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are words good enough?
It’s not particularly groundbreaking to point out that people exist in separate emotional realities but I’m still surprised by it all the time. I meet up with friends and 20 minutes later I’m thinking, wow, I don’t agree with any of your observations about the world. Which is not to say they’re wrong or I’m right, just that we’re shouting at each other from separate moons of separate planets. Language is the only thing that allows us bridge what feels like an uncrossable distance.
I wish I could explain better how I see beauty everywhere these days. I’m reading On Beauty by Elaine Scarry and she writes about how beauty is generative, beauty prompts justice: it urges that the world should be a certain way. I think that not enough people understand that you can fight to improve things from a place of loving the beauty of the world versus hating its ugliness. Love is “the eternal breaking into the temporal.” I’ve also been reading Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizen and thinking about how the US immigration system is deeply racist and classist, how the country itself is a hostile environment to so many, and yet people like me who were born in China or Australia or South Africa and have been lucky enough to be permitted to live here love it so deeply. Every day I read about how media is propaganda, neoliberalism is bad, Big Tech sees like a state, SF is a terribly run city, thousands of people are currently in hospitals on life support, endangered animals are going extinct, and I think: we’ve ruined so much. But right now I’m sitting on the balcony on a golden fall day and the building across the street is painted red like some weird modernist barn with the windows rimmed in white and the trees below are green with little patches of yellow and I also think: the world is beautiful.
In the beginning of The Power of Now Eckhart Tolle talks about the moment when everything changed for him, when he let go of the self he was trapped with, and how afterwards for a period of time he had “no relationships, no job, no home, no socially defined identity.” He spent almost two years sitting on park benches in a state of the intense joy. I know to a lot of my friends that thought is inconceivable: sitting on park benches? Doing nothing? I won’t pretend that I’m serene enough to spend years sitting and watching, but I do understand what he feels: that life is not about accumulation or accretion, that any joy you feel is not predicated on the person you’re dating or the place where you live or the things you do. Joy comes from being alive. What someone else makes you feel is an emotion that you yourself generated, that you contain all the time: they just helped you access it. This feels like an important piece of knowledge, but it’s also nearly impossible to properly convey through words.
Anne Carson: “Language is what eases the pain of living with other people, language is what makes the wounds come open again.” I’m someone who deeply wants to understand the people I love and to be understood by them, and I’m always stymied by how challenging that is. My whole life I’ve longed for someone who I could talk about everything with, who could listen to what I feel just as I’ve written it above, the love and the beauty and the confusion of each day, and understand it completely. I know this is an impossible dream—that there is no such thing as instant understanding—but I return to it in moments of frustration. I think about this poem a lot:
THE FORGOTTEN DIALECT OF THE HEART
by Jack Gilbert
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient tongue
has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.
In the beginning of The Argonauts Maggie Nelson talks about how she had spent a lifetime devoted to the idea that words were good enough (“Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed”), while her partner had spent a lifetime believing that they were not. That while everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly, some things can’t be thought. I’m still trying to figure which side of the debate I’m on.
Terence has a line that goes: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. Which means I am human, nothing human is alien to me. I’m wedded to my observations about the world, but I know they’re no more real than anyone else’s. Your hesitation is no less real than my enthusiasm. Because your emotional reality is separate from mine, I can’t impart any specific experience onto you—I can’t make you love me, can’t make you feel the same joy I do—but I can keep trying to explain.
Years ago I had an ex-boyfriend whom I loved very much. We could never agree about anything. I was constantly trying to explain myself and he was, as I said above, on a separate moon of a separate planet. None of my explanations ever coalesced into understanding, though I tried and tried. That experience taught me how painful it can be to live in a world filled with gaps in understanding, but there was also something—cathartic?—in trying. Kerouac: Soon I'll find the right words, they'll be very simple.