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An essay on nothing

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Nothing can be more jarring than discovering at this moment when one is congratulating oneself on having written on everything only to instantly discover that one has written absolutely nothing on the subject of nothing. Come to think of it, a writer who has not written on nothing is an abject non-start, a nothing in fact! Nothing can be sweeter than properly starting the writing life from nothing. That’s exactly what I want to do now: write about nothing! In short, it is my considered opinion that any writer who cannot start from nothing has learnt nothing and has thusly written nothing! But did I say the writer had written nothing? No, he has not written nothing is more like it. It does appear writing on nothing is doing some damage to my grey matter…

Yes, there are so many nothings scrambling my brain. The fire that burnt my house the other time thought it would leave me with nothing not knowing that it could not burn one particular book in my library entitled The Quotable Nothing Book, and subtitled “Being a Book of Quotes about Nothing and Nothingness” which was published at $3.95 in 1980 by Running Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This so-called book actually contains nothing save a quote on top of the left hand side and at the bottom of the right hand side of it, thus leaving the entire page blank.

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The largely empty “nothing book” which bears no page numbers such that one cannot even talk of odd and even number pages was given to me in Canada by two lovers, Mike Anderson and Tina Novotny of 350 Dundas Street, London Ontario, Canada N6B 1V7, and they wrote the following words therein: “Send us stuff you write in here!” Since the book contains nothing but quotes from some wags and philosophers and suchlike who enjoy writing only about nothing, I felt it amounted to indulging in nothing writing back to my friends Mike and Tina; until now that nothing is inspiring me to write on nothing!

The Quotable Nothing Book gives the definition of nothing taken from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia thus: “NOTHING (nuth’ing), n. 1. No thing; not anything; not something; something that is not anything. The conception of nothing is reached by reflecting that a noun, or name, in form, may fail to have any corresponding object; and nothing is the noun by which its very definition is of that sort.” Given this kind of nonsensical, if complicated, definition of nothing, little wonder Paul Valery has this quip: “God made everything out of nothing.

But the nothingness shows through.” And who am I not to trust Socrates when he says: “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.” Soren Kierkegaard of course echoes the master: “The something which I am is precisely a nothing.” Against the background of the father of philosophy and his sons knowing nothing and being nothing, Ambrose Bierce defines Philosophy this way: “A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.”

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Bear with me, for as Edward Dahlberg knows, “It takes a long time to understand nothing.” After all, this exercise in nothing is only a thousand-word piece as opposed to an entire book of umpteen pages allegedly written by Joop Berkhout entitled What Men Know about Women which contains nothing but blank pages to show what everybody already knew: that man knows nothing about woman! The great Lord Byron sums it up thusly: “A book’s a book, although there’s nothing in it.”

Genius has a lot in common with nothing, as Gertrude Stein opines, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” The fear though is that “there may not be no nothing”, as H.L. Mencken declares. Jonathan Edwards ups the ante in this wise: “That there should absolutely be nothing at all is utterly impossible. The mind, let it stretch its conceptions ever so far, can never so much as bring itself to conceive of a state of perfect nothing.”

Frederic Amiel has this different take on the subject of nothing: “Almost everything comes from almost nothing.” And wallowing in nothing, Madame du Deffand declaims: “I hear nothings, I speak nothings, I take interest in nothing, and from nothing to nothing I travel gently down the dull way which leads to becoming nothing.” Alas, the words of Henry Fielding ring true: “To whom nothing is given, of him nothing can be required.”

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As though inspired by nothing, Mussolini sums up his foreign policy this way: “Nothing for Nothing.” Jean Paul Richter would rather have it thus: “A variety of nothing is better than a monotony of something.” For Penelope Gilliat, “There are times when nothing has to be better than anything.” Trust good old Jonathan Swift to get into the nothing fray: “He asks for nothing; and thinks, like a philosopher, that he wants nothing.” Crucially Lady Morgan asserts the inevitability of nothing: “Nothing’s new, and nothing’s true, and nothing matters.” The mathematics of nothing engages the attention of Joseph Glanvill: “All the ciphers of arithmetic are no better than a single nothing.”

“What then is man?” asks Edward Young, and he supplies the answer: “The smallest part of nothing.” The politicos who hold the world by the jugular are deep into the nothing game, as Oscar Wilde explains with aplomb: “It is to do nothing that the elect exist.” Beaumarchais weighs in with this choice admonition: “People who wish to make nothing of anything advance nothing and are good for nothing.” Of course before opening the mouth to condemn me for wasting the time of the world on nothing it is crucial to remember the words of Charles Caleb Colton: “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.”

I have dabbled in this essay on nothing mindful of Edmund Burke’s immortal words: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As I take my leave with nothing, the Good Book beckons at The First Epistle of Paul: “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out.”

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