A Lovely Nothing

Each month, we explore a theme through weekly MythBlasts, curated works, quotations, etc. This month's theme is Return.

Paul Henry, Killarney, Co. Kerry, Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 cm, Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art, Heritage Gift from the McClelland Collection by Noel and Anne Marie Smyth, 2004

Readers of the MythBlast Series will, no doubt, detect a Joycean flavor to this month’s offerings not only from the highlighted text, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork, but also from the monthly theme of Return. Finnegans Wake is a novel that eternally returns—quite literally in terms of its composition (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s…”), and more phantasmically, like a recurring, haunting dream of life. Finnegans Wake also suggests the return to consciousness of repressed multiplicities of me-ness, awareness of which is generally sacrificed for the sake of a more orderly, logical sense of selfhood, or relational continuity and social harmony.

Ending a letter to his son, George, James Joyce wrote: “Here I conclude. My eyes are tired. For over half a century they have gazed into nullity, where they have found a lovely nothing.” Lionel Trilling goes on to remark on Joyce’s observation: “…Joyce can be understood to say that human existence is nullity right enough, yet if it is looked into with a vision such as his, the nothing that can be perceived really is lovely, though the maintenance of the vision is fatiguing work.” (The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews, 1965-75) What is it that Joyce and Trilling understand about human existence that they can declare the nothingness to be lovely?

Continue Reading the Mythblast

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake coverNothingness perpetually encompasses us, inhabits us in the form of the unrecoverable memories and phenomena transformed by consciousness into vague intuitions or unanswerable questions of what we were before we were born and where we’re headed when we die. When we speak of nothingness, of no-thingness, we’re not speaking of emptiness, we’re not speaking of oblivion—and we know we’re not because we feel the disturbing presence of nothing attending our every mood. Nothingness is analogous to Chaos in its archaic Greek sense: the primordial source from which all order comes, and by which it is maintained.

Joseph Campbell tells us that “The self is void, the world is void; heaven, earth, and the space between are void: in this rapture, there is neither virtue nor sin.” (The Masks of God, Volume 4: Creative Mythology, 88. Emphasis is mine.) Rapture is a quality of the void, of the lovely nothing which constellates the energetic rivers of life running in and around and through us, creating and sustaining life everywhere, circulating back around into the void from which it simultaneously arises. When we inquire into nothingness as an absence of something, or as an alternative to or lack of something, we’re asking the wrong question. Shadows and holes have locations and even qualities of temporality, but they don’t consist of matter. Nothing is not a negativity contingent on some positive something.

Joyce’s nullity is a reality so unimaginably rich, so pregnant with inconceivable possibility, that only surreal, lyrical, dream-like language such as that of Finnegans Wake can come close to capturing it. Silence, for instance, is often thought of as nothing, but silence is not merely the opposite of sound. Silence surrounds language, it’s a place where reason, logic, and even time itself cannot intrude. What we hear as silence a dog hears as noise, John Cage heard silence as music, and Cage himself said that “These sounds (which are called silence only because they do not form part of a musical intention) may be depended upon to exist. The world teems with them, and is, in fact, at no point free of them.” (Alex Ross, Searching for Silence, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010)

Martin Heidegger insists that human existence is fundamentally a revelation of Nothingness. Jean-Paul Sartre went so far as to say that Being IS nothingness. Nothingness belongs to essence itself, and it issues forth Being. But logic tends to break down in the face of Nothingness because logic exists in relationship to matter and time, qualities that bear no relationship to the unimaginable, the unthinkable, or to no-thingness. Transcendence and nothingness are, I believe, synonymous. Experiencing the transcendent essence of being, we instantly become aware of Nothingness as the ground of being, an entirely unanthropomorphic world in which a human being is simply another thing existing alongside all other things.

Freud once remarked of his own theories that they tended to, like the theories of Copernicus or Darwin, diminish man’s pride. While that may be one of the greatest humblebrags ever uttered, the lovely nullity has a similar power to absorb and disturb us in secret ways, diminish our pride; it puts us human beings in our place in the world, and in the order of things. And as I read it, this is one of the aims of Joyce’s bewildering Finnegans Wake. Similarly, that is the aim of myth: myths are, to my way of thinking, the disclosures of Nothingness that otherwise remain frustratingly enigmatic allow us to explore, or at least wonder about, humanity’s place in the world and that which lay beyond the last thought and the final cause. Myths are projections of Being much in the same way that Being is a projection of Nothingness.

Human existence and the Nothingness from which it’s projected can’t be grasped by the logical, reasoning mind, but myth gives form to the void, and in a manner of speaking, it nullifies the appearance of nullity and perhaps most importantly, myth offers a consoling embrace that allows one to, at least emotionally, grasp the fecundity and freedom of Joyce’s lovely nullity. How many times have we, disheartened, muttered, “nothing matters?” It turns out that nothing matters a great deal, in fact, nothing is everything! Nothing is always, and in all ways, mattering! Nothingness contains within itself all the constituent elements of life: birth and death, astonishment and possibility, fulfillment and pain, potentiality and pathos. That lovely nothing upon which Joyce gazed, is nothing less than the dynamism of life. “Finally,” writes Campbell, “the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form—all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.” (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, 163)


Thanks for reading,

Best regards,

Bradley Olson, Ph.D.

About Brad 

Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.

Weekly Quote

Mythology — and therefore civilization — is a poetic, supernormal image, conceived, like all poetry, in depth, but susceptible of interpretation on various levels. The shallowest minds see in it the local scenery; the deepest, the foreground of the void; and between are all the stages of the Way from the ethnic to the elementary idea, the local to the universal being, which is Everyman, as he both knows and is afraid to know. For the human mind in its polarity of the male and female modes of experience, in its passages from infancy to adulthood and old age, in its toughness and tenderness, and in its continuing dialogue with the world, is the ultimate mythogenetic zone — the creator and destroyer, the slave and yet the master, of all the gods.

Featured Work

Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, A

Countless would-be readers of Finnegans Wake—James Joyce’s 1939 masterwork, on which he labored for a third of his life—have given up after a few pages and “dismissed the book as a perverse triumph of the unintelligible.” In 1944, a young professor of mythology and literature named Joseph Campbell, working with novelist and poet Henry Morton Robinson, wrote the first guide to understanding the fascinating world of Finnegans Wake.

Page by page, chapter by chapter, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake outlines the basic action of Joyce’s book, simplifies and clarifies the complex web of images and allusions, and provides an understandable, continuous narrative from which the reader can venture out on his or her own. This current edition includes a foreword and updates by Joyce scholar Dr. Edmund L. Epstein that add the context of sixty subsequent years of scholarship.

Book Club

“As 2021 comes to a close, it seems fitting that we end this year by taking a step back and spending some time exploring the origin story of humankind. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Graphic History is a beautifully constructed novel (one of two) that brings forth some of the most crucial—and often overlooked—aspects of how we got to where we are. When did we create our principle social constructs? How long have we had the capacity to change the ecological structure of Earth? And in the grand dance of the universe, how significant or insignificant are humans, really? Harari and a host of terrific characters take us on a tour of the world long ago, and in the process, bring us that much closer to home.”

Prabarna Ganguly
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation

Monthly Gift

The Way of Art

Our gift to you this month is eSingle. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

In this extraordinary conclusion to The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell explores art as a tool for “mythopoesis,” or the creation of new myths for a new world. The artist, he argues, is the new hero, and the creation of art—of what James Joyce called proper art—is the perilous adventure on which artists must journey in order to bring back the boon of myth and meaning.

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