‘Nothing’ is a very familiar and common word. It is also a word prone to a type of confusion and mistaken use. It has, as a word and a concept, a tendency to become ‘something’. And when ‘nothing’ becomes something in its own right, it becomes nonsensical and absurd. As an articulated abstract and generic negation it is not a thing. But the understanding of nothing as abstract negation is a developed and conscious thought. ‘Nothing’ may appear and operate in the undeveloped, unwary, or unreflective mind as a concrete ‘something’.
‘Nothing’ is a negative indefinite pronoun. It is a negative. As a negative or a negation it is, as Plato and Aristotle said of negative statement in general, dependent upon prior affirmation for its usefulness, its specificity, and its clarity. ‘Nothing’, as a negation, suffers from a lack of specificity and a lack of boundedness; it is, therefore, difficult to understand, to remember, and to think. The usefulness and determinateness of a negation depends upon prior affirmation. For the mind and for the organism there has to be some history of ‘yes’ before there can be a meaningful ‘no’.
‘Nothing’ is also an indefinite. The abstract affirmation upon which ‘nothing’ depends is an indefinite: a ‘thing’ is an object of any kind, physical or mental.
And ‘nothing’ is also a pronoun, a pro-form noun that may take the place of a noun and perform the function of a noun. And a noun is simply the name of a thing.
‘Nothing’ both suffers and benefits from its lack of specificity or boundedness. It suffers a lack of specificity and boundedness in its form as a negation: as a negation it is both non-specific and dependent. It’s prior affirmation, its ‘thingness’ is also non-specific and perfectly general or generic.
Its lack of specificity and its generalness lend it practical and common use. On the other hand, this same lack of specificity also makes ‘nothing’ difficult to understand and to remember except perhaps as a thing in its own right. The stickiness of ‘nothing’, its ready commonness, is an absurd unreality. ‘Nothing’ is never a thing, but in some minds and instances, it acts or behaves as if it is a concrete ‘something’.
‘Nothing’ is a fine example of negation: as a negation, in practical and logical use, it as important as an affirmation. However, in psychology, in memory, and in understanding it depends upon, it recedes behind and even hides behind a greater presence of affirmation.
‘Nothing’ is notoriously slippery and difficult to grasp and handle. ‘Nothing’ is also so common in use that we may pass over its strangeness without pause. Both its slipperiness and its commonness are worth pondering and laboring over.
Linguists point out that the logical symmetry of affirmation and negation is belied by their asymmetry in actually existing natural language. Affirmation is by far the greater part of natural language. Negation in natural language appears as a marked and dependent child of affirmation. And yet, the very act of judgment depends as much upon negation as affirmation. Negation and the negative, however vital, slip through the fingers that might apprehend them.
‘Nothing’ as a thing in its own right is either perfectly abstract or perfectly absurd, or both. Philosophers often delight in the paradoxes of the abstract and the absurd. And philosophers have long promoted inquiry into the state/quality/measure of ‘nothing’ into a subject of inquiry and a term, ‘nothingness’. The clear mountain air of ‘nothingness’ is not my concern here. My focus here is on on the personal and psychological uses of and encounters with ‘nothing’. I’m concerned here with humbler and more common fare than only the high peaks of philosophical inquiry into ‘nothingness’ and determinate negation. How does a human being, a person, experience or conceive of ‘nothing’. Are there some useful generalizations that I may make about ‘nothing’ that apply broadly to the personal and practical life of myself and my readers?
I have in mind and I will focus here on a rich source for the study of ‘nothing’ and ‘negation’ in natural language, the dramatic tragedy of King Lear. I also have in mind a range of common uses of, concepts of, and words for ‘nothing’ across the ages. We would expect and we do find that many are the uses of and senses of ‘nothing’. There is also a rich technical discussion of ‘nothing’ and negation in psychoanalysis and for the most part I will avoid the finer distinctions of their specialized vocabulary in favor of making broader points about ‘nothing’. My rough divide is between the life serving encounter with ‘nothing’ and the destructive and concrete appearances of ‘nothing’. Given a prior health and liveliness of person, ‘nothing’ may appear as a life and spirit enhancing counterpoint, contrast, rest, pause, or opening. Given prior privation in a person or personality, ‘nothing’ may be without possibility of observation or representation, or such a ‘nothing’ may be concretized. Concretized and literalized ‘nothing’ is life-destroying and is evidence of life destruction and self destruction.
King Lear, the play starts in a kind or form of ‘nothing’ and the play ends in a ‘nothing’. The action of the play starts from a declaration of ‘nothing’ from Cordelia and the action of the play ends in Lear’s declaration of ‘negation’ at Cordelia’s death. The play could be said to be a dramatic, tragic confrontation with ‘nothing’ in many of its senses.
Even before Cordelia sets the play into dramatic action, there is, at the beginning, an implicit ‘nothing’ present in Lear. The form of ‘nothing’ that sets the stage for King Lear is the ‘nothing’ of vanity. Lear at the beginning of the play is the very figure of vanity. He stands alone, in a self-satisfied display of meaningless pomp. Vanity as a thing in its own right, without apparent contrast, is the pointless self-celebration of a grandiose narcissist before a mirror. The easiest sense of vanity to remember, to handle and hold on to, is vanity as a one-sided retreat into a false refuge of surface and image. The why of such a retreat into vanity is the stuff of psychoanalysis. Such a retreat from real life and from relationship is an absurdity. How could someone, how could anyone attempt to mirror the non-existence of a concrete nothing?
The emptiness and the absurdity of such a life is there for all to see. However, a person trapped in vanity cannot see or represent the emptiness or the absurdity that they are. A person trapped in vanity has made a nothing of themselves. They have take refuge in a shadow. Vanity, in this sense, appears as the false and absurd refuge of a person deprived of basic, living sense.
It is vanity in the sense of a false nothing that a fool or a fop clings to that Lear so clearly performs at the beginning of the play. The most easily graspable and most handy form and sense of vanity is the foolish and petty pomp of Lear himself. But a greater sense of vanity as nothing and as hopelessness surrounds the figure of Lear. It fills the court of Lear and gives his words and his air an emptiness. Lear, as pomp without a point, is nothing surrounded by nothing. The play itself also seems to ask, “what is the point and purpose of a life?” Vanity, in a more global sense, including purposelessness and hopelessness, is the first ‘nothing’ of King Lear.
Other senses of vanity than pomp without a point, still in use, are harder to remember because they depend upon contrast for their meaning. The mind tends to remember the affirmative pole of a contrast, as the negative pole recedes and is forgotten . As ‘nothing’ does, vanity has other meanings and uses. Vanity has its roots in the Latin word ‘vanitas’. Vanitas as the Romans used it is a rich word that signified falsity and nothingness as well as vanity in its more concrete sense of vainglory. Vanus, the root of vanitas, as much signfied nothing or naught as falsity, deceit or meaninglessness.
Vanus and vanitas may be said to derive from the observation and representation of the relation between human experience and its limits, its relations, and its reality. Vanus, in its sense as pure nothing, only meaningfully exists in counterpoint to truth or reality. Vanity here appears in contrast to reality.
Cicero makes fine contrapuntal use of the word ‘vanitas’ in a passage that presages some of the concerns of King Lear. In book 3 of his “Tusculan Disputations,” subtitled “On Moderating the Grief of the Mind” and on emotion, he begins his disputation:
nunc parvulos nobis dedit igniculos, quos celeriter malis moribus opinionibusque depravati sic restinguimus, ut nusquam naturae lumen appareat. sunt enim ingeniis nostris semina innata virtutum,
quae si adolescere liceret, ipsa nos ad beatam vitam natura perduceret. nunc autem, simul atque editi in lucem et suscepti sumus, in omni continuo pravitate et in summa opinionum perversitate versamur, ut paene cum lacte nutricis errorem suxisse videamur. cum vero parentibus redditi, dein magistris traditi sumus, tum ita variis imbuimur erroribus, ut vanitati veritas et opinioni confirmatae natura ipsa cedat.
Nature, as it Is, hath given us but a few Sparks of Understanding, which by our vicious Manners and Opinions we so effectually quench, that scarce the least Glimpse of the Light of Nature appears : For there are in our Minds innate Principles of Virtue, which, if they were suffered to grow, would themselves lead us to a happy Life. But now, as soon as ever we come into the World, we are engaged in all manner of Depravity and Perverseness of Opinions, so that we seem, together with our Nurse’s Milk, to have sucked in Errors: And afterwords when we are brought to our Parents we are delivered over to Tutors from whom we imbibe so many mistaken Notions, that Truth is forced to give way to Vanity, and Nature herself to yield to Opinion.
Cicero admonishes us to take care lest the nothingness of vanity consume our lives. Vanity here, as Cicero uses it, is a word that marks off a meaninglessness and a nothingness opposed to truth. Vanity here is a falsehood opposed to truth and nature. Vanity in this sense is something close to a sustained error, a falseness opposed to reality. And this sense of vanity as error or falsehood draws its sense from its keen opposition to Truth. Without that Truth, there can be no vanity in this sense. Cicero uses vanity here in a contrapuntal and vivifying sense.
“That Truth is forced to give way to Vanity” could serve as the motto for the first brief scenes of the beginning of Lear. Lear’s only purposes seem to be the assured fulfillment of his fixed opinion, the reception of perfunctory flattery, and the removal of all care and responsibility, all with no purpose except self-congratulation.
’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death.(1.1.42-45)
Who is this Lear who would “shake all cares and business” from his age, and “unburthen’d crawl toward death”? And what is unnatural in Cicero’s sense about him? Lear the King would give up his kingdom, so we could say that he is violating a natural order in which the King must always remain King. Many commentators on Lear have here made much of “natural order” and of how Lear violates the fixed principles of the order of nature, of a great chain of being that naively must be maintained lest the cosmos lose order.
There may be a more direct way of addressing what is unnatural in vain Lear, a more simple observation that notes the prevalence of the lie over truth in the King and the Court. One can say that truth has given way to vanity, and nature to opinion in the court of Lear.
Regardless of the King’s position in any great chain of being, his person at the beginning of the play is a false and foolish one, a vain one. Equating nature with truth, as Cicero does, a violation of nature has long occurred for Lear and Lear dwells in a realm of untruth and vanity. A ‘natural order’ reading of Lear might have no problem with the lies of pomp and flattery if only Lear would keep his place as King. However, such a reading would miss the simple fact that the lie here is the unnatural, and that any consequences that follow upon this lie are equally unnatural. The basic order that is violated by Lear’s court is the order of truth and reason, of basic sense.
Contrast with truth and with life gives the senses of vain and vanity a point, a meaning. Horace brings the contrasting or contrapuntal sense of vanus to vivid form. “non vanae redeat sanguis imagini,” says Horace in an ode to a dead friend, “never will the blood of life return to his vain (empty) phantom.” The phantom, the image (imago) is vain because it has no life, nor will it ever again. It is a vain empty nothing in relationship to living, pulsing blood. In Horace’s use of vanus, vanus has been distilled out as an empty nothing in contrast to aliveness. This purest, simplest sense of vanus as nothing appears in contrast to the blood of life.
Living, pulsing blood is real. Vanity is a nothing in contrast to life and the living. The contrapuntal senses of vanity come to clearest form in the phrases and sentences of wisdom works and in poetry. Wisdom works such as Ecclesiastes meditate on meaninglessness and emptiness in the context of an affirmation of life and of wisdom. The searching soul who gathers wisdom is a passionate soul who wants to know. In the aesthetic context of a gathering of words of wisdom, the most difficult truths or perspectives can serve as goads to more life.
vanitas vanitatum dixit Ecclesiastes vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas [Eccl. 1:2]
Vanity of vanities, said Ecclesiastes, vanity of vanities all is vanity.
Ecclesiastes pushes the use of vanity to an extreme. Everything appears as vanity when seen under the sign of mortality. What is the point and the purpose of life?
Ecclesiastes is a persistent meditation on a very difficult fact: we are mortal and our lives are transient. The arrow of time is inexorable. Life is fleeting. How do we represent that to ourselves, and can we bear and sustain the observation of that truth?
What responses do we have to mortality? Are there responses other than vanity? Ecclesiastes offers a simple appreciation of basic life as a counterpoint to vanity. Awareness of transiency may serve as a goad to bring us to our senses, to bring us to our own sense of being alive. The plain experience of life is close to the bone, an antidote to vanity.
dulce lumen et delectabile est oculis videre solem [Eccl. 11:7]
Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.
Simple, basic appreciation of life is free of vanity. But what of the excess of our love and our needs and purposes beyond simple sensory experience? No life is so simple that it does not suffer the needs and excesses of love, and of care in the face of mortality. We seek a purpose and we passionately need and demand to love and be loved.
King Lear, the tragedy, is also a story of excessive passion; it is a tragedy of passion, care, and love under the sign of mortality.
“Mortality is the ultimate outrage,” says Harold Bloom, summing up his response to the Tragedy of Lear. Bloom calls Lear a “perfection in the poetics of outrage” and a study in “outrageousness.”
The play, starts with a lie, a negation; and that lie is immediately shattered. Underneath a patina of vanity, Lear is raging with passion. Outrageous passion is no vanity; passion is life, but passion may be such an excess of life that it destroys.
If vanity is a false covering, the passions are senseless and raw in and of themselves. They are obscure to us, and yet vital to us. They cannot be explained away. They demand to be reckoned with.
Dramatic tragedy is a study in conflict, a dramatic confrontation. “All you can place against mortality is love”, but “Love in [Lear] is catastrophic.”
The play offers a tragic choice between empty falsity and outrageousness. As a play, and as a tragedy, it chooses outrage. In a fit of rage, Lear banishes Cordelia. The precipitous and inexorable acts of the dramatic tragedy known as Shakespeare’s King Lear follow upon Lear’s rage.
In Fuseli’s above version of that scene, Lear throws his weight into violent point. His eyes are fixed, locked upon Cordelia. His body is in a full temper that tops in a jabbing finger point. His mouth is set, hurling out words. Lear casts Cordelia out with every fibre of his being.
Whatever smooth surface may have prevailed before this moment, Lear cuts it irrevocably here. There is no turning back from this irruption of rage. Lear leans into his fury and falls like a fire spitting comet through the play. Lear’s rage will cost him his safety, his sanity, and his life.
Surprise and shock mix with a sense of inevitability and even relief. Rage is a surprise to the degree that we underestimate the truths and passions that lie beneath any patina of calm. One moment, all is calm, and in the next, there is an explosion. The explosion is unnerving and a relief also; the calm is false, the banality a confining dovecote; the explosion reveals a new country, an entire landscape underneath confines now obliterated.
We need passion; passion is also dangerous, destabilizing, and destructive. A smooth surface and calm seas have their virtues. The cost of passion may be too high. But any perfectly calm sea is a dead sea.
King Lear, is a dramatic tragedy, and it is, therefore, a provocation around a central paradox of human life. George Steiner says of tragedy the following:
Tragedy would have us know that there is in the very fact of human existence a provocation or paradox; it tells us that the purposes of men sometimes run against the grain of inexplicable and destructive forces that lie “outside” yet very close.
In classical tragedy the destructive forces lie “outside”, in King Lear, the destructive and inexplicable forces lie “inside”; they are his own passions. No forces are so inexplicable and to destructive to Lear as his passions. Lear dramatizes a pattern of tragedy at the heart of human life. Bloom said that Shakespeare invented the human; it could more simply be said that he dramatized a tragedy at the heart of the human in King Lear. Shakespeare tarries with the negative and the nothing in King Lear and Shakespeare dramatizes a paradox or a provocation, a tragedy around ‘nothing’.
“Nothing will come of Nothing,” says Lear to Cordelia before he banishes her. Lear utters a promise of nothing to Cordelia as means of threatening her with disinheritance. Cordelia refuses to speak. She will only say “nothing” when Lear asks her to profess her love for him. Cordelia’s sisters have already spoken, in gaudily spangled hyperbole, of their love for Lear. They will say anything to get what they want, his outward wealth and power. Cordelia is lead to their shiny silver and gold. What Cordelia wants is intangible; she wants love, truth, and faithfulness.
‘Nothing’ is matched against ‘nothing’ from the beginning of the play. What may seem a trifle or a nothing takes on all significance while gold and silver reveal themselves to be nothing. The play starts in media res, at the crowded out limit of speech in a world of success; in a world of flattery, of pomp, of custom, of wealth. What value can plain and honest speech have in such circumstance?
“I cannot heave My heart into my mouth” (1.1.91-2)
Sincerity is so divorced from the speech of Lear’s court that to bring it to words seems as violent and disruptive to her as heaving her heart up into her mouth. The heart cannot be heaved into the mouth. The heart is a no-thing that depends upon sincerity. And if spoken sincerity appears a violent rupture of pomp and custom, Cordelia’s silence is even more provocative.
Cordelia has been backed into a corner. She lacks that “glib and oily art/To speak and purpose not.” What can she do, but say “nothing”?
The first of her few words in the play she speaks to herself as advice, bond, or instinct:
Love, and be silent.
And so, she faithfully follows her bond to banishment and tragedy. The action of the play follows from Cordelia’s “nothing,” from Cordelia’s refusal to speak, from the evidence of her plain heart. Lear’s response to such honesty is outrage: a stream of curses, and the banishment of the only daughter he cares for.
“Nothing will come of Nothing,” he warns her. These words, this phrase is pregnant with implication, with irony, and with layers of meaning. It is odd and overloaded in the context of Lear’s court of lies. What “nothing” will come of this and what are the shades of this “nothing”?
“Nothing will come of Nothing” is folk familiar; a phrase with a long history dating back at least to Empedocles; in its first sense, it was a statement of cosmology. Lucretius writes in his De Rerum Natura,’nil posse creari de nihilo’: no thing can come from nothing’
Earlier in the work Lucretius states:
Principium cuius hinc nobis exordia sumet,
nullam rem e nihilo gigni divinitus umquam.
Beginning from our first axiom we assume,
no thing is ever born of nothing
Nihilum the latin word for ‘nothing’ is derived from ne-hilum which means not a whit or less than a trifle. ‘Hilum’ itself hovers at the edge of discernibility, between a small something and a nothing. Festus the Latin grammarian says that “hilum they consider to be that which adheres to a bean,” (the black of a bean,) ” from which comes nihil and nihilum.” Priscian writes, “ancients used hilum for ullum, any (small) thing.”
Within nihilum we can see a redoubling of the negative as a kind of less than nothing. The root of the word is born of the indiscernible or the not noticeable, that which sticks to a bean. It could be nonsensically marked off as indiscernible, as in “skin of your teeth.” Or it can represent something so small or insignificant as to escape measure or notice such as the “black of a bean.” This “black of a bean” can also represent the eye of a bean, which is the sense in which hilum is still used today. The hilum of a bean or a kidney is that small eye through which sustenance and/or waste passes into/from an organ or a seed. The hilum in this sense is, if a trifle, a very significant trifle.
Personally, we encounter the limit of the indiscernible as nothing in the limit of our capacities for observation and capacities for representation. A zen saying goes, “just as difficult as it is for dirt to stick to a fingernail it is difficult to appreciate our transient lives.” The wisdom in this saying lies as much in the encouragement of observation of one’s nails, the viewing and the touching of them, as from analogy. If you study your nails, and if they are healthy, they will have a smoothness and a hardness to which no thing can easily adhere. Dirt will not stick there. One’s nails live and grow and yet have the hardness of an inanimate object. These curious and intimate objects, our nails, are not often contemplated or noticed by us. They are neglected. And if the qualities of something so intimate as our nails is not discerned or noticed by us, what of the transiency of our own lives?
One could live a long life without contemplating the living reality of one’s nails. One could also pass a life without contemplating its transiency. So much can pass without notice and what is most vital to us, our own most basic living sense, can be missed and treated as a trifle, or as less than a trifle.
The appreciation of seeming trifles and the the appreciation of the way or nature of things are close bedfellows. An active and a curious mind recognizes how much it depends upon and it turns back to realize how little it appreciates of the most simple trifles. Philosophers have been contemplating simple and basic facts for ages, and in its most simple form the expression, “no thing is ever born of nothing” is an appreciation of the way of things, of the fact that there are basic laws of nature upon which our lives depend. The study of those laws leads to both philosophy and natural science.
King Lear is a dramatization the psychical and personal significance of ‘nothing’. Discernment of personal or psychical significance also takes great care. What may seem a trifle or be treated as a trifle may be most vital. What may seem to be of great import, may in reality be a trifle to the mind and spirit. The ‘nothing’ of silence, of plainness, of simplicity is a vital something to the mind. And all the somethings of the world may be nothing to the mind and spirit. The ‘nothing’ that Lear experiences during his fit of madness, the ‘nothing’ that comes of his reaction to Cordelia’s ‘nothing’, is an experience of himself naked and ‘unaccommodated’. Lear’s story is one of loss, of the loss his dignity, sanity, self and finally his life. At the end of the play, he loses his life to grief over the loss of his daughter. Loss is compounded on loss. But, for all its playing out of inexorable loss, the effect of the play is one of affirmation. The loss of and the negation of so much throws the sweetness of life into bold relief.
“–O, our lives’ sweetness!
That we the pain of death would hourly die” (4.3.216-17)
In the midst of the darkest part of this dark tragedy, Edgar draws sweetness from a soul’s experience of the repeated pain of loss and death, from life. Ecclesiastes, with its repeated refrain of negations also throws the sweetness of life into bold relief.
Tragedy, in the light of Lear, arrives at an affirmation of life through a merciless negation of nearly everything. The mind and heart are everything. They are no-thing; yet they are most vital and essential. They are all that makes sense ‘sense’ and life ‘life’. Lear even loses his mind and sense, and he is left only with his heart. Then he dies. Is the negation of even mind and sense, is the dramatization of the loss of mind and sense an affirmation of the heart?
The tragic affirmation that a reader or viewer experiences, if they do experience it, is not resolution or redemption. There is no resolution or redemption in the play, and if the play were reduced to formal statements of skepticism or of negation it would approach nihilism.
A tragedy is moving; tragedy ignites our sympathy, our passions, our pathos. Nihilism is an attitude or a worldview, a stance or a conclusion. Tragedy subsumes nihilism. Some of the views, for example, expressed by some of the characters in King Lear may be considered nihilistic views. But those views, however nihilistic, are the views of characters within the play. The play itself is a dramatization of life: characters, actions, and views.
A tragic play affects an audience or a reader. A tragedy may dramatize a confrontation with pessimistic or even nihilistic views. The simplest definitions state that a tragedy is a sad story that moves an audience, that evokes pity and fear. The most banal statements of nihilism (“life is meaningless”, “life is without purpose”, etc.) may form the basis for tragedy, but tragedy comes after nihilism. Tragedy is an affirmation that makes use of negation, that requires negation for its effect. And the effect of tragedy is, paradoxically, a eudaemonia, an acceptance or a sense that “life as it is” is meaningful and good.
The life serving uses of negation appear in contrast to affirmation, and affirmation and negation appear as a necessary and paradoxical pair. Paradox here appears as a challenge and provocation to be tolerated and lived. This level of living paradox cannot be solved. In the one whole of life, wherever we find affirmation there will be negation, and wherever we find negation, there will be affirmation.
“Life as it is” is meaningful and good. “Life as it is” is both an affirmation and a negation. An affirmation of the plain truth of “a fig as a fig” is a negation of any false view that would see a fig as other than a fig. An affirmation of the difficult truths of suffering, pain, and death is a negation of any false view that would avoid those truths. And an affirmation of the tragic split in Lear is a negation of any view or consolation that would wish such a split away, ignore it, avoid it, or deny it. An affirmation of passion or emotion is a negation of any view that would deny it or avoid it. And an affirmation of a difficult or even unthinkable truth is the negation of any lie that would hide or avoid such truth.
Just as Lear explodes with passion, bursts the bounds and smoothness of a court of lies, and just as Lear is set off by the “nothing” of Cordelia’s refusal, so too the passions can boil underneath a smooth and plausibly acceptable life, even a comfortable life. The passions are both necessary and dangerous
Easy nihilism would avoid the difficulty of passion or emotion. Banal nihilism might take refuge in spurious immortality or in fantasies of control or vanity, or it might take refuge in a shrinking back and a declaring of life as pointless and therefore meaningless, as not worthy of care or love.
Opening to the inexplicable, opening to the unsolvable paradox of “life as it is” is opposed to nihilism. Can we bear truth and go on living? Are we truly living without it?
John Keats developed a concept and a term from reading King Lear and contemplating Shakespeare’s ability to dwell in bewilderment, and doubt without prematurely reaching after consolation or explanation. For Keats, reading Shakespeare’s King Lear resulted in experience of “Beauty that overcomes every other consideration.” A sense of beauty that overcomes every other consideration is arrived at through doubt, through perplexity, through opening to bewilderment before the insolvable paradoxes of mortal life. Keats named this capacity “negative capability”. Shakespeare created out of “negative capability,” out of an ability to dwell in bewilderment without prematurely reaching after plausibility or sense. Keats called the person who could do as Shakespeare did a “man of achievement.”
What is ‘negative capability’? Keats said that it is a capacity to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” It is a capability and so it is positive. It is a capability to remain open. And that openness is a negative or a negation of what? It is a negation of easy explanation, and of premature consolation. It is a negation of vanity and false refuge.
Tragedy is a dramatization of passionate struggle with life as it is, stripped bare of consolation, open to the unknown. Dramatic tragedy is an expression of ‘negative capability’ and the experience of reading or watching a performance of tragedy requires a ‘negative capability’ of the reader or viewer.
On reading Lear, Keats wrote a short poem in which he prayed to be released from “wander[ing] in a barren dream” of nihilism and denial of life as it is. For Keats, release from the “barren dream” is to be found in “burning through” the fierce dispute between the “impassioned clay” that we are and our knowledge of inevitable death. Keats “humbly assay[s]” the bittersweet fruit of King Lear, and Keats is consumed in the fire of catastrophic loss. Here the poet leaves the company of the less impassioned and he experiences new life in catastrophe. “when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.”
Negative Capability is another name for ‘nothing’. The nothing here is a nothing that cannot be grasped in itself. The nothing here is an absence of consolation, an absence of assumed knowledge, and a privation of comfort. Negative Capability as a capacity for absence is a capacity to remain open, a capacity to undergo doubt and change. Shakespeare as a dramatist is that open space of nothing that becomes so many things so vividly. We can only grasp Shakespeare in his characters and his scenes. To seek Shakespeare apart from his works, his words, and his characters and scenes would be to miss the true Shakespeare. “If you seek for Shakespeare, you will find him only in the characters he created.” Shakespeare “was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become”, said Hazlitt.
King Lear, the character, loses himself and his sense and becoming nothing, he reflects on ‘nothing.’
“thou art the thing itself[;] unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” (3.4.109-10)
Poor, bare, and forked. Without wealth, without covering and without unity is the thing itself. Absence, privation is extreme in the representation and stark observation of the mind and heart without accommodation. If the accommodations, the coverings, the garments are all vanity, what of the naked man himself? He is a nothing. Or he is a no-thing. And on the heath, in a vast wasteland without identifiable markers, he is a naked little animal in a vast nothing. In a no-place, bewildered and enraged, a no-body and a no-thing, Lear begins to speak an odd mixture of sense and non-sense or “reason in madness.” He is accompanied by the fool, his empty foil. Lear never recovers his full sense, but in bewilderment he rediscovers life, and his love for his daughter. He calls himself a “foolish fond old man.”
Lear reconciles with his daughter briefly near the end of the play. Their reconciliation is so brief and fragile that it may seem a nothing, or it may seem to be annulled by Cordelia’s and Lear’s dramatic and final deaths. Their reconciliation, in fact, heightens the painfulness of our experience of their end. The story comes to its end, and its end is tragic. But the ephemeral nothing of life is everything, however transient. The presence of love and care heighten the sense of transiency, and the transiency, the closure of the story, heightens the presence of love and emotion, of movement and life.
As a “nothing in itself” that is “what things may become”, ‘nothing’ as Negative Capability is a necessary condition for the living process of meaning making and truth seeking at the edge of sense. Negative Capability is also another name for the vital and necessary “nothing” that a healthy mind and heart need for living a life of personal significance. The concrete senses of ‘nothing’ are cul-de-sacs of the mind and spirit; they are the barren dreams or barren non-dreams of life without love and care, of mere survival without meaning and without risk.
In his open confrontation with ‘meaninglessness’ and with ‘nothing’ and ‘nothingness’, Keats saw and gave name to a necessary paradox of meaning making. The experience of and the encounter with meaninglessness and senselessness are necessary to a living process of meaning making. Everything is vanity, except negative capability and meaning-making, and meaning-making is no-thing.
What leads one person to an affirmation of life through an openness to the unknown? What leads another to experience the dramatic tragedy of King Lear as life enhancing? And what leads still others to seek refuge in shadows and vanity?
“The having of something is naturally prior to the privation of it”, said Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’s statement makes personal and ordinary sense. Without some experience of having, without some experience of love and care, an experience of loss or privation will not be available to a person. It follows that so many who have never known genuine love and care for their true persons will be incapable of tolerating absence or loss or transiency or mortality. They are even incapable of observing or representing the loss of what they never had. Mere survival, mere vanity, may be a last result for those without love or care.
‘Nothing’ only has meaning, purpose, and representation in counterpoint to a greater something of truth and life. Our understanding of ‘nothing’ in its life serving senses may be a measure of our own living concern for truth and life.
1. I am indebted here to the Stanford entry on Negation for both the references to Plato, Aristotle and to the asymmetry of affirmation and negation in natural language. I hope that this section is straightforward enough to serve as a basis for my focus on the personal significance of ‘nothing’ ↵
3. I am deeply indebted to the work of P.C. Sandler here who in his works on Bion points to and describes what I am calling roughly two aspects of ‘nothing’. cf. The Language of Bion, p. 475. Sandler distinguishes between ‘nothing’ or “the minus” as a counterpoint and nothing as a destructive force that cannot be represented. In a situation of mental privation, the privation may operate without representation and without impedance in a life and or a personality. An intolerance of the experience of absence or loss may lead to further privation in a personality.↵
6. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom, p. 510, 1998 ↵
7. Ibid, p. 510, 1998 ↵
8. George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy, p. 128, 1961 ↵
11. John Keats, The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, p. 277, 1899 ↵
13. Hazlitt quote and the previous quote by TS Eliot are both quoted from Li Ou, Keats and Negative Capability, p. 237, 2009 ↵