July 13, 2010

words and their failures

I am thinking now of the summer years ago when I taught expository writing to a group of 13-14 year olds, about twenty of them. We met every morning for three hours, much too long an interval for them. I broke up the time halfway through by playing a game of ping pong with each of them. Because I’m such a lousy player, this took only 20 minutes.

That day I had given them something very hard and brutal and self-absorbed to read, Joan Didion, I think, and asked them to write their thoughts about it.

One boy, the Korean boy who had taught me to write my name in Kanji, wrote a remarkable thing.

He wrote, with the eloquence that can only be produced by partial mastery of a language, that he couldn’t understand the author’s notion of her splintered, depressed self, because of his religion. His beliefs told him that he was the same stuff as the air and the flowers and the butterflies around him. He used those words, named those things. He said it was not that he was made of the same stuff, not organic chemistry, but that he and I and everything in the room around us were the same all pervading thing, made of one essence and one being, breathing the same breath. He used almost those words, in fact words far more elegant and eloquent, words that I regret having lost more than I regret having lost certain loves, more than I regret having lost precious trinkets. What he said was that he and I were one with everything. He used those words, not knowing them to have been rendered common by the overuse injuries that Americans inflict on language, not knowing them to have become the punchline of a joke.

I am thinking about this boy and his words because I’m in the middle of reading something about love. Nothing like those loves I once regretted losing, but love in the broadest sense. And by consequence I’m thinking about the poverty of English when it comes to words for love, of the specificity with which it can be named in Greek (philia, éros, agápe). Then too, I’m thinking of the beautiful blush on the Korean boy’s face when I tried, and in all certainty failed, to find words to tell him how transcendent was his description of his beliefs, and of his very existence. I envied him then and I envy him now for both his words and his way of being in the world. I feel this way knowing that envy is impossible for him, or was then, anyway, and wishing fervently that it were impossible for me

One Response to “words and their failures

  1. David Gray

    In wishing that envy would be impossible for you, you have declared that you believe it IS possible and you only lack the way to follow. There is a way.

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