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A Lovely Nothing

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?

Nothingness 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.



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