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A Little Smaller than the Entire Universe

[The law of information theory says that] in an isolated system, information can decrease or maintain its current value, but it cannot increase.

Stanislaw Lem (1)

Am I an isolated system in this isolated village high in this mountain range in central Portugal? I wake in the middle of the night aware of my perch maybe 2,000 metres high and worry whether the taxi will return for me the following day. It’s not an easy place to get to or leave, and the local people have a tendency to smile beatifically when they say, No. No taxis here. No bus. No rooms in the village. No problem getting to that high hotel by foot.

Two alternatives: either to make oneself infinitesimally small, or to be so. The former is perfection and hence inaction; the latter a beginning and therefore action.

Franz Kafka (2)

I came in order to experience the village and I can’t stay in the (tiny) heart of it. I didn’t pre-book the hotel because it looked too far away and I believed I’d just find somewhere. I hadn’t expected the one pensão to be booked out. Maybe I should have just asked the taxi-driver to return in a few hours. And got his phone number. And given him mine. How could I have forgotten that? There’s no certainty outside of oneself.

[The head of a spermatozoon is 8/1000 of a millimeter, but] contains all the information that is needed to produce a specimen of the homo sapiens.

Stanislaw Lem (3)

If the taxi doesn’t come back as arranged, I’ll have to ask around for a lift to the nearest town, 37km away, or just hitch. That could be fine, but If I can’t get back in time for the connecting bus, there’s a possibility I’ll miss my ’plane home. I’m lacerated by stress, as if my itinerary were part of my body map. But there was no problem when I said goodbye yesterday and agreed on the time, convinced that I needed to stay for a full day. Why am I creating a problem now because a couple of unforeseen factors have arisen?

The greatest things in the world are brought about by other things we count as nothing: little causes we overlook but which at length accumulate.

George Christoph Lichtenberg (4)

I’ve learned that I’m the worst interpreter of my own feelings; also that negative anticipation can, with effort, be altered to neutral anticipation, so that the mind isn’t forever leaping about between time projections, resting nowhere. I tell myself that my instincts are very often right and that trying to locate an alternative taxi in case the first doesn’t come back is an unnecessary complication. Does it matter so much whether I get back to work in time? Promises or not, accidents happen. Can’t I risk cancellation fees? I’ve spent a lot of money getting here. It’s not only research but beautiful in itself. Can’t I allow myself this?

I’ve never learned how to gaze,
and so have missed ten thousand things
that stood before me, loyal as soldiers.

Máighréad Medbh (5)

I’ll stay and bask in the atmosphere, get the feel of the place and the people, trust the taxi-driver. I recall his face and body language. He’s responsive, impressionable, open. At any rate, the fare is worth it to him. But he mightn’t trust me. And he might have an accident or a family emergency. And there might be an earthquake. And an Icelandic volcano might erupt. And I might get a heart attack. Panic is born of the knowledge of our destructibility.

Every technology is actually an artificial extension of the innate tendency possessed by all living beings to gain mastery over their environment, or at least not to surrender to it in their struggle for survival. Homeostasis—a sophisticated name for aiming toward a state of equilibrium, or for continued existence despite the ongoing changes—has produced gravity-resistant calcareous and chitinous skeletons... and carapaces and masking shapes that serve as a defense against being eaten.

Stanislaw Lem (6)

But this isn’t quite panic. Or if it is, it’s not disabling. I’ve rarely frozen, never frozen enough to be killed. Maybe all this obsession with equilibrium is panic too. What would I be feeling if I weren’t feeling this? I could be working, I suppose, or thinking about work. I could be sleeping, I could be involved in political matters, I could be drinking or ‘enjoying myself’. I could be feeling nothing, which would be infinitely worse. It's a spontaneous state. I’d tend towards worry regardless. So? Turn it into a project, however small. If the taxi-driver returns I’ll have made a correct procedural judgement with incomplete knowledge. And there will be a reversal of the tension. What action does not involve a component of belief?

... every homeostat, that is, regulator [the brain being a regulatory machine] must show ‘belief’ or act on the basis of incomplete and uncertain information as if this information was both complete and certain.

Stanislaw Lem (7)

In other words, Take a chance. This episode illustrates my life pattern—I make a decision that I’ve worked out well, am content for a period, and then I find a problem, an uncertainty, or a difficult consequence. Thereupon I revise, revisit the reasons for the decision, review what I’ve lost, try clawing back, think of those other options that might have been better, lie awake at night, see the world shrinking from my feet, distrust myself and everyone around. In the morning I get out of bed and carry on. 
        If you think
                you’re not
thinking when
                        you’re dancing
      think again.
Chris Martin (8)
Here’s this mountain village made of schist and slate, with some 200 houses built on a slope like a tiered auditorium. The population has shrunk to seventy people, from 170 in 2011. Those who have stayed make a living from tourism and subsistence agriculture, growing olives, keeping sheep, goats and bees. I see a woman washing a blanket in an outdoor water trough with a bar of soap, and two small girls collecting water from a pump. There was no electricity here until 1972. Probably little enough tourism until then too, as most tourists like their wildness with a hefty sprinkling of comfort.

What is it like to live in a place where the streets are crushed together like the folds of a half-extended accordion, doors facing each other across strips barely two metres wide? The village is like one structure, huddled, quiet, intimate as an anthill. There could be few secrets. Even so, there’s a central square, and the little streets have been named. I’m sure there are distinctive features at particular corners and nooks and individual favourite haunts. I can myself see variations in the tilts of the steep little passageways, nuances in the slate, different levels of polish and erosion. There’s conversation between neighbours seated on their doorsteps, but there would have to be harmony or departure. Still, it has survived from the thirteenth century and is said to have been the hiding place of Diogo Lopes Pacheco, one of the killers of Inês de Castro, who arrived by mule, fleeing her extremely bloodthirsty lover. Apart from this, it’s described in the tourist information as having played “no role in Portuguese history”.

In the vast vortex, in which the whole world indolently wallows as if in a whirl of dry leaves, the dresses run up by seamstresses have as much value as whole kingdoms; the blonde plaits of children are swept up in the same mortal jig as sceptres that once symbolized empires.

Fernando Pessoa (9)

I look from the hotel room (reachable a pé by a steep path) through the pitch dark down at the lights of the village, brilliantly incandescent in the clear air. The mountains of the Serra da Estrela are palpable to me in the dark. They are distant, misty-blue in the daylight, but I experience them as close, communicating, seeming to breathe, almost to embrace. I think of Henry David Thoreau:

I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.

Henry David Thoreau (10)

But for me it is that I don’t feel strange to myself, or inadequate without someone to reinforce my perceptions. This unobservable experience is its own sufficiency.

                   We cut the wires,
find ourselves in free-fall, as if
our true home were the undimensional
solitudes, the rift
in the Great Nebula.

Adrienne Rich (11)

In the morning I wake surprisingly refreshed, considering the travel, walking, climbing and fuss of the previous day. No, because of it. I have found a principle in the microcosm of my small crisis. I spend some hours in the village, observing, exchanging the odd word, contemplating without template the stillness of the two dogs stretched out in the village square. At 14.00, a black car appears on the spiralling road. As it crawls into the village, I see the taxi sign in the front window and a beaming smile solidifies between us. I have believed in the kindness of strangers.

From my village I see as much of the universe as can be seen from the earth,
And so my village is as large as any town,
For I am the size of what I see,
And not the size of my height...

Fernando Pessoa (12)



(1) Lem, Stanislaw: Summa Technologiae, (Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964) Kindle edition.
(2) Kafka, Franz: The Zürau Aphorisms, ed. Robert Calasso, transl. Michael Hofmann and Geoffrey Brock, London: Harvill Secker, 2006, No. 90, p. 89.
(3) Lem, Stanislaw: opus ibid.
(4) Lichtenberg, George Christoph: The Waste Books, Translation and Introduction © 1990 R. J. Hollingdale, New York Review of Books, 2000, p. 4.
(5) Medbh, Máighréad: ‘the second of april’, unpublished poem.
(6) Lem, Stanislaw: opus ibid.
(7) Lem, Stanislaw: opus ibid.
(8) Martin, Chris: Small Dance,, p. 19.
(9) Pessoa, Fernando: The Book of Disquiet, ed. Maria José de Lancastre, transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Introd. William Boyd, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2010. P. 65.
(10) Henry David Thoreau: Walden (‘Solitude’), Walden and Civil Disobedience, London: Penguin Classics, 1986, p. 177.
(11) Rich, Adrienne: ‘Transcendental Etude’, The Dream of a Common Language, New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1993, p. 75.
(12) Pessoa, Fernando (in the persona of Alberto Caeiro): 'The Keeper of Sheep: VII', A Little Larger than the Entire Universe, ed. and transl. by Richard Zenith, London: Penguin Classics, 2006.


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