Beyond expression

For a long time I used to think that the word “ineffable” described something that one isn’t allowed to swear at. Now that I know what it really means, I don’t think I had been too far off, for that which is too wonderful to be expressed in words really shouldn’t be sworn at. But that such a word exists at all strikes me as remarkable, for in its existence, and in the existence also of its polar opposite, “unspeakable”, there lies an implicit assumption that there are certain things that mere language is incapable of expressing. The ineffable is too great to be expressed in words, and the unspeakable too horrendous: in both cases, language fails us.

It is for this reason, I think, that it is often claimed that music is a greater art form than literature, for it is more expressive: unlike the art form based in language, music can convey the sense of the ineffable. (And also, I suppose, the unspeakable: Schubert and Mahler, amongst others, have both expressed a pitch of terror surpassing anything that may be conveyed by words.) The dictum that music begins where words end is frequently attributed, on the net at least, to both Heine and to Goethe; my searches, however, couldn’t locate a source, and I am always wary of attribution where the source isn’t cited. Rilke, to throw another German poet into the mix, does say in the poem “An die Musik”, Du Sprache wo Sprachen enden (“you speak where language ends”), though one suspects he is putting into words a sentiment that, at time of writing, was already current. A scholarly book to which I have been referred (note to sceptics: Twitter does have its uses if one tries to steer clear of the madness!) claims that the only source for this saying is in the correspondence between Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck. But be the source as it may, that the sentiment itself is widely accepted seems undeniable.

Mendelssohn said something quite similar:

The thoughts which are expressed to me by the music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but, on the contrary, too definite…

(I take it this is a translation from the German, but I do not know who the translator is: I found it here, from the book Nineteenth Century Piano Music by R. Larry Todd.)

Once again, the sentiment is much the same: music is capable of expressing what words cannot.

Similar claims, I imagine, can be made for the visual arts, and I’d be surprised if they haven’t. Is it possible to express in words what is conveyed, say, by Michelangelo’s Medici Tombs? Or by Velazquez’ Las Meninas? That such works are expressing something is indisputable, but when we try to put into words what it is they express, we flounder. And the reason we flounder is not merely that these works may express different things to different people (although that is no doubt true too): often, despite finding ourselves affected by such works, we fail to express in words just what it is about them that affects us so, even on a personal level.

In this context, literature seems a strange beast. For literature, too, as those of us who love literature will testify, is capable of expressing the ineffable: it is simply not possible to put into words what a King Lear or an Anna Karenina may mean to us. But here, we find ourselves faced with an oxymoron: for, just as painting is composed of colours and sculpture with physical forms, and just as music is composed of sounds, so literature is composed of words and nothing but words; so, in saying literature is capable of expressing the ineffable, we are effectively making the quite ludicrous claim that words are expressing that which words are not capable of expressing.

And yet, unless we think that literature is indeed an inferior art form (and I certainly don’t), that is precisely what we are saying. I used to define poetry as “The manipulation of language to express that which language, were it not for the manipulation, could not express”; I still think that’s a pretty decent stab at a definition, but it falls down somewhat on the fact (for fact I think it is) that this definition could apply to other forms of literature also – to novels  and stories, to plays. Ultimately, it seems to me, this is the profoundly paradoxical aim of all serious literature – to express using language what language cannot express.

But if this is indeed what literature that aims to be serious aims for, and literature that we may justly term ineffable actually achieves, it leaves us book bloggers with something of a problem: what do we say about such literature? If we are talking about fiction, we could, I suppose, merely summarise the plot, but I don’t know that takes us anywhere at all.  Many, I know, stumble upon this blog (and other blogs  too, presumably) by searching for “plot synopsis”, and I have always wondered what they hope to gain from it. Anyway, mine not to reason why: if plot synopsis is what they want, there is plenty available that should satisfy them, though what need it satisfies is frankly beyond me. The problem I have with plot synopses is not a question of “spoilers”: it’s rather that, in any work of literature of any substance, the plot conveys very little of the essence of the work. A mere outline of the plot of Othello, say, says nothing, absolutely nothing, about what it is to experience the work, either on stage or on the page. For that is indeed ineffable.

But, given that the essence of a great work of literature is ineffable – it is so by definition, I think, for it is this very quality that confers greatness – I am on a loser in trying to convey what it means to me, or how I react to it. Oh, of course, I could use a few vague, generic terms – moving, disturbing, thought-provoking, and the like – but they don’t really convey too much. I do try, at least, to go a bit further than that, but reading over some of my old posts, not, I fear, with any spectacular success.

Maybe we should be allowed to swear at the ineffable after all. Fucking Othello!

5 responses to this post.

  1. The struggle is real!


  2. Posted by LaFollia on July 19, 2019 at 9:04 pm

    I strongly hope that this is not your valedictory post!


    • Hello,
      Thank you for that! I do hope to go on for some time yet, simply because I do enjoy writing. But I’m afraid of simply repeating myself, and getting boring and predictable: I do hope someone will let me know if I get to that stage, if, indeed, I haven’t got there already!

      Cheers, Himadri


  3. Ooh, naughty 🙂

    I haven’t found a reliable attribution to the “music begins where words end” quote either, though the balance seems to favour Heine. These days I use it when people ask me what I see in e.g.Wagner; I tell them to listen to him rather than to me. After all, if one of the greatest poets felt unable to describe music with language, what chance do the rest of us have?

    Of course one can describe the dry mechanics of music, but it is no help to appreciation. I remember that in the days when concert programmes didn’t consist almost entirely of adverts,the pieces being played would be described in terms that only people who had studied music at an advanced level would understand. It amused me to look at people who started reading the programme because they were bored in the slow movement and wonder if, having read that after 34 bars there is a major/minor modulation from A flat to F sharp, underpinned with a contrapuntal ostinato grounded in the dominant*, they would experience an epiphany and start enjoying the music. You can guess how many times that happened.

    Perhaps a better way to help newcomers would indeed be “Listen out for the bit three minutes in, it’s ****ing amazing!”

    *That’s not supposed to make sense.


    • I guess it must be difficult writing these programme notes. How do you involve the neophyte without boring the cognoscenti? You can’t really do both, I guess. And is it OK to assume at least a modicum of knowledge? Usually, you end up with passages like “The long sinuous melody on the string sis then broken up abruptly by violent chords on the brass…” or something. I really don’t envy the programme writers!

      I do write about music sometimes because, well, because I love it, and part of the purpose of this blog is for me to go on a bit about things I love! But I am really restricted to describing how the music makes me feel.

      Mind you, that’s not really too different from how I write about literature either, is it?

      Cheers for now, Himadri


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