From Nothing to Lack

An Interrogation of Being
Photograph by Effy Ziqi Jiang. Brighton, England, 2015.

Photograph by Effy Ziqi Jiang. Brighton, England, 2015.

Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession, an autobiographic essay, one of the greatest Russian writers of all time embarked on a quest for the meaning of life in his late middle age. In his reflection, Tolstoy was guided by the questions of What is it for? What will come of his finite life? What meaning does life have that death does not destroy? And he sought answers through reason and intellectual thinking. Yet, all his searching, through either experimental science or philosophy, proved to be in vain, as he could only reach to one end: that there was merely no meaning to life. All rational thinking yielded unsatisfying results that did not explain for him why he couldn’t end his life despite knowing that life was meaningless and vain. As his melancholy unfolds in this essay, Tolstoy sinks into a deep, depressing tone, “I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it.” In this realization of nothingness, Tolstoy felt like someone lost in the forest, permeated by infinitude of darkness, and he could not find an exit. He asked repeatedly, “What am I, and what is the universe?” and he repeatedly reached to an end of “All and nothing.”

At this point in his life, Tolstoy was in a state of anxiety, one that, in the Heideggerian notion, reveals nothing: the nothing that for Heidegger lays the ground of Being. Kaja Silverman explains this quite clearly in her 2003 essay “All Things Shining”: “Fear is the affect through which we apprehend the ‘nothing’ in the mode of a turning away. Anxiety is the affect through which we apprehend it in the mode of a turning toward.” Fear, as Heidegger points out, always has a concrete object, thus turning away from nothing makes it possible for one to fear something in particular. But anxiety is precisely to the contrary; by turning toward nothing, anxiety appears without an object, as what lies ahead is incomprehensible, infinite, and beyond being. This anxiety that Tolstoy faced when seeking meaning of his finite being in relation to the infinitude is a feeling beyond reason and rationality. It does not rise out of thinking, or subjective will, nor does this feeling give in to thinking. In Heidegger’s interrogation “What Is Metaphysics?” he discusses nothing in a way that previous metaphysical inquiries had not properly addressed. Heidegger proposes that such nothing is not simply what “there is not”; it is more than a negation or a counter-concept of being. To inquire and to seek nothing, we must find a way to bypass the fortress of logic and scientific rationality, one that fundamentally rejects and negates the nothing. Because the rational mind uses languages as a defense to escape facing the nothing, by giving a simple and undeniable statement, that ‘there is no such a thing as nothing.’ This was precisely the same predicament that Tolstoy found himself in when questing the meaning of life.

For Tolstoy, to seek an answer to ‘why being?’ was ultimately to face the ‘nothing’ within the finitude of life. To find a meaning for life, or being, is to square finitude with  infinitude; yet it is impossible to find this relationship through reason, through rationality, or most fundamentally, through language. Tolstoy came to realize that in a history of rational thinking, reason is made possible through arbitrarily rejecting or neglecting infinitude. Therefore, reason and logic simply denies the possibility of such a relation between the finite and the infinite. Heidegger approaches nothing in the same manner, as he proposes that the scientific attitude of thinking precludes nothing. Heidegger exemplifies the limitation of logic with regards to nothing: asking ‘what is nothing?’ turns the nothing into a predetermined object of something, for no matter how vague, thinking is essentially thinking about something. However, being is precisely unreasonable and illogical, as it is a finitude thrown into the infinite. In this unresolved relation between finite beings and the infinite beings as a whole, lies this original nothing, which can only be revealed in a feeling, not in thinking. The original nothing is already there, somewhere in the essence of being, and Heidegger expresses it as the slipping away of beings as a whole. This being as a whole is a consciousness of one’s essential existence in the daily routine of living. Thus, in Tolstoy’s exclamation that “nothing would come of it,” being as a whole is inevitably slipping away from him. He was no longer able to preoccupy himself in the daily consumption of being, a state that he called “intoxication with life.”

In Tolstoy’s long and vain effort of reasoning his way through the meaning of life, he eventually found resolution through faith. The faith that he rejected in his early age gave him an answer to this paradoxical dilemma that he found himself in. This faith—a religious faith in God in Tolstoy’s case—is a faith beyond rationality, a reconciliation in knowing that there is something indeterminate with this Being. As Tolstoy turned toward the life of the common people, who are outside of his intellectual circle, he found that faith was what made all human lives possible. Tolstoy accepted this faith because it gave him an answer after seeking through reasoning had failed. As he said, “I understood that, however irrational and distorted might be the replies given by faith, they have this advantage, that they introduce into every answer a relation between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no solution.” This faith lifted the anxiety hovering over Tolstoy, giving his finite life a meaning of union with the eternal, and led him into a concern of being in relation to the nothing. Religion functions precisely by turning its believers away from the nothing. As Heidegger explains, Christian dogma puts God on the nothing as a transformed significance and thus gives a predetermined, simple, and direct purpose to all mortal beings. Belief in God is a turning away from the nothing, and a scientific attitude prompts us in the same manner, to give up the nothing. Tolstoy asserted that a being must believe in something to live. This believing—either a faith in God, or a belief in science—preoccupies us with holding out into being, on the contrary to Heidegger’s Dasein, which lies in holding out into nothing. This believing is also to surrender ourselves, when facing the indeterminacy or powerlessness of being, to something higher in hierarchy. Because each individual being is finite, and must come to face the paradoxical relation with infinitude of beings as a whole, each individual is constantly seeking an ideal and hopeful realization that eases this profound indeterminacy of existence. Tolstoy, eventually, found an exit from this indeterminacy through faith in God.

Unlike Descartes—who had the idea of God in him before starting his meditations through reason and who eventually came to prove the existence of God through logical thinking—Tolstoy accepted the idea of God after his long and miserable search for a meaning of life. Though seemingly reverse, both approaches are the same process of fulfilling a vacant position of the ideal, which is determined by a lack of being of a substantial and concrete subject, in Lacan’s world of psychoanalysis. Such preexisting lacking conceives an imaginary construction that comes to fill in the void, in which Lacan points out that human ego is such a construction. It is only through this imaginary structure that the subject comes into being. The faith in something—standing in place of nothing—is also precipitated by the lack of being as conceived by Lacan. Though the nothing and the lack that Heidegger and Lacan each posit as the essence of being are in two separate discourses—one in a metaphysical sense of being, one in the psychic being of subject—they are indeed in parallel with one another, and both unfold in Tolstoy’s quest to answer “why being?”

At the very beginning of Tolstoy’s autobiographical account, he professed that he had abandoned his faith in God in his youth though being baptized and brought up in the Christian Orthodox. Yet, this abandonment of a faith in God did not leave an empty space, but was replaced by a faith in something else, at first, a pursuit of perfection. It was an effort that he described as “a desire to be stronger than others: to be more famous, more important and richer than others.” Later in his life when he became an intellectual writer and teacher, this pursuit transitioned into a faith in “the meaning of poetry and in the development of life.” Tolstoy held to this faith with a religious zeal for many years, and saw himself as its priest. Before Tolstoy reached the point of anxiety in late middle life, he had always had a faith in something, if not in God. Yet once he started to question the meaning of life as a finite being, the faiths that followed his departure from the Orthodox Church could no longer provide him a comforting answer. As Tolstoy said in a melancholic tone, “I was no longer in the position in which I had been in youth when I thought all in life was clear; I had indeed come to faith because, apart from faith, I had found nothing, certainly nothing, except destruction.” The faith in God he came upon at this moment was his reconciliation with the nothing, a lack that desperately needed to be filled.

To look at Tolstoy’s autobiographical account from Lacan’s psychoanalytical perspective, all his psychic pursuits before he came to see the meaninglessness of life were his ego striving for an ideal. For Tolstoy, it was a desire to be better in the eyes of God, or of the others, a desire to be recognized for his achievement. At the heart of this pursuit for the ideal lies the foundation set by the mirror stage, in which the totality of the imago in the mirror is anticipated as the ideal. The placement of the mirror implies a structural absence, in which the ideal is always and permanently in lack, waiting to be filled by external objects. The external others function as a reflective surface, in the same manner of how the echo of one’s shouts travels back into one’s ears. Although the echo gets identified as one’s own voice, there is discordance between the echo and the original shouting. In the identification with one’s mirror-image, however, this discordance is often neglected, buried by the jubilant anticipation for the ideal imago, and the subject does not fully realize that identification with the external reflection is precipitated by a lack of being in itself. This structural absence in the coming-into-being of the subject allows the reflection to come in to fill the lack as the ideal, whether be it the idea of God, a group leader, or a role model.

In Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory, the formation of the ego is reliant upon this very lack of being. To identify oneself is to identify with this lack, a position that allows the various others to fill in the lack, and shape the imaginary ego accordingly. This position in lack is determined, in the mirror stage, as a Gestalt of ideal.  Thus, in the core of the psychic development, the ego constantly seeks to grasp and identify with an ideal outside of itself. To say that Tolstoy was guided by a faith is to rather say that he was persistently seeking an absolute truth—the ideal—that could provide him guidance in how to live. The position of this ideal was first filled by the circle of intellectual thinkers, writers, poets, and artists. But as he came to see that the people to whom he looked up did not live according to the truth they preach, the validity of this ideal quickly shattered, and in his quest for the meaning of life, Tolstoy was in search for another ideal to fill the lack. As he confessed in the essay, “I say that that search for God was not reasoning, but a feeling, because that search proceeded not from the course of my thoughts—it was even directly contrary to them—but proceeded from the heart. It was a feeling of fear, orphanage, isolation in a strange land, and a hope of help from someone.” This feeling, an anxiety upon the turning toward nothing in a Heideggerian understanding, also reveals the lack of the subject in Lacanian terms. Such feeling is instinctually always and already there, for each individual, even prior to his or her comprehension of rational knowledge and logic. Every being, not just someone who engages in intellectual questing, is situated in a perpetual predicament grounded by such a lack, binding a person to a finite and transitory existence in which preoccupation in the imaginary experience makes it possible to drift from here and there.

Looking at his own life from the point of view of a shattered ideal, from the slipping away of beings as a whole, Tolstoy found it to be evil and absurd. Yet, he wanted to believe life is not all evil and senseless; he wanted to believe in humanity, and he wanted to believe that there would always be a greater good for the continued existence of mankind. With such a wish in mind, he sought affirmation  of the undeniable existence of God. Tolstoy believed that the essence of every faith was to give life a meaning that death could not destroy. For such firm conviction can offer a calming reconciliation; a being can come to its own finitude. This is where Tolstoy concluded his confession. Yet, the grasp of being predetermined by a lack (as in Lacan’s psychoanalysis), or by nothing (as in Heidegger’s philosophy)—the understanding of the predicament of beings as such—makes it possible for us to bear and consciously recognize our existence without a simple exit in faith, or annihilation. Our finite being is perpetually fragmented in a complex multitude of thinking, feeling, and imagining. It is thus through a constant interrogation of being that we come to sense its vastness in different lights.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “What Is Metaphysics” In Pathmarks, edited by William McNeill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage.” In Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, translated by Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2007

Silverman, Kaja. “All Things Shining.” In Flesh of My Flesh. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Tolstoy, Leo. Confession. Translated by David Patterson. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.