Sunday 9 May 2021

"Nothing will come of nothing." Or will it? - Anne Rooney

"Nothing will come of nothing: speak again." King Lear, I, i 

How wrong can you be? Of course, the whole play comes from this 'nothing'. If Cordelia had made some sycophantic speech as her sisters did, there would be no play. This line has a whole host of meanings, from this recursive reference to the play itself to contemporary science's struggle with the notion of a vacuum and the origin of all matter.

Modern science spends a good deal of effort explaining how everything comes from somewhere. Spontaneous generation — the notion that living things could spring from innanimate matter — was still accepted virtually without question in Shakespeare's day. 

Walking away from the generative mud

"Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the operation of your sun: so is your crocodile." (Antony and Cleopatra, II, vii)

Does that mean Shakespeare did believe 'something will come of nothing'? Of course he did. And we all do. Even though the molecules of Nile mud might rearrange themselves in to a crocodile, the something that is crocodilehood has to come from somewhere — something — that was not in the mud. (For Shakespeare and his western contemporaries, of course, it could come from God. But even if you buy into that, didn't he make everything ex nihilo? All from nothing?) Today, Big Bang theory still has everything coming from nothing. You might say that Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation and 'let there be light' are the same idea differently phrased. But enough of cosmology. Back to crocodiles.

Current thinking has mud incapable of spawning crocodiles. Mud could furnish all the matter for a crocodile, but not actually generate a crocodile. Only another (two) crocodile(s) can do that. We could drift off into abiogenesis and the origins of life, but there is a closer-to-home and more urgent issue. Where does the crocodile-hood of a crocodile come from? What animates a crocodile that does not animate mud? (Assuming we follow the traditional line that mud is not animate.) And when?

I have a new grandson, born prematurely last month. He is small and sweet — very small, as premature babies generally are. When my daughter first told me about his impendingness I began thinking about two things. The first of ose two things was: where does the 'he' that animates him (assuming for convenience that he is binary) come from, and when? When does he become something other than the rearranged matter breathed in or eaten (and not thrown up) by his mother? When is a cell more than a cell? And then when does what will be his personality start and where does it come from? Even in NICU, the midwives discern character differences between babies. Even between babies who have never seen an unmasked human face — and there's a research project waiting to happen.

So far, so mundane. A million philosophers and anti-choicers have pondered the same questions with varying degrees of rigour. But the next question is 'where do our feelings for this new being come from?' Our terror and anxiety through the ups and downs of a perilous pregnancy and birth, and the love for this little person — these also seem to come from nowhere, nothing. We didn't have to eat more food to hope desperately for his survival. Indeed, we probably ate less. Chemical energy fuels the brain making the thoughts, yes, but it would have fueled different thoughts and feelings if there was no baby and it would not have taken different ingredients to do that. Where, in that ball of cells, can we locate the 'he' he will become (his crocodile-hood) but also the feelings we will have for him, and had already in smaller measure from the moment his existence was confirmed. Something comes of nothing. Our children and our love for our children come from nothing, yet if we lose them we are destroyed. Something so very powerful comes from nothing, and annihilates us — reduces us to nothing — if removed.

This might all sound as though it has nothing (hah!) to do with books, but it's everything to do with books. For one thing, he will grow into a future reader. Our readers are grown from nothing. For another, precisely the same question occurs to writers every day. We take a few thousand words and make something that is greater than the parts. Book-ness is an emergent property (like consciousness, or crocodile-hood). It comes from putting those particular words together in a particular order and context. The illustrations in a book are far more than the combination of coloured inks, of lines and shapes that makes them. The same is true of all other types of art, obviously, but this is a book blog. Yet the idea for a book, which might be sparked by an overheard conversation, a news story, a glimpse of something, or even have no apparent originating experience at all but 'come from nowhere' — that is also a nothing that becomes something. 

It's more than whole, emergent bookishness, too. Imagery creates something from nothing — from the rich gaps between words and their meanings. Images force us to bring things together, the more unexpected the better (within reason). How about this:

‘With fingers as hard as the handrail of a bus and just as cold’ – The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Hugh Alpin

Or this:

'...silent as a carpet' — Andy Stanton

Or even Emily Bell calling Elon Musk 'Space Karen'? 

And more potently:

'I have rape-colored skin' — Caroline Randall Williams. "You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument", New York Times

These all require us to bring a lot to our reading, to construct the meaning and resonance from what we already know and to make something entirely new out of the conjunction (or even collision). They all make something out of nothing. The something can be cataclysmic: reading or hearing something can change your life, or the destinies of whole hosts of people. It's why writing is so important and why rhetoric is a more potent weapon than a gun. (And so, presumably, why we don't teach rhetoric any more. I'm planning a book on rhetoric. It will be like The Anarchist Cookbook but for words.)

To conclude: Lear is supremely wrong. Not only was King Lear made out of nothing, the idea for the play was made from nothing, Shakespeare's own consciousness was made from nothing and the universe he lived in was made from nothing. Everything comes from nothing. 

Welcome, NanoB, with boundless love, to the confusing 'all' that comes from nothing.

Anne Rooney

Here's a book about all the shit that came from nothing:
Our Extreme Earth, Lonely Planet, 2020