Lately, I’ve been getting sick almost every time I eat. This is not purposeful. I’ll spare you the gory details, but whether I eat a gigantic meal or half a tortilla, I quickly end up regretting it. Because I’m a fat ass who loves food (& also, you know, needs it to survive), I keep eating & thereby keep experiencing what it means to have my body feel utterly empty afterward. Maybe it’s dependent upon my mood or on how many stimulants I’ve consumed that day, but this emptiness never feels the same way twice. Sometimes it manifests as utter lethargy; sometimes it’s energizing. It doesn’t make me look lighter, but it always makes me feel lighter, as though my body has just freed itself of some abstract negative energy.
The concept that one can take pleasure in emptiness isn’t anything new. Look at Buddhism. In the Suñña Sutta, one of Buddha’s attendants asks how it is that the world can be empty, & The Buddha replies “Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self.” To be empty means to be freed–peaceful & emancipated from the mind, the self. If there’s no mind to run through its motions, what keeps our brains loud?
We have a tendency to parallel emptiness & silence. But the emptiness of my body doesn’t equate to silence–in fact, it’s usually the opposite. My stomach demands food, water, something to calm it. Its emptiness doesn’t lead to sensory peace, despite how it might manifest psychologically.
The kind of sensory peace that brings together emptiness & silence makes me think of John Cage & his seminal piece 4’33”. When something with such dramatic flair leads only to silence, where does the viewer go? Does she suddenly become as empty as the room? Or does she realize that the room can never be empty, that there will never be true silence? Suddenly she hears a ticking watch, a leaky pipe, a rustling suit jacket. Or she hears her esophagus contracting, slick with saliva; her perhaps newly-shallow breath. 4’33” is not an act of sensory deprivation–no, it’s an act of sensory exaggeration. Cage wanted to move from making sound to accepting it. Yet we still think silence. We think emptiness.
But can we make emptiness the way a composer makes sound? We can make space, surely. We can prescribe bounds by building boxes or walls or borders, & we can refuse to fill those bounds, but does that make them empty? Have we created emptiness or have we only created space? Really, can we even imagine an empty space in & of itself, or do we–as Gaston Bachelard argues–always fill “intimate imaginal spaces, even if they are factually empty [with] possibility and […] hope?” We become uncomfortable with these bounded spaces, we want to make them do something, be something.
My body has more bounded spaces than I can count, & at some moment, I’ve probably had the desire for each of them to be filled. Maybe I mean this biblically; maybe my body’s refusal of food only leaves more space for other things. When my decidedly non-silent mind drifts to this person or that who’s filled (x) or (y) space, I become furious with my previously-cherished emptiness. I don’t want it. Like Bachelard, I can suddenly imagine my bounded spaces only in terms of what has the potential to fill them. (Or who.) Is it who? Is this about desire or is it about satisfaction? & if it’s the latter, is it physical or existential?
Suddenly, anything becomes better than this goddamn emptiness. Give us something to fill it! Anything! we beg. In mathematical terms, we’ve confronted the empty set. It’s a set with nothing inside of it, but a set always has to be something, right? The well-known syllogism for it tells us that:
Nothing is better than eternal happiness; a ham sandwich is better than nothing; therefore a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.
Let’s try again.
Nothing is better than emptiness; being filled is better than nothing; therefore being filled is better than emptiness.
We tiptoe up to emptiness, but Bachelard, like a good crossing guard, extends his arms in crucifix formation. “You can’t imagine emptiness,” he decrees from somewhere above. & he’s right–we can’t. We can only imagine how it will feel to fill it. & we want it filled–oh, we want it so badly.