My Science Communicator Friend takes me right back. Back to when everything was different and new and a little bit daunting, but also, obviously, exciting. He is up for things, he’s up for seeing some local art on a spur of the moment, he’s up for hearing Morcheeba, he’s even up for a book launch next Tuesday, though that is now unlikely to happen as he seems to have mistaken Thursday for Tuesday and realised he needs Tuesday to cram for a deadline Wednesday morning. Either that, or whateverthiscouldbecome has got stuck in its tracks now and shuddered to a sudden but not in its entirety incomprehensible halt.
When I say ‘whateverthiscouldbecome’, I should first of all quickly check back with the reality I am currently vaguely familiar with. The last time we saw each other, there was a moment that went like this:
We’ve arrived at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and the place is as yet fairly empty, with only a couple of dozen people or so huddling near the very front, by the stage, so we are able to get ourselves a couple of drinks and leisurely hang about the part of the stalls that will soon fill up with gig-goers, standing.
I don’t remember what prompts the question, but it comes mid-conversation, as an aside, almost, or a sub-clause, certainly not a big deal, when he asks me how old I think he is. It’s a question in parentheses (a by-the-way kind of question that may or may not have slipped into another, much more pertinent topic of conversation) and I say, ‘well, putting together the information I have, I think you’re probably a bit younger than you look’—bearing in mind I originally thought he looked comfortable in his very early thirties—‘so I’d say possibly mid towards late twenties, about twenty-seven?’
‘Yes, I am twenty-two.’
In view of this, any notion of ‘whateverthiscouldbecome’ acquires its very own peculiar kind of perspective.
It takes me right back, all of this, to when things were new and a little bewildering, but also mostly handled with aplomb. There was a period—I’m not sure where it started, where it ended or, if not ended, was left dangling, suspended—when we faced each day with a healthy nonchalance. For me, it wasn’t my twenties. I went through my twenties with extreme caution and an at times crippling level of self-deprecation, but even then a tingling sense of thrill that anything at all might happen (even if very little happened, or nothing at all) was more or less always there. It was there now, with my very young Science Communicator Friend who had agreed to see me again, but then cancelled, but then—yeay!—agreed to, and did, see me again…
There are, I come to realise, an infinite number of infinities.
When I put this to my young Mathematician Friend as a question, he interprets it mathematically and gives me an explanation I do not comprehend, but of which I have a faint feeling it appertains to something entirely different, though nonetheless relevant and important. Maybe I did not phrase my question well, and he did not understand it. Or very possibly he did fully understand the question and gave me a perfectly valid answer, but one that makes sense to his young mathematician mind more than it does to mine, which is twice as old and really not scientific at all.
I have enjoyed my young Mathematician Friend’s company, and I miss him and think of him often. He has a lovely smile, though it be slightly downward inclined, which makes him look just a tad sceptical when he smiles. Then again, he is a mathematician, so he has every right to be sceptical, and his smile is no less lovely for it.
I am fairly convinced that since there are more infinities than just one, there may well be several, and if there are several, there may well be many, and if there are many, then conceptually it strikes me as obvious that most likely there are an infinite number of infinities. Not being a mathematician, or at all scientifically minded, I only know of three infinities, two of which are of the same kind, and a third that is of an entirely different kind.
The reason I know that there are more infinities than just one is that there is the infinity of rational numbers, which perch on the unending line in the plus/minus direction where you can always add one more or take one more away. This means you in a sense already have two infinities, a positive and a negative one, but they are, in character, the same and should therefore probably be considered, if not one, then of one ilk.
But there are also the irrational numbers, which, like anchor points or switches on that line stretching from negative infinity into positive infinity, branch off into another direction, or even dimension, by leading into the unending sequence of never repeating numerals after the decimal point, which we can’t simply add to or take away from, but have to calculate, and which is therefore specific but unpredictable, but predictably unending.
So, simply looking at these two types of infinity, which are easy enough to understand though they may not be instantly recognisable, my hunch is chances are there are perhaps—I would venture quite probably, so probable as to seem certain—other infinities that may be even less easy to recognise, but that are nonetheless real, as real as these two (which could be looked on as three); and so, since there are an infinite number of numbers and an infinite number of ways we can configure these numbers to express an infinite number of things, there are likely, I like to think, to the level of this being probable, and in fact quite possibly so probable as to seem certain, not just two, or three or four, or one or two dozen, but an infinite number of infinities, not least because there are bound to be an infinite number of universes.
The thought that there are an infinite number of infinities to me is beautiful because I like the idea of infinities, but it is also tiring, because while I can imagine the one or two infinities that I’m already familiar with, I can barely conceive of any beyond that; and right now I wish I could have my young Mathematician Friend with me and curl up with him, just to feel his calm body in the presence of his beautiful mind and know that there is someone who may not see the world quite as I do, but who can handle abstraction and make something of it.
We spend some time together at the Science Museum, and on my terrace, and in my bed, and then he goes back to Austria, where he’s from; and I think, this is true: we actually met on a park bench in Kensington Gardens. It feels like we’ve known each other for years, but we really just met last Thursday by the Italian Fountain, when he asked me for a light, and we talked and exchanged numbers.
I lost sight, a little, of my young Mathematician Friend, after he left London, but he didn’t entirely escape from my mind, and so we met up again a few months later, this time in Vienna. That was a little strange, because now a few things had happened—none of them to do with me—that had troubled this beautiful mind of his, and while he was better again, in fact well, I now worried about him, and we talked about all manner of things, but not infinities. And then we spent a whole night together, first going out, drinking many pints of stout in an Irish pub, and then at a nice little hotel, and I thought no more of or about it, until it occurred to me that this, probably, is what most of life is mostly about: chance encounters, and where we take them, if anywhere at all.
We didn’t take our encounter much further, my Mathematician Friend and I, but that matters not; what matters is merely that we made ourselves some memories on a pin prick of an infinite number of possibilities, and for that alone I like him still.
Sedartis sits and thinks for me, slowly: ‘Let me posit that there is no conspiracy.’
Where did you get your name from? I wonder. I don’t ask; I know it will become apparent. He composes himself. He has sageness about him. He reads my mind, listens to it, more like; feels it.
‘I went for a wander,’ he thinks back to me, ‘along a little lake. Little compared to the big lakes where I come from.’ Where do you come from, I long to know; he stays tuned to my thoughts and replies, without words, ‘the other worlds are many, while the same worlds are few. Of course you cannot know where I am from, even though you do.’ I am content with this, for the time being, and so he continues:
‘I do not know whether there are any conspiracies, or whether there are not, and if there are, who is within them, and who is without. There may be some; there may be many. There may be none. But let me posit that there are none: let me imagine that what looks like people consciously, actively coming together to conspire is in fact no more, and no less, than a culture.’
A culture, I think, is a conspiracy.
‘Exactly. Let me posit that the conspiracy is no more—and certainly no less, which is more grave—than a culture. A culture is a conspiracy. It could be benign, it could be malicious, it is most likely something in-between; it may have, at the outset, no obvious value attached to it: but consider’—Sedartis is now thinking harder—‘the good, the bad, and the ugly: are they truly, are they in themselves, are they actually good, bad, or ugly?’
What of Mephisto, I think, less insistent than he does, is he not “ein Teil von jener Kraft, die stets das Böse will, und stets das Gute schafft.”
‘Exactly.’ Sedartis understands me perfectly: he wills me to think the thought further; penetrate it deeper. I struggle. I get so easily distracted these days… ‘Consider people who do terrible things: murder children. Shoot boys and men. Rape women, girls, and boys and men. Devise gas chambers. Throw youths off buildings.’
My heart feels a hollow pounding: I don’t want to consider people who do terrible things; can’t we consider friendly people, people who may yet be friends, though perhaps they have not met? Are we to consider the worst that people do? Why? Sedartis thinks yes, now we must.
‘Consider people who do terrible things for some reason or other. Consider how in every single way they are exactly the same as you, or your neighbour, or your friend Jason, except in what they are doing at this particular time. Why do you find it so hard not to think of the other as other? Because it is exactly the same as you. The thought of it is horrendous, frightening. Of course it is true and you have to, you have to concede, though you don’t want to, that you could be that person, you too could be doing these things, you too are them as much as they are you, you are not separate, you own their horrendousness, and they own your love, and that’s what’s so hard not to be destroyed by: the worst thing that a human being is capable of any human being is capable of, including you; and it overshadows, for a period, in our eyes, the realisation, the hope, the belief, the truth—is it not a truth? say it is the truth—that this self-same man, that identical woman, the person who is doing the worst thing imaginable, is in the very same vein also capable of the noblest deed any human being has ever accomplished. The paradox. The infuriating, numbing, devastating realisation that the man who crushes the skull of a newborn under his boot is the same as the man who lays down his life so a stranger may live. It is not your nature to be one or the other, it is only and only your culture.’
But we are not victims.
‘No, you are not victims, not of your culture, you are the makers of your culture; that is the call: to stand up, to be tall, to accede to the duty of generating a signal, of being a voice in the wilderness, of saying: “No. Not in my name.” Of saying, “no, not in my name,” when terrible acts are being committed; and of being first to hold up your hand and your head and say: “I am here, count me in,” when noble deeds are done, difficult though they be. That is the choice: the choice is not between being born good or bad or potent or weak or ill or well or noble or savage, the choice is simply the culture you want to create.’
Sedartis falls silent. The thinking has quite exhausted him. I want him to stay by my side. His presence feels comforting now and serene. So much have I longed for his presence, comforting, sage and serene.
‘Let me posit that there is no conspiracy,’ Sedartis thinks slowly, in the way only he can, without saying the words: ‘let me assert that instead there is culture. And that the culture there is is the world as it is when we’re in it, and that being in it we are part of and therefore responsible for that culture.
‘And when we give up our hope and say: “that’s just the way it is,” then we have already lost, we have failed, we have yielded in resignation to the bad things that happen, and when we throw up our hands in despair and say: “that is them, they are like this that do these things, they are other,” then we have not understood who we are, not grasped that we are what we see happening around us, that we own every last bit of cruelty, just as we exult every grand act of mercy; and if we say: “they are powerful that have made the world such as it is, but I am weak,” then we give away what power we have, and we empower those that we scorn for wielding their power against us; and if we think, they are evil that hold this power, we forget that we would have this power if we hadn’t so feebly, so faintly, so frivolously surrendered it.
‘What is power, and what is it for: it is the potency to shape the world; and what shapes the world that we happen to live in: culture. Let me posit that there is no conspiracy, there are not categories of people; that there are not those who are good and those who are bad and those who are ugly, nor are there those who are different (nor are they, for that matter, indifferent: they are simply non-different: the same); there is your human conscience, and there is the culture that you create in the world you inhabit.’
What world do you inhabit, I wonder, and think to myself, I could do with an ice cream now.
‘So could I.’