- 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, WAB 108 (1887 and 1890) is sometimes called the “Apocalyptic” but the origins of that are unclear and that is not what I hear. The work is sweeping and majestic. One reviewer identifies revelation as the main theme but 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 Schuricht, Wand, Celibidache, Skrowaczewski, 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, Op. 24, No. 1 (1924)
- Piano Sonata No. 3 in D Major, Op. 24, No. 3 (1935)
- Piano Suite No. 3, “Pièces impromptus”, Op. 18 (1916)
- Miscellaneous piano works
Bernard Parmegiani was a French composer of electro-acoustical music, intriguing but hard to pin down. “. . . Parmegiani led the way in transforming the early, crude experiments in sound manipulation into the rich and creative genre now known as acousmatic music.”
- “Da Natura Sonorum” album (1975)
- “Chants Magnétiques” album (1974)
- “La Création du Monde” album (1986)
- “L'Œil écoute /Dedans-Dehors” album
- Violostries (1964)
- La Brûlure De Mille Soleils (1965)
- L'Instant mobile (1967)
- Capture éphémère (1968)
- "Pop eclectic" pour le film de Peter Foldes "Je, tu elles" (1968)
- La roue ferris (1971)
- L'Enfer (based on La Divine Comédie) (1971)
- Pour en finir avec le pouvoir d'Orphée (1972)
- Le Présent compose (1991)
- Entre-temps (1992)
- Espèces d'espace (2004)
Similarly, Peter Gilbert composes evocative and enigmatic electronic and acoustic music. In conjunction with this playlist, albums of his music include:
- Leoš Janáček, Moravian Folk Songs are songs about life.
- Charles-Marie Widor, Symphony No. 9 in C Minor, 70, “Gothique” (1899)
- Widor, Symphony No. 10 in D Major, 73, “Romane” (1899)
- John Adams, Phrygian Gates (1978)
- John Luther Adams, Canticles of the Sky
- Timothy Geller, Where 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).
- Robert Gibson: Calling (1987); Faces (1989); Ex Machina (1995)
- Scott Wollschleger, American Dream, for piano, bass and percussion (2018)
- Jeff Harriott, The Stone Tapestry (2013): “Herriott’s expansive formal process in The Stone Tapestry allows the work to breathe and inhabit the world of natural time. . . . Stones, like rivers, mountains, and valleys, move and change at a glacial pace, and Herriot’s deft use of repetition with subtle variation, avoidance of didactic rhythmic regularity, and penchant for static harmonic textures bring us into a sphere entirely apart from glowing screens, twenty four hour news cycles, and crowded metropolitan areas.”
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
Klaus Wiese was an electronic-minimilist, and a “master of deep, touching drones and singing bowls (who) published an absolutely unique discography in this genre”. His work takes us into the ether. He produced a significant discography, including the following:
- “Baraka” (1981): “”It's devoted to the "point of truth" and meant to purify the listener with "hail and rain" from "misleading" views.
- “Maraccaba”, Side B (1982)
- “Sabiha Sabiya” (1982): “The music is gentle but in a deeply mysterious way, there's nothing of the fluffy or angelic you'd expect from the harp. It's hard not to imagine being out in the desert with only the sounds of nature creating this sort of resonance with so much of the movement coming from the timbral variation of the instruments.”
- “Geisha” (1985): “Landing to the ground, her tender motions merge with breeze, with airy murmuring of may-lilies. Possibly, she is an incarnation of first kiss, its impersonation in reality. Red seal on her lips is made by Sun – there's something, about what she can't talk – it's the seal of deep silence, which sleeps in caves, in meek jingle sounds.”
- “Secret Doctrine” (1985)
- “Tushita” (1986)
- “Qumra II” (1986)
- “Qumra I” (1987)
- “Samarkand” (1987): “Listeners are free to choose their own pathways and spirituality. Wiese is only providing the vehicle -- he's not a tour guide. Focused listening is the only option.”
- “Kalengra” (1987)
- “Thanatos” (1993)
- “Monsoon” (1996)
- “Dunya” (1999)
- “Soma” (2000)
- “Ruh” (2004)
- “Touareg” (track 11) (2004)
- “White Clouds” (2004)
- “Cocoon” (2004)
- “Logos” (2004)
- “Ommayads” (2004)
- “Gandharfa” (2005)
- “Plejades”, with Jim Cole
- John Luther Adams, “Arctic Dreams”
- Dylan Howe, “Subterranean: New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin”
- Jordan Dykstra, “Found Clouds”
- Sylvie Courvoisier Trio, “D’Agala”
- Russell Gunn & The Royal Krunk Jazz Orchestra, “Le Mystére de Sirius” (The Sirius Mystery)
- “Soccorsi – Works by Morton Eide Pedersen”
- Dai Fujikara & Jan Bang, “The Bow Maker” (2022): “The mood and atmosphere of each piece is distinct, sometimes wide in scope and spacious, sometimes enclosed and focussed, sometimes warm and hazy, sometimes cool and crystalline. . . . It is like shifting illumination and silhouettes behind shoji.”
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).
- Frank Kimbrough, “Air”