Sticks and Stones

Words are powerful.

Of course I believe that. It’s not really possible, as a writer, to believe otherwise. Why else would I choose words as my primary medium? And yet I find it fascinating that sometimes the most powerful words are those that approach, without ever quite arriving at, the inexpressible. Sometimes it is the very ambiguity, the approximate value of language, that does more than precise words ever could.

Let me offer Jane Austen as an example. She has this peculiar habit of avoiding direct dialogue quotation during her most dramatic scenes. Any fan of Pride and Prejudice knows Mr. Darcy’s famous, “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” but what does he say after that? There is no precise quote, only a description that allows the reader to fill in the details of how he manages to simultaneously gratify and insult her. Again, after his second proposal, Elizabeth’s reply is described indirectly — “Elizabeth…immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change…” Rather vague, so that readers have interpreted it to mean anything from a blushing, stuttering, “Yes, my feelings have changed,” to a decidedly non-verbal (and non-ladylike for the time period!) passionate kiss.

Why does Austen do this? It’s clearly a deliberate choice. In other passages she displays a clear talent for writing excellent dialogue, so when she chooses not to, we can assume that she felt a certain amount of ambiguity would serve the narrative better. Sometimes the most powerful thing that words can do is to say, “It was so amazing, I can’t even describe it.” In fact, another of her characters, Mr. Knightley from Emma, says as much during his proposal. “I cannot make speeches, Emma…if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” I find it quite amusing that this line, claiming an inability to compose sweepingly romantic speeches, is frequently cited as one of the most romantic lines in literature.

I’m sure that the inherent ambiguity of language is the primary reason for the warring agony and ecstasy of being a writer. Sometimes the perfect turn of phrase seems so close, almost within my grasp…but I can never quite reach it, having to settle for whatever approximation is sufficient. And yet I love the striving, always trying for perfection, even if by their very nature words will never quite be enough. If not for ambiguity, reading would be dull and workmanlike. The meaning of every phrase and passage would come across without effort or nuance. Useful if you’re reading a how-to guide, but not if you’re trying to delve into the mysteries of the ineffability of existence. Those mysteries are fluid and multifaceted, and a writer must find the language that mirrors such complex fluidity. It may never be a perfect reflection, but we never stop trying.

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