By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
I once got very big-headed with the boast that I had written on everything, only for me to suddenly discover that I’ve not written on nothing!
A writer that hasn’t written on nothing has not started at all. In short, I am a non-starter. So it is with all humility that I am here starting my writing life by penning this essay on nothing.
The fire that burnt my library the other time could not burn one particular book entitled The Quotable Nothing Book. This oddity of a book bears this subtitle: “Being a Book of Quotes about Nothing and Nothingness.” It was published at $3.95 in 1980 by Running Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This so-called book actually contains nothing save a quote on top of the left hand side and at the bottom of the right hand side of it, thus leaving the entire pages blank. The largely empty “nothing book” which has no page numbers such that one cannot even talk of odd and even number pages was given to me in Canada by two lovers, Mike Anderson and Tina Novotny of 350 Dundas Street, London Ontario, Canada N6B 1V7, and they wrote the following words therein: “Send us stuff you write in here!”
The Quotable Nothing Book gives the definition of nothing taken from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia thus: “NOTHING (nuth’ing), n. 1. No thing; not anything; not something; something that is not anything. The conception of nothing is reached by reflecting that a noun, or name, in form, may fail to have any corresponding object; and nothing is the noun by which its very definition is of that sort.” Given this kind of nonsensical, if complicated, definition of nothing, little wonder Paul Valery has this quip: “God made everything out of nothing. But the nothingness shows through.” And who am I not to trust Socrates when he says: “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.” Soren Kierkegaard of course echoes the master: “The something which I am is precisely a nothing.” Against the background of the father of philosophy and his sons knowing nothing and being nothing, Ambrose Bierce defines Philosophy this way: “A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.”
Bear with me, for as Edward Dahlberg knows, “It takes a long time to understand nothing.” After all, this exercise in nothing is only a thousand-word piece as opposed to an entire book of umpteen pages written by Joop Berkhout entitled What Men Know about Women which contains nothing but blank pages to show what everybody already knew: that man knows nothing about woman! The great Lord Byron sums it up thusly: “A book’s a book, although there’s nothing in it.”
Genius has a lot in common with nothing, as Gertrude Stein opines, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” The fear though is that “there may not be no nothing”, as H.L. Mencken declares. Jonathan Edwards ups the ante in this wise: “That there should absolutely be nothing at all is utterly impossible. The mind, let it stretch its conceptions ever so far, can never so much as bring itself to conceive of a state of perfect nothing.”
Frederic Amiel has this different take on the subject of nothing: “Almost everything comes from almost nothing.” And wallowing in nothing, Madame du Deffand declaims: “I hear nothings, I speak nothings, I take interest in nothing, and from nothing to nothing I travel gently down the dull way which leads to becoming nothing.” Alas, the words of Henry Fielding ring true: “To whom nothing is given, of him nothing can be required.”
As though inspired by nothing Mussolini sums up his foreign policy this way: “Nothing for Nothing.” Jean Paul Richter would rather have it thus: “A variety of nothing is better than a monotony of something.” For Penelope Gilliat, “There are times when nothing has to be better than anything.” Trust good old Jonathan Swift to get into the nothing fray: “He asks for nothing; and thinks, like a philosopher, that he wants nothing.” Crucially Lady Morgan asserts the inevitability of nothing: “Nothing’s new, and nothing’s true, and nothing matters.” The mathematics of nothing engages the attention of Joseph Glanvill: “All the ciphers of arithmetic are no better than a single nothing.”
“What then is man?” asks Edward Young, and he supplies the answer: “The smallest part of nothing.” The politicos who hold the world by the jugular are deep into the nothing game, as Oscar Wilde explains with aplomb: “It is to do nothing that the elect exist.” Beaumarchais weighs in with this choice admonition: “People who wish to make nothing of anything advance nothing and are good for nothing.” Of course before opening the mouth to condemn me for wasting the time of the world on nothing it is crucial to remember the words of Charles Caleb Colton: “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.”
I have dabbled in this essay on nothing mindful of Edmund Burke’s immortal words: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As I take my leave with nothing, the Good Book beckons at The First Epistle of Paul: “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out.”
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is the author of God of Poetry.