Of dramatic experiences we say, Words can’t do it justice, or It’s indescribable. What could this mean? Words can represent almost anything that might happen to us. What they can’t do is replicate the experience, and this is so whether it is extraordinary or banal. Compare eating strawberry ice cream with its description, even one worthy of Nabokov. Neither can substitute for the other, though the description can certainly elucidate its counterpart.
The upshot is that no experience can be put into words, save certain perceptual uses of this or that in which we literally point out the experienced thing we mean to our interlocutor: Do you see that? (But how much of the experience is in the that, so to speak, rather than in the world?) Language is not a vehicle of experience, delivering it to us whole as the post does a package.
The same holds for memory and the imagination. If I remember an encounter with my bodega cashier, or imagine him on another occasion, I don’t somehow furnish myself with a current experience of the cashier or the encounter. I merely represent them to myself, either at my whim (imagination) or in ways that causally trace to a prior encounter (memory).
There is a pleasure and a stark challenge simply in writing at great length, not to appreciate one’s own voice but carry off a sustained fluency ordinary life never asks of us.
That language fails to capture experience is no cause for disappointment, as it is not in the business of doing any such thing. If we can manufacture a linguistic representation of an experience, one that gives an idea of it without presuming to go proxy for it, then it has done its work. If more is wanted, if representation won’t suffice for the purposes at hand, well, you’re going to have to be there.
Books are now published in numbers so vast that the writing of one can no longer be presumed to be an act of communication between writer and reader. Yet even books that aren’t read, and stand little chance of ever being read, can have their value.
Extended prose offers the author a chance, one never to be encountered in conversation, no matter how patient one’s listeners, to comb slowly through her own mind at her own pace, sorting out her thoughts, reflexively exploring her sensibilities. Along the way, catharsis too may be in the offing; any troubling feelings discovered by the author, either in advance or in the process of writing, may be discharged, if the writer can only figure out how—without needing to involve readers in the least.
There is a pleasure and a stark challenge simply in writing at great length, not to appreciate one’s own voice but carry off a sustained fluency ordinary life never asks of us. There is also something to be said, in publishing a book, for putting oneself in a position to be read, even if that reading remains notional for some or all time. Creating a potential communicative act, even if one knows not when, where, or with whom it will be fulfilled, gestures at the fundament of expression.
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