Tag Archives: spider webs

Bastard Reasoning

What can be nothing one moment and something the next, yet disappears in the presence of anything? –  Robert Kaplan, The Nothing That Is (59)

IMG_0042 The other day, my fourteen year old son pointed out that life and death are not antonyms, “You can’t have death without life, therefore the opposite of life is not death, it’s nothing.” Nothing, as in, an absence- not even an absence- a void without context- Well, what is that? my other sons and I wondered… I had cause to think on this thought further as I was coincidentally reading The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero by Robert Kaplan.

Zero is neither negative or positive, but the narrowest of no-man’s land between those two kingdoms. (190)

Kaplan takes the reader through the transition of numbers from mere adjectives to nouns in their own right, and then he hits us with the mystery and enigma that is zero. Either Kaplan is an extremely clear and gifted writer or my math skills are far more impressive than I ever knew. Alright, settle down, Jessica, that’s a bit of an overstatement. Maybe. It may be a simple thing for most people to get their heads around why any number to the power of zero is one, but I got through college algebra getting the answers right without knowing what it really meant, but which now, thanks to Mr. Kaplan, I do. The next day, I tried to get my eighteen year old son to appreciate how exciting it was that I actually understand the concept, but he wasn’t up for my enthusiasm at 8 am, if ever.

But I digress-  before Kaplan even gets into what zero is (or isn’t), he gives an account of the possible ways by which it came to be understood at all.

If you favor the explanation that the ‘O’ was devised by the Greeks without reference to their alphabet, its arbitrariness is lessened by noticing how often nature supplies us with circular hollows: from an open mouth to the faintly outlined dark of the moon; from craters to wounds. ‘Skulls and seeds and all good things are round,’ wrote Nabokov. (18)

One of my favorite images from this natural history is the method for computations that the ancient Hindus used: a board covered in sand to mark the numbers, subtractions, and additions as they went along. Kaplan tells us their word for “higher computations” is dhuli-kharma, ‘sand-work.’ But what is most intriguing to me  is the more metaphysical idea that the way in which they expressed zero (mostly as a place-value marker- which was a huge development) was by a simple finger impression, a dent of nothing formed by something…there is something perfectly beautiful in that…

Once zero was an official thing then things got a little complicated. Zero takes us out of the realm of  nouns into travels as a verb and things get a lot freaky. A number to the power of zero is one, but what of zero to the power of zero? How can that equal one and also, zero? What about division? Division is the first clue, in fact, that we have problems comprehending the magnitude and minuscule nature of the slippery zero.

‘Allez en avant et la foi vous viendra,’ said French mathematician d’Alembert: ‘Just go ahead and faith will follow.’ (157)

That math so elegantly sums up all the mystery and power of our universe is something I find fascinating. I love books such as this that make some of that wonder accessible to my rather limited mind.

After all, maybe, like zero, we are all indivisible in our center. Knowing we’re nothing, but only in the context of our absolute something. I kind of love that idea- we are one with zero. Kaplan draws from a gallimaufry of disciplines in  a poetic, profound and valiant attempt to describe zero, that “pure holding apart,” concept to which zero lends and points itself. The poetic justice of taking our psychologically linear perspective and wrapping it around into the perfect symbol- 0, stretches all boundaries of philosophy and meaning: circumference – everywhere; center – nowhere* …by the end of the book I felt as though my skirt had been caught up in the door of a moving car driving around in circles and I was just holding on for my life. When it stopped,  all I could do was smooth the tangents from my shirt, straighten the x-axis of my skirt and say: Kids,  I got nothing, I have no answers.  But whew, that was fun!

Opposites are an illusion of language. Something and nothing, you know, are equally false substantives. (218)

*Sphaera cuius centrum ubique, circumferentia nullibi

**“…space, which is everlasting, providing a situation for all things that come into Being, but itself apprehended without the senses by a sort of bastard reasoning…” Plato’s Timaeus quoted (63)

Working A Short Story

‘Does your grief sleep or not?’
‘Grief does not sleep,’ I replied.

– Nikolay Leskov, The Make-Up Artist, A Story on a Grave (162)

IMG_0046The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories, is a collection of twenty short stories by different Russian writers. I began reading, as usual- at one of my jobs, with Pushkin’s The Shot which was about a steady and patient revenge. In between drying dishes and filling out forms, I read the quick tale. Unlike Eugene Onegin, this story is, sadly, not in rhyming verse, never the less it has a charmingly perplexed narrator doing his best to understand a puzzle of a man. When I was finished, it was time to deal with the commode, it’s the sort of task that is undignified all around- do not consider, just do. I think it’s best that way.

‘I don’t want to know! Do you think I’m going to let a sawn-off nose lie around in my room…you fathead!’ – Nikolay Gogol, The Nose (29)

While ironing in the basement I giggle at the weird Gogol and his ridiculous tale of a nose gone wild. No matter how hard I look before, I always find the odd stowed tissue in the shirt sleeves or pockets of the laundered clothes. Usually it comes out in flaky dried up bits I have to crawl around the floor collecting, but this day, the tissues separated into perfectly flat sheets pasted on the clothing. I had to spend some considerable time peeling them off my client’s fluffy bathrobe, too bad poor Kovalyov didn’t consider static cling as an adhesive for his wayward nose.

Later in the day I wandered the yard in search of suitable flowers to cut for the guestroom, I had only just finished Bezhin Lea, a truly beautiful tale by Ivan Turgenev:

I was at once surrounded by an unpleasant, motionless damp, just as if I had entered a cellar. (73)

A sleeping man privy to the fairy tales and superstitions of a group of boys chatting deep into the night. The writing was so beautiful- the story is just lovely good. His power of description and sentiment is wonderful. A short story is such a marvel- precision and economy are vital,  a phrase such as “motionless damp,”  is arresting in its original yet flawless description- it’s quite perfect.

My pride increased over the years and if I had ever actually come to the point of admitting to someone that I was strange I think I should have gone straight home that very evening and put a bullet through my brains. – Dostoevsky, A Strange Man’s Dream (99)

I probably don’t need to cite Dostoevsky with that excerpt. Gotta love him- There are more than commodes not to consider. Too true, my dear.

‘”You’re a foolish girl,” she said, “who does want to at first! Why, life is bitter, but grief’s poison is even more so. But if you quench the burning coal with this poison it will die down for a moment. Take a sip, quickly, take it!”  – The Make-Up Artist (168)

Some days there isn’t enough silver to polish or toaster ovens to clean to quench the burning coal. Based on a story that he heard as a child, The Make-Up Artist is absolutely devastating. Naturally, I loved it. Heartache is the sort of condition that, while turning one’s heart into stone, remains an eternal burning coal. There is nothing to do, nothing with which to douse, no deceptions of perspective that smolder.

The pansies need to be dead-headed. I’ll contemplate my plan for dinner, maybe Tilapia in a white wine sauce with sauteed zucchini, my client loves that.  There will be another story tomorrow.

The Shot, Alexander Pushkin translated by David Richards
The Nose, Nikolay Gogol translated by Ronald Wilks
Bezhin Lea, Ivan Turgenov translated by Richard Freeborn
A Starnge Man’s Dream, Fydor Dostoevsky translated by Malcolm Jones
The Make-Up Artist, Nikolay Leskow translated by William Leatherbarrow