Joe Kitchen
Joe Kitchen

The power of nothing

I am a science-fiction lover. If this statement does not interest you, read no further; this blog post will mean nothing to you. (It might mean nothing to you anyway, but we’ll get to that later.)

Science fiction is a bit like quiche; people either love it or hate it. I happen to love it. I think about science fiction approximately once every six minutes. That is exactly how often the average white South African male thinks about sex or rugby (depending on whether he is English or Afrikaans)!

And, lucky me, I happen to be the proud owner of a priceless private collection of hundreds of science-fiction paperbacks from the Golden Age of the genre (early nineteen fifties to late nineteen eighties). My wife had gotten hold of it on the internet and had bought it for me as a birthday present a few years ago.

These paperbacks are my refuge from reality, my secret hideout. It is my parallel universe away from everyday life.

Whenever Malema angers me, whenever I get worked up about the performance of the Bok team, or the threats to press freedom, or the war games in North Korea, I pack a strong cup of coffee, go into my study, shut the door, and take a flight through hyperspace to a neighbouring galaxy, or time travel to the 25th century, or engage in a laser fight with three-headed monsters from Mars.

Three-headed monsters from Mars is by far preferable to Julius Malema, believe me!

Incidentally, that is why, when a columnist from one of my favourite newspapers recently launched an attack on me, I instantly retreated into the world of monsters and aliens. After reading science fiction for three days, I knew exactly how to respond. I did nothing! I had come to the realisation that nothing really mattered that much, and that he was probably perfectly right anyway.

The columnist had accused me of being a political hypocrite for applauding the success of the soccer World Cup after I had predicted that it would turn out a flop. (That is true, of course. I am the author of the famous “Fokkol song”, written some years ago, in which I expressed anger at the lack of service delivery during, and shortly after, the disastrous reign of Mbeki.)

Now, I could’ve written him a lengthy reply. I could’ve gone on and on about how pleasantly surprised and overjoyed I was at the miracle which recently transformed South Africa from a nation of murderous, thieving scoundrels into a nation of soccer-loving, vuvuzela-toting, hip-hopping, partying (and only occasionally still murderous and thieving) scoundrels. And I could go on and on about how I had changed the “Fokkol song” to the “Groen Fokkol song”, (with new lyrics) where it had been stuck at approximately number four on the Channel 24 MP3 Free Downloads hit parade for about a year now. I could get on my high horse, and tell the columnist “you accuse me of hypocrisy, but you are guilty of ignorance”. But what would be the point? Such accusations would only cause unnecessary pain to someone I don’t know from a bar of soap. Someone who, sadly enough, does not have a collection of vintage science-fiction paperbacks to protect him.

After spending three days immersed in my science-fiction books, I emerged as a better person. I realise now that I’m not angry at that columnist any more. I understand where he’s coming from. Like most decent South Africans, he is tired of the Afro-pessimists in our midst, the naggers, the moaners and the party-spoilers who carry on and on and on about what a terrible place South Africa is how much rather they’d be shopping in Harrods or eating quiche in Australia (I’m not even sure if they have quiche over there) et cetera. I fully agree with him! People like that make me sick!

Which brings me to an interesting point. This little scuffle — if it was a scuffle — between the columnist and myself has, in fact, a history dating back centuries. It is not the first time that people get bitterly worked up about the concept of nothing (in Shakespeare’s words, it’s not the first time there is so much ado about fokkol)!

During a recent browsing session in a bookstore in the Irene Mall, I came across a book Zero — the Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seiff. It tells the fascinating story of the numerous arguments between mathematicians of antiquity about the concept of “nothing”. (These arguments are, of course, continued, in a different form, up to this day, with the controversial cosmologist Lawrence Krauss claiming that matter does not exist and that the entire universe is, in fact, made up of nothing; a frightening hypothesis which no-one has been able to effectively disprove!) Ever since the discovery, by the early Babylonians, that the figure “nil” is indispensable to certain calculations, wise men had been morbidly fascinated, and often mortally terrified of the bizarre properties of this digit. Because of this fear of the irrational, Hippasus was put to death by Pythagoras, Aristotle spent his life denying the existence of zero, and the Hindus used it to denote what they called “the void”. (The Hindus were probably the first people on the planet who had enough guts to not only accept nihilism as a philosophy but also turn it into a meaningful lifestyle.)

To the ancient philosophers and mathematicians, the concepts of nothingness and eternity — two indefinable, and sometimes oddly interchangeable quantities — were as difficult to get used to as the ideas of quantum physics and relativity to 20th century man. Have you watched the movie (it showed on the Movie Magic 2 channel recently) Einstein and Eddington? It is a brilliant, almost voyeuristic depiction of life in the German academic circles during the ominous rise of Nazism. It is a also a fascinating depiction of Einstein as a relatively young man; played by Andy Serkis (famous for the role of Gollum in Lord of the Rings) he looks a bit like John McEnroe (with extra-wild hair).

Einstein and Eddington is also a reminder that that there was, indeed, a time — not so long ago — in the evolution of Western thought when it was almost unthinkable to challenge the laws of Isaac Newton. Outdoing Newton in the 1930s was, in fact, more difficult than selling more CDs than Steve Hofmeyr in present-day South Africa!

Yet, at the end of the movie, the truth triumphs, bourgeois mediocrity is trumped by bizarre innovations, the power of the so-called logical establishment is brushed aside by the irrational power of imagination. Indeed, because of geniuses like Einstein, Eddington and Planck, the boring and predictable world of Newton collapsed permanently to make place for the irresistible power of … nothing.

Even in Afrikaner society, the power of nothing has played its part; the literary revolution of the early eighties was sparked by a tongue-in-cheek dissertation by Dan Roodt about “die nul-punt”, and the most influential female rock singer of recent years was none other than Karen Zoid (whose pseudonym just happens to be a combination of the words “zero” and “void”). Die Fokkol Song, in other words, is in good company!

Incidentally, the furore about nihilism has now spilled over into the social media, where a religious debate has been sparked on my Facebook page after I casually remarked that I am a supporter of the new post-religionist spirituality of people like Anne Rice and Abel Pienaar. It is an interesting and probably much needed debate, though people get a bit personal at times, like they always do when they discuss sensitive topics such as these.

Having said all this, I must admit that I’m not quite sure that this blog post has been all about. If you have read up to this point, and you are none the wiser, I have probably achieved my goal, though, which was to write about the concept of nothing. No apologies. I never intended to do more than that, anyway!

Let me conclude with a personal anecdote. Lucky for me, I am not the only lover of weird ideas in our family. My ten-year-old son, Simon, shares my love of science fiction. He is currently going through a serious Star Wars addiction, and spends hours on related websites building imaginary robots and combating imaginary friends. He is also quite a mathematical genius; he has been preoccupied with stuff like minus numbers and square roots since the age of six.

When I wake him up for school at 7 am, I often do so with a trick question. The other morning, I shook him by his shoulder, asking: “Is the figure nil an odd or an even number?”

He responded, sleepily: “Even.”

“Why?” I asked, dumbfounded. This was, after all, a question that had kept Western mathematicians busy since time immemorial!

“Because it is between one and minus one, which are both uneven numbers,” he replied without hesitation.

Exactly the same answer those guys had come up with, but only after centuries of bickering!

I finally had to come to the happy conclusion that I have, in my son, a kindred spirit, when I fetched him from school the other day, and heard him say to his friends: “See you later, guys! I’m returning to the mother ship!”

Before I sign off, here’s some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that we finally got to see Toy Story 3 with the kids. In the Somerset Mall (which is much more consumer-friendly than Century City). It wasn’t 3D, but it was brilliant nevertheless! I loved the bit where the oversized tattooed baby with the floppy eyelid turned his head 90 degrees to look backwards. Have any of you ever seen anything as eerie as that, ever?

The bad news is that Sanlam (see previous blog post) has finally admitted, by email, that they had lost, through bad investments, approximately R50 000 of the premiums we had been paying for the last 10 years on our children’s education policies. (We would never have noticed the discrepancy in the figures if we had not added up the figures ourselves.)

The guys from Sanlam said they are really terribly sorry, though, so I suppose that’s okay.

Or is it? I’m not sure of anything any more … everything is so relative … there are times when I feel I want to forgive them, but there are other times when I feel like cancelling all my policies and simply tell them (to quote something my daughter said to me during a temper tantrum at supper one evening when she was six): “Quiche my ass!”