It’s not the yellow curtains. Nor the curtain rings. Nor is it the bran in a bucket, not bran, nor is it the large, reddish farm animal eating the bran from the bucket, the man who places the bran in the bucket, his wife, or the raisin-faced banker, who’s about to foreclose on the farm. None of these is nothing. A damselfish is not nothing, it’s a fish, a Pomaccentrus, it likes warm water, coral reefs - perhaps even itself for all we know. Nothing is not a nightshirt or a ninnyhammer, ninety-two, or Nineveh. It is not a small jungle in which, near a rive, a stone table has been covered in fruit. It is not the handsome Indian woman standing next to the stone table holding the blond, kidnapped child. Neither is it the proposition esse est percipi, nor is it any of the refutations of that proposition. Not is it snuff. Hurry. There is not much time, and we must complete, or at least attempt to complete, the list. Nothing is not a tongue depressor; splendid, hurry on. Nor a tongue depressor on which a distinguished artist has painted part of a nose, part of a mouth, a serious unsmiling eye. Good, we got that in. Hurry on. We are persuaded that nothing is not the yellow panties. The yellow panties edged with white on the floor under the black chair. And it’s not the floor or the black chair or the two naked lovers standing in the the white-sheeted bed having a pillow fight during the course of which the male partner will, unseen by his beloved, load his pillowcase with a copy of Webster’s Third International. We are nervous. There is not much time. Nothing is not a Gregorian chant not indeed a chant of any kind unless it be the howl of the null muted to inaudibility by the laws of language strictly constructed. It’s not an “O” or an ampersand or what Richard is thinking or that thing we can’t name at the moment but which we use to clip papers together. It’s not the ice cubes disappearing in the warmth of our whiskey nor it is the the town in Scotland where the whiskey is manufactured nor is it the workers who, while reading the Bible and the local newspaper and Rilke, are sentiently sipping the product through eighteen-foot-long, almost invisible nylon straws.
And it’s not a motor hotel in Dib (where the mudmen live) and it’s not pain or pain or the mustard we spread on the pain or the mustard plaster we spread on the pain, fee simple, the roar of the fireflies mating, or meat. Nor is it lobster protected from its natural enemies by it’s high price or true grit or false grit or thirst. It’s not the yellow curtains, we have determined that, and it’s not what is behind the yellow curtains which we cannot mention, out of the respect for the King’s rage and the Queens reputation. Hurry. Not much time. Nothing is not a telephone number or any telephone number or any number whatsoever including zero. It’s not science and in particular it’s not black-hole physics, which is not nothing but physics. And it’s not (quickly now, quickly) Benjamin Franklin trying to seduce, by mail, the widow of French thinker Claude Adrien Helvetius, and it is not nihilism of Gorgias, who asserts nothing exists and even if something did exist it could not be known and even if it could be known that knowledge could not be communicated, no, it’s not that although the tune is quite a pretty one. I am sorry to say that it is not Athos, Porthos, or Aramis, or anything that ever happened to them or anything that may yet happen to them if, for example, an Exxon tank truck exceeding the speed limit outside of Yuma, Arizona, runs over a Gila monster which is then reincarnated as Dumas pere. It’s not weather of any kind, fair, foul or partly cloudy, and it’s neither of my psychiatrists, let us hurry on. And it is not what is under the bed because even in you tell us “There is nothing under the bed” and we think, At Last! Finally! Pinned to the specimen board! still you are only informing us of a local, only temporarily stable situation, you have not delived nothing itself. Only the list can present us with nothing itself, pinned, finally, at last, let us press on. We are aware of the difficulties of proving a negative, such as the statement “There is not a hipphilosamus in my living room,” and that even if you show us a photograph of your living room with no hippophilosamus in it, and adduce as well a tape recording on which no hippohilosamus tread is discernible, how can we be sure that the photograph has not been retouched, the tape cunningly altered, or that both do not either pre- or postdate the arrival of the hippohilosamus? That large, verbivorous animal which is able to think underwater, for long periods of time? And while we are mentioning verbs, can we ask the question, of nothing, What does nothing do?
Quickly, quickly. Heidegger suggests that “Nothing nothings” - a calm, sensible idea with which Sartre, among others disagrees. (What Heidegger thinks about nothing is not nothing.) Heidegger points us toward dread. Having borrowed a cup of dread from Kierkegaard, he spills it, and in the spreading stain he finds (like the tea-leaf reader) Nothing. Original dead, for Heidegger, is what intolerablizes all of what-is, offering us a momentary glimpse of what is not, finally a way of bumping into being. But Heidegger is far too grand for us; we applaud his daring but are ourselves performing a homelier task, making a list. Our list can in principle never be completed, even if we summon friends or armies to help out (nothing is not an army nor is it an army’s history, weapons, morale, doctrines, victories, or defeats - there, that’s done.) And even if we were able, with much labor, to exhaust the possibilities, get it all inscribed, name everything nothing is not, down to the last rouge atom, the one that rolled behind the door, and had thoughtfully included ourselves, the makers of the list, on the list - the list itself would remain. Who’s got a match?
But if we cannot finish, we can at least begin. If what exists is in each case the totality of the series of appearances which manifests it, then nothing must be characterized in terms of its non-appearances, no-shows, incorrigible tardiness. Nothing is what keeps us waiting (forever). And it’s not “Charlie Is My Darling,” nor would it be Mary if I had a darling so named nor would it be my absence-of-darling had I neglected to scratch out and secure one. And it is not the yellow curtains behind which fauns and astronauts embrace, behind which flesh crawls in all directions and flickertail squirrels fall upward into the trees. And death is not nothing and the cheering sections of consciousness (“Do not go gentle into that good night”) are not nothing nor are holders of the contrary view (“Burning to be gone,” says Beckett’s Krapp, into his Sony). What can I tell you about the rape of Lucrece by Proud Tarquin? Only this: the rapist wore a coat with raglan sleeves. Not much, but not nothing. Put it on the list. For an ampler account, see Shakespeare. And you’ve noted the anachronisms, Lord Raglan lived long after the event, but errors, too, are not nothing. Put it on the list. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. What a wonderful list! How joyous the notion that, try as we may, we cannot do other than fail absolutely and that the task will remain always before us, like a meaning for our lives. Hurry. Quickly. Nothing is not a nail.
- Donald Bartheleme, The New Yorker 1973