Is there sometimes a providence in our habits? A karma in our actions? Or is it merely retrospection that accords them their worth? Had things turned out differently, would I, in my yellow leaf, have paid them no attention, privileged them with no distinction other than distractions on my slide downhill? It’s a sobering thought how we colour ordinary things and invest them with meaning that far outstrips their significance when we embed them in context.
I have always found considerable solace in roaming, unmapped and solitary, along woodland trails. Not mindlessly, you understand -that would be empty- but purposely indulging in what is on offer at the time. Still, it’s difficult to walk any distance without unbidden thoughts tapping impatiently at the window. Lately, it has been a question: am I the only one who keeps the walking stick I’ve fashioned from a fallen branch on my hike through the forest? For that matter, am I the only one who uses one? I must be getting old -or maybe, in these times of social distancing, I want to keep whatever has acquired some meaning, close to me- and by the time I return, the staff has become a trusted friend from whom there is no need to distance myself.
I have quite a gallery of them stacked in the garage -each recognizable without a name: a touch or a cursory glance along its shaft suffices to identify it in a way I can’t really describe in words. Who can describe the meaning of an experience? A hike? A friend?
I suppose it seems trivial to assign ineffability to a walking stick, and yet how else to capture the reality of the Umwelt -either mine, or its own? It was, after all, alive and a functioning member of a tree, so who is to say whether wood that continues to function carries some of that essence still?
And the choice of one particular fallen branch amongst many may not be as random a choice as one less acquainted with hiking might assume. Any stick will break if stressed laterally; its strength likes along its length, and so it is important to keep an eye out for something straight, something that, when vertically compressed, will not also cause lateral strain. In a way, I suppose we’re all like that though, aren’t we? It’s probably how we choose our friends. There are pitfalls in every conversation, and I suspect we find ourselves attracted to those who are able to accustom themselves to our needs -our foibles. And we, in turn, learn what won’t cause undue stress and accommodate. We are, after all, symbionts: we tend to seek mutually beneficial relationships whether they be human or otherwise.
Would it be hopelessly naïve to suggest that beneficence need not be ranked? That fulfillment of a need can be simply that: a purposeful response, a competent action? And must gratitude only confine itself to those things aware of their actions? Is sentience required of a phone or a street sign?
These are vexing and confusing questions, however: how can we describe issues that are almost beyond words? That are, at best, only describable superficially? Externally -like trying to guess what’s inside the chocolates in a box…?
Silvia Jonas, a visiting researcher and lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, made a good stab at it in an essay I happened upon in the online publication Aeon: https://aeon.co/essays/what-if-anything-can-be-said-about-what-is-unsayable?
She took me on a labyrinthine philosophical journey to examine whether or not topics such as Truth, Objects, Content, or Knowledge itself, could ever be ineffable -unable to be either described, or expressed in words. It seems to me that she could easily have stopped at Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), which concluded with the observation: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ She was not silent, however, and managed to convince me that at least Truth, Objects and Content were effable before stumbling on the ineffability of Knowledge and our experience of it. So I am still wondering about my walking staff.
The stick itself is obviously not ineffable: I can describe its shape, its texture, its dimensions, and even its weight -and yet something still escapes me about a thing that has been my companion for hours, and that I’ve used to regulate my pace like a metronome, or leaned on to balance on a log across a stream. Should I feel guilty about an attachment to it, or should I merely regard it as an extension of myself -like the pencil I use to figure out a sum of numbers I cannot manage in my head?
It does not feel like the pencil, though: I have little attachment to the pencil or the paper even if they’d been in and out of my pocket the whole day. Neither would have developed a persona (dare I call it that?) quite like the walking staff. And yet, because I can neither adequately describe the relationship, nor point to it, does that mean it does not exist? Or does it simply occupy another domain, another Magisterium…? I am reminded of the words of St. Augustine, the 5th century bishop and theologian, about Time: ‘What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.’ Time, love, and friendship may be difficult or impossible to adequately explain, and yet they exist.
So, going back to Jonas’ essay. ‘There are forms of knowledge, then, that cannot be expressed in language. Unlike ineffable objects, truths and contents, ineffable knowledge is neither incoherent nor untenable for any other reason. In fact, it’s vital for day-to-day life. Knowledge-how enables us to act, indexical knowledge to recognise ourselves, and phenomenal knowledge to understand the world with our senses… Chasing the origins of the unsayable doesn’t account for how inexpressible experiences can affect, enable and transform us. Perhaps there is no universal answer, but that shouldn’t stop us from reflecting on the question.’
Nor, then, should it stop me from regarding my walking stick as a friend…