The art of saying nothing

“What’s wrong?” I ask G.

“Nothing,” she says in a pained whisper that cryptically hints at the opposite.

It’s 5:56 am. Reveille was half an hour ago, in the form of a devastatingly sad dream. I squirmed around my bed to escape it; I squirmed so hard that I wormed my way back to consciousness. Gerai, okay: I relish these dark cold winter mornings. There is light and warmth, cigarettes and coffee: a cosy lair of well-fed despair. I soldier to the kitchen, fix coffee, go about the drill of transitioning from slumbering misery to waking misery. I marvel at the precision of the re-enacted repetition. Every little task (pissing, emptying the ashtray, laying out the tools of my trade on my bed) is carried out with military precision and ritualistic zeal: variations are a spindly hairbreadth apart. Everything is just so, ready to go: it is time to say nothing.

Samuel Beckett arguably got the last word in on the subject when he wrote that the artist must come to terms with: “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

The other day I saw a stranger on Gedimino Avenue who looked remarkably similar to Beckett. He was in his 60s, tall, elegantly dressed. I was so struck by the likeness that I even turned to get a better look (I must have confused him because he turned and looked at me as we passed). He had Beckett’s distinctive hair, intense eyes and, most strikingly, his extraordinary face: that map of mythic suffering. It was a welcome change from the parade of sameness that constitutes my countless walks up and down Gedimino Avenue. I am so familiar with that street that I even invented a God of Traffic Lights just to make my walks more interesting. I recently had a run of reds that beggared belief: each light would turn red right as I stepped up to the kerb. Naturally, I wondered what I had done to incur the wrath of the God of Traffic Lights (J believes that this most fickle of gods rewards hedonistic behaviour with green lights and punishes hard work and abstinence with red lights).

“What’s wrong?” I ask M.

“Nothing,” he mutters unconvincingly.

The word ‘nothing’ is perversely pleasurable to utter. It lends itself perfectly to being whispered, mumbled, declaimed. Its complex semantic properties sow confusion, deflect meaning. People incant the word to protect themselves from their chimerical unhappiness, to throw a spanner into the meaning-generating works. A well-uttered ‘nothing’ momentarily neutralizes its logical opposite: everything. Rather than delve into the underlying vortex of unformed feeling, sigh, say nothing, pause, change the subject.

“What’s wrong?” I ask J.

“Nieko!” she says with almost comical exaggeration in an inadvertently high-pitched voice.

They know better than to ask me what’s wrong. Incapable of lying about my feelings with people I feel comfortable around, they would get the full spectrum of wrongness, the whole shebang of unrightness. Between its avoidance of double negatives and social friction, English is a good language with which to negotiate the pitfalls of nothingness. Beckett made the mistake of formulating his essentially philosophical prose as a string of negations borne out by an ever multiplying thread of clauses: causality becomes self-perpetuating in his labyrinthine scheme of self-evasion as self-affirmation. The wordy result is a long way from the nothingness Beckett set out to articulate.

When the God of Traffic Lights is displeased with my behaviour and punishes me by glowering at me with its bright red eyes, I ask It what is wrong.

What’s wrong? I ask.



It must be the full moon, I tell myself, before returning to my senses and gratefully noticing that the traffic light has changed to green, which signifies that I may safely cross the street.


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