Limits of Language

“I guess I must have closed my eyes.  Because I didn’t see the book hit my face.  But I heard it hit, if you can imagine.  It made a sound against my face.  I can’t describe the sound it made.  But imagine, if you can, the sound” (61).

This passage, from the story “Underthings,” connects to what we’ve been talking about in class and to Barthes’ “Inexpressible Love.”  The narrators of these stories consistently resort to clarifying their meaning, or rather expanding upon their original meaning.  This moment in “Underthings,” though, does this quite differently and in an important way.  Rather than calling upon herself to conjure up an image/idea/concept for the reader, the narrator is asking the reader to imagine.  “Imagine, if you can, the sound.”  She is indicating that there is a gap between what can be imagined and what can be expressed, particularly with words.  Some experiences cannot be given meaning with words, then.  When the narrator in “Cowboys” declares, “There is no intentional metaphor in this story” (28), we discussed the possibility that she’s ensuring nothing in this story (or, potentially, any of the stories).  When the narrator asks the reader to “imagine, if you can, the sound,” she is refraining from forcing metaphors or false meaning upon her readers.  If language will not do the experience justice, then she will call upon the reader to fill this gap.

This connects to Barthes’ ideas in “Inexpressible Love”: 

“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive subversion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it)” (99).

Some attempts at expression of what is almost inexpressible (in Barthes’ example, love) will not be genuine.  Words may assign too much meaning to an event, feeling, moment, or sound, causing a distortion that does not stay true to the intention or purpose of the thing.  In the same way, language can strip away meaning.  As a personal example, I often write about experiences I’ve had.  There are some, though, that I just can’t seem to put into words without distorting them so much that the meaning on the page is fundamentally different than the meaning I feel.  How is the narrator going to explain what the sound of the book hitting her face was?  It sounds like the sound of a book hitting a face, and that’s as thoroughly as she can explain it.  I do not believe this idea of language being always too much or too little, but there are certain things – perhaps the things that are most personal – that just can’t be put into words.


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