I had a friend used to keep a diary; he would assiduously write up exactly one page a day, struggling on boring days when hardly anything happened at all. I asked him, “What do you do when you have nothing to write about?” He replied: “Then I write about nothing.”
Or this advert for a brand of headache-relief tablets:
It prompted someone to say: “When you have a headache, taking nothing – because nothing acts faster than Anadin!”
Clearly, in each of these cases, nothing is not nothing but is up to something. So is nobody in Chapter 7 of Through the Looking Glass
by Lewis Carroll:
“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at the distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”
So what is this elusive thing called nothing (as well as the related nobody)? This is a question Jean-Paul Sartre tried to answer in his work Being and Nothingness
(1943), subtitled “an essay on phenomemological ontology”, translated from the French by Hazel E. Barnes of the University of Colorado. I have been plodding through this 684-page monster for a month and got only as far as page 50.
Well, nothing definitely must be something if an eminent philosopher like Sartre needed almost seven hundred pages to write on it, if someone as important as a king would like to see it, if every conscientious diarist wants to write about it, and if it is more effective at relieving headaches than every other analgesic drug. But what exactly is it that makes nothing so special?