Today, I can’t breathe–deep chest ache that’s more than illness, less than asthma, and yet greater than both of these combined. I’m hungry and ashamed of my hunger, yearning and uncertain how to yearn in a pure and holy way. Today, words fail me, and for a writer, there is perhaps no occurrence more distressing.
In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet.” True, we may in fact be able to look at something lovely, like a flower, and admire it, inhale its perfume, revel in its beauty. But if we cannot point to it and say, “flower,” if we can’t, in fact, name it, how do we qualify that enjoyment? Or perhaps more importantly, how do we talk about it with others? You say, “I saw something beautiful today,” and your friend says, “What?” And you stare at him, tongue stilled, at a complete and total loss. And this brings us around to that age-old quandary: “If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” If you see something beautiful, but you have no way of talking about it, how do you prove that you saw it? Or more frighteningly, how do you prove that it even exists? “What’s in a name?” Everything, my dear Juliet. Even you.
I said the other day that I was sick, or thought I was, and it occurred to me yesterday that not knowing what to call this “thing” that has assailed me is putting me in a greater place of angst and discomfort than the symptoms themselves. This disturbs me first and foremost because I am a writer, and I am always perturbed beyond reason when I’m not able to point to something and say, “There. This. This is what it is, what I have, what I’m trying to get across to you.” And secondly, on a more practical level, not knowing if I am ill or merely being assaulted by seasonal allergies puts me at a disadvantage, nay, in an impossibility when I attempt to treat said symptoms. Do I bother with the vitamins? Will all the zinc lozenges in the world make the cough go away? Do I put the flowers outside? Do I keep taking allergy medication? I don’t know. If I could name it, I would know.
We’ve all experienced the discomfort of not knowing how to name or define something. Modern romantic relationships are the quintessential example of this. Ah, that nebulous time in a relationship’s infancy (or in some cases, well past its infancy, but that’s another issue) when you introduce your new love as, “And this is [insert name], my…yeah…friend…person.” Or you leave off the dot dot dot, and those whom you are introducing your “friend person” to raise their eyebrows and thereby imply the dot dot dot, requiring you to provide the explanation, the “and what?” But you don’t know “what,” so you smile and look stupid and quickly change the subject to dogs or your new wallpaper or the weather. What is more than a friend but less than a boyfriend? “Seeing someone,” colloquial English tells us. And that just isn’t helpful at all.
Yesterday, I spent an hour of my writing time looking for one right word. One. Until I had to call a friend and force her to play human thesaurus, and I’m still not satisfied with the word I settled on. On a sidenote, this is typically when I know it’s time to stop revising and move on to the next chapter. Another cue is when I begin cursing the inadequacies of my mother tongue–i.e., “Damn you, English!” But hold on–there might be something to this. Now, I’m no traitor, but let’s be honest: English has its shortcomings. Another thing that occurred to me yesterday, after the one-hour-word-hunt debacle, is that the two central concepts my new novel is built around are, in fact, foreign words for which there are no direct English translations: ennui (French) and weltschmerz (German).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ennui as “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.” And that’s part of it, but as anyone who’s ever read a good deal (or even a small deal) of Oscar Wilde knows, the root of ennui runs far deeper than a mere lack of something to do. Ennui is an affliction of the soul, and tell me, what word in English gives us that? As for weltschmerz, the OED defines this as “a feeling of melancholy and world-weariness,” and again, while technically accurate, that definition encompasses only part of what weltschmerz entails. Weltschmerz is a combination of two German words: welt, meaning “world,” and schmerz, meaning “pain.” World-pain. It is the unrest and bone-burdening dissatisfaction you feel when your soul’s desires can’t be satisfied by the realities of this world. It’s not depression, though that may be a result of it. Like ennui, weltschmerz runs deeper than the mind, deeper than clear-cut definition. Like ennui, there is no true English equivalent for weltschmerz.
So if you are a writer, writing in English, what does this leave you to do? Hunt for better words in other languages, evidently, and I see nothing wrong with borrowing and adopting from time to time. However, there will still be instances when no language can give you the name for what it is that ails you, or at any given time, defines you. You can search high and low for a disease that is neither a cold nor allergies, and if you have internet access and are fond of WebMD, you’ll probably come up with some obscure and ridiculous diagnosis. But it probably won’t be accurate, and it most definitely won’t do anything but increase your hypochondriacal tendencies.
And if you are research-prone and have this kind of time, you can scour every tongue on earth for a word that defines the “not a boyfriend, but not just a friend.” And maybe you will find that exact right word, and maybe you won’t. But even if you do, what does that really give you? True, you now have a word, but it is a word that in itself is murky and defies definition. It doesn’t change the fact that your relationship is also murky and defiant, just as calling my cold/allergies “collergies” or “an allold” will not tell me what medication is required to treat it. Because though words are essential, they only go so far.
I can tell you that my main character suffers from ennui and weltschmerz and give you cursory definitions of these ailments, but the only way to make you understand them is to make you feel them yourself. And thus, the main purpose of every writer–words are not an end to themselves, but rather, a means by which we get our readers to see and to feel what we are endeavoring to convey. It is a paradox upon which the concept of story writing is built: words are not good enough, but words are all we have. And so, it becomes about the combination of words, the blending and bringing together, the gathering of bits and fragments to construct the greater whole, the synchronizing of notes and chords to create the song. As Conrad says, “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see. That–and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there, according to your deserts, encouragement, consolation, fear, charm, all you demand–and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”
Sometimes, truth is beyond definition, beyond even words. Some facts are facts, but even these can contain mysteries we know not of, and this can be both maddening and wonderful. Yes, it can make us spend many hair-tearing hours hunting for the right word to show that truth, only to find that words will still fail us in the end. But it can also make us pour our hearts and souls into creating stories that attempt, in their own frail and modest ways, to provide an insight into truth, if only a glimpse, and even if that glimpse appears and then dissolves as quickly as it came. The memory remains, and that is something new, something palpably felt. It is a truth unnameable, undefinable, but that, quite curiously, and when done well, may be much more than enough.