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DUBLIN, IRELAND - A reader asked Rod Amis, the editor here at GENERATOR 21, to "Compliment Mattie Lennon on his ability to write about nothing". (This after my article about my antipathy for brown shoes).
I'm not sure if I have the ability to write about nothing (which is not the same thing as not having the ability to write about anything).
When I was made aware of the reader's comment I remembered that Pliny the Younger, more than two thousand years ago, said; "You say you have nothing to write about. Well you can at least write about that".
Easier said than done. This is my first attempt at it and perhaps I should have taken Francis L. Cornford's advice: " Nothing should ever be done for the first time". Writing at any length about nothing is not easy. I don't believe I could pen a thousand words about the contents of my wallet.
I walked myself into this a few weeks ago when I quoted the late John B. Keane who said that there was no subject under the sun about which an essay couldn't be written. With all due respects to the memory of the great Listowel playwright, I don't recall him ever writing anything about nothing.
So, I may have to let you down. Perhaps after all it's not possible to write about nothing. Although when I was a bus driver my conductor claimed that I could fill a Defect-docket about nothing.
Yes, I know many authors and politician's speechwriters have been accused of writing volumes about nothing.
Why am I assuming I can do something when so many great men have failed? According to Samuel Johnson: " George the First knew nothing, and desired to know nothing: did nothing and desired to do nothing". Ah, yes, but did he WRITE about nothing?
As kids in Lacken School, we used to define nothing as; "A bottomless bucket with no sides". But we weren't, as far as I can remember, ever asked to write an essay about it.
Philip Larkin said: "Nothing, like something, happens everywhere". Well, I suppose if it does I'm surrounded by material, if I can find it. When a writer sets out to write about nothing (or in the case of a Dublin writer, "nuttin") the first thing he, or she, needs is a firm knowledge of nothing.
And since a person who knows more and more about less and less is a specialist, what is the term for an expert on nothing?
But then even if I write about nothing will I be writing about nothing. Because Sydney Bernard Smith says; "There is no such thing as nothing after all even if sometimes we seem to be crawling along as curve at an infinite distance from everything". And Poet/philosopher Pat Ingoldsby pointed out to me that once you start writing about nothing it becomes something. So, maybe that's why scribblers largely neglect nothing; because it doesn't exist. (A bit like the Celtic Tiger).
Yet, when I mentioned it to a friend, he gave me great encouragement with: "Yes, one should always write about what one knows".
Mannix Flynn called his autographical work "Nothing To Say" but nowadays even the word nothing doesn't crop up much in titles.
In all respects nothing is a neglected subject and those who write about it at all tend to repeat themselves. And those who write about it at all tend to repeat themselves.
If the powers-that-be could somehow make nothing a taboo subject only then would it come into it's own.
Female hacks in the Sunday Indo would be devoting column yards to it. Gerry Ryan would be discussing it and Pat Kenny might even get to hear about it. And yes Eamon Dunphy would be talking about ... ..nothing.
Whew! Charles S. Pierce, the great logician, said in one of his works, in 1898, of nothing "it is absolutely undefined". He went on the say that the same nothing had " ... unlimited possibility ... ... boundless possibility". I wonder did the bold Charles S. ever sit, at three A.M., Speaking of which, there is a French-polish type product called "Knotting" and I thought I might stick in a few words about it but the ED. Said, "No. This has to be about the nothing of negation".
You see with other subjects one can plagiarize, research, redraft and modify. But there is very little source material on nothing. You'd get damn-all on it even under the Freedom of Information Act from any Government Department. And that electronic genius, the 'Net, is great until you type "Nothing" into a search-engine. There's something there about a "Buy Nothing Day" in the US of A and that's about it. And there's no mention at all of it in The World Book. A fellow told me in the canteen that John Cage gave a "Lecture on Nothing" in 1961 but I can't find any record of it.
"Nothing in Excess" is inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It is variously ascribed to the Seven Wise Men. But ( like some of the office Memos that you see) none of them put his name to it. And I hope to God the Editor doesn't insist on me putting my name to this.
Staring at a flashing cursor it's hard to agree with Horace that " To marvel at nothing is just about the one and only thing ... ..that can make a man happy and keep him that way".
I'm sorry. I shouldn't have started this. I should have known that you can't write about nothing. Look at the people who see nothing, hear nothing and apparently experience nothing ... even they can't write about nothing. So, as William Cowper said:Defend me, therefore, common sense, say I
From reveries so airy, from the toil
Of dropping buckets into empty wells
And growing old in drawing NOTHING up.
So, I'll stick to what I've been doing; writing FOR nothing.
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