Infinite Microcosms

Infinity is almost always associated with vast entities. We think of the universe as being situated in infinite Space; of Time as extending infinitely along a line backward (the past) and forward (the future); we imagine two parallel straight lines moving forever along a path and somehow meeting (or not meeting!) at infinity; we think of integers having endlessly increasing zeros. Infinity is grand, overwhelming, inconceivable. And we see ourselves immersed in it as little insignificant ants: humbled, consumed, vanishing.

Yet there is another infinity: the infinity of the small. The infinity inherent in what seems to be finite. This is the infinity of the limitless degrees of magnification with which a microscope can explore what appears contained and measurable. As it turns out, with every new degree of magnification, a microscope discovers new worlds. What was the domain of biology becomes the domain of chemistry, which in turn gives way to the world of physics – the 27-km-long Large Hadron Collider of CERN in Geneva is nothing but a giant microscope delving deeper and deeper into the never-ending world of subatomic particles. The more we explore the apparently finite, the more we realize it is boundless. With every new level that is revealed to us, new deeper layers appear below. As it turns out, it is not only infinity that consists of an endless series of discernible finites, but also the finite. The finite forever eludes us, just like infinity.

Yet most of us are unaware of this infinity in the finite. Or if we are, we do not seem to be overwhelmed by it. Its slow unveiling in the finite seems like an illusion. For the finite always feels part of our own familiar, graspable, contained world. However, this infinity in the finite ought to puzzle us even more, for unlike the distant infinities of Astronomy or the abstract infinities of Mathematics, it somehow stealthily intrudes into our everyday life. And sometimes it may shudder it to its core.

When I set out to travel around our planet in order to “see” the world, treating it as if it were one huge country, a single destination, I was of the impression that our globe was finite. And that, being finite, it was more or less “knowable” in its most general features – as all finites are. Yet, after a couple of years, and especially after my Indonesian experience (which is documented in my book), I realized that the world is composed of what I now call infinite microcosms. Quoting from the book:

“With 1,000 inhabited islands, this seemingly small corner of the planet [Indonesia] turned out to be an immense galaxy unto itself. The accumulated enormity of these islands transcends the limits of our globe. Through their apparent smallness, like grains of sand, they stretch out to reach the infinity of the universe. It now became clear to me that our planet, though seemingly finite, is destined to remain forever unknowable and unexplorable. For even if all else is known and traversed, there will always remain the Infinite Microcosm of Indonesia – the fatal battleground of any world-traveler.” (Capsule Defeat, p. 55)

The above quote was a rather poetic way of expressing the simple realization that to “see” the islands of Indonesia alone would take my whole life, while to explore the whole world would take many more lifetimes.

Indonesia actually belongs to what may be called a geographical infinite microcosm – too many islands spread across an archipelago. But there are other types of infinite microcosms: There are natural ones, such as the infinite varieties of animals, insects, microbes, and plants in the Amazon rainforest. There are cultural ones, such as the innumerable traditions of the Balinese people.

Yet the commonest infinite microcosms are actually the ones nearer to us: our own cities! Large cities are infinite microcosms. However, we are unaware of this since we are constantly immersed in them. London, for example, with its approximately 200 museums, over 800 attractions of all types, thousands of restaurants, and clubs – and a ceaselessly renewed stream of theater plays, concerts, and all sorts of events – is an urban infinite microcosm. The more you explore it, the more you discover that you can never truly know it. Another such microcosm – of a totally different character – is medieval Fez in Morocco. Every alley and every house of Fez contains history and treasures of never-ending diversity. Fez is the magical Arabia of our childhood imagination, and no number of visits could ever exhaust its innumerable gifts.

Both London and Fez are microcosms, because they are contained in a small area of the Earth, but they are also infinite because their substance is spread over many other dimensions beyond the physical. A city is not just its monuments, parks, gardens, and buildings, but also its history, art, society, cultural life, the dishes served in its restaurants, the plays in its theaters, the young people conversing and dancing in the clubs. Along each cobbled street of historic Fez and behind each door of central London, there are myriad hidden worlds to be discovered, layers to be uncovered. Even the most curious of Londoners have not yet managed to explore the greater part of their own city.

But the concept of infinite microcosms does not only relate to our efforts to explore and know countries and cities, or the physical and social world in general. Once observed, the concept will be seen to apply to many other aspects of life: Beethoven’s music is not finite, for new depths are revealed with every repeated listening of any of his pieces. Not to mention the fact that for each of his compositions there are hundreds of expert treatises and essays one may read, which offer endless insights into both Beethoven’s music as well as its appreciation. Similarly, Carl Jung’s writings are not finite: the insights about the stages of life that lie in them are slowly revealed through repeated readings as one grows up. The inexhaustible depth of Jung’s writings may be said to be infinite with respect to our finite ability to both comprehend them and apply them to our everyday life.

The fact that we are surrounded by all sorts of infinite microcosms need not make us feel alienated from what we thought was knowable and contained. On the contrary, this simple realization may open up a new way of looking at the world. Suddenly, we obtain X-ray eyes that see through every finite in our world, transforming it into a possible or a real infinity.

Behind everything we think we already know, behind every experience we experienced once, behind every place or piece of music or even every familiar object that surrounds us, there are always more layers to be uncovered, more worlds to be discovered, more life to be revealed and enjoyed.

© 2024 Nicos Hadjicostis