The number “8,” placed upon its side, is the symbol for infinity (as perhaps many of us remember from the Schoolhouse Rock song). And if we think of the Schoolhouse Rock video that accompanies the song, in which a young girl, as day rolls calmly into night, quietly ice skates in quiet “figure eights,” perhaps we associate infinity with a stilling of time into divine wholeness.
But what happens when MC Escher turns the symbol for infinity into a gridded mobius strip, and runs ants over it? What is it now?
For me, it feels not so much like the blissful ice skater of Schoolhouse Rock, or William Blake’s “moving image of eternity,” and more like a symbol of eternal entrapment, as Joseph K. might feel while under arrest in Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, or as Dosoevsky imagined, in The Brothers Karamazov, of the terror of finding, not God, but a spider at the beginning of creation.
Escher’s image is visually suggestive of why most people, against compelling reason, and the consensus of scientists, instinctively resist belief in evolution. Evolution seems to turn the symbol of infinity away from an anthropomorphic god who sees all things at once, and is in control, and makes existence into a blind mechanism upon which inhuman forces move. Like entering a roach motel, once you crawl into the evolutionary universe, many fear that you can’t crawl out again. Escher’s mobius strip is the mechanism of infinity stripped of its gleam and mystery. It is the Wizard of Oz’s curtain tugged back by Toto. It exposes the realm of the rationalized and the Kafkaesque, where nonhuman-sized bureaucracies, Dostoevskian spiders, and Escher ants make the world go.
If God does not exist, Escher’s mobius strip threatens to become the rack on which the body of humankind is crucified, or to which Prometheus is chained and abandoned.