When words fail
Alone on a train aimless in wonder
An outdated map crumpled in my pocket
But I didn't care where I was going
'Cause they're all different names for the same place.
The coast disappeared when the sea drowned the sun
And I knew no words to share with anyone
The boundaries of language I quietly cursed
And all the different names for the same thing.
How do you feel when you walk down a lonely beach? A sandy beach, filled with white, firm sand, palms swaying in the distance, just a hint of a breeze, littered with large rocks just on the point where water meets land, and that noise of waves crashing against sand, shattering into a million shards of glass time after time and yet continuing their relentless persecution against land. The distant horizon, where the ocean meets the sky; the bluish gray of one, meeting with the deep blue of the other, creating an illusion (or is that reality) of all pervading oneness. Have you ever tried to put your experience into words and failed?
The amateurish attempt at describing a lonely walk alongside a sea beach was meant to drive home a more fundamental premise. Is there more truth in the expression “words fail me” than we allow ourselves to believe? How often do words fail us? How adequate or otherwise are words as a medium for expressing our feelings? Not much it would seem. It is an utterly futile attempt to try to capture nature’s beauty in words. One can never hope to share with another her feeling when she beheld a particularly beautiful sunset, or a majestic snow capped mountain peak, or a gargantuan wave crashing against the shore and shattering into a zillion droplets. If one cannot adequately describe nature in words, what hope does one have, of describing God or religion or enlightenment?
It is a well known story that the Buddha, following his enlightenment, initially hesitated whether he should bother to share his discovery with anyone at all, reflecting that:
"This Dhamma, won by me, is deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand . . . But this is a generation delighting in sensual pleasure . . . And if I were to teach Dhamma and others were not to understand me, this would be a weariness to me, this would be a vexation to me."
Whereupon Brahma Sahampati (a deva [demigod] from the Brahmaloka) intervened, pointing out to the Buddha that there were some beings with little dust in their eyes who would profit from him teaching them.
The experience that the Buddha had undergone was beyond description, and for most humans, as he pointed out, beyond comprehension; for the boundaries of our language are so often the boundaries of our world. We immediately discard that which cannot be expressed in words, deeming such experiences to be unreal. We fail to realize that it is not the experience which is unreal; rather it is our language, bounded by words, which is inadequate for describing our experiences! The primary purpose of language was not to make ourselves understand our experiences; it was to communicate our experiences to the other. Yet in a curious travesty of the need for language, we have started using language to convince ourselves of our experiences, to translate our experiences in a manner which can be palatable to the world. What a waste!
It is this realization, which has led me to wonder about the plight of the poets, for it is poetry, and poetry alone which can attempt to say what prose dare not. Are poets ever properly understood? Are they ever able to put their point across? Do their readers always understand what it was that the poet was trying to convey? And last but not the least; is the poet’s interpretation of her poetry always the only correct and sensible one?
What did Robert Frost mean, when he said :
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
I picked up this particular poem to illustrate my point, when I might as well have picked up some mystical stuff from Blake or Coleridge, because Frost will resonate more with modern readers, and his evocative imagery of nature, and winter (the harbinger of death) is so beautiful and yet so simple that it can connect with the reader at several levels. Like any other Frost poem, this one can be interpreted at many levels, and yet you might want to discard all such interpretations, and enjoy the poem just at the surface level which is still wonderfully evocative for its description of a snow filled journey.
There is a delicious ambiguity in the words "Whose woods are these I think I know?” Now what could have Frost meant by that? That there is a human owner of the forest where the poet stops, and his name is what comes to Frost’s mind when he thinks of the owner of the forest? But can a human ever own a forest - or the mountains - or the oceans - or rivers - or other fellow creatures? Can anyone possibly own something she has not created? If so, by what right? If she owns a land, how did she come to acquire it? If it was sold by another human, how did that human come to acquire it, because sure as heaven, God never sold any of Her creations to a human being! The forest, just as everything else in the Universe belongs to God, but She out of love for us has leased it to us, to take care of, to sustain ourselves with and to share with the ones we love. Can we always claim to have done that? Perhaps not!
When I read that line of Frost’s poem, I think of the divine ownership of everything, but was that what Frost had in mind when he composed the poem? If not, was his interpretation more correct than my interpretation? Does a piece of art belong forever to the artiste who has created it, or does it go into the public domain once the artiste has completed it, to be done with as the hoi polloi feel like? Does Shakespeare have sole right over his plays, or does humanity own it, to interpret as it thinks fit? Baz Luhrmann had set his Romeo and Juliet in modern day crime infested Miami, moving away from the original setting of medieval Rome for the play. Who knows Shakespeare might have chosen Rome due to the paucity of options available to him. He might have considered New York underworld and its warring mafia families to be a more apt setting for this epic love story had he been acquainted with NY when he wrote!
But we digress. To come back to the topic at hand, a very generous allowance can be given to the assumption that a description, if accurate, should somehow convey the thing itself; if I accurately describe 'water', the reader would then be wet. Similarly, it can be assumed that a person who has had an experience, should be able to describe the experience, in such a way as to convey the actual experience itself, to the reader. Failing that a verbal description is of no avail, for the listener has no means of independently verifying the accuracy of the description. What good will it do to describe snow to a Saharan dweller, when she in all possibility will never have seen and never will see snow in all her life? Even after snow has been described to her, and she perchance goes to a foreign land and encounters snow there, remote is the possibility that she can recognize it as the same object which had earlier been described to her as snow.
To extend the analogy further, is it possible that an experience can be shared by the narrator only with them who have undergone a similar experience, while those who have not, may have no inkling as to what is going on? To put it conversely, can it be possible to teach someone to think? Can someone be made to experience an experience by mere dint of describing that experience in words? And if not, aren’t all words futile, mere placeholders for reality, placeholders for what could have been?
Have I been able to convey anything in this essay apart from my inability to convey what I want to convey? And if not, why make the attempt to say anything at all? Why not learn from the mistake of the Buddha and keep quiet? Because silence speaks to the heart, when words fail.