Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Limits of Language: Longing for Home and Love

The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”

-- Ludwig Wittenstein, 1953

Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.”

--Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkh (aka Rumi), 13th Century Poet

Bay State Brahmin is a blog about politics—a topic that easily lends itself to the written word. However, thanks to a few masterful pieces published over the past week, the limits of language have been weighing on my mind.

The first piece is a column titled “In Search of Home” in which Roger Cohen of the New York Times tries to answer the question, “If I had only a few weeks to live, where would I go?

Cohen references an essay in the London Review of Books in which James Wood asked the same question of Christopher Hitchens before Hitchens was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He told Wood that he would not stay in America, but would return to Dartmoor, “the landscape of his childhood.”

Wood goes on to write that, “The desire to return, after so long away, is gladly irrational, and is perhaps premised on the loss of the original home…Home swells as a sentiment because it has disappeared as an achievable reality.”

That may well be true, but Cohen’s description spoke to a sentiment beyond what can be expressed through the language of loss. The landscape of Hitchens childhood, Cohen wrote,

…was the landscape, in other words, of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in some indelible place in the psyche and call out across the years.

The second piece was Jessica Rassette’s essay “His Promise Would Not Be Denied,” for the weekly must-read “Modern Love” in the Times.

In describing her then-ex-boyfriend (now husband’s) response to her insistence that their relationship was over, Rassette wrote, He loved every footprint I left behind. He kept his dreams of us tucked away, hoarded them like those gas-station receipts he jams into the back pocket of his jeans. He loved and longed. He waited.

The two pieces may be about “home” and “love”, respectively, but they are really about the same thing. They are about a challenge that everyone faces many times in life—of what feels right to one’s soul; of where (and with whom) one’s destiny lies.

Someone once told me—in reference to my love of both New York City and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—that it was imperative that I be honest with where loyalties lie and that to be truly at home in one place or the other required almost every piece of my heart.

I didn’t know how to respond to that idea then, and I must admit that I still don’t today. Language—as it often does—fails to provide a useful instrument. How could I express the tingling of my chest when that distinctive sign comes into view, welcoming home sons from Hatfield to Hamilton?

How could I express the feeling of turning the corner of 43rd and 5th Avenue at twilight—the Chrysler Building illuminated above—and walking on air through Grand Central Terminal as the ghosts of generations of my family propel me forward, whispering in my ear that I belong under all those stars?

In Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” But I don’t think that Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton were alone in this scourge. Instead, it seems to me that to be human is to be misunderstood, or, perhaps more aptly, that to be human is to lack the tools necessary to be understood—except, that is, for the “tool” of love.

As Rassette notes, “Tom and I might glance at each other with a weary look that means, ‘Do you love me?’ Neither of us ever has to answer.” 

In the end, if “speech is a river,” Rumi wrote—a flowing dialogue of the inner-workings of our mind—then “silence is an ocean”—a seemingly bottom-less repository of secrets out of sight and far from earshot.

Silence—those thoughts unspoken, dreams unrequited, tragedies unseen, sentiments unshared—is the “dark energy/matter” of our world, weighing us down while powering us forward, to an end we know not of.

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