Words, Like the Wind…

I’m having trouble with something, but I don’t know what. It’s something I can’t seem to describe in words –nothing fits. I suppose I could be forgiven for dismissing it as nothing; there’s a word for everything isn’t there…? Everybody important gets a name –so does every place. I’m wondering about every feeling though, or every concept… Does everything like that get assigned a descriptor? A label?

For the longest time I assumed that everything that was too difficult to encapsulate in a word was either relegated to a category –the same flock, as it were- so that it could be described by a common theme, and whatever adjective or noun that seemed relevant for one, could be assigned to another by extrapolation; or the responsibility for describing its ineffability was delegated to metaphor. To poetry.

But as age slowly creeps across my neural circuits forcing me to neologate in order to deputize new sounds to stand in for those I’ve forgotten, I realize I’ve only had my hand in one pot. I’ve been drawing water from the same well all this time, and it makes me wonder what I’ve missed -or rather, what has missed me. Have I -limited as I have been by the cadre of words assigned to me, and bound by the metaphors my culture would understand- been restricted in what I feel as well? Would those evanescent emotions even be recognizable if they resisted condensation? If they were absorbed by some other, larger, but different entity?

It’s an interesting question, and one only partially addressed by a fascinating article in the BBC Future series: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170126-the-untranslatable-emotions-you-never-knew-you-had There are certain things that seem obvious when pointed out, but which might never occur to someone unaccustomed to viewing them that way. They are often fleeting, and if not captured as they occur, pass like the wind in a field of grain. Tim Lomas, from the University of East London, searched through the academic literature for ‘untranslatable’ words and his first compilation was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology. ‘“In our stream of consciousness – that wash of different sensations feelings and emotions – there’s so much to process that a lot passes us by,” Lomas says. “The feelings we have learned to recognise and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of.’

The words he found range from the more banal, such as the Tagalog Gigil: the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished’ to the profound –Wabi-sabi: a Japanese term that describes our appreciation of transient and imperfect beauty – such as the fleeting splendour of cherry blossom’ – a “dark, desolate sublimity”…

And then there is Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University. ‘Her research was inspired by the observation that certain people use different emotion words interchangeably, while others are highly precise in their descriptions. “Some people use words like anxious, afraid, angry, disgusted to refer to a general affective state of feeling bad,” she explains. “For them, they are synonyms, whereas for other people they are distinctive feelings with distinctive actions associated with them.”

‘This is called “emotion granularity.” Importantly, she has found that this then determines how well we cope with life. If you are better able to pin down whether you are feeling despair or anxiety, for instance, you might be better able to decide how to remedy those feelings: whether to talk to a friend, or watch a funny film. Or being able to identify your hope in the face of disappointment might help you to look for new solutions to your problem.’

But, for me at least, these observations are largely beside the point. Too reductive. Too pragmatic. Like embarking upon a study to find out where the geese actually go as you hear their honking disappear into an early morning mist, rather than being captivated by the magic of its occurrence. Captivated by the feeling. The moment. It’s why, I suppose, I was so enthralled by the concept of Wabi-sabi –it seems so… perfect! It’s not needing a scientific explanation for, say, a beautiful sunset, and being unentangled by an urge to describe it further, but rather, watching it wordlessly. Mindlessly…

Experiencing is mindless, I think. Listening to a symphony doesn’t necessitate describing it. It isn’t a purposive exercise requiring a justification, nor even an explanation. Much like the evanescent bewitchment of the cherry blossoms on a tree one morning, it just is… And yet, if there were a word that acknowledged the feelings it engendered, a way of expressing it, characterizing its effect on you to someone not present, and conveying the emotion, it might help to reify something that would otherwise disappear -a memory unshared and unsharable no matter the desire for acknowledgement. For someone else, it might never have existed, and in fact didn’t…

So does the inability to adequately encapsulate a moment in words –or in a word- either diminish its appreciability, or lessen its likelihood of being noticed? I suppose, without reverting to the linguistically oppugned Whorfianism (which suggests that language itself can influence thought), I would prefer to defer to the Bard himself and paraphrase his Juliet’s ‘What’s in a name?’ –a rose, even without a name, would smell as sweet.

Even so… a name is something sharable isn’t it? You would know it wasn’t a lilac I had smelled. You could partake of my experience, if only vicariously.

And sometimes, that’s enough. It’s something, at any rate…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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