March 28, 2010


by John Banville
273 Pages, Alfred A. Knopf

Reviewed by A. J. Barker

The ancient poet, Hesiod, claimed that before time began (and again when all else is swept away) there remains the eternal conflict of Desire and Necessity, an annoying itch in non-space-non-time from which are descended the generations of gods, with all their works. Or to put it in terms we understand, there is an instability in ‘nothingness’ that triggers Big Bangs, and all the ‘thingness’ that flows therefrom. (You do understand that, don’t you? O.K. Me too. Let’s move on.)

When you have ‘things’ you have interactions—things bounce off other things. There are consequences—causes have effects, effects create more causes. Was it necessary? Or was it random? Or have the gods been interfering with cause and effect?

In a truly deterministic universe not only would larger fleas have smaller fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em, but these lesser fleas (who have smaller fleas, etc. etc.) would not act at random (much less by choice) but strictly in accordance with their individual destinies. Each flea would have its particular nemesis whose note in the grand symphony of cause and effect was determined at the beginning of time in accordance with the inscrutable will of the Composer.

Or maybe some other way. Who knows?

We can’t know, really. Mortal understanding, celebrated for encompassing ‘everything’ from quarks to Big Bangs, is marvelous only relative to the comprehension of garden slugs, or domestic cats—both of which species know exactly what they need to know to be what they are. And we know just enough to be human beings, a species that craves understanding, but must make do with explanation.

Some explanations are more satisfying than others. The jittery motion of a particle in a fluid, is said to be ‘random’—but ‘randomness’ (as an explanation) is just a way of throwing up our hands—an admission that there are too many causes and too many effects. Something can be said in statistical terms—about the jittery motion of all the particles—but that’s a different explanation of a different question.

We can only perceive, comprehend and retain, so much—and lacking critical facts, which may be entirely outside our purview (or, if noticed, may have been misinterpreted—or perhaps judged ‘irrelevant’) we are likely to miss the point entirely.

And worse, just when we get a handle on the data, Galileo looks at Jupiter’s moons with his new telescope. Whoops! The whole explanation changes. That’s embarrassing. But although the explanation was changed, the truth remained the same—and remains slightly beyond reach. There’s a lot of ‘Dark Matter’ out there. Could it be Necessity? And all that Dark Energy? Desire?

All of which is prologue to confronting The Infinities. Not the actual infinities, which mortal man may not usefully consider, but the peculiar subset of infinities in John Banville’s book. The book has been extensively reviewed and universally approved. I agree. It is a wonderful book, full of lovely English sentences. (English is often improved by Irish writers.) Better still, it deals with two of my favorite themes: modern cosmology (Hugh Everett’s thesis, and its eleven dimensional offspring—as thrilling to modern physicists as angels on pins were to their predecessors) and: the Olympian gods, whose lusts, whimsies and spiteful tricks are another (perhaps ‘the real’) explanation for why things go wrong.

Adam Godley, mathematician, lies dying in his isolated farmhouse in Ireland, an Ireland similar to ours, but not quite the same. The shabby, ill-smelling house, its dank rooms connected by unexpected corridors, is the ‘universe’ of his final days. It lies ominously adjacent to a train track that doesn’t go anywhere in particular. His family (wife, son, daughter-in-law and daughter) all variously damaged by life, are in attendance. His retainers (a maid, and a ‘cowman’) are in and out. The god, Hermes, orchestrates the action and serves as narrator. Zeus is there, seducing Adam’s daughter-in-law, and Pan will be along later to upset the inevitabilities. Oh, and let’s not overlook Rex, Adam’s faithful dog, who shares some of the attributes of the gods.

As Hugh Everett tried to solve the quantum riddle by arguing that each choice we make creates a new universe, so Godley has, literally, created this world. His equations have solved the riddle of Time, opening the door to that infinity of universes, where everything imaginable becomes possible, and everything possible becomes inevitable. But, no matter that access to the Infinities is similar to entering heaven (or joining the gods on Olympus) nobody is anxious to pass through the door.

Instead of increasing our satisfaction, the certainty that everything will happen, and all will be understood, has diminished the human world. It was a mistake, Banville suggests, to envy the immortality and omniscience of the gods. They’re bored. They’ve been bored for aeons. They’re petty. They play cruel tricks and practice deceitful seductions. We resemble the gods, but it’s not necessarily a good thing. In fact, the more godlike we become, the worse we are.

And beneath it all, they envy our mortality and limitations, for it is only in worlds that can be snatched away by death, that the poignancy of love, the intensity of regret, the glory of light and the immanence of dark can be experienced. Life is not life without its looming opposite—that creepy shadow lurking in the corridors, that only Rex can see. We wanted to be them, but they (who know better) want to be us.

There are lots of ‘references’ in the story—fun for the literary minded. For example: the daughter-in-law is an actress, currently playing the role of Alcmene. Zeus makes love to her disguised as her husband—the same trick he played on the ‘real’ Alcmene, who became the mother of Heracles. Why? Zeus hopes, by seducing women, to learn something about human love, one of two things that the gods cannot experience. He is convinced that there is a relationship between love and death, that ‘…one conduces to the other…” But why the disguise? He’s a god—his seductions are bound to succeed. Wouldn’t they succeed just as well without the trick? Who knows? Banville, it seems, likes the story of Amphitryon and Alcmene—and it’s his book.

And, it’s a fine book—only the length of a midsummer’s day, but frequent flashbacks make it a full round day—and if I have made it sound a bit gloomy, remember that the gods also bring comic relief. The earthy Pan, Adam’s frequent companion in life, visits him at his deathbed to arrange a cheerful postponement for all concerned (for happy endings are only possible sometime prior to the actual end.)

The final pages remind us of the last scene of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream—everyone as happy as the Bard’s lovers, celebrating an ingeniously contrived ending.

“The trees tremble talking of night. The birds, the clouds, the far pale sky. This is the mortal world. It is a world where nothing is lost, where all is accounted for while yet the mystery of things is preserved; a world where they may live, however briefly, however tenuously, in the failing evening of the self, solitary and at the same time together somehow here in this place, dying as they may be and yet fixed forever in a luminous, unending instant.”

Like Adam, we don’t appreciate it sufficiently.

That breeze might be Pan laughing, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

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