Watching a recent White House coronavirus task force briefing I was, for some odd reason, reminded of Macbeth’s nihilistic assessment of life: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” “Really?” I said to myself. “Is all this just a noisy little story or is he just an idiot?” I delved in…
Jerry Seinfeld made a fortune for himself and his quirky foursome taping episodes of a show about nothing. If life really does imitate art, then nothing must mean something. For Albert Einstein, nothing was but a simple exchange f: “Nothing happens until something moves.” Leave it to a physicist to make nothing sound so simple…which of course it isn’t.
So, if nature abhors a vacuum, then nothing doesn’t stand a chance. Something always comes along to fill up an empty space, not unlike what happens on the top shelf in my closet or in our kitchen drawer. I’d like to think that when I clean off my desk, it will stay that way for a wee while but almost overnight, it somehow turns into a Venus fly trap, gobbling up whatever comes along, looking for all the world like an innocent victim rather than a voracious carnivore.
By nature, I’m inclined to answers more than imponderables. The problem with the concept of nothingness is that one has to make a tangible commodity out of whole cloth that by definition doesn’t exist, like the Emperor who wanted his subjects to love his new clothes—you remember: the ones that didn’t exist.
It’s a tale worth retelling. This particular Emperor loved himself excessively, he just loved to be loved, and he especially loved to look magnificent in spectacular clothes. One day, two weavers came to the palace promising to make the Emperor a new set of clothes that were so beautiful, so wondrous of color and intricate of pattern, that only the most discerning of his ministers or his subjects would be able to appreciate them. The Emperor gave the two weavers gold to buy silk, thread, whatever they needed, and set them to work. Day and night, the weavers worked on empty looms. The Emperor’s ministers would come to inspect their work, but none would admit that they saw nothing lest the Emperor think they were not worthy of his regard.
Finally, the day came when the Emperor’s new clothes were ready. The weavers undressed the Emperor and taking great pains to fit and tailor his new clothes, they oohed and awed their workmanship until the Emperor himself was convinced that never had a finer suit of new clothes been woven, never had he looked more splendid than he did in his new clothes.
Out he walked into the street. The people were stunned. The Emperor took their silence for awe, that is until a small child pointed to him and cried, “Why is the Emperor not wearing any clothes? He has nothing on!” You can imagine what happened next.
Now back to poor Macbeth, Shakespeare’s distraught Scottish king, slowly unraveling into a dark and deadly depression following the death of his wife and preparing for his final battle with Macduff. It’s a terribly sad moment in the play because Macbeth knows that everything he has done as king is about to come to a tragic end. It will all have been for nothing.
So is life—the Emperor’s or Macbeth’s or yours or mine—really just a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, or is life something else? The answer was suddenly clear: life is not some meaningless tale; it is precious. Every life is precious. Remember that press briefing I had been listening to? That was the tale told by an idiot, an idiot wearing new clothes, all full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with a home in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com