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Nonnulla. Notes for a talk in Pompei

“I can tell you, then, that I’m afraid of death. Not of what we imagine about death, for this fear is itself imaginary. Not of my death whose date will be recorded in the civic registers of the state. But of that death I suffer every moment, of the death of that voice which, out of the depths of my childhood keeps asking, as yours does: ‘What am I?’ and which everything within us and around us seems bent on stifling. When this voice does not speak – and it does not speak often! – I am an empty carcass, a restless cadaver. I am afraid that one day it will fall silent forever; or that it will wake up too late – as in your story of the flies: when you wake up, you’re dead. And there you have it!” he said, almost violently. “I’ve told you the main thing. All the rest is details.”

René Daumal, Mount Analogue

The island

Gaius, Lucilla, Aurelia, Julius. The thousands who died together in one sole day here in Pompei and Ercolano: where did they go?

We can find some of their names written on buildings, a few of their deeds in the annals of history, particles of their bodies dispersed in the soil of the area. But what happened to them, themselves, after they died? Did they vanish into nothing, or did they move to an elsewhere of sorts?

It might sound like a futile question. Each one of us will eventually reach them in that no-where or else-where where they landed, falling out from life. Sooner or later, each of us will have an answer to this question. What hurry is there to face it while we’re still alive?

There would be no need for a positive answer, if life was akin to an endless plain or to a desert: a space that is autonomous, self-sufficient, closed onto itself. But life's geography is closer to that of an island: the sea of non-life not only contains it, but its currents and breezes shape it to the core. Like an island, life has the sea at its centre.

The question over what happened to Julius and Lucilla after they died is as urgent for us, as it was for them on their last night in Pompei.

A sea of nothing

If we asked a medieval peasant what happens after our worldly existence, they would probably mention a return to the Father, through the ordeal of the apocalyptic judgment.

If we asked this same question today to one of our contemporaries in the West, we would receive a rather different answer. Let us consider how our contemporaries face the problem of what happens after death (and by the same token, of what takes place before birth), by listing an ideal catalogue of the currently hegemonic approaches to this issue:

  • Denial of tragedy: for the living, the problem of non-life is a non-problem. No bridge can be imagined between the two realms, and thus, no intellectual continuity can ever be established across their separation. And life being the dimension in which things exist, it follows that non-life is the dimension in which things cease to exist. Cut out from life, the condition of non-life is exiled from existence altogether: cast into the wilderness of nothing, it becomes nothing.

  • Reductive cynicism: even if the problem of non-life were legitimate in itself, it shouldn’t concern the living. Whatever will happen to us after our death (or whatever happened to us before our birth) has no place among our legitimate preoccupations. All we can do is to live as best we can, stuck in this roofless labyrinth. To the contemporary cynical, the nature of non-life and the fate of the living beyond and before life, has a clear status: again, nothing. This time, however, it is a retroactive form of nothing: not ontological, as in the case of denial, but existential.

  • Cheap materialism: all entities coincide exclusively with their own physical form, and whatever renounces the continuity of their physical presence, renounces existence altogether and is nullified.

  • Existential agnosticism: whatever happens before and after life is an unfathomable mystery, well beyond the range of our intellectual means. Even if we had to take a decision, we couldn't, and thus we don't. By deeming it possible to suspend judgment over non-life, the existential agnostic assigns to the world a status of perfect autonomy from the realm of decision: things exist by themselves, and it makes no fundamental difference whatever we might think or believe about them. The objective givenness of ‘this’ existence, the datum to perception as a ‘fact’, coincides with existence tout court. By falling out of the range of objectivity and of givenness, non-life signs its own order of exile into nothingness.

To the question of what happens to a living being after death and before being born, ‘nothing’ is the implicit answer offered by the Contemporary Weltanschauung (where ‘contemporary’ is the denomination of a certain historical era, like ‘modernism’ or ‘hellenism’). Outside life, for the living, there is nothing.

The marriage of life and nothing

Any story holds the reins of a range of destinies. The story that we tell ourselves while we are alive – ‘life’ as such – is no exception. At each point along the way, we have to choose among many possible centres around which our existential narrative might orbit and show its face.

The mythology of island-people, like us living, typically roots its narrative around the sea. Whether it is presented as a terrifying monster or as a life-giving force, as a plane of expansion or as the route of invasion, the marine realm constitutes the narrative centre of the story of living-on-an-island.

Let us take one, among the countless possible variations on the story of the marriage between island and sea: the one in which the land encounters the sea as an expanse of pure nothingness.

What does it feel like, to live a life that is surrounded – before and after itself – by nothing? What does the world look like, to eyes that have this belief as their nerves? What particular form do the ‘where’, the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ of life take in their story, if they float suspended over an abyss of nothingness?

  • Time: in a world where life springs out of nothing, unrolls through time and then vanishes into nothing, time’s flow is dammed both at its source and at its mouth. Time – the process through which a living being orders the phenomenon of their own experience – crashes against the walls surrounding the life of its owner. Held between nothing and nothing, time floats on the skin of a swamp. However pestilential this time may be, it is still the only resource that holds life over the abyss. Here, existence takes place in time or not at all. In such a world, the masters of time are the masters of all. Living under threat of having their access to time reduced or denied, the people of such a world are willing to accept any humiliation rather than the abyss, any injury rather than nothing. And any injury received within time remains without any possible redemption, thus adding despair to the burden of living.

  • Identity: in a world surrounded by nothing, where life glimmers faintly between the walls of annihilation, to be alive is an exercise in resilience. The task is one: to hold ourselves over the abyss. The means at our disposal are those assigned to us by our destiny: to live in this absurd prison, within the uniforms that we have been assigned. To live means to be that one thing that adheres to time: oneself, the ‘this’ or ‘that’ which we are. To live is to id-esse (to be ‘that’), that is, to coincide perfectly, idiotically, with one’s own identity. In a world surrounded by nothing, the ethical imperative for the living is to crystallise themselves within time and within themselves. Either to be ‘this’, or ‘that’, or to be nothing at all.

  • Poverty: Time as the only possible landscape, identity as the sole available body; and only these two hands holding us over the abyss. Nothing is in excess in a world surrounded by nothing. Nothing is available to renounce or to donate. Either the living holds tight to themselves all the fragments of existence that they were destined, or they are annihilated entirely. Not poverty, though, but fear of what's worse than poverty is responsible for the mercilessness of this world.

The marriage of life and not-nothing

This brief sketch of a world surrounded by nothing is both a caricature of the Contemporary Weltanschauung, and a plain description of the notion of 'Hell on Earth'. But even though both the Contemporary and Hell can be considered factually supreme (the former due to historical circumstances, the latter due to a cosmic destiny recognised by religions the world over), we can still indulge in the game of counterfactuals.

For the sake of speculation, let us imagine what the world would be like, if it was surrounded by not-nothing. Let us imagine that before birth and after death, the living transited from and to an elsewhere that is not-nothing. What would change, practically and effectively, in the way the world would present itself to the living ­– and the living to themselves?

  • Time: in a world surrounded by not-nothing, time springing out of a source flows towards the sea. Each wave lasts until it ebbs away. Like in a game from childhood, time here is barely confined within its measure: outside of the game, a lazy Sunday afternoon stretches eternally. In such a world, to live in time is to be always ready (however reluctantly) to snap out of character whenever the game requires it, or when lunch is ready. In such a world of paper money and paper crowns, life is not serious enough for the masters of the game to be seen as the masters of reality. On a stage, every object, even the abject, holds the same ontological legitimacy.

  • Mercy: Whatever is elegantly lost in a game is not lost at all; whatever is owned and held inelegantly, is worse than lost. A game is not serious enough to allow for cruelty. In a world surrounded by not-nothing, mercy is an aesthetic imperative before being an ethical injunction. No ethical system will be able to justify the abyss of horror. The ethics of a game demand that the player be ir-raḥmāni ir-raḥīmi (‘the most gracious, the most merciful’, as in the Bismillah). To live like one would play is a form of theosis (‘becoming god’) that proceeds from and through aesthetics.

  • Otherness: In a world surrounded by not-nothing, where the living come onto stage from a back room and head to a late-night restaurant after their show, to live is to wear life. Precisely and theatrically, to live is to compose the paradox of being at the same time ‘this’, ‘that’ and neither. In such a world, to live is to be ‘other’, at the same time to one’s own stage costumes and to the civilian clothes of non-life. As in a play, the ‘otherness’ of an actor is given a priori, beyond their performance. To be actually more like ‘this’, or like ‘that’, or like ‘neither’, depends not on a logical necessity, but on the artistic judgment of the actor. It is the outcome of a krisis, where one is called to judge (krinein) lightly and perfectly, rather than with the heaviness of a god of the apocalypse.


The urgency of such a krisis befalls the question of what we believe to exist before and after life. It is a knot that we must cut, even just implicitly within ourselves, to be able to live. But how do we decide between these two beliefs?

We might be tempted to go about it logically. In that case, we have to face the problem of ‘nothing’, while staying mindful to the lesson of Parmenides: nothing, not-being, cannot be looked at directly through means of the logos. We can approach ‘nothing’ only by following the body of which it is a shadow, or, which is the same, the mirror that carries its reflection: ‘something’. By looking at the nature of something, we might be able to gain a clue about nothing. Since the question at hand is whether life, outside of its blossoming, turns into nothing or not-nothing, the problem here concerns the probability to exist or not to exist. We might ask: what probabilities does something have to exist? We know, at least since Kant and Heidegger, that ‘something’ is a particular way in which existence shows its face to us: ‘something’, what we understand as existence, is the outcome of our particular way of perceiving and understanding what merely ‘is’ (or, as Plotinus and the authors of the Vedas would quip here, 'what is beyond being’). But what ‘is’ – and can be this and that and neither – has a wardrobe of masks that exceeds enumeration: Being is infinite, in a way that is beyond the simple ‘infinity’ of numbers. ‘Something’, our idea of existence, is just one slot in the infinite circle of Being’s roulette. Its probability to be extracted, to become actual, is one in an infinite series: a limit that tends to zero. Indeed, it is a great miracle that there is ‘something’! And since ‘nothing’ is the shadow of ‘something’, since it is its doppelgänger concept, the ontological destiny of the one falls equally onto the other. The possibilities of life moving through the world as ‘something’, and then moving into the other, particular slot of ‘nothing’, are a limit that tends to zero. It would require twice a great miracle, for existence to move exactly from the costume of 'nothing', to life’s ‘something’, and again to ‘nothing’. Conversely, the possibilities that once existence has miraculously hit life, then turns into anything but 'nothing' are a limit that tends to 1. It is basically certain, according to the logics of probability, that the existence that makes up life, before birth and after death, encounters, enters and becomes ‘not-nothing’.

Tempting as it might be to trust logics, though, it would be a misguiding path. The conceptual apparatus of logics holds little value in reference to the question at hand: what should we believe exists, for life, before its 'beginning' and after its 'end'? Being the foundation of life, and thus of its perception and thought, the ontological/existential problem is also the foundation of the logos. We cannot judge the foundations of the logos by means of its own logics. But this doesn’t impede us from facing the krisis of this pre-logical question. Only, we need to consider it in the same way as we would handle a question over the axioms that found a logical field. Like Euclid in his Elements of Geometry, we need to face this question at the centre of our experience of life by planting our argument axiomatically, that is, by enacting a double movement of 'hope' and 'faith'.

The pair of 'hope' and 'faith' (aside from their religious understanding) constitute together the basic motion that makes emerge the logos, and any self-defined 'logos'. Their helical dance is part of the magic that makes life emerge in front of itself both as life, and as 'a' life.

  • Hope is the movement forward: from a state of pre-krisis, to the vision of a harbour beyond the whirlpool of not knowing. It is the sighting before the decision. It is to 'see' what is not already given as a datum.

  • Faith is the movement backwards: from vision to decision, and finally to love. The possibility that had been hoped for is given substance by our choice, and it becomes the axiomatic basis of the/our logos. “Fede è sustanza di cose sperate / e argomento delle non parventi” (Paradiso XXIV, 64)

As the bedrock of logics, and consequently of ethics, the double movement of hope and faith is in itself the movement of aesthetics (in these terms, for example, Florensky understood the task of the icon painter). It is by hope and faith that even our contemporaries base their belief that outside of life, for the living, there is nothing.

It is by hope and faith too, that we might resolve the krisis otherwise.

So, what did finally happened to Julius, to Aurelia, to Gaius and Lucilla, to each plant and mushroom and animal on that fateful day of 79 AD, here in Pompei?

Truth is: it doesn’t really matter what’s our response to this fundamental and inescapable question of life. It is not such a serious question after all. Because life is a game, and before birth and after death there is not-nothing. Because there's no room, in life, for either the cruelty of poverty or the poverty of cruelty. This is a Sunday afternoon in which we play, and the nothingness of Monday is still as far from us as a limit that stretches towards zero. The masters of the world base their logos and their threats on foundations of thin paper.

A cat walks across a chessboard and the floor continues the silhouette of the fallen pieces.

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