Saturday, March 13, 2010

The intersection of finite and the infinite

Spring Break, finally! Posts here were slow last week - but then the week before spring break is usually the craziest. But why worry about such petty things when we can wonder about infinities. Here is a review of intriguing new book, The Infinities, by John Banville. I'm not sure if I want to read it, but it does have a fascinating premise:
What, if any, is the desirable ­intersection of the finite and the infinite, the mortal and the divine? That’s the question John Banville asks in his latest novel. Or perhaps that metaphysical query is only a bluff. Perhaps what “The Infinities” is really about is how much you can get away with if you’re a genius, a game-changer, a master (literally) of the universe.

The novel takes place over the course of a single summer’s day in the confines of a big shabby house in the middle of Ireland. On an upper floor, in what the residents call “the Sky Room,” Adam Godley, a theoretical mathematician, lies apparently insensible and on the verge of death after a stroke. His family — wife, daughter, son, daughter-in-law — has assembled for the occasion of his passing. Two more guests, one expected and one not, will arrive shortly. And two more, the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus, are also present, although no one but the family dog can see them. Hermes, whose job it is to usher the souls of the dead to the underworld, narrates most of “The Infinities,” but his point of view hitches rides from character to character as they move through the house, ruminating on how they feel about one another and the failing paterfamilias upstairs.

“The Infinities” is based on the myth of Amphitryon, a Theban general whose wife, Alcmene, was seduced by Zeus while her husband was off fighting a battle. Since Zeus came to the virtuous Alcmene in the guise of Amphitryon, she can hardly be called adulterous; all the same, Amphitryon was cuckolded. Was Alcmene wronged by the god or honored?
Okay. But then you add the genius of the theoretical mathematician and an alternative history where the theory of relatively (which one?) and evolution have been overturned:
And here’s something odd: The family the Godleys bought the house from are descended from a soldier ennobled by Mary, Queen of Scots, after she had “the upstart and treasonous Elizabeth Tudor” beheaded. The younger Adam drives a car powered by sea water. “Wallace’s theory of evolution” has been recently overturned, and so has the theory of relativity, thanks to Godley’s own work. In his youth, the dying mathematician was responsible for “a series of equations, a handful of exquisite and unimpeachable paradoxes” that “unlocked the sealed chamber of time,” revealing, among other things, the infinite number of infinities and “a multitude of universes.” The universe in which “The Infinities” takes place, it seems, is not our own.
An infinite number of infinities? Now that's a lot of infinity. So what about the intersection of humans and immortals?
According to “The Infinities,” the human and the immortal cannot live together, only intersect in fleeting, galvanic moments. These are our rare jolts of inspiration, a word derived from the Latin for “to breathe,” for when the gods breathe through us — or into us, as was the case with Alcmene. Her intersection with Zeus resulted in the conception of Heracles, the ideal man and Everyman, a chip of the divine embedded in what Godley calls “this frightful and exquisite world.”
Read the full review here. You can also read an excerpt from the book here.


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