Rebellion — an introduction

I don't have imagination

I am nerd. A complete, absolute, full über-nerd. I love learning about everything. I read everything, listen to everything, think about everything. This doesn’t mean I’m smart (hint: I’m most definitely not) but only your typical nerd. It also means I waste a lot of time digging up hidden curiosities in the internet (iconic photographs, WWI poetry, news from Run-II in the LHC, Islamic theology, Westerosi history, obscure blogs on metaphysics…), looking at lists, feeding the insane infatuation I have with some my favorite actresses, learning how to use Mathematica like a pro, or writing useless posts like this one.

Look at her. LOOK. AT. HER.

Look at her. LOOK. AT. HER.

In other words, I’m the full package. Videogames, TV-series? Check. Tolkien, Lewis, Star Wars, Harry Potter, ASOIAF? Check. Indie, hipster movies? Ugh, sadly check. Cynicism, sarcasm, caustic comments? Check. Nerdy comics? Check. Classical music, or perhaps Southern Gothic country music? Check. Science, Math, Philology, Art, History, Philosophy, Religion? Check, check, check, check, and so much check.

I like to always have a book in my hands. I was re-reading for the third time a book on apologetics, “Orthodoxy”, from the massive Chesterton, before re-reading the vampire-history-epistolary novel-travelogue “The Historian” and then a history of the Fall of Constantinople, immediately followed by the popular science book “Facts and Mysteries in Elementary Particle Physics, by Nobel Prize physicist Martinus Veltman.

I’m saying all of this to put into context the fact that, two weeks ago, I just finished reading another book. On science. For fun. But not science divulgation. Hardcore science. With equations and plots and shit. As you can see, I’m not very well of my head*.

Have you looked at her yet? I SAID LOOK AT HER.

Have you looked at her yet? I SAID LOOK AT HER.

It was the classic “Thermodynamics”, by the great Enrico Fermi. Ahh, nothing sweeter than going back to the basics, to those years of old when you were just starting to learn fundamental physics and were fascinated by the simple yet astonishing truths that pretty little theories such as Classical Thermodynamics explain.

Although a basic book, I learned many interesting things. For example, some of you may know that glaciers (those massive ice conglomerations on top of mountains or at the poles) actually move. Well, it turns out that a combination of the fact that the density of ice is smaller than that of water (something unusual in most substances, but that’s why ice floats!) and the famous Clapeyron’s equation are behind this. Really cool stuff; if one day I write something other than philosophical musings or bad poetry in this blog of mine (like, I don’t know, PHYSICS, MY ACTUAL JOB?) I’d love to talk about this.

In his little book Fermi makes a wonderful job explaining the eternally famous Three Laws of Thermodynamics (the same ones some nutcases try to disprove from time to time). The First Law on energy conservation”. The Second Law, about entropy. The Third Law, about the absolute zero. Some pedantic guys say there’s a Zeroth Law but that’s just wanting to put a fancy name to a definition, in my humble opinion.

Anyway, perhaps the most famous of these is the First, which in layman’s terms states that:

The total energy in an isolated system is conserved.

There. Everyone has heard about this law, in one version or another, maybe in its form “Energy isn’t created or destroyed, it only gets transformed”. You see this every day: the Sun’s energy, which is light, gets transformed into heat; plants also transform light into their “food” (chemical energy) which animals eat and then transform into kinetic motion, heat and famous deeds like going to war or making babies, etc. etc.

But by far, the one that more captivates people’s minds is the Second Law which, in its most common formulation, states that:

The total entropy in an isolated system either increases or stays the same.

It is the subject of this post to deepen a little bit about this law and, in subsequent posts, to discuss what philosophical conclusions (if any) we can extract out of it. In particular, in a series of three posts, of which this is the first instance, I’ll discuss that shiny little word that crowns the present text and that modern culture, in its tireless effort to make everything boring, pitiful, and generally shitty, has misused so often it’s just not funny anymore.

So brace yourselves, another of Manuel’s famous rants is coming.


I’d like to start with the (not very intuitive) thermodynamic definition of entropy, in its PG-13 version:

Entropy is a property of a system of which only changes matter.
The change in the entropy of a system is the amount of heat per unit temperature that the system absorbs:

change in entropy = heat absorbed divided by temperature, or mathematically,

ΔS = Q/T,

where ‘Δ (read delta) means change, ‘S’ means entropy (because its inventor, Rudolf Clausius, decided to honor the engineer Sadi Carnot, whose books Clausius had been studying for over 15 years), ‘Q’ means heat (maybe because it has the same “sound” as ‘c’, as in “caloris”, which is latin for heat, and people alread used ‘c’ for constants), ‘T’ means temperature and ‘/’ means divided. The temperature is actually the absolute temperature and is measured in Kelvins; absolute temperatures are called like that because they’re always positive. Thus, 27 Celsius, which in the primitive usage of the americans are 80 Fahrenheit, is equivalent to 300 Kelvins. Here’s a nice interactive webpage to make temperature conversions. Reaumur and Rankine are other weirdo temperature units that some pedantic bastards wanted to use. No one really cares about them.

Clausius, a.k.a. "Lincoln is pissed".

Clausius, a.k.a. “Lincoln is pissed”.

In summary: never mind (for now) what entropy actually measures, what matters are the changes in it, and these changes are related to how much heat an object with a certain temperature absorbs. Those of you my two readers that already know some thermodynamics will of course understand my reluctance at writing the precise mathematical definitions (differentials, reversibility, integrals and such); I don’t want to complicate things, and it’s not the purpose of this post to give a lecture.

Carnot, in his good-boy-from-the-Ecole-Polythechnique uniform.

Carnot, in his good-boy-from-the-Ecole-Polythechnique uniform.

Now, I want to make the distinction between heat and temperature. Heat is the amount of energy that “flows” from one object to another, in a disordered way. That is, not by pushing, pulling, punching or biting (energy transfer by these mechanisms is called work), all of which involve energy being added or extracted in an orderly fashion, via applied forces. For example, when you rub yourself against another body, energy in the form of heat gets transferred via friction, by contact with it/him/her. Temperature, on the other hand, is a measure of the average energy that an object already has. Something that has a lot of energy in it is called hot (it has a large temperature), something that doesn’t posses as much energy is called cold (low temperature). Then, temperature is owned by an object, whereas heat is not: heat is only given or taken, surrendered or absorbed.

With this in mind, let us think of an experiment to confirm the Second Law of Thermodynamics:

Imagine I have two systems (for example, two gases), A and B, with temperatures TA and TB, TA being colder than TB: TA<TB (‘<‘ means “smaller than”, while ‘>’ means “greater than” §). A and B are isolated systems, that is, they don’t exchange energy with their environment or with each other, in any way. This can be approximately achieved by enclosing each system with very thick, solid, insulating walls. Wood is really good at this, and some types of plastic too. If you have ever touched a pan on a stove you know metals don’t work. The configuration is labeled “before” in the following picture:

Doodles_01

Two isolated systems, A and B, one colder than the other, enter into contact to give a new system C, with a temperature between the previous two.

Now, imagine my two systems, which in the picture are represented by boxes, sharing an insulating wall that is movable. If I now retrieve the shared wall I’m allowing the two systems to be in contact. Then, the hotter system, B, is going to spontaneously give up some energy to the colder system A in the form of heat Q, and A is going to absorb that same heat.

At the end of the process I’m gonna end up with a system C, composed of the systems A and B put together, at a temperature TC that is in between TA and TC: TA<TC<TB. This is labeled “after” in the picture.

If I use the formula for the change of entropy we discussed above, I can now write:

ΔSA ≈ Q/TA,
ΔSB ≈ – Q/TB;

where I’m calling SA and SB the entropy of the systems A and B respectively. A few words of caution. Notice that there is a negative sign ‘-‘ in the heat for the equation of the entropy SB. The reason is that I called Q the heat absorbed by A; but B does not absorb heat, it gives it up (to A), which is the opposite (negative) of absorbing. Therefore the change in the entropy of B is negative (the entropy decreased) but that of A is positive (its entropy increased).

Then, the total change of entropy is given by:

ΔSC = ΔSA + ΔSB ≈ Q/TA – Q/TB,

where I’m calling ΔSC the total change in the entropy of by two-system configuration. Notice that, because TA<TB then 1/TA > 1/TB (try it by putting some numbers!) and therefore Q/TA – Q/TB > 0 !!! The total entropy has increased! The Second Law holds!

Those of you who are have read until here without setting your computer on fire and that have been paying attention would have noticed that I used the “squiggly” equality sign ‘≈’ in the equations above. This is because I have been somewhat sloppy. Indeed, the temperatures of A and B do not remain constant when I lift the shared wall and allow the systems to be in contact: they change! The temperature of A, TA, increases until it reaches TC, while the temperature TB decreases to TC. In this way, both A and B now form a whole new system C with a new temperature TC.

But my imprecision doesn’t matter, because the conclusion stays the same. Even though TA and TB are changing, TA is always smaller than TB during the whole process, until the very end when they are both equal to TC; and thus Q/TA is always bigger than Q/TB during the whole process, thus keeping ΔSC > 0, that is, the total entropy still increases.

Of course, if I had started with my systems A and B at the same temperature then, after removing the wall, nothing would have happened and I would have TA = TB = TC. Therefore, from the above equation, ΔSC = 0. This is precisely what the Second Law of Thermodynamics says: in an isolated system (C, which is A and B together) the entropy either increases or stays the same.

Awesome! Physics! So sexy!

But… what does this have to do with anything? Where’s the philosophy, where’s the rebellion? Where, O Manuel, are those outrageously wonderful statements from your “brilliant” mind, that appear to be the result of too much free time in your hands and a more than liberal consumption of plants of dubious legal status?

For that, my dear people, we need the help of another historical character, one most famous (among scientists): Ludwig Boltzmann.

I can’t stop praising the genius of this guy. Really, he was brilliant. Just look at him. A bearded nerd, so handsome.

I wish I could grow a beard like that :(

I wish I could grow a beard like that.

Many things carry the name of this austrian physicist. The Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution for the velocities of particles in a gas, which comes from the Maxwell-Boltzmann version of Statistical Mechanics; the Boltzmann equation for the dynamics of thermodynamic fluids, the Boltzmann Energy Equipartition Theorem, the Stefan-Boltzmann law for black bodies… here’s a more complete list in case you’re curious. As you can see, I love the guy.

But right now I’m concerned with his Boltzmann equation for the entropy of a system:

S = k Log W,

where S is the entropy of the system under consideration, k is just a constant number called… the Boltzmann constant, Log is something called the Logarithmic function and W is called the number of microstates of a system. I’ll explain this in a second.

This equation is so important and is of such great relevance that careers are built around it, money is gained, fame is obtained, and hot mexican guys write blog posts about it. It is also written on Boltzmann’s tomb.

You can see the equation for the entropy engraved at the top of Boltzmann's grave.

You can see the equation for the entropy engraved at the top of Boltzmann’s grave.

The story of Boltzmann’s death is a sad one. He was a staunch supporter of the atomic theory: that everything we see is made of atoms. We now know he was right, but in his time there was little evidence (although in my opinion compelling) of the existence of atoms and thus many, many people mocked him; among them various famous positivist philosophers, like Ernst Mach.

He apparently suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder and used to fall in periods of depression, some say enhanced in frequency and strength by the continuous ridicule of which his colleagues made him subject.

One day it was too much. He hang himself in Trieste, Italy, on September 5, 1906.

As usual, philosophers ruining lives.

But let us honor Boltzmann’s memory by discussing his work. As I said above, he discovered a formula for the entropy of a system. In order to understand it, I want to explain what a logarithm (Log) is, and what a microstate is.

First, Log is simply the number of times you have to multiply a special number called ‘e’ and equal to e = 2.718… to get another one. Never mind what’s so special about it; it’s sort of like the less famous cousin of π = 3.14159…. Thus, for example, Log of 7.389… is 2, because e × e =7.389…. Log of 20.085… is 3 because e × e × e = 20.085…, and so on. You can also calculate the Log of numbers that are not the result of an integer number of e multiplications. For example, the Log of 10 is between 2 and 3, because Log 20.085 = 3, while Log 7.389 = 2. If you go to Wolfram Alpha (something you should do often) and type Log 10 you’ll get something close to 2.3 . What you should take home with you is that, the larger the number, the larger its Log. Easy.

Now, what is a microstate? It is the configuration of all the parts that make up a system, that is, all the information about the components that make it. For example, if my system is made of a single particle I need to say where it is, if it’s moving or not, how fast and in what direction, what’s its mass, if it has any electric charge, etc. If I have two particles I need to give the same information for the two of them and, in addition, if there are any interactions between them.

As we all know and Boltzmann believed, everything is made of small particles called atoms (which in turn are made up of more stuff, but we don’t care about that now); if we could count all the atoms of a system, say of my little finger, and give all the information about them, then we would have described one possible microstate of the system.

But actually, that is being too meticulous. Most systems do not care if their parts are in this or that microstate: they look exactly the same. In the case of my little finger, if I move it to the right, to the left, in circles or just leave it on the table, the atoms that compose it have different positions, velocities and orientations (and let’s not forget the electrons within those atoms are always moving!), and yet my little finger still looks the same. This is called a macrostate. A single macrostate can be reproduced by many microstates, whose number we call W. Allow me to illustrate with another experiment.

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Two macrostate configurations of a system. The one with more possible microstates is the one with higher entropy. Click to enlarge.

In the picture to the left I start with a very simple system, composed of 8 cells divided into two regions, left and right, and with 4 identical red balls and 4 identical blue balls.

In the top figure, I have one particular microstate: the red and blue balls are arranged in one specific way. This microstate in particular is giving rise to the macrostate in which the left side of the system has only red balls while the right side has blue balls.

By changing the position of my balls (stop giggling, you filthy teenager) I can arrive at different microstates. But because all the red balls look the same and so do all the blue ones, there’s actually only one microstate that gives me the system with all the red balls to the left and all the blue ones to the right, and it is the one pictured. We say that the shown macrostate of my system has only one possible microstate. Notice how neat this macrostate looks, very well arranged. Ordered.

Now, in the lower figure I’ve rearranged the balls, 2 blue and 2 red in each side. I can rearrange the balls again, within each side, to give a different microstate, but I would still get the same macrostate: namely, the one with 2 red and 2 blue balls to the left, and 2 red and 2 blue ones to the right.

If I exchange identical red balls I still get the same microstate, because the configuration is exactly the same. If I exchange a red ball on the left with a blue ball on the right I do get a different microstate, but also a different macrostate: one with more blue balls on one side than in the other.

If you count them, there are 6 possible configurations that I can have in each side that still gives me the same macrostate (for your convenience listed in the picture). Therefore, because I have two sides, I end up with 6 × 6 = 36 different microstates that give the very same macrostate: 2 blue and 2 red balls on each side. Notice how messy this macrostate is, with the balls all mixed up. It is disordered.

In summary, we have W = 1 microstates for the well-ordered macrostate with red balls to the left and blue balls to the right, whereas we have W = 36 microstates for the disordered macrostate with equal numbers of red and blue balls in each side.

Usually, real life systems posses more than 100,000’000,000’000,000’000,000 particles (that’s a 1 with twenty-three 0s) and so the number of microstates that a given macrostate can have is obscenely huge, but still the same idea I just explained applies.

And, according to Boltzmann’s equation for the entropy and what we learned from logarithms, the larger the number of microstates W a system has, the larger its entropy is. But, as we have seen, the larger W is then the messier, more disordered a system is.

Therefore, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that entropy always increases (or stays the same), can be translated into our new language as:

A system tends to go to the macrostate with a larger number of microstates.
or
A system tends towards disorder.

If you want me to make this clearer, I’ll ask you to go to the kitchen, take an egg, and let it roll towards the edge of the table. Something like this might happen:

Entropy is such a pain in the ass.

Entropy is such a pain in the ass when it comes to cleaning.

Now, please wait until the egg, spontaneously, rearranges itself to its previous, unbroken state. Just a warning: it might take a while.

What just happened can be explained in the language of macrostates and microstates. There are many microstates in which an egg is unbroken: you could put it here or there, you can shake it up, the yolk inside might be in this orientation or that, whatever. All these microstates give the same macrostate: an unbroken egg. But there are many, many more microstates for a broken egg: the egg white could splash all of your kitchen while the yolk end up close to the fridge, the shell can be broken in two, five or a thousand different pieces, and each could have almost any shape… and every single one of these microstates yield the same macrostate: a broken egg. Therefore a broken egg, having a larger number of microstates W, has a larger entropy S and thus is messier. And because the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that systems tend to increase their entropy and not to decrease it, we can conclude that unbroken eggs tend to break, and not the other way around.

In other words, we can rewrite the Second Law of Thermodynamics as follows:

EVERYTHING GOES TO SHIT.

This is the terrible truth. Nature tends to thwart all of our attempts at order and organization. She tends to destroy.

Of course, I know I’m being somewhat careless with my examples and thought experiments. Those of you with some wits about yourselves might argue that this law applies only to isolated systems, and you will be right. The Earth of course, is not an isolated system (there’s the Sun out there, giving up heat to us), and thus we can expect entropy to have its weird moments and actually decrease. This is true, and that’s the reason why we can do anything at all! That’s why we can take disordered, scattered materials on the Earth’s surface and make order out of them by building houses and computers, brewing and drinking beer, writing poetry, and making great movies. We can diminish entropy. We can fight.

But only locally. Only temporarily. Because, as we saw in the experiment of the boxes of gas, you’re allowed to have a part of your system to decrease its entropy as long as another part increases its own, and by a larger amount. Entropy ends up winning. And it takes everything with it ¶.

Allow me then to conclude. What I want you to get out of this freakishly long post is, among other things, that Paolo Coelho is an idiot, and that he would love nothing more than you buying his feel-good, pat-in-the-shoulder nonsensical books. He famously wrote “When you want something, the whole universe conspires to make it happen” ‡. Bullshit. The Universe wants to screw you over. Everything works against you, in an unending sequence of senseless waste. Disorder and Death rule the world. And nothing can escape from Them.

But the intention of this blog entry was to be more an excuse to talk about science and to present a tiny aspect of how messed up the Universe can be than anything else. As its title say, this post is simply an introduction, a motivation for what is to come, something bigger and monstrous that I want to discuss.

For there is something worse than an Universe with an ever-increasing entropy. Something that can chill you to the bone and make you go mad, madder than anything else. For Disorder has a Father, a cruel ghost whose empty sockets and sewn mouth see nothing and say nothing. There’s something worse than a corpse. And its name is the Absurd.

And this is what I want to talk about next time.


* While this is undoubtly true, I still find funny that the average person’s bookshelf contains novels, biographies or even monographies about art but hardly a book of science, even though its pursue is one of the most defining characteristics of humanity. My undergrad adviser, the mythical Fefo, used to tell me how his artists/writers friends invariably congratulated him on his possession of some obscure book about art or literature but, when he asked them if they had read any book on science, they would look away. People should read science. Period. Also, this is a very long annotation/asterisk. I should stop.

§ Am I being too anal? I am being too anal, am I not? I’m sure I am.

At this point, a very interesting question can be asked: what’s the entropy of the whole Universe? Is it increasing? People have been tempted to answer affirmatively, saying that a (finite) Universe ought to be isolated (well, because the Universe is everything there is!) and thus the Second Law should apply. The answer is much more complicated than that. Scientists have called into question the application of elementary thermodynamics to the whole Universe, doubting a meaningful definition of entropy for the Universe even exists. Also, for scales as big as those of the Universe gravity becomes crucial and no one actually knows what the “entropy of gravity” is, or if there’s anything like that at all. There’s currently a lot of exciting theories that discuss these issues, and black holes seem to play a very important role. For some babies-level review on this, look here. Incidentally, the increase of entropy seems to give a direction to time. This is called the Arrow of Time. You can find some new discussions and radical ideas about it and its relation to Quantum Mechanics in a non-technical article here. There’s much more information about this interesting topic everywhere in the internet, look for it! In any case, I’m not aware of any indication whatsoever of things looking any better for us, at least in our local patch of the Universe. Stuff does seem to become more and more disordered: objects give up heat and are rendered unusable for work, stars run out of gas, people, in spite of our best efforts, grow old and die; etc.

Here. Read and laugh.

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Otherness and Longing

A lot of stuff has been going on with me lately. So instead of doing the usual (writing about it here or somewhere else) I’ll devote this post to an entirely different thing. Maybe later, when everything has settled down, I’ll put it down in writing.

And so, instead of boring y’all with my thoughts (or making you laugh, depending on how much you care about the idiotic rants coming from a young adult’s brain) I’d like to write a little bit about some ideas I’ve “discovered” last year. And by discovered I mean they’re new to me, but old to the world. The story of such finding is worthy of a post of its own, for it is tied with one of the happiest moments of my life, and another discovery, that of a beautiful soul. But allow me to postpone such a story for happier times and instead focus on the ideas themselves.

Many of them have actually been discussed already in the blog of my (unilateral) buddy Marc Barnes, which you should totally, absolutely, what-the-heck-are-you-waiting-for check right now. He’s an inspiration and a really clever guy, and his insightful posts remind everyone of another really awesome writer whom you should know (seriously, stop reading this and go and get yourself some of his books), only younger, slimmer and on twitter. Total man-crush here.

Marc Barnes

Marc. Gotta love that smile.

So, without further ado, let me start.

__________________________________

Unless you live in a cave in the wild (with, somehow, internet access and enough free time to check ridiculous blogs such as this one) you’ve probably heard of museums and some of their artistic treasures. It is safe to assume you’ve also heard about bigotry and past or present crimes committed against this or that group of people. And you also might have someone in your life you care about. Someone you like, someone whose company you enjoy, maybe someone you love.

All of these seemingly unrelated things have something in common that is their raison d’être, and what ultimately lies at the bottom of the reactions they awake in the person who experiences them. They possess what some people (philosophers and other vermin (I’m joking)) like to call Otherness, that is, the quality of being different or alien to what an observer thinks of as the Self.

Indeed, human experience, as wonderful as it is, is cripplingly restricted by the characteristic of being absolutely personal, subjective. We experience the world and those who inhabit it as outside of ourselves. Our senses are but small windows to that Universe that surrounds us, an Universe that is unknowable in the strictest sense of the word. For, as your average skeptic friend can tell you, we can never be objectively sure that we’re not the only ones in this Universe. That everything we see, smell, touch, hear or taste is an illusion, a creation of our minds. Countless trees (or the illusion of trees, maybe?) have been slaughtered and gone into pages and pages describing the madness-inducing consequences of this ideology, which by the way is the only kind of skepticism thorough and fully committed to its spirit and thus the only one worth a damn.

I will not discuss this particular philosophy (or un-philosophy, for by its etymology philosophy is the love of wisdom, whereas this repulsive idea is nothing but a complete agnosticism on the objective existence of any wisdom or knowledge whatsoever); for that I’ll refer the reader to the first chapters of Chesterton’s magnificent book Orthodoxy. Spoiler alert: those that truly believe in this skepticism are no different than that insane fellow that believes himself the center of a world-wide conspiracy. He sees in the most innocent of his neighbors’ gestures yet another proof of his madness, be it cutting the grass of their front yard or saying “hello” with that diabolical, plot-making smile of theirs. I will rather use this extremist ideology to further press my point: all experience is subjective (which, I stress once again, doesn’t make it unreal or illusory).

But of course, we’re all aware of that. What I mean by this is that I expect that not a single one of my two bored readers will claim that he or she has been able to live another’s life. And I’m not talking about reincarnation, but about being able, here and now, to fully and completely live life as the person right next to him or her. Therefore, I claim, everything that surrounds us is fully Another, something or someone that is completely not-Ourselves.

And yet, most of us live our lives without the thought of it ever crossing our minds. We wake up, drink our coffee, take our morning trip to the potty (or the other way around, depending on your daily routine), go about our businesses and return home without worrying about the philosophical implications that the distinction between the Self and the Other means. And we’re not to blame, because most of the time the effects of such a distinction are barely felt. The laptop I’m writing this post on, the photons that are coming into my eyes and exciting my vision cells, the air I’m breathing, the bartender that sold me that tasty pint of trappist beer a couple of hours ago are all Others, and I didn’t bat an eye. None truly does.

Until they do.

Because in everyone’s life there comes a moment when the presence of Another, of something or someone utterly not-Us makes itself so clear, so painfully obvious that we cannot ignore the fact anymore. We’re trapped in It, puzzled by It, we want to know what It means. The Other makes itself present, and its weight is crushing, overwhelming, abrasive. It demands our most absolute attention. And it can produce in us one of two feelings, or maybe a strange mixture of both: Fear or Longing.

Indeed, we can define the Self in a broader way than that of the individual, as sociologists do. That’s how nations come into being. People distinguish between Us and Them, and borders are drawn, treaties are created, trading takes place, wars are declared. What do some american and european conservatives (or almost any nationalist group), with their immigrant-hating rhetoric; and terrorists groups such as ISIS have in common? A fear, recognized or not, of the Other. A sense of urgency before the threat, imagined or otherwise, that a group of people different from their own represents to their oh-so-wonderful societies. The nationalist considers anything that differs from their idea of a citizen (a member of their nation) as an inferior, in the best of cases, or as an enemy in the worst, deserving of being fought or expelled from their land. The ISIS terrorist wants to get rid of anything dissimilar to their own distorted idea of a perfect society. They regard everyone not pertaining to their homogeneous, monstrous ummah as enemies and therefore subject to death. Even muslims that do not subscribe to ISIS’ definition of Self are persecuted and killed on the spot, needless to say christians and yazidis that refuse to integrate to their blood-thirsty nation, within the boundaries they define on said integration. Fear of the Other is also behin all persecutions that we have ever engaged in: from slavery to xenophobia, from racism to the hating of homosexuals. Fear, then, is one of the reactions we can have when the overwhelming presence of the Other makes itself evident. But, thankfully, I am not concerned with such disgusting feelings in this post. Fear is of no interest to me today. Today, I care about something else.

The experience that the museum visitor has when admiring a powerful painting or an exquisite sculpture, or when someone is enraptured by the passion of a piece of music or dance performance; in other words that overwhelming captivation by the Beautiful, is nothing else but the recognition that there’s something outside of the Self, something Other than Us that deserves our fascination.

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Those of you who have a favorite book, like an old friend that you like to visit from time to time, that either makes you laugh or cry or think or all of them at once; those, I said, will understand what I mean. We read and re-read this book, and each time we discover something new, something we missed, or a different way to think about this character or that event. We recreate a scene in our heads, and we enjoy exploring it again and again, never getting enough of it. When we’re passionate about a painting, we can spend hours studying it, analyzing this stroke of the brush, that combination of colors and forms, trying to absorb it, to embrace it all, to understand, without ever being able to fully achieve that goal. We can repeat the same dancing routine many times and we can discover new things about ourselves and the dance itself in each repetition, and yet we’ll never be able to fully finish it, to completely explore every single possibility, every angle of our hands, head or feet, every possible sensation. No one can honestly said he has gotten all there is to get from one of Shakespeare’s plays or one of Beethoven’s symphonies. People spend their entire lives studying them and they’re no closer to finding an ultimate answer to all the questions that can be asked about them than when they started. The same can be said of the scientist that truly loves her trade. Truth is her only purpose, and yet she never gets enough of it. Every new discovery only exacerbates her thirst for more of that same Truth. We are never satisfied. We want more of it, we yearn for these Others, we long for Them. In a new sense of the word, we want to be Them, to experience existence the way They do, for maybe then we’re gonna find an end to our burning desire to understand Them.

Of course, there are distortions of this feeling of Longing, depraved ways in which we can act when confronted with such powerful emotions. For example obsession, that disordered feeling in which he who longs desperately tries to own the object of his longing, performing unhealthy, creepy actions that might hint to a mental problem (I once met a guy that used to hoard his girlfriend’s trash, like potato chips’ bags and such). Or the social phenomenon known as cultural appropriation, that can reach extremes that, even though originally well-intended, can be rather insulting. But I am not interested in discussing such perversions. What I’m concerned with in this post is that powerful, all-consuming need of understanding the object of the longing, of getting more of it, of re-discovering its qualities.

Never is this more evident than in the ridiculous, powerful and always maddening adventure of being in love. Then it is painfully clear what this longing for the Other is. Bewitched by our beloved’s eyes, we stare at her for minutes without end; breath is taken away at the strange, fascinating touch of her hand; we gaze upon her lips or that beautiful curve of her body or that lock of hair, and study them over and over and over again, absorbing it all, feeling it all and yet not getting any closer to fully embracing her all. We try to memorize each particularity of her skin, of her smell or of the sounds her steps make and yet, every single time, that pretty mole we thought we knew presents itself under a different light, that perfume so well-known to us has an altogether new fragrance and those steps surprise us again with their musicality. We never get tired of her. We want to listen to her interests, her fears, her aspirations, her ideas, her feelings. We try to read her mind, to understand. We never get tired of exploring our beloved.

This romantic longing reaches its more intense form of expression in the act of making love. All that kissing and touching, that burning need to continually embrace and remain embraced by the other, they are but the physical embodiment of that hunger to be one, the only way in which a complete encompassing of the meaning of the beloved’s existence could possibly happen. The striking similarity between the facial expressions of pain and of pleasure, as well as the sounds involved (sighs, moans, groans) can, in a very literal sense, be understood under the premise that the body itself knows such a perfect union to be impossible. In other words, through the most intense pleasure our bodies become aware of the painful reality: complete union, absolute satisfaction of such a longing for the Other, is impossible.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, by Bernini. The only way the Master could have represented the powerful, mystical rapture of the Divine was through something as powerful as humanely possible: orgasm.

“Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”, by Bernini. The only way the Master could represent the powerful, painful, mystical rapture by the Divine that St. Teresa experienced was through something as powerful as humanely possible: pleasure; more concretely, sexual pleasure. By the way, this is inside a church.

And that’s what’s ultimately crazy and horrible and absurd about this world. That all the longing and desire appear to be completely pointless. For we and our loved ones are utterly different, Others to each other. We can never, ever understand them, feel them, know them, experience life as they do, be them. Our most desperate, powerful and heart-wrenching desires are doomed to pass unsatisfied while we live. And, to some of us, that idea is simply unbearable. The fact that, despite all of your efforts and all of your attempts you will never be closer to solving the mystery that the existence of a loved one represents, that you will never get to truly know her, is a horrible one, enough to put us in an asylum.

And so, people have come to develop different reactions before such an absurdity. The easiest, cleanest one is suicide. Killing Oneself is apparently the only way in which we can close our eyes to the reality of the Other and our hearts to the pain of Longing. But that is hardly a solution. It’s a cowardly way to react, a betrayal to Life, a slight to the whole Universe, an insult to the tiniest of flowers. Again, Chesterton is the true master in the matter; I refer to his previously mentioned book.

Another way to react (perhaps the most common) is shunning oneself from the external world. To avoid acknowledging the existence of the Other or, at least, its importance. If we can live a life without any meaningful relationships (to art, Beauty, Truth and other people), then we are safe… aren’t we?

Maybe. But then life becomes miserable if we cannot stop thinking about the conundrum Otherness imposes on us. And one good day (or bad day) Option #1 becomes very, very alluring.

The third way is the most difficult one. It’s the one that turns the question over.

Indeed, this world seems absurd, with all its unsatisfying experiences, all that Longing, that fire that keeps burning inside of us without consuming.

But maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe we’re meant to burn with Longing while in this world, and do something with this fire. Maybe this thirst, this horrible craving points towards Something else, or Someone else, Another that fully can satisfy us. We long for Truth, for Good, for Beauty. We long for Perfection. We seek it in art, in science, in a beloved. The mere existence of such an intense desire would be paradoxical and utterly absurd if that were the whole story.

But it isn’t. And in the meantime, that fire has a purpose. As Blessed Mother Teresa put it:

I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.

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That was a rather long post. So, if you’re still awake and because y’all are beautiful people, I leave you with the picture of one of my favorite artists. Have a wonderful night.

Naomie Harris, a.k.a. Moneypenny. Please, try not to kiss the screen.

Naomie Harris, a.k.a. Moneypenny. Please, try not to kiss the screen.