Emptiness

Something out of nothing and the other way around

Most worlds were created out of nothing.

“Nothing” is the absence of things.

According to one of the Upanishads, “at first there was only Non-Being”.

According to the Book of Genesis, the Еarth was “without form, and void”.

According to I-Ching, “If one looks, there is nothing to see; if one listens, there is nothing to hear; if one follows it, one obtains nothing”.

According to one of the Pyramid Texts, “Heaven had not been born, Earth had not been born, the Gods had not been conceived, and Death had not been born”.

According to the Babylonian Enuma Elish, “No reed hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared, and no gods whatever had been brought into being”.

And, according to the Mayan Popol Vuh, “There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, or forest…. The face of the earth has not yet appeared…. There is not yet anything gathered together…. Nothing stirs…. There is not yet anything standing erect…. There is not yet anything that might exist”.

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And then some sort of creator, usually our father, appears out of nowhere and produces the world by thinking, dreaming, breathing, talking, spitting, burping, defecating, masturbating, splitting in two, or putting together someone to couple with.

When he sees the results of his exertions, he gets disgusted, blames his creatures for doing what only he has the power to instigate, sends in the flood and starts over – this time not from scratch, so we’d inherit his mistake as our sin, along with the memory of primeval emptiness.

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Most modern visions of a new creation are approximations of the original emptiness.

Most modern visions of a new creation are approximations of the original emptiness. In Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, the man travels to an out-of-the-way part of the Australian outback and creates a new world by building a fire; in Halldor Laxness’s Independent People, the man comes to a forgotten valley in eastern Iceland and renames it so as to set life in motion; in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the Kid arrives in Texas and is “divested of all that he has been”; and in the beginning of Garcia Marques’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, “the world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point”.

Another version of creatio ex nihilo is revolution. According to the Russian version of the Internationale, “We’ll destroy the world of violence to its foundations and then we’ll build our own new world. He who was nothing will become everything!” Andrei Platonov’s ‘all-proletarian house’ is to be built on a ‘vacant lot’ (pustyr’, from pustoi, the Russian word for ’empty’), and Valentin Kataev’s and Ilf and Petrov’s new cities – among many others – are to be built in the desert (pustynia, from the same word for ’empty’).

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But of course there is no such thing as emptiness. The priests of various faiths, especially the monotheistic ones, have no choice but to insist on the primacy of the original void because nothing can preexist their omnipotent creator. Their claims are countered, over and over again, by their own evidence. Enuma Elish begins with the words: “When on high the heaven had not been named, firm ground below had not been called by name”. It is Adam’s challenge, or Robinson Crusoe’s. Naming is hard work, but the things to be named are already there.

In I-Ching, “If one looks, there is nothing to see.” But one – whoever one is – keeps looking. In Popol Vuh, “There is not yet anything standing erect. Only the expanse of the water, only the tranquil sea lies alone”. And in the Book of Genesis, before there was light or Logos, “darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”.

In The Tree of Man, the role of emptiness is played by the bush; in Independent People, by the marsh; in Blood Meridian, by the plain, and Garcia Marques’s Macondo was “built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs”.

One version of Chinese creation begins with a cosmic egg containing an undifferentiated mixture of yin and yang.

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Most creation stories, whether they admit it or not, begin with a mess.

According to Hesiod, “in the beginning was Chaos.” And Chaos, according to Ovid, was:

         a rude and undeveloped mass,

         that nothing made except a ponderous weight;

         and all discordant elements confused,

         were there congested in a shapeless heap.

That heap – or, literally, in Greek, ‘gap’ – was muddy, swampy, slimey, and dark. The creator-progenitor was floating in a womb.

In Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman,” St. Petersburg – as both Babylon and Jerusalem – rose “from the darkness of the forests and the quagmires of the swamps”. All Stalinist five-year plan creation novels begin in the mud. The Big Bang, too, seems to have been preceded by some warm, dense goo.

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Emptiness is chaos, and chaos is confusion –– which is to say, the absence of meaning, order, and difference.

Emptiness is chaos, and chaos is confusion – which is to say, the absence of meaning, order, and difference.

Ever since cosmos was created, human life has been a constant struggle – by gods, heroes, prophets, and ultimately every one of us – against meaninglessness and disorder.

The Hebrew God, in his infinite meanness and vindictiveness, brings back chaos all by himself – first by unleashing the flood and then by confusing languages on the Tower of Babel. But most early representatives of darkness are ravens, coyotes, serpents, and other tricksters who have everything God does not, including sensuality and wit. As things continue to deteriorate, they are joined by dragons and other beasts with horns and no sense of humor.

For most of human history, it was a daily struggle. For the sun to rise, spring to return, prey to submit, and the earth to give up its fruits, the hero had to keep killing the serpent and humans had to keep making mistakes and sacrifices.

Until, thanks to Zoroaster, time acquired an endpoint, and humans – the hope of а final victory over the forces of chaos.

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The Apocalypse is one last return of those forces. “Тhe sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”

The end, like the beginning, is a list of negatives.

Babylon, the great city…will not be found any longer.

And the sound of harpists and musicians and flute-players and trumpeters will not be heard in you any longer;

And no craftsman of any craft will be found in you any longer;

And the sound of a mill will not be heard in you any longer;

And the light of a lamp will not shine in you any longer;

And the voice of the bridegroom and bride will not be heard in you any longer.

What follows, in most eschatologies, is a state of total perfection described as a world emptied of suffering: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”.

Or, in John Lennon’s version:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man.

The millennium is needs without want, desire without despair, cosmos without chaos, life without meaning. A world that is impossible to imagine.

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Since about the time of John Lennon (as early as “Nowhere Man,” and certainly “Instant Karma”), we’ve been living with two new kinds of apocalypticism – the nuclear and the ecological. Both stand for an apocalypse not followed by a millennium, the End that is truly and hopelessly the end, a redemption that is a mirror image of creatio ex nihilo, a perfect counterpart to the secular individual mortality with nothing but ‘only Non-Being’ to look forward to, this time without equivocation.

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