I don’t know whether this has to do with advancing age but, increasingly, I catch myself doing absolutely nothing, especially on Tube journeys. I resist the tawdry allure of free newspapers; I even leave the London Review of Books and my battered old Loeb edition of Horace’s Odes in different pockets of my old leather shoulder bag. Of course, I might be reading a coruscating political essay or a piercing fragment of lyric poetry but it all seems too much of an effort – to add to the effort of maintaining composure while being carted around with too many others in a tunnel dug 60ft into London’s clay.
Philosophically, you could call this an embrace of nothingness or what the Spanish call la nada and the French (and Jean-Paul Sartre in particular) call le néant. Nada sounds particularly emphatic in Spanish. I remember, from when I lived in Spain, quite a lot of conversations ending with the formula, “Pues, nada”, and being rather puzzled by it. “Well, then, nothing,” sounds more than odd in English: it might sound defiant, rude or nihilistic; probably not something you would say in polite society.
But my Spanish interlocutors were not being rude or defiant; they were simply acknowledging that there was no more to say at that moment. The Spanish seem rather to like the word nada (think of the phrase “de nada”, meaning “you’re welcome”); not to be embarrassed or ashamed of it. When the young Carmen Laforet came to write the defining postwar Spanish existentialist novel (the equivalent of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse), she could only choose one title: Nada.
But I suppose most of us, in the Anglo-Saxon world, certainly in England, are afraid of nothingness, la nada, le néant. We tend to fill it with something, anything. Many of my mother’s generation were schooled in a conversational manner that avoided nothingness, the awkward pause or gap, at all costs. When I taught American students in London, I realised that they took a dim view of any moment of silence in class; what I regarded as a pause for thought, they considered an embarrassing failure of fluency.
In Tube trains the fear of nothingness may be especially acute – who wants to spend time thinking about the fact that they are in a lightless place deep underground, at the mercy of power lines, computers, train drivers, track maintenance people, transport police? Much better to stuff your face with Pret A Manger sandwiches (quite good actually) and your mind with the not-especially nutritious offerings of free newspapers Metro and City AM.
But the idea that anything is better than nothing is, to say the least, dubious. By the time you have reached the outskirts of middle age, you have surely had quite a few experiences of “anythings” that were, on balance, worse than nothing: films or plays you would rather not have seen (so often when I was a drama critic I wished I was out of the theatre, on my own, in a pub, with a pint), holidays that would have been better spent at home, unfortunate entanglements. In his great sonnet “A Une Passante” (“To a Passerby”), Baudelaire records an exchange of glances on a Paris street with a statuesque, mourning beauty: a love that might have been, an impossible possible, a love that might have killed him.
Doing nothing, or not doing anything, is, of course, only part of the approach to nothingness. As I sit in the Tube carriage not reading, not texting or tapping, I am, of course, thinking, though that is perhaps too grand a word. My mind is certainly full of stuff. Embarrassingly, I may be reliving some rally from the previous evening’s game at the tennis club: that sweet little lob, the backhand pass that might have been.
This kind of daydreaming, however enjoyable, is hardly what a Buddhist or an existentialist would call a true embrace of nothingness. All the things we do, all that self-important busyness with computers and so on, may be partly or largely a distraction from the even more preoccupying stuff whirling around in our heads, the memories, desires, regrets, recriminations, awareness of mortality and so on. To stop doing the obvious, visible activities only makes us more prey to the invisible workings of the mind.
That is why meditation is so damned hard, or why I go to such lengths to avoid something as apparently undemanding as sitting in a chair for half an hour.
For an existentialist such as Heidegger, meditation, or the moment when you stop running away from yourself, puts you in touch with angst, the anxiety that throws human beings back upon their “authentic potentiality-for-being-in-the-world”.
That sounds both terrifying and exciting. Mindfulness of breathing, the basic meditation practice that I don’t practise nearly often enough, on the other hand, can bring me in touch with something simpler and calmer: the sheer joy of inhaling and exhaling what Philip Larkin called “the deep blue air, that shows/ Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless”.
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