Sunday, September 20, 2009

When nothing is everything.

Starting with a discussion of night and darkness, Emmanuel Levinas in “There is: Existence without Existents” gives us Being as a negative presence, not simply an absence but a phenomenon in itself—just as night is not merely the absence of day, but is itself a phenomenon with its own attributes and its own transformative power on the entities that still exist in space. And yet this is still inadequate, since it implies the necessity of entities (existents) for this being (the there is) to exist. In fact the there is—this Being of emptiness—is not an absence of entities, but something like a presence constituted by pure absence, and this pure absence comes to envelop everything, even if there is nothing to be enveloped.

[deep breath.]

In The Idol and the Distance Jean-Luc Marion gives a similar description, but in his version the disappearance occurs as a result of the all-consuming light of a transcendental noonday sun that blots out all shadows. Thus the subject-object distinction dissolves either in inky darkness or blinding light:
In the night, where we are riven to it, we are not dealing with anything. But this nothing is not that of pure nothingness. There is no longer this or that; there is not ‘something’. But this universal absence is in its turn a presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence. (Levinas 30)
This unavoidable presence shows itself as far more than a mere nothingness by becoming an all-consuming, even sublime, “insecurity” and “horror”. It’s not just “nothing,” but takes on a material aspect—it actually is there (hence the there is).

It’s interesting that Levinas mentions this materiality as an overwhelming characteristic of Naturalism, since as I read it I had been thinking of his negative presence in terms of American Naturalism. Frank Norris’s McTeague, for example, is filled with descriptions of oppressive nothingness. It ends in Death Valley, a sort of ultimate negative space. Norris’s descriptions of the absolute silence and emptiness of Death Valley are reminiscent of Levinas’s characterization of the presence of there is in the darkness of night:
The last echo died away. The smoke vanished, the vast silence closed upon the passing echoes of the rifle as the ocean closes upon a ship’s wake. Nothing moved…League upon league the infinite reaches of dazzling white alkali laid themselves out like an immeasurable scroll unrolled from horizon to horizon; not a bush, not a twig relieved that horrible monotony. (Norris 423-25)
In Norris, this presence is the oppressive fear of death, the potentiality of dying against which the individual attempts to rebel or assert himself. But Levinas wants something more, and asks what exactly that thing is against which we rebel when we fear and attempt to escape death. It is one thing to fight for one’s life, but what is the entity which triggers that fear, and what is the entity against which one fights?

By exploring this sort of question, I think Levinas actually inches closer to Herman Melville’s legendary chapter from Moby Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale”:
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? (Melville 165)

Melville gets at the heart of what Levinas discusses in his chapter on the there is, and the way in which it links back to—and supplements—Heidegger’s insights: the “rustling of the there is” is the horrific echo of infinite possibility. That is, where there is nothing there is also always the possibility of anything and everything. Death is included in this, but certain death in the form of a terminal illness doesn’t have the sublime power of an image of impending death by wandering through an open, empty desert. If Heidegger offers us the insight that possibility always precedes actuality, Levinas adds the observation that pure possibility is a terrifying emptiness (and vice versa):
…this silence, this tranquility, this void of sensations constitutes a mute, absolutely indeterminate menace. The indeterminateness constitutes its acuteness. There is no determined being, anything can count for anything else. (31)
And when “anything can count for anything else,” the subject disappears into his own inescapable uncertainty, drowns in the overbearing presence of this palpable nothing:
In horror a subject is stripped of his subjectivity, of his power to have private existence. The subject is depersonalized…It is a participation in the there is, in the there is which returns in the heart of every negation, in the there is that has ‘no exits’. It is, if we may say so, the impossibility of death, the universality of existence even in its annihilation. (Levinas 33)
This is not to say that fear of death is excluded, but that the certainty of death doesn’t close off this fear—it has no closure, it’s infinite. This is the “presence of absence,” the “density” of nothing, and the sense in which “being has no outlets.” (Levinas 35) It’s the crushing weight of an uncertain but predestined fate that hangs over the protagonists of Naturalist novels, or the sublime mystery evoked by the elusive white whale. Ultimate, absolute, and all-consuming, it’s also present in one of Melville’s great inspirations (and probably my favorite example of exactly the sort of imagery discussed here), Milton’s description of Hell:
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.
(italics mine; Paradise Lost, Bk. I, lines 60-68)


uncomplicatedly said...

This is a pretty interesting intersection of ideas; thanks for writing it up! I'm used to thinking about emptiness from a Buddhist perspective, where the very experience of possibility that you describe is experienced as liberating rather than terrifying. If "nothingness" is going to be important to your work, we should keep in touch about it, because it sounds like you have a helpfully different set of references than I do. ("Nothingness" will be a theme of the dissertation chapter on "boredom" that I'm writing next, but it's about 20th-C American poetry.)

BJG. said...

Hey, thanks for commenting! Nothingness, especially as relates to darkness and light, is becoming ever more important as I keep reading. I'd love to compare notes on this. Although the infinite possibility described here should be said to also include positive possibilities, I think the Judeo-Christian tradition naturally inclines toward terror in the face of infinity. I wonder if this has anything to do with attitudes about orderliness and law. Weber would have something to say about this with regards to Protestantism, but I'm thinking more along the lines of the legislative nature of so much of the Old Testament (and, of course, I can't help approaching these ideas as one raised in the Roman Catholic church). I don't know what the Buddhist take on chaos is, but I suspect it's different from (maybe healthier than?) that of the Vatican.