an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 7, January-February 2010, ISSN 1552-5112


The Nothing That Is: Epistemologies of Creative Writing

Camelia Elias



Ignoring is a precondition for knowledge – love it or leave it.

– Vincent F. Hendricks,

Mainstream and Formal Epistemology


I’d be there at last, I could go at last, it’s all I ask, no, I can’t ask anything. Just the head and the two legs, or one, in the middle, I’d go hopping.

– Samuel Beckett,

Texts for Nothing


In the sound of a few leaves…

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

– Wallace Stevens,

The Snow Man


Can nothing be knowledge? And if it can, what shape does it assume in relation to creativity and style? More than a matter of course, and rather more as a matter of style, some modern and postmodern texts claim to be about nothing. The assumption is that literary imagination, when taking issue with the ‘nothing that is’ in relation to what kind of message or knowledge such nothingness nonetheless construes, proposes, and transmits, relies on a presupposed poetics of form as a stylized liminality. If thought not in terms of negative value, such as when ‘nothing’ is conceptualized against the background of there being something, the idea of ‘nothing’ opens up a liminal space where it can be considered a pure abstract, yet only through a stylistic manoeuvre. When ‘nothing’ is represented, it is often represented through stylistic device as gap, ellipsis, blank page, or silence in the text. ‘Nothing’ thus leaves a trace, as it is itself traced by sight (or site). In other words, when ‘nothing’ is not thought of in terms of structural and binary relations, it can only be conceived of in terms of convergence towards the horizon of boundlessness. In formal philosophy, methodology and convergence equals knowledge. In literature, methodology and convergence can easily equal or rather prefigure knowledge as ‘nothing.’ As Franco Moretti put it: “near the border, figurality goes up” (Moretti, 1998: 45). This essay will thus explore the following axioms: 1) in theory, there is nothing more elegant than ‘nothing’; and 2) in style, creative writing begins not in the chiasmic relation of ‘nothing’ to style or nothing in style and style in nothing, but more in a relation of stripping: stripping style of theory. My central question here will revolve around what happens when form is stripped away by the power of nothing, and where that leaves the epistemic knowledge which is contingent on creativity.

The philosophical problem of nothingness in its relation to the existing world of which we are part has not been investigated in any serious terms until Leibniz. Leibniz’s paper, “On the Ultimate Origination of Things” from 1697, in which he questions not the wonder of the world’s existence but the fact that there is a world to begin with, opened the space for analytical thinking that later inspired philosophers such as Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s now famous formulation regarding which element is the more mysterious in the conflation of the world with the modalities in which the world is perceived: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is” (Wittgenstein, 1922: 107), opens further the space in which nothingness can be considered not only in its opposition to something, or in categorial terms that designate a void, but as a dimension. I call this dimension the style of existence.

Obviously the idea of nothing has pervaded literature and science alike and we have countless considerations of nothing, from Shakespeare – who was interested in how something can come out of nothing – to Sartre, whose Being and Nothingness investigates the paradoxes of nihilism and the origins of negation, as this statement suggests: “The Being by which Nothingness is a Being such that in its Being, the Nothingness of its Being is in question” (Sartre, 1998: 23). If for Sartre, to annihilate, or ‘the nothing that is,’ is defined as that by which consciousness exists, for Shakespeare, the designation of an empty space, of which men of religion and philosophy at the time were suspicious, goes hand in hand with the formulation of paradoxes through puns and wordplays. One needs only to think of the playful passage in The Winter’s Tale:


Is this nothing?

Why, then the world, and all that’s in’t, is nothing […]

My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings,

If this be nothing.


(Shakespeare, 2009: 15)


What these examples show is a double concern: first, how to make sense of nothing in relation to knowledge, and second, how to formulate a poetics of space in which nothingness is part of a creative act. One can make the inference that, if ‘nothing’ is to be expressed, then, it can only be so by virtue of a reduction. But then the question is: how can ‘nothing’ be more reduced than it already is by and in itself?  If ‘nothing’ is to be, to exist, then it can only be so by virtue of its being reduced to stylistic representation. ‘Nothing’ thus begins nothing and ends nothing. (And here I lose my trail on how to use the citation marks around nothing, as any consideration of nothing, parenthetically speaking, invites the thinker to consider following the logic of sense, rather than the logic of reason.) And yet, taken as a frame of representation, ‘nothing’ can sanction the degree to which a text can be said to suggest movement, energy, or what the creative impulse consists of. The clear link to style here is in the question: is this text about nothing interesting? ‘Nothing’ thus undergoes an aesthetic evaluation.

In his popular science book, The Book of Nothing, John Barrow quotes Tim Joseph’s article, “Unified Field Theory” (April 6, 1978, New York Times), which confers agency to nothing, thus parodying the function that ‘nothing’ has, both in relation to style and theory, insofar as both style and theory, when they profess interestingness, do so by emphasizing how creation is possible out of nothing:


In the beginning there was Aristotle,

And objects at rest tended to remain at rest,

And objects in motion tended to come to rest,

And soon everything was at rest,

And God saw that it was boring


(Barrow, 2001: 292)


What is an epistemology of creative writing? Taken against the background of the realization that there is no such thing as artistic originality, personality, or singularity, knowledge about the well of creativity is more about the realization that a writer, if not original, is good enough. But good enough for what? In his seminal collection of essays about modernist English and American poets, The Strength of Poetry, James Fenton begins with anecdotal considerations of how Renaissance artists contributed to the understanding of how creative genius, while professing to start out of nothing, hence the epithet of genius, was mainly the result of strings of information being entangled and shared (Fenton, 2001: 1-5). Although Fenton does not mention it – in his account of how paranoid Michelangelo was, keeping a secret and burning upon his nearing end all of his notes and sketches of fear that someone might steal his ideas, and how Leonardo da Vinci couldn’t care less about being credited or not for his work – what becomes clear is that when several geniuses could not co-exist, when one was good and the other only good enough, is the fact that the possibility of inhabiting different places became the ultimate marker of how ‘the nothing that is’ could be valued. If Leonardo was a genius in Rome but not as good as Michelangelo, in Florence he was better than good enough. What this example illustrates is that in any consideration of how to formulate an epistemology of creativity, one must take into one’s calculations all the devils one lives next to. This gives rise to considering first and foremost how nothingness reduces to a seemingly empty head, as it were. Thus the first axiom in this relation that a writer must formulate must be this one: (1) My writing begins with the turning of my head. That all writing is context-situated and context-based is no news, but that all writing, that must be more than the sum of causal relations that one can predict, is better than merely good enough.

In his essay from The Metaphysician in the Dark, on Fenton’s own work as a poet as well as a critic, such as he appears in The Strength of Poetry, contemporary poet and Pulitzer prize winner Charles Simic formulates six answers that all attempt to say something about who the real author of a poem is. Each is an example of different schools of theory which show how genius is always tagged; not only with the question of nothing, but also with that of the extent to which nothing can be stylized according to context. Here’s Simic’s list:


1.    The poet and no one else writes the poem.

2.    The unconscious of the poet writes the poem.

3.    All of past poetry writes the poem.

4.    Language itself writes the poem.

5.    Some higher power, angelic or demonic, writes the poem.

6.    The spirit of the time writes the poem.


(Simic, 2003: 125)


Here, while one is tempted to add: nothing writes the poem, one is also forced to consider the materiality of nothing and anticipate some criticisms: what would the New Critics say? The psychoanalysts? The Marxists? The structuralists? The poststructuralists? The cultural theorists? And so on. ‘Nothing’ must thus be calculated, but in relation to non-predictability. This is what Simic has to say about the way in which a lyrical poem resists interpretation, suggesting that it is perhaps precisely ‘nothing’ as style which “won’t reveal to us the secret of how it came about or how it seduces the reader” (126). He follows up on his argument by way of quoting Fenton:


There must be such a thing as causality, we assume; but we cannot expect to understand its workings. In the writing of poetry we may say that the thing we predict will not happen. If we can predict it, it is not poetry. We have to surprise ourselves. We have to outpace our colder calculations. (Fenton in Simic, 126)


And then Simic concludes with this telling fragment:


This is the crux of the problem. If there’s no clear relationship between cause and effect – goodbye theory. And if there’s no theory, how is the intellect going to revenge itself against the imagination by locking it up in some conceptual cage? It is worth emphasizing that the poet is not in control of his poems. He is like someone who imagines he is driving from New York to Boston only to find himself in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The point being, we cannot turn to our imagination and say, give me an original description of what the moon looks like tonight because I need it for the poem I’m writing. An image like Rimbaud’s famous “Madame X installed a piano in the Alps” literally pops out of nowhere. Our intellect wants to understand how poetry works, but it has no ability to cough up a single poetic image worth making a fuss about. (126)


What Simic does here that is interesting is point to the reduction of nowhere to elsewhere. In this sense it is always the elsewhere that constitutes the stylistic device of the nowhere, or nothing. In other words, the possibility of ‘elsewhere’ undermines the impossibility of nothing there to be articulated.

Thus we come to formulating another axiom: (2) Keep it simple. Write nothing. Yet as any axiom, it needs a proof. In mathematics the proof often relies on the invention of a new symbolic idiom. In literature, all one needs to think about is texts such as Samuel Beckett’s which combine an awareness of the fact that in order for ‘nothing’ to take place it needs first of all to be stylized, even if only by quotation marks. In Beckett, ‘nothing’ is both a matter of style and a matter of theory. One of the most powerful suggestions of how ‘nothing’ depends on stylizing the minimal in one’s betrayal of language, the body, and breath, is found in the exchange in Endgame, when one of the characters, Hamm, says to the other, Clov, by way of summing up the meaning of life: “It’s better than nothing,” to which Clov replies: “Better than nothing? Is it possible?” (Beckett, 1986: 121) In most of Beckett’s texts, we have a conscious movement from breaking up the linguistic idiom by reducing it to enunciations that rely on stylizing ‘nothing’ to texts which clearly are intended to convey a theory of nothingness, among other things by letting breath take over. The breath thus usurps not only the language which is made to fail on purpose, but it also transcends the decaying body. In one of the last pieces written by Beckett in 1983, Worstward Ho!, published under the tile, Nohow On, Worstward Ho, we find a final variation of Beckett’s obsession with how to go on when one cannot, in an elaborate stylization of the ‘and yet.’ In one of the beginning passages, the speaker, devoid of agency, manages not only to establish, but also control the symmetry between style and theory, between saying it in words and the radical eradication even of the attempt to reach an empty space with words, as is the case in the end.


Whose words? Ask in vain. Or not in vain if say no knowing. No saying. No words for him whose words. Him? One. No words for one whose words. One? It. No words for it whose words. Better worse so. (Beckett, 1983: 19)


According to Dirk Van Hulle, what Beckett does in Worstward Ho! is to “attempt to reach the worst possible condition, which proves to be an asymptotic journey: like the infinitesimal attempt to reach ‘nothing’ with words, the worst cannot be attained with words” (Van Hulle, 2004). Between the beginning of the piece, with its clear demand: “On. Say on.” and the final words: “said nohow on,” Beckett circles around such concepts as the “unlessenable least” (32), an “unworsenable worst” (33), a “meremost minimum” (9) that is “better than nothing” (27) because it is “a little better worse than nothing so” (23).

This can be said to constitute Beckett’s final actual performance of his earlier work entitled Texts for Nothing (1955). Although critics have identified the workings of negativity in all of Beckett’s works either as necessary manifestations of an a-theological thought which aims at disclosing an inner authenticity (Arnaould, 1996), others have also noted the countermovement in negativity, such as when negativity is negated by its own negative dynamics (Wolosky, 1991). Shira Wolosky notes that:


The Texts for Nothing concede – indeed insist – that language immediately plunges the self into multiplicity and exteriority. But the Texts no less question whether this need compromise the self – indeed, whether outside of this linguistic multiplicity there is any self at all. (Wolosky, 1991: 226)


Here I am tempted to say that what Beckett does that can be considered a project close to formulating an epistemology of creative writing is ask and answer precisely this question “Whose words? Ask in vain.” For  Beckett the very condition of an inner interiority which is in constant tension with the desire for authenticity that relies on an outer form for expression is all about affirming the instance of the ‘and yet’ as the first and “meremost minimum” of knowledge.

For Beckett, one begins to know, not when one acknowledges that one knows nothing, but when one acknowledges that ‘the nothing that is,’ in theory, is not a way of pushing “negation to its limit” (Conor, 1992: 89), but a way of approximating the ‘and yet.’

The remarkable event that begins Texts for Nothing - and which we find in the lamentation of not being able to go on - a disembodied voice in the text sounds and heralds in the first line: “Suddenly, no, at last, long last, I couldn’t anymore, I couldn’t go on” (Beckett, 1967: 75). Such finds resonance precisely in the ‘and yet,’ as thinking beyond the materiality of the exterior sound, which conjures other bodies into play. The next line thus indicates a search for strategies to cope not only with the meaning of not being altogether there, physically, but also the meaning of the meaning of such significance about void, or nothingness, that only an exterior body can enact and make manifest. Thus there must be someone. “Someone said, You can’t stay here. And I couldn’t stay there and I couldn’t go on” (75). Going from a subjective first person narrative, the voice then shifts to a third person narrative as soon as the thinking of chance is produced, as if echoing the perennial, albeit romantic, question: what are the odds of finding someone completely symmetrical with oneself?

At this point the voice is not only complicit with itself but also suggests that implicit in its argument is the idea that such questions can only be answered by epistemologists who are better at betting than at producing theories about knowledge. Thus enters Vincent, the voice’s accompanying partner, who, through his physical presence, manages not only to undo the lamentation about the limitation of life and language, but also perform it in reverse. “I can’t go on” thus transforms into “and yet,” and the ground for a symmetrical relation is thus laid in this line: “We envy each other, I envy him, he envies me” (87). And yet again, as the reader reads on, she understands that there is more to the relation between voice and appearance, as this following passage, which begins with the desire not only to see the other come but also explain the effects of his coming, indicates:


To see the remains of Vincent arriving in sheets of rain, with the brave involuntary swagger of the old tar, his head swathed in a bloody clout and a glitter in his eye, was for the acute observer an example of what man is capable of, in pursuit of his pleasure. With one hand he sustained his sternum, with the heel of the other his spinal column, as if tempted to break into a hornpipe, no, that’s all memories, last shifts older than the flood. See what’s happening here, where there’s no one, where nothing happens, get something to happen here, then put an end to it, have silence, get into silence, or another sound, a sound of other voices than those of life and death, of lives and deaths everyone’s but mine, get into my story in order to get out of it (89).


“Right,” we exclaim. Or is it “write?” Or don’t write? And if one doesn’t (write or write oneself out of the story), then what? If Beckett doesn’t get the reader to think about writing, then he certainly gets the reader to contemplate the possibility of the ‘and yet’, as in, ‘and yet, what if even nothing can yield something? (with a little bit of skill, nothing can in fact be arranged as Watt also suggested). Hence, perhaps, “write nothing,” or rather, the demand that one write nothing must be seen in the Beckettian scheme as the ultimate manifestation of the ‘and yet.’

In creative writing, being faced with the nothing of the white page, is being faced with the question of when the ‘and yet’ begins to style the writer’s thinking. How can we see this, and why is this so, one might ask? Here I would venture to suggest that it is because of our Babylonian existence; what any agent speaks is never his or her tongue, but always another’s. A quick view of some of the titles to the latest essays on Beckett disclose how much critics theorize, for instance, on Beckett’s modernism, his theories on writing – of relevance for cultural studies – his theology, structuralism or even post-structuralism, by way of stylizing Beckett’s own discourse. Here I like Steven Connor’s “Absolute Rubbish,” Frank Kermode’s “Miserable Splendour,” and Jean-Luc Nancy’s “The Unsacrificeable.”

What these titles suggest is that in Beckett, contradictions are always raised to the status of sublime logics of insufficient knowledge and reason. What Beckett operates with is deploying the metaphysics of ontology into epistemic knowledge.

While the first is seen as an instance of abstract transcendence of finitude, especially that of the body facing nothingness, or falling into nothingness, the latter is construed as a concrete manifestation of figuring out how finitude works when finitude is not thought of in terms of its opposite, namely the infinite, but in terms of a constant possibility to go on as a process of undermining the impossibility to go on.

Beckett formulates this quite clearly in his work Molloy, which can be said to be one of his works that articulates the best, his credo regarding the relation between creative writing and epistemology. Thus he writes:


To know nothing is nothing, not to want to know anything likewise, but to be beyond knowing anything, to know you are beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters in, to the soul of the incurious seeker. It is then the true division begins, of twenty-two by seven for example, and the pages fill with the true ciphers at last. (Beckett, 1958: 64)


From this we can extrapolate a third axiom: 3) The only way in which you can achieve nothing is if nothing is self-imposed. Beckett’s protagonists – insofar as they can be said to go from the representation and figuration of life and death – to the extent that one can say it, or put it into words – to the abstract manifestation of life and death – to the extent that one can acknowledge an impasse as words fail to represent such states – can be said to be recalcitrant when it comes to the question of weighing figuration, as in figuring out, wanting to know how one is, against uncountable states, those states which do not lend themselves to knowing them by numbers, as it were, such as the very act of dying.

There is something refractory about dying which Beckett identifies as a sort of nothing that is good enough where adequate knowledge about it is concerned. Quite literally, one reduces one’s ideas of playing with the cards one is dealt through life to an endgame that involves an attempt at counting: what one did in the past, what one does now, what one will do in the future, and so on. In a passage that accounts for the daily bodily functions, literally counting how many times one farts in a day, Molloy exclaims: “Extraordinary how mathematics help you to know yourself” (30). Thus we go from negativity, from formulating suggestions that nothing is never good, but only good enough in relation to its own radical absoluteness, to its polarization towards astonishment. For Beckett, ‘the nothing that is,’ insofar as it relies on a conditional, as he proposes in this statement, “For the only way one can speak of nothing is to speak of it as though it were something” (Beckett, 1953: 77), becomes a matter of an artifice raised to the power of two.

What you say, or don’t want to say is what you say, or don’t want to say, twice over. This is the cipher that fills the pages of composition. Thus says Beckett further on, in a seminal fragment that sums up the notion of what I suggest an epistemology of creative writing may be:


Not to want to say, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind, even in the heat of composition (Beckett, 1958: 28)


In theory things get hot. In theory, you take a deep breath. Perhaps just before you put it stylishly though: Westward, Ho! Unword Ho!



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 7, January-February 2010, ISSN 1552-5112





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