The axiom of zero

I so badly wanted to write a review of Hanya Yanagihara’s book, A Little Life because I have so many opinions. But I am only 39% in and I was convinced by a friend who had read this book to reserve my judgment (which has been now scrawled over two pages of my Moleskine already) until I finish the book — all 720 pages of them — before spewing any thoughts. So I thought what I should do right now in the midst of taking a break between grunting and sighing while reading is to share one of my favourite lines from the book, which involves a mathematical concept called the axiom of zero.

A Little Life revolves around four decades of the lives of four friends — private, one with a dark past, described as ‘ethnically ambiguous’ Jude St. Francis, his best friend Willem Ragnarsson who is the most popular among women but whom appears to be oblivious of all the attention, artist JB (Jean-Baptiste) Marion who is the life of the party, and timid Malcolm Irvine who comes from a wealthy Upper East Side family. As the book progresses, Jude started to become the centre of the story — and we got to know in addition to his law degree, Jude pursues a masters in pure mathematics and the reason he is drawn to mathematics is because the concept is “a wholly provable, unshakable absolute in a constructed world with very few unshakable absolutes.” Imaginor, ergo est — I think it, therefore it is — more so than video, ergo est — I see it, therefore it is — like what applied mathematics would do.

While attending the funeral of his former mathematics professor, the eulogy reads:

People who don’t love math always accuse mathematicians of trying to make math complicated. But anyone who loves math knows it’s really the opposite: math rewards simplicity, and mathematicians value it above all else. So it’s no surprise that Walter’s favourite axiom was also the most simple in the realm of mathematics: 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 a 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 — which we are today — we can say that life itself is the axiom of the empty set. It begins in zero and it 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 if they cannot be experienced as life. We assume the concept of nothingness, but we cannot prove it. But it must exist. So I prefer to think that Walter has not died but has instead proven for himself the axiom of the empty set, that he has proven the concept of zero. I know nothing else would have made him happier. An elegant mind wants elegant endings, and Walter has the most elegant mind. So I wish him goodbye; I wish him the answer to the axiom he so loved.

Oliver Sacks talks about people forming neural pathways as they read — some hear sounds, some are aware of the emphases of the words, some visualise the sceneries. I do too, and in this case I visualise how the characters looked like. Jude looks like Marc Anthony to me (the ethnically ambiguous part), Willem looks like Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski (who is also a big fan of the book), Malcolm looks like Jordan Peele (he was described in the book as biracial), and JB looks like CSI’s Gary Dourdan (JB is of Haitian descent).

Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski, who is a fan of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, found himself asking, “Am I Jude or am I Willem? I just find myself vacillating between the two characters.”

It should be noted that this book comes with some trigger warnings. The ones I encountered so far are depictions of self-harm, sexual assault, child abuse, and ableism. The book started slow, but once it had hit page 67 or so, that is when I was dropped with a hint that something bigger is going on in this book rather than descriptions of the friends’ lavish & artistic NYC lifestyles. Either way, I am refraining myself from explaining further, so I am going to read a few (hundred) more pages before bed, and a full review soon when I finish.

(P/s: Oh wow, there’s a theatre rendition for A Little Life, and here’s how the quartet looks like for the stage portrayal.)

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