Published in The Nepali Man on 28 February 2015
The Axion of the Empty Set
ome mornings the pain wakes me up - a dull throb, similar to hunger, centered in the stomach. Actually, it could be hunger, since I eat dinner early -
But what does it matter? Hunger, existential pain!
When that happens, when I wake up with that empty, crestfallen sensation, I hurry up. I hurry to the kitchen and reach for the coffee-maker. I get the pan ready and pour some oil. I open the fridge and grab the bread, the butter, the eggs. It’s a routine I have practiced for ages yet I have to be mindful of the timing - you don’t want to toast the bread too soon, or heat the oil too fast.
Sometimes the stomach throb moves up, towards the heart. While at first it was focused and potent, like a struck matchstick, once it moves up, it spreads, like fire, gradually sucking the oxygen out, constricting chest muscles, squeezing the heart.
Exercise helps. While running, while taking long, deep inhales and exhales, I imagine the air gushing down into my systems, attempting to extinguish the fire, just like water gushing out of a hose would.
It’s a saviour - the routine of treadmills, the pumping of heart, the increased flow of blood, the air reaching further into deep seated cells and veins and nerves. The garnering of energy, the grand cooling, the mind once again focused and ticking, feet bouncing to beats.
When I’m not running, I’m reading. I spent a couple of weeks inhabiting Hanya Yanagihara’s fictional world. The book popped up in my Facebook newsfeed, a friend’s recommendation. It turned out to be a recent release - 2015. At first glance the story seemed to track four friends from their college years through their struggle and success living in New York. It didn’t seem all that exciting. I was already detached from the city; and it seemed like another American tale.
But a few reviews moulded my expectations. A couple of them criticized the way the book had handled trauma and sexuality. But the majority were gripped by the writing, by the characters, by the sheer power of it all. “Unusual, uneven, unrelenting,” wrote a reviewer in the The Guardian. The New Yorker wrote a piece on the novel’s “subversive brilliance”.
I may have forgotten about it if I hadn’t serendipitously encountered the 700-page paperback inside a Patan bookstore. So I made up my mind to read this “darkly beautiful tale of love and friendship”.
It instantly pulled me in. Just like many reviewers had pointed out, the writer has described the friendships beautifully, with a great deal of care and compassion, paying attention to every nuance, every gesture, every look. But the story gradually focuses on two of the friends, Jude and William, leaving the other two in the background. The novel ultimately belongs to Jude though, cataloguing the unimaginably horrible abuses he endured as a child, until he was fifteen, and how he is unable to escape its dark shadows despite achieving massive wealth and success in later life, despite numerous new friends and fortunes he gathers after moving to New York.
Jude cuts himself, a habit that somehow helps him deal with the bottomless pit of pain in his life. He cuts his arms, thighs, biceps - two or three neat razor slashes every other day. His skin is serrated with scars. He never wears shorts or sleeveless shirts, so conscious is he of being caught.
Jude’s life is intertwined with William’s. They were roommates in college and later in New York. While he starts making money as a litigator, William goes on to be an international movie star, dating women, getting involved in a couple of moderately long relationships. But he always comes back to Jude. And Jude is always there, waiting for William’s return from faraway shoots.
It is the handling of this relationship that is utterly poignant, fresh and groundbreaking. It’s never clear whether Jude and William are gay. And it doesn’t matter. The writer allows these characters to transcend these limitations for the sake of friendship, through the force of such deep love and commitment that everything else either doesn’t matter or is manageable. Jude and William eventually decide to live together and share their lives intimately with each other.
There are numerous details that Yanagihara describes convincingly, and it’s not possible to mention all of those here. But the novel, despite its darkness and ultimate tragedy, filled me with hope. Like any powerful work of art, it portrays another possibility. It pushes the imagination. It redefines the concept of love and marriage and companionship. It pushes you to think what it means to love and be loved, what it takes to take care of someone.
Sure, it’s easy, you might think. After all, they live in New York, not Nepal. On the other hand, both Jude and William are orphans and they don’t have to navigate their way through an extended network of relatives. They are free to define and live their lives according to their own terms.
But it ultimately comes down to choices. I am navigating these choices myself. There are certain choices I have made, which probably can’t be reversed. And then there are others that I’m juggling. Choosing solitude over stress, freedom over responsibilities, thrilling adventures over obsolete rituals. Thoughtful productions over obligatory distractions.
While mulling over existence, while thinking about love and pain, companionship and loneliness, I’m going to end with a memorable passage from Yanagihara’s book. At a funeral service of a maths professor, his colleague recounts that the professor’s favorite axiom was the axiom of the empty set. “The axiom of the empty set is the axiom of zero. It states that there must be a concept of nothingness, that there must be the concept of zero: zero value, zero items. Math assumes there’s a concept of nothingness, but is it proven? No. But it must exist. And if we are being philosophical, we can say that life itself is the axiom of the empty set. It begins in zero and ends in zero. We know that both states exist, but we will not be conscious of either experience: they are states that are necessary parts of life, even as they cannot be experienced as life. We assume the concept of nothingness, but we cannot prove it. But it must exist.”
The professor loved this axiom because of its simplicity, its elegance, even though it couldn’t be proven. The friend cleverly points out that he may not have proved it while living, but his death, in a way, proved the axiom.
There are still problems though. In the axiom of the empty set that life is, how do we factor love and pain? How do we solve the issue of dull stomach throbs on early mornings? Desire and drama are axiomatic but their place in the equation is not defined. Heartbeat, hunger, all these hours. When seasons change and days become shorter, how does one deal with so much darkness?