TODAY IN LITERATURE – In Praise of Nothing

I am sharing, with his permission, a thoughtful piece by friend, Larry French. Add your thoughts about whether or not nothin’s plenty for you.

“Nothing,”  in terms of poetic diction, lacks lustre.  It is bereft of imagined content. A toneless first syllable, ending in the insipid fricative“th,” lifted slightly by the more resonant second, provides little lyric value.

Shakespeare, however, lets the word carry a heavy load.  From “nothing,” indeed, rejecting the primordial pattern we know from Genesis, he is able to create, not order, but its gleeful opposite, chaos.  In the first scene of King Lear, the aging monarch demands that his favourite daughter, Cordelia, declare the depth and breadth of her love for him to earn her share of his kingdom:

                Lear:          Speak.
                Cordelia:    Nothing, my lord.
                Lear:          Nothing!
                Cordelia:    Nothing.
                Lear:          Nothing will come of nothing.

These “nothings“ping off each other like the ringing pikes of Arnold’s ignorant armies clashing by night.  “Nothing” as a heritage, is not inviting.  It is barren of promise to both giver and given.  But the penultimate “nothing” that the blind willful Lear hurls at Cordelia bears the fertile seed of destruction in whose malignant blossoming, a Baudelairean flower of evil, they will both be consumed. 

Philip Larkin is another bleak explorer of nothingness.  In “High Windows” he celebrates our god is dead generation and its freedom from fear of celestial wrath and hell fire. However, before he can take joy in liberation from the damnation myth, he is brought up short by the diamond cold clarity of the replacement vision:“And immediately:

                 Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
                 The sun-comprehending glass,
                 And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
                 Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

The pious Pascal, with his line from the Pensées, ‘’Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie,’’ evokes the same soul chilling sensation as he contemplates the heavens.  Larkin’s reverberant “nothing” moves us beyond, placing us firmly in the domain of the post-Christian desert beast whose “gaze, blank and pitiless as the sun,” animates the violent anarchy of Yeats’ “Second Coming.” 

The most exquisite mining of “nothing” in the English poetic tradition may well be John Donne’s “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day.”  On this, the shortest day of the year, the “Sunne is spent,…the world’s whole sap is sunke,…and life is shrunke, Dead and enterr’d.”  But, in a brilliant conceit, the poet assures us that “…all these seeme to laugh, Compar’d with mee, who am their Epitaph.”

Grim.  But it gets worse.  The poet is “every dead thing,” reduced by loss of love, to “A quintessence even from nothingness,…and I am re-begot Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.” One would think that being reduced to the quintessence of nothingness would be enough to state the case.  But Donne has more plumbing to do.

While others draw all that is good from nature’s gifts, the poet cannot.  Au contraire:

                 I, by loves limbecke, am the grave
                 Of all, that’s nothing.
                 …I am by her death, (which words wrong her)
                 Of the first nothing, the Elixer grown;

Even beasts, even stones, have ends and means, can detest and love.  But not the poet; he has lost all vital properties.   As the poem concludes, Donne weaves one more web of nothingness to complete his catalogue of loss:

                 If I an ordinary nothing were,
                 As shadow, a light, and body must be here.
                 …But I am None; nor will my Sunne renew.

No resurrection possible for this less than shadow non-being who passes finally into “the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight.”

With this sustained imaginative denial of life, Donne distills for us the essence of nothingness.  A great poet’s renunciation of life and hope finds paradoxical reincarnation in the desolate beauty of darkness and despair.

The introduction by mathematicians in India and Arabia of the number ‘‘zero’’was a boon that has transformed the world in which we live.  Zero is the scientific dopple ganger of nothing.  It is, perhaps, even richer in its possibilities of creative resonance when in the right hands.  One is reminded of the unfortunate math student struggling with the intricacies of the subject and being reprimanded by the teacher:

                 Teacher:  Albert, do you realize you got zero on this test?
                 Albert:    Well, it’s better than nothing!

Perhaps Albert, without knowing it, was on to something.  Emily Dickinson, the self effacing explorer of loss, was no stranger to either concept.  She introduces herself early on to the reader: 

                 I’m nobody!  Who are you?
                 Are you nobody too?
                 Then there’s a pair of us –don’t tell:
                 They’d banish us, you know.

She later leads us to another acquaintance, ‘’A narrow fellow in the grass’’ whose special talent is rapid disappearance.  Although gone in a wrinkle, he leaves a strong impression on the barefoot youngster:

                 But never met this fellow,
                 Attended or alone,
                 Without a tighter breathing,
                 Or zero at the bone.

The perception of the frigid zero at the heart of things, whose reality seizes us at vulnerable moments, provides a sensation we all know.  Emily Dickinson was as adept a connoisseur of the fearful pleasure of this ‘‘frisson’’as any French decadent poet. 
There can be another side to nothingness, equally uncompromising, but this time luminous in its promise. In the poem “Psalm,” Paul Celan, a Jewish survivor of Soviet labour camps, spurning Shakespeare, Donne and Larkin, transforms “nothing” into a paean of joy:

                   No one moulds us again out of earth and clay,
                  no one conjures our dust.
                  No one.
                  Praised be your name, no one.
                  For your sake
                  we shall flower.
                  A nothing
                  we were, are, shall
                  remain, flowering:
                  the nothing, the no one’s rose.
                  our pistil soul-bright,
                  with our stamen heaven ravaged,
                  our corolla red
                  with the crimson word which we sang
                  over, O over
                  the thorn.

With that, there is nothing more to say.

Larry French,
September, 2011



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