Nothing Happened
A History
Susan A. Crane

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Introduction

EPISODES IN A HISTORY OF NOTHING

LUIGI TRASTULLI WAS KILLED on March 17, 1949. A steelworker in Terni, Italy, Trastulli was 21 years old when he took part in a rally outside his workplace. Workers poured into the streets to protest against the Italian government signing on to the North Atlantic Treaty, which was creating NATO. Police were called in to control what they termed an unauthorized march.

Violence erupted: Official reports suggest that the protesters started the violence by brandishing sticks and handmade tin signs that proved to be effective weapons; the protesters claimed that they were defending themselves against police aggression. Shots were fired. Trastulli, witnesses remembered, was trying to get away by climbing a wall. He didn’t deserve to be shot; he didn’t deserve to die. The only victim of lethal police action that day, Trastulli became a political martyr.

What happened next only added pain to the suffering: No one was held accountable for his death. No charges were brought, no trial was held, and no individual or agency ever publicly accepted responsibility. Nor did Trastulli’s fellow workers protest, strike, or seek vengeance. Instead, outrage smoldered in Terni for decades.

The communities of Terni enshrined Trastulli’s name in memory, not only because of his tragic death and personal connections to local people but also because of the way his killing remained an open wound. The significance of Trastulli’s death grew in local memory such that more than thirty years later, when the historian Alessandro Portelli conducted interviews with Terni residents, they recalled not only Trastulli and their frustration with injustice following his death but also a host of related grievances, symbols, and myths that had formed around the incident.

Their memories about when the death happened were also confused. Was Trastulli killed during the anti-NATO strike or during the even more significant one that followed in 1953, when thousands of workers walked out following a massive layoff? Strikes became a part of Italian life in the twentieth century; memories of them might have blurred together. And given that Trastulli’s death occurred only four years after the end of World War II, Italian memories of partisan warfare were recent and vivid. Gun violence in war and police action in peacetime might have blended to form a context that made sense to people thirty years later. What was most important to them, what they vividly remembered, was that after Luigi Trastulli was killed, “nothing happened.”

In his 1981 article “The Death of Luigi Trastulli,” Portelli discusses the memories held by participants, witnesses, and succeeding generations in Terni. As depicted in Portelli’s influential analysis, the death of Luigi Trastulli is a case study in the creation and impact of collective memories that reside outside the official historical record. In one interview Portelli registers the powerful emotions released by the memories of injustice following Trastulli’s death.

PORTELLI: What happened afterwards?
CALFIERO CANALI: Nothing! Nothing happened. Nothing happened because—I don’t know why. . . . We didn’t do anything because—of course, in those days, what could you do? They’d have blown us like bagpipes, if we’d attempted anything. And yet, there was so much bitterness inside your body, so much hatred!
[Portelli’s reportage continues] The anger with which, thirty years later, workers still repeat that “Nothing was done after Trastulli’s death” (Canali repeats it three times, pounding the table with his fist) is symmetrical to the complacent tone of the official sources announcing that “in the evening, the town was calm” (Il Messaggero) and that “order was restored and not further disturbed” (the district attorney).1

Those who witnessed or remembered hearing about this incident would tell Portelli that after Trastulli’s death, “nothing happened.” How was that possible? Obviously, life went on for everyone else and they remembered that nothing happened, so they were remembering not “nothing” but something they called “nothing happened.” What was that something? Why was it called “nothing”?

Portelli’s initial assessment is that the failure of accountability was “symmetrical”—that is, proportionate—to the “complacent” media representation of official statements. The police and press jointly ignored workers’ demands and recorded only successful suppression of the protest. “Nothing happened” after the protest was shut down, which is evident because officials claimed that the site of the protest became quiet: “Order was restored and not further disturbed.”

But as Portelli heard in testimony offered decades later, that same calm was remembered as incommensurate to the crime of killing a young protester, inappropriate as a response, and inadequate to their demands for justice. In other words, both sides agreed that “nothing happened,” and yet their understanding of that nothing was not identical.

Memories of silence and failures to act lingered among the communities of Terni workers. When they remembered this particular event of the past, a sense of injustice remained—and in this way, the death of Luigi Trastulli was not over. The man’s life had ended, but the event continued to live on in memories that resisted the official version of the story reported in the papers. Those memories resonated around a sense that “nothing happened.”

André Gide remarked in his 1899 Le Prométhée mal enchaîné (Prometheus Misbound; 1953) that a man writes a book not so much because he has an idea to express but to excuse himself for having had it.2 The book you are reading is written by a historian who may be excused for noticing that Nothing happened and for realizing that this offers a way to understand the very nature of historical consciousness—that is, the way that we become aware that the past is somehow distant from but intimately connected to the present. Nothing, it turns out, is always Something, and in this book it’s always Something about history.

THINKING ABOUT NOTHING AS A WAY OF DOING HISTORY

The past is what happened. History is what we remember and write about the past. Nothing could be simpler—or more complex. How could the past be Nothing, and how could a history be written about it? It’s going to take some (possibly considerable) mental adjustment before you can see Nothing the way I have come to think of it, with a capital N. But to transform Nothing into a legitimate historical subject, all we have to do is see it that way. It’s actually been there all along, in plain sight. It’s just that no one valued it as having a history worth telling.

We can thank the pioneering scientist Louis Pasteur for this insightful formulation of serendipity: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” But do we always remember the person who coined a cliché? Or does the cliché persist regardless, even when we know Nothing else about it? The fact that I’m asking these questions already offers a clue that in this book I am always going to look behind the curtain, ask how something got there, wonder why Something came to be Nothing.

In the case of the serendipity that has resulted in this book about Nothing, I was preparing to teach a class on historical research methods to history majors at the University of Arizona. I asked my colleague Jadwiga Pieper-Mooney, a specialist in Chilean history and a practitioner of oral history, to recommend an introduction to her methodology. She directed me to Portelli’s now classic article, where I found the story of Luigi Trastulli.

I would never have guessed that choosing a text for class would result in this book. Inspiration, like chance, happens randomly, even among those of us trained to practice historical scholarship ethically, responsibly, and as objectively as possible. Portelli, Jadwiga, and I share a common interest in studying historical memory, but Portelli would probably have been quite surprised that I took Nothing away from his work.

And that is how histories get going—not just by filling in the familiar outlines of nations and events but by browsing the library shelves or delving into archives, hearing a story, wondering about a related issue, and being inspired to ask questions about how this all started and what it has meant. As a historian, I’ve always been less interested in “what happened when” than in how people have chosen to remember the past. So too was Portelli, who conducted interviews with contemporaries to recover their understandings of a historical event. He was much more concerned with the ways people remembered and misremembered Trastulli’s death and what it meant to them than he was with solving a murder case. Nothing could have been further from his mind. But it wasn’t far from theirs.

Looking at Nothing in particular is a good way for the historian to think through a central problem: What does it mean to think about the past? I realize this sounds unusual. Most people don’t bother to think about the past at all. But they may have been looking at Nothing and thinking about the past without realizing it.

If I assert that there is, in fact, “Nothing to see,” I immediately risk misunderstanding. That is, after all, what authorities tell you when they want you to keep moving past the scene of a crime: “Nothing to see here. Move along.” If there is nothing to see here, why look? Because we suspect that there is indeed something to see, we just can’t quite make it out. The word nothing encompasses a vast realm of meanings and objects that have been labeled—for many reasons, all of which deserve investigation—unimportant. And yet they continue to draw attention.

Many kinds of viewers, writers, and fans of Nothing have been looking at and writing about Nothing, including those interested in the mathematics of zero, quantum physics, existentialism, Buddhism, boredom, and Jerry Seinfeld, who famously wanted to “make a show about nothing.” There are wonderful books, studies, popular culture (movies, television, blogs), and art about all of those kinds of Nothing. There is far more Nothing out there than any single book could encompass, though others have tried.

I will look instead at the Nothing invoked whenever people have looked at the past and remembered that “nothing happened” but also when they remember that “nothing is the way it was” or “nothing has changed.” I find it fascinating that the same word is used for three quite distinct forms of historical consciousness. What is it about Nothing that allows it to be repeated in such different ways?

Some people are fond of saying that history repeats itself. But as any working historian knows, history doesn’t repeat itself. It just feels that way sometimes, so people repeat themselves. They may be worried that something bad that happened in the past may be happening again. People might also say this when they are pleased to note a similarity between something happening now and something that happened in the past, which creates a positive sense of connection to the past. All these expressions of historical consciousness are familiar, everyday occurrences—so ordinary that they happen all the time, repeatedly.

Whether they think the repetition is good or bad, people call it history to highlight its significance in the present. Historians, on the other hand, are attuned to the infinite scope of the past and are aware that the flow of the past into the present is constantly being tracked through the channels of current understanding. In other words, as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously pronounced, you can’t step into the same river twice, even—or especially—if Nothing has happened since the last time you did it.

I’m far from the first scholar to remember how Heraclitus formulated this principle. You can’t put your foot into the same river twice, he noted, even when you return to the exact same location, because although the river may still be full of water, it’s not the same water that was there before. The past is like that. It’s a moving stream of events that we experience in the present as the appearance of either change or constancy. No matter how we see it, we are either in the river or looking at it, and we might be choosing to dip our toes in.

“Nothing” is also like that. Nothing is always the same: It’s Nothing, and Nothing can change that—but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way, especially when we are noticing that Nothing is going on and that’s just boring, or Nothing has changed when something should have and that’s just unacceptable. And if “Nothing is the way it was,” then everything has changed, so how is Nothing always the same? How can “Nothing is the way it was” and “Nothing has changed” be true at the same time? This isn’t just some funny little grammatical oddity of the notoriously quirky English language. It turns out that looking at Nothing in particular can be a good way of thinking about the meaning of the past, of changes good and bad, of what has happened and what could or maybe should happen. Thinking about Nothing can be a way of doing history.

To look at the past and see Nothing is to be aware of difference and change, because Nothing is the way it was. This is a cliché because it renders the ordinary sensation of change over time in a commonsensical way: There’s the way things were and there’s the way things are now. They aren’t the same. If Nothing is the way it was, then we can perceive difference between past and present, and anticipate a future in which the present won’t look like the way it was either.

Without a perception of the need to account for change over time, history would be unnecessary; we humans would simply persist and there would be no need to interpret and explain a past. Instead, however, we have Nothing to explain, because Nothing is the way it was, and hence we need history to help us understand the past that has happened.

But if Nothing is the way it was, then, bizarrely, an oxymoron is buried in the baseline of modern historical consciousness. Nothing both is and was, which would make Nothing seem to be, in fact, The Same Thing rather than No-Thing. “Nothing is the way it was” offers an incredibly malleable metaphor for history, and not just for the apparently obvious reasons having to do with time and change. Nothing is worth pondering from the perspective of historical consciousness precisely because of its static nature: Everything changes, except Nothing. Nothing remains the same—that is, Nothing remains Nothing—and it turns out that history is a response to both change over time and to the continuum of Nothing remaining the same.

Nothing is, Nothing was, and Nothing is the way it was. Nothing doesn’t change, it remains Nothing. And what a resonant Nothing it is. Is it only a void, emptiness, zero? Nonexistence? Or is it also a vast expanse of open sky or land? Isn’t Nothing also everything that should have happened but didn’t? Once you start seeing Nothing as a historical object, you realize you simply cannot take Nothing for granted.

Some thinkers and artists have pondered Nothing and concluded that it defies understanding; worse, that to continue to ponder is to court disaster. Art historian Francis McKee warns of the dangers about to be embarked on—and how we go there anyway.

Nothing is impossible. Or, put another way, “nothing” is a concept so fraught with paradox and contradictions that it defeats definition. . . . There is now a foolish and brave pantheon of writers, philosophers and scientists who have dedicated themselves to the elaboration of the subject.3

Fascinating, even alluring, Nothing resists definition but seduces thought. This is Nothing perceived as aesthetic, moral, or scientific conundrum: the void, the beyond, the future, the unknown, the ether. When it is understood, it will no longer be Nothing; it will acquire a firmer identity within a discipline or epistemology. In a Buddhist sensibility, Nothing raises positive valences of Nirvana achieved, world and self transcended. “Nothing is certain”: Nothing certainly is Nothing, but Nothing is certain only when it has been redefined and is no longer “nothing.”

“Nothing” is delightfully ambiguous and deviously precise, a word to be used when no other word suffices. Teenagers clearly understand this. Even when they are sounding their most frustratingly vague, when they utter, “I. Can’t. Even.” they are using an incomplete verb phrase to express extreme emotion, deliberately not giving voice (words) to the emotions. (Credit for this insight goes to my formerly teenage daughter Kimberly, an invaluable source of so much Nothing; and it’s probably no longer actively in use, given that her mom is the one reporting it.) By saying nothing, they are expressing exactly how they feel; they are not inarticulate but rather hyperaware of the inadequacy of language. They are saying Nothing as aposiopesis, which is the English professor’s way of saying that they are breaking off in the middle of a thought deliberately, unwilling or unable to continue.

When a child says, “Nothing happened,” they may be insisting on innocence (and parents will know better; see Episode 1). “Nothing” might variously refer to innocence, failures to occur, boredom, or long stretches of time in which noteworthy events were scarce. (Which is why, as we all “know,” during the Dark Ages, nothing happened in Western Europe. More about that in Episode 3.)

When there is Nothing to do, time moves more slowly and tedium ensues and it all feels like too much Nothing. All these experiences qualify as historical events if we define a historical event as something that happened in the past and has meaning in the present. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering to be considered historical. Ask any child who wishes they hadn’t done whatever minor thing they did to get in trouble with the parent: It happened. Nothing happens all the time, in time, and so it is remembered as part of the past.

When something should have happened but instead Nothing happened, as Portelli found among the Terni workers, the abeyance of justice is perceived as a failure of vast proportions. “Nothing happened to the guys who shot him” means that justice was not served. But in reality, it’s not true that “nothing happened” to them: The presumed perpetrators experienced quite a lot of life in the years that followed, just not jail time, and the survivors experienced a delayed and deferred future in which what was supposed to happen didn’t, over and over and always.

The history of injustice is long and painfully familiar to its victims, who are used to enduring frustration and have suffered the consequences. Oral history subjects such as those interviewed by Portelli have sometimes internalized the way justice’s neglect of their needs and experiences relegates them to the sidelines of history. My colleague Fran Leeper Buss has noted over decades of oral history interviews that her subjects, many of whom have suffered physical and emotional abuse as well as injustice, will typically tell her that they don’t understand why she wants to talk to them. They feel that their lives are too ordinary to merit particular attention, that their lives are not historically significant. “Why would you want to talk to me? I’m not important,” they tell her. They think nothing happened in their lives that is worth the attention of scholars, when it is precisely the fact that Nothing happened, that injustice persists, that has drawn historians to them.4

We speak of Nothing to express the extent of the absence, vast as empty spaces and timeless as boredom. As my dad would have said, “There’s a whole lot of nuthin’ out there.” Coming from him, this usually meant that whatever he was looking at was uninteresting or that his idea of what was interesting wasn’t to be found anywhere near where he was. The scope of Nothing is encyclopedic, global. The quantity of Nothing is so vast that once it appears under the historian’s nose, it’s rather difficult not to notice—and impossible not to wonder why it seemed invisible before.

History buffs as well as the losers of many types of conflicts are fond of saying, “History is written by the winners,” implying that to the victors go the spoils of getting to assess and assign meaning, or value, to the past. Typically this also implies that self-congratulatory bias will infect the history that gets told, taught, and remembered, suppressing other interpretations in favor of those who hold power. But it also suggests that what’s worthy gets written up; what’s ordinary or typical is unremarkable and does not. In the end, if you are done with a history, there is nothing left to say. But we keep writing histories, which means that histories are written because there is “Nothing” left to say, and so histories of Nothing are always still ready to be written.

Historians have not entirely neglected Nothing, but scholars have not yet turned their attention to histories of Nothing. When historians read, we pay attention to the language used in our sources, the words and phrases chosen by the author to express meanings, meanings that perhaps even exceed the authors’ intentions. When we read old manuscripts or books, we give them careful consideration as material records of the past. But although we may have sneezed when taking a book off a shelf or old papers out of a folder, we haven’t typically considered the dust on the archival material as anything to write about. Nothing drew our attention to it; it was just there, just matter, not “what matters.”

Historians—in particular the French writer Jules Michelet in the nineteenth century and the British scholar Carolyn Steedman in the twentieth—have described the realization that they had been inhaling the past while they were working in archives. Michelet was moved by a sense that the dead came back to life as “I breathed their dust.” Steedman realized, with some concern, that it wasn’t just the musty dust of the archive that was making her feverish, when she felt ill while conducting research; it was a potentially lethal pathogen. The dust she was breathing actually came from handmade leather bindings produced more than 200 years earlier using a tanning process that could well transmit meningitis. In her book Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (2001), Steedman considers dust as real historical residue. She riffs on how historians have been guilty of inhaling, not merely reading, as they attempt to reveal everything about the past.

In the practices of history and of modern autobiographical narration, there is the assumption that nothing goes away; that the past has deposited all of its traces, somewhere, somehow (though they may be, in particular instances, difficult to retrieve).5

Historians pride themselves on getting as close as possible to knowing how and why the past happened as it did. We know that we will never know the entirety of the past, but we also dare to hope that “nothing goes away” and that if we could only find them, new discoveries would be possible. We are willing to devote much time and effort into recovering the most obscure bits and pieces that no one else has recently seen, those traces of the past that bear analysis, and polishing them into the historical nuggets that intrigue modern readers and students. Steedman contemplates Michelet’s earlier experience with breathing in the dust of his ancestors, particularly those who participated in the French Revolution. Both scholars found that when Nothing goes away, the traces of it that you can inhale have the power to move you.

Dust is one of those traces of the past that, like Nothing, is usually seen as something to get rid of or ignore. Steedman, like me, like Portelli, is telling her own story as a working historian thinking about memory, which is something the reading public generally hasn’t been demanding to hear. They expect to be taught about how the past really happened and aren’t particularly concerned with dust unless it makes them sneeze or gets things dirty. What if, instead, we remembered how we thought that Nothing happened and discovered that Nothing was happening all along? How would we dust off our historical consciousness and breathe in Nothing?

I now see Nothing everywhere. I find it in sources I read years ago and have actively referred to continually, in texts I read now because I am looking for Nothing, and in books I reread and discover that Nothing was there all along, such as Jane Austen’s Emma, which provided the epigraph to this book.6

In the age of internet search engines, searching for a phrase like “nothing happened” in Google Books can produce wonderfully serendipitous results, certainly more results than any one scholar should try to handle. In response to Google’s algorithms and my previous searches, I was offered sources I might otherwise never have seen. I may recognize an author or be reminded about a title I had already read before I was looking for Nothing. Historians always make selections of their sources, choosing what seems most relevant and important from among the almost infinite set of available material. Whether working in an archive, at a library, or on the internet, we make choices about which sources we will work with. During this project, I have been frequently delighted by what Google Books has scanned and offered when searched. But how much of my “finding” Nothing happening was shaped by my already having seen it or read it and not paid any attention to it? Some combination of archive, algorithm, advertising dollars, serendipity, and the dusting off of my own history of reading with attention to historical consciousness has recovered all this Nothing.

NOTES

1. Alessandro Portelli, “The Death of Luigi Trastulli: Memory and the Event,” in Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), 1–26.

2. Cited in Raymond D. Fogelson, “The Ethnohistory of Events and Nonevents,” Ethnohistory 36(2) (1989): 133.

3. Francis McKee, “From Zero to Nothing in No Time,” in Graham Gussin and Ele Carpenter, eds., Nothing (Singapore: August Media, 2001), 16.

4. See, for example, Fran Leeper Buss, Memory, Meaning, and Resistance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018).

5. Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 76.

6. It should be a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the finest novels ever written in the English language, closely followed by her Persuasion. Emma is another matter; I never liked it, but I was persuaded by a fellow Austen fan to give it a second chance, whereupon I found Nothing and knew that Jane Austen gets it.