- Suffering, cheerfully endured, ceases to be suffering and is transmuted into an ineffable joy. [Mohandas Gandhi, October 13, 1921]
- . . . those rare souls whose spirit gets magically into the hearts of men, leave behind them something more real and more warmly personal than bodily presence . . . [James Thurber]
- . . . when a human being reaches the age of reason, he struggles against this illegal and unseemly seizure of his person, not wanting to give in to enchantment, that is, to go where the songs are leading. [Vladimir Jankélévitch, music and the ineffable (Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 2.]
- “You wanted something other?” Something other. / Something lambent, like the memories of a mother. / The red eyes of the photo changed to brown, / the fret became a smile. Presto, another / mother altogether, the lady with a golden crown. [Paul Mariani, “Wasn’t It Us You Were Seeking?“]
- The sudden shock of what you really are. [Paul Mariani, “Solar Ice“]
Einstein was speech delayed as a child. Commenting on this later, he concluded that it had made him a better scientist because it allowed him to experience the world on its own terms without having to fit it into the arbitrary categories imposed by language.
In the commentary for the first day of our year, I proposed that we know our innermost truths independent of the words used to express them. Linguists might point out that language so shapes the brain as to be inseparable from thought, including those processes of the brain that we call emotion. I am neither making nor disputing that technical point here but merely pointing out that there seems to be a core of experience that defies description in words. That, I propose, is a sound naturalistic understanding of the ineffable: a language of the soul.
Virtually every great work of art illustrates the ineffable. In fact, most art is an attempt to express some aspect of human experience without words. Music, in a sense, is the purest art because unlike the visual arts or the dramatic arts it is conveyed only through sound, thus divorcing itself not only from language but also from the material world. So I am treating even the scholarly works on ineffability not as technical works but as part of our story.
- Bruce F. Kawin, The Mind of the Novel: Reflexive Fiction and the Ineffable (Dalkey Archive Press, 2006).
- Louis S. Berger, Language and the Ineffable: A Developmental Perspective and Its Applications (Lexington Books, 2011).
- Vladimir Jankélévitch, music and the ineffable (Princeton University Press, 2003).
There are also personal narratives touching on the idea of ineffability. Virtually any artist could be cited to illustrate the idea but I choose the poet and author Paul Mariani because, while many authors illustrate or touch on the idea of ineffability, Mariani seems to be acutely aware that he is doing it. His biographies are notable for their exploration into the inner lives of his subjects: the attempt to understand and appreciate them independent of their works. For that reason I include also his fiction on this page but today, you can read just about any great writer of fiction or listen to just about any work of music and get a sense of the ineffable: anything that stirs a feeling that you need not reduce to words.
- Paul Mariani, God and the Imagination: On Poets, Poetry, and the Ineffable (University of Georgia Press, 2002), a memoir about how life at a Marianist preparatory school nurtured shaped an man's passion for letters and education.
- Paul Mariani, Gerald Manley Hopkins: A Life (Viking Adult, 2008).
- Paul Mariani, The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).
- Paul Mariani, Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell (W.W. Norton & Company, 1994).
- Paul Mariani, Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman (William Morrow, 1990).
- Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (McGraw-Hill, 1981).
- Paul Mariani
- Martin Seay, The Mirror Thief: A Novel (Melville House, 2016): “ . . . essentially a book about hermeneutics and disappointment. It’s a book about reading, specifically depth reading, to a point of inexplicable transcendence. What does one find in the depths? Nothing? Everything? A bit of both?”
- Garth Greenwell, Cleanness: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020): “Narrated by a poet in a foreign country, the novel and its inflections suggest that feeling itself is almost foreign and hard to pin down; that it has to be outlined with many subclauses, digressions and asides. Language becomes a way of holding experience close before it dissolves in your hand.”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor is sometimes called the “Apocalyptic” but the origins of that are unclear and that is not what I hear. One reviewer identifies revelation as the main theme. This work is sweeping and majestic. Its themes are hard to characterize, except to say that they are grand. I defer to a professional analysis of this symphony that is available in print. Perhaps no music can capture the idea of ineffability – the very idea contains an internal contradiction – but this one seems to capture that intent, however poorly that can ever be achieved. Here are performances conducted by Karajan, Furtwängler, and Giulini.
Yehudi Menuhin wrote: “In Enescu, music became the voice of humanity per se, a voice uttering what cannot be said.” Enescu’s works include:
- Piano Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp Major, 24, No. 1 (1924)
- Piano Sonata No. 3 in D Major, 24, No. 3 (1935)
- Piano Suite No. 3, “Pièces impromptus”, Op. 18 (1916)
- Miscellaneous piano works
- Janáček, Moravian Folk Songs are songs about life.
- Widor, Symphony No. 9 in C Minor, Op. 70, “Gothique” (1899)
- Widor, Symphony No. 10 in D Major, Op. 73, “Romane” (1899)
- Adams, Phrygian Gates
- John Luther Adams, Canticles of the Sky
- Geller, When Silence Reigns (1987)
- Raga Charukeshi (“with beautiful hair”), a melodious Carnatic ragam that has been adapted as a Hindustani raag (Charu Keshi) (performances by Banerjee, Sharma and Banerjee)
What makes Sona Jobarteh, a young kora player and singer, so appealing?
- Kora Music from West Africa video
- LEAF – Fall 2018
- Зимний международный фестиваль искусств
- Live at Africa Festival Würzburg 2012
She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies; / And all that’s best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes; / Thus mellowed to that tender light / Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less, / Had half impaired the nameless grace / Which waves in every raven tress, / Or softly lightens o’er her face; / Where thoughts serenely sweet express, / How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow, / So soft, so calm, yet eloquent, / The smiles that win, the tints that glow, / But tell of days in goodness spent, / A mind at peace with all below, / A heart whose love is innocent!
[George Gordon Byron, “She Walks In Beauty”]
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Hamlet Micure”
Books of poems:
- Paul Mariani, Deaths and Transfigurations: Poems (Paraclete Press, 2005).
- Paul Mariani, The Great Wheel: Poems (W.W. Norton & Company, 1996).
- Paul Mariani, Salvage Operations (W.W. Norton & Company, 1990).
Music: songs and other short pieces
What does it all mean; what is the meaning and purpose of life? Well, my life has meaning and purpose to me; probably your life is the same for you. Gustav Mahler cut to the core of this in the posthorn solo from the third movement (“What nature tells me”) of his third symphony. The posthorn appears as a distant voice from within the woods; a voice in the wilderness. This passage is a metaphor for each of us, as we make our way through life. It is among the most spiritually compelling passages in music. Here are links to performances by Olmos and an unknown artist, and conducted by Järvi, Järvi, Nott (at 52:49) and Bernstein (at 13:28).