Baudelaire's Conception of Infinity

Baudelaire's Conception of Infinity

“One finds an ancient flask, and from its spout
A spirit, now restored and much alive, pours out.
A thousand slumbering thoughts, dismal chrysalids
Within the shadows trembling like new butterflies,
Which set themselves to fly, as crumpled wings unfold
In tints of azure, frosts of rose, and flakes of gold.”

How could one model desire?  We could follow the notion of the psychoanalyst Lacan. Where Freud had a “hydraulic” theory of mind, with various forces that would build up and need to be released, Lacan had a different idea. For Lacan, the unconscious is structured like a language.  That gives rise to an intuition that desire and belief are not separate, but rather that desire can be considered as gaps in the structure of belief, “open spaces unfilled.”  As we saw earlier in the discussion of Picasso and Cubist painting, in some ways of thinking, the empty spaces are as important as what is filled in.  And the empty spaces are not all the same.  There are different kinds of emptiness.

To start to explore this idea of empty space, and how it could be used to model desire, let’s listen to these passages from Sartre’s commentary on Baudelaire.

“For Baudelaire, the infinite was not a vast given limitless expanse, though he did sometimes use the word in this sense.  It was in fact something which never finished and could not finish.  For example, a series of numerals will be infinite not because there is a very large number of them which we can describe as an “infinite” number, but because of the everlasting possibility of adding another unit to a number no matter how large it may be.  Thus every number in the series has a ‘beyond’ in relation to which it is defined and its place in the series fixed.  But this ‘beyond’ does not yet exist completely: I must bring it into existence by adding another unit to the number in front of me.  It already gives meaning to all the other numerals which I have written down, yet it is the term of an operation which I still have not completed.  Such was Baudelaire’s conception of infinity.  It is something which is, without being given; something which today defines me and which nevertheless will not exist until tomorrow.  It is the term – a term of which we can catch a glimpse, dream of and almost touch, but which remains out of reach – of a directed movement.  We shall see later on that more than to any other, Baudelaire clung to these existences which were present and absent at the same time.  But it is certain that he had long recognized that this infinitude was the lot of consciousness.”

“We shall return to this determination of the present by the future, of what already exists by what does not yet exist which he called ‘non-satisfaction’ and what philosophers today call transcendance.  No one understood better than he that man is a ‘being of distances’ who is defined much more by his end and the term of his plans than by what we can know of him if we limit him to the passing moment”

“Meaning is an intermediary between the present thing which supports it and the absent object which it designates; it retains within itself a little of the former and already points to the latter.  It is never completely pure; there is in it, as it were, the memory of the forms and colours from which it emanates; and yet it gives itself like a being beyond being.  It does not exhibit itself; it holds itself back, vacillates a little and is only accessible to the keenest of senses.  For Baudelaire whose spleen always demanded an ‘elsewhere,’ if was the very symbol of non-satisfaction; a thing which has meaning is always an unsatisfied thing.  Its meaning is the image of thought, and it gives itself like an existence swallowed up in being.”

How does this apply to language or poetry? We read the words and we sense something of the meaning.  The meaning is infinite.  We can only hope to unfold it a little at time, and as we unfold it, it draws us on, desiring to unfold more.  This is the nature of meaning.

We are finite and infinite at the same time.  Finite in our actual existence, infinite in the meaning we carry, meaning which can only be unfolded one step at a time.

We can use these ideas at the foundation of an approach to modeling meaning.  We can model meanings as infinite structures in Baudelaire’s sense; something a system has, yet doesn’t have, at the same time.  We can achieve this through the use of empty space.  The empty spaces, which the system has, are the places within which the meaning which the system carries can be unfolded.  But the meaning is always only partially unfolded at any point in time.

Looking back at the fragment of Baudelaire’s poem above, we see that an analogy for meaning is not any “thing” in the scene, but rather the flight of the butterflies in space and time, unfolding colors and visions.

How could language enable unfolding? The key is to look beyond the way things appear, and to think of how we construct them in our minds. More is present than simply what is given on the page. Look at this figure “1”. What does it mean? The dots on the page or screen can be categorized as the numeral 1. It’s that, but it’s also used to represent a number, the number 1. How could we model the number 1. (The early set theorists worked on this problem). Think of the number 1 not simply as a numeral, but as a numeral and a space, a space which can only be filled by a structure consisting of the successive numeral and the same kind of space.  The meaning of that finite structure “1”+space, can be unfolded forever.    E.g.  <1,space>; <1,<2,space>>; <1,<2,<3,space>>>; …

This is an example of the archetypes of a fluid geometry… which make it possible for a system to become other than it was in the process of unfolding its meaning.  It is a view of meaning that helps us “to remember all that we are in the face of the little we seem to be.  Development of the soul for the soul.” (Jeanette Winterson)

Copyright © 2008. Alan Bush. All rights reserved.

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