A couple years ago, I wrote a follow-up to my essay on grief that meditated on the perplexing subject of “acceptance.” During a multi-day silent retreat in the mountains of Boone, North Carolina, I had an eye-opening realization about “acceptance,” which, up to that point, had appeared to me like a cruel and unrealizable fantasm, a point on a horizon I would always be able to see (through a perpetual squint) but never reach. The realization brought me closer to acceptance by, surprisingly, revealing the extent to which it was already upon me. In other words, I had at the retreat a leap in place facilitated by many hours of silent meditation and reflection.
Recently, I decided to go back to this essay on acceptance and get it ready for publication. As a warm up for myself, I revisited the term “acceptance” in Ancient Greek to see what it could teach me. What follows is the lesson.
Part 1: An Act of Translation
The “acceptance” I’m grappling with is more than the simple reception of some idea or thing or state of mind. The “acceptance” in front of my eyes is the mythical at-peace-ness that is, ostensibly, the aim of the grieving process. To accept one’s grief is to be ok with it all, to understand one’s losses not as lacks or pure absences but, rather, as additions to the manifold self. The roadblocks to this realization are many, not least of which is the anger and sadness that produces wave after wave in the wake of loved ones’ deaths. More than that, the roadblocks are all somehow supposed to be metabolized by this mythical acceptance in an almost-magical transubstantiation of hardship into insight. Is there a word for this, a word that names something real and tangible?
It turns out that this kind of “acceptance” does not have a direct equivalent in Ancient Greek. The verb λαμβάνω, meaning to take hold of or seize, for example, is too literal. Even its connotation of “understanding” is not quite right because of its mostly cognitive meaning, as in “I understand what Plato means when he says _____.”
The most poetic word is λῆψις. Spoken or written in this way, to accept is to take one’s medicine. Acceptance is the cure for what ails us. The word also has a musical connotation: it is the setting of the key. In what register am I being asked to sing? Can I reach this pitch without straining, or do I need to train my voice? What kind of vocal regimen will allow me to reach the extraordinarily high pitch of Acceptance without hurting my voice over time? How can I sustain the pitch of Acceptance? Each of these questions opens into an ongoing musical practice that has as its end not an aesthetic beauty but a sustained cosmological consonance. Finally, this word also connotes the choice of poetic matter. In the context of my thoughts here, I might ask, what is the best way to tell the story of Acceptance? What story will adequately portray the humongous magnanimity of Acceptance’s act of giving?
There is one more word that approaches the wide semantic range of “acceptance” I am exploring: δεχεσθαι or δέχομαι. Dio Chrysostom, in his 30th Discourse, relays the dying words of Charidemus, which shows why the word appeals to me:
What has happened to me has happened in accordance with God’s will; and we should not consider anything that he brings to pass as harsh, nor bear it with repining: so wise men advise us, and Homer not least when he says that the gifts of the gods to man should not be spurned by man—rightly calling the acts of the gods ‘gifts,’ as being all good and done for a good purpose. As for me, this is my feeling, and I accept the decree of fate calmly, saying this, not at any ordinary time, but when that fate itself is present, and I see my end so near at hand.
(Τὰ μὲν καθ᾿ ἡμᾶς οὕτω γέγονεν ὡς ἔδοξε τῷ θεῷ, χρὴ δὲ μηδὲν τῶν ὑπ᾿ ἐκείνου γιγνομένων χαλεπὸν ἡγεῖσθαι μηδὲ δυσχερῶς φέρειν, ὡς παραινοῦσιν ἄλλοι τε σοφοὶ καὶ οὐχ ἥκιστα Ὅμηρος, λέγων μηδαμῇ ἀπόβλητα εἶναι ἀνθρώποις τὰ θεῶν δῶρα, καλῶς ὀνομάζων δῶρα τὰ ἔργα τῶν θεῶν, ὡς ἅπαντα ἀγαθὰ ὄντα καὶ ἐπ᾿ ἀγαθῷ 9γιγνόμενα. ἐγὼ μὲν οὖν οὕτω φρονῶ καὶ δέχομαι πρᾴως τὴν πεπρωμένην, οὐκ ἐν ἑτέρῳ καιρῷ ταῦτα λέγων, ἀλλὰ παρούσης τε αὐτῆς καὶ τὴν τελευτὴν ὁρῶν οὕτως ἐγγύθεν.)
This particular kind of acceptance is, first, a mode of mental reception, but it is, moreover, a full “taking upon oneself” of one’s own fate. The “gift” of the gods is the perfect primer for the acceptance yoked to grief because it is a gift you cannot, are simply unable to, refuse. Even if you don’t want it, the gift only exists as something already given, and no mental or physical acrobatics can make it ungiven. In fact, we humans accept this gift in the same gesture as it is given, or else we suffer through a tragic farce of attempting to shake off something already part of ourselves. This is especially the case with our own death, which is given unto us as soon as we are conceived.
Ultimately, however, even δέχομαι stops short of the acceptance I seek. I decided instead to follow a path marked in the dictionary by the word “acquiesce.” My act of translation senses harmony in the “quiet” of this verb. But “acquiesce,” with its French sensibility of “to yield or agree to; to be at rest,” leads back ultimately to Latin and, therefore, doesn’t have a Greek cognate. As such, the path forces me to leap toward something less common, a word near to “accept” but more capacious and mysterious.
Part 2: To be at peace
My act of translation leads me, eventually, to the enigmatic word ἡσυχία. The word’s mysterious quality comes from the shadow cast upon it by Christianity. That is, looking back from the present toward the classical emergence of this word requires us to pass through its employment in Biblical verse, and specifically its usage in Orthodox Eastern Christianity where it refers to an inner quiet that leads to a oneness with God.
Thinking historiographically, it seems likely that Christians first encountered ἡσυχία through pluralistic scholars like the Hellenstic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. In Philo’s On Flight and Finding, for example, we see the following:
To these inquiries the other gives the only right answer, “God will see for Himself” [...] For it is by His taking thought for them that the mind apprehends, and sight sees, and every sense perceives. As for the words [i.e., idiomatic expression] “A ram is found held fast,” this is reason keeping quiet and in suspense. For the best offering is quietness and suspense of judgement, in matters that absolutely lack proofs. The only word we may say is this, “God will see.”
(ταῦτα πυνθανομένῳ δεόντως ἀποκρίνεται· “ὁ θεὸς ὄψεται ἑαυτῷ”· θεοῦ γὰρ ἔργον ἴδιον τὸ τρίτον. ἐπιφροσύνῃ γὰρ αὐτοῦ ὁ μὲν νοῦς καταλαμβάνει, ἡ δ᾿ ὅρασις ὁρᾷ καὶ πᾶσα αἴσθησις αἰσθάνεται.“κριὸς δ᾿ εὑρίσκεται κατεχόμενος,” τουτέστι λόγος ἡσυχάζων καὶ ἐπέχων. ἄριστον γὰρ ἱερεῖον ἡσυχία καὶ ἐποχὴ περὶ ὧν πάντως οὔκ εἰσι πίστεις. ῥητὸν γὰρ μόνον τοῦτο “ὁ θεὸς ὄψεται [...]”)
If we seek to understand how so many Ancient Greek philosophical ideas wound up in early Christian thinking, we could investigate points of contact between figures like Philo and, say, Paul the Apostle.
The historiographical challenge requires seeing through Philo back into spaces where ἡσυχία acted in its Ancient Greek clothing, so to speak. To do that, we have to keep digging into texts by the likes of Plato and Pindar whose thinking predates the Christian episteme. For example, in Book IX of Plato's Republic we find Socrates asking questions about pain and pleasure. He wonders whether, for people in pain, the relief (ἡσυχία) of pain is more desirable than the feeling of wellness. In usual fashion, Socrates’ interlocutor is quick to agree with the great philosopher when he says,
“And you notice, I think, when people get into many other similar situations in which, when they’re in pain, they praise not the feeling of joy but not being in pain and the relief from that sort of thing as the most pleasant sensation.”
“Yes, this is perhaps what then becomes pleasant and desirable: the relief.”
For my inquiry, this notion of relief is central to acceptance since, after all, the accepting of one’s grief ought to bring not the erasure of the conditions that brought the pain to be but relief of that pain’s sting. “Relief” is absent from the translations of acceptance I mentioned above.
Another resonant morsel sings out through Pindar who, in his 8th Pythian Ode, reminds us that the noun ἡσυχία is derived from Ἡσυχία (same pronunciation), the daughter of Dike, goddess of Justice. Her name is synonymous with Peace, specifically peace within the polis (city). Justice presides over the political practice and philosophy of a place and Peace presides over the place itself as a kind of adjunct to Justice. When Justice is present, so too will be Peace.
My train of thought leads from acceptance to ἡσυχία and moves through a series of stations. First, acceptance is most certainly a state of mind, a kind of mental reception that allows one to understand the events that have befallen them. But this cognitive understanding is only the first blush of acceptance. (Think, for instance, of times when you say that you know something to be true but you don’t yet feel it. Here, the mind grasps some truth but the body has not yet fully metabolized it.) Mental acceptance must be accompanied with a full-bodied acceptance of the gift of one’s fate. It seems to be the case, however, at least in my experience, that acceptance of this gift is a perpetually repeating action. Each moment asks of acceptance insofar as each moment of life is a gift given. The consequence of this is something like an acceptance seizure that shudders through the body and can only be calmed by a kind of inner peace. Attainment of this peace begins with an inner quieting (acquiescence), and the quiet allows the self to sense the great expanse of the self (something usually muted or occluded by the ego and/or traumatic memories). Here we reach the stations of Pindar and Plato since inner quiet is truly a relief and Peace, and this Peace is offspring of Justice insofar as the sense of self that results from ἡσυχία is tantamount to finding balance.
Here we find another way of thinking about the “stage” of acceptance. The so-called stages of grief are not thresholds through which we pass but are, rather, environments in which we fully immerse ourselves. The environment of acceptance is everywhere a space of peace and calm. Plato’s Timaeus contains a discussion of the “inner fire” going away when sleep befalls us. A quiet ensues within the mind and body right before deep sleep. Thus, in the moment of falling asleep we sense the environment of Peace that marks the domain of acceptance. In his “Twentieth Discourse: Retirement,” Dio Chysostom speaks of the silence and quiet needed by the sick to fully recover from illness, and this peaceful environment is also the space of acceptance where those who ail become receptive to their state. All of this is to say, the acceptance yoked to grief is an environment, but—and here’s the mind-blowing thing—we’re always already in this environment. Delusion and temporary blindness distract us from the fact that we are always already dwelling within this Peace. If we seek acceptance, then we already walk in the wrong direction since no seeking is required. To seek is to assume not to dwell.
No seeking. Only being. A being-with oneself and one’s grief. This revelation stops any attempt at moving through grief’s stages and convinces us to fall quiet.
In anticipation of the 2021 Performance Philosophy conference, I've been thinking about "problems" in the sense that Deleuze discussed them. I particularly like Bourassa's parsing of the term in the book Deleuze and American Literature:
"Problems, far more than solutions, open our eyes. It is said that every solution is worthy of its problems and that every problem gets the answer that it merits. So we can talk about good and bad problems, problems that are more or less worthy. And this is truly the challenge of thinking. Not to get the 'correct' answers, but to formulate the worthy problems, problems that carry their answers with them in the clarity and rightness of their form. [...] The difference between a bad problem and a good one is that the bad problem demands a solution that will quickly be recognized and validated. When we read the essay that portentously comes to the same conclusion as the last dozen essays of its kind, we are in the presence of a worn-out problems. A good problem is one that changes our vision, makes new things visible, breaks up the previous divisions, and installs new ones (which may themselves be replaced). The good problem is often the articulation of a mystery that has not been voiced, and in the setting out of the mystery, much comes to us, not as answers, but as singular points of the question we have posed" (2009, 195; this appears in the conclusion where the problem being put forth is that of the Nonhuman)."
In this sense, a Performance Philosophy problem would be one of the mysteries that have evolved within the seams of the organization since its emergence in 2013.
I'm interested in the problem of "No," and I'd like to explore it along the following lines:
The Ancient Greek word for the type of acceptance I've been thinking about is most closely related to "acquiescence." [I'll have to explain why I think that word is best.] But that word is from Latin, not Greek, so I started looking at the Greek words for "quiet" and "to become quiet."
I find: ἡσυχία, rest of quiet personified; to be at peace or rest
In the Loeb Classics, it shows up in a number of places, but most interestingly in Pindar's 8th Pythian Ode where it is offered as a proper name: Ἡσυχία. The translator flags it for footnoting: "Hesychia, peace within the polis, is the daughter of Justice."
“And you notice, I think, when people get into many other similar situations in which, when they’re in pain, they praise not the feeling of joy but not being in pain and the relief from that sort of thing as the most pleasant sensation.”
“Yes, this is perhaps what then becomes pleasant and desirable: the relief,” he said.
Robert A. Bauslaugh links the term to "neutrality," as in political inaction due to policy.
(Full version coming soon)
Yannicopoulos, A. V. (1985). The pedagogue in antiquity. British Journal of Educational Studies, 33(2), 173–179. doi:10.1080/00071005.1985.9973708
Christian Laes, “Pedagogues in Greek Inscriptions in Hellenistic and Roman Antiquity,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 171 (2009): 113-122.
I have a frictious relationship with repetition. On the one hand, I don’t believe that anything ever repeats, not really, at least not in the strict sense of a “repetition of the same.” For example: I I I I I I I I. This is not the repetition of the same I. Each I is different. Each occupies a distinct space and has resulted from a distinct pressing of my computer’s keyboard. In casual conversation, one could easily suggest that I have repeated I. But when I really think about it, I don’t see a single I repeated. I see I and I and I and I, always new.
On the other hand, my body seems to feel the return of habitual action, specifically habitual actions that trouble me. The air seems to thicken each morning at 7am when my three-year-old bolts out of bed to start a new day. My body drags itself to an upright position so as to follow and hesitates because of a deep uneasiness about doing this again, of trying to get energy again, of repeating the struggle of parenting. I could possibly describe this as a “continuation” of parenting, instead of a “repetition,” except that there is something very Groundhog’s Day about it. Same with the non-linear path of potty training: poop, again! In this scenario, it doesn’t feel like new poop. It feels like I’m re-living the totality of the “training” process. At the other end of the continuum, where this repetition feels most invasive, I encounter trauma, which is the epitome of this bodily sensation of repetition: I, in the present moment, feel again a series of affronting and unwanted bodily reactions that I have experienced before. This is related to the idea of nomos that I wrote about last time, the habit of experience that instantiates itself through (ostensibly) repeated action.
I have a frictious relationship with repetition. Does it exist as a natural phenomenon of life, or am I the one who fabricates it? To answer this question, I have, for years, explored the topic of repetition in theatre and performance studies. Each time one performs (any habitual activity) or each time an actor steps onstage to enact a part in a pre-designed performance, what precisely is happening? Do we repeat our actions, or is each time a totally new experience? The most intriguing treatment of these questions, however, appears not in theatre and performance scholarship but in philosophy and psychoanalysis. Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition and Jacques Lacan’s re-workings of Sigmund Freud’s thoughts on repeated (neurotic and desirous) behavior are texts I return to, repeatedly (?).
Notes for forthcoming entry on repetition:
Repeat and Repetition
I recently purchased a subscription to the Loeb Classics Online Library. To encourage my use of this amazing resource, I am starting a blog series called "Classical Bellyflop." The name comes from the feeling of leaping or diving into the classical texts curated in that library. Since my knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin is pretty basic, however, any dive would scarcely resemble something pretty; not even a cannonball or a jack-knife would serve as an adequate comparison. No, when I dive into Ancient Greece I most certainly bellyflop. The text-water slaps me with as much force as my dive carries with it. The discoveries I make in the text are usually eye-opening and sometimes startling, similar to the surprisingly painful sensation of breaking the water’s surface. In these blog entries, I am confidently admitting my ugly bellyflop into these classical texts. Combined with definitions sourced through the Liddell and Scott online dictionary, these forays into the Loeb Classical Library will chronicle my flops and present them as lessons.
Why lessons? Why share these bellyflops? I am convinced that words are used too carelessly today. The rich histories packed into each and every word of the English language are hardly ever examined. As a teacher and a writer, I feel called to publicize some of these histories and the lessons that I myself learn every time I unpack the language that I use. Additionally, despite the foreignness of the Ancient Greek alphabet, the English language relies on Ancient Greek words to a great extent. Knowing a bit about this reliance helps us to become more astute readers and critical thinkers. This, at least, is my hope.
The first word I am exploring is νόμος (nomos).
You have likely encountered this word many times, though it is usually nested within a larger word, such as “astronomy,” “autonomy,” and “antinomial.” The most common definition of “nomos” is “that which is in habitual practice, use or possession,” “use, custom,” and, more generally, “law.” Thus, “astronomy” is the law or habit of the stars. “Autonomy” means to govern the self (auto = self). “Antinomial” is formed by fusing “against” (anti) and “nomos” (law) and means “the rejection of law.”
As I’ll show in what follows, this usual definition is accompanied by a now rare meaning linked to the production of music in Ancient Greece. Since music, mathematics, and philosophy were so intimately related for the Greeks, this forgotten definition of nomos helps us peer into the connection between order, the frequency of sound, and the workings of both human society and the wider universe.
I discovered this new-old definition of νόμος while writing a book with my friend and collaborator, Matthew Goulish, which maps the contours of the astonishing poetry, drama, and philosophy of Jay Wright. While reading Wright’s most recent book of poetry, The Prime Anniversary (2019), I encountered this verse:
That periodic bouncing between mirror points
might define the note’s order in the scale. Custom
could determine all that the spent soul might fathom,
make of it a blue galaxy that disappoints.
Consider a slow dance about an axis, dust
in an elliptical field. Now Emily must
go mad with her math, and take these errors in trust.
You’ll have to wait for the book to hear our fullest interpretation of stanzas like this one. For now, let me draw your attention to the second line where Wright ends the first sentence and begins another: “[…] the note’s order in the scale. Custom”.
It seems that Wright is aware of the familiar and less-than-common definitions of νόμος. He has united two sentences that each summon one of these definitions. “Custom” hearkens to the traditional meaning, and the discussion of a note’s order in a scale calls to mind the following: “melody [...] a type of early melody created by Terpander for the lyre as an accompaniment to Epic texts.” The Prime Anniversary is dedicated to exploring ancient philosophical ideas in verse, as did the pre-Socratic philosophers. This fact helped me tune into the subtle reference that one could easily miss while trying to figure out what precisely Wright is talking about here.
To give a brief peek into the complex working of this passage, I’ll widen my scope to the entirety of the first sentence: “That periodic bouncing between mirror points / might define the note’s order in the scale.” A “mirror scale,” or “mirror mode,” which comes to mind because of Wright’s word choice, is a musical phenomenon that reveals the type of “distance” between notes that so interested Ancient Greek philosophers. Arthur Fox helps us understand what’s going on in one of his blog entries:
Try reversing or “mirroring” the order of intervals in any given scale. Reversing the order of intervals in a palindromic scale will produce the same scale. Otherwise, we will end up with a new ‘mirror scale‘ that is on the opposite side of the brightness/darkness spectrum.
So, for example, intervals between the scale degrees of the Major (Ionian) scale are as follows:
T – T – ST – T – T – T – ST. If we mirror these degrees, we get the Phrygian mode.
For the Ancient Greeks, geometrical relations such as those revealed through the realization of mirror scales hinted at an underlying structural code to the cosmos. Philosophers such as Pythagoras, and even more staid ones like Plato, sought to understand whether the discernment of those underlying codes in nature could translate into a harmonious political situation among humans. If so, then the law of the land (nomos) might be developed from a deep understanding of musical harmony and the placement of notes in a scale (nomos). In fact, despite his protestations against music and its ability to mislead the soul, Plato seems to hint at the benefit of such realizations in his dialogues Laws and Statesman.
Wright, too, senses resonance between the mathematics of harmonious musical relations and the order of the universe, which is why this stanza moves on to discuss the phenomenon of the Blue Galaxy and elliptical orbits. Unlike Plato, however, whose philosophical systems seem to conserve a top-down governmental structure in human society, Wright’s poetry brings some dissonant dissidence. His fusion of sources challenges us to unite cultures and ideas that most people keep separated into categories like “Western,” “African,” “Musicology,” and “Philosophy.” By dismissing the historically developed separation of various modes of thought and cultural production, Wright allows us to think up new combinations. Or, rather, he helps us revisit old unities that provided glimpses of the active Oneness to the universe.
If you think about the geometry of music long enough, you’ll start to understand why so many musicians find spiritual power in their art. A prime example is John Coltrane whose famous diagram of the circle of fifths hints at his dual role as mathematician.
When we listen to Coltrane and dwell on images like this, we find another example of the two-fold definition of nomos, much like in Jay Wright’s poem. At stake in Coltrane’s music is the possibility of re-ordering the habits of society through coming up with heretofore-unheard-of orders of notes, as if thinking up new musical formations will bring about a social revolution. Nomos evokes nomos. Play the old standards, things stay the same. Blow off the roof and change blows through.
At this point, it seems important to point out that, in a relatively limited number of steps, I have maneuvered from a dictionary of Ancient Greek words to a theory of political revolution embedded within a jazz musician’s sound. The Loeb Classical Library sent me back to A Love Supreme. What’s important here is not that I’ve discovered some new connection between seemingly disparate human artefacts. Rather, I’ve discovered something that was already embedded in the word “law” or “custom,” a type of knowledge that was released through poetic verse. Is there, perhaps, a methodology here that we can put to repeated use? Begin with poetry. Peer deep into the structure and words of the poetic verse. Unpack the history of the terms and listen to what that history has to say. Through listening, rediscover truths that have been forgotten or intentionally pushed aside, and then put those truths into action in order to bring about change.
In Second Grade, I (Will) remember having an afternoon class with a teacher I had never seen before. Even though it was 30 years ago, the experience of that day sticks with me. I can think of three reasons for this. First, the teacher guided us through a hands-on exercise intended to engage our senses. We passed spices and various liquids (like vanilla extract) around a circle and tried to guess what they were by smelling, tasting, and touching them. I volunteered to taste what turned out to be garlic powder, and the teacher was impressed that I could name what it was. I was less impressed with the taste in my mouth, but quite interested in the exercise. The engagement of all of my senses left an indelible mark on my memory.
Second, this was the first male teacher I had ever seen. Not only had all my previous teachers been women (in school, swim lessons, gymnastics, and other venues), but I had never even seen a male teacher in our school. Men could be teachers! Clearly, this realization stuck with me and informed, to some degree, my path in life.
Third, I remember vividly a meditation that ended the class. Our teacher asked us to close our eyes and visualize various things. The final thing was “nothing.” “Now think of nothing,” he said. “Try as hard as you can. Can you do it?” I opened my eyes and looked directly at him from my place in the back of the room. I said quietly, “It’s not possible. You can’t think of nothing.” But as I looked around the class, all the other students seemed immersed in the task. They nodded their heads in assent of his question: they were all picturing nothing. When I looked back to the teacher, he met my gaze and smiled. Can you think about nothing? I’ve thought about that question since that day in 1988.
This post is about nothing.
While not strictly equal with death, “nothingness” provides a commensurate challenge. Nothing and death are equally gigantic in scale. How do we think of it? Why would we think of it? To think of one’s death is to prepare for and to become more intimate with one’s own finitude. There are multiple benefits to thinking of death often, not least of which is the overcoming of fear and the ability to sense new threads connecting me with my loved ones who have died. Similarly, to think of nothingness is to press the mind to its limit and expand our cognitive maps of the universe. If welcoming thoughts of death into our daily consciousness can demystify the great equalizer that so many people work feverishly to avoid, then coming to grips with nothing can throw the wild variety of our being into relief and perhaps help us to engage with the Great Mystery.
This kind of activity might seem abstract and unnecessary. My hope, however, is that I can reveal some of the mind-expanding potential bound up with the task of thinking nothing, and, furthermore, to demonstrate how thinking nothingness is helpful for imagining new forms of connection with dead friends and family. I emphasize the word “task” because, like so many words, it carries a fascinating history that, once unpacked, makes the word available for new uses. After tarrying with “nothing,” I’ll move on to “task” so as to end this reflection with some specific suggestions about how the task of (thinking) nothing deepens our relations with our dead friends and loved ones.
I’ve thought about nothing a lot, and I can easily summarize my findings. Nothing cannot be. There can be no nothing. Nothing, were it to have qualities (which it can’t), would need to be free from anything that has ever been. Thus, even if the universe was extinguished this very moment, it still would once have been, and therefore the remaining absence would flummox nothingness. You can’t have an absence because an absence is something, so even an absent universe is not quite nothing. Amusingly, the only way to get close to nothingness is to say that it doesn’t exist. There is no nothing. But even here, the laugh echoes back upon us since attributing any kind of is-ness to nothing ends up undoing nothing (by giving it something, a weird kind of is-ness). Nothing, it seems to me, is a relative construct, something we rely upon to distinguish between the presence and absence of things. When it comes to the grand Nothing, however, we are bound always to find something posing as nothing.
French philosopher and novelist Tristan Garcia wrestles with this problem in his carefully crafted book Form et objet. He concludes:
“Therefore, there is no nothing except from one of these three angles: a nothing which is in fact something; a nothing which is in fact the opposite of something [which for him means something’s form]; or a nothing which is in fact an absence of something (an emptiness or an exile). Each way leads to something, with none of them leading to a nothing” (Garcia, Form and Object 49).
His point, which is also my point, a point that deserves repeating, is that nothing is something, and, therefore, it has the potential to generate ideas, affections, activities, and events. We can make something with nothing.
(To read about nothing’s counterpart—Everything—click through to the parallel post, “What about Everything?”)
I have had the opportunity to make something out of that which first appeared to be nothing. When Joanne and I left the hospital after Finlay’s inexplicable death during childbirth, we were overwhelmingly aware of the wrongness that was unfolding. You simply don’t leave the maternity wing with nothing. You leave with a child, as was demonstrated by all the other happy parents around us. Or not. We had, or so it seemed, discovered a loophole in the order of things. We left with nothing and commenced our life as parents whose child was dead.
Except we didn’t leave with nothing. Though it would take me several months to understand, and years to put into words, I eventually realized that we left the hospital that day with something. It wasn’t the thing we wanted. In fact, it was something we absolutely didn’t want. But it was something nonetheless. We left with an unbreakable connection between the land of the living and the land of the dead. We had forged a connection with all that lay beyond the realm of the visible and knowable.
In a recent podcast episode, I interviewed David Harradine and Sam Butler, the artistic directors of the English art group Fevered Sleep (Episode 6 of “To Grieve”). At the end of the interview, I asked David and Sam what it meant “to grieve.” David’s answer was precisely aligned with my thoughts on nothing (which is really something). He said (I’m paraphrasing): To grieve means to build relationships with people who are no longer here. It may seem quite difficult, since the living party is going to put in 100% of the work, but the relationship with your deceased loved one continues. Grieving is the activity of nurturing this new, non-traditional, painful/praise-worthy/depressing/joyous connection with the dead.
My connection with Finlay is forged through my daily grief for his absence. What appeared at first as his nothingness when we left the hospital without him, his sheer lack of existing upon the “sterile promontory” (as Hamlet says) of my daily terrain, turned out to be his invitation to me to think beyond the limits of the ordinary. His nothing is really quite something.
But the burden of it. The tax Finlay’s absence withdraws from me. To ignore the difficulty of this relationship with the dead is to gloss over a major aspect of the grief-nothingness equation. And this brings me to the task of nothingness.
The history of the word reveals a connection with the Modern French word tâche, which means “duty, tax,” and this leads back into the Latin vernacular where we find tasca, “a duty, assessment.” By the late 16th century, the word (in English and French) acquires the general meaning of “any piece of work that has to be done.”
This brief etymological foray provides me with a few insights. I might think of the effort required to establish an intimate bond with my dead son as a kind of tax that comes hand in hand with the wider work of conscious expansion. Among the death, dying, and grief community here in Asheville (and I suspect elsewhere in the United States), the work of reckoning with death is considered a privilege held by those for whom grief has bestowed a more nuanced understanding of death and dying. To die, I aver, is to change into a state of which we know quite little. We do know, however, that it is not an end. Death cannot lead to nothing, since, as I’ve already mentioned, there is no nothing. If death becomes, in this way of thinking, a portal to some unknown territory, then the living may find ways to communicate across the portal. To do so may mean risking one’s appearance of sanity or one’s lazy harmony with the status quo, but this risk is simply another word for the tax, or task, of making something of what first appears to be the nothing of the dead.
More profound is the general meaning assigned to “task” of “any piece of work that has to be done.” In this formulation, the task of nothingness, of forging meaningful and tangible relationships with the dead, joins the ranks of our daily chores. Wake up, brush my teeth, bond with my dead son, throw my two-year-old son’s Phalen’s cloth diapers in the laundry, make coffee, imagine Finlay’s favorite breakfast food, make breakfast, etc., etc., etc. As complex as this discussion of “nothingness” and grief may seem, the result of all this philosophical labor is merely another handful of moments in the day. One of the biggest challenges faced by grief workers is to spread the wisdom that grief and death and dying ought to be as banal as buying coffee, shopping for groceries, and getting gas. Grief, and the task of nothingness, is and should be a common occurrence into which we invest as much energy as is stored in our love for those who have died. We come back to this work whenever we can, each day, and then we do the laundry.
Can you think about nothing? Of course. And if you experience a profound loss—either of a person or a version of reality that you hold dear—then you’ll likely experience the visceral feeling of a gigantic hole right in the center of your universe. But this hole is not nothing. It may in fact turn out to be the Whole. Whatever it is, it is certainly something, and I think it is worth the effort to consider what we might make with this peculiar entity.
If you clicked here from my post “The Task of Nothing,” then it might make sense to jump right in: What’s the deal with Nothing’s counterpart, Everything? We’ll get there soon, I promise.
First, however, if you arrived here without first encountering my post on Nothing, then what you need to know is that I’ve thought about Nothing since I was seven years old. By the time I was 18, I had stumbled onto the realization that, in casual conversation and philosophical texts alike, Nothing tends to travel alongside Everything. I was so taken with the Zen Buddhist contemplation of Mu (Japanese for “not have; without,” written as 無) and its travelling partner Yu (“to exist; to have,” written as 有) that I got the symbols tattooed on my lower back (i.e., my center, but a place that I can’t see; an invisible everything). Traveling with Everything and Nothing has convinced me that the latter is in fact quite something.
But in this post, my consideration is Everything. Specifically, it seems reasonable to suggest that if Nothing is in fact something, then something must be amiss with Everything. How are we to think of Everything? Is it one thing? Do all things retain their collective multiplicity when collected into this one Everything? If not, then was there ever a multiplicity of things to begin with, or is the appearance of multiplicity actually an illusion behind which throbs the One (whatever that might be)?
I think it makes sense to provide two opposing viewpoints in order to glimpse the continuum of possible answers to these questions. One viewpoint comes from popular culture and the other from advanced mathematics. Any apparent disparity between pop culture and complex math fades away alongside the promise of Everything, which, after all, should accommodate the comparison of each thing residing in the great One (again, whatever that may be).
The first viewpoint—which, I admit, I find refreshing but ultimately misleading—comes from the musical group They Might be Giants. On their 2008 children’s album, Here Come the 123s, the band sings the following words on the song “One Everything” (which, funnily enough, is song number 2 on the album. Zero comes first…that’s a different story altogether):
There’s only one everything
Remember these words
There’s only one everything
And if you go out and count up everything
It all adds up to one
There’s only one everything
The last time I checked
There’s only one everything
It kinda makes sense that there would only be
Just one, not ten, not three
If you get all the stuff together
And you have not left something out
Then could there still be anything left over?
I'm pretty sure that means there could not
The claim here—presented as a humorous but also philosophically rich introduction to the number 1—is that Everything = 1. The great 1 of the universe shows itself if we try to imagine all things gathered together. Fascinatingly, then, Everything is not infinite or another word for infinity; it is, rather, a unity. The unity.
While the band doesn’t delve into particulars, their lyrics do hint at answers to some of the big questions I asked at the beginning of this post. For example: What happens to multiplicity within this unity? They Might Be Giants suggests that the two—multiplicity and unity—co-exist in an unresolved mystery. This mystery is similar to the one that children likely feel when they ask their parents a question and receive the answer, “Because I said so.” Is that really an answer? There must be more to it. Will I ever find out???
(In their characteristic, self-reflexive lyrics, the band even acknowledges this: “There’s only one Omniverse. Go clean your room. There’s only one Omniverse.” Here, the lead singer, a father, creates a joke by juxtaposing a deep thought about the Universe/Multiverse/Omniverse and the most mundane and tedious of all parental commands, thereby underlining the co-existence of multiple strata of being within the unity of Being.)
I both agree and disagree with They Might Be Giants. I quite like their tacit insistence that the One everything contains multiplicity (audible in the command to go and remove the many toys from your room’s floor, preferably while thinking about the Oneness of Everything). The wiggle room made available to the listener allows for “One” to mean something different than it usually does. Something mysterious resides in the quantity of the One. But I disagree with the quick take-away message made possible by the pithy title “One Everything.” The disagreement comes from my belief that there are many everythings, which, in turn, comes from years thinking about the work of the mathematician Georg Cantor who developed what we now call Set Theory.
With this turn, I highly recommend the book Everything and More: a compact history of ∞, by David Foster Wallace, which provides a fantastic primer to the work of Cantor. Without delving into the details here, however, I can summarize one of Cantor’s main ideas in this way: There are many infinities, and thus there are many everythings. Now, it is possible to grasp this idea through a simple experiment:
I am not a mathematician (to say the least), but I still feel the heat of Cantor’s realizations. His work demonstrated a logical explanation to some discoveries that poets had made before him, thereby extending the poetic discoveries to the study of mathematics and the (albeit Sisyphean) ordering of chaos. Think, for example, of William Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Note the indefinite articles: “a World;” “a Heaven.” With this construction, we can picture a thousand of us scattered across the beaches of the planet, absorbed with the granules in our palms, each seeing a different world and a different heaven in our hands. How many worlds are there? At least as many as there are grains of sand. How many hours are in the day? Not 24, as we like to say; rather, there are infinite hours. It depends on how we look at it (to evoke a phrase that will also find mathematical justification in the eventual work of the profoundly bored patent clerk, Albert Einstein).
Why does any of this matter for you? If, like me, you have experienced the devastating loss of loved ones and sunk to your knees with a single thought—Everything is ruined. All is lost—then the material, non-metaphorical existence of multiple everythings is, well, Everything. Personally, I experience multiple everythings (i.e., complete, disparate realities) at each moment of every day. In one reality, my two-year-old son Phalen runs around the apartment by himself and plays with blocks, and magnets, and balls, and books, and chalk, et. al. In another reality, my would/should-be-four-and-a-half-year-old son Finlay is here with him, functioning as an older brother to both enhance and obstruct Phalen’s fun. In another reality, Finlay isn’t here bodily but he is here as pure energy and infuses all matter with a buzz. In another reality, Finlay isn’t in this apartment at all because he has work to do elsewhere, and I feel this to be true in my bones. In another reality, I feel “nothing” and read this as a sign of his absence that hangs over my cavernous internal emptiness. All of these realities—and more—coincide in each moment of every day.
When I allow the multiple everythings to develop in the darkroom of my mind, the words “Everything is Ruined” and “All is lost” lose their illusory power. Only one everything is ruined. In another everything, the ruins left behind in the shape of Finlay’s absence vibrate love into the universe like a beacon transmitting pure electricity. Only one all is lost. In another all, Finlay’s absence transmutes into a strange something that improves and empowers my parenting of his brother. This is not psychosis or derangement or poetic imagining. These alls all collaborate in the multiplicity of my Being.
Returning to the starting point of these reflections (as a way of concluding), we notice that we have embarked on quite a journey. Nothing turns out to be a powerful something. Everything turns out to be the starting point of the many alls in which we participate at each moment of the day. Paired side by side, Everything and Nothing author an invitation to see beyond the surface of appearance and to journey into the Great Mystery.
Will Daddario is a historiographer, philosopher, and teacher. He currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina.