A Raid on the Inarticulate

There are insufficient words. Is that what I mean to say? Words are insufficient. Language is insufficient. How can language express emotion? I make a declaratory statement, “I love you” or “I hate you”. What can either predicate, love or hate, possibly mean when its usage is so indiscriminate? How can “I love my daughter, or my friend” use the same predicate when its subject is ice-cream or Camembert. I love Camembert. I hate my enemy and football: in one case I wish the subject’s annihilation, the other merely bores me. In East Coker, Eliot uses the language of conflict to depict this battle with inarticulacy:

Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Eliot uses his shabby equipment exquisitely, but he still fails to articulate the inarticulate. Trying to find the mot juste is to run into failure, flailing like Victor Krap in Beckett’s Eleutheria: [Victor] runs to the footlights, wants to say something but can’t, makes a helpless gesture, exits, gesticulating wildly. Silence.

Anselm Kiefer’s Aschenblume captures how exile has transformed me in a way that my language is inadequate to express. Forsakenness, vastness, loneliness, despondency, curiosity, emptiness; none of these concepts are sufficient.

Aschenblume, 2004 - Anselm Kiefer

Aschenblume, 2004 – Anselm Kiefer

You needn’t speak German to comprehend the pain and cursed exhilaration of Winterreise. The music reaches into the inarticulate beyond the expressive range of language.

9 thoughts on “A Raid on the Inarticulate

  1. Are you sure you’d want to be able to articulate such feelings?

    From Maeterlinck’s Le Trésor des humbles: “Dès que nous exprimons quelque chose, nous le diminuons étrangement. Nous croyons avoir plongé jusqu’au fond des abîmes et quand nous remontons à la surface, la goutte d’eau qui scintille au bout de nos doigts pâles ne ressemble plus à la mer d’où elle sort. Nous croyons avoir découvert une grotte aux trésors merveilleux; et quand nous revenons au jour, nous n’avons emporté que des pierreries fausses et des morceaux de verre; et cependant le trésor brille invariablement dans les ténèbres.”

    (My translation: “As soon as we express something, we diminish it in a strange way. We believe we’ve plunged into the depths of the abyss, but when we return to the surface, the drop of water glistening on our pale fingertips no longer resembles the sea from which it came. We imagine we’ve discovered a wonderful treasure trove, but when we return to the light of day, we find we’ve brought back only false stones and shards of glass; nevertheless, the treasure still shines in the dark, unchanged.”)

    • Given the ability, I’d like to be capable of articulating such feelings. I suspect I would rarely articulate them directly, but the creative capability such expressive power might unlock is unimaginable.

      • Do you know of anyone who has that ability, or who has attained that level of expressive power?

        I ask because, in my experience, and from what I’ve read or heard regarding others’ experiences, transcendent creative capability arises (if at all) only when language and thinking have been severely dulled, if not suspended. It seems to me that the impulse to characterize (make distinctions) immediately short-circuits high creativity (and coincidentally, high emotion), pretty much the same way that merely attempting to coax a fading dream into waking consciousness sends it right back the other way, into permanent oblivion: opposing functions, in other words. Maybe it’s the increase in brainwave frequencies?

        Regardless, I question whether enhanced powers of expression can unlock creative capability, and I also question whether any physiological reaction (such as emotion, or pain, or sensory reception) can be described in language beyond the purposefully generic. Loneliness and despondency are no more difficult to verbally convey than an itch or the color blue, after all.

        • The poets get closest, Shakespeare and Dante. Shakespeare’s expressive power still staggers me, and has not been surpassed in the English language. Woolf also came close, I believe, to a rendering of feeling available previously only to painters and composers.

      • (Oops…meant to reply sooner. Sorry.)

        Yes, I agree that Shakespeare and Dante’s expressive powers are staggering, but what I intended to ask (and didn’t articulate well) is whether you know, or know of, anyone whose creative capability was, in fact, unlocked by such expressive powers, as you surmised might happen to you if you were capable of articulating the feelings you’d written about. Is that really possible, do you think?

        P.S. You mentioned that exile has transformed you. From where are you in exile?

        • Personally you mean? No, nor do I think language has the capability of that degree of articulation, though I believe that music does, and possibly the visual arts (painting).

          Exile is a strong word, and feels hyperbolic, but I was exiled from Brunei in south-east Asia as a teenager, lost my home and possessions overnight, and many of my friends.

  2. I’ve not read that Eliot poem but I am going to have to track it down, the excerpt is fantastic. As much as we can do with language there is always a certain point when it fails. Thank goodness for art and music because they are expert at expressing things that language can’t. I think it is admirable though that writers still keep trying.

Post a Comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s