When words will not do

Sep 22nd, 2008 | By | Category: Spirituality

Sometimes words just don’t work. There will be some thought, some picture that comes to mind, but as soon as an attempt is made to put it into a sequence of symbols on a page, it gets lost.

W.G Sebald’s novel Austerlitz makes a passing reference to a lady called Enid calling in her cat at night.  For a moment there was a sense of absolute security as the reference conjured up a thought of a lady standing at the back door of her house on a warm English summer’s evening, like Enid calling out for the cat to come in. The image is of a terraced house, a black and white television is still switched on.  There is a sense of all being well.

Yet even in trying to find words, the magic of the moment is spread so thin that it is filled with holes and becomes dull and domestic.

Later in the book Austerlitz, Sebald’s central character, expresses that sense of wordlessness.

I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest effort, and written it down, than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed. If at times some kind of self-deception none the less made me feel that I had done a good day’s work, then as soon as I glanced at the page next morning I was sure to find the most appalling mistakes, inconsistencies and lapses star­ing at me from the paper. However much or little I had written, on a subsequent reading it always seemed so fundamentally flawed that I had to destroy it immediately and begin again. Soon I could not even venture on the first step. Like a tightrope walker who has forgotten how to put one foot in front of the other, all I felt was the swaying of the precarious structure on which I stood, stricken with terror at the realization that the ends of the balancing pole gleaming far out on the edges of my field of vision were no longer my guiding lights, as before, but malignant enticements to me to cast myself into the depths. Now and then a train of thought did succeed in emerging with wonderful clarity inside my head, but I knew even as it formed that I was in no position to record it, for as soon as I so much as picked up my pencil the endless pos­sibilities of language, to which I could once safely abandon myself, became a conglomeration of the most inane phrases.

Perhaps one of the reasons why there is a fondness for the Latin Mass, or the 16th Century Book of Common Prayer, is that one can enter into a wordless realm.  Language becomes rhythm and rhyme and tone, rising above the level of the meaning of words.  It is like listening to songs in a foreign language which have a mystique as long as the language remains foreign, but become bland and earthbound as soon as they are understood.

Perhaps Karl Jenkins achieves that sort of wordlessness in Adiemus, perhaps it’s something for which clergy should strive!

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  1. Doesn’t that extract from the book put into words exactly how we feel in life when those negative thoughts and feelings get hold of us. It is all so totally encompassing and numbing. We are just like the tightrope walker and we are not able to put one foot before the other and no thoughts make any sense. It is so good when you find someone else has been able to put it into perfect words just what has been going on in one’s mind.

  2. Well if nothing else Ian, listening to that has chilled me out now for the night. With a vision of Enya in my mind Ahhhhh !!!!!!!!!

  3. I’m rarely lost for words, not that the words which spill out are meaningful! I frequently feel like the tightrope walker though! I always loved that Clannad song from Harry’s Game but never understood a word in it! Beautiful.

  4. I get all the words wrong and then give up altogether.

    It’s funny, I saw Madness back in June, and the lyrics of ‘My girl’s mad at me’ made sense!

    My girl’s mad at me
    Been on the telephone for an hour
    We hardly said a word
    I tried and tried but I could not be heard
    Why can’t I explain?
    Why do I feel this pain?
    ‘Cause everything I say
    She doesn’t understand
    She doesn’t realise
    She takes it all the wrong way

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