Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This study begins with the observation that much of twentieth-century art, literature, and philosophy exhibits a concern with nothing itself. Both Martin Heidegger and Jean Paul Sartre, for example, perceive that nothing is part-and-parcel of (man’s) being. The present study adopts a similar position concerning nothing and its essential relationship to being, but adds a third element: that of writing narrative. This relationship between nothing and narrative is, I argue, established in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Mikhail Bakhtin, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva. As Heidegger and Sartre position nothing as essential to the creation of being, so Nietzsche, Bakhtin, Derrida, and Kristeva figure nothing as essential to the production of narrative. The parallels between their theories regarding nothing and being, and nothing and narrative, are particularly telling, especially as the twentieth century deconstructs our notions of reality and fiction, rendering these increasingly indistinguishable from one another.
This thesis regarding nothing’s relationship to narrative is further developed through analysis of the literary works of Nikolai Gogol, Herman Melville, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, and Victor Pelevin. These authors compose literature that not only gives narrative form to nothing itself (narratives about nothing), but that also envisions nothing as a generator of narrative (narratives of nothing). My phrase narratives of nothing indicates the symbiotic relationship between nothing and writing, wherein nothing resides at the forever-deferring center of a semiotic system that produces writing, narrative fiction, and thus “reality” as we know it. In each of the texts I have selected, there is a clear relationship established between (1) the act of writing, producing narrative and/or meaning, and (2) nothing or one of its many signifiers (e.g. void, cipher, zero, etc.).
My analysis ultimately refigures the transcendental signified as nothing itself. Nothing as the transcendental signified is therefore the ever-deferring generator of a system of signifiers that perpetually recreate their own original transcendental signified. Because of this, nothing as the transcendental signified is an infinite nothing that constantly transforms depending on its own signifiers’ significations.
Vicks, Meghan Christine, "Narratives of Nothing in Twentieth-Century Literature" (2011). Comparative Literature Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 20.