On the Importance of Considering Nothing #2

Last week I blogged the first part of a longer essay first published in the Spring 2017 issue of Poetry London. What follows is the second half of it. The whole piece starts and ends with thoughts prompted by my experiences with my father and his growing dementia. Dad has since suffered a series of heart attacks and died on May 24th. I am re-producing the essay unchanged in the hope that it still says something of value about types of ‘confusion’ and in memory of a man who would have had little time for such morbid reflections. Thanks to Tim Dooley who commissioned the essay for Poetry London and published it under the original title: A Straining Eye Catches no Glimpse.


In Part 1, I linked my father’s forgetfulness and confusion with recurrent references to “nothing” in King Lear and to Anne Carson’s concept of “the dementia of the real”. I suggested this was also a correlative of Yves Bonnefoy’s interest in the “state of indifferentiation” he often refers to as “Presence”. For Bonnefoy, Presence contrasts the conceptual/linguistic world through which we most often move and we take to be real.

Part 2

Yves Bonnefoy’s poem ‘Wind and Smoke’ (from The Wandering Life (1993)) has the abduction of Helen as its nominal subject. But he allows the poem to be taken over by dissenting voices, irritably seeking to “explain, to justify, ten years of war”. Such an expense of men, ships and spirit (argues one such “commentator”) must have been for the sake of something more permanent than the merely human figure of Helen. The poem entertains the suggestion that she herself was never abducted, “only an image: a statue”, something of great beauty to be displayed on the terraces of Troy, a fixed image of Helen, blessed with permanence, “always [. . .] this smile”. The poem is concerned then with the limitedness of the conceptual view which finds worth only in things of assured, definable permanence. In contrast, Part One of the poem ends with a proliferation of images of “spilling”, lovers as “clouds” or “lightning” on an “earthly bed”, so fully involved with time that their pleasures in the moment are “already empty, still full”. [i]


Helen of Troy (Red Figure Vase)


There’s that paradox again and Bonnefoy’s versions of it articulate the impossibility of capturing Presence because it encompasses and exists in time (and language wishes to stop time):


Every time that a poem,

A statue, even a painted image,

Prefers itself as form, breaks away

From the cloud’s sudden jolts of sparkling light,

Helen vanishes [. . . ][ii]


The “jolts” here are akin to Lily Briscoe’s “jar on the nerves” as our paradigms and preconceptions are challenged. The figure of Helen has become that visionary experience – for Bonnefoy usually of beauty, for Carson more often a violent disturbance – that we intuit exists just beyond the range of our usual instruments. Helen, the poem argues, “was only / That intuition which led Homer to bend / Over sounds that come from lower than his strings / In the clumsy lyre of earthly words”.

Part Two of ‘Wind and Smoke’ concludes with a child, an image of the poet, the last person to see the figure of Helen as Troy burns:



He had taken in his hands a little water,

The fire came to drink there, but the water

Leaked out from the imperfect cup, just as time

Ruins dreams and yet redeems them.[iii]


Traditional image of Laozi


This same image of water slipping from our human grasp is recurrent in the Ancient Chinese writings that make up Laozi’s 4th/5th century BCE text, the Daodejing. Since they were published earlier this year, I have been reading my versions of these texts up and down the country and the one thing audiences want to say about them is they contain “wisdom”.[iv] It’s an old-fashioned word but it’s also bound up with the nothing that is really a fuller something we seldom manage to grasp. The Daodejing texts use water as an image of the ineffable One, the plenitude that lies behind all things. They employ water metaphors in such a way that the vehicles are clear and recurrent (ocean, pool, river, stream) but the tenor remains an empty set, never defined. So Chapter 1 deploys water imagery but is clear about the short-comings of all language: “the path I can put a name to / cannot take me the whole way”. Even what can be named can only be grasped through further metaphors: the “nursery where ten thousand things / are raised each in their own way”. What lies behind the phenomenal world can only be gestured towards through figures such as “mould”, “source”, “mystery”. Even then it’s “a riddle set adrift on a mystery”. The original Chinese text shifts its metaphors rapidly in just this way and this is what gives this opening Chapter the peculiar sensation of telling a clear truth that remains beyond our grasp. Chapter 14 puts it this way:


because a straining eye catches no glimpse

it is called elusive


as the ear attends but latches onto nothing

it is called rarefied


since a hand reaches but clasps only thin air

it is called infinitesimal


and these are resistant to further analysis

File 03-03-2016, 09 03 15

The difficulty of grasping this something that seems nothing is revisited in Chapter 4. There, the tenor of the metaphor is reduced to “it”, the context indicating this refers to the Dao itself, the One, that state of wholeness and plenitude towards which the path of the Dao leads. The opening formulation emphasises the Dao’s infinite nature, its resource as “a vessel to be drawn from / one that never needs to be re-filled // the bottomless source of all things”. But the image is revised a few lines later in the form of a question: “is it rather a pool that never runs dry”, yet this follows four other metaphorical formulations of the Dao’s beneficial effects: “fretted edges are smoothed within it / knots untangled all dazzle eased / all blinding clouds of dust slowly cleared”. The poem calmly declares its own ineffectiveness: “we cannot know it as a bodiless image / it must pre-date every beginning”. Even the concept of origin or beginning is not adequate to convey the nature of the Dao. But the fluidity of water – impossible to grasp, capable of taking any shape, a life-giving source – comes close.

That there is wisdom to be gained from such visionary encounters with the mystery of nothing is clear in Chapter 66. It’s no coincidence that these lines can serve as a commentary on Lear, his suffering bringing him low till he realises he has paid too little attention to the “looped and ragged” nature of his own nation:


—how do rivers and seas secure mastery

over the hundreds of lesser streams

through lying lower than they do


so to govern or teach you must stand

and acknowledge you are beneath the people

to guide them put yourself at the rear



But as Auden suggested and Chinese tradition affirms, such visionary insight cannot be actively sought or taught. This is one of the points of the traditional narrative trope in Chinese poetry of ‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’. Don Paterson turned this into a good joke in a poem called ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’.[v] The reader’s eye descends from this lengthy title only to look in vain – it’s a blank page. Perhaps Paterson had been reading the Penguin Classics selection of Li Po and Tu Fu.[vi]  The Li Po selection opens with the poem ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. But such poems were never just an excuse for descriptive nature poetry but related to the frequent ‘spirit-journeys’ that Li Po was fond of writing. We are all like that student in Li Po’s poem, seeking out certainties and facts, a something to depend on when true wisdom gently (or violently) deflects us away from shelter towards a world where we glimpse a more full-blooded, full-bodied, open-minded encounter with what really is.


Iain McGilchrist


I have really been talking about two attitudes to knowledge or to put it more carefully, two contrasting “ways of being”.  This is how Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary (Yale, 2009) expresses it.[vii] McGilchrist argues parts of the human brain deliver quite different kinds of attention to the world. The left brain perceives the world as “static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented [. . .] grouped into classes”.[viii] This is the attitude to knowledge and education the anxious student of Li Po’s poem possesses as well as the place where most of us live amongst Carson’s clichés and Bonnefoy’s conceptual language. In contrast, McGilchrist associates the right brain with the perception of “the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected”[ix] yet one at risk of being perceived or judged as a mere confusion, a seeming nothing.

This is the view of the Daoist master whose teaching evokes the as-yet-uncarved block of wood, who teaches best without words. Ordinary language usage, dependent as it is on conceptual thought, is left-brain work – ordering, categorising, re-presenting the minute particulars of the world as they are perceived by the right brain. Li Po’s teacher is surely hiding somewhere beyond the cherry blossom – and this is part of the student’s lesson. Don Paterson’s blank page represents a rather glib, post-modern joke, a scepticism about language in danger of throwing out the interconnected but bewildering “dementia” of the real world along with the suspect tokens and counters of left-brain language: “To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth [. . .] or much worse, that there is no such thing as truth”[x]. Bonnefoy, engaging in his own battles with the early stirrings of French post-modernism, declared: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply with us.”[xi] The right brain knows this and it’s from there we want to write poems; the left brain serves to fragment it, utilise it, get it under control, disappear it. And yet . . . there’s no much here suitable for a chat with a forgetful father. His visions are more frightening and may get worse; here, for a while, his son has been imagining ways of seeing that need not be so.

Elevation of Tomb of Theodoric, Ravenna


[i] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, pp. 197-203.

[ii] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 201.

[iii] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 203.

[iv] Laozi, Daodejing, versions by Martyn Crucefix (Enitharmon, 2016). All quotations are from this version.

[v] Don Paterson, God’s Gift to Women (Faber, 1997).

[vi] Li Po and Tu Fu, selected and translated by Arthur Cooper (Penguin Classics, 1973).

[vii] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary (Yale UP, 2009), p. 25.

[viii] McGilchrist, p. 31.

[ix] McGilchrist, p. 31.

[x] McGilchrist, p. 6.

[xi] Yves Bonnefoy, The Tombs of Ravenna, tr. John Naughton (1953; PN Review (No. 226, Nov-Dec 2015), p. 62).

On the Importance of Considering Nothing #1

I have not blogged regularly since April 2017  as, having managed to get both my parents settled into a Care Home in Wiltshire, Dad suffered a series of heart attacks and died – fairly quickly and peacefully – on May 24th. Not wholly coincidentally, the Spring 2017 issue of Poetry London published an essay I had written which starts and ends with some thoughts on my experiences with my father and his growing dementia. In the next two blogs, I re-produce this essay unchanged in the hope that it still says something of value about types of ‘confusion’ and in memory of a man who would have had little time for such (in his view morbid and abstruse) reflections. Thanks to Tim Dooley who commissioned the essay for Poetry London and published it under the original title: A Straining Eye Catches no Glimpse.


Part 1

An old king leans over his daughter’s body seeking signs of life, yet he finds “Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing”. Given that I teach literature and this is one of Shakespeare’s more famous lines with its repetition and trochaic revision of the iambic pentameter, I’m not proud of mis-remembering this moment in King Lear (the repeated word is, of course, ‘Never’). Yet I know why I mistake it, this year, in these fretful months. Seeing Anthony Sher play the role recently – haranguing a foot-stool, giving toasted cheese to a non-existent mouse – put me in mind of my father, though he’s not quite so far gone. These days he has trouble recognising the house he’s lived in for 60 years; he will refer to his wife as a woman from the village who has come to look after him; he seeks news of his mother (she died in the 1970s). What can this feel like? Years of memories gone; a whirling fantasmagoria that evidently frightens him; a something becoming nothing he makes too little sense of.


So it’s not just that the idea of nothing is prominent from the very start of Shakespeare’s play. Cordelia fails to reply flatteringly to Lear’s question about which of his daughters loves him most. The gist of her brutal answer is “Nothing, my lord”. Lear warns her: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again”. But she sticks to what she sees as her truth (as against her elder sisters’ oleaginous falsehoods) and pays the consequences. But so does the King. Reduced eventually to a wholly unexpected state of wretched nothingness in the storm scenes and beyond, he learns much from this nothing in pointed contradiction of his earlier warning. It doesn’t stop there; once reunited with Cordelia and faced with the prospect of prison, possible execution, what is remarkable is the King’s acceptance of his fate. Confronting this further reductio, he declares he’ll go and finds a reason to be cheerful: “we will take upon’s the mystery of things”. I’ve always been struck by Shakespeare’s phrasing here. The mystery of things is imaged not as some modernly pedagogic check-list, tabulated and absorbed like a set of principles, rather it’s something to be folded about us – a garment, an investiture, a way of seeing, feeling, not quite of self, not quite other either – and Shakespeare’s point is that Lear’s encounter with nothingness in various guises is what has prepared him for such a re-vision of his place in the world.

I’m interested in the idea that such a nothing can be worth something. Of course, it’s not exactly nothing, a void, that Cordelia’s father encounters. It is a bewildering set of experiences of which he can make nothing. Lear – I don’t know how far this is like my father – suffers because his previous paradigms are failing: he is shocked into his encounter with the mystery of things or what Anne Carson calls the “dementia of the real”. When my father talks, he yearns for the ordinary reassuring certainties of his old life, as if they would close round him with the feel of a comfortable coat. Carson has explored this reliance we all have on the familiar in her 2013 Poetry Society lecture concerned with ‘Stammering, Stops, Silence: on the Methods and Uses of Untranslation’.[i]  She explores moments when language ceases to perform what we consider its primary function and we are confronted with nothingness in the form of silence. In the fifth book of The Odyssey when Hermes gives Odysseus the herb “MVLU”, Homer intends the name of the plant to be untranslatable since this sort of arcane knowledge belongs only to the gods. In a second example, under interrogation at her trial, Joan of Arc refuses to employ any of the conventional tropes, images or narratives to explain the source of her inspiration. Carson wants to praise Joan’s genius as a “rage against cliché”, the latter defined as our resort to something pre-resolved, pre-shaped, because, in the face of something so unfamiliar that it may seem more like nothing, “it’s easier than trying to make up something new”.


Anne Carson


Carson associates this rage to ‘out’ the real with Lily Briscoe’s problems as an artist in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. She struggles to complete her painting, aware that the issue is to “get hold of something that evaded her”.[ii] She dimly senses “Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it had been made anything”. Unlike Homer and Joan of Arc, the knowledge Lily seeks (undistracted by the divine) is not so much prohibited as, in a profound sense, beyond conception (it is a nothing before it has been made something). For Carson, we each dwell behind the “screens” of cliché for most of our lives, so when the artist pulls them aside the impact of the revelation may well have the force of violence. She suggests artistic freedom and practice lie in such a “gesture of rage”, the smashing of the pre-conceived to find the truth beyond it, her goal remaining the articulation of the nothing she insists is actually the “wide-open pointless meaningless directionless dementia of the real”.

This is the nothing I am interested in: it is no void or vacancy but, paradoxically, a wealth of experience, a “flux of phenomena” about which we cannot think in conventional ways. We cannot name the parts of it, so for convenience, maybe a bit defensively, we prefer to designate it nothing. The artist seeks to articulate such an “experience of what goes beyond words: call it the fleeting perception [. . . ] a state of indifferentiation”. [iii] This is one of the many formulations of the issue by the late Yves Bonnefoy who unrelentingly explored the limits of conceptual thinking in terms similar to Carson’s distrust of cliché: “It is not that I incriminate the concept – which is merely a tool we use to give form to a place where we can dwell. I am merely pointing out a bad tendency [ . . . ] of its discourse to close discussion down, to reduce to the schematic and to produce an ideology existing in negation of our full relation to what is and to whom we are”. He concludes it is a “temptation to stifle dissenting voices” – the kind of voices who see something in nothing. [iv]


The always evangelical Bonnefoy terms the mystery encountered in a “state of indifferentiation” as “Presence”. In 1991, Bonnefoy’s temporary residence in the snowy landscapes of Massachusetts gave him a new way of evoking these ideas. In The Beginning and the End of the Snow (1991) he reads a book only to find “Page after page, / Nothing but indecipherable signs, / [. . .] And beneath them the white of an abyss”[v]. Later, the abyss is more explicitly, if paradoxically, identified: “May the great snow be the whole, the nothingness”.[vi] These occasional moments when the screens of cliche and conceptual thought fall are moments of vision as sketched by Auden in his discussion of Shakespeare’s sonnets – they are given, not willed; are persuasively real, yet numinous; they demand a self-extinguishing attentiveness.[vii] The inadequate, provisional, always suspect nature of language to record such moments is clear in these lines from Bonnefoy’s poem ‘The Torches’:


. . . in spite of so much fever in speech,

And so much nostalgia in memory,

May our words no longer seek other words, but neighbour them,

Draw beside them, simply,

And if one has brushed another, if they unite,

This will still be only your light,

Our brevity scattering,

Our writing dissipating, its task finished.[viii]


Rather than the forced disjunctions and the quasi-dementia of Carson’s recommended methods, Bonnefoy is reluctant to abandon the lyric voice, though he still intends to acknowledge the provisional nature of language in relation to Presence. The “fever” and “nostalgia” we suffer is the retrogressive lure of conceptual simplification. Bonnefoy’s imagery suggests a more delicate, tentative relationship between words, a neighbouring, a brushing up against each other (like snowflakes), though even then, if they “unite” or manage to cast “light” on what is, this can only be brief, always subject to dissipation.

(to be continued)



[i] Poetry Review, Vol. 103, No. 4 (Winter 2013).

[ii] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927; Penguin Modern Classics, 1992), p. 209.

[iii] Yves Bonnefoy, In the Shadow’s Light, tr. Naughton (Chicago Press, 1991), interview with John Naughton, p. 162.

[iv] Yves Bonnefoy, ‘The Place of Grasses’ (2008), in The Arriere-pays, tr. Stephen Romer (Seagull Books, 2012), pp. 176/7.

[v] Yves Bonnefoy, ‘Hopkins Forest’, tr. Naughton in Yves Bonnefoy: New and Selected Poems, eds. Naughton and Rudolf (Carcanet, 1996), p. 181.

[vi] Yves Bonnefoy, ‘The Whole, the Nothingness’, tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 187.

[vii] W. H. Auden, ‘Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ (1964; reprinted in William Shakespeare: The Sonnets and Narrative Poems, ed. William Burto (Everyman, 1992)).

[viii] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 177.