Thursday, September 20, 2007

In a dark forest

I am on the other side of the Atlantic once more, this side, the eastern one, the "old continent". I've been to a conference in the black forest, in the middle course of my life, as Dante would have it. And just as Dante wondered, finding himself into the dark forest, I also ask myself whether I have lost the straight path. I have, indeed. I find it hard to keep on doing what I am doing for a living. Research, especially in those more abstract fields of science we tend to call "fundamental research" requires a remarkable dose of internal motivation to be pursued successfully. It is part of human life that motivation ebbs and falters and is especially susceptible of being affected negatively by the interaction with the surroundings: places, community, voices. It is all too easy to stray away from one's well trodden path. It suffices to pause and wonder on the meaning of it all, to find plenty of reasons to surrender and abandon the road. What road, for a start? That is already an uneasy question. It is much like asking, who am I? Or more fundamentally, do I exist? We cannot do better than Descartes, who answered this question justifying his existence with his thinking. I think, therefore I am. That is it, the only way to exist is through one's thinking. I am completely convinced that this is indeed the case. In order to be able, be allowed, to exist, one needs to be able to protect one's thinking. It seems obvious, but it is not. I say being allowed, because it is not at all something we can give for granted. If anything, it is a fight and a struggle that lasts all life long, to be allowed to exist. All the social conventions go against it, even in the most highly individualistic among Western societies. There is always that imposition of hierarchy and gregariousness that I already mentioned with respect to its influence on the workings of the scientific community. Many people, because of these instincts, voluntarily renounce their own existence, for a vicarious shadow existence carried out through a chosen worship figure. Those who do not accept this logic are forced into it by the community of the believers, who intentionally deprive them of their own existence and cast them out of the herd: the scapegoat, the castaway who refused to submit. Isolation is not a pleasant state of mind either. It does not help. When you get the impression that nobody, not even your closest friends and collaborators, have the faintest clue of what you are passionate about, the thoughts in your mind that make you tick, the path you are trying to follow in this long and difficult journey that is research, then the will power inevitably weakens, the path becomes indistinguishable in the thick forest undergrowth, and you head straight from your Dantesque infernal tour.

There I am, wandering down the circles of Dante's hell, in search of a path. No Virgil, please, I had enough of those! I might as well cross the fiery and muddy waters of the infernal rivers on my own. And down we go, towards the center of the Earth, towards the sunken Lucifer at last.

Depression, yes, most likely. These days mania comes more rarely: all the usual triggers, like jet lags, sharp seasonal differences, chemicals stimuli, have been so much abused and so often that my body does not respond to them anymore. The darkness, however, remains. Here, share my darkness. I have plenty for everyone.

Unable to work (work? on what and why? I just continue writing the next paper on automatic pilot) I have been spending a few days occupied in one of those mindless activities that keep you moving on from one day to the next: cataloging the books in my personal library. Those books are the only reason why I keep returning to the same places, why I pay rent for a room that contains them, in a couple of well defined physical locations in the world. This catalog, dry and impersonal like any alphabetical list can be, is in fact the most colorful and complete self portrait I could paint. My way of reassuring myself that I do exist after all, despite of the feedback I receive from my surroundings. Each book in the list has two stories. One is the narrative it contains between its covers, printed in some alphabet (be it Latin or Cyrillic) and in one of a half dozen languages. Like many of the books I reviewed in this blog, this narrative may be a scientific text, or a novel, or anything else, from art to ancient languages. The other story is the way it entered my life and the changes it produced in it. Each book has a time attached to it (two times: its own year of publication and the time when I bought it or received it). Each was read, maybe not in full, maybe not all at the same time, sometime under special circumstances of my life. Even in the most ordinary circumstances, the act of reading each of these books produced a chemical reaction in my brain, literally so, as new connections were created in the neural network, new associations came into being. Existence measured by changes and evolution of structures. The most intimate self portrait is the one that details these evolutions. Each book on this list should not be seen as an individual entity in itself. It is the web of connections between them that exists in my brain that is being portrayed in this understated, factual manner. Forget the portraits that hang on the walls of ancient palaces, or their modern photographic replacements. Those tell you nothing. A glimpse of face features, what else? I am suggesting a new and different way to create a portrait, a picture of thought, of existence in the Cartesian sense. Here I think. Here I am.

I am trying to save myself from the curse of non-existence. This apparently inert list of objects I am assembling is a loud scream, against all those who pass me over with a quick dismissive glance, in their hot pursuit of vicarious celebrity. Here is the cauldron that is boiling over with information being elaborated and created from ingredients that I put before you. A kitchen recipe, if you wish: how do you cook me? How do you create the thinking thing I am? Put these ingredients together and stir. I do not define myself in terms of my alliance to a leader: I have a few thousand minds sitting on my shelves, each one vibrating in a unison with my own, which feeds on all to get its vital nutrients and bloom. Why on earth would I want to stick to a single one? This is the trick, and I recommend it to all those affected by the malady of excessive hero worship. "Cave hominem unius libri" was the stark warning Aurelius Agostinus proffered in times when the people of a single book were about to plunge Europe into its own long Middle Age dark forest.