A Paradox Of Language

William Wordsworth’s poem “The Prelude” is a vast and rambling work, one that seems to touch on everything from the joys of being a child to the deep impact nature can have on us. In the poem’s third book, Wordsworth endeavors to describe what one might call the soul, that spark of something in us that makes us remarkable, what he calls our “heroic argument," or "genuine prowess." However, when it comes time to say just what this is, all he can tell us is that it’s “far hidden from the reach of words” and composed of “incommunicable powers.” To describe it, all he can say is that it’s impossible to describe.

Of course, this is not something that only Wordsworth does. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville uses the word “impenetrable” and nothing more to describe the wall of spray thrown up by the whale, telling us only that something about it escapes us. Public officials do it often when referring to great tragedies, saying “words cannot describe” the magnitude of the horror they’re discussing. We do it too, in casual conversation with each other. I’ve caught myself saying “I can’t even tell you…” when describing something remarkable more than once. Describing by not describing, it seems, is an interesting paradox of language that's become somewhat commonplace.

This isn’t just laziness either, an inability to come up with appropriate descriptors. When the spray thrown up by a whale is referred to simply as “impenetrable,” that tells us far more about the titanic mass of water shot into the air then a description of how high it reached could. When I tell my friends that something was indescribably loud, that speaks to them more than a decibel value or simile would. Description, sometimes, doesn’t quite hit the mark. Sometimes it’s our lack of ability to say anything at all, the way something robs us of vocabulary and leaves us gasping in silent shock, that says everything we could want to say.

Why, though? The answer lies with what exactly is doing the work in a listener or reader’s mind. When I describe the size or qualities of something, it’s my own words and ability to express an idea that do the work of making the image in my head appear in someone else’s. However, when I say that something is indescribable I abdicate from the descriptive position, essentially saying to a listener or reader: "you want to understand this? take your imagination as far as it goes" And if there’s anything over years of writing, it’s this: a reader’s imagination will always trump your own description. Sometimes, as every good writer knows, you just need to have a little bit of faith in your readers to conjure up the magnificent. They won't let you down.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex