From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2009
There is a priceless exchange in the 20th episode of “The Sopranos”—the soap-opera about a New Jersey mobster whose stressful career brings him to the couch of a psychotherapist, Jennifer Melfi. Tony Soprano is annoyed with his teenage son, who has been moaning about the ultimate absurdity of life:
Melfii: Sounds to me like Anthony junior may have stumbled onto existentialism.
Tony: Fuckin’ internet!
Melfi: No, no, no. It’s a European philosophy.
Quite so; one cannot blame the internet for everything. Existentialism has roots in the 19th-century thought of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but it is most famously linked with restless French students in the 1960s and the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Sure enough, Anthony junior has been assigned Camus’s novel “L’Etranger” in class. It also doesn’t help his precarious state of mind when his grandmother bitterly tells him “in the end, you die in your own arms… It’s all a big Nothing.”
Well, plus ça change. It is not only on television that nihilist strains of existentialism continue to tempt young minds, and no doubt the minds of some grandmothers. Last autumn I taught a seminar about ideas of nothingness at the New School, a university in New York. Most of the students were already keen on Sartre and Camus, and among the many facets of nothingness that we looked at in science, literature, art and philosophy, it was death and the pointlessness of life that most gripped them. They showed a polite interest in the role of vacuum in 17th-century physics and in the development of the concept of zero. But existentialist angst was the real draw.
Existentialism may have flourished in the 1960s, but its themes are the oldest in the world—indeed, one puzzle about existentialism is why it took so long to come into existence. The eponymous hero of the Mesopotamian “Epic of Gilgamesh”, which was written in the second millennium BC, is plunged into gloomy thoughts of his own mortality after his beloved friend Enkidu expires. Gilgamesh belatedly realises that he, too, must die, and this fact makes all of life seem empty to him:
The river rises, flows over its banks
and carries us all away, like mayflies
floating downstream: they stare at the sun,
then all at once there is nothing.
Emptiness, void, the abyss: synonyms for nothingness provide the most popular metaphorical images for death. Winston Churchill liked to refer to it as “black velvet”. And just as morbid fears make people think of nothingness, the reverse is also true. In the 17th century, contemplating the empty vastness of the heavens, Pascal recorded in his “Pensées” that “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” It is also terrifying, he wrote, to consider the “new abyss” freshly revealed in the minutest parts of nature. Pascal, it seems, found nothingness everywhere, though he noted that on the whole man is, perhaps fortunately, “incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges.”
How anything can emerge from nothingness is a question which the ancient Greeks answered by saying that it can’t. There must, they reasoned, have always been something. But that seems to raise a further question, which was given its most concise formulation by Leibniz at the end of the 17th century: why is there something rather than nothing? Another German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who died in 1976, argued that this puzzle was the most important question of all, though he never quite got round to answering it. Heidegger was infamous for his bizarre neologisms and contorted language, which were especially evident when he wrestled with nothingness. He even invented a verb to describe what nothingness does: in the English translation, it “noths”. Well, maybe it doth, but this does not get us very far.
One might think that science will eventually be able to explain the matter; certainly many cosmologists have said so. But there is an eternal snag, because any answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing will end up chasing its own tail. Any law of nature or mathematics, any purported set of physical conditions, indeed any fact at all counts as “something”, and is thus itself part of what is supposed to be explained. Every explanation must start somewhere. But there is not, and never could be, anywhere left for this one to start.
Faced with the apparent impossibility of making much headway with nothingness, poets have resorted to cracking jokes about it, many of which are abominable puns. Most of these revolve around the double meaning exemplified in the title of a memoir on death by the novelist Julian Barnes, published last year: “Nothing to be Frightened of”. His readers may find some comfort in the fact that, however broodingly terrified they are by their own mortality, Barnes has an even worse case of the disease.
Shakespeare, too, made much merry play with the word “nothing”, and not only in “Much Ado”. Whether or not something may come of nothing is a recurring theme in “King Lear”, and there is a particularly convoluted verbal joust between Hamlet and Ophelia—some of which escapes contemporary readers unaware that in Elizabethan slang “nothing” can mean “vagina”. One verbally agile philosopher remarked in an encyclopedia entry that it is perhaps not Nothing that has been worrying existentialists, but they who have been worrying it. One wonders what Tony Soprano would have had to say about that.
Picture credit: net_efekt (via Flickr)
(Anthony Gottlieb is a former executive editor of The Economist and author of "The Dream of Reason". His last piece for Intelligent Life was about the relationship between faith and fertility.)