What the Ineff?


Once again I was drawn into writing this week’s blog post by an aeon.co article I found. Written by visiting researcher and lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Silvia Jonas, Unspeakable Things investigates why so many of life’s most meaningful experiences leave us completely unable to put them into words. Whether in the form of beauty, art, religious phenomena, astral experience or some other profound event, why are some moments so entirely ineffable? i.e., too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words?

Don’t worry. I’m not about to get all philosophical on you. I considered majoring in philosophy for about five minutes, but quickly realized name dropping and talking in circles wasn’t for me. I almost didn’t finish Silvia’s article as a matter of fact. She began losing me at Maimonides. I was yawning at Wittgenstein and by the time she got to Kant and Kierkegaard I’d put myself on suicide watch. But something within the article hooked me.

What is it that pushes us writers to even attempt to describe the indescribable? Everyone has thoughts and feelings, but writers feel it necessary to try and put them on the page. Why do we do so when the task seems so daunting? Philosophers since Kant argue ineffability is a symptom of the insufficiency of language; a statement to which any writer no matter how successful can attest from time-to-time. Just look at how mystery-meister Stephen King describes the cringe-worthy process of turning thoughts into words in his novella The Body:

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

And this heart-felt characterization was written by a man who has sold over 350 million copies of his works! Talk about being able to put into words the excruciating pain of writing, even though this protagonist of his may not have been referring to writing at all. Writers are an interesting breed; especially writers of fiction. There’s always a theme - a motif perhaps, that is seen over and over by the reader. There’s a moral, plot devices and clichés. Perhaps a trope or two, and all this, even when they were never intended.

Oh, the power of words, even when they fail miserably to impart the emotion we feel inside. But I say we should never stop trying. Write in the knowledge that you will always be left wanting. Write knowing your words will never encompass all that you have to say. I leave you this week with a few of my favorite “perfections,” but I bet if you asked the authors who wrote them they’d shrug their shoulders and say they not that that good.

Do you have a favorite passage or sentence that just blows you away? Share below, especially if it’s one of your own. Beauty shouldn’t ever be closeted!

“We cross our bridges as we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and the presumption that once our eyes watered.”

—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”

—Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

“Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”

- Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

(Above photo by a wonderful photographer I found on Flikr. Go check out Anneke van Rangelrooij’s work!)

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