(J. M. W. Turner, A Church and Village seen from a Riverside Footpath: Tate)
I was thinking about—or idly musing upon—the infinite, arrived at by the usual wandering off footpaths. Decanting a packet of ground coffee into the regular tin, I was prompted by the resulting level to look at the net weight printed on the packet. It had lessened by some ten per cent, diminished by one-tenth (‘No, we haven’t put our prices up’). But then there has been, inevitably, a strong and widespread sensation of lessening, of shrinkage over the past few years. The narrowness of nationalist discourse, the closing of borders, the hostility to refugees and migrants, together with the pandemic, lockdowns, withdrawals either voluntary or enforced, now a metaphorical or literal huddling together against cold, hunger, discomfort, all in worsening weather.
Often placed against that diminishment are, precisely, ideas of freedom, expansion, movement through time and space. Art, then, or memory, or history, or imagination. Borders, walls, boundaries, limits of any kind set aside, evaded, vaulted over. The infinite – notions of which can swing to both positive and negative poles, depending on the viewer.
I thought of Ford Madox Ford recalling his ‘most glorious memory of England’, in the 1890s, hundreds of Jewish refugees from the Russian pogroms, landing at Tilbury Docks, falling on their knees and kissing the sacred soil of Liberty. ‘It was not of course because they were Jews or were martyrs. And I daresay it was not merely because England was my country. It was pride in humanity.’ But because of ‘an Order in Council’, that route would now be narrowed or blocked: ‘This then was the last of England, the last of London . . .’ And: ‘One had been accustomed to think of London as the vastest city in the world . . . as being, precisely, London, the bloody world!’ But now? ‘Ease then was gone; freedom was no more; the great proportions were diminished . . .’
(Samuel Taylor Coleridge via the BBC)
One of the most famous instances of infinitude is that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Chapter XIII of the Biographia, where he summarises his distinction between imagination and fancy: ‘The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.’ This was one of the main targets of another, later, celebrated statement, by T. E. Hulme: ‘Here is the root of all romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities’ – against which, Hulme’s version of the classical: ‘Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him.’
Hulme was primarily a philosopher – a poet only in miniature. I suspect that artists generally tend more towards embracing the positive than feeling repelled or threatened by the negative. ‘We must consume whole worlds to write a single sentence and yet we never use up a part of what is available’, James Salter wrote to Robert Phelps. ‘I love the infinities, the endlessness involved . . . ’ Laura Cumming, writing in praise of Jan Van Eyck, observed that: ‘His art is so lifelike it was once thought divine. But he does not simply set life before us as it is – an enduring objection to realism, that it is no more than mindless copying – he adjusts it little by little to inspire awe at the infinite variety of the world and our existence within it; the astonishing fact that it contains not just all this but each of our separate selves.’
In an entry dated ‘[Saturday 24 November 1984]’, Annie Ernaux wrote: ‘One image haunts me: a big window wide open and a woman (myself) gazing out at the countryside. A springtime, sun-drenched landscape that is childhood. She is standing before a window giving onto childhood. The scene always reminds me of a painting by Dorothea Tanning – Birthday. It depicts a woman with naked breasts: behind her, a series of open doors stretch into infinity.’
(Dorothea Tanner, Birthday (1942): Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Is that a wish to see the world, one’s personal world, as an unending series of opened doors? Or simply an observation, a belief, a conviction that this is how the world actually is, that much of what we assume to be fixed, unalterable, closed, finite, is nothing of the sort? Some observers, actors, participants, acknowledge the infinite nature of ideas, of the abstract but, certainly in specific circumstances—the Second World War, in the case of Ronald Duncan, pacifist and farmer—choose to turn away from them: ‘We were people used to dealing with ideas which are infinitely pliable, and for the first time were in contact with things which are rigid, brittle’, Duncan wrote. ‘Contact with things is infinitely more satisfying than contact with ideas. And if we are honest we must admit that few of us are capable of holding abstract conceptions in our heads. If we manage it, it gives us little pleasure. Somehow or other we have fallen into the rot of thinking that pigs and poetry are incompatible. They are not.’
Pigs and poetry. Why, yes. In immediate postwar Sussex, Ford Madox Ford bred pigs and wrote poetry—A House (1921), Mister Bosphorus and the Muses (1923)—though, admittedly, the pigs died or had to be sold off at bacon prices when Ford and Stella Bowen moved to France. Staying in the realm of the abstract—or more abstract, at least, than pigs—I think of Sarah Churchwell, already author of a book on Fitzgerald and the world of Jay Gatsby, writing in 2018: ‘Gatsby’s famous ending, in other words, describes the narrowing of the American dream, from a vision of infinite human potential to an avaricious desire for the kind of power wielded by stupid white supremacist plutocrats who inherited their wealth and can’t imagine what to do with it beyond using it to display their dominance.’
There are, though, different kinds of dominance, some more insidious than others, habits so ingrained as not to be seen any longer as habits, procedures so immediate, so automatic, so normalised as to seem – natural. Annie Ernaux has written of the worldwide web as ‘the royal road for the remembrance of things past’ and adds: ‘Memory became inexhaustible, but the depth of time, its sensation conveyed through the odour and yellowing of paper, bent-back pages, paragraphs underscored in an unknown hand, had disappeared. Here we dwelled in the infinite present.’
The more I look at it, the more unsettling that final phrase is. . .
 Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 85-88.
 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, edited by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), I, 304.
 T. E. Hulme, ‘Romanticism and Classicism’, in Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, edited by Herbert Read (Second edition, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1936), 116.
 Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 39.
 Laura Cumming, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (London: Harper Press, 2010), 13.
 Annie Ernaux, I Remain in Darkness, translated by Tanya Leslie (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020), 37-38.
 Ronald Duncan, All Men Are Islands: An Autobiography (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964), 245, 226.
 Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 141. The earlier book was Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (2013).
 Annie Ernaux, The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019), 209-210.