Unedited essay for the UChicago supplement prompt: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.“—Miles Davis (1926–91). (It is way over the word limit. But…)
Note from Dec 16 2022: I got waitlisted by UChi. I still think it is one of the best pieces of writing that I did in my college admissions era when I was knees-deep in continental philosophy and also deeply in love. I look back at it with tons of nostalgia; it was a period of my life where I felt things that I don’t think I am capable of feeling anymore.
“Why do you love me?”
This is an impossible question that we can only answer with our flailing gestures and stutters and awkward false starts and pauses and frustrated faces. When I can tell you why, my love has already quenched. What I love about you is always this intangible receding nothing. The pitch of your voice, the ring of your laugh, the blueness of your eyes, the strange, slightly off-balanced way you walk, the way you’re angry, the way you cry. It is from this enigmatic ontological indistinctness of my love for you that all of your flaws become, for me, perfection.
Perhaps this is why Euridice faded under Orpheus’ gaze. Love has to remain the fragile enigma that is not there. It is always imagined.
And maybe Echo’s love for Narcissus is paradigmatic. Love is always an attempt to breach the ontological gap between two subjects. To try to understand someone else when it is not possible, when we’re all trapped in our fanciful world.
But this gap is just what is so wonderful about human language. It’s strictly ambiguous. What we avoid saying. What we say in order to mean something else. What we intend to say and cannot express. What we do not want to express but have said. What we hear and what they really mean. Irony. Synesthesia. Juxtaposition. Hyperbole. We dance with others, probing them with their words, but we can never penetrate who they are. (Hell, we cannot even understand ourselves.) Language involves all that is said, and all that is not said. A signifier is just its negative relations with all other signifiers. Imaginary numbers, infinity, Cartesian coordinates, zero. None of them are there, but we can play with them and affect the world of here. Can one even imagine an animals with a “ghost limb”?
To tell the old Freudian joke, the Mother, and the Mother without the phallus, have the same content. But they possess a different form, defined by their absence.
The Later Wittgenstein said that we are all playing invisible language games. Love cannot be analyzed as that burning feeling I have for another, but as a gesture, a move, used appropriately in a certain context with a certain use. There is no private language—no interiority to words. If this is the case, then life would not be worth living.
But how can we say what is impossible to articulate?
“Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” (Wittgenstein)
“And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.” (Keats)
Often in chaotic functions there exists a point called the strange attractor. It is the point that a function revolves around but cannot reach, the point of absence that propels all motion, but precisely, as the center—as that which is most important—the point is unreachable. The function revolves around and around the strange attractor, closer in one revolution, farther the next. Always-almost touching, but never able to do so.
Walter Benjamin wrote that every new translation, along with the original, fills a tiny piece of a shattered, original vessel. That original perfection, that strange point of attraction, is what Deleuze called the virtual.
Schumann’s Humoresque is a piece without a melody. Or, more precisely, the melody (what he labeled the inner voice on the score) exists virtually, hummed by the pianist during the performance but never revealed to the audience. The inner voice is created in the relation of the two levels of the piano, by a sustaining mediation. The pianist is supposed to play first what is there, the explicit notes, and then, repeat the same notes, but this second time, play the virtual absence.
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/are sweeter.” (Keats)
Music itself always plays with what is not there. Music reveals, as Schopenhauer knew, the nothingness of the world of appearances and the chaotic world of the will. In its mysterious silence it is able to play that which can never be perceived. In its beauty the unbearable lightness of being is suspended. It is no wonder that Orpheus could convince Hades with his music—music is art form closest to death, for it flirts with that strange point of attraction, that nothing.
This is what Freud meant by the “Death Drive”—the patient’s compulsive action towards that virtual point of singularity of nothingness.
This is what Beckett called The Unnamable, that which eludes symbolization, but which art, in its triumph, can portray?
This is what the negative theologians call God. The bundle of statements of what God is not.
This is what we call the meaning of life. A point that we strive for; a point from which everything else is constructed; a point that is never there but is also present; a point that connects the living with the dead; the unnamable point that we cannot but try, and fail, and fail again, to express.
One can say that Sisyphus is engaged in a futile affair, but “one must [also] imagine Sisyphus happy.”
What does it mean to say, “I am that I am”? The “I” is nothing. It is just this strange attractor, this virtual point, the conglomerations of our actions. It is, it guides everything I do, but it is also nothing. I am nothing. And in virtue of this nothing, I am something.
Nietzsche called us a bridge. And as bridge, we are metaphysical beings—Metaphysics in its original sense, a passing-over. A something suspended across the chaos of the river, with nothing below and nothing above. A bridge between two ontological realms—either “a bridge between hell and earth” (Milton) or one between “earth and heaven.” (Pontifex Maximus)
A gift is an act from the abyss. It invites something— a strange surplus that Marx called “the gifts of human nature—out of the given. We are that beautiful surplus, that bridge, over our primordial nothingness. We, from the very first moment, plays with nothingness. The moment of birth is our dialogue with the nothingness engulfing us. Evil drives us back into nothing, whilst Good shines light on that nothing and makes it into some-nothing. Human existence is a struggle against the two poles of nothingness. A bearing of the burden of our original Fall (whose fall creates paradise).
We are not Being, but we are not Nothing. We are the in between, what Kant calls an “infinite negation”—the Non-Being. We partake, as Descartes knew in the Meditations, in God and Nothing. As such, we are less than nothing, and therefore precisely something.
As Nabokov wrote, “the cradle rocked above the abyss, and existence is nothing but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” We are the singular point of zero that quantifies a nothingness. We exist as a lightning that strikes the world, with glamorous intensity whilst fading away in a strict instant. This single moment where we play something out of nothing is our supreme dignity, when the wave function, that strictly virtual construct, collapses into a thing.
The eye of the tornado is the point of zero. It is the safest place, for nothing happens. No wind, nor destruction. The Eye is the point of zero. In Psycho, the circular drain of the bathtub merges into the eye of the murdered Marion. In the eye, we see the abyss of the other, the “night of the world.” In it, we finally understand that we can never understand anyone else, that we are always playing with a nothingness, an image in our mind that we impose, an image that is about to be shown to be an image of nothing.
We all partake in a nothing. We live and breathe and die in this nothingness. It is a strange dizziness. It is Hitchcock’s Vertigo. A construction of the other in our fantasy, dragging them down with us into this space of half-lies and half-truths, as Scotty did to Madelaine.
But we work and strive and die for the nothing. We play what’s not there for our world is a world that is never there. Prometheus endured his torture because he did nothing wrong. He could have apologized, and he would be freed. No one cares. He was, after all those years, “forgotten by the gods, the eagles, forgotten by himself,” (Kafka). But he was willing to be forever banished on the rock, for though this affair is meaningless, though “the gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary” through time, “there remains the inexplicable mass of rock,” a rock that justifies what Prometheus has suffered (all for nothing). He was willing to positively die for a nothing. He needn’t. But he did.
So did Achilles die for nothing, for glory on earth did he forgo his immortality. So he repented,
“By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
And so did Satin rejoin,
“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven!”
Arendt says that the origin of political theory is despair. Despair at the vicissitudes of history. What other animal can despair?
None. Because to despair one has to first hope. “Hope is the thing with feathers.” It is as light as nothing. Hope is always empty. But we, human beings, are singularly strange creatures for we can die for an emptiness.Something not there. And what is not there is always the most dear to us. As Hegel knew, Ideas, the abstract nothing, makes history. For
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow,”
In Hiroshima, life was annihilated in the inhuman blast. Only “shadows”, etched in stone, prove that they existed. These are places that did not suffer so intense a thermal blast because humans absorbed those energy with their flesh. The shadow reminds one of what has been, and what is not anymore.
But all reality is just so, like the shadow, negatively defined. In his Zürau aphorisms, Kafka describes a man stuck between past and future. The past pushes him forward, the future pushes him back. His existence—the present—is just the battle ground of these two cosmic forces, and the series of struggles to break out of the entrapping. The present is a shadow that forever dies only to be reborn again.
But although only the present is, the past and the future exists. Heidegger understands that Dasein has a threefold temporal structure. It exists in the past through nostalgia; it exists in the future through hope. And in the present, when Dasein really is most authentically present, Dasein is anxious. In this fundamental attunement of anxiety that discloses the world, all the nothingness of Dasein dissolves, for we realize that we are nothing, that we are only a shadow about to dissolve. In the present, we do not think. Nor are we even anxious. Only “angst ist ängstlich” (anxiety is anxious).
Life is “Swift as a shadow, short as any dream/ Brief as the lightning in the collied night” (Shakespeare)
Then, how can we escape the ontological status of a shadow, of a something-not-there? Paradoxically, death. By entering the nothingness of death do our perpetual absence become presence. There, we stop becoming and start being.
But we can never experience death. It is a latent possibility in every moment of our life but also a moment that we can never anticipate. Since we are “the most fleeting, once, everything, only once, once and no more. And we too once” (Rilke). Nevertheless, when our one becomes zero, nothing becomes something. In the nothingness of death we become the openness from which being is disclosed—“the house of being.” This is why Dickinson wrote:
Though I than he—may longer live,
He longer must—than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without—the power to die—
And death demands a labor,
a tying up of loose ends, before one has
that first feeling of eternity.
True. Death demands a labor. Our death is not for us—since we are not there anymore—but for our beloved. No wonder we make such a big deal when we bury the dead. We are burying for ourselves.
In special relativity, mass curves space. In general relativity, the curved space creates mass. Nothingness creates everything. Lao Sze said, “Nothingness is the origin of the world.” Is this not the experience of watching Epic Theatre? The emotional intensity is created exactly because one knows that this is unreal, that everything is staged. Perhaps reality has the structure of a fiction, for we live in a world of fantasies. And the role of art is to curve the fabric of the cosmos for that kernel of truth.
Zeno knew this in his paradoxes. Movement cancels itself in its own essence. Every movement cannot be. But as non-being the movement is.
Plato was strictly wrong in his allegory of the cave. I would like to imagine that outside the cave, beyond the doors of perception, down the rabbit hole, outside the matrix, the world is a fragmentary nothingness, a terrifying nothing of endless possibilities. A space of unbearable contradictions. An “eternal silence of… infinite spaces” (Pascal), a cosmos that is not populated by gods or forms or the empyrean, but the loneliness of human beings. The bright light that the philosopher-king sees is just pure darkness, for both are the same, both are blinding—they’re merely two sides of the same point on a mobius strip.
As Hegel knew perfectly, and here Arendt expands on his thought, “contradictions occur in great authors… they always indicate some center of thought… the point is not to resolve them but to understand the experience behind it.” The most unreal point of a thinker’s oeuvre is the key to all of their treasures, for reality is just a sum of contradictions. Reality is not one, but many, many that moves and contradicts each other.
No wonder Nietzsche felt “warmer and better than anywhere else” in Heraclitus’ proximity.
Silence can torture. Silence can be a form of resistance. Our words have meaning because we can be silent. Silence can sublate and destroy the human experience. In totalitarian regimes, what is drawn out is not noise, but silence. When noise and images ceaselessly occupy one’s sensory field, through radios and screens, thought is thrown into oblivion. It is silence that allows us to be that thinking thing that Descartes rightly names our essence.
Silence is Kafka’s nothing. The nothing of the castle, the nothing of the trials. The non-completion of his novels. The door of the law, the castle, were never locked. But K. nevertheless cannot enter it. He was stopped by that nothing. He was too afraid that behind the door, inside the castle, was silence, that all the sound and fury signified nothing.
This is why Kafka laughed so loud at his own works. It’s the laugh of utter despair. The most tragic works of art are comedies. In tragedy, we still preserve a thread of dignity. In comedy, the absurd nothingness devours us. We cannot even rebel.
Nothing is Macbeth’s dagger in front of him
Nothing is the pound of flesh the Iago demands
Nothing is Gatsby’s carelessness
Nothing is the Tramp in City lights
Nothing is the endless murders in 2666
Nothing is myself in the mirror
Nothing is (the terrifying) Nirvana
Nothing is the wonder that originated philosophy
Nothing is Kant’s “starry skies above”
Nothing is Nietzsche’s Amor Fati
Nothing is the “Eternity in the palm of your hand,” and the “Heaven in a wild flower.”
There is a book that I want to one day write. A book with a purely negative content, whose point is not what is said, but what is left out. A book about the human condition, without anything human within it at all. This may be a book of quotations, like Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project, because quotations—stripped away from the symbolic cage of context—always say more than the author intends. It is the art of nothingness par excellence. It plays with what is not there.