The Floozman Discussion
Nothing and Somethingness
by Don Webb
Old joke: A factory foreman is visiting his worksite at night. He catches his night watchman apparently asleep.
Foreman: What are you doing? Sleeping?
Watchman: Hunh... No, I was just thinking.
Foreman: Really? What about?
Watchman; Oh, nothing.
Foreman: That is something, all right.
The joke is funnier in Italian because of its play on the word niente.
With apologies to Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Être et le néant, ‘Being and Nothingness’, let us take a peek into an alternate universe. The philosopher Pat Jane Surreal — with further apologies to the trade of tailor, from which the names “Sartre” and “Caesar” both derive — has published a mirror-image work, Le Néant et la quelquechosité.
Now, wouldn’t a philosopher be embarrassed to admit to making something out of nothing? Can anyone short of the Prime Mover even think of doing it? We may exclaim, “But course it’s possible to imagine nothing. You’ve just done it.” That sounds like fun... I think. But is it true?
Aren’t Jean-Paul Sartre and his alternate-universe anagram really saying pretty much the same thing? Sartre’s title implies that “being” can’t exist without “nothingness.” Surreal’s treatise holds that nothingness is made possible only by somethingness. Language itself may be allowing us to play magic tricks on ourselves.
In “The Scandal,” Bertrand Cayzac cites Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, an alternate history in which the Axis powers win WW2. A “subversive, forbidden book called ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’” describes a world in which they don’t win. Thus, the readers’ history becomes an alternate history within Dick’s alternate history.
Let’s hold in abeyance the interpretation that the Axis’ winning the war ensures their and the world’s ultimate defeat. Dick’s mirrored alternate histories call into question the difference between the hypothetical and the verifiable, or between fiction and fact, if you will.
True, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” does not exist, but its contents do. Phillip K. Dick thus pulls a real rabbit out of his fictional hat. In contrast, Stanislaw Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude (Polish 1973; English, 1985) consists of review articles or introductions to books that have never been written. In terms of literature, Lem has probably created the ultimate argument ex nihilo, or as close as anyone can come to it.
The difference between fact and fiction is reflected in some languages by verb moods, such as the indicative (“See for yourself”) versus the conditional or subjunctive (“What if...”). English has the indicative mood, of course, but otherwise relies heavily on modal auxiliaries, for example: “is” versus “could be” or some other modified form of the verb. Other languages may use different grammatical strategies, such as by marking nouns as “visible” or “invisible” to the speaker.
How would the grammar of such a language mark the equivalent of le néant, ‘nothingness’? As “visible”? It would sound like a joke: “I behold nothing!” One can argue, “No, seriously, I’m saying there’s nothing there.” The response: “Then how can you say it’s visible?” Does grammar shape our world view? Who knows? But one thing is sure: it affects the way we talk about it.
Can one claim to see something that isn’t there or not see something that is there? Why not? For example, Bertrand cites in correspondence Alexius Meinong’s apparently idealistic philosophy of objects. In particular, Meinong attempts to rationalize the sentence “There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects.” In the process, Meinong invents categories, which is easier to do in German than in English, for example: Sein, ‘being’; Sosein, ‘so-being’; and Außersein, ‘outside-being’.
And that brings us back to Jean-Paul Sartre’s néant, ‘nothingness’, and its related term, le non-être, ‘non-being’. Are nothingness and non-being visible or invisible, i.e. real or imaginary? Does Meinong speak of Nichtsein, ‘not-being’ or Unsein, ‘non-being’? I hope not; Unsein comes two typos short of the word Unsinn, ‘nonsense’. Sartre didn’t have that problem in French. How, then, can we answer the question whether nothingness or non-being is imaginable?
Anecdotal evidence indicates that imagination is quite real but has limits. For example:
Our grammar tells us we have a past, but does the future exist? It depends on your point of view. There is no true future tense in any Indo-European language; it’s always derivative. Classical Latin used a modified subjunctive to refer to the future, as though to say, “We may do that.” English uses something roughly similar, the present tense of the modal auxiliary “will” + the modal infinitive: “We will do that.” Both English and Classical Latin refer to the future as a modified version of the present.
However, French appears to have evolved a true future tense. Late Latin used the infinitive + the present tense of habere as an auxiliary verb, which gives us things like dormire habemus. That sounds like something Yoda might say: ‘sleep-will-we’. It evolved into nous dormirons, which is about one-third shorter. For the French, it’s a true future tense, even though history says otherwise. The future isn’t even what it used to be; it’s only what we say it is.
None other than René Descartes took himself as one of Alexius Meinong’s “objects.” When Descartes says, Cogito, ergo sum, we can retort, “That’s what you think, Descartes. What is that rock thinking, that you’ve just stubbed your toe on? The proper formula is: ‘I think, therefore I think I am’. And, at the risk of making a bad joke, can you think you are not?”
Finally, we can dredge up the truly primordial question: “What came before the Big Bang?” The classical answer is “Nothing. You can’t go back to a time before the Big Bang any more than you can go farther north than the North Pole.” In a round-table necrologue appended to chapter 20 of Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World, an imaginary Blaise Pascal has a ready response in keeping with modern cosmology: “No, you can’t go farther north, but you can go up or down.”
Now, when Janatone goes home to Earth, where she expects to find her final resting place, is she seeking le non-être, ‘non-being’? It seems a little late for that. A Review Editor has remarked quite astutely that Janetone resembles a Pacific salmon who swims upstream in its natal river in order to spawn and die.
The fish has existed, and Janatone will have existed; both exist in a modified form of the present tense. To achieve non-being, Janatone would have to go back up the river of time to a point where she had not yet been conceived. As far as she’s concerned, she’d have to go back beyond the Big Bang, in a manner of speaking.
|Alain Juranville, La Philosophie comme savoir de l’existence, vol. 1: Existence et inconscient (Presses Universitaires de France, 2000)|
Bertrand summons Sigmund Freud and Alain Juranville to equip Janatone with a “death drive” as a motivation for her wanting to die on Earth. But that raises problems. As Bertrand says, why does Janatone go to so much trouble? If it’s le non-être, ‘non-being’, she’s after, why not simply propel herself out an airlock and be done with it? There’s something else in play here.
Bertrand cites Heidegger as ascribing the “death drive” to anxiety. Was Dr. Freud overstating the case? Maybe, but we owe it to Freud and Heidegger to listen to them both; some people take this “being-towards-death” business just a little too much to heart.
For example, Karen Armstrong has characterized John Nelson Darby’s 19th-century Christian heresy — the forerunner of “fundamentalism” — as embodying revenge fantasies and a morbid, nihilistic death wish. Today, we see the ideas not only taken literally but also violently acted out by factions in other religions. Anxiety there is, and it’s strong brew. Perhaps Heidegger meant existential ennui.
Janatone doesn’t have those problems. But she is getting long in the tooth. She wants to pay a last visit to the land where she was born and grew up. Fair enough. She doesn’t think, in the manner of Descartes, Cogito, ergo non ero, ‘I think, therefore I won’t be.’ She just thinks she won’t get another chance to swim upriver, as it were.
Copyright © 2016 by Don Webb