Nothing May Really Be Something

The Ancient Chinese Concept of Wu

I continue to be mesmerized by the ancient Chinese notion of Wu, which, in the Dao De Ching (Tao Te Ching), is referred to as “nothingness, emptiness, non-existence.”

In Verse 11, Lao Tsu gives us examples of how “emptiness” has an importance:

  • The hole at the center of a wheel hub “allows the wheel to spin”
  • The space within a clay cup “allows the cup to hold water”
  • A doorway enables us to walk through to another room

So, my friends, the Dao is telling us that a doorway and the hollowed-out space of a cup may appear, at first glance, to have no value. But we all know that a cup is made to “contain” liquid, that a doorway makes it possible for someone to pass through it.

Wu in Music and Literature

If I transferred, by analogy, that same concept of emptiness to sound or even to the notion of absence, there is a similar phenomenon going on, it seems to me.

When, for example, I sense that music has stopped or that a vocal part is silent for a brief, but noticeable period of time, I may assume that a musical piece is over or even that something has happened to the singer. Or if I’m listening on the radio, I might infer that something is technically wrong.

For those of us who read music, however, we know that musical “rests,” as they’re called, have a very important purpose. They keep you in suspension, in that mode of expectation and anticipation that something, musically, is going to happen. In that “empty” sound space, we are literally left to “rest” in tense delight putting us, for a very brief moment, on the edge of our seats (that’s a bit dramatic because most audiences probably don’t know they’re being musically manipulated into that space of rest).

Symphonies also contain movements. Each movement has its own overall rhythm (basically, the spectrum ranges from very fast to very slow and everything in between). But between movements, there is musical silence. It is in the silences that an orchestra is re-setting itself for the next movement. When the conductor’s baton rises before the downbeat, members of the orchestra often lean forward, all eyes focused on the conductor and ready for the downbeat. The silence, at this moment, is anticipatory and very focused.

In drama, especially television serials and soap operas, writers are almost bound to end a segment dramatically with the absence of any resolution, at least until the following episode. The acts of a play could also have that same function. Everything is held in suspension until the next act.

Acts, like episodes, allow for an audience to come down but they also create imaginative venues for audiences to guess at what’s going to happen next or to guess at who murdered a victim (especially in crime thrillers). Or to imagine how a marital conflict is going to be resolved in the next episode.

And a poem or a line from a play, or even a fictional character I first encountered in a college class has a far deeper meaning for me now in my so-called golden years.

Hamlet and Prospero

How does the Hamlet I thought I knew in college suddenly end up being a different character in my post-Social Security age? Having lived through the realities of political intrigue, conspiracies, executions and assassinations of political leaders, I have a more internalized sense of Hamlet’s neurotic scruples in avenging his father’s murder than I did when I was reading the play as a graduate student.

Hamlet was silent to me for so long when I neither re-read the play nor saw any new productions. But, as an elderly man, when I go back to his famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy, the imminence of death has far more poignancy than it did in my twenties. And I can assure everyone reading this blog post that I have carried a resentment far longer than five acts or three hours.

Or how does Prospero, the aging master of magic in Shakespeare’s The Tempest,  ring even truer now that I know I am coming closer to the end of my life?

Prospero’s last line “Let your indulgence set me free” had meaning to me when I first read and heard it in college. And then the line went into storage. I read it again today and started to weep. Can I say the line was dead in its tracks because I hadn’t heard it in over fifty years. Or was it waiting for me to re-incarnate itself as a gentle request to those around my death-bed to let me go—gently, quietly, with my last breath—into the mystery of a new absence.

Classical fictional characters and famous lines of poetry go into some safety deposit box of silence (Wu, emptiness, nothingness) for me. And then they reappear on a quiet night when I’m in front of my computer and I Google a poem I haven’t read in years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that and have felt the poem or line in my gut. It is no longer “nothing” but was required, in a way, to be nothing before I can bring it back to life, reshaped by own age and experiences.

Wu in Real Life

In real life, absence has the same function as a time out in drama, a brief rest in music, or an empty doorway.

When someone whom we love is gone, temporarily, or is gradually removed from our presence at the end of their natural lives, or snatched from their vital lives pre-maturely because of an accident or fourth-stage cancer, we know that being “gone” does not mean they are totally absent from our lives.

It is at those moments of absence that we find out how one-dimensional “physical” presence is.

Someone we love can be gone, but we know that their psychic presence is inside of us. We can “feel” their presence. We can create an imaginary show of venues where they are present—at a dining room table, in the basement, in front of a Christmas tree, bending down over a garden, at a desk, opening a car door, holding a child, or under the covers in a hospice room.

Our minds become that doorway, that carved out space of a cup, that hollowed-out hub center that gives a bicycle wheel the steady speed of forward movement.

So, my friends, when you say “Merçi,”to a Frenchman or woman, and they say, “De Rien,” (It was “nothing,” or in the modern vernacular, “No problem”) don’t believe them.

Nothing will always be something. Emptiness will always be next to something solid. Non-existence will always have the possibility of being presence. And in that possibility there reigns a whole kingdom of other possibilities.

Something to think about.



One Response to Nothing May Really Be Something

  • Thank you, John.

    Brings to mind two moments in my life –

    At a post-concert after-party, John Cage smiling his more bemused than serene smile at me and telling me, “Think about it, there can’t be sound without silence, can there?”

    And, more seriously, the moment I got *that* phone call, told that a women I had loved – still did, more warmly, 8 years after we broke up but remained friends – had died — suddenly, prematurely, and with such a disarray her family couldn’t figure out how to get a hold of me until 11 days after — what I felt was…paternal. Like I was the one to hold her whole life, from her birth to her last waning thought. Fitting snugly In a hollow space in my life that I didn’t know was there til that moment..

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