Aesthetic Ineffability and the Rebirth of the Reader

Guest post by Venkat Ramanan

The adjective “ineffable” appears to be used mostly in relation to either (a) a spiritual/mystical experience or (b) when we appreciate a work of visual or plastic art. 

Here are some examples of (a) – 

The British writer Karen Armstrong described Laozi (the Chinese philosopher from the 6th century BCE) as someone who was concerned “with finding a source of transcendent peace in the midst of earthly turbulence… [and] aspires to the ultimate reality, the Dao, which goes beyond the gods, and is the ineffable basis of all existence.” (A Short History of Myth, p. 86). 

While stating that ineffability is one of the concepts attributable to pantheism, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains : “If he [God] is so much greater than anything else, anything we say of him would limit or falsify him, so we can speak at best in negatives, or simply conclude that he is an ineffable mystery.”

–  and (b)

In a review of a book by E.H. Gombrich in the New York Times, the writer (Anatole Broyard) contends that the figure of Venus in Botticelli’s Primavera is “as enigmatic as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The word that comes to mind in connection with her expression is ‘ineffable’.”

Ineffability—as used in these examples and as generally understood—denotes that one is lost for words when describing something. While there are differing definitions particularly for “aesthetic ineffability,” one feature they share is that such ineffability arises in the mind of the viewer of an object of art. For example, the English philosopher Roger Scruton opined that “[t]he ineffability of artistic meaning is simply a special case of the ineffability of first-person awareness—the impossibility of translating ‘what it is like’ into a description.” (in York H. Gunther, The Ineffable in Art: On What Can’t Be Said).

Scruton’s description bears some similarity to what Arthur Koestler referred to as the “oceanic sense”: they both reiterate the essential subjectivity of the ineffable experience (aesthetic or otherwise). Koestler links this term particularly with a rapturous discovery—whether it is an awareness of beauty, a spiritual realization of our oneness with something universal or a moment in science or mathematics that will elicit a “eureka.” All these experiences, Koestler feels, involve a “triumphant explosion of tension… [and] a quiet, contemplative delight in the truth which the discovery revealed…” (AC, p. 88). Koestler adds that this oceanic feeling is anchored in “an act of faith: the belief that there is a harmony of the spheres—that the universe is not a tale told by an idiot, but governed by hidden laws waiting to be discovered and uttered.” (AC, p. 260).

It is moreover the same “oceanic sense” (“the sense of participation in the mystery of the infinite” (AC, p. 263)) that prisoner Rubashov tries to hang onto in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. “When he had read that newspaper notice [about astronomical discoveries about the vastness of space] … he had fallen into a queer state of exaltation—the ‘oceanic sense’ had swept him away.” (DN, p. 204).

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434.

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Literature and aesthetic ineffability

We find that it is uncommon for the term “aesthetic ineffability” to be employed in conjunction with literature. I believe this is driven partly by the circularity apparent in defining the ineffable as an experience beyond words whereas words are the bricks and mortar of literature. However, when we remember that the description “ineffable” refers to the experience that gave rise to that feeling and not the source or cause of that experience, this proves itself to be a non sequitur. Secondly, as York H. Gunther argues, “[J]ust as one could explain what infinity is without reverting to an infinitely long explanans, to explain ineffability does not imply an ineffable explanans.” Philosophers from the Indian Nyaya school of metaphysical realism (2nd century BCE to 13th century AD) would have agreed with this stance. They held in fact that all thoughts are expressible (Matilal, pp. 147-8)—which implies that ineffability has, at least in theory, only a finite lifespan as what is ineffable to me today may eventually be effable. 

I therefore believe that literature is as capable of giving rise to an experience of aesthetic ineffability as the other arts. (I offer a few examples in the next section.) This leads us to realize furthermore that the ineffable experience in literature may be a product of both the author and the reader, and that there is similarly a need for a confluence between the artist and viewer in other art forms too for ineffability to arise.

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“Then he heard a sound; it was like hope coming tentatively back: a scratching and whining…the noise of life… a mongrel bitch dragging herself across the yard, an ugly creature with bent ears, trailing a wounded or broken leg, whimpering… Unlike him, she retained a kind of hope. Hope is an instinct only the reasoning human mind can kill. An animal never knows despair…. the animal turned awkwardly—the parody of a watchdog—and began to bark at him. It wasn’t anybody she wanted: she wanted what she was used to: she wanted the old world back.”

This scene occurs towards the end (p. 141-2) of The Power and the Glory, a fictional work from 1940 by the English writer Graham Greene. Over the years, I have re-read this novel several times and every time I have unfailingly experienced ineffable moments. Such instances include the time when the story reiterated to me how we humans are ineluctably chained to our animal origins. Both the hungry fugitive priest and the mongrel dog, in competing for the last morsel of food, are bent on the same atavistic battles. (But the dog epitomizes also the idea that it is hard to kill hope.) What’s more, when I ultimately realized that the story presented allegorical meanings beneath the patina of mere entertainment (as Greene himself was wont to deprecate some of his work), I did not have suitable words to describe that discovery, a discovery akin to those Koestler referred to.

I have experienced similar lacunae in language also while perusing the oeuvre of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges—especially his “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” which recounts the story of Menard who desires to rewrite the great classic by Cervantes. Menard does not simply wish to 

“compose another Quixote―which is easy―but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original… His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide―word for word and line for line―with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” (Labyrinths, p. 65). 

But Menard then realizes the futility of such an enterprise. As he confesses with wry humor in a “letter” to Borges—Borges frequently delights in posing to the reader the riddle of separating reality from fiction—“I should only have to be immortal to carry it out.” (Labyrinths, p. 66).

What I found ineffable was my rapturous wonder—a feeling akin to what Greene’s empathy for human frailties evoked in me—at Borges’s brilliant concept of someone who wishes to replicate (not merely emulate) an author, not just his opus.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533.

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Although the experience of ineffability is undoubtedly subjective, arising in the mind of the reader, it is also undeniable that the text needs to first exhibit what Derek Attridge from the University of York identified as the author’s “singularity,” the unique blend of genius and skills the author possesses. If so, all literature (I would argue) can in a way be ‘described’—a perhaps contradictory term in this context?—as ineffable. For what someone writes may never reflect what they had in mind with the utmost fidelity. As Silvia Jonas from the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy points out (as cited in an NDPR review), there may be “mental states that cannot be linguistically expressed” or “there is ineffable knowledge, epistemic states that are not linguistically communicable.”

Pierre Menard aimed for, on a deeper level, the Herculean task of reading an author’s mind within the context of a specific time and place. As George Steiner the literary critic notes (No Passion Spent, p. 194), “… all translation implies a primitive model of ‘form and content.’ It assumes that ‘form’ somehow generates ‘content’ and that the one is always potentially separable from the other. It is the astute allegoric aim of Borges’s famous parable of ‘Pierre Menard’ to show just how primitive this model is even when it is applied to mere transcription… How, asks Borges, can meaning ever be separated from singular and specific embodiment when the latter is grounded, inevitably, in theunrepeatable specificity of one time and of one place?”

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“Raskolnikov’s waiting is my waiting which I lend him. Without this impatience of the reader he would remain only a collection of signs. His hatred of the police magistrate who questions him is my hatred which has been solicited and wheedled out of me by signs, and the police magistrate himself would not exist without the hatred I have for him via Raskolnikov.”

Jean-Paul Sartre unites thus the minds of the author and reader. Sartre then enjoins that, “To write is to make an appeal to the reader that he lead into objective existence the revelation which I have undertaken by means of language.”

Italo Calvino appears to have been similarly conscious (in an introduction to his Our Ancestors trilogy of short stories) of the notion that the reader takes over from the author once the text is in the public space. Calvino writes: 

“The story takes on meaning… [and offers] a network of meanings that are always a little uncertain, without insisting on an unequivocal, compulsory interpretation… the reader must interpret the stories as he will… So, I agree to the books being read as existential or as structural works…; but above all I am glad when I see that no single key will turn all their locks.” (pp. ix-x). 

Attridge too highlights the (fruitful) confrontation between the writer and the reader when he talks of the latter’s “singularity” which is akin to the author’s which we came across earlier. Attridge adds that when “the singularity of the reader encounters the singularity of the work” it gives rise to a “creativity or inventiveness in reading.”

In an eponymously titled essay, the French literary critic Roland Barthes talked about the “death of the author” in a figurative sense. Barthes begins his essay by adducing the description of a woman in a Balzac story and wonders who sketched that portrayal. He asks, “Is it the man Balzac… the author Balzac…? Is it universal wisdom? Or romantic psychology? It will always be impossible to know, for… all writing [consists] of several indiscernible voices… literature is that neuter, that composite… the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”

Barthes contended that great writers like Mallarme, Valery, and Proust realized “the necessity of substituting language itself for the man who… was supposed to own it… it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is to reach… that point where language alone acts, ‘performs’, and not ‘oneself’…” As Zadie Smith annotates, “[l]ong before Barthes told them they could, re-readers had been squatting in the houses of beloved novels, each with their own ideas of the floor plan. [As Barthes held] “A text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” (Changing My Mind, p. 41).

Roland Barthes also observed that “writing ceaselessly posits meaning but always in order to evaporate it: it proceeds to a systematic exemption of meaning. Thus literature… by refusing to assign to the text (and to the world as text) a ‘secret:’ that is, an ultimate meaning, liberates an activity which we might call counter-theological, properly revolutionary, for to refuse to arrest meaning is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law” (in ‘Death of the Author”).

Therefore, every time someone reads a book, it is as if that reader is reborn in some way because there is always at least a minuscule difference in how the text is understood. “No single key” (to use Calvino’s metaphor) will turn all locks: what the text reveals changes from reader to reader or even from time to time for the same reader. Meaning is hence not given; it is instead made anew.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1485-1486.

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Examining the relationship between the writer, text, and reader also highlights the irony which is a feature of the relation between aesthetic ineffability and the reader. For a reader to be lost for words, he or she needs to first possess the requisite qualities—including linguistic skills—that facilitate a critical comprehension of the text before being ready to arrive at that ineffable juncture. (To put it differently, ineffability connotes astonishment, not puzzlement.) For instance, while I have read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory many times over the years, only lately have I begun to realize in my core that the incident with the fugitive priest and mongrel dog is also about the fragility of our lives and an awareness of mortality that is more front of mind as you get older.  

That being so, is Crime & Punishment fated to remain “only a collection of signs” in the interim, as Sartre fears, while awaiting the reader’s comprehension and responsiveness?This is more apparent in the context of an art form like painting with its variegated genres and manifold religious and cultural allusions which are rarely if ever pellucid. As with Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, there is a risk likewise that Picasso’s Guernica too is fated to remain a congeries of daubs of paint and stylized sketches of bulls, horses, and bloodshed—unless the viewer possessed some knowledge of (and empathy for) the suffering caused by war, any war, let alone the Spanish Civil War.

Works Cited/For Further Reading:

Armstrong, Karen. A Short History of Myth. Canongate, 2006.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. Translated by James E. Irby, Penguin Books, 1962/2011.

Calvino, Italo. Our Ancestors. Translated by Archibald Colquhoun, Picador, 1980.

Greene, Graham. The Power and the Glory. Penguin Books, 1940/1976.

Koestler, Arthur. An Act of Creation. Arkana, 1964 (Hereafter AC).

____. Darkness at Noon. Translated by Daphne Hardy, Penguin Books, 1940/1971 (Hereafter DN).

Matilal, B.K. Mind, Language and World. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Smith, Zadie. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. The Penguin Press, 2009.

Steiner, George. No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995. Yale University Press, 1996.

About the Author:

Venkat Ramanan is a writer and former technology professional from Australia. His recent publications include research papers (on Jorge Luis Borges, and literature and reality) in the peer-reviewed journal Literature & Aesthetics and essays in online magazines Epoche Philosophy Monthly (part of Medium) and The Punch Magazine. Venkat’s website is venkr6b.blogspot.com and Twitter handle is @venkr6.

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