Loss for Words

“Words cannot describe…”
“I’m struggling to find the right words…”
“Words fail me…”
“It’s hard to explain…”

The experience of being unable to verbalize a thought, sensation, or experience is terrifying to me, and I’ll tell you why: it reminds me that all of existence is only perceivable through a series of clumsy symbols.

Think about all those times you’ve been unable to adequately express yourself.  Think about how your inner desires and convictions were at the mercy of your eloquence.  Think about how dissatisfied you felt when, while holding the brief and elusively precious attention of an audience, you stood there and stumbled through an idea that was only kind of close to what you wanted to say.  And then you went home and thought about all the other things you could’ve said otherwise that were better.

And thus exist two realities: the reality in which you exist without language, and the reality in which others perceive you with language.  The battle to be understood is a constant confrontation between these two realities.  Does the distance between our internal self and our perceived self indicate our level of alienation or social anxiety?

I don’t speak only of spoken word, but all of self-expression.  Our movements and our gestures, as well as our words, are mere symbols, and can a symbol ever truly accurately depict the very reality it’s attempting to symbolize?  Could it be that all of our physical interaction with the perceivable world is somehow cheaply symbolic to some abstract metaphysical intention?

Or what if we can only perceive our own feelings through the filter of language even if we choose not to use language to express them.  Maybe the complexity of our individual internal experiences are an illusion, and the symbols of language are how we process and understand them.  Does language itself allow us to feel?  Is our internal desire forced to submit to our dictionary of expressive tools, or does our dictionary of expressive tools define our personal experiences of desire?

I don’t know.

But I do know this:sadness and “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” are two very different feelings.

Perhaps the difference between average writing and good writing is this – average writing sacrifices the richness of the experience for the directness of expressing it, whereas good writing uses symbols that evoke otherwise inexpressible feelings through associations.  Perhaps great writing is somehow harnessing these associations in a direct manner, which is something very hard to do.  Brevity is an oft undervalued quality in literature.

Maybe the key to an internally enriching and psychologically cohesive life is to stay in touch with the non-symbolized internal reality in which we live, and trying to express that reality only when necessary through unique specific associations rather than cheap quantifiers and qualifiers.  Perhaps the only way to be true to yourself is to refrain from expressing yourself (I say as I clumsily express my thoughts on a blog).  That is to say, maybe the key to living well (whatever that means) is to live poetry.  (I try to refrain from saying “the key to happiness” because I don’t believe that life is about happiness – sorrow and desire are just as important for keeping me passionate as joy is)

This is what I find incredible about literature – the written word was invented to symbolize the spoken word, but literature is the written word divorced from the spoken word.  The written word no longer stands for what it was invented to stand for.  Think about lolcats.  It is impossible to speak a lolcat and have the same effect or even a remote understanding.  Lolcats exist in a world of the written word where the hierarchies of symbolic meaning are completely destroyed.  The lolcat has no reality beyond itself, and yet, it is an ever-cycling parody of its own invented reality.  That is why I see lolcats as the highest form of existentialist humor.

Well, maybe not, but words are failing me right now, and that’s the best example I could come up with.

About Doctor Quack

Just another bonehead with an internet connection.
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38 Responses to Loss for Words

  1. smshamma says:

    Reblogged this on Just Sayin' and commented:
    Very eloquent piece on the experience of being unable to express yourself adequately.

    • Doctor Quack says:

      Thank you. I hope reading it was an experience mostly devoid of irony.

      • smshamma says:

        It was great, and a piece I’m sure everyone can relate to.
        I couldn’t have said it better myself. For one who finds himself (herself?) at a loss for words, you conveyed (and convey) your thoughts quite well.

  2. This is what frightens me about first encounters. In effect, the other person understands my entire existence by the handful of clumsy, inaccurate words I choose to throw at them.

    • Kat says:

      Maybe, but if the other person isn’t a total jerk, they won’t write you off because of an awkward first meeting. You don’t come away from a first encounter knowing anything other than what cheesy jokes someone knows to dispel the awkward silences. It takes a while to find common interests, usually. Most (decent) people I know don’t make judgment calls like that the first time they meet someone, unless they insulted their grandmother, did something ridiculously dangerous, or spiked their drink or something.

    • Doctor Quack says:

      This is why you have to have a collection of well-crafted pickup lines, Alexei, for which the internet is your greatest resource. After all, why use your own clumsy words to introduce yourself when you could use somebody else’s? That way, rejection isn’t a reflection of you as much as it is a reflection of whoever it was you chose to emulate.

  3. Interesting post. The feelings come first, I think. We feel emotions long before we are coherent – think of babies!
    Maybe really good writers are the ones who are able to accurately find the words to express those inner feelings. The best explanations stick around.

  4. Angel says:

    I guess “good writing” majorly depends on the person reading it – whatever good means to him/her and irregardless of it being the same “good” as what you or others think “good” really is. Provided of course, that the reader is honest of his/her opinion. Is this making sense? or am I typing inter-gallactic opinions again? ;D

    • Kat says:

      Inter-galactic opinions…I feel like I should make a Star Trek joke right now.

      Anyway, yeah, you make sense. It’s all about each person’s individual set of perceptions. For example, I hated “Moby Dick.” Despised. Blegh. No. Never again. But a friend of mine loves it. To pieces. But I love “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and he hated it. Yet they are both considered “good” writing. They’re both classic literature.

  5. Dii says:

    Is it really that language allows us to feel and not simply express what we feel? I have wondered this too. 🙂 great post!

  6. Displaced Texan says:

    Have you ever studied deconstruction? There are legions of scholars tackling this issue–interesting that you came up with it on your own. I think only certain types of people realize there is a break between language and intended meaning on their own. Enjoying your blog!

    • Doctor Quack says:

      I haven’t studied deconstruction, but now that you mention it, I probably should. Thank you for the advice.

      Also, Displaced Texan? Whereabouts are you displaced? I happen to be a displaced Californian living in Texas.

      • Displaced Texan says:

        Sorry I didn’t respond till now! I forgot to check a box or something that alerts me I’ve had a reply. I’m displaced in Boston. It was nice at first, but it’s safe to say I wasn’t built for the snow. 🙂 I grew up in Houston but call Waco home. Loved your most recent post about crossing 50 lanes as a pedestrian in Austin, by the way.

  7. amomnextdoor says:

    Interesting questions and ideas. From the vantage point of twice twenty, I have a different perspective on the existential questions of language and reality. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in my body for over forty years now, maybe it’s because I’m married, but I don’t get as bound up in worrying about the linguistic expression of myself and ideas, except when I am writing. When I was a child, I wasn’t even aware of the existence of my body–I couldn’t feel it on me the way I did after I was twenty. Then there were long stretches when I preferred not to experience life through my body, since it didn’t look or feel the way I wanted to. Easy to sit in front of a computer then and become the body of my words. But get into a good marital argument, the kind that repeats itself over and over again for years because neither of you can get past the words you’re producing…then you know there is more there than just the words. Sometimes it’s not because the words are wrong, but just that we pay more attention to them than to the rest, the non-symbolic. The reality in which someone can just look at you, and understand.

    • Doctor Quack says:

      Your discussion of the body and feeling the body reminds me of a character in Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” In that story (fantastic book, by the way), Tereza often feels detached from her body, and sees it as an impersonal element to who she is, because, after all, she didn’t choose her body. Her body was grouped with her as a sort of betrothal. I know this isn’t exactly what you’re saying, but it reminded me of it, so I thought I’d just blabber on about it here.

  8. Kat says:

    Words now have the power to invoke emotion. If I say I am bitter, angry, or cynical, each of those words has specific connotations that produce phantom emotional responses in the reader. Literature uses this ability to create whole worlds for the reader. The reason I love literature is because I can dive into the writer’s world and enjoy traveling with the protagonist in my mind’s eye.

    And yes, it’s all about perception–each person interprets writing on an individual level. So sometimes writers don’t accomplish what they set out to do, because their perception and their readers’ are different. Writing isn’t just about self-expression. It’s about connecting with people, sharing a bit of your soul with them and forming common bonds–that’s why people flock to certain books, they feel connected to the author in some way.

    But I think that as long as you are trying to communicate with others, as long as your goal is to bridge the gap between your inner self and your outward communication, then you are living life to the fullest. The qualifiers and quantifiers aren’t cheap, though they are frustrating.

    If your goal is merely perfect self-expression, then yes, words may get in the way. But isn’t it more heartbreaking to be completely true to yourself, but unable to share that with others? Actions can only convey so much. They can tell me about how you’re feeling at a given moment, but they can’t tell me about the lavender spray of flowers you saw beside the road one morning, the feel of horseflesh under your palm, or the heat of the desert sun. Unless you drag me to the flowers, take me horseback riding, or toss me into the desert.

    Wait, you know what? I think I might prefer being dragged all over the continent to experience all those things. Hmm.

    Random: I’m listening to Toto’s Africa. So much love.

    • Doctor Quack says:

      Ha, yeah. Take me with you on your continental dragging tour – I’d rather taste the food than read about it.

      You know, it seems clear to me, as it does to you, and I’m sure most people here, that the experiences of life have value insofar as they can be shared with the people we care about. But then again, we’re all bloggers. Sharing is what we crave. It’s hard for me to imagine an existence completely void of caring what others think, or void of the need to share the things you love with the people you love. But perhaps out there somewhere is somebody who lives alone in a log cabin out in Western Montana with no friends, no family, no language, no expression, and a constant state of sublime euphoria.

  9. Pingback: Loss for Words | Doctor Quack | COBB : Confessions Of a Bored Bomb

  10. Meenakshi says:

    While reading this post, there were so many instances from my past flashing through my head! Brilliantly written!

  11. Alas, I am at a loss for words. But I did love how you managed to say what I don’t think I could. Love the emotion in that song, by the way (Toto’s Africa). 🙂

  12. Hinda says:

    I don’t know if you’re a religious person, but I dealt with this precise issue with my congregants a couple years ago (I serve a Jewish congregation). My own reflection on this is here: http://shul101.wordpress.com/2010/05/08/when-we-have-no-words/.
    I really appreciated your thoughts on this. Really moving.

  13. Hala J. says:

    You’ve pretty much said things that I’ve only ever thought about and, coincidentally, could never put into words. I like to blog, but I always have phases where I go over every post meticulously thinking that I could not have written using a crappier method. Language, despite being something I love, is often the first thing that gets in my way. This was an amazing post!!

  14. thelooker23 says:

    I was just thinking about that yesterday! This was amazing, I love how you managed to describe not being able to describe things in words so perfectly! (and here comes the irony…)

  15. John S says:

    No idea what a lolcat is, but some of what you’re saying is getting into Wittgenstein territory. Read him?

  16. B M says:

    “…And then you went home and thought about all the other things you could’ve said otherwise that were better.”

    As a word geek, I feel compelled to share my newly discovered favorite: esprit de l’escaliar. Literally, staircase wit, referring to the clever retort you thought of on your way out. Now, if only, if only I could incorporate it into my vocabulary without sounding like I’m choking on my own saliva.

  17. this is a wonderful conversation from a thought provoking blog. I too am both amazed at waht language can do for us, and simultaneously constrained by it. Since being a young teen I have been drawn to the written word as a territory for me to explore myself in. I cannot imagine an existence without language, and yet I consider this possibility often. I want to discover the intimate connection between feeling and expression. Feelings often remain hidden to me until I chance upon an expression of them, and at that point the resonance hold in it joy, relief, sometimes regret. I have often wondered how early man related to one another. Fascinating.

  18. Forgot to say, ironically the part I loved in your blog was the celebration of brevity in literature. I do think that well thought out writing takes out a lot of extraneous ‘stuff’. And this I like alot ‘That is to say, maybe the key to living well (whatever that means) is to live poetry. (I try to refrain from saying “the key to happiness” because I don’t believe that life is about happiness – sorrow and desire are just as important for keeping me passionate as joy is)’

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  20. Rick Bailey says:

    So much to talk about here, Dr Q, but I’ll be brief.

    First and foremost, wonderfully well done again. DIfficult subject to express, which you have expressed admirably well. I’m very impressed.

    “Words fail me” sums up my verbal/vocal life. Perhaps this is true for many, hence the rise of blogging, resorting to written words. But not just blogging. Before there was blogging there was “journaling.” I bet you are a private journaler too. When words fail, it seems that only a torrent of words will do. It seems that if I keep moving the handle up and down, if I pump out enough words, I will get to the right words. This is not possible in a vocal sense, because I’m too shy to inflict my boring self on any one person long enough to get to the accurate expression (except for my very tolerant wife, who has patiently listened throughout our long marriage). The journal, on the other hand, will take all I can give it, and provide something in return: when I’ve finally expressed all and accurately, it provides catharsis without fear of exposing my inner self to evaluation by someone I don’t trust.

    Well, I guess that wasn’t so brief…

    • Doctor Quack says:

      Thank you for the kind words.

      I suppose it is slightly odd though, with journals, that we feel the need to symbolize our emotions to ourselves even without public viewership. If what is on the inside is the purest form of who we are, and by communicating we lose some of the original, then what does it mean for us if we can’t even make sense of our own internal drives without first codifying them?

      But alas, that could just be nonsensical speak. I will say, though, that I got so comfortable using AIM and email as a social crutch (being able to revise everything I say) that, at one point in early college, I literally didn’t know how to talk to people outside of a computer without getting unbelievably nervous.

      • Rick Bailey says:

        Not everyone – myself included – “feels the need to symbolize.” For some – again, I refer to me – journaling is a means of access. “Why do I feel the way I feel?” For me, the reason for emotions or thoughts is often discovered if I submit the subject to enough descriptive words in the privacy of my own notebook.

        I can understand being locked up, in a verbal sense. In fact, one of my children struggles with this too, because he (and I, too) doesn’t want to say anything that doesn’t express exactly what he intends. When you write, you can edit endlessly for the perfect expression.

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