Sunday, March 14, 2010
Nothing is More Real Than Nothing
Beckett pseudofact (hors série)
At the heart of Beckettian nothingness is a rhetorical paradox, profound and playful at once. In a moment of ill-judged rabble-rousing, politician Robert Kilroy-Silk once proclaimed that the Arabs had given European civilisation nothing. As the history of Western numeral systems shows, this is all too true: the Arab word sifr gives us the English ‘cipher’, a number or a nothing, or both. Pondering the problems of arithmetical representation, the Greeks wondered how ‘nothing’ could be ‘something’ in paradoxes such as those of Zeno of Elea and Eubulides of Miletus (the same paradoxes that reappear in the problem of the ‘impossible heap’ in Endgame.) ‘Nothing is better than the kingdom of heaven’, begins a syllogism that proceeds ‘A crust of bread is better than nothing’ before pouncing to sophistic victory: ‘A crust of bread is better than the kingdom of heaven.’ Lear’s fool and not a few Beckettian ne’er-do-wells might be inclined to agree. John Donne explored the productive womb of absence in ‘A Nocturnall Upon S. Lucies Day’, in which love expresses ‘A quintessence even from nothingnesse’:
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death: things which are not.
‘There is nothing between us’, Sylvia Plath writes in ‘Medusa’, in a pun that brilliantly conflates intimacy, distance and denial. Wallace Stevens provides one of the most celebrated modern inflections of ‘nothing’ in its positive and negative senses in ‘The Snow Man’, whose listener, ‘nothing himself, beholds | Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’ As a performative contradiction, this recalls the characterisation of Joyce’s Ulysses as an attempt to turn the light on quickly enough to see the dark, but example after example from Beckett reminds us how something (or nothing) can simultaneously be and not be, be present and absent at once.
From an essay on Beckett and Shakespeare, for more on which see here.