said to himself.”

Let's remember the timeline: after an extraordinary number of adventures, after fighting the windmills, after attacking the sheep, after asking for the lion's cage to be opened – and made it alive only because the lion proved to be lazy, after all these adventures, Don Quixote was - Cervantes suggests - still unsure if he is indeed a rambling knight. He proved himself courageous and self reliant along the whole way, but he still didn't know who he really was. This sentence placed here by Cervantes blows up everything: have we been misled? Did Cervantes tricked us? Or even Don Quixote himself? If we stop a second and step back and observe carefully, we find a suspicious lucidity in Don Quixote. The meaning we discover here, the resource in which we should dig into, is not at all the cliché – myth. This small intervention of the author, often overlooked,  is like a pin in the fundamental logic of the novel.


But our cozy logic has still to be subjected to other electric shocks. Being welcome in the duke's house, Don Quixote makes the following statement:

“But I, led by my star, have taken the narrow path of knighthood, and in doing so I scorn wealth, but not honor. I’ve satisfied grievances, righted wrongs, punished impudence, conquered giants, and trampled monsters. I’m in love, only because it’s required for knights errant to be in love; and although I’m in love, I’m not one of those depraved lovers, but rather of the Platonic kind. My intentions are always directed toward meritorious ends, to do good to all and ill to none. If the person who understands this in this way and labors toward these goals, if the person who does this deserves to be called a fool, let your highnesses, the duke and duchess, declare me to be one.”

These words can be said in many ways. For instance, in a burlesque fashion – but this would be too simplistic. They could be pronounced with a tragical grandeur – this is the usual solution used in representations. But what if they would be simply pronounced in a casual fashion? Let's eliminate the first possibility. The second implies that Don Quixote is an ignorant: he doesn't really know the world, he only lives in his imagination, enclosed as in a monad. But if there is a seed of lucidity within himself, then besides the inescapable enthusiasm of his speech, he must squeeze in a shadow of casual: he knows or has an intuition of the world, but he has strong reasons to violate its logic. He doesn't make it from ignorance or insanity, but from a type of knowledge that gives him accesses to another layer of the existence.

Later, also in front of the duke and the duchess, Don Quixote gets to talk about Dulcinea, that he believes to be enchanted, since she appears as a coarse country girl. The Duchess tells him that Dulcinea might not exist in real world, might be just “a lady that really doesn’t exist in the world, but is rather an invented lady that you engendered in your imagination and described her with all the charms and perfections you wanted.” Don Quixote answers:

 “There’s much to be said about this... God knows if there’s a Dulcinea in the world or not, or if she’s imagined or not. And this is not the type of thing that can be fully verified. I neither engendered nor gave birth to my lady, although I contemplate her as a lady who has all those qualities that can make her famous throughout the world, which are: beauty without blemish, being distinguished but without pride, loving yet modest, gracious through courtesy, courteous through good breeding, and finally, noble of lineage, since beauty shines and flourishes most perfectly because of good breeding than beauty that’s humbly born.”

 So we see that Don Quixote doesn't know if Dulcinea really exists or not – the reality here being the world perceived by senses – another sign of skepticism or lucidity. But he deducts her existence by a rationale similar to Anselm ontological reasoning: if we can conceive a perfect woman, as Dulcinea, she must exist, otherwise she would not be perfect - but Dulcinea exists in a sense that he cannot define. It is above his means.

Finally, during the same meeting with the duke and the duchess, he proves again his force of penetration in the perceivable world, talking about Sancho Panza, his squire:

“I want you to understand that Sancho Panza is one of the most amusing squires that ever served a knight errant. At times his naïveté is so sharp that it’s curious to wonder if he’s a simpleton or keen-witted. He does mischievous things that condemn him as a rascal, and has an absentmindedness that confirms him as a fool. He doubts everything and he believes everything. Just when I think he’s going to topple into something foolish, he comes up with something wise that raises him to the heaven”.

 These do not seem to be at all the words of a man enclosed in his monad and completely detached of the perceivable reality. By contrary, he resembles a lot with the ambiguous and nuanced fashion in which Lorenzo and don Diego are seeing him. On the other hand, our cliché – myth Don Quixote did not have the disposition and the finesse to penetrate the soul and the mind of his companion, being too caught up in his giant-windmills, sorcerers, knights and Dulcinea.


After this extensive talk about the two unwinding moments of Don Quixote, let's also take a pause to look more carefully at the image we retain. The timeline of the action is simple: the knight does some crazy acts. Cervantes words complicate things though, as it also happens in Shakespeare. The personal film of Don Quixote is inconsistent with the action film – but this is not a problem in novels, given the fact that the art of novel offers the possibility to play with the personal films, no need to deal with the theater staging constraints – that is, it is inconsistent with the cliché – myth.

 There are two realms. One is the perceivable world, with its logic, which does not completely escape to Don Quixote. The other is the undefined realm within Don Quixote. The logic of the perceivable world is unacceptable to him: the big fault of the perceivable world is that it exists. Don Quixote's direction in his undefined realm, the meaning he is searching for, is severely incompatible with the logic of the perceivable world. Therefore he has no choice than to postulate a more consistent existence. From the perspective of the common logic, this is sure enough absurd. What Cervantes says here is that you cannot escape the world's logic without violating it, there is no room for compromise. Don Quixote's inner realm dynamics leads to unavoidable frictions. Seen from outside, Don Quixote is perfectly absurd. From within, he is perfectly coherent. Cervantes book shows him in both ways, but discreetly pleads for his lucidity comparing with the exterior world. Otherwise, whatever he does would be pure madness, without any ground, would be only delirium – and it would be uninteresting. After all, Don Quixote talks about the real world, not about a self containing madness –  a banal one. This seed of lucidity is indispensable to Cervantes. But maybe it is not only a seed. Maybe Don Quixote is, in fact, the most lucid character from the entire literature.



I have been for a long time concerned with the thought of an individual on the verge of committing suicide. He is ready to do it, because his life's script eroded all his capacities of making sense, as the old cliché sais: “Life doesn't make sense any more”. The fact would be possible to accomplish if our individual would loose all his making sense capacities – the spontaneously emerging ones or the already available meanings around and absorbed in time. It is as if the individual would cease to exist inside himself: his indefinite field would condense, would become opaque and sclerotic, like a cancerous nodule. He could not say “myself” anymore: his self would become toxic. No matter what, the self would deny his being. Any contact with the world would be inconceivably painful. Reaching this point, there would be no other solution for him than the physical disappearance. I tried to imagine the concert of his thoughts in the moment of death – that split second in which, closing the radio, you can still hear a weak sound in the speaker. Well, I think our individual would not necessarily die with that obsessive thought about a meaning in his mind, coming as a flash light, but with the nostalgia for a meaning.

The horrors to which our indefinite field has been subjected to do not know any limits. There are physical tortures, but psychological too, that are hard to imagine. People can torture each other with an unimaginable creativity and energy. The totalitarian regimes did it systematically, they specialized in this direction, in order to compress and align our indefinite fields. For instance, the Pitesti jail experiment*, between 1949 and 1952, is an extreme case I cannot pull out of my mind: following horrible torture, the detainees were obliged to become the prosecutors of their cellmates. It is hard to talk about this, but it is clear that, bringing the individual to a breakdown point, you can deposes him of anything, you can kill anything in him. But, no matter how many layers would you skin out of him, there is one last thing, I believe, which survives: the nostalgia of a meaning. This is all it is left out of the indefinite field.


* The Piteºti prison (Romanian: Închisoarea Piteºti) was a penal facility in Piteºti, Romania, best remembered for the brainwashing experiments carried out by the Communist authorities of Romania between 1949 and 1952.


translated from Romanian by Adina Dabija



Born in Bucharest, Romania, Vlad Zografi earned his Ph.D. in Atomic Physics from the University of Paris-Sud, Orsay. He made his literary debut in l990 with a story in the prestigious Romania Literara and has been receiving rave reviews since. He has published six volumes of theater, a novel, a volume of stories, as well as several papers on theoretical atomic physics in international magazines. Vlad Zografi is also the coordinator of the science book section of “Humanitas”, the most important Romanian publishing house.




respiro@2000 All rights reserved