Kay Ryan, “Emptiness”

“Emptiness” (from The Atlantic)
Kay Ryan

Emptiness cannot be
compressed. Nor can it
fight abuse. Nor is there
an endless West hosting
elk, antelope, and the
tough cayuse. This is
true also of the mind:
it can get used.


The cayuse is exceptionally tough; Wikipedia described them as “feral” horses. The cayuse sounds like some kind of survivor, something unwanted that finds its way and its place on its terms. What does this have to do with “emptiness?”

Going back, we find “emptiness cannot be compressed” a peculiar statement. Usually we speak of finding fulfillment, taking advantage of an empty space to put something fruitful. Instead, this speaker wants to crush emptiness. There’s resentment toward it: “Nor can it fight abuse.”

I think I understand the feeling. There are times I’ve been treated unjustly by people I depend on, people I need to believe in me. When they don’t provide or show kindness or support, there’s less anger and more a self-questioning. Is this all for naught? Should I have done everything differently? That’s emptiness – not potential for fulfillment, but doubt any such fulfillment exists.

Going further, the “endless West” metaphor makes perfect sense. Maybe there are objects worth hunting, a frontier worth building. But “cayuse” is a stark reminder that one can read oneself wrongly into a place. The feral horse survives just as we do. We’re aiming wrongly when we want success to bail out our failure. We need to be able to fail and be right, both at once. The rightness of our being should never translate into advantage strictly, if at all.

Ryan’s speaker isn’t looking for solace in her last line. Sometimes you do need to question when all you have is nothing. Of course, there are complications. The mind can be used as emptiness is abused. But emptiness is abuse of the mind, no?

I’m tempted to think we’ve covered the relevant issue. Make someone feel emptiness, you abuse them, you make them use their mind in terrible ways. They have to fight with a number of issues regarding failure and possibility that don’t always lead to serious or healthy answers. At the same time, the mind getting used is emptiness’ inability to fight abuse. To think is to establish a “blank” of sorts. It is to pretend there is an endless West and try to put aside for a second that we are survivors. That we are survivors, though, is screaming from the emptiness itself.

1 Comment

  1. “That’s emptiness – not potential for fulfillment, but doubt any such fulfillment exists”
    You couldn’t have put it in a better way. That’s exactly what emptiness is for me, something missing inside which leads me to “over” use my mind with questions and doubt…thus amplifying the feeling of emptiness and loneliness.

    Yes, I’d say that emptiness is in some way tied with loneliness.

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