“That for which we find words is already dead in our hearts,” says Nietzsche. “There is a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” Language, then, is a substitute for the inexpressibly rich and the unfathomably deep. It is a perpetual reaching-forth towards something (beauty? love? truth?) that recedes even as we attempt to trap it in the web of our words. It is translation, and something is always lost when we translate. It is a faded window onto the world, into our hearts. And it is associated with a kind of suffering that is born out of a sense of incompleteness, a sense that no matter how hard we try, no matter how beautifully and evocatively we use the language that we have, the inexpressible (truth or beauty, the Grecian urn would say they are one) remains ever elusive, beyond our grasp; something that we have access to through sensation, feeling and imagination, but which disappear the moment we try to know it, or even worse, to communicate it to others through the only medium we have – our language.
Although Nietzsche’s own position is more subtle and complex, he does express this thought in a series of dazzling aphorisms. In S. 296 of Beyond Good and Evil:
“What then do we write and paint, we mandarins with Chinese brush, we immortalisers of things which LEND themselves to writing, what are we alone capable of painting? Alas, only that which is just about to fade and begins to lose its odour! Alas, only exhausted and departing storms and belated yellow sentiments! Alas, only birds strayed and fatigued by flight, which now let themselves be captured with the hand—with OUR hand! We immortalize what cannot live and fly much longer, things only which are exhausted and mellow!”
A slightly different sentiment from S. 423, The Dawn of Day:
“Alas! the silence deepens, and once again my heart swells within me: it is startled by a fresh truth—it, too, is dumb; it likewise sneers when the mouth calls out something to this beauty; it also enjoys the sweet malice of its silence. I come to hate speaking; yea, even thinking. Behind every word I utter do I not hear the laughter of error, imagination, and insanity? Must I not laugh at my pity and mock my own mockery? Oh sea, oh evening, ye are bad teachers! Ye teach man how to cease to be a man. Is he to give himself up to you? Shall he become as you now are, pale, brilliant, dumb, immense, reposing calmly upon himself?—exalted above himself?”
And perhaps most eloquently, in Thus Spake Zarathustra (“The Convalescent”):
“How charming it is that there are words and tones; are not words and tones rainbows and seeming bridges ‘twixt the eternally separated? To each soul belongeth another world; to each soul is every other soul a back-world. Among the most alike doth semblance deceive most delightfully: for the smallest gap is most difficult to bridge over. For me—how could there be an outside-of-me? There is no outside! But this we forget on hearing tones; how delightful it is that we forget!”
I find the imagery of rainbow-bridges particularly poignant. Who hasn’t read about the futile, yearning chase for the pot of fool’s gold at the end of the rainbow, the continuous chase towards the ever-receding goal? Is that, then, the character of language? A continuing yet useless attempt to build a bridge between each individual’s eternally isolated world, a gloss upon our solitude, an anodyne of forgetfulness? Something always incomplete, partial… secondary?
Auden has a different view, one that he expresses in Making, Knowing and Judging, his inaugural lecture as the Oxford Professor of Poetry. At the beginning, he quotes Valery on poetry:
“The power of verse [writes Valery] is derived from an indefinable harmony between what it says and what it is. Indefinable is essential to the definition. The harmony ought not to be definable; when it can be defined it is imitative harmony and that is not good. The impossibility of defining the relation, together with the impossibility of denying it, constitutes the essence of the poetic line.”
Auden cites this to support his point that what distinguishes poetry from prose is that in poetry it matters what particular word is associated with an idea, whereas in prose, it is a question of arbitrary convention. Leaving that aside, if we read “what it says” to refer to form and language, and “what it is” to the unspoken, unexpressed (because inexpressible) idea that gives rise to it (and I understand that this is probably not how Auden or Valery understand the statement), then we have a position where language (in this case, through poetry) isn’t an exercise of translation at all, or an attempt to capture the essence of the inexpressible in a second-best manner.
This sounds rather obscure, and I’m not sure about what it really means, myself. But here’s Auden, towards the end of his lecture, providing his own “theory” of poetry. Drawing from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, he says that there are two kinds of imagination: primary and secondary. The primary imagination is concerned with “sacred beings and sacred events”, and the secondary with the profane. What is a sacred being? It is what I have been so far referring to as the inexpressible. It is one that cannot be anticipated, but must be encountered, and on encountering it, the primary imagination has no option but to respond. “The impression made upon the imagination,” says Auden, “By any sacred being is of an overwhelming but undefinable importance-an unchangeable quality, an Identity…”
This sounds obscure as well, but it is greatly clarified by this quotation from Charles Williams:
“One is aware that a phenomenon, being wholly itself, is laden with universal meaning. A hand lighting a cigarette is the explanation of everything; a foot stepping from the train is the rock of all existence…. Two light dancing steps by a girl appear to be what all the Schoolmen were trying to express . . . but two quiet steps by an old man seem like the very speech of hell. Or the other way round.”
And Auden himself:
“The response of the imagination to such a presence or significance is a passion of awe. This awe may vary greatly in intensity and range in tone from joyous wonder to panic dread. A sacred being may be attractive or repuIsive – a swan or an octopus – beautiful or ugly – a toothless hag or a fair young child – good or eviI- a Beatrice or a Belle Dame Sans Merci – historical fact or fiction – a person met on the road or an image encountered in a story or a dream – it may be noble or something unmentionable in a drawing room, it may be anything it likes on condition, but this condition is absolute, that it arouse awe. The realm of the Primary Imagination is without freedom, sense of time or humor. Whatever determines this response or lack of response lies below consciousness and is of concern to psychology, not art. Some sacred beings seem to be sacred to all imaginations at all times. The Moon, for example, Fire, Snakes and those four important beings which can only be defined in terms of nonbeing: Darkness, Silence, Nothing, Death… One cannot be taught to recognize a sacred being, one has to be converted.”
And that, especially the last line, makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Which of us hasn’t looked upon a full moon sailing through the cloud-curtain, and responded in an intensely powerful, yet utterly indefinable way? And if someone asks us why we respond in that way, is it possible to make any response but “Can’t you see it?” If someone asks me what I find so profoundly moving about the opening of Dies Irae in Mozart’s Requiem, any answer I make based on musical theory, on harmony or balance, will seem forced, constrained and inadequate – it is, as Auden says, a question of being converted, not taught.
Auden contrasts the primary imagination with the secondary imagination.
“The Secondary Imagination is of another character and at another mental level. It is active not passive, and its categories are not the sacred and the profane, but the beautiful and ugly… Beauty and ugliness pertain to Form not to Being… the Secondary Imagination has, one might say, a bourgeois nature. It approves of regularity, of spatial symmetry and temporal repetition, of law and order: it disapproves of loose ends, irrelevance and mess.”
One of the important characteristics of the secondary imagination is that “is social and craves agreement with other minds. If I think a form beautiful and you think it ugly, we cannot both help agreeing that one of us must be wrong, whereas if I think something is sacred and you think it is profane, neither of us will dream of arguing the matter.”
And then, most crucially:
“The impulse to create a work of art is felt when, in certain persons, the passive awe provoked by sacred beings or events is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship or homage, and to be fit homage, this rite must be beautiful.”
“The form of a rite must be beautiful, exhibiting, for example, balance, closure and aptness to that which it is the form of. It is over this last quality of aptness that most of our aesthetic quarrels arise, and must arise, whenever our sacred and profane worlds differ.”
“Thanks to the social nature of language, a poet can relate anyone sacred being or event to any other. The relation may be harmonious, an ironic contrast or a tragic contradiction like the great man, or the beloved? and death; he can relate them to every other concern of the mind, the demands of desire, reason and conscience, and he can bring them into contact and contrast with the profane. Again the consequences can be happy, ironic, tragic and, in relation to the profane, comic… But it is from the sacred encounters of his imagination that a poet’s impulse to write a poem arises. Thanks to the language, he need not name them directly unless he wishes; he can describe one in terms of another and translate those that are private or irrational or socially unacceptable into such as are acceptable to reason and society.”
And, in conclusion:
“Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct – it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.”
I think the crucial point that Auden is making is that while poetry is “rooted” in imaginative awe – it is not – and language is not – an exercise in direct translation, an attempt to “recapture” imaginative awe, as it were. Imaginative awe a certain kind of response (of the primary imagination, but the terminology is not important) to a certain kind of being or event (the sacred); and through language and poetry (and other forms of art), we seek to evoke a different kind of response – a response of pleasure, perhaps, to form, symmetry, harmony, balance, rhythm – and all those elements which go into making up our conception of beauty, and a response that is not private but social.
To try and gather up these scattered remarks into some kind of conclusion: I suppose that we can either view language as the eternal, futile reaching-forth towards an inaccessible essence, doomed to perpetual failure; or we can view it as a mode of creation, creating and evoking a different kind of response from a deeply private, personal sense of awe. On this view, language isn’t partial or incomplete, always falling short of – shall we say – the ideal. It is simply a different manner of response. As Auden says, both kinds of imagination are necessary. The imaginative awe, on its own, will not and cannot give us the forms of beauty that are so integral to the aesthetic experience, because the imaginative awe doesn’t exist through those forms. And so, it is not the case, as Heine says, that “where words leave off, music begins“; and nor is it the case that “the only valuable thing in art is that which you cannot explain.”
Nothing of great import hinges upon the distinction, of course, but it might be interesting to think about it as we examine our relationship to that which is inexpressible, and our undying attempts to express it nonetheless.