Wednesday, July 8, 2015

When words are not enough

A reader of my blog asked me to explain one of the quotations with which I like to litter this blog. This was the line from a book by Elizabeth von Arnim in which she wrote, “With this thing of chiffon she tried to protect herself from the eternities” (my blog of 25 June 2011).  What did I think this meant?  I did not know how to answer her, because I couldn’t myself put into words what I felt its meaning was, or why I felt so drawn to it.  This happens often to me, usually when I am reading poetry, but, as here, novels, too.

This called to mind something I read in a book on poetry by the broadcaster Clive James, himself a very good poet.  He said that he often did not himself really understand what a certain line in a poem meant, but that that was part of its mystery.  I, too, often don’t fully understand the words I am reading, though some, those that I like to write about, resonate with something within me, as if they evoke a deeper meaning than mere words can convey.  This is what the quotation my blog reader asked about does to me, as does another line, this time of poetry, which reverberates deep within me each time I read it.  This is the line from a John Clare poem (see my blog of 29 January 2015), “I am the self-consumer of my woes”. Even though I am not sure what this means, I think that I understand it at a level deeper than words of mine can explain.  And for everybody certain poems evoke this deeper resonance, without their maybe quite understanding what this is.  I like to think that these words reach us laden with some touch of the eternal.

And this also reminds me of Pascal’s words, which echo within me each time I look at the night sky:  Le silence √©ternel de ces espaces infinies m’effraye” (the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me).   We could also call these “eternal spaces” the Dao into which we disappear at our death, far-distant spaces which we can regard as terrifying, but also awesome and inspiring.  I think that they must provide the inspiration behind all great art.  For what exalts us inevitably at some level can also terrify us.

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