A Column About Nothing

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Published in Macalester Today

from Macalester Today, Spring 2012

"I think I can sum up the show for you with one word: nothing."
--George Costanza

WRITING A SHORT COLUMN three or four times a year might not seem like difficult work, but let me tell you—after almost nine years the well begins to run a little dry.

How many times, and in how many different ways can I praise the values and virtues of a rigorous liberal arts education? (Some would opine that my capacity for repetition here is nearly infinite). Athletics? Done. The arts? Done. Alumni engagement? Done and done again. Global citizenship? To quote John McEnroe—you cannot be serious.

Brian RosenbergFor the past several years I’ve been writing in one form or another about the Step Forward campaign for Macalester, but that campaign was concluded successfully at the end of 2011, and a call for everyone to Pause doesn’t have quite the same inspirational effect.

So since nothing jumped immediately to mind as I pondered potential subjects for this column, I thought that I might try writing a column about nothing.

There is, it turns out, something of a literary sub-genre made up of works about nothing. A quick online search turned up more than a dozen poems ostensibly about “nothing,” though in truth most of these are pretty awful and actually about the author’s absence of any poetic gift. Here is my favorite quatrain, from “A Poem about Nothing” by an-authorwho-shall-mercifully-remain-nameless:

The crashing waves of ecstasy
will be missing from my verse.
There will no expletive adjectives
or headless-chicken curse.

I have no idea what that last line means--so I suppose in that sense it is indeed about nothing.

There are several short stories about nothing whose quality is more or less in line with that of the poems and a hip hop/rap album called Stories about Nothing. One of the songs on the album is entitled (and spelled) “Pergatory.” Whimsical wordplay or mispelling? You make the call.

The greatest novelist to take a serious stab at writing about nothing might be Gustave Flaubert, who famously observed, in the midst of composing Madame Bovary, that “What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style... a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible.” Fortunately Flaubert failed in his attempt, since Madame Bovary is in fact about many things, nothing not being among them.

The visual arts also have their champions of nothing. Best known among them may be Andy Warhol, who noted the following about his Campbell’s Soup Cans series: “I wanted to paint nothing. I was looking for something that was the essence of nothing and the soup can was it.” He may have come closer to realizing his ideal than did Flaubert, though it is worth noting that in 2010 one of his soup can paintings was sold by Christie’s for just over $9 million. That’s a lot of something for a painting of nothing.

But the artistic apotheosis of nothingness surely belongs to the composer John Cage, whose most controversial work, 4’33”, consists of—you guessed it—four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. I suppose one could also call the piece the nadir of nothingness, but since it consists of nothing that would be pretty much the same thing. It is the ultimate all-purpose composition, suitable not only for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs but for business meetings, political rallies, and professional sporting events. It is the only piece ever written that cannot be drowned out by crowd noise.

Anyway, I’m feeling pretty good about my own attempt to fill space with reflections on nothing. I’ve been checking the word count as I’ve been writing—not something I would recommend, since it’s sort of like watching a clock hoping that time will pass more quickly—and somehow I have managed to make it to 679. 680. 681. That might not seem impressive if I were writing about something, but considering that I’m writing about nothing it—how fitting that the 700th word in a column about nothing is it—seems to me a pretty darn noteworthy accomplishment.

I will, however, accept no congratulations.

It was nothing.

BRIAN ROSENBERG, the president of Macalester, writes a regular column for Macalester Today. He can be reached at rosenbergb@macalester.edu.

PUBLISHED: 05/01/2012